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Announcing Coloradosmp.org The improvement of the Prairie Ditch by the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project is the kind of project that can result from Stream Management Plans

Twenty communities are creating or implementing Stream Management Plans in Colorado Learn about the plans and the basics of stream management planning at this new online guide.



Pulse Agreements, Accords and Summits International leaders and scientists collaborate on climate reports and agreements. Can local efforts pick up the slack where U.S. emissions-reduction commitments are lacking?

16 Home on the Range Cattle aren’t immune to climate impacts. To protect herds and livelihoods, ranchers ready for a warmer future.

24 Denver’s Green Roof Law A new city ordinance focused on climate goals could mean cooler air temperatures.




WEco's upcoming events, reporting and more.


Contents | Spring 2019 SPECIAL CLIMATE ISSUE Colorado’s climate forecast is more than that—climate projections are also water projections. The state’s warming future will likely impact water supply with retimed flows, less runoff, more extreme precipitation and drought events, and water quality impacts. Coloradans are adapting and uniting to prepare for worst-case scenarios. But that’s not all, without mitigation on a global scale, scientists expect temperatures will continue to rise. So state residents are also stepping up to reduce emissions in order to stave off the worrisome extremes associated with a high-emissions future.



Water news from across Colorado.


Engage, volunteer and celebrate the impact of WEco’s work.






Finding Water In a Warming World

Hot and Dusty

What Makes a Climate-Smart Community?

Coloradans are adapting to and working to mitigate climate change as it manifests itself in the state’s waters, impacting all sectors.

For growers looking toward hotter, possibly drier times, healthy soils could be key to crop success.

We’re all vulnerable to water shortages and extreme weather events. These communities know what it takes to plan for resilience.

By Allen Best

By Nelson Harvey

By Julia Rentsch

On the cover: In Spring 2018, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed southwestern Colorado’s Montezuma and La Plata counties in the most critical drought category— “exceptional drought.” Hot, dry conditions led to dust storms, impossible growing and grazing conditions for farmers and ranchers, a heightened fire season, and slow tourism. Droughts in Colorado are projected to become increasingly frequent and severe under climate change. Photo by Jerry McBride Above: In June 2018, firefighters battled the 416 Fire just north of Durango. Photo by Kyle Miller/Wyoming Interagency Hotshots




Jayla Poppleton Executive Director

Lisa Darling President

Jennie Geurts Director of Operations

Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. Vice President

Stephanie Scott Leadership Programs Manager


he concept of climate change is laden with unknowns, and for some, a good deal of skepticism. But rather than deny the harbingers we’re seeing—and the models that continue to more closely align—Colorado is shifting gears to ask, “How can we get ahead of this?” This proactive approach would seem a logical step in risk management, and it’s one the state has embraced through various planning efforts, including the development of the newest Statewide Water Supply Initiative, to be rolled out this summer. Unlike its 2004 and 2010 predecessors, this SWSI will forecast water supply gaps using models that consider a range of future scenarios, incorporating variables that include climate change. Since SWSI forms the technical basis of the Colorado Water Plan, this update will be critical to refining the plan’s conclusions and goals. What’s our role at WEco in all of this? First of all, it’s advancing awareness and understanding to build a more informed dialogue—and ultimately more informed leadership and decision making—to enact good solutions. We accomplish that by providing an array of trusted information, quality reporting, and engaging programming. It’s also training leaders. This month, we admitted our newest class to our Water Leaders Program. Entering its 12th year, the program in 2019 will train another 16 dedicated water professionals, who work on everything from water rights portfolios to water quality compliance to watershed health, how to more effectively steer the ship of Colorado water. It’s providing up-close opportunities, such as our Annual River Basin Tour in June, this year in the South Platte Basin, for people to learn how different watersheds are grappling with their issues, from improved farm practices to water-sharing infrastructure to endangered species recovery. And it’s fostering community-level interest through relevant entry points, such as rain barrel building workshops or brew-pub discussions on local initiatives like water reuse or wildfire mitigation. We don’t know what the future holds, but we’re going to keep doing the work that is ours to do, in order to support the work that is yours to do. There’s so much potential to engage more Coloradans on water challenges big and small. We appreciate you spreading the word that WEco is here to help!

Scott Williamson Education & Outreach Coordinator Meg Meyer Development Coordinator Jerd Smith Digital Content Editor Caitlin Coleman Headwaters Editor & Communications Specialist Charles Chamberlin Headwaters Graphic Designer

Gregg Ten Eyck Secretary Alan Matlosz Treasurer Eric Hecox Past President Perry Cabot Nick Colglazier Sen. Kerry Donovan Jorge Figueroa Greg Johnson Julie Kallenberger Scott Lorenz Dan Luecke Kevin McBride Amy Moyer Lauren Ris Rep. Dylan Roberts Travis Robinson Laura Spann Chris Treese Brian Werner

THE MISSION of Water Education Colorado is to promote increased understanding of water resource issues so Coloradans can make informed decisions. WEco is a non-advocacy organization committed to providing educational opportunities that consider diverse perspectives and facilitate dialogue in order to advance the conversation about water. HEADWATERS magazine is published three times each year by Water Education Colorado. Its goals are to raise awareness of current water issues, and to provide opportunities for engagement and further learning. THANK YOU to all who assisted in the development of this issue. Headwaters’ reputation for balance and accuracy in reporting is achieved through rigorous consultation with experts and an extensive peer review process, helping to make it Colorado’s leading publication on water. © Copyright 2019 by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education DBA Water Education Colorado. ISSN: 1546-0584

—Executive Director—


What we’re doing

Please Welcome New Team Members at WEco!

Scott Williamson

Meg Meyer

Jacob Tucker




Scott is leading WEco’s Water Educator Network, as well as organizing tours, educational workshops, and outreach activities.

Meg is responsible for WEco’s membership program, as well as grants, sponsorships, donation campaigns, and the execution of various special events.

Jacob is supporting WEco during the 2019 spring semester, focusing on member communications, website content, publication distribution, and social media.

A former middle school science teacher, Scott also brings experience supporting locally based water efforts from a regional perspective from a former role at the Puget Sound Partnership.

Previously, Meg was at Colorado Water Congress, where she worked from 2009 to 2018 as the Associate Director, Event Coordinator and Membership Manager. She is a Colorado native and now lives in Golden with her husband and son. They enjoy hiking and the great outdoors of Colorado.

When not in the office, he can be found hiking, gardening, frequenting local coffee shops or delving into a great book.


He enjoys bicycling, skiing, swimming, and trying to keep up with his energetic family, and lives in Denver with his wife and two sons.

Jacob is attending the University of Denver to receive his Master’s in Economics. In his undergraduate program he majored in Economics, Philosophy, and Global Studies.

H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


What we’re doing A conversation with…


South Platte Basin Save the date and get on the bus for our two-day Annual River Basin Tour June 17–18. See the hard-working South Platte River up close and meet the people striving toward a sound water future for the economies and habitats of northeastern Colorado. The tour will begin and end in Sterling. We’ll visit these sites and others: • Walker Recharge Project • North Sterling Reservoir • Tamarack Ranch State Wildlife Area • Farms and dairies Topics will include the South Platte Basin Implementation Plan, Republican River Compact compliance, collaborative water storage and exchanges to meet an anticipated supply gap, alternative water transfers, the agricultural economy of the Eastern Plains, energy development, endangered species recovery, water quality, and much more. Registration will open in April at watereducationcolorado.org.


Jorge Figueroa is a Water Education Colorado board member and a long-time climate advocate. After years of working with Western Resource Advocates on demand management, water conservation, and climate resilience in the West, he is now the chief innovation officer for Americas for Conservation + the Arts. There, he is building and running El Laboratorio to promote agricultural and food security in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Jorge also leads the River Sisters Partnership, which started in March 2018 under an agreement between Mayor Hancock of Denver and Mayor Reina in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico to celebrate and help restore the Colorado River from its headwaters in Colorado to its delta at the Sea of Cortez. We sat down with him to learn more about his work around climate change and building resilient communities. What is the River Sisters initiative? River Sisters is an approach that is based on the heart, and it’s based on people, and it’s based on just celebrating our shared resources, exchanging information and developing friendships between water leaders. Out of that, beautiful, amazing solutions can happen. So instead of thinking that we have the solutions and then solving them from the top down, River Sisters convenes water leaders, gets them together, brings people from Colorado to the Delta and brings people from the Delta to Colorado. In that wonderful, cultural leadership exchange, which is this heart-to-heart, wonderful things and wonderful solutions have come out. So, I’m really excited about that. It’s an initiative that really fills the heart and the spirit, while at the same time, supplies a way forward that I think is a model to really be able to achieve the transformative change that we need to achieve in order to be resilient to climate change. How does AFC+A work to leverage the arts for conservation gains? We’re determining if we can build a sister Red Rocks Amphitheater in the Colorado River Delta to help bring the Colorado River back to people through music. It may be possible to build a sister Red Rocks and to use a portion of the revenue from tickets in Mexico to aid and pay for perpetual water rights to bring the Colorado River back to the sea. In a way, it’s a much more common-sense solution than relying on private foundations to pay for that. It democratizes the sources of revenue, it provides a renewable source of revenue, and it relies on an industry that is recession proof—the entertainment industry. It also leverages something that Latinos are really good at, which is making art and making music and enjoying music. Talk to us about diversity in Colorado water … I think it’s critically important for organizations to diversify their leadership … we really need to have diversity of ideas and perspectives, and that’s what having new voices and people from different cultures will help achieve. I think we are very far away from having diversified membership of not only Water Education Colorado, but also of folks that are invested in water. And so, with Latinos being like 30 percent of the users of the Colorado River, I think it’s really important to bring different voices to the table. BY RACHEL CHAMPION Read more of the interview on the blog at watereducationcolorado.org.


