Lower Colorado River Basin Can Still Expect Water Shortage Next Year

PHOENIX – The Lower Colorado River Basin does not avoid a shortage in 2020 despite the plentiful snowpack on the Rocky Mountains this past winter.

Why? Well, the new Drought Contingency Plan defines different “tiers” of shortage. The Lower Basin will not drop into a Tier One shortage next year because Lake Mead will almost certainly remain above 1,075 feet in elevation.

At the same time, Mead will likely remain under 1,090 feet. That triggers a Tier Zero shortage.

“Under Tier Zero conditions, Arizona takes a reduction of 192,000 acre-feet in its annual Colorado River entitlement,” said Suzanne Ticknor, assistant general manager at the Central Arizona Project.

An acre-foot of water can cover one acre of land with one foot of water, or 325,851 gallons. The EPA says the average person uses 88 gallons of water a day at home, which equates to 32,120 gallons a year.

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Arizona’s reduced supply in Tier Zero will affect certain users of the Central Arizona Project canal system. There will be a slight reduction to some Pinal County farmers, and the pool of so-called “excess water” will be eliminated.

Regular buyers of excess water have included the United States, the Arizona Water Banking Authority and the agency that replenishes groundwater in Central Arizona, which enables new home building.

The CAP is writing a new policy for excess water if and when it returns.

All That Snow Looks Great, But When It Melts, Watch Out LA

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced its latest snowpack measurement in the Eastern Sierra Monday and it’s at an encouraging 171% of what’s considered normal (compared to the state reading of 153%).

It’s a mark that matters because much of L.A.’s water supply comes from the snow that falls on the Eastern Sierra mountains, which is ferried south via the Los Angeles Aqueduct when it melts.

But a surplus snowpack can actually present a different kind of challenge for Los Angeles water managers, who are getting ready to grapple with a bumper supply of water.

Moving the Water

Think of the L.A. Aqueduct as a giant, 233-mile-long funnel capable of holding about 365,000 acre feet of water. That’s about 70% of L.A.’s overall water demand.

It’s not clear how much water this year’s snowpack will produce, but the record snowpack in 2017 produced about one million acre feet of water. That’s too much for a funnel only about one-third that size. That means that water managers have to figure out where to put the excess water as it melts off the mountains.

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And the problem becomes potentially worse if a warm streak hits and melts the snow fast, said Anselmo Collins, who manages water operations for the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

The aqueduct could be overwhelmed, leading to flooding of roads and bridges in Inyo and Mono counties, along Highway 395.

Excess water could also flood and damage some $2 billion worth of dust control equipment and water control berms installed on the Owens Dry Lake Bed. The aqueduct takes water that would normally flow into the Owens Lake so all that equipment is important for preserving air quality in the region.

Flood Control and Emergency Declarations

That 2017 surplus of water? Mayor Eric Garcetti actually declared a state of emergency to deal with it the historic 241% of normal, the most snow recorded since the aqueduct was constructed in 1913. The city spent $27 million to cope with the excess water.

A similar water emergency declaration won’t be needed this year, Collins said. However they will duplicate some of the tactics of 2017 to deal with excess water.

For starters, DWP will route some of the water to spreading grounds in Mono and Inyo counties.

And some of the water will be used to recharge the water table in Los Angeles.

In 2017 the utility restored an old water tunnel called the Maclay High Line to move water from the end of the aqueduct near the I-5 in Sylmar to a flood control channel that feeds a water spreading ground in Pacoima. The tunnel has an interesting history, but had been taken out of service years ago.

Will My Water Bill Go Down?

Yes, bills will go down a bit.

More water in the aqueduct means DWP doesn’t have to buy as much imported water from the Metropolitan Water District. MWD has its own aqueducts that bring water from Northern California and the Colorado River.

During our drought years, purchased water from MWD has made up more than half the city water supply. But in this water-rich year, only about 30% of L.A.’s city water supply will be imported water purchased from Metropolitan this coming year, DWP spokeswoman Ellen Cheng said.

Less MWD water means a lower DWP bill. How much lower? The part of the bill that reflects purchased water will be about 25% lower, Cheng said.

DWP’s board had already set the upcoming July through December rates with the added runoff in mind, so customers will get some benefit.

