(ORDO NEWS) — An above-average monsoon season in the upper Colorado River basin has brought relief from a recent summer choked on wildfire smoke in the American West.
But according to Brad Udall, senior water and climate scientist at the Colorado Water Institute and director of the Western Water Assessment at Colorado State University, the relief we feel now is a sign of bigger challenges in the coming years.
“Next year will be very interesting to see what happens. It will be a test of the theory of soil moisture depletion,” Udall said Aug. 19 in a crowded auditorium at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Education Center.
The theory he cited looks at how recent rainfall is affecting the drought trend, drying up reservoirs and reducing the flow of the Colorado River, which is the main source of water for more than 40 million people living in seven Western states, more than thirty Native American tribes and some population groups in Mexico.
Udall’s connection to the Colorado River goes deeper than just the subject of his research. He grew up on its banks and in his early years worked as a guide on the river. He also comes from a long line of family members who have been influential in the management of the river for over a century.
His father, former Congressman Mo Udall, fought to get the river’s water flowing into Arizona. His uncle, Stuart Udall, was the former Home Secretary who opened the Glen Canyon Dam. His great-great-grandfather, John D. Lee, founded the city of Fox Ferry in Arizona.
“The Udalls are basically the Lees,” he told the crowd.
With a plethora of graphs, peer-reviewed studies, and timeline photographs of reservoirs showing water levels falling, Udall delivered a presentation titled “The Colorado River Crisis: 19th Century Water Legislation, 20th Century Infrastructure, and 21st Century Population Growth and Climate Change” clashed in detail a treaty that defines water rights between these states, while simultaneously bringing to light the environmental campaigners who have shaped and grown since the treaty was negotiated in 1922.
Don’t call it “drought” anymore
Merriam-Webster defines “drought” as “a period of dryness, especially of long duration”. According to Udall, we have stopped treating the Colorado River crisis as something that will soon pass or ever pass.
“It’s not a drought. It’s something else,” he said. “I and other scientists are trying to use another term: aridization.”
Aridization is defined as “the gradual change in the climate of a region from wetter to drier”. Udall says it also means “less snow cover. It’s an earlier runoff. A shorter winter. More rain, less snow. Higher temperatures. It’s a drying up of the soil. Big fires. Forest death. It’s a warm, thirsty atmosphere.”
The atmosphere, and the role it plays in our water cycle, is part of the reason for Udall’s skepticism throughout the rainy August.
“This atmosphere, as it warms up, actually tends to hold on to more moisture. This is part of the driving force behind why these soils are getting drier,” Udall said.
Add in rising temperatures that harden the soil, plants get thirsty, and standing water evaporates faster, and the runoff formula becomes biased.” Hotter climates not only affect the returns we get from the water cycle, Udall says and explains why flooding can still occur and even intensify in drought-stricken areas.
“Because of this warm, thirsty atmosphere, we get more flooding, because when the atmosphere is set to generate precipitation, it actually has more water vapor,” he said.
Excess water vapor is also a problem in calculating snow runoff, another issue the state’s climate scientists are trying to address in the face of a shorter winter.
“I want to talk about the fact that 85 percent of snow cover turns into 30 percent runoff,” Udall said. “You might think that 85 percent of the snowpack turns into 85 percent runoff, or 60 percent. That doesn’t happen anymore… When the snow melts, more of it goes into the atmosphere than flows into the river.”
“Early-season runoff is more nutritious and summer rainfall dries up quickly,” he added, “so the low runoff in March and April is not sufficiently offset by summer rainfall, although it does help next year’s runoff.”
“All the deserts in the world are located about 30 degrees north or 30 degrees south of the equator. This is a known aspect of how our climate system works,” he said.
“Essentially, we’re getting high pressure that’s dropping over 30 degrees latitude. We think high pressure is moving up as the climate warms, so in our case the desert south of us is moving in our direction.”