FROM THE EDITOR WEBINAR What does climate resilience look like? Join us this spring for a webinar focused on water and land use strategies, and efforts going on in Colorado to ready for a warmer future.


“The issue is how do we reduce the impact of this problem [climate change] for everybody so that maybe you retain some level of skiing down the line? But more importantly, that you do what you have the power to do as a ski resort which is maybe influence a social movement and reduce the damage.”


t can be overwhelming to read about climate change. The enormity of the task ahead—to adapt and mitigate—coupled with a regular stream of projections and research papers that show how different our future could look from the past can make it seem daunting to gain a foothold. There’s something called “solutions journalism,” which we always aim for, on some level, when producing Headwaters magazine. According to the Solutions Journalism Network: “Solutions journalism heightens accountability by reporting on where and how people are doing better against a problem—removing excuses and setting a bar for what citizens should expect from institutions or governments. It offers a more comprehensive and representative view of the world. And it circulates timely knowledge to help society self-correct, spotlighting adaptive responses that people and communities can learn from.” As you read this issue of Headwaters, I hope you’ll absorb not only the vast complexity of the challenges we face but also how our choices can make a difference. Read how towns, cities and utilities are getting creative and building resilience in Julia Rentsch’s “What Makes a Climate-Smart Community?” (see page 25). Or how farmers and ranchers are focusing on soil health and employing methods like cover cropping and no-till farming to battle drought in Allen Best’s “Hot and Dusty” (page 21), or the state, national and international policies and adaptations across all water sectors in Nelson Harvey’s “Finding Water in a Warming World” (page 10). There are many more examples of Coloradans “doing better” than we included in this issue. And while the graph in Gloria Dickie’s “Agreement’s, Accords, and Summits,” (page 16) shows that our current emissions-curbing policies won’t limit warming enough to avoid many of the worst climate impacts, it also shows that there is a future scenario in which we could theoretically meet or exceed the target set by the Paris Agreement. As an organization, Water Education Colorado believes that knowledge is power, and that Coloradans can develop smart water solutions by learning and applying that knowledge. I hope this issue inspires new thinking around the climate and water challenges ahead. Let us know where you’re leading the way to a more sustainable water future!

—Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company Listen to the full episode by tuning into our radio series, Connecting the Drops, on Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations or on our website at watereducationcolorado.org.


H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


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Around the state | BY JERD SMITH “We are far ahead, but having an early season snowpack does not mean we have solved the problem. We need to end this season in July with way above average snowfall. Right now people think, ‘Oh, it’s cold, everything is fine.’ But it’s not.” Brent Bernard, a hydrologist at the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, in November 2018

ARKANSAS RIVER BASIN Colorado Springs violated the Clean Water Act by allowing contaminated storm water to drain into Fountain Creek, Denver U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled Nov. 9. The lawsuit, filed in 2016, was brought by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District and Pueblo County were also plaintiffs. Colorado Springs has maintained that it is upgrading its stormwater system and working to ensure the water is adequately treated before it is discharged. How much the city may be forced to be pay in fines as a result of the decision isn’t clear. COLORADO RIVER BASIN The Colorado Water Conservation Board adopted a new statewide drought policy in November. The policy encourages that any potential efforts to reduce water use among in-state Colorado River users to help protect Lake Powell would be voluntary and temporary and that those who opted to conserve water under the policy would be paid to do so. The policy also prioritizes that any water cutbacks would be implemented equally among East Slope urban and West Slope rural water users. This approval was a critical step in allowing Colorado to join

according to published reports. “We’re all very hopeful, but we recognize that this early precipitation is not the cure and we are going to need a lot more of it to get us out of the hole we’re in,” said Heather Dutton, who represents the Rio Grande Basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. SAN JUAN/DOLORES RIVER BASIN

the other upper basin states in their Drought Contingency Plan, approved in December, designed to stave off mandatory water cutbacks on the drought-stricken Colorado River.

While most of Colorado was reveling in the winter snows that fell in January, residents in the San Juan/Dolores Basin in southwestern Colorado had less to cheer about. As of Feb. 4, the basin’s snowpack registered at just 94 percent of average, the second lowest in the state, behind the Upper Gunnison Basin, which registered at 92 percent of average. Statewide snowpack stood at 105 percent of average.



Blue Mesa Reservoir, near Gunnison, saw its supplies drop to a 40-year low this fall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, registering just 37 percent full. The giant reservoir, Colorado’s largest, fell so low that Iola, a small town inundated when the reservoir was built in the early 1960s, began to re-emerge.

Voters said yes in November to a Central Colorado Water Conservancy District bond issue that will raise $48.5 million for new water projects in parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties on the northern Eastern Plains. The bonds will pay for an array of projects including more reservoir storage and acquisition of water rights.

NORTH PLATTE RIVER BASIN YAMPA/WHITE RIVER BASIN The North Platte Basin will begin a flight-based cloud seeding program this winter. Operators were hopeful the first flight would occur in early February. The program will operate at the same time as one across the border in Wyoming. RIO GRANDE RIVER BASIN The Rio Grande Basin was one of the hardest hit during the 2018 drought, but it was hard to tell in early October, when a 30-inch snowstorm blanketed Wolf Creek Pass, allowing the ski area that bears the same name to be the first in the country to open. The Oct. 13 opening was the second earliest in the ski resort’s history,

The City of Steamboat Springs has requested funds from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and private foundations to begin reforesting the Yampa River corridor above and below the city. The city is hopeful the trees will help reduce temperatures in the river during the summer. The Yampa was closed to recreation at different points last summer because stream temperatures were too high, stressing fish populations. The city’s stream management plan, adopted in August 2018, assesses, recommends and prioritizes various measures, including revegetating the riparian corridor. H

H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


Water supplies in Blue Mesa Reservoir, just southwest of Gunnison, Colorado, dropped to a 40-year low in fall 2018. Blue Mesa stores and controls flows on the Gunnison River, as part of the Upper Colorado River Storage Project, before water makes its way down to Lake Powell. 10 • W AT E R E D U C AT I O N C O LO R A D O Matt Burt

Finding water in a warming world What climate change could mean for Colorado’s water supply


ill Waschke, a farmer in the small southwestern Colorado town of Dove Creek, watched last summer as more than 80 percent of his crops withered in the field, too dry and malnourished to harvest. At the same time, David Costlow, a former rafting guide and the head of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, watched as rivers like the Animas near Durango and Clear Creek outside of Golden trickled in midsummer at a fraction of their historic flows. And Gary Kyte, chair of Pine Drive Water District southwest of Pueblo, watched as ash from an old forest fire burn scar washed into North Creek and incapacitated his water treatment plant. For Coloradans of all stripes, the summer of 2018 was a stark indication that climate change is already affecting the state. When it comes to precipitation, natural variability is so extreme in Colorado that it can be difficult to pick out the signal of climate change. One hot, dry year isn’t necessarily climate change. Yet the 2018 water year (October 2017 through September 2018) showcased many of the symptoms that scientists associate with a warming West. It was Colorado’s hottest and second driest year in recorded history—and likely a preview of the state’s future. There is widespread consensus among climate scientists that the warming now taking place is primarily due to human-caused emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Some level of warming is “baked in” to the climate system by the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted: A 2017 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that even if greenhouse gas emissions had stopped in 2017, the globe would still warm an additional 2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. That means that Coloradans should expect a future with earlier runoff, less spring snowpack and more intense fires, droughts and floods. Myriad state planning efforts are underway to address these impacts and mitigate Colorado’s contribution to the problem. The Climate Change in Colorado Report, the Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study and the state’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan detail current and anticipated impacts from climate change along with adaptation strategies, while

BY N E L SO N H A RV E Y H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


Observed and Projected Colorado Average Annual Temperatures, 1950–2070

Observed temperatures through 2018 (bars) reveal that Colorado’s climate has warmed about 2 degrees over the past 30 years. Projected temperatures through 2070 from 36 global climate models under a medium-low emissions scenario and a high emissions scenario all show further substantial warming. By 2050, a “normal” year in Colorado is expected to be up to 3 degrees warmer than 2012, the warmest year on record.

the Colorado Climate Plan establishes clear statewide emissions reduction goals. These efforts make clear that those Coloradans who recognize climate’s connection to our water future are implementing measures—from building redundant water systems to planting new crops—to increase their resilience, while also reducing their climate impact.

Observed and projected temperature change, ° Fahrenheit


The Forecast

Median projection, high emissions scenario

Median projection, medium-low emissions scenario

1971–2000 AVERAGE –2° PROJECTIONS High emissions scenario (RCP 8.5)


Medium-low emissions scenario (RCP 4.5)

–6° 1950







2020 2030 2040 2050 2060 2070

Source: Adapted and updated from Lukas et al., Climate Change in Colorado, 2014 Observed data: NOAA NCEI; http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/; Model data: https://gdo-dcp.ucllnl.org

Colorado July Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), 1900–2018

The Palmer Drought Severity Index uses temperature and precipitation data to estimate relative dryness and quantify long-term drought. The 1970–1999 average was +0.9, or wetter than normal, while the 2000-2018 average is –1.7, or drier than normal. 6 4 2

1970–1999 AVG.




2000–2018 AVG.