New Measurements Signal Abundant Snowpack, High Spring Runoff Potential

TUCSON – Arizona no longer is dealing with extreme drought in the far northeastern part of the state, thanks to ample fall and winter precipitation, making this season’s snowpack one of the most abundant in awhile, the Arizona Department of Resources reports.

In addition, it said, soil beneath the snow is saturated, which means there should be significant spring runoff to partially replenish the streams, rivers and reservoirs on which the West depends.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are working to find better ways to track snowpack in Arizona and across the U.S. The team has been collecting snowpack data since 1981, and they now can map changes in snow mass across the country over the past 35 years onto grids that are 2.5 square miles.

Professor Xubin Zeng, who leads this work, said the results will change how people track snowpack in the future to better deal with diminished water sources in the warming and drying West.

Arizona is having a good snow year; so good, in fact, that far northeastern Arizona is out of extreme drought. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

“Before, we only have good measurements of our specific points, say your own backyard,” Zeng said. “Now if you want to tell your neighbors what is snowpack change for your neighborhood and adjacent areas, you don’t know because your backyard could be different from your neighbor’s. Not for your backyard but for your neighborhood and surrounding areas, and we can do that for every neighborhood in the U.S.”

There are tens of thousands of volunteers across the country measuring snowpack. Zeng said he and his fellow researchers have combined that information with government measurements to create a consistent data set that can give greater detail on snowpack than historical ways of measuring snow. All this information is used to map the snowpack on every inch of land in the U.S., which has not been done before.

Zeng’s team has discovered that although snowpack in the eastern U.S. is doing well, it has diminished across the West. In fact, it has declined so much that if all that snowpack was combined together, it would be about the size of South Carolina.

Snow water equivalent, or SWE, describes how much water is in snowpack. Declining SWE is strongly correlated with long-term climate change. Climate Signals, a science information project of the nonprofit Climate Nexus, said human-caused global warming is the main cause for reduced snow cover.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, this winter has been the wettest on record for the contiguous U.S. Precipitation amounts have increased lately, and it has been colder in many parts of the country.

Video by Jodi Guerrero/Cronkite News

What’s at Stake

Snow mass directly impacts the Colorado River, which provides seven Western states with water and power. There’s ongoing planning among Colorado River Basin states to control water use to try to prevent dramatic cutbacks in water deliveries from Lake Mead.

“Less snowpack means less water through the Colorado River, that means less water for Arizona,” Zeng said.

Declining snowpack also directly affects the economy, Zeng said, because a bad snow year means winter sports – a multibillion-dollar business nationwide – takes a hit.

How Tracking Snow has Changed

University of Arizona associate research scientist Patrick Broxton said they often use new technology, including drones, to measure snow.

“We just thought it (drones) would be a good way to measure snow depth because they’re using it for similar types of purposes,” he said.

The UA researchers are passionate about their studies because their findings could help predict changes in the water cycle and climate change.

NASA is working with them to send a satellite into space. The satellite will track snow measurements across the entire U.S.

In about a year, the researchers hope to finish their research so other scientists can use their data.

SoCal has Officially Sloshed its Way out of Drought Conditions

LOS ANGELES – Here’s some feel-good SoCal water news: We’re finally free of drought conditions.

Even though former Gov. Jerry Brown declared the drought emergency over in 2017, things had still been exceptionally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

Per its latest map, released this Thursday, that’s finally changed.

U.S. Drought Monitor map, released on March 6, 2019 (Graphic courtesy University of Nebraska)

“The big story out west is the seemingly never ending parade of Pacific storms that are certainly erasing the drought and dryness concerns in the short term,” said Eric Luebehusen, meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of this week’s drought map.

Snowpack, the wetness of the snow and the moisture levels in vegetation and (sometimes) soil are all considered when drawing it up.

The series of atmospheric rivers delivered a major respite from the dryness. And unlike a few years ago, the precipitation we’ve been getting has been enough to make a serious difference in our water picture.

Southern California has received 122 percent of its average rainfall since Oct. 1, good news for gardeners and groundwater supplies.

If you want to feel extra good, take a look at the Sierra Nevadas, where we get a large portion of our water.

Sierra snowpack as of March 6, 2019. (Graphic courtesy California Department of Water Resources)

The latest snowpack measurement shows that 113 inches of snow have fallen (153 percent of average), and most importantly, it’s very wet.

