Feds now see Lake Mead levels sinking 20 feet lower by ‘19 than predicted just last month

 

Mead

The sensational news about record-setting snowpack in the Sierra Nevada of California and “atmospheric rivers” delivering over 1,000 percent of normal winter rainfall to Big Sur has disguised a much less-than-sensational record of winter moisture elsewhere in the West.

The winter snowpack on the western slopes of the Rockies – the source moisture for the Colorado River – is producing much less runoff than had been anticipated.

As a result, the federal Bureau of Reclamation now is predicting that Colorado River releases from Lake Powell into Lake Mead will be far lower than what the Bureau had anticipated in March of this year.

Indeed, the Bureau now is predicting a huge drop in Lake Mead inflows from those predicted just a month ago.

According to BOR’s June 24-Month Study , projected flows into Lake Mead most likely will result in water levels 20 feet lower on January 1, 2019 than the Bureau had estimated in its 24-Month Study released in May.

The May 24-Month Study prepared by BOR (based on the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center’s water supply forecast) concluded that on January 1, 2019, Lake Mead’s depth likely would be 1,096.77 feet.

Just one month later, the Bureau now is projecting Lake Mead’s surface level on that date at 1,076.53 feet, literally inches above the level that would trigger automatic delivery cutbacks, mostly to central Arizona’s allotment of Colorado River water.

The dramatic turn-around in anticipated water flow into Lake Mead is a direct result of disappointing expectations for water flow into Lake Powell upstream. Powell’s diminished inflows are due to a dry early spring and consistently warmer-than-average temperatures in the Rocky Mountain region through the spring.

The sudden drop-off of moisture in the wake of an extremely wet January and February was “the big game-changer,” said Jeff Inwood of the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ Colorado River Team.

“The spring snows stopped and it got warmer faster, so lots of the snowpack melted off.”

The severe drop-off in anticipated flows into Lake Mead represents a shocking turn-around in expectations for the near-term health of the great reservoir.

Scarcely more than a month ago, most water analysts were breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of years of drought and diminished Rocky Mountain snowpack.

Improved moisture levels this past winter, they believed, had pushed back a Day of Reckoning for Lake Mead. Better-than-average winter snows would prompt water releases from Lake Powell that would raise Mead levels above critical stages.

The anticipation of relief was so palpable, in fact, that some Arizona water users and managers began to believe that the state would have more time to deal with the “Drought Contingency Plan – Plus,” the intra-Arizona plan that, once approved, would spread water-delivery cuts among a wider swath of Arizona water users.

In fact, as recently as March, some analysts were talking openly of a possible “equalization” release this year from Lake Powell to Lake Mead – a comparatively enormous release of water, perhaps of more than 11 million acre-feet. John Fleck, the Water Resources Program director at the University of New Mexico, calculated in mid-March that if the heavy winter moisture held, Lake Mead “would rise 27 feet this year.” 

Fleck added that “it probably won’t” hold. And he was right. The June 2017 24-Month Study results have made that prediction official: the big 2017 water balloon now appears to have burst.

Modeling conducted by the Bureau in addition to the 24-Month Study in April indicated that there remained a 45% probability of Lake Powell operating in the Equalization Tier with a release from Lake Powell of greater than 8.23 MAF in 2018.

In March, water analysts were predicting a very healthy 10.4 million acre-feet inflow into Lake Powell off the Rocky Mountain watershed during the critical April-July runoff season.

Now? Updated June statistics indicate inflows to Lake Powell of just 8.3 million acre-feet, a drop-off of over 2 million acre-feet — more than the entire annual delivery of the Central Arizona Project’s allotment for its Maricopa, Pinal and Pima County customers.

“We’ve seen this before,” said Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, noting that some of the region’s driest winter seasons started out with hope-inspiring bursts of moisture. “We saw it as recently as 2012 and 2013.”

“Recent scientific studies have been predicting this would be more of what we could expect to see in the future,” Buschatzke said.

The diminished expectations of water flowing into Lake Powell directly impact expectations for the health of Lake Mead in the coming years.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s data analysis indicate that on January 1, 2018 – the period during which heavy Lake Powell releases were expected to give Colorado River water officials a “breather” – Lake Mead’s water level likely will be at just 1,080.49 feet, barely more than five feet above the shortage trigger of 1,075 feet.