All trends are moving “in the wrong direction”
When Udall showed a chart of previous decades’ rainfall levels, showing their decline over the past 22 years, the occasional splash of rain that fell outside during the presentation seemed even less significant.
“2018 is the worst year for precipitation in the Upper Basin since 1895. 2020 is in the bottom ten. 2021 is in the bottom twenty… all these years are really in the bottom,” he said. “So the whole precipitation regime has shifted downwards.”
Udall then took into account the rise in temperature. “3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970 … and, importantly, no year since 1999 has been below the 20th century average. And we will never see a year below the 20th century average again.”
These two trends – low rainfall and high temperatures – are making the situation along the Colorado River more critical than ever.
“If you take the worst period of the 20th century – the worst 22-year period – if it only happened again, instead of the 22 years we got last time, our reservoirs would be 55% full, not 27%. This caused there would be anxiety, but it would not be such a crisis as it is now,” he said.
Although history has been repeating itself, in his speech, Udall suggested not betting on it.
“We should expect flows to be even lower than what we’ve seen in the last 22 years. We didn’t give numbers. We just said ‘a reasonable worst-case future,'” he said.
‘Let’s look at experiments’
While water supplies in the Colorado River are declining, demand continues to rise. Population growth has not only filled the large cities that depend on the water of the river. It also spurred the growth of new cities along its basin, further complicating disputes over how to allocate water.
“Now we need to think about how to get some of that water back. … We don’t have supply control, so we have to cut demand,” Udall said.
While Udall argues that Colorado is exemplary in water distribution management due to enhanced engineering and general communication efforts, there are lessons to be learned from the innovations taking place in the basin as a whole.
One attendee asked about California’s desalination efforts, and Udall acknowledged desalination is “part of the solution, but it’s a tiny part of the solution”, citing Australia’s efforts in the past decades, which have come with their own challenges, one of the biggest being cost.
“Agriculture will never be able to afford it,” he said.
Udall then pointed to the reintroduction of beavers in some places as another potential part of the solution.
“There’s some interest in reintroducing beavers in some places in the High Country to get these wetlands where you store water and you get these sponges that slowly release water later in the year. … Will it work, I don’t know, but it’s another idea in the same vein,” he said.
As for the transition to crops that consume less water, there are also difficulties here. “Shifting to new crops is actually quite difficult. It requires new agronomic knowledge, new production and marketing, new workforce and equipment… you need a team of people in the same area growing new crops,” Udall said.
Udall mentioned Arizona’s use of aqueducts and Las Vegas’ innovative water recycling system, while noting that saving efforts – and making more conscious use of water in our daily lives – are still the best ways to buy more time.
“I just feel like we need to take demand off this system and I’m not sure how to do that with the resources that we have,” he said.
View from above
Colorado’s position in the upper basin will give Colorados a chance to see what works and what doesn’t work as lower basin states face more urgent scenarios in the coming years.
Speaking to the gathering in the ski town, Udall consciously addressed the question of what this crisis means for our favorite winter entertainment and the industry that surrounds it.
“Here’s the good news for people who live in Colorado: the middle continent is higher and colder,” he said. “If you now had a ski area in the Sierras, then when it starts to rain in winter, I would be worried.
Anywhere where you have a maritime climate, which is close to the ocean, and where it used to be 31 (average degrees) in winter, and now 33, you have a huge problem.” Colorado is higher, drier and colder, and will continue to be so.
Therefore, these ski areas will perform better than ski areas anywhere else. It rains here in the winter too – and it shouldn’t, so that’s both good news and bad news.”
“Overall, Colorado, of all the western states, is more in control of itself than any other state. Why is that? Because our system of water rights is a little different, and for better or worse, we have created a system that has a whole set of separate codes water rights and water specific lawyers and water specific engineers… that’s why we have records and data and court orders, we know where our water is being used, who owns it, how it’s being used. ..and therein lies the system that at least gives us the data to make the right decisions.”
“More than any other state, we’re doing better… but still not doing very well.”
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