John Colson: New report reminds us it’s getting awfully dry
Hit & Run
A recent federal report, by the agency in charge of rivers and dams, shows clearly that it is getting drier every year out there, and the American Southwest seems poised for a type of drought-driven, economic Armageddon that most of us never imagined could happen here.
As I write this Monday, the snow is still falling, off and on, on Carbondale, but accumulating considerably lower amounts of snow over the past few days and leaving the Colorado Rockies with a far less robust snowpack than might have been, had climate change not grabbed the planet by the neck and squeezed.
On Aspen Public Radio, then Morning Edition local host has just cautiously predicted we might get some more snow showers out of this storm system, but she concluded with the basic projection that it will be warm and mostly clear today, with highs near 40 degrees.
And that’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite, America’s erstwhile most-trusted-man might have said, and the way it has been for a while.
For those who might not be paying attention to the weather and the snowpack, we have been suffering from a severe drought coupled with warming seasonal temperatures for nearly two decades.
We can see one result of this trend in the chronically shallow snow depths throughout the Roaring Fork Valley watershed, not to mention the astonishingly low depths of water at Lake Powell in Utah (behind Glen Canyon Dam) and Lake Mead on the border between Arizona and Nevada (behind Hoover Dam).
According to news stories, most recently a pair of articles in The Colorado Sun, an online publication that provides the best statewide news available these days, those two reservoirs are below half-full and not likely to see much improvement if the Colorado snowpack remains as pathetic as it is right now.
The two biggest reservoirs in the U.S., Powell and Mead, according to the articles, currently sit at 42% of capacity and 40%, respectively.
“And there’s not much water coming,” the articles declared portentously, citing the fact that inflow from the Colorado River (which feeds into both the aforementioned lakes) is projected to achieve only about 53% of normal, at best, and as low as 33% of normal at its worst.
I must point out that we have been here before, and have recovered miraculously, according to recollections from Jim Lochhead, head of the Denver Water Bureau, who once lived and worked as a water attorney in Glenwood Springs, which sits where the Roaring Fork meets the Colorado.
In the Colorado Sun story, Lochhead remembered that in 2013 his water specialists told him one midwinter day that the snowpack was dangerously low, and that the state needed 8 feet of snow just to get back up to average snow depth in the mountains.
“And within a few days it started to snow and sure enough we got 8 feet,” Lochhead said.
OK, miracles can save us from ourselves, occasionally, I guess.
But they’re not something we can count on, I’d say. And given the world’s reluctance to take radical action to combat global warming, side effects such as the shortening of the ski seasons and the available times of high-water on the rivers is just a sign of what’s to come.
At Lake Powell, over the 20-year period that started in 2000, officials report the lowest “in-flow” period recorded since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in the early 1960s, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversee the dams.
The Lake Powell Water Database website reports that the reservoir’s water level was at 3,577.71 feet above sea level as of Sunday. According to a recent Bureau of Reclamation report, if it drops below 3,525 feet, the dam will no longer be able to do its primary job, which is to generate electricity for more than 3 million customers downstream. That’s because the water level will have fallen below the intakes that carry water to turbines that harness the power of all that water.
Plus, the U.S. government stands to lose as much as $150 million per year for as long as the river fails to turn the turbines buried deep in the dam’s infrastructure.
Well, an astute reader might ask, what of it? What does all this mean to me in my day-to-day life?
If you’re living in the Central Rockies of Colorado, it could mean a whole hell of a lot.
For one thing, the declining annual snowpack, in fact, might ultimately be a kind of death rattle for the Colorado ski industry, or at least for those of the resorts that lack snowmaking capacity and depend entirely on Mother Nature.
No one can predict what might happen if the money related to skiing (about $4.8 billion in the 2013-14 season), which has become a mainstay in the state’s overall economy, either dwindles seriously or disappears.
Then there is the river-running industry — the rafters, kayakers and canoeists who, in 2017, contributed about $200 million to Colorado’s recreation economy, according to Colorado Business magazine — which could be severely hurt by low levels in our state’s rivers.
And in case you are not a recreation-industry worker, and think you could weather the economic storm brought on by the collapse of either or both industries discussed above, think again.
Before skiing and river-running took off in the middle of the 20th century, things were a lot quieter around here, with low-dollar economies to match, than they are now.
Again, there is no way of knowing how it could all pan out, and perhaps we’ll come up with some achievable solutions.
But right now, the portents appear gloomy, and if we don’t move quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions and be a little kinder to our planetary home, our future here might not be very pretty at all.