Drought Hangover: ‘OK’ Snowpack in Colorado Won’t Be Enough to Replenish Reservoirs

GREELEY, Colo. – After one of the hottest and driest years on record, the Colorado River and its tributaries across the Southwest are likely headed for another year of low water.

That’s according to an analysis by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Jeff Lukas, the researcher who authored the briefing, urged water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed to brace themselves for diminished streams and a decreasing likelihood of filling reservoirs left depleted by nearly two decades of drought. The analysis relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, among other agencies.

That dire prognosis comes even as much of the Southern Rocky Mountains have seen a regular cycle of snowstorms this winter.

“The snowpack conditions for Colorado and much of the Intermountain West don’t look too bad,” Lukas said. “They range from ‘meh’ to ‘OK.’”

Snowpack that feeds the Colorado River ranges from 75 percent to 105 percent of normal. Snowpack in the entire Upper Basin – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – is sitting at about 90 percent of normal for this time of year.

So with an “OK” snowpack in the Upper Basin, which supplies most of the water in the Colorado system, we should be in good shape, right?

Not necessarily. If you’re just looking at snowpack to gauge how well a winter is going, Lukas said, you’re doing it wrong.

The record hot and dry conditions during 2018 further sapped the ground of its moisture. Leading into this winter, “that puts us in a deep hole,” Lukas said.

Put another way, across the Southwest, we’re living in a drought hangover. And it’s going to take a lot more snow to pull us out of it.

Lake Powell, the first major reservoir the Colorado hits on its 1,450-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, is projected to see 64 percent of its average inflow, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. That translates to a one-year deficit of more than 5 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to supply roughly one to two households for a year.

“That’s not as bad as what happened last year, but it’s pretty close,” Lukas said. “That’s going to just drain the big reservoirs – Powell and Mead – even further.”

The less-than-hopeful projections come as water managers and users throughout the river’s 246,000-square-mile watershed, particularly in Arizona, attempt to curb use and mitigate reductions in the face of declining reservoirs. Levels are dropping due to an ongoing aridification within the basin, a product of climate change, and chronic overallocation of resources.

Drought contingency plans, which the seven Colorado River Basin states have been hammering out for years, have a federally imposed deadline for approval of Jan. 31, and another dry winter will put even more pressure on their negotiations.

“This certainly imparts more urgency to that mission to get those plans in place knowing that we’re likely to have a below-par if not well below-par year in the Upper Colorado,” Lukas said.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

The 1922 agreement that governs the Colorado River is flawed. Why not fix it?

GREELEY, Colo. – Colorado River water managers have plenty to argue about, including how they should deal with lower water levels caused in part by higher temperatures, long-term drought and increasing population.

But there’s one thing on which nearly everyone who relies on the river can agree. The foundational document that divvies up the water – the Colorado River Compact, first signed nearly 100 years ago – is not easily altered. And the word renegotiation is bound to cause political ripples.

The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., learned that lesson the hard way.

In summer 2008, McCain was the Republican nominee facing President Barack Obama. Colorado was considered a swing state.

Water scarcity issues are always top of mind for Western politicians. That’s why when reporter Charles Ashby, then with the Pueblo Chieftain, now with the Grand Junction Sentinel, got McCain on the phone and asked him why Colorado voters should trust an Arizonan when it comes to water.

“I thought that was relevant because he’s downstream on the Colorado River,” Ashby said, “and Arizona and Nevada and California are big water users.”

Because of population growth and dwindling water supplies, McCain said he’d be in favor of renegotiating the document that divvies up the river among the seven U.S. states that rely on it. Ashby was floored.

“I knew immediately that was a no-no, at least for politics here in the state of Colorado,” Ashby recalled. “And so I said to him, ‘Are you sure you want to say that? Because that won’t go over well up here.’”

Their phone connection kept cutting out, but McCain called back twice to double down on his idea. Sensing a big scoop, Ashby called a few other Colorado politicians to get their reactions. Prominent Democrats and Republicans agreed that McCain was out of line. Colorado’s sitting Democratic senator at the time, Ken Salazar, went so far as to say the Colorado River Compact would be renegotiated over his dead body.