The primary driver of those lower lake levels is the diminishing amount of water to be released from Lake Powell – down from an anticipated “equalization release” of 10.8 million acre-feet during Water Year 2018, as reported in May, to a “balancing release” of just 9.0 million acre-feet, as reported by the Bureau in June.

Arizona Department of Water Resources turns 37!

37th birthday

So what were you up to 37 years ago today?

If you’re a Millennial, the answer is existential: nothing, really.

But if you happened to have been the governor of Arizona at the time, you would have been spending June 12, 1980 at a signing ceremony for legislation that ultimately would be hailed as the most far-sighted set of groundwater-management laws in the country: The Arizona Groundwater Management Act.

As historian Desmond D. Connall, Jr., noted, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed the Act establishing “ambitious goals for water conservation and a complex regulatory scheme to achieve them.”

groundwater act signing

Enforcing that “complex regulatory scheme” would be us — the Arizona Department of Water Resources — which came into being with the same stroke of Gov. Babbitt’s pen, since one of the provisions of the Groundwater Management Act was that it should create a division of State government devoted to managing all that complexity.  Babbitt appointed Wes Steiner, at the time the executive director of the Arizona Water Commission, as the department’s first director.

Whether they celebrated with cake or not is a matter lost to history.

 

 

Water Resources director exchanges chip shots on water in Arizona on “For Love of the Game” sports radio show

For Love of the Game image

Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke appeared live Monday with Mike “Uncle Buck” Rafferty on NBC Sports Radio 1060 AM’s “For the Love of the Game” program. Uncle Buck wanted to talk water — specifically, the use of water by golf courses — with the director, who, for some reason, Buck insisted on referring to as “Thomas.”

Clearly a genuine, heartfelt fan of golf and the golf industry, Uncle Buck peppered the director with a lot of well-developed questions about the importance of wise water use and about the history of water management in Arizona. It was a fun interview. And for anyone curious about the extent to which golf courses now go to conserve water, an informative one.

As noted, Uncle Buck came to the 17-minute interview prepared with well-developed questions, especially considering how complicated water as an issue can be. In fact, their interview may represent the first time ever that a sports-radio talk-show host inquired about the complex genesis of groundwater management in Arizona. (Click here to hear the interview)

Groundwater documentary and discussion in downtown Prescott on Wednesday

Kathy Ferris

Groundwater expert and documentarian Kathleen Ferris, discussing her film on the creation of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act

It is always helpful to have a solid appreciation for the past before making big decisions about the future. Especially when the subject is water.

Prescott and surrounding northern Arizona communities are hard at work right now attempting to accurately analyze their water future. In March, the high country community, along with Salt River Project, agreed to conduct a refined groundwater-flow model for the Big Chino Sub-basin, which Prescott anticipates will be an important future water supply. The plan is to accurately assess the hydrogeologic connection of the Big Chino aquifer with the Upper Verde River.

The analysis is expected to be completed in 2020.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, the producers of a much-acclaimed documentary on the history of Arizona’s landmark groundwater-protection act — the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 — have scheduled a viewing of their film in downtown Prescott this week.

Kathleen Ferris, Senior Research Fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, and her movie-making partner, film producer Michael Schiffer, will host the presentation at the Elks Theater at 117 E. Gurley Street in Prescott on Wednesday evening.

Immediately following the 26-minute viewing, Ferris will host a panel discussion on the present-day issues facing Arizona’s water supply — including a discussion of what steps, if any, the Arizona Legislature ought to take to update the 37-year-old Groundwater Code.

The six-person panel will include Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Joining Buschatzke will be Greg Kornrumph of SRP, Sarah Porter of the Kyl Center, Yavapai County Supervisor Thomas Thurman, town of Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig, as well as Schiffer.

Doors open at 6 p.m. More information is available online at https://www.facebook.com/GroundwaterFilmScreeningandDiscussion

 

Panel recommends Arizona drought declaration continue for umpteenth year

Banner from Slide

It is, indisputably, the best weather show in Arizona all year.

Nothing against the fine work of Arizona’s TV weather forecasters and meteorologists, but the best two hours of weather analysis, climate analysis, near-term predictions, long-term predictions, precipitation, Colorado River flows and the various impacts of all of it is the report of the Governor’s Drought Interagency Coordinating Group.

On Tuesday, the panel of water-weather-climate-watershed experts concluded Arizona remains in a state of drought.

As they have consistently since 1999, the coordinating group’s members voted to make an official recommendation that a letter be sent to the Arizona Governor alerting him to that fact.

