April snows were great, but water challenges lie ahead for Colorado | PostIndependent.com

April snows were great, but water challenges lie ahead for Colorado

Hannah Holm
Free Press Weekly Columnist

If it hadn’t been for April snows, our water year would be looking truly grim — even worse than last year.

Even so, many of Colorado’s big reservoirs won’t fill this year, and a hot, dry summer could re-intensify our drought. That was the take-home message from Erik Knight of the Bureau of Reclamation and Aldis Strautins of the National Weather Service at Monday night’s “State of the Rivers” meeting at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.

A panel of local water providers reported that so far, conditions on Grand Mesa and in the Colorado River are good enough that they are holding off on imposing mandatory watering restrictions, although they are asking customers to conserve voluntarily and will continue monitoring the situation closely. Thanks to senior water rights on the Colorado River and the cool, wet spring (until now, at least), Grand Valley irrigators expect local farmers to remain in pretty good shape. They will likely be selling hay to livestock growers in eastern Colorado who are experiencing much more severe drought conditions than we are.

Long term, the water picture is more concerning. Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River District explained that climate models, as well as recent experience, indicate a warming, drying trend for our region. This could extend the amount of time irrigators have to rely on reservoirs, which may lead to the reservoirs drying up before the end of the growing season.

Kuhn explained that dwindling water supplies also increase the risk that the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico may not be able to let enough water flow downstream to California, Arizona and Nevada to satisfy the terms of the 1922 Compact that allocated (and, as it turned out, over-allocated) Colorado River water between the states. If that happens, a “compact curtailment” could require all Upper Basin water users with water rights that post-date the compact to be cut off. Those users include Front Range cities that divert Colorado River water across the Continental Divide.

Dan Birch, another Colorado River District staffer, outlined work done so far on figuring out how to develop a “water bank” that would compensate agricultural water users for voluntarily reducing water use in order to maintain critical uses during times of shortage. A major purpose of the bank would be to avoid the permanent “buying and drying” of senior Western Slope agricultural water rights by Front Range cities by instead facilitating temporary transfers through fallowing fields or irrigating with less than a full ration. Unfortunately, early studies indicate that it’s not workable for many producers to stop irrigating for a year or two and then resume previous levels of productivity. Studies are continuing, seeking ways to overcome that hurdle and many others.

Finally, the meeting ended on a more positive note, with a review of progress made on controlling salt levels in the Colorado River, which have been elevated by irrigation water seeping through our salty soils and returning to the river. Measures such as lining canals and increasing on-farm efficiencies have reduced salt levels considerably, keeping the water usable for downstream users.

The bad news out of the meeting is that we’re not out of the woods on the current drought, and the long-term picture is even more serious. The good news is that considerable brain power is being dedicated to finding solutions, and we do have some experience with successfully addressing complex water challenges, as the salinity control program demonstrates.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.

Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.

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