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What Another Dry Winter Means for Colorado and the West

With dangerously low snowpack levels across the state, Colorado is facing a severe water shortage. We take a look at what that means for rivers, wildfires, and the future of water use in the West.

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It wasn’t just a low snow season. It was another low snow season, the latest in what is becoming an increasingly common occurrence in Colorado. As skiers across the state bemoaned the lack of fresh powder this winter, climate scientists and hydrologists recognized something more acute: The dry winter exacerbated water scarcity in the Centennial State, placing more stress on our rivers and increasing the likelihood of an active fire season.

To put things in perspective, on April 9—which is historically the peak day for snowpack in Colorado—almost the entire state was sitting at below-average levels. Southern Colorado had it worst. The Upper Rio Grande basin, for instance, boasted a meager 43 percent of its normal snowpack. The Gunnison basin sat at only 57 percent. The Arkansas basin was at 63 percent. Only the North and South Platte River basins approached normal levels.

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A month later, little has improved. “We’re staring down a pretty bleak water year,” says Matt Rice, director of the American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program. And what’s worse, he says, is that “This is absolutely part of a trend.” According to river and conservation scientists, Colorado is in the midst of a drought that dates back to the record-dry year of 2002. Although we have had some wet winters over the past two decades, dry seasons are now becoming “the new normal.” And that’s a problem—not just for our ski resorts, rivers, and lakes, but also for our farmers, cities and our neighboring states. 

How Did We Get Here?

Ask a climate scientist why water scarcity in Colorado has become so dire, and their most simple answer will likely be a two-part explanation: Climate change and population growth. Over the past several decades, Colorado has seen warmer temperatures with dryer winters and diminished snowpack. It doesn’t help that, since 2000, Colorado has gained approximately 1.3 million residents, all of whom in some way rely on the state’s water sources. “The population growth is very much compounded by climate change,” Rice says. “There is increasing demand on rivers for municipal and industrial water use.”

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Of course, it’s not all that simple. Scientists also point to a lack of urgency on behalf of water management decision-makers over the last two decades. In the mid-twentieth century, Western states over-estimated how much water we’d have today and underestimated how rapidly population would rise. Scientists also note that it’s not just Colorado’s population that is growing—many of the states downstream from Colorado, which rely on our river systems, are also growing at impressive rates.

Moreover, the Front Range gets about 50 percent of its water—roughly 160 billion gallons—via annual trans-mountain diversions from rivers on the Western Slope. These diversions draw water away from communities and rivers experiencing the most severe drought conditions in Colorado. “We’re all connected, says Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers program director for Boulder-based Western Resources Advocates. “Water use in Denver, in some ways, is having an impact on our West Slope neighbors.” A complicated diversion system, in conjunction with population growth and a changing climate, leaves us facing a stark reality: We’re running out of water.

What Does the Future Look Like?

Snowpack runoff is the primary source of water that supplied our rivers, so while we could have a wet spring and big monsoon season, that won’t rectify the issue. According to Meg White, an ecologist and flow scientist at the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado chapter, snowpack is more valuable than rain water because it is discharged into rivers over time, whereas “wet” rain water creates more immediate pressure on rivers. White compares relying on rainfall after a dry winter to trying to train for a marathon by running hard the week before the race. In short, it’s too little, too late.

While Colorado residents likely won’t see water restrictions put into place in 2018, it could happen within the next few years if dry winters persist in the way climate scientists expect. Per the 1922 Colorado River Compact—the primary agreement that governs water rights in the American Southwest—the upper basin states of the Colorado River (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) are responsible for delivering 8.23 million acre-feet downriver into Lake Mead, which serves as a water source for the lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) and Mexico, each year. But according to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, between April and July 2018, the Colorado River is expected to carry only 43 percent of its normal amount of water into Lake Powell, which sits upriver from Lake Mead.