–6 –8 –10 1900













Source: Adapted and updated from Lukas et al., Climate Change in Colorado, 2014; Data: NOAA NCEI; http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/

Colorado April 1 Snow-Water Equivalent, 1968–2018

There is an apparent long-term declining trend in spring snowpack; in the 21 years from 1998 to 2018, 16 years were below the long-term median. 160


140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0












Source: NRCS Colorado Snow Survey, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/co/snow/

12 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O


he myriad effects of climate change on Colorado’s environment and economy begin with a basic fact: It’s getting hotter. As of 2012, Colorado’s annual average temperature had increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the previous 30 years, and 2.5 degrees over the previous 50 years, according to the 2014 report Climate Change in Colorado by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado-Boulder in partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Since then, the warming has continued unabated, with 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 coming in among the eight warmest years since 1900. Future levels of warming, most agree, will depend in large part on future greenhouse gas emissions: Under a “medium-low” emissions scenario, Colorado’s average temperature could be between 2.5 degrees and 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter by 2050 than the 1971-2000 baseline. A “high emissions” scenario could push that warming to 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century. Two degrees of warming would make Denver feel like Pueblo, says Jeff Lukas, the report’s lead author, and with 6 degrees of warming, Denver would feel like Albuquerque, New Mexico. Projected effects of climate change on Colorado’s precipitation are less clear. Even without climate change, Colorado is no stranger to extremes. There is huge natural variability in rain and snow across the state, with parts of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado seeing just 7.5 inches of precipitation per year while parts of the central mountains near the Continental Divide get 60 inches. That’s in addition to tremendous year-to-year variability. Global climate models diverge as to whether climate change will drive more or less future precipitation across the state. There is broader consensus among models that summer precipitation will decrease more than winter precipitation, and that rain and snow is more likely to decrease in the southern part of Colorado than in the north. Due to warming, Colorado’s snow-line is expected to move to higher elevations, bringing rain rather than snow to parts of the high country and increasing the risk of winter floods from rain-on-snow events. Precipitation is also expected to concentrate in fewer, heavier storms, says Lukas, which could increase the risk of flooding. Regardless of future precipitation, Colorado’s spring snowpack and runoff have likely already declined due to climate change. Those trends are projected to continue. A 2018 study published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science analyzed 699 snow monitoring sites across the West and found that since 1915 the “snow-water equivalent,” or the amount of water contained in snowpack on April 1, has declined by 21 percent. Because more precipitation is falling as rain, compounded by increases in sublimation—where snow exposed to sunlight transforms directly from a solid to a vapor— “we’re getting less snowpack

Rising temperatures will mean that any given drought evaporates more precipitation and dries out the land more than it would have in the absence of climate change, making droughts more severe and leading to devastating impacts on crops, livestock, river flows, and municipal water supplies.

out of our precipitation,” Lukas says. Less snowpack equates to less water that melts off and can be diverted for use in the spring and summer. The other challenge: Runoff is peaking one to four weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago. By 2050, peak runoff is projected to shift another one to three weeks earlier. That has major implications for water providers, farmers, rafters, wildlife, the environment, and virtually everyone else in Colorado, since earlier peak runoff will be increasingly out of sync with the traditional agricultural and municipal irrigation seasons and the summer rafting and fishing seasons, not to mention peak blooming and wildlife migration seasons. Native flows in the Colorado River Basin have fallen by about 18 percent since the current drought began in 2000, according to Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute. In a February 2017 paper in the journal Water Resources Research, Udall and his co-author Jonathan Overpeck found that about one-third of that reduction is due to the higher temperatures brought on by climate change. Thanks to factors like increased sublimation, more water absorbed by plants, and longer growing seasons, Colorado River runoff has declined by about 4 percent for every degree Fahrenheit of warming in the basin, Udall says. Five degrees of warming by mid-century, then, could reduce Colorado River flows by 20 percent below the 20th century average, and flows could be 35 percent lower by later in the century if warming continues and precipitation stays the same. For a river that supplies water to 40 million people across the West, this is a dire forecast. Compounding that projection is a likely increase in the frequency and severity of droughts under climate change, according to the 2015 Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study by the Western Water Assessment and Colorado State University. Droughts are typically characterized by a lack of precipitation and unusually hot temperatures. Rising temperatures will mean that average years are more like drought years and that any given drought evaporates more precipitation and dries out the land more than it would have in the absence of climate change, making droughts more severe and leading to devastating impacts on crops, livestock, river flows, and municipal water supplies. Paleo-drought records gleaned from analyzing tree rings show that droughts longer than the ongoing 18-year event have occurred in the Colorado River Basin in the past, before the dawn of greenhouse gas emissions. That raises the prospect of multi-decadal

droughts, sometimes called megadroughts, in the coming century, exacerbated by climate change. Wildfires, too, have become both more frequent and more severe in the West since the mid-1980s. That’s due to several climate change-related factors, including droughts and outbreaks of tree-killing pests like the mountain pine beetle. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, half of the acreage that burned in the southwest between 1984 and 2015 was the result of climate change. IMPACTS AND ADAPTATION

Water Utilities


erhaps no Colorado industry feels the urgency of preparing for the future toll of climate change as keenly as the state’s water providers. Already, due to warming, utilities like Denver Water are seeing impacts to snowpack and runoff. In the spring of 2018, snowpack in Denver Water’s collection system above Dillon Reservoir peaked at 113 percent of normal, but—thanks to a warm, dry spring and the possible effects of low soil moisture and more water absorbed by plants—the inflow to Dillon Reservoir from April through July was just 71 percent of normal. “If we don’t get moisture in the spring, or it gets hot, spring runoff might not look very good,” says Laurna Kaatz, Denver Water’s climate program manager. And with less runoff flowing into Denver Water’s reservoirs, less water is available for its 1.4 million people. “A handful of storms will make or break our year,” Kaatz says. To cope with earlier runoff and unpredictable yields from snowpack, and to provide insurance against interruptions in its collection system caused by disasters like wildfires and more intense droughts, Denver Water is seeking to diversify its portfolio of water investments. An example includes enlarging Gross Reservoir southwest of Boulder, which will allow the utility to store more water in wet years. Expanding reservoir storage allows utilities to deal with changes in runoff by capturing and storing water until it is needed. Water stored in wet years can be critical for weathering future droughts. Planning, permitting and expanding or building new reservoirs can take decades, and changes to the timing and amount of runoff are happening now, so utilities need to consider an “all of the above” approach to prepare for climate change, says Kaatz. This includes efficiency, reuse, new supply investments, and exploring less traditional options. For example, there are ways to increase storage besides surface reservoirs. Denver Water is piloting aquifer storage and recovery, where surface water is injected into groundwater formations for storage and later use. Towns of all sizes can boost their climate resiliency without tackling expensive capital projects. Municipalities can encourage water conservation and maximize their existing supplies by enacting water-smart zoning regulations or building codes, or can factor water into their land use plans. Water providers can also modify the structure of their tap fees, tweak their water pricing tiers or even bill customers more frequently to encourage conservation and efficient development. Regardless of their efficiency, small communities reliant on just H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


one water source run the risk of having their entire water supply curtailed by the wildfires that are becoming more frequent and intense under climate change. Gary Kyte, chair of the Pine Drive Water District, which serves 166 households in the Beulah Valley roughly 30 miles southwest of Pueblo, experienced this last July when a rainstorm soaked a 4,000-acre wildfire burn scar in the community’s watershed, sending ash into North Creek and forcing Kyte to shut down his water treatment plant. By the fall of 2018, the plant remained closed as Pine Drive piped about 9,000 gallons of water a day from the neighboring community of Beulah. (Fortunately, Pine Drive and Beulah had linked their water systems following the devastating drought of 2002, when both communities were forced to truck water from Pueblo). The increased cost of buying water from Beulah is forcing Kyte to raise water rates to keep the utility afloat. “All these impacts from wildfire just pile on,” he says. To adapt, Pine Drive and Beulah are exploring the prospect of merging their water systems, potentially saving money by sharing a water treatment plant. And Pine Drive has contracted engineers to hunt for a deep-well groundwater source that could reduce the community’s reliance on surface water. Maintaining a diversity of water sources in a range of locations allows water utilities to remain resilient as the climate changes.

