2012 Colorado Drought Conditions
NRCS reports that most Colorado reservoirs are full, and NOAA predicts that La Nina is weakening, which many had blamed for Colorado’s above average temperatures and unusually dry March. However, those who experienced the last major Colorado drought of 2002 know only too well how quickly conditions can change.
The NRCS Colorado SNOTEL Snowpack Update Report records March 2012 snowpack at 40-52 percent of average river basin levels, and the U.S. Drought Monitor now shows the entire state of Colorado in varying degrees of drought, after the driest March on record – drier even than March 2002 – and NOAA tree ring analysis indicated that 2002 had been the driest year for Front Range streamflow on record since 1685! For southern portions of the state, which already experienced drought in 2011, the drought appears to be continuing into a second growing season. For the state’s northwest river basins: the Yampa/White and the Colorado, which experience particularly strong streamflows in 2011, 2012 water supply conditions project a drastic shift downward (Flood & Water Availability Task Force, March 2012 SWSI Report).
CWCB Drought Management Planning Tools and Review
Careful, comprehensive planning can reduce drought-related impacts, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Municipal Drought Management Plan Guidelines Document represents a comprehensive toolset to get you started. The CWCB also provides drought mitigation plan review and state approval for plans submitted by municipal water providers and other state or local governmental entities. Although it is not mandatory, state review will ensure that your drought management plan is consistent with the guidelines. See Guidelines for the Office to Review and Evaluate Drought Mitigation Plans for details concerning CWCB’s review process.
In addition to the Guidelines, CWCB’s Drought Planning Toolbox provides three other areas of support:
CWCB Drought Status and Monitoring Resources
The Drought Status and Monitoring section explains how to evaluate drought severity, with links to state and national drought indices (SWSI, PDSI, CMPDI, SPI, etc.) and forecasting sites. You can also review the 2011-12 Drought Response and the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan (DMRP), which was completely revised in 2010 to better analyze vulnerabilities and impacts of drought on all sectors and subsectors statewide.
CWCB Drought Planning Resources
The Drought Planning Resources section provides specific instructions, worksheets, and examples for developing your own Drought Management Plan, based on eight essential steps:
Step 1. Define Stakeholders, Plan Objectives and Principles
Organize a diverse drought planning committee to develop objectives to guide plan development
Step 2. Historical Drought and Impact Assessment
Analyze historic droughts, drought indices, water supplies, demands, impacts, and mitigation measures
Step 3. Drought Vulnerability Assessment
Determine water supply reliability criteria in conjunction with drought water use restrictions
Step 4. Drought Mitigation and Response Strategies
Screen and select actions to perform prior to drought or in direct response to address potential impacts
Step 5. Drought Stages, Trigger Points, and Response Targets
Define water supply watch, warning, and emergency alert levels and set related triggers to initiate response actions; Define shortages by health and safety, business, and irrigation usage priorities
Step 6. Staged Drought Response Program
Develop comprehensive provider and customer response measures and enforcement actions; Develop a plan for education and outreach by drought stage and for ongoing susceptibility awareness
Step 7. Implementation and Monitoring
Develop protocols for drought stage declarations, monitor drought indicators and response efforts;
Adopt necessary ordinances, address revenue implications, obtain CWCB and local plan approval
Step 8. Plan Review and Updates
Plan periodic review and a formal update process; ensure sector managers remain aware of their responsibilities.
The CWCB Drought Toolbox provides worksheets and other supplemental support throughout all 8 stages of plan development. CWCB staff also provide more direct feedback throughout the plan approval process, as well as assistance in applying for Drought Mitigation Planning Grants.