While Rice says the upper basin states will still meet their threshold in 2018, within the next five to 10 years, the upper basin states might fail to meet that agreement. If this were to happen, the lower basin states might institute a “compact call,” which could lead to water restrictions throughout the West. Depending on the severity of those curtailments, many Coloradans, including farmers and water providers on the Western Slope and Front Range, would be seriously impacted.

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So, We’re Going to Have a Bad Fire Season?

Not necessarily. Wildfire seasons in the West are notoriously hard to predict, but coming into the warmest months of the year with low snowpack is not a good sign. “When you have these lower moisture conditions at the start of the season, you’re definitely setting up for the potential of a worse fire season,” says Jason Lawhon, forest and fire director for the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado chapter. “When trees and vegetation are drought stressed, if there’s a fire, they’re going to burn in a more explosive way.” But, he notes, a dry winter doesn’t automatically result in a bad fire season. Ultimately there have to be starts—lightening or human caused, for instance—for a fire to erupt.

Low snowpack doesn’t spell complete doom for the fire season. Unlike the rivers, a big monsoon season could go a long way toward mitigating fire spread potential in Colorado. While snowpack is essential for putting moisture in the soil, trees, and vegetation, heavy rains can have a similar effect depending on timing and duration. Plus, severe wildfires can still erupt even with ideal moisture conditions. “You could have a season that is really snowy and wet,” Lawhon says, “but then grass could be growing everywhere and you could have lightening or a human start at the wrong time and still have a really serious fire.” And while that possibility exists, he says in general “You’re always rooting for moisture. Good, wet winters are always more favorable over dry winters”

For those who plan on camping, fishing, hiking, etc. this summer, Lawhon stresses that Coloradans and visitors to the Centennial State need to be aware of the dry conditions and take note of red flag warnings and restrictions throughout the state. “One of the biggest things people can do is just stay informed,” he says. “Understanding when there are fire restrictions or when there is fire danger is super important.”

What Can We Do Now?

While nearly two decades of drought—with more expected in the future—is a grim consideration, all is not lost. Actually, there is plenty to be done on an individual level to improve the situation. Here are some tips from the experts on how to limit water use and help preserve one of the state’s most threatened resources:

Be Aware. “We can’t just think about the rivers that are flowing through town,” says Fay Augustyn, conservation director for the American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program. “We need to think broader, more holistically. All of our water is connected.” In order to help Centennial State residents better understand the source of their water, American Rivers recently released this comprehensive guide.

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Be More Efficient. This one’s simple; here are some ideas for how to use less water around the house.

Adapt Your Landscape. We get it, most people love a green lawn. But the truth is, sprinklers use excess water, and green grass isn’t necessarily part of the native landscape. “Assess what you’re doing with your landscape,” White says, “And shift some of your consumption patterns that way.” Here are a few tips:

Let Your Voice Be Heard. In 2015, the state unveiled the Colorado Water Plan, a concept that had been developing for more than a decade. In it, state officials recognized a roughly $20 billion need to fund water projects, increase storage, improve infrastructure, and protect the environment over the next 30 years. Since making this commitment, water scientists have seen some progress, and are encouraged by an evolving culture surrounding river health in Colorado.

“The Colorado Water Plan and some of the work being done in the Colorado River Basin are starting to identify some of the more progressive things we can do to manage our water differently,” White says. “I’ve seen the dialogue changing. I’ve seen a lot more cooperation and recognition that we’re all in this together.”

Still, river scientists would like to see more people push their local and state leaders to maintain their commitments—especially in terms of funding—laid out in the Colorado Water Plan. “Citizen engagement in water policy is very important,” Rice says, noting that about $3 billion of the projected $20 billion currently has no identified funding source. Organizations like American Rivers are working to find that extra funding, and individuals calling their local leaders could make a big difference.

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Ultimately, if the state is to overcome our water crisis, it will require the next generation of Coloradans to be proactive. “It’s important that the next million people who move to Colorado have a smaller water footprint,” Miller says. “There’s no reason that the next million have to use water at the same rate as the last million people who moved here.”

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