The recommendation will serve as the basis for an official drought declaration from Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Our outlook has improved and there have been a lot of proactive efforts to mitigate our (water) risks,” said Wendy Smith-Reeve of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. Together with Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, Smith-Reeve co-chairs the coordinating group.

“(But) while our short-term outlook is positive, long-term recommends we continue with a drought declaration,” she said. “This is not the time to stop pressing forward.”

Preceding that decision was some of the clearest and most precise weather-climate analysis provided anywhere in the state.

State Climatologist Nancy Selover and Mark O’Malley of the National Weather Service provided a near-term retrospective and near-term prediction, respectively, on the state’s weather.

Arizona State Climatologist Nancy Selover

A thumbnail: weather in the recent past has been a little wetter; weather in the near future, meanwhile, looks at least 50-50 to stay that way.

“Our monsoon picked up a lot of good activity, but for the short-term it still has been a little dry in the southern part of the state,” said Selover, analyzing the 2016 summer storm season.

Regarding the approaching summer monsoon season, O’Malley explained that the intensity of the rainy season will be determined by the “persistence” of a subtropical high-pressure system.

“If the high (pressure system) moves to the north (of Arizona), we get the moisture,” he said.

O’Malley said there is a “50-50” chance that conditions this summer will be ripe for the advent of a so-called “El Nino” weather pattern, which enhances the prospects of moisture in Arizona.

“Same for the (2017-18) winter,” he added.

As for air temperatures this coming summer, stow the sweaters: “It’s very favorable that we’ll be warmer than average,” he said.

Conditions at Lake Mead and on the Colorado River, meanwhile, are moderately improved from last year, continuing the trend of positive effects arising from the strong, early-winter snowstorms in the western Rocky Mountains, said Jeff Inwood of the Department of Water Resources.

Mark O’Malley of the National Weather Service

A warmer, “less wet” spring, however, kept the snowpack from fueling a banner-year runoff into the Colorado River system, said Inwood. Nevertheless, the good (if not quite ‘great’) news is that Lake Mead water levels stand now at about ten feet higher than at this time last year.

Inwood’s report, of course, directly impacts the on-going drama surrounding the chances that Lake Mead may descend to a depth that would trigger a water-delivery shortage declaration for Colorado River water users.

“As a result of the improved hydrologies, we are seeing decreased probabilities of a shortage,” said Inwood.

The report on Colorado River conditions dovetailed with the next presentation, a report on progress toward a drought contingency plan – including both inter- and intra-state agreements – by Water Resources Director Buschatzke.

Buschatzke, too, observed that “we’re in good shape going forward,” but reminded the audience that the chronic structural imbalance in Lake Mead remains. About 1.2 million acre-feet more water is extracted from the reservoir each year than on average flows into it.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke

Buschatzke updated the coordinating group on the progress of drought contingency planning negotiations.

The Water Resources director also reported that the Fiscal Year 2018 state budget recently passed by the Arizona Legislature included $2 million for each of the next three years for funding conservation efforts in Lake Mead.

Charlie Ester of Salt River Project reported that Arizona’s mountains enjoyed a wetter-than-average winter season, too. But not a record-breaker.

By mid-winter, SRP was crossing its fingers for a snowpack that might fill its premier reservoir, Roosevelt Lake. A dry April and snowfall that “didn’t slide” into the White Mountains — the main watershed for Roosevelt Lake – kept the big reservoir at just 76 percent of capacity, he said.

Still, inflow into Roosevelt wasn’t shabby: Prior to the winter snows, Roosevelt had dropped to just 44 percent of capacity. 

Charlie Ester, Salt River Project

The snowpack in Arizona’s Ponderosa pine country, meanwhile, was good enough to make the state’s approaching fire season “manageable,” said Jeff Whitney of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

In the forests, said Whitney, “we’re looking at a ‘normal’ year.”

“It’s not out of the realm of probability that we could have an upper-elevation fire,” he said. “But I see it being manageable.”

The real challenge, he said, would be in lower-elevation grasslands, which feasted on winter rains and now present a serious fire danger. Whitney noted the southern Arizona Sawmill Fire, which consumed 47,000 acres of mostly grasslands, as well as the smaller Mulberry Fire.

Thanks to the prospects of an earlier-than-average monsoon season, he said, “we are guardedly optimistic – with the caveat that we will have an elevated amount of lightning.”

At that, the co-chairs recommended – and the coordinating group unanimously supported – a recommendation of another drought declaration to be sent to the governor.