↑ Wheat stubble dries as a cover crop sprouts beneath in a no-till field facing the La Plata Mountains at the Southwestern Colorado Research Center in Yellow Jacket, Colorado. Here, researchers are using a cover crop/wheat rotation with a cover crop seed mix of winter pea, hairy vetch, triticale, oats, forage radish, and rapeseed.




ill Waschke could only harvest about a fifth of his crops in the summer of 2018. He left the rest desiccated and useless in the field, as the southwestern Colorado town of Dove Creek where Waschke grows 100 acres of sunflower, safflower and wheat suffered through its third consecutive year of serious drought. Dove Creek sits 35 miles northwest of Cortez near the Utah border, and Waschke, who serves as board president of the Dove Creek Conservation District, has been farming there since 1984. Over the summer, drought forced Dove Creek ranchers to sell off about 75 percent of their cattle herds—Waschke’s sister sold off half of hers—and Waschke watched neighbors struggling over whether to spend their last few dollars on crop insurance or

14 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

“Farmers can adapt to climate change by treating some portion of their water rights as a crop and using that to their advantage by entering into dry year options or some other arrangement with municipalities.” Anne Castle, University of Colorado GetchesWilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment

tractor fuel. The town that usually receives 12 inches of rain per year only saw four inches in 2018. While projections of future precipitation remain uncertain, Colorado’s Water Plan projects that warming in southern Colorado will drive a longer irrigation season and a decrease in annual streamflow in the years to come, and that, “even moderate increases in precipitation will not be sufficient to overcome the drying signal.” If drought continues much longer, says Waschke, “it could turn Dove Creek into a ghost town.” The community has struggled for decades to convince its young people to take over their parents’ farms and ranches, and the ongoing drought makes that proposition much less attractive. When Waschke was growing up in Dove Creek in the 1970s, there were 40 students in his high school class; the current class has just 10. “Agriculture is a big part of the community here, but these days our largest export is our children,” he says. Agriculture is a vital part of Colorado’s identity and economy, but climate change threatens food production and the livelihoods of producers in the state, most obviously for its potential to worsen and prolong droughts, change the timing and amount of runoff, and increase summer temperatures. The more frequent and severe droughts projected under climate change will have serious economic consequences. A 2013 study from Colorado State University found that the 2012 drought caused an estimated $726 million agricultural loss in the state, as declining crop revenues translated into reduced spending in agricultural communities. Dryland crops like wheat show declining yields in many climate model simulations due to heat stress and lack of water. Cindy Lair, conservation program manager at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, believes dryland farming in parts of eastern Colorado will likely become untenable in the future, as the temperature rises, yields fall, and crop insurance rates increase. One option for these growers, she says, would be to re-seed their lands with native grasses and move into grazing livestock, a transition that will take significant time and money and comes with its own climate challenges. Irrigators, too, will be impacted as runoff patterns change, growing increasingly out of sync with the traditional growing season. A decrease in the availability of water in late summer squeezes junior water-right holders and those without access to storage. Some farmers who find their water rights increasingly less useful for agriculture may choose to pad their incomes by leasing water to cities. The water demand of those urban water Courtesy Colorado State University's Southwestern Colorado Research Center

providers could rise by up to one million acre-feet by 2050, according to Colorado’s Water Plan. “Farmers can adapt to climate change by treating some portion of their water rights as a crop and using that to their advantage by entering into dry year options or some other arrangement with municipalities,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment. Other “alternative transfer methods” include deficit irrigation and rotational fallowing. “That could allow them to supplement, or maybe even improve, their income stream and hedge against commodity price volatility, while adapting to having less water,” Castle says. Yet farmers are notoriously hardy, and some are making onfarm adaptations to cope with the changing climate. Waschke is a pioneering grower who has adopted “mulch till” practices where he plants directly into the residue of his previous crop. He is also testing a cover crop rotation of dry beans and corn followed by winter wheat. Cover cropping, where nitrogen-fixing species are planted during fallow periods to improve soil health and water retention and to prevent erosion, is increasingly popular in areas with sufficient water to support a cover crop. IMPACTS AND ADAPTATION

Tourism and Recreation


n June of 2018, southwestern Colorado was a case study in the vulnerability of Colorado’s tourism economy to extreme weather. The 416 Fire prompted the Forest Service to close the San Juan National Forest for 10 days, and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad—which ferries

tourists between Durango and Silverton in the summer—was shut down for nearly six weeks. These closures at the height of the tourist season wreaked havoc on Silverton’s economy: Scott Fetchenhier, who owns Fetch’s Mining and Mercantile in Silverton and serves as a San Juan County Commissioner, says his business was down 30 percent in June and 7 percent in July compared to the previous year. Town-wide sales tax figures mirrored those trends. “There were people canceling their August trips to Silverton even though the fire was in June,” Fetchenhier says. “After a dry winter, businesses in town needed a good summer, but the county wound up declaring Silverton an economic disaster zone for the summer.” As an elected official, Fetchenhier advocates for economic diversification as a way to blunt the impact of any particular disaster on Silverton’s economy, promoting everything from jeep tours and all-terrain vehicle rentals to mountain biking and hiking. Yet as forest fires become more common and intense, they have the potential to hamper these activities, he says. When Colorado’s U.S. senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton visited Durango in June to see the impact of the 416 Fire, Fetchenhier testified before them. “I said, ‘We are dealing with fire because of drought, and drought because of climate change. You guys need to deal with climate change,’” he recalls. From smoky air to public land closures, and from lack of snow to low stream runoff, climate change directly threatens Colorado’s tourism and recreation industries. “This changing climate is going to affect the number of days you can ski, the number of days you can fish, and how often there are high flows for rafting and kayaking,” says Brad Udall. In Durango last summer, rafting outfitters were also feeling

The water level in Ridgway Reservoir, pictured here in August 2018, steadily declined last summer. Wiliam Woody

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Agreements, Accords and Summits

Can local efforts bolster global climate negotiations? BY GLORIA DICKIE In September 2018, thousands of people gathered in San Francisco for a first-ofits-kind Global Climate Action Summit. Never before had an international climate meeting focused on the involvement and commitments of local leaders, businesses and international governments. In the run-up to the summit, California’s then-Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will require the state to source 100 percent of its electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2045. Over the past two years, more than 70 other cities around the world have made pledges to buy enough renewable power to offset their electricity consumption on varying timelines. In July 2018, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced that the city’s electrical grid would go 100 percent renewable by 2030.

clean energy opportunities. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in September 2017 that their NY Green Bank would raise $1 billion of private capital to stimulate clean energy investment across alliance states and beyond. Now the green bank concept is coming to Colorado—in December 2018 the state

Emissions-curbing policies and targets are projected to limit global warming. Yet, even if all global targets and policies are followed, they will not limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the goal established with the Paris Agreement. Capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius—the threshold that a 2018 IPCC report said would avoid many of the worst climate impacts—means bringing emissions to zero by mid-century. 200

Global greenhouse gas emissions Gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year

Such locally-spearheaded efforts are meant to lessen the impact of the United States’ plan to pull out of the Paris Agreement in 2020. When the Paris Agreement was developed in 2015, the U.S. had pledged to reduce its emissions nationally to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Now, cities, states and regions are feeling the impacts of warming and urgently setting their own emissions reduction targets. On June 1, 2017, the day that the United States announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement, 10 state governors formed the U.S. Climate Alliance. ThenGovernor John Hickenlooper signed on a month later. The U.S. Climate Alliance now includes 21 governors and is continuing work on climate action, regardless of national directives, with the aim of implementing policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The alliance also serves as a watchdog, tracking and reporting progress in the United States to the global community. Not unlike the Green Climate Fund, the financial arm of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the U.S. Climate Alliance is creating its own “green banks” to finance

announced the launch of its nonprofit Colorado Clean Energy Fund to learn from New York’s model and accelerate clean energy project development. In Bonn, Germany at COP23 in 2017—the 23rd annual Conferences of the Parties to the 1992 UNFCCC—the U.S. Climate Alliance launched the North American Climate Leadership Dialogue. And at the September 2018 Global Action Climate Summit, the alliance announced plans to bolster carbon sequestration through the protection of the nation’s forests, and to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons. Though spirits were high in San Francisco, and hope tangible in the air, less than a month later it was clear local action wouldn’t be enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire report in October 2018 concluding that even if every nation met their current Paris pledge—most have fallen far behind on their goal—the Earth will still warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. The report declared that at our current rate of emissions, we can expect to see 1.5 degrees


Warming projected by 2100 Baseline / 4.1˚–4.8˚C 100


Current policies / 3.1˚–3.5˚C Pledges & Targets / 2.7˚–3.0˚C


2˚C consistent / 1.6˚–1.7˚C 1.5˚C consistent / 1.3˚C


1990 2000 2010 2020 2030 2040 2050 2060 2070 2080 2090 2100

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Climate Action Tracker

Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming as early as 2030. Based on that outlook, the Paris Agreement, once seen as a framework to inspire joint international action over time, would likely prove inadequate without sudden and sincere action by all major greenhouse gas emitters. According to a 2018 report by Yale and the New Climate Institute, Global Climate Action From Cities, Regions, and Businesses, even local action is unlikely to make up the gap. The report’s evaluation of climate change pledges from nearly 6,000 cities, states and regions around the world found that, even if targets were met they would fall significantly short of catastrophic warming thresholds. The repercussions of today’s warming temperatures have already manifested as extreme climate signals in global waters. In the United States, the U.S.’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November 2018, reported that our country is already contending with devastating hurricanes, rising seas, and torrential downpours. Take 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the secondcostliest disaster in the country’s history at $125 billion, which brought more than five feet of rainfall in just a few days. Ahead of COP24, the most recent UNFCCC talks that were held in Katowice, Poland in December 2018, many local leaders were hopeful that the IPCC’s October 2018 report would spur governments to agree to higher emissions reduction targets. Although COP24 did not yield additional pledges to reduce emissions ahead of 2020, when pledges will be required, it did produce a new rulebook that requires every signatory country to follow a uniform set of standards for measuring their planet-warming emissions and tracking their climate policies. The United States, though it still plans to pull out next year, agreed to the deal. As the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment says, if carbon emissions continue unabated, these negative environmental impacts will only get worse. H GLORIA DICKIE is a freelance journalist specializing in climate change, biodiversity conservation, and environmental law and policy. Her work appears in National Geographic, The Guardian, The Atlantic, High Country News, and Outside magazine. Follow her on Twitter @GloriaDickie. Matthew Staver