Reservoirs statewide are doing well, too.

“It looks like overall the water picture is looking pretty good,” said Michael Anderson, climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources.

California’s reservoir levels as of March 6, 2019. (Graphic courtesy California Department of Water Resources)

But is anything ever really forever?

“Our seasonal and long range forecasting skill is pretty weak,” he said, so “given the wild year-to-year variability that California sees, there just really isn’t any way to know what comes next.”

Scientists have been saying for years that climate change could bring increased variability between extreme dry and extreme wet periods. For all we know, next year could be the start of a long term drought.

In addition, the past five years have been California’s hottest on record, and according to the latest climate assessment we could see temperatures rise between 5.6 and 8.8 degrees across the state by 2100. More heat means a greater loss of soil moisture and rising snow lines, something we’re already seeing.

-Video Report by Jodi Guerrero/Cronkite News

Recent Snowstorms Can’t Compete with Years of Drought in Southwest Colorado

DURANGO, Colo. – Amber Blake has one burning question this week as an assistant city manager in Durango.

And that is where to put all the snow.

As the drifts pile up around parking meters and crowd out cars, workers need to find new places to store it all. On downtown streets, workers have started to pile snow between oncoming lanes of traffic.

“In certain areas, the snow is almost as tall as a small adult,” Blake said.

What a difference a year makes. In 2018, hot and dry conditions fueled the 416 Wildfire that destroyed homes and slowed down tourism. Farmers and ranchers sold cattle and lost crops to the drought. This week the U.S. Drought Monitor map upgraded conditions for Montezuma, La Plata and other southwestern counties.

Assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger calls conditions, “a stark difference from what we saw last year.”

The San Juan Mountains saw one inch more of precipitation compared to average for February 2019. Snowpack is well above average in the region. But there’s still cause for concern. Soils beneath the snow are still bone dry from drought. That means spring runoff will first seep into the soil. There could be less runoff water available to fill up the reservoirs.

And after a severe 2018 drought, thirsty reservoirs need water. The largest in the region, McPhee, is just 7 percent full.

“The check is in the mail. But we haven’t put it in the bank account yet,” Bolinger said.

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Despite the lag in water storage, the picture feels more hopeful for agricultural producers like Brian Wilson, who grows hay in Montezuma County. In 2018 he grew about 3 tons, down from about 4 tons in an average year.

“Production was down, but the price [of hay] was better so the bottom line was about the same,” Wilson said.

Dryland farmers had it worse in 2018. With little moisture from the sky, many crops died. Willson hasn’t submitted seed and fertilizer orders yet for spring planting. Right now he’s feeling optimistic. But he won’t have a full picture of what water he can use until well after he’s planted his fields.

Still, the extra moisture in the soil will mean better grazing for rancher Matt Isgar’s cattle. He has a different problem as he looks to recover from last year’s disappointing season. A more productive 2019 will mean he’ll need more workers.

“It’s kind of hard after drought year. You typically don’t have all the same help you had because they didn’t work as much on a drought year,” Isgar said. “So now you have to get it geared backed up and try to get help back on track.”

A parking meter barely peaks out of a snow drift in downtown Durango, Colo. (Photo courtesy Amber Blake / City of Durango)

Around town in Durango, Blake has her eyes on another logistics problem. She said the city’s nearly run through the $47,000 budgeted for snow removal this year. Blake says the city will a have to ask the Durango Council to approve more money for additional snow removal.

“We’ll do what we can to get that snow hauled away,” Blake said. “But it’s winter, and as my kid said, ‘Mom, you know, everybody just needs to learn how to love the snow.’”

Western Water Managers Bet on Cloud Seeding, Despite Gaps in Science

WOLCOTT, Colo. – Each winter, anxious water managers, farmers and city leaders across the Southwest turn their eyes toward the snowy peaks of the southern Rocky Mountains. The piling snow is a massive frozen reservoir, and its depth and weight can foreshadow the year ahead. Millions of dollars are spent divining what a heavy or light snowpack means for the region’s reservoirs, for its booming cities, for its arid farmland.