Real people, affected by real-world water policy, gather to talk about dealing with it

WFP 2

Western Farm Press, May 7, 2017

The talk about stabilizing Lake Mead and resolving chronic over-allocation of the Colorado River system tends to dwell at the 30,000-foot level.

It’s all about how cutbacks might affect the states. It’s about law and policy. About the consequences of inaction for millions of people and for industries, like agriculture, valued in the billions of dollars.

At some point, though, someone has to think retail. Someone has to contemplate the real-world, on-the-ground impact of what happens at the end of the irrigation canal for the end-user of Colorado River water that may no longer be flowing in quite the volumes that it used to flow.

Unsurprisingly, there are such people contemplating the consequences of the anticipated multi-state “drought contingency plan,” which at some point might result in cuts to Arizona’s allocation by hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of Colorado River water.

About 350 of them – mostly Arizona farmers and ranchers – recently attended the 2017 Irrigated Agriculture Conference, a one-day event in Tucson that this year included 33 speakers analyzing the kind of water-wise management practices that will work best when and/or if a shortfall is declared on the Colorado River system.

Speakers and attendees shared views on water-conservation strategies and water-wise cropping systems. Arnott Duncan of Duncan Family Farms, for example, told attendees how his irrigation system is specifically designed for the organic-vegetable crops he grows.

Speakers weighed the relative importance of balancing lower water-use crops with higher value crops to get the most bang for their farming buck.

The Western Farm Press story on the event can be found here.

A word about Western Farm Press: More than a mere niche publication, WFP has almost 19,000 subscribers and gets annual page-view counts approaching two million. The linked story above is typical of WFP: it reports on and analyzes farming issues from the point of view of the local farmer. It’s not just an “industry” publication. It’s a “how industry issues affect real people” publication.

Drought to continue in Arizona? We’ll find out tomorrow

May 2 2017 drought monitor report

The water-news cycle has drifted east all the way across the continent.

It seems like just yesterday the drought story was all about California. Now, the nation’s eyes have shifted all the way from the Left Coast to the Right Coast as drought worries have ebbed in the Land of Avocadoes, but have intensified in the Land of Grapefruit.

Not to be snowflake-y about it, but what about us and our needs? Arizona has been dealing with this drought phenomenon far longer than California and Florida combined.

The formal process to determine whether Arizona officially will enter its 18th consecutive year of drought is approaching.

The Governor’s Drought Interagency Coordinating Group will meet tomorrow, May 9, here at the Arizona Department of Water Resources (1110 W. Washington St., Phoenix, Suite 310, 10 a.m. – 12 noon). And while the details about Arizona’s climactic conditions no doubt will prove fascinating, the ultimate conclusions of the panel don’t look all that much in doubt.

Although dry conditions have ebbed, particularly through the most recent winter months, Arizona continues to see a substantial portion of its territory in drought. The drought portrait has improved considerably since early 2016 — only a tiny portion of southwestern Arizona remains in a “severe drought” condition, which is the second-highest drought category.

The coordinating group will report on drought conditions, Colorado River water-supply conditions and the weather outlook for the upcoming summer and winter seasons.

Parking is limited, so it helps to RSVP by email to ehenenson@azwater.gov. The meeting also will be available via phone and webinar.

To attend the meeting via phone and webinar: Call-in Number: 1-877-820-7831 / Passcode: 886948#

Web Meeting Link: https://stateofarizona.centurylinkccc.com/CenturylinkWeb/Verdes

At the end, the ICG will be asked to make a recommendation to Gov. Doug Ducey about whether or not he should keep the drought declarations currently in place.

Science and water: a more potable mix than you may have thought

science and water

Rhizobacteria illustration courtesy of artist Victor Leshyk and Rachel Rubin of Northern Arizona University’s  Center for Ecosystem Science and Society

Historically, the role of science in combating drought has been limited to relatively back-bench strategies like cloud-seeding, or to mitigating the effects of water scarcity through new and improved farming techniques that wring every drop of value from a drop of water.

That’s changing.

One of the most talked-about consumer items in the water business today is a solar product that pulls water vapor from the air, producing clean, potable water.

An Arizona State University spinoff company, Zero Mass Water of Scottsdale, is developing a consumer version of a wireless, stand-alone “drinking water solar panel” capable of producing two to five liters of drinking water per day.

Some marketing efforts are touting the solar water makers in the same way as energy-producing solar panels – that is, as a self-reliant means of escaping from the “grid.”