“Then-Governor Bill Ritter said to me after that story ran, he said, ‘Charles, that story may have delivered the state to Obama,’” Ashby said.

McCain eventually walked his comments back after a thorough lashing in the press.

But with one sentence, he had touched a nerve in Western water politics.

“A lot of it is just the word choice: renegotiation,” said Doug Kenney, a water policy expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Some of Kenney’s work is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Renogotiation is a word that inflames decades-old tensions in the vast watershed, Kenney said – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin.

“I think a lot of the parties think it’s scary simply because it’s a little scary to negotiate when not all the parties have the same political power,” Kenney said.

That power imbalance is what brought regional political leaders to the table in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was signed. The desert Southwest was beginning to grow rapidly, and rather than acquiesce all of the river’s flow to the sprawling cities and cropland of Southern California, water managers felt it was in their best interest to come to an agreement to divvy up the river among themselves. The alternative was conflict and litigation.

Each basin was to receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year, which the basins allocated among themselves. The Upper Basin opted for percentages, with Colorado receiving the largest share. The Lower Basin chose to parse it into discrete, fixed portions, with California and Arizona receiving the largest amounts.

Conventional wisdom about the math underlying the compact goes something like this:

Water managers used the available data to figure out how much water they had to work with; however, the time period they examined had been uncharacteristically wet. Soon after the compact’s signing, the river returned to its more normal flows, and right from the start, the compact didn’t mesh with reality. More water existed on paper than in the river, creating a gap between supplies and demands that continues to today. So the story goes: It was no one’s fault, just a historical fluke.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, says that conventional wisdom is wrong. Allocating more water than was available was the politically expedient thing to do. He’s finishing a book with Colorado River expert Eric Kuhn on what water managers of the 1920s knew about the river’s flow and when they knew it. They found that scientists with the highly respected U.S. Geological Survey were complaining about the inflated numbers even before the compact was signed.

“They all concluded the same thing, ‘You’re basing this on an unusually wet period. You need to take into account dry periods. There is really less water than you think,’” Fleck said. “And all those scientific experts were ignored.”

Today, there’s broad consensus about the compact’s math problems. Although it was scoffed at a decade ago, McCain’s proposal to renegotiate has support among some environmentalists, including Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with WildEarth Guardians. She says the only way to fix the river’s fundamental supply-demand problem is to go back to the beginning.

“It’s just like curing illness, right? You have to get at the source,” she said.

Old agreements among states to manage water in the West don’t reflect modern realities, like climate change or broader environmental concerns, Pelz said. Compacts for the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers allocate every drop for human use. There’s value in leaving water in rivers for recreation and ecosystem health, she says.

“I think that is a huge problem, and I think that we don’t want to have that conversation because it’s hard,” Pelz said.

The river’s foundational problems are front of mind these days as Colorado River water managers are attempting to finalize new agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, designed to boost declining reservoirs and cut back on water use throughout the watershed. Pelz says the plans don’t go far enough.

“It’s all like shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The ship is sinking still. And if you shuffle all those chairs around and you make it look pretty, it’s still not going to make any difference.”

Reopening the Colorado River Compact would require the support of people like Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming state engineer. And he is not interested.

“No, I would never advocate going back to the compact,” he said.

There’s a work around, he says. Rather than renegotiate the original document, water managers like him come up with new agreements that build on it and address some of the compact’s bad math. But throwing the whole thing out would be a mistake.

“If it were to go away, there would be a free for all,” Tyrrell said. “There is no magic second compact sitting in the wings behind it, and the battle between Arizona, California and Nevada against us four Upper Basin states would be brought anew.”

Although water managers today have no appetite for changes to the compact, it’s uncertain the compact’s framers meant for it to be immutable. When Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was selling the deal to Congress, he hedged the agreement’s finality. In 1926, Hoover told members of a House committee that if the deal could “provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years, we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” And that those future water leaders “will settle it in the light of the forces of their day.”