CWCB Additional Drought Planning Information
Finally, the CWCB Drought Toolbox Drought Links section provides a wide variety of other state and federal agency websites and resources that can provide additional support. The Financial Assistance section lists disaster assistance programs by federal and state agency and what triggers eligibility. For a quick orientation, also review the comprehensive Drought Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
2012 CWCB Statewide Drought Conference
CWCB is also planning a 2012 Statewide Drought Conference: Building a Drought Resilient Economy through Innovation to be held at the new History Colorado Center September 19-20, 2012. Topics include climate change, technical advances, risk management, collaboration opportunities, and lessons learned from the 2011 drought. Drought preparedness innovations for the energy sector, agriculture, tourism and recreation, and urban environments will also be highlighted.
A number of federal resources may also support your drought planning process. In addition to access to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the U.S. Drought Portal provides events, maps, forecasting, planning, education, research, recovery, and reports. The National Drought Mitigation Center’s Write a Plan section includes stepwise tools and Sample Drought Plans.
The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a Community-Based Water Resiliency (CBWR) initiative to increase community collaboration in emergency planning of interdependent sectors. EPA also has developed the Climate Ready Water Utilities Toolbox (CRWU) which includes both funding resources and planning tools. Its Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT) helps water and wastewater utilities assess risks to assets, operations, and missions, as well as, adaption options.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency website Ready.gov assists citizens prepare for extreme heat and wildfires often associated with drought. It also provides recommendations for what both businesses and individuals can do before and during a drought to minimize impacts.
The USDA Rural Development agency provides Emergency Community Water Assistance Grants to assist rural communities with emergencies in water quality or quality, or if one seems imminent. The Farm Service Agency provides agricultural assistance for natural disaster losses, including drought.
Complimentary Conservation Planning
Unlike emergency drought planning, conservation planning is a permanent, long term objective to use water more efficiently. Nonetheless, it may contribute to drought resilience by requiring less water per capita, thus reducing volumes and timing needed to supply residents in times of drought. Building conservation awareness also helps develop a conservation mindset, enabling residents and businesses to better accept and implement drought water-use restrictions (AWRA Drought Management Handbook, 2002). Colorado’s Water Conservation Act of 2004 requires all retail water providers who sell 2,000 acre feet or more annually to have a Conservation Plan approved by CWCB, who provides water conservation planning resources and grants for conservation plan development. To date, however, many entities have not yet completed their conservation plans, in spite of the long term potential benefits of conservation increasing their communities’ drought hardiness, as well as, that of the state as a whole.
One innovative conservation tool is Aurora Water’s Conservation Calculator. The Conservation Calculator assists residents to calculate current use, create an irrigation calendar, and choose utility rebates, audit services, and other options to reduce indoor and outdoor water use to meet personal conservation goals. Colorado WaterWise has interest in adapting this tool for statewide use for other communities and water providers.
Irrigators can also make the most of every drop through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which assists with cost-sharing for installation of new, more efficient systems. Sign up information for 2012 is available at the Colorado NRCS EQIP website.
Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Demand Management
Responsible communities implement demand reduction measures in times of drought to extend water supplies. During planning, a utility must determine demand by user class or sector to determine how reduced water supply may affect city parks and fire flows and residents, as well as, their commercial and industrial customers. This often results in a Water User Contingency Plan for each hospital, golf course, car wash, or other large water customer, which work with the utility to plan ahead to reduce commercial water use when water is in short supply. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, require all self-supplied commercial and industrial water users to have a Drought Contingency Plan, too. Developing drought mitigation measures should be part of every business’ disaster planning, even if it’s not specifically required by their provider or governing entities, as water surcharges to prevent waste are often applied during drought, which may impact profitability, and short supply may curtail operations, as well.
The Lower Colorado River Authority has developed a Sample Drought Contingency Plan for Agricultural Water Use to help its water customers plan for water restrictions during drought, which is then incorporated into the customer’s water sales contract. Other water conservation, conservancy districts, and ditch companies throughout Colorado have also taken similar measures to prepare for drought, but many more still need to more fully plan and document mitigation measures. For livestock producers, the National Drought Mitigation Center has made presentations and audio recordings available from their January workshop for Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch.