“If emissions continue at current rates, I would expect skiing to be gone except for abbreviated seasons at high-elevation resorts—probably by midcentury, but definitely by later century.” Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company

the pinch of low snowpack and early runoff. Flows in the Animas were below 25 percent of average for most of the year. Many other Colorado rivers saw similarly dismal flows. David Costlow of the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA), which represents Colorado’s more than 175 rafting companies, said some outfitters bussed their guests from low-flow areas to rivers like the mainstem of the Colorado, which has more reliable flows due to upstream reservoir releases. At press time, it was too early to know the economic impact of 2018’s low flows. But in 2012, another drought year, Colorado rafting companies saw a 17 percent decline in visitation and a 15 percent decline in revenue compared to the year before. “If average streamflow decreases in the future—a likely outcome across the climate projections—resulting competition for diminishing resources could impact rafting, fishing, and other recreation activities along with aquatic habitats,” reads the 2015 Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study. After experiencing major droughts for three of the past 18 years (in 2002, 2012 and 2018), Costlow says Colorado’s rafting guides have adapted by using smaller boats, lightening their loads to avoid running aground on exposed rocks, and tailoring the message of “low water, but not no water,” to attract tourists during dry times. Yet the rafting industry is highly tied to the school calendar and the timing of summer vacations. If peak runoff continues to decline and shift earlier—as reports like the Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study project—it could significantly shorten the rafting season, Costlow says. Perhaps Colorado’s most iconic business to face a direct threat from climate change is the ski industry. Many projections, including those contained in the 2014 report Climate Change in Colorado, indicate that global warming will shorten the ski season by boosting winter temperatures, increasing the number of frost-free days, bringing rain to high elevations at times when it previously snowed, and shrinking the window where conditions are cold enough for man-made snowmaking. A 2014 report from the Aspen Global Change Institute, a climate science nonprofit, projected that Aspen will see all of these changes in the coming decades, and found that the city’s frost-free period has already lengthened by over one month since 1940. Officials at the Aspen Skiing Company confirm they’ve seen evidence of warming. “We are noticing that both seasonally and in any given opportunity, the window for snowmaking is getting smaller,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company (SkiCo). That snowmaking window is based on cold temperatures, but H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


snowmaking also depends on water availability. The company obtains much of its water for snowmaking from high alpine streams including Maroon Creek and Castle Creek, leaving SkiCo vulnerable in dry years when there is little water in these streams by late fall. Yet starting in 2004, SkiCo began decoupling its water supply from streamflow at its Snowmass ski area by constructing a network of tanks and ponds across the mountain where up to 5 million gallons of runoff can be stored over the summer and used for snowmaking in the fall, regardless of creek water levels. Climate modeling commissioned by SkiCo from scientist Cameron Wobus of Lynker Technologies shows that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, Aspen’s ski season could be up to 30 days shorter by 2050 and up to 50 days shorter by 2090. Previous research by Wobus published in the journal Global Environmental Change in 2017 projected that virtually all U.S. ski areas would see reductions in their season lengths by 2050 under current emissions trends, with reductions in some areas exceeding 50 percent by 2050 and 90 percent by 2090. “If emissions continue at current rates, I would expect skiing to be gone except for abbreviated seasons at high-elevation resorts—probably by mid-century, but definitely by later century,” Schendler says. Economically, SkiCo and other ski area operators are adapting by expanding their summer recreation offerings, Schendler says, from mountain biking to hiking to frisbee golf. SkiCo is also investing in hotels to diversify its income stream, and purchasing resorts across the country to hedge its bets. “You might have a bad snow year in Colorado, but a good snow year in California,” Schendler says. “So we’re diversifying our business nationally.”

Getting to Zero: Mitigation


s Coloradans adapt to keep life and water running amidst the signals of climate change, they’re also exploring ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate its impact. “In Colorado, water issues and potential shortages are one of the primary reasons that we have to deal with climate change,” says Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates and co-author of the 2017 report Colorado’s Climate Blueprint. “And if we want to avoid the worst impacts, we don’t have time to wait for technology to continue developing and getting cheaper before we act.” A U.N. report released in October 2018 found that many of the worst global impacts of climate change—from sea level rise to devastating heat waves to food shortages that spur refugee

fluent water fact

Colorado’s utilities are reshaping their electric generation portfolios. Coming changes include Xcel Energy's plans to retire four units by 2025 at Cherokee, Valmont, and Comanche power plants and to eliminate the company's carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Colorado Springs Utilities will retire three units at Martin Drake by 2035. And Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association will retire its Nucla Generating Station by 2022, and will either convert its Craig Station to natural gas by 2023 or retire it by the end of 2025.

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“Change happens slowly when you are relying on people to buy a new vehicle and they only do that every 10 or 15 years.” Stacy Tellinghuisen, Western Resource Advocates

Cars on I-70 wind across the state but not without impact. Transportation is Colorado’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind emissions from electricity generation.

Adobe Stock

crises—will occur with an increase in global average temperature of just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. (“Pre-industrial” is broadly defined as the period before humans began burning fossil fuels in the late 1700s.) The same report says, “Global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” And the fourth edition of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a report authored by over 300 scientists from 13 federal agencies and released in November of 2018, found that the fires, droughts, crop losses and other damage brought on by climate change could reduce the size of the U.S. economy by about 10 percent by the end of the century if nothing is done to reduce emissions. So what’s Colorado’s role? In July 2017, Colorado joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of governors committed to meeting the goal that the U.S. government set as part of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement: to cut U.S. emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Upon joining the alliance in July of 2017, then-Governor John Hickenlooper announced that Colorado would reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, cutting emissions from electricity by 25 percent by 2025 and reducing up to 2 percent of annual electricity sales by 2020 through efficiency improvements. Colorado emits most of its greenhouse gases through electricity generation, transportation and industry. Both before and following Colorado’s climate commitment, the state unveiled large-scale initiatives to cut emissions. In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the country to regulate methane emissions, a greenhouse gas about four times more potent than carbon dioxide. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of methane leaks found on oil and gas drilling sites fell by 52 percent, according to an August 2018 report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. At the utility level, Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) was established in 2004, making it the first voter-led RES in the nation, according to the Colorado Energy Office. Since 2004, the legislature has strengthened the RES three times. It now requires that investor-owned utilities generate 30 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and cooperative utilities generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewables by that year. It has the added benefit of minimizing water use in electricity generation, since producing renewable energy requires substantially less water than traditional coaland natural gas-fired power plants. Xcel Energy’s Colorado Energy Plan, approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission in August 2018, will cut carbon dioxide emissions from electricity by 60 percent by 2026 and boost renewables like solar and wind energy to 55 percent of the utility’s energy mix, exceeding the goal of the RES. In November, Xcel announced plans to cut H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


Come What May, Colorado Readies by Planning

Colorado’s variable climate coupled with the uncertainties and extremes projected under climate change could bring surprising conditions. But the state is ready to jump into action with plans that lay out how state agencies will adapt and respond to climate stresses. • COLORADO DROUGHT MITIGATION AND RESPONSE PLAN (updated in 2018) This plan aims to mitigate the impacts of water shortages. The plan outlines a regular process for drought monitoring, impact assessment, response to emergency drought problems, and mitigation of long-term drought impacts. • COLORADO’S WATER PLAN (published in 2015) The water plan is meant to serve as a roadmap that leads to a sustainable water future in which Colorado maintains a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment, and a robust recreation industry. The plan sets goals to address projected future water needs and measure progress toward those goals. It looks at the uncertainty of climate change and development in the state but in the context of addressing future water supply needs. • COLORADO CLIMATE PLAN (updated in 2018) This statewide set of policy recommendations aims to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to increase Colorado’s preparedness for climate change impacts. The plan identifies how climate change is projected to occur in the state and how it will affect the key sectors of: water, energy, transportation, public health, agriculture, tourism, and others. It identifies measures that are already being implemented to prepare for warming, as well as goals and policy recommendations to help each sector adapt and mitigate impacts.

carbon emissions across the eight states where it operates by 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. And Colorado Governor Jared Polis has advocated transitioning Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Transportation is Colorado’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, but will likely become the largest source as the electrical grid grows cleaner through the replacement of coal with renewable energy. “Transportation is the area that is going to be really challenging over the next 10 years,” says Tellinghuisen. “Change happens slowly when you are relying on people to buy a new vehicle and they only do that every 10 or 15 years.” Colorado’s government is working from several angles to reduce transportation emissions, including helping local governments encourage compact, dense and transit-oriented new developments designed to reduce residents’ vehicle miles traveled. In November 2018, the state’s Air Quality Control Commission voted to join 12 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting California’s strict fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles. In January 2018, Colorado also adopted a plan laying the groundwork for the construction of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations around the state to encourage Colorado drivers to use electric vehicles. (The Charge Ahead program administered by the Denver-based Regional Air Quality Council already covers up to 80 percent of the cost of an EV charging station for public or private entities). In May of 2019, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will weigh whether to adopt a zero-emissions vehicle program, which would mandate that a certain percentage of all cars sold in Colorado be emissions-free. Such mandates have helped induce carmakers to invest heavily in electric vehicles: General Motors announced in 2017 that it would have 20 models of electric vehicles on the market within six years, with the ultimate goal of transitioning to an all-electric fleet. Thanks to these initiatives, Colorado is roughly on track to meet its emissions reduction goals. Yet global and state commitments are not yet strong enough to limit warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 20 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

scientific body that produces U.N. climate change reports, says limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) will require reducing emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. Those targets are far more ambitious than what Colorado has adopted. There is no doubt that more aggressive emissions reductions would cost sectors like the coal industry. Yet as the National Climate Assessment points out, inaction on climate change has substantial costs of its own, including negative public health impacts from extreme heat and ozone, energy costs from increased air conditioning, and property losses from wildfires and floods— not to mention the many impacts of earlier and reduced flows, warmer winters, and reduced snowpack. When it comes to avoiding future warming, acting now could yield profound benefits by mid-century. On the Western Slope, the Aspen Global Change Institute projects that switching from the “high emissions” trajectory that the world is currently on to a “middle emissions” trajectory could cut projected end-of-century temperature increases by half. And in their 2017 paper on climate change and the Colorado River, Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck concluded that reducing emissions enough to lower future warming from 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit to 6.5 degrees could mean the difference between 40 percent less water in the Colorado River by century’s end and 25 percent less—neither of which is necessarily promising, but the improvement would make a difference. “Every step we take today is a good step,” Udall says. “Often times these steps toward reducing emissions have enormous co-benefits, like cleaner air and less mercury in our air and water. In many cases, we save money by moving to a cleaner energy system. Many of these things we are already pursuing, just not fast enough. The longer we wait, the more harm we do, so why not push hard now, reap all these benefits, and save the climate?” H NELSON HARVEY is a freelance reporter and editor based in Denver. He has written for Modern Farmer, High Country News and many other publications. See more of his work at nelsonharvey.com.