Its implications for clean-water-parched and impoverished corners of the world, however, may be even more substantial. Zero Mass Water recently told the Phoenix Business Journal that it sees itself and its customers as “water democratizers” — collaborators in a program to deliver the solar-panel devices to families “with no access to safe water who can’t afford a panel on their own.”

Mass production of the devices – which require little more than an air-filter replacement each year and a new mineral cartridge every five years – could mean that people who have never known dependable sources of clean water now could have it.

Meanwhile, researchers at Northern Arizona University recently published findings that certain bacteria can help mitigate crop loss due to drought.

NAU doctoral candidate Rachel Rubin recently told the Arizona Daily Sun about her work with rhizobacteria, a bacteria that strengthens plants in certain drought-stricken regions around the world. Rubin’s team is finding a 20-40 percent increase in growth in plants introduced to rhizobacteria, according to the Daily Sun.

“This is encouraging because it means that the places most vulnerable to climate change will benefit the most” Rubin told the Daily Sun.

Rubin’s research is finding that rhizobacteria promote plant growth even better under drought conditions than they do in a wetter climate.

Zero Mass Water of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Soggy Tucson: UA researchers find Old Pueblo gets more monsoon action than anywhere else

california-rainstorm

What happens in Tucson appears to stay in Tucson — at least when the things “happening” in the Old Pueblo are the effects of strong summer thunderstorms.

Tucson and southern Arizona get more Wagnerian excitement –– and suffer more economic harm — from severe “monsoon” storms than any other Southwestern metropolis, according to a pair of researchers from the University of Arizona.

At over 6.08 inches of rain falling during the hot, muggy monsoon season, Tucson leads the Southwestern pack. It gets nearly an inch more than the next soggiest community, El Paso, and easily twice as much as that place north of the Gila River, metro Phoenix.

Like Phoenix, Tucson is an extraordinarily stable environment. It is not in an earthquake zone. Hurricanes rarely make it to southern Arizona intact. And damaging winter weather is a non-starter. There’s a good reason why the local chambers of commerce tout the climate.

Indeed, the report’s authors go out of their way to note that “Tucson’s weather also provides opportunities for economic activity, including a vibrant winter tourism economy and growing solar industry across Southern Arizona.”

And, really, in an environment that in recent years has endured chronic drought, the main effect of summer monsoons is a big attraction. We like water falling in great gobs from the sky.

But something has to top every community’s list of “most damaging” weather effects, even if those effects themselves are comparatively modest.

In Tucson, it’s those often-sensational monsoons, which according to UA researchers Laura A. Bakkensen and Riana D. Johnson account for 84 percent of all “extreme” weather events there and 96 percent of all property losses.

Notably, the Bakkensen/Johnson white paper did not include the net impact of long-term drought.

On the other hand, it did illustrate the most effective ways to mitigate the impacts of those unpredictable monsoons, most of which Southwesterners already “get.”

Like not driving on Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix when it gets dark and windy. Like not pushing the limits of “stupid driver” laws by driving into running washes after summer storms. And, not least, buying a little home and car insurance.

A water drop’s journey: A Las Vegas newspaper produces a splendid, little video on how a desert city’s water gets where it needs to be

screenshot

Just what does it take to quench the thirst of two million people living in the middle of a desert?

Especially in these drought years, news media have become adept at telling us what it takes to deliver water to communities — what it takes to quench the thirst of desert-dwellers and others in the Southwest.

The Las Vegas Review Journal recently did a marvelous job of showing readers — rather than merely telling them — precisely what it takes for a drop of water to exit Lake Mead (Sin City’s primary water resource) and travel to a residential water faucet.

Produced by Rachel Aston of the Review-Journal, the video starts with that basic question — “What does it take to quench the thirst of two million people” living in the middle of a desert? — and escorts viewers on that journey.

(For traditionalists, Review-Journal reporter Henry Brean provided a story about the water-journey, too)

The water-journey video starts in Lake Mead (actually, the video includes a shot or two of the Colorado River, too) and moves with the water through the 20-foot-tall, 3,000- and 4,600-horsepower pumps that draw the water to one of the city’s two treatment facilities. It depicts the cleansing and filtration systems, as well as the various means by which the water is delivered to homes and businesses. And, we assume, casinos.

The video is just a little over two minutes long, but it depicts all of the essential infrastructural elements of water delivery that everyone should understand, but in fact a very few number of us actually do.