According to Kevin Rein, Assistant State Engineer for Water Supply and Litigation, water used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production in Colorado is currently about 14,000 acre feet statewide and only projected to climb to about 19,000 acre feet by 2015, comparable to that used in snowmaking (Energy Water Demands, Kevin Rein, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Metro Roundtable Reception presentation, 4/5/2012). However, unlike snowmaking, which when it melts, returns high percentages for reuse downstream, water acquired for well production does not normally return to Colorado rivers for subsequent reuse. Therefore, increasing competition for water between the growing Colorado energy sector and other sectors in times of drought might be expected, as during the 2011 Texas drought. However, proactive recycling efforts may reduce industry water supply concerns. For example, in the Piceance Basin in northwestern Colorado, Encana, a natural gas company, pipes produced water and flowback water to four treatment facilities, reusing 5,300 m3/day (4 acre-feet), so only about 5-10 percent of operations require additional fresh water for use in drilling.
Related Resources for Climate Change
To make drought planning especially challenging today, planning for future droughts cannot simply be based on analysis of the past, since global temperatures are increasing according to the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change. The Joint Front Range Climate Change Vulnerability Study represents a collaboration between Front Range water utilities and the CWCB to analyze the broad variability in climate and the timing and volume of hydrologic runoff that may be expected.
The Water Utility Climate Alliance has developed a comprehensive climate change planning resource: Decision Support Planning Methods: Incorporating Climate Change Uncertainties into Water planning of which Denver Water’s Laurna Kaatz and Marc Waage are two of its primary authors.
CWCB has also recently begun Phase II of a multi-phase Colorado River Water Availability Study to analyze exactly how much water is going to be available in the future to meet increasing demands under alternate hydrologies. This is being complimented by the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study to be released in July 2012, which will define imbalances in supply and demand throughout the greater Colorado River Basin over the next 50 years to develop preemptive adaption and mitigation strategies.
Remember the Environment
When planning for drought, it’s easy to focus on only the responsibilities of a service provider to its direct customers, but it’s also important to keep in mind statewide environmental effects of your drought decisions and their potential, maybe even irreversible, long term impacts. The 2010 Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan indicates that counties most vulnerable to environmental impacts during drought have less area under protected status, a relatively higher number of EPA 303(d) listed impaired waters, bark beetle infestations, higher wildfire susceptibility, more junior (and less extensive) instream flow rights, and more higher-order streams (rivers that receive waters from more lower-order tributaries), such as Larimer, Garfield, and Mesa counties.
As I mentioned in my Instream Flow Workshop Summary last month, CWCB is specifically making Water Supply Reserve Account (WSRA) grants available this year for multi-purpose projects that focus on providing both consumptive and nonconsumptive benefits, based on the IBCC/BRTs Nonconsumptive Needs Assessment and the Basin Municipal and Industrial Gap Analysis. Wouldn’t it be great to receive special funding to bolster your water supply reliability to prepare for drought in conjunction with a project that also secures water supply for the environment?
In anticipation of a dry summer this year, the Colorado Water Trust is also requesting direct streamflow or storage water rights for short-term lease into the CWCB Instream Flow Program, which the Trust can help facilitate and for which they will pay compensation.
Over the long term, environmental considerations are particularly important when service providers or energy producers are considering developing long-held conditional water rights. CWCB’s instream flow program does not consider conditional water rights when securing junior instream flow rights, which later development may make instream flows unavailable downstream, unless preserving these critical minimum environmental flows is incorporated into the developer’s plan. One successful example of converting conditional water rights to instream flow rights to preserve fish flows involved Vail Associates on Hat Creek in Eagle County.
Example Drought Plans
You can search for a variety of additional drought conference, state planning, and drought task force documents through CWCB’s weblink document management utility.
Please comment below with additional drought management tips or your own drought plan link to share!