he 1930s Dust Bowl in southeastern Colorado offers a cautionary tale about agriculture at the intersection of rapid changes in temperature and precipitation. Homesteaders at the turn of the 20th century were drawn by the promise of free land. It worked well in the 1910s as rain was relatively plentiful and prices for wheat and other dryland crops soared because of war in Europe. Then prices fell, and desperate farmers broke out more prairie sod to plant even more crops. In the ’30s, hot and dry, dust-laden wind storms arrived, small at first, but intensifying each year until, by 1935, they lasted days at a time. Livestock were devastated. So were people. In Springfield, the Baca County seat, the morgue that March had six bodies, all victims of dust pneumonia, says the historian R. Douglas Hurt in “The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History.” Victims ranged from a 17-year-old girl to a 75-year-old man. Ill-advised land use was at the core of what the historian Donald Worster has called among the world’s worst ecological catastrophes. Improved rainfall along with swift government action—including creation of the 692-square-mile Comanche National Grassland


HOT & DUSTY Can healthy soils help climate-stressed crops?


A massive dust storm hits Springfield on Colorado’s Eastern Plains during the 1930s Dust Bowl. Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

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in southeastern Colorado—curbed the dust as the Dirty Thirties ended. It remains compelling testimony about the fragility of agriculture. Climate models today vigorously point toward hotter, probably drier times ahead for farmers and ranchers on Colorado’s Eastern Plains as well as in mountain valleys and on the state’s Western Slope. How agriculture may evolve as climate and associated water changes occur remains uncertain.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND AG CHALLENGES he 2015 Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study by the Western Water Assessment and Colorado State University tells of growing seasons lengthening between 8 and 32 days by 2040 and, by 2070, between 21 and 46 days. The 2015 report also suggests decreasing crop yields due to increased heat stress and increased severity of droughts. None of this is simple, though. Consider corn. It’s one of the three big crops in Colorado. Wheat, nearly all of it in dryland, has the most acreage at 2.26 million acres, followed by corn at 1.46 million acres— more than half of it irrigated—and hay at 1.44 million acres. Water needs for growing corn vary by location. It’s 27 inches at Burlington, but just 100 miles northwest at Akron, it’s 24 inches a year. Akron is


a little cooler, has humidity that is a little higher, and a growing season that is just a few days shorter. Going north in Colorado reduces the evapotranspiration rates while going south increases them. A 2012 paper in the journal Agricultural Water Management by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University lays out the complexities of water demand for corn in a warming climate. The scientists studied prospects for corn in eastern Colorado under four climate change scenarios. Corn, along with other crops, will benefit from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is essential for photosynthesis. Those benefits, however, will be more than offset by other manifestations of climate change, which will reduce yield, they concluded. “Climate change might not increase the total water demand of the crop, as commonly thought, because of the reduced duration of the crop-growing period and the effect of increased CO2 concentrations of decreasing the potential evapotranspiration demand,” they wrote. Adaptive measures can reduce or forestall these declines in yield. The mechanics of this reduced yield are explained by Joel Schneekloth, a water resource specialist with Colorado State University Extension. Schneekloth says the optimal temperature for growing corn is 85 degrees. At higher temperatures, corn plants begin to shut down. They don’t draw as much water, nor do the leaves

West of Springfield, Colorado, an abandoned home overlooks irrigated fields. 22 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

Allen Best

transpire moisture at higher levels. Water use may not increase because of the increased stress of heat, but production will likely fall. Less precipitation concerns Schneekloth more than rising temperatures. If less rain falls, then many crops will need more supplemental irrigation. In much of northeastern Colorado, that means mining the retreating Ogallala Aquifer even more extensively. Instead of pumping 13 to 17 inches of Ogallala water a year to get a corn crop, climate change-induced drought might require 21 to 26 inches a year of supplemental water to offset decreased precipitation, according to Schneekloth. Schneekloth is stationed at the U.S. Central Plains Research Station near Akron, 150 miles northeast of Denver and just a few miles west of where the Ogallala Aquifer begins. He’s responsible for researching water management resources and providing education in the South Platte and Republican River basins. The latter generally overlaps with the Ogallala. The two river basins account for 45 percent of Colorado’s agriculture production. Sales, over half from livestock, were estimated at $7.8 billion in 2017 by the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Farmers grow corn because of high market demand. That corn goes to many large feedlots, several of which accommodate 100,000-plus cattle, plus many substantial dairies and an ethanol plant. “If they have irrigation water, they will grow corn, because that’s what the market dictates out here,” says Schneekloth. Being risk averse, he says, farmers won’t change until they have to. When people ask about climate change and agriculture, Schneekloth reminds them of 2012, a record year for heat but also memorable drought. Akron got 8 inches of precipitation that year, half its average. “If the future climate is anything close to 2012,” he says, “everybody would pack their bag and get out of the country, because we couldn’t grow anything.”

ADAPTING ON THE FARM he added pressure posed by a warming climate may push some water-short growers to convert irrigated croplands to non-irrigated dryland uses. That process has already begun in the Republican River Basin. The Ogallala Aquifer interacts with surface waters there. To meet multi-state compact requirements, federal programs have incentivized voluntary retirement of irrigated lands. Near Burlington, in Kit Carson County, where the thinning aquifer can no longer sustain full irrigation, research focuses on what happens to the soil and its productivity when the land ceases to be irrigated. Meagan Schipanski, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, says in shifting to dryland, some crops can still be replaced by others with lower yields. Corn, for example, can be replaced by winter wheat. But sandy or highly erodible soils do not lend themselves to row crops and might better be returned to grazing pastures. “Irrigation can often cover up some of our soil management weaknesses, but as we have less water or as the climate warms and evaporation increases, or as we get more intense rainfall or drought, poor soil management will show up and limit our agricultural production,” she says. Schipanski and other researchers have been studying how to maintain higher organic matter in soils when less water is available for growing crops. Soil organic matter plays a critical role in how soil functions, affecting everything from nutrient cycling to the structure of the soils. It can have a huge impact on the ability of soils to take on water and hold it during drier times—or to absorb it during hard rains, instead of letting the water run off, eroding the land.


Courtesy NRCS by Tim McCabe

How soils are managed during a time of changing climate and declining groundwater may play a role in the success of cropping systems, says Schipanski. A 2018 paper Schipanski co-authored for the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment identified opportunities to intensify dryland cropping systems by reducing fallow periods, such as for wheat by integrating dryland corn, proso millet, sunflower and other crops. The result: improved soil carbon and overall profitability.

↑ Young soybeans sprout up in the residue of a wheat crop. This form of no-till farming protects the soil from erosion and helps retain moisture.

Schipanski leads a team that is evaluating how cover crops work in our water-limited region as a strategy for building soil carbon. That idea has gained much attention in more humid regions of the United States but hasn’t been as successful for dryland or water-limited crops. However, Schipanski’s team thinks cover crops will more likely succeed in semi-arid places like Colorado if they’re treated as forage crops that are grazed in the field as part of an integrated crop-livestock system. Still another option, which began gaining adherents broadly in the 1990s, is to adopt no-till or low-till practices by leaving more crop residue in the field under limited irrigation. These no-till practices add soil organic carbon and enhance water infiltration and storage while sequestering carbon, which helps mitigate climate change. The small increases in carbon of 20 percent or less can increase soil aggregation by 300 percent and also improve water infiltration, says Schipanski. Farmers and ranchers have already been adapting, says Trevor Even, a doctoral candidate at Colorado State University. He interviewed 20 people from rural Colorado to understand their responses to risks ranging from drought and hail to wildfire and extreme storms. Colorado is already transforming, he reports, most profoundly through people sitting down at tables and hashing out plans. Even’s grandparents ranch between Springfield and Lamar, at the XS Ranch. They still talk about the shadow of the Dust Bowl, a small climatic hiccup at the intersection of ill-advised agriculture practices. The rising heat and weather extremes predicted for coming decades will pose an even greater challenge to Colorado farmers and ranchers. H ALLEN BEST has set foot on three of Colorado's four corners and has been within a mile of the fourth. He has also tried to wiggle his toes in all of Colorado's rivers and creeks. In this latter ambition, he still falls short. He can be found at mountaintownnews.net. H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9