A lot of the current water scarcity problems in the Southwest could be eased if it just snowed more and more frequently in the high country of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. More snow means more time to deal with the Colorado River’s fundamental supply-and-demand imbalance.

The onus to correcting that imbalance often falls more on the demand side of the equation, with myriad policy pushes that either incentivize or force people to use less water. On the supply side, options are limited.

There’s one tempting proposition for Western water managers feeling the pressure to dole out cutbacks to users due to the region’s ongoing aridification – inducing clouds to drop more snow.

For decades, states have invested in weather modification programs, also known as cloud seeding, in the hopes of boosting precious snowpack. The practice showed up in a recent agreement among Colorado River Basin states, and investment is expanding, with water agencies in Wyoming and Colorado for the first time putting funds toward aerial cloud seeding rather than solely relying on ground-based generators.

“I can say that we’re up significantly in the last 24 months on the number of smaller large-scale programs that we’re modeling and completing feasibility studies for,” said Neil Brackin, CEO of Weather Modification Inc., a North Dakota cloud-seeding company that operates across the West.

Brackin’s company is in charge of the Colorado and Wyoming aerial programs, flying when moisture-laden snowstorms arrive in northern Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains or southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges.

“Low water and low precipitation over a number of years is creating a lot of interest and demand,” Brackin said. “So we’re excited to be at the table and be part of the solution going forward.”

Despite increasing interest, big gaps remain in our understanding of how well cloud seeding delivers on its promises.

Eric Hjermstad, co-owner of cloud seeding operations company Western Weather Consultants, looks at one of his generators near Wolcott. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Cloud Seeding 101

Eric Hjermstad huddles around a beige drum about the size of a trash can on a snowy hillside in Colorado’s Vail Valley. It’s filled with a solution of silver iodide — the necessary ingredient for cloud seeding. It’s running low and there’s a snowstorm on the way, hence Hjermstad’s trip from his home base in Durango to fill it up. On top of the drum is a box of valves and a small chimney. A propane tank sits a few paces away.

I told Hjermstad, co-owner of Western Weather Consultants, that I had imagined something more high tech: “Like, is this an old coffee can?”

“This one could be a coffee can,” he replied. “It’s just up on top of the chimney to keep any kind of precip from falling directly into the chimney.”

Hjermstad’s company operates dozens of generators like this one. In theory, these machines send the particles into clouds and force them to drop more snow in desirable locations, such as ski slopes or the headwaters of drought-stricken river systems.

From the site, you can almost see the ski slopes of the nearby Vail and Beaver Creek resorts. This generator works part-time seeding clouds that drop snow for skiing. It also is used to make more snow for water users in the Colorado River Basin, one piece of a broad network of cloud-seeding operations under the purview of the Central Colorado Mountain River Basin Weather Modification Program.

It’s not snowing when we visit the generator, but Hjermstad demonstrates how it works. First, he gets propane flowing and then turns on a valve to the silver solution. With a fire starter, he lights the chimney on top. A bright orange flame flares from the generator, sending microscopic bits of silver iodide into the air.

If there was a stormstorm right now and the wind was blowing the right direction, Hjermstad said, this generator could be influencing how much snow eventually drops.

“We cloud seed to try and pull a little bit more precipitation out of a storm than it would naturally occur,” he said.

A certain class of clouds are particularly ripe for seeding, he said. Some clouds are full of supercooled liquid water, but they’re not dropping that moisture. By injecting small particles into the cloud, a snowflake is able to form. The silver iodide acts as the “seed,” which enables the growth of a new ice crystal. That new snowflake can ricochet through the cloud, amplifying its impact.

“One little ice nuclei out of this could end up creating another hundred, two hundred snowflakes potentially,” Hjermstad said.

Eric Hjermstad runs Western Weather Consultants in Durango and operates cloud-seeding generators for ski resorts and water agencies across Colorado’s high country. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

From late November to April, Hjermstad keeps an eye on each weather system forecast to drop snow or pass over his generators. If it looks promising, he’ll contact the landowners where the generator sits, tell them when to turn it on and turn it off, and watch its track on radar with ground truthing, courtesy of Colorado’s highway webcams.

For decades, the practice has had a problem with its reputation. Anecdotal accounts from farmers and ski resort owners confirmed cloud-seeding effectiveness. Recent scientific studies have given it more credence, but top experts in the field argue there’s still a lot we don’t know about how well it works.