In his Ph.D. dissertation at University of Colorado, Jon Berggren, now a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, summarized Hoover’s testimony as suggesting that, “at least from Hoover’s perspective, the negotiators of the compact did not intend to make the original allocations of the compact static.”

Hoover gave the original agreement a shelf life of 75 years.

“He underestimated us a little bit, didn’t he? We’re still here making it work,” Tyrrell said. “We have shown in the Colorado River Basin the ability to adapt, even in areas where the compact may may feel constraining.”

The word “adapt” seems to go over a lot better with Colorado River water managers than the dreaded “renegotiation.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

From neon orange to chocolate brown: The West’s unluckiest river takes a beating

DURANGO, Colo. – In early August 2015, Barb Horn stood on a bank of the Animas River, waiting for mine waste spilled upstream to reach the city. She and hundreds of others waited hours for the waste plume to appear, but darkness fell.

The next morning, she saw the change.

“It was absolutely surreal,” Horn said. “And I think that’s why it went viral. It’s like somebody Photoshopped the river orange.”

Upstream, Environmental Protection Agency workers and an environmental contractor cleaning up the Gold King mine near Silverton had accidentally triggered the spill of 3 million gallons of rust-colored waste, known as “acid mine drainage.”

“If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it looked like butterbeer, like butterscotch,” said Horn, a water quality specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The water was laden with metals, including iron, which colored the water reddish-orange.

The Animas begins in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains before joining the San Juan River, an important tributary of the Colorado River.

For Horn, the spill was a stark visual reminder of the river’s long history of pollution from abandoned mines.

“And it immediately tugged on your heartstrings thinking nothing could live in that,” she said.

Barb Horn, a water quality specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says ash from this summer’s 416 Fire was deadlier than acid mine drainage from the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The spill temporarily stopped recreation in the river and forced farmers to delay irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.

Crisis averted — until this year.

“So I joke that now the river looks like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s chocolate fudge river,” Horn said.

We spoke along the river’s stretch through the city. The water was a cloudy brown color with suspended bits of charred debris.

The first few ash-laden runoff events probably killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the Animas.

The Animas began the summer with record low water because of long term drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. When rains fall on the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.

Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the river.

“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn said. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”


Sediment and ash from the 416 Fire piles up along the banks of Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Many Western rivers are stressed by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas is the perfect poster child.

“It certainly is unlucky,” said Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”

The river is facing problems that show themselves, including a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge, he said. Or like earlier this summer, when the river all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.

But there are many other issues that don’t draw public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.

“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures,” Roberts said of the Animas. “It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients.”

Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.

Tom Knopick is co-owner of Duranglers, a fly-fishing outfitter. He predicts the Animas River “will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.” (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“I don’t think the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” said Ty Churchwell of Trout Unlimited, based in Durango. Trout Unlimited receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

In fact, Churchwell said, drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in Western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time.

“We certainly have experienced more than our fair share of traumatic incidents here in the last three years,” he said.

All these stressors don’t make it easy on local business owners, heavily dependent on tourists coming to town to raft and fish on the Animas. Low flows have curtailed river rafting operations throughout the Southwest.

Fishing isn’t restricted on the river through Durango, but local anglers are avoiding large portions of the stressed river this summer, said Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers, a fly shop in downtown Durango.

He takes solace in knowing that all this trauma is bringing attention to the Animas’ myriad problems. Some of the mine waste is being treated now before draining into the river. When it comes to the fire-related sludge, the healing process has already begun.

“We’ve seen this before and we know that we know that it’s a short term problem,” Knopick said, comparing this summer to that of 2002 when the Missionary Ridge fire scorched more than 70,000 acres outside Durango. “You know we don’t like it. Rather not be dealing with it. But the reality is the Animas will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.”

But it could be another five to 10 years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to Horn of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Rivers really are a great metaphor for our body and our own health and our own lives,” she said. “You can think about maybe the Animas is having a heart attack, a stroke and clogging up and saying we need to pay attention to what we eat or what we’re doing with her and to her.”

Horn said rivers have been rebounding from cyclical drought and fires for millenia. But human activity has made the frequency, duration and magnitude of those events worse.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.