Home on the Range

Ranchers ready for a warmer future BY GLORIA DICKIE Like most industries, livestock production contributes to climate change. In the U.S., the agricultural sector contributed 8.4 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Draft 2019 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. Livestock are responsible for more than half of that, thanks in large part to the methane they release through enteric fermentation as burps and flatulence, key parts of the digestive cycle of ruminants, and waste. In 2017, methane emissions from enteric fermentation represented 26.4 percent of total methane emissions from all anthropogenic activities, making it the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S (though methane emissions only comprise 10.2 percent of all U.S. emissions). While they have an impact on emissions, livestock and producers will also be the victims of climate change, just like everyone else. A hotter climate will take a toll on vulnerable animals, ranchers, and their market. “There’s no doubt that our droughts have become more frequent,” says Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “Loss in forage and loss in production create a large-scale and fundamental change to the future of agriculture in Colorado. It has been very devastating to some people, and to others it has been quite expensive.” Cattle and sheep graze on rain-fed forage grasses on Colorado’s plains. Very little of this land is irrigated—and even if it were, the state’s irrigation water comes from diminishing mountain snowpack which was down 33 percent in spring 2018. That means when Colorado is in a drought, there’s less natural food available for livestock. To compensate, ranchers have the choice of either running fewer animals on their land, or subsidizing natural forage with hay from the market. However,

both of these options affect the bottom line, making them short-term solutions, untenable in the long-term. In a 2016 article in Colorado Water, Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute, predicts that warmer winter temperatures will improve the survival rates of newborn animals on the range. But in many situations that will mean less food will be available for cattle and sheep. At the same time, a warmer climate will bolster the invasion of weeds and woody plants on grazing lands, which are less tasty and more likely to create health problems for cattle, like lump jaw which arises from wounds inside the mouth and can cause animals to stop eating. Ranchers, therefore, are planning carefully for the future. “We do see a lot of things changing in the industry,” says Fankhauser. Ranchers are making greater use of technology, investing in the genetic selection of animals able to perform at their full potential in harsher environments. To increase climate resilience, ranchers are working to keep the rangelands healthy and not overgraze says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute. “It means using land efficiently when there is moisture, and staying off when there isn’t. It’s important to have stocking rates that make sense, and not try to get too much out of a piece of ground. Ranchers are smart. They know their livelihoods are dependent upon healthy rangelands.” For consumers, the solution to reducing methane emissions is not necessarily to forego their omnivorous tendencies just yet, says Kate Greenberg, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. “There is an incredible interdependence between humans, animals and the land that extends beyond methane emissions. Animals are integral to functioning ecosystems and natural cycles,” Greenberg says. “Many ranchers are experimenting with practices that increase the regenerative capacity of the land and the resilience of their operation. Eaters are a part of this work. This is a good chance to get to know your local rancher and help ensure we can keep up a secure food supply in a more uncertain future.” H

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Selected Livestock in 2013 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Selected Livestock in 2013

Beef cattle Beef cattle Dairy cattle Dairy cattle Swine Swine Poultry Poultry Horses Horses Sheep Sheep

Enteric Methane Enteric Methane Manure Methane Manure Methane Nitrous Oxide Nitrous Oxide 20 20

40 60 80 100 40 metric tons60 80 equivalent 100 Million of carbon dioxide Million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent

120 120

140 140

Across the U.S., beef cattle contributed 63 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock in 2013, according to the USDA U.S. Agriculture and Forestry Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990-2013. Enteric fermentation, or methane produced as a byproduct of digestion, comprised the majority of those emissions.

24 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

USDA U.S. Agriculture and Forestry Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990–2013

Leaders around the state are taking steps forward to tackle or adapt to climate change

What makes a climate-smart community


limate-smart communities, businesses, water districts and individuals are preparing for hotter and drier conditions in Colorado. They’re acknowledging that water is the most pressing long-term issue they will face and developing evidence-based strategies, plans and policies for resilience. These strategies come in many different forms—legislative action and policy, conservation plans, water plans, zoning regulations, building and landscaping codes, water rate setting, conservation incentives, watering restrictions, and more. “De-silo, de-silo, de-silo,” says Jeremy Stapleton, the Sonoran Institute’s director of climate resilience. That’s one of the core lessons he tries to convey through the Growing Water Smart program, in which the Sonoran Institute and the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy help individual

communities bridge their gaps between water management and land use planning to increase resilience. “We need each of us, ideally, aware and acting upon our awareness to solve this issue,” Stapleton says. How do communities get climate smart? One step is to work on demand-side water management. In the past, communities focused on meeting growing water needs by expanding their supply and securing more water, and while some of those methods have benefits, they do not address the root of the problem: growing demand. “[Demand management] is inevitable if we’re going to be resilient,” Stapleton says. For an effective demand-side approach, land use planning can be integrated with water conservation and efficiency through measures like increasing development density and implementing aggressive conservation programs. Of course, managing water demand isn’t the only element


of climate resilience. Communities are also rezoning and increasing preparedness for extreme events projected to become more frequent under climate change, like flooding and wildfire. Still others are packaging such adaptations together with efforts to mitigate warming through emissions reductions. While it is tempting to plan every last detail, leaving room for uncertainty is also a crucial step in the process of climate-smart resiliency planning, Stapleton says. “It really helps us have open, honest conversations about the futures we fear, those we want, and those that might come, despite our best efforts.”

H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


↑ As the City of Westminster updates both its comprehensive plan and water supply plan in 2019, it is focusing on smart water use to meet the needs of new growth and development.



hile climate change will likely intensify municipal water needs, strategies to incentivize conservation, reuse and smart land-use planning can lessen the need. Perhaps the premiere example of such practice in the state is the City of Westminster, located in the South Platte Basin northwest of Denver. With a population of about 112,000, the city has made a name for itself with its integration of land use and water management. Westminster’s tap fees are designed to be proportionate to each customer’s projected water use based on an analysis

26 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

of utility billing accounts sampled from around the city. The analysis, begun as part of the city’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan, helped Westminster understand how water is being used and by whom, says Sarah Borgers, water resources and quality manager for Westminster. For its 2019 comp plan update, Westminster is planning an even bigger analysis of more than 33,000 accounts to “really understand” how water is being used across the city, Borgers says. Proposed developments can be rejected if they are projected to need more water than the city can accommodate, says Andrew Spurgin, principal planner for the city. Tap fees in Westminster are calculated separately. Indoor fees factor in the size of the meter and a water fee proportionate to the customer’s projected water use. In addition to being charged based on surface area, irrigation connections include high charges for water-intensive plants and discounts for low water use landscapes. Irrigators using reclaimed water get a roughly 20 percent discount compared to those using potable water. The tap fee and rate fee design has led to significant water savings, though the city does not have exact measurements of the program’s effects, Borgers says. Westminster’s city planners and utility

staff have worked together for a long time, most notably in the early 2000s, Spurgin says. That included the 2004 Comprehensive Plan, which was the first time the city tried to match up its land use and water supply. In fall 2018, city staff completed an update to the city’s water supply modeling effort that uses a tree ring record to extrapolate 1,000 possible futures for the city to determine “a percent reliability” that in each possible future, Westminster can supply its population with adequate water. “Based on this analysis we now know that the 1950s drought of record for Westminster was really only an ‘average worst’ drought for a 70-year study period. We will see worse droughts in the future,” Borgers says. The information could help the city make changes to its longrange planning, as well as direct shortterm operational decisions, she says. Westminster will complete its new water supply plan around the end of 2019. “We’re in a very interesting place right now, because we do have limited resources when it comes to water supply,” Borgers says. “In the next [comprehensive plan] update, we’re focusing on, how do you take those limited resources and use them to the best of our ability?” Courtesy City of Westminster

Eagle River Water and Sanitation District GETTING WATER SMART IN A TOURIST TOWN


he Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which covers about 54,000 acres of Eagle County and includes the resort town of Vail, is working on a new era of water supply planning, spurred by more frequent and severe droughts. The district and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority have two of the most complex public water systems in Colorado and face operational challenges such as seasonal variations in supply and demand, limited space for facilities, and rugged topography, states the Eagle River Regional Water Efficiency Plan, which was released in 2018. “We’re starting to realize our water supply is a little more vulnerable than we thought it was,” says Eagle River Water and Sanitation District general manager Linn Brooks. In summer 2018, the community saw record-low streamflows that were about 50 percent of normal, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District staff say. Streamflows were lower, even, than the previous record set during the extreme drought of 2002. The new 2018 water efficiency plan has taken the region’s water-smart work to another level by incorporating demand management in a way that works for the community. As a result of its new plan, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District is making carefully targeted appeals to its customers to reduce their water use, with the goal of keeping streamflows high Zach Mahone

↑ The Eagle River Regional Water Efficiency Plan is taking a demand-management angle. Reduced water use will mean higher streamflows to float Eagle County’s outdoor recreation and tourism economy.