Science Improves, But Gaps Remain

Picture this: You’re in a small airplane, flying inside a blizzard. The turbulence is intense. You’re sweating because of the stacks of computers on board. There’s no restroom. And you’ll be up in the air for at least four, maybe six hours.

“And then compounded on all of that, you’re watching a little computer screen the entire time,” said Jeff French, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Wyoming.

Could be enough to get most people to lose their lunch, but it’s what French lives for.

“There’s been more than one or two people that have been sick on this plane,” he said.

University of Wyoming atmospheric science professor Jeff French flies this research plan to study clouds from the inside. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Parked in a hangar outside Laramie, Wyoming, we’re sitting inside the research plane French uses to study clouds. To get to know a cloud, he said, you need to get inside it. An expensive suite of onboard instruments lets him look at how snow forms in real time.

“Ice crystals come in many many different shapes,” French said. “They can look like six-sided plates. They can look like long needles or columns. They can look like dendrites, which is kind of the typical snowflake shape.”

For years, French has devoted much of his research to understanding the science behind cloud seeding. In 2017, he partnered with the Idaho Power Co. and other researchers to fly his plane behind another plane that was seeding clouds. The result was a series of scientific articles. A 2018 report French co-authored showed for the first time how aerial cloud seeding worked.

“If you put silver iodide into clouds with certain characteristics, you can generate ice. That ice can grow. That ice will eventually fall to the surface as snow,” he said.

The study, called “Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds: The Idaho Experiment” (SNOWIE) and conducted in the Payette River basin near Boise, Idaho, was a big deal. Before then, no one had solid evidence showing the physics of cloud seeding in the real world.

With new data in hand, French was able to say, “Yes, the amount of snow that was falling at this location increased.”

That might sound like a definitive endorsement of cloud-seeding effectiveness. But the scientists producing the research are circumspect about their findings, and they caution against taking away too much from SNOWIE’s early results.

“When somebody says, ‘I know that it works,’ I would say, ‘Show me the evidence,’” French said. “Show me the evidence that you know that it works. And I can quantify that.”

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Sarah Tessendorf is a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder who worked with French on SNOWIE. People ask her frequently whether cloud seeding works. She replies that it depends on how you define “works.” If the question is whether cloud seeding is capable of producing more ice inside a cloud, then the answer is yes. But more often than not, the question is more complicated, and people are hoping for more.

“Sometimes the question … is: ‘Does it produce additional snowpack on the ground?’ And we’re still working to try to answer that question,” Tessendorf said.

She’s cautious about what she can prove when it comes to cloud seeding. In the past, studies have shown the practice could boost snowpack by as much as 15 percent. Tessendorf said the increase in snowpack cited in those studies has been a moving target over the years, with varying levels of rigorous data gathering. When she and other researchers want solid proof, they’re looking for a 95 percent level of confidence that cloud seeding caused the increase, rather than a serendipitous series of storms.

“There’s still enough chance that (the increase) could have been a random effect,” Tessendorf said. “From a scientific perspective, we haven’t been fully convinced.”

There are plenty of other caveats from the study. In SNOWIE, planes sprayed silver iodide into more than two dozen clouds that looked ripe for seeding. But they could only draw a clear link between seeding and snowfall in three cases. There’s a small signal cloud seeding created additional ice in a handful of others. And then no signal in at least 20 cases.

Figuring out which clouds will respond to seeding and which won’t remains an open question. Plus, she said, the study was limited based on geography, only seeding clouds in southern Idaho, which undoubtedly are different from clouds in other parts of the West.

“It’s a complicated problem and the results that we see in one cloud will not automatically apply to every cloud everywhere,” Tessendorf said.

But those scientific blind spots haven’t stopped states and water agencies from investing in the technology. French, at the University of Wyoming, said water leaders should know gaps remain in our understanding of how well cloud seeding works.

“The evidence is pointing into the direction, that it does have an impact and we can increase snowpack,” he said. “But I’m skeptical still when I hear people say 10 to 15 percent because that number to me is something that is difficult to justify.

“They should realize that there is a risk associated with it, and that risk is that it may not be having an impact at all.”

