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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Climate Extremes

by Laurie J. Schmidt

The art and science of disaster aversion

“Surprise—we got more water than expected!” Those words headlined a recent article written by Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken highlighting the wet spring and summer of 2009. But Doesken and other seasoned Coloradans aren’t naive. They understand that premature expectations are a dangerous thing to embrace in a state characterized by climatic extremes. One year’s wet season, accompanied by hot temperatures, can spawn catastrophic floods—only to be followed the next year by drought conditions that make one wonder how there could have ever been enough water for a flood.

Colorado’s mid-continent location places it at the whim of competing natural forces, including moisture from the Gulf, storms that originate in the Pacific, and polar fronts from Canada. The results of these atmospheric battles largely determine the amount of precipitation that will fall and whether it will be a wet, dry, or average year.

Although agencies monitor snowpack throughout the winter to estimate spring runoff, a more influential variable in the equation is often spring weather, which can change everything. “You get these different forces competing with one another, and you never know which one is going to win,” says Neil Grigg, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University. “You can’t really forecast accurately very far into the future because there isn’t enough regularity to it.”

The state’s water supply at any given time or location fluctuates between the extremes of too much water and not enough—each scenario demanding different levels of preparedness and action. When it comes to the task of hