Climate change threatens the availability of water in the Colorado River basin and water managers need to take steps now to prepare, the director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico John Fleck and Brad Udall, the senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, argue in a recent editorial. The two scientists published the editorial in last Friday’s edition of the research journal Science. “We share the concern that the decision makers are not doing what we think needs to be done to fully incorporate the risks of climate change in the decisions that have to be made over the next few years on the Colorado River,” Fleck said in an interview with NM Political Report. The editorial starts by highlighting a hydrologist’s analysis in 1920 that found the Colorado River could not support future water demands. “No one heeded his warning,” Fleck and Udall wrote.
This week, Congress passed a bill directing the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement an agreement worked out by states that rely on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act easily passed both chambers and now awaits a signature from the president. The plan acknowledges that flows of the Colorado River—which supplies drinking water to 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres—are declining. And it represents efforts by the states, cities, water districts, tribes and farmers to make changes that will keep two important reservoirs from dropping too low. Had they not come to an agreement, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have imposed restrictions on water use.
All week, we look for stories that help New Mexicans better understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around the region. Thursday morning, that news goes out via email. To subscribe to that weekly email, click here. Here’s some of what subscribers read this week:
Like many news outlets, we wrote last week about some of the impacts of the federal shutdown on New Mexico. And, as it turns out, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has indeed been processing Applications for Permits to Drill (APDs) in New Mexico.
The next governor of New Mexico needs to understand climate change—its cause, the immediate and far-reaching impacts to our state and the need for substantive action. We’re far past a time when denial or doubt can be indulged. Today, there’s not even time for rhetoric or vague promises. In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that humans must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade. Failing to do so means failing to hold warming below levels that will have catastrophic and irreversible impacts upon the Earth’s ecosystems.
Globally, the temperature—averaged between land and sea temperatures—has already risen 1° Celsius, or 1.8° Fahrenheit, since 1880.
The Colorado River supplies water for more than 36 million people in two countries and seven states, including New Mexico. As river flows and reservoir levels decline due to drought, warming and over-demand, states are wrangling over how to voluntarily conserve water use—before reservoir levels reach critically low levels and trigger mandatory cutbacks. New Mexico is one of the states most vulnerable to the impacts climate change is wreaking on the river. Yet, it’s unclear what the state is doing when it comes to drought management in the state and basin-wide negotiations on the Colorado. The seven states subject to the Colorado River Compact are divided into Upper Basin states—Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah—and Lower Basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California.
The Colorado River supplies water to seven states, including New Mexico, before crossing the border into Mexico. Then—theoretically, nowadays—it reaches the Sea of Cortez. Demands from cities and farms, along with climate change, strain the river and affect its flows. Now, a new study shows that even though annual precipitation increased slightly between 1916 and 2014, Colorado River flows declined by 16.5 percent during that same time period. That’s thanks, in large part, to “unprecedented basin-wide warming.” Warming reduces snowpack and increases the amount of water plants demand.
It’s likely you’ve already seen the big headlines of the week: fires, floods and the resignation of Scott Pruitt from the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Here are some of the less flashy stories you may have missed recently:
-Writing for Water Deeply, Brent Gardner-Smith reports that the Upper Colorado River Commission is shuttering a pilot program that paid irrigators to fallow fields. The four-year program paid people in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming about $200 an acre foot to hold off watering their fields so more water could be stored in Lake Powell. This year, the program will pay out almost $4 million to participating farmers and ranchers. According to the story: The ending of the program does not mean the commission is giving up on getting more water into the upper Colorado River system in order to raise water levels in Lake Powell, as that interest continues to grow as the drought that began in 2000 lingers.
In early June, more than 1,000 people near Durango, Colorado, had to leave their homes as the 416 Fire swept across the landscape. Following a dismal snowpack, the region experienced a spring so hot and dry that the U.S. Drought Monitor labeled conditions “exceptional drought,” the worst category. Colorado wasn’t alone. An irregular bull’s-eye of dryness radiated outward from the entire Four Corners region, where Colorado meets New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. These circumstances offer something of a preview of the coming decades: While experts say the Southwest will continue to experience swings in precipitation from year to year, overall climate change is making the region and its river basins hotter and drier.
The signs of rising temperatures are obvious across New Mexico right now, from the mountains to the river valleys, and from rangelands to suburban backyards. “Climate change for the Southwest is all about water,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who has spent decades studying climate change and its impacts in the southwestern United States. Warming affects the amount of water flowing in streams, and the amount of water available to nourish forests, agricultural fields and orchards. There’s also the physics of the matter: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, demanding more from land surfaces. Plants need more water, too.
This weekend’s warm and windy conditions were good for hiking or kite-flying. But they were tough on a river everyone is already expecting to be low on runoff this spring and summer. According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo’s continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer—and many areas may reach or break historic low flows. Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news.