Still, given the shortages within the Colorado River Basin, he’s not surprised that some see the practice as worthwhile and are willing to front the cost to make it happen.

A cumulonimbus cloud produces a shaft of rain. Some say Arizona can help address its water challenges by seeding clouds to produce more rain and snow. (Photo by University Corporation for Atmospheric Research)

Water Managers Place Their Bets

In a gilded Las Vegas conference room in December 2017, water managers detailed their solutions to the Colorado River Basin’s chronic water scarcity, and how to wean the Southwest from total reliance on the overtaxed river.

A representative from the Upper Colorado River Commission laid out what Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah would bring to the table. A three-pronged Drought Contingency Plan included a focus on demand management, which would create a dedicated pool of saved water within Lake Powell. Another prong dealt with reservoir operations to streamline decision-making between state and federal agencies. The third was a recommitment to weather modification programs that had been in place in some form since 2007.

In mid-2018, before wrangling over Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans reached a fever pitch in the river’s Lower Basin, water agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to spend upward of $1.5 million each year on cloud-seeding programs in the watershed’s upper reaches.

“The reason that cloud seeding is being implemented on a relatively large scale in the Colorado River Basin is it’s a very low-risk, high-reward scenario,” said Dave Kanzer, an engineer with the Colorado River District and manager of the Central Colorado Mountain River Basin Weather Modification Program, which receives funds from Lower Basin water agencies.

If you’re a water manager in the Southwest, it’s easy to think of cloud seeding like an extra battery for a smartphone. The guy selling the battery tells you it will probably only charge your phone another 4 or 5 percent, maybe more if you plug it in at exactly the right time. So it’s not reliable, but it’s the cheapest on the market. Every other battery is expensive and takes years to make. And if a lot of people are counting on you to make a call, you might just be willing to buy the battery, even if it ends up doing nothing in the end.

Kanzer said investors understand the risks involved and aren’t under a delusion that it will be the basin’s saving grace.

“It’s sort of a common sense look at the issue where we are imbalanced between water supply and water demand,” Kanzer said. “We can change water demand by changing habits by conserving, by increasing efficiencies. When you look at supplies, what can we do? There’s very few options.”

Colby Pellegrino, with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the water utility for Las Vegas, said her agency’s investment in Upper Basin cloud seeding is worthwhile.

“Most of the information out there says yes, some water is gained through weather modification,” she said. “The amount of water that’s gained is pretty inexpensive water compared to the other options that are out there.”

Concerns Reach Beyond Effectiveness

Even though cloud seeding has occurred over the basin for more than a decade, not everyone is on board.

“You read one side of the story and yes, it’s really working,” said Patti Clapper, commissioner in Colorado’s Pitkin County. “You read the other side and we really don’t know.”

Discussions are occurring in her county now about expanding a cloud-seeding program and using tax dollars to pay for it. She has lots of unanswered questions about the long-term effects of spewing silver iodide into the air, and broader philosophical concerns about forcing snow to drop in one place at the possible expense of somewhere else.

“The data’s not there,” she said. “Yes, we need to be concerned about the water in our rivers because of the drought, because of climate change. But you have to be careful when you mess with Mother Nature because she can bite you in the butt.”

Katja Friedrich studies cloud and precipitation formation at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Katja Friedrich, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, hears such concerns often.

“This is a really big stretch to say we are stealing water vapor,” she said, adding that clouds and weather systems are incredibly dynamic.

And, given how difficult it is to measure the effectiveness of cloud seeding in a very specific target area, it’s even more difficult to quantify any effect further downwind, she said. Even if cloud seeding were wildly successful — say it was able to produce 15 percent more snow — it’s likely that any downwind effect would be minimal as clouds are constantly changing, recharging with new sources of moisture as they move through the atmosphere.

“This is a good question that we should not just throw off the table,” Friedrich said. “But it’s very difficult to quantify.”

The public should be questioning state leaders who invest in cloud seeding programs, she said, and demand stronger monitoring of stream health and proof of effectiveness. But at the same time, she knows why agencies are increasingly interested in the process.

“The general public has to understand that we are in a water crisis,” she said. “So we need to ask the question, what kind of luxury do we have? Do we want to have a shower every day? That comes at a price. If we don’t want to have cloud seeding, then we need to reduce our water demand.”

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.

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.