enough that they remain attractive for outdoor recreators, which are crucial to Eagle County’s tourism economy. While approximately 95 percent of water used indoors is returned to surface waterways, only about 30 percent of water used outdoors is returned to the stream or river, according to the regional water efficiency plan. During the summer of 2018, the district made an appeal to residential customers to voluntarily cut back 25 percent of their outdoor water use, later escalating to fines for the top 7 percent of outdoor water users. The small district population—around 20,000 in off-peak tourism seasons—makes it

possible for the district to personally follow up with users and coach them on bringing their use into compliance, Brooks says. The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District’s methods are not so much about making residents use less water as helping residents waste less, with the environment as the beneficiary, says Amy Vogt, community relations specialist for the district. And, residents generally agree with the goals: The district’s takeaway from the project so far has been that their management of that water is very much in alignment with the values of the community, Brooks says. H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9




cel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station, located about three miles southeast of Pueblo, will send two of its coal-fired units to an early retirement by 2026. While the decision to decommission the units before their planned date frees up thousands of gallons of water used to cool the generators, it also serves as a climatesmart move for the local community and beyond by significantly reducing emissions. Pueblo lies at the confluence of Fountain Creek with the Arkansas River about three miles east of Pueblo Reservoir, from which the city of about 112,000 draws most of its water. Comanche Station uses about 13,000 acre-feet of water per year for its three units, leased from the city. When the first two units at the station close,

that amount of water will be reduced by approximately 40 percent, says Mark Stutz, a spokesperson for Xcel. Current water use at the Comanche plant is between 70 and 80 percent consumptive, with some variability due to the weather, Stutz says. The Pueblo Board of Water Works leases this water to Xcel, revenue that helps lower water rates for Pueblo’s other customers. With 40 percent less water leased, Pueblo’s water rates could increase slightly, but it depends how the saved water is used. Exactly what will happen is not public information yet, says Alan Ward, water resources division manager for Pueblo Water—but Xcel and Pueblo Water plan to meet during the first quarter of 2019 to discuss the water situation in greater detail. In addition to its water benefits, Xcel’s move to decommission will both cut emissions from Comanche’s electricity generation by 60 percent and boost solar and wind energy to 55 percent of the utility’s overall energy mix, Stutz says. In December, Xcel announced a new goal of delivering 100 percent carbonfree electricity to its customers by 2050, and an 80 percent reduction by 2030. Notably, in a news release, Xcel stated it “believes that its 2030 goal can be achieved affordably with renewable energy and other technologies currently available,” with the caveat that reaching 100 percent will require technological advances. Xcel plans for approximately 55 percent of its generation to come from renewable resources by 2026, and plans to take advantage of federal tax credits for the renewables. Seizing the opportunity while it is available helped drive the decision to decommission the two Comanche units, Stutz says. “The drivers behind the decision were much larger than just the two units’ early retirements—economics, lower customer bills, use of new technologies for new, clean energy resources, and the fact that our customers want us to pursue renewable energy,” Stutz says. “We are well beyond the state mandate at this point.”

←Two of the units at Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station outside of Pueblo, Colorado, will be retired by 2026, lowering emissions and reducing water use. 28 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

John Wark

← After the September 2013 flooding in Lyons, residents and volunteers shifted into recovery mode, but the town wanted to build back smart. Lyons developed a plan and rebuilt in a way that should boost resilience in the event of future floods.



he September 2013 floods devastated northern Colorado more than five years ago. Particularly affected was the small town of Lyons on the north end of Boulder County in the South Platte River Basin, situated at the confluence of the North and South St. Vrain creeks. Residents called the 2013 disaster the worst ever in the town’s history. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed, infrastructure was damaged and the water rushed through town with such force that it changed the geomorphology of the St. Vrain corridor. Extreme weather events happen, wrote scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and the

Kenneth Wajda

University of Reading in a 2015 article for the journal Nature Climate Change. But, in a future where the climate is warming, extreme events are likely to be more frequent, and factors related to a warmer climate are likely to make things worse. While climate change is not solely to blame for the 2013 floods, it played a significant role: between Sept. 12-13, 2013, Denver saw its three highest total column water vapor amounts on record for September due to a “very unusual” situation in which warm water off the west coast of Mexico fed a large amount of moisture into the storm that ended up over Colorado, intensifying the storm and causing heavy rains, the article says. With the expectation that future floods may be more frequent and severe, Lyons’ recovery effort has from the beginning included long-range resilience planning for the St. Vrain Creek. The town incorporated river restoration goals into its Long-Term Recovery Action Plan, which residents began to develop just three months after the flood, says Toby Russell, sustainability coordinator for the Town of Lyons. The plan aimed to boost resilience in the event of future floods by building new erosion

infrastructure, making improvements to slow stormwater runoff throughout the watershed, working to establish an intentional floodplain with gentler slopes along the river’s re-engineered banks, and replanting native vegetation. Prior to the flood, the St. Vrain corridor exhibited some poor flood management characteristics, like channeling close to housing, Russell says. Lyons’ attention to long-term river health exemplifies a climate-smart response to a multi-faceted disaster situation, and the response was locally supported. In a combination of progressive action and mountain realism, over 500 townspeople—a full quarter of the town’s population—contributed in some way to the flood recovery plan, Russell says. Residents realized that prioritizing riparian health will mitigate the effects of potential climate changefueled flood events in Lyons, saving the town money and potentially saving lives in the long run. While an example of a community focused on resilience, Lyons isn’t the only town in Colorado preparing for the next flood or extreme event. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs has developed the Colorado Resiliency Resource Center with resources, learning opportunities, and examples of community resiliency frameworks available online at www.coresiliency.com. H JULIA RENTSCH has a degree in Journalism and Global Environmental Sustainability from Colorado State University and is based in Fort Collins. When not writing about water, she is the city reporter for the Loveland Daily ReporterHerald.

TAKE THE NEXT STEP Connect with and learn from other towns that are advancing climate action planning with the Compact of Colorado Communities at https://bit.ly/2t7lu39. H E A DWAT E R S S P R I N G 2 0 1 9


Pulse ← A green roof tops Zeppelin Station in Denver. Developer Kyle Zeppelin began developing green-roofed buildings long before Denver voters moved to require them.

Denver’s green roof law has implications for water and climate BY JERD SMITH When Denver voters said yes to a green roof ordinance in 2017, one requiring commercial buildings to be capped with trees, native grasses and herbs, the emphasis was on cooling the city’s atmosphere and reducing the amount of energy needed to heat and cool buildings in its rapidly growing urban core. But water conservationists were worried the ordinance would require vast amounts of water to irrigate the new green space. That fear, however, proved to be unfounded, according to Denver Water planner Austin Krcmarik. “We were nervous,” he says. 30 • W A T E R E D U C A T I O N C O L O R A D O

“But after our review, we’re pretty comfortable with it. Now we see it as a benefit.” The ordinance, formally adopted by Denver City Council Oct. 29, 2018, after it was extensively reworked, requires most new, large commercial buildings to incorporate green roofs. But the new version also allows building owners to use white membrane roofs instead when they also add offsite solar and green spaces to achieve the same climate goals. Draft rules dictating how the ordinance will be implemented were slated to be adopted in February. With the addition of nonplant-based alternatives to the

new ordinance, Denver Water estimates that water needed to implement the law each year will drop nearly in half, from 577 acre-feet to 310 acre-feet. An acre-foot equals roughly 326,000 gallons. The idea behind green roofs is that the installed plants prevent temperature fluctuation inside the builidng and cool surrounding air temperatures through evapotranspiration, the process by which plants give off some of their moisture as they grow. A 2017 study by researchers at Colorado State University on a commercial green roof in Denver showed that it reduced summertime

heat flux, a measure of temperature over time, by as much as 50 percent over a traditional black roof. The plantings on green roofs also make managing stormwater easier. Plants clean stormwater and slow the flow of runoff, reducing pollutants as the water migrates to the South Platte River. Denver is currently home to roughly 50 green-topped commercial buildings, according to the city. That makes it a small player in the world of green roofs, according to Stephen Peck, executive director of the trade group Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. While that could change with the new ordinance, the law’s rewrite likely means Denver won’t claim a spot on the group’s list of cities with the most green roofs any time soon. That distinction goes to Washington, D.C., which has more than 1 million square feet of commercial office space capped with trees and grasses. “It’s a step forward, but it’s not leading edge in terms of living building architecture,” Peck says. “Since the compromises have been made to make it easier for existing buildings to contribute to the policy goals—reducing the heat island, making green space more available—I would say it no longer falls in that category. I’m not saying they are wrong, it’s just not leading edge.” H This story originally appeared in Fresh Water News, an initiative of Water Education Colorado. Read Fresh Water News online at watereducationcolorado.org. Jerd Smith



Our members get what’s at stake!


his issue’s shout out goes to our newest member, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. “Our Board overwhelmingly supported contributing to WEco,” says manager Steve Anderson. “We have a sense that the next few years are going to be very critical to the Uncompahgre Valley.” Citing the need to fund the Colorado Water Plan and ongoing discussions around Colorado River drought contingency planning, Anderson believes an educated public is more important than ever and he appreciates WEco’s programs. “We need to not only inform the people who are making the decisions now, but also inform the younger generations who are coming along.” The UVWUA was formed to oversee the Uncompahgre Project, authorized as part of the original Reclamation Act of 1903. That project diverts more than 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from

MISSION: IMPACT Water Education Colorado is the leading organization for informing and engaging Coloradans on water. Through leadership training, educational resources, and programming, we are working toward a vibrant, sustainable and water-aware Colorado.



the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley. The water irrigates 83,000 acres of land, owned by 3,500-plus shareholders, and provides domestic water to Montrose, Delta and Ouray counties. We’re pleased to welcome the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association as a Basin-level member to ensure the continuation of our programs!

Respondents to our annual supporter survey who said WEco programs informed their water decisions in 2018




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Headwaters Spring 2019: What Will a Hotter Future Mean for Water?  

SPECIAL CLIMATE ISSUE: Colorado's climate forecast is more than that—climate projections are also water projections. The state's warming fut...

Headwaters Spring 2019: What Will a Hotter Future Mean for Water?  

SPECIAL CLIMATE ISSUE: Colorado's climate forecast is more than that—climate projections are also water projections. The state's warming fut...

Profile for cfwe