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Special to the Herald Times
RBC | Rising temperatures in Western Colorado are reducing average runoff from snowpack, robbing the Colorado River system of water, and forcing farmers and water providers to plan for a new reality that includes less water from the Colorado River.
In the third session of the Colorado River District’s virtual Annual Water Seminar, Zooming in on West Slope Water, District staff and experts from throughout the Colorado River Basin provided an overview of research, data and planning efforts related to water management in a multi-decadal drought that has taken a toll on West Slope water supplies.
Wednesday’s panel included presentations by Denver Water and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, among others, and highlighted some of the major infrastructure investments and planning exercises that large municipal water providers are taking-on throughout the Basin.
“Our charge at the Colorado River District has always been to look to the future and take actions to protect the West Slope’s water resources 10, 20 and even 50 years from now,” says River District General Manager, Andy Mueller. “Prolonged drought presents a real and meaningful threat to West Slope water users. And unfortunately for us, it also means that West Slope water will be even more attractive to major cities and municipalities in the future.”
On top of the hottest August ever measured in Western Colorado, Jeff Lukas, senior research associate at University of Colorado Boulder’s Western Water Assessment, said temperatures in western Colorado have risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980. He also said the summer of 2020 was the fourth hottest on record while August was the hottest on record.
Lukas said warmer temperatures increase the movement of moisture to the atmosphere through plant life and evaporation, at the expense of runoff and streamflow. Research reviewed by Lukas and others has shown that for every increase of 1-degree F in temperatures leads to a 4 to 5% decrease in streamflows. He also said that hot, dry months create dry soils, which are then a “tax” on runoff from the next snowpack amounting to 10% or more.
Juliet Eilperin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose team researched National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) temperature data recorded since 1895, said that the largest “hotspot” in the nation — a large handful of counties that had seen more than 3.6-degree increases — overlap the western half of the Colorado River District and eastern Utah. She noted that some farmers she interviewed in her research are planning for water supply challenges by modernizing irrigation systems and planting higher market value crops to get the most out of the water they have.
“Understanding your West Slope water is critical to understanding why and what we have to do to protect it,” Mueller said. “We hope you’ll join us by watching our upcoming seminar webinars or tuning in to one we’ve already hosted.”
A recording of this webinar, along with the River District’s previous seminars in the Zooming in on West Slope Water series are available online at https://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/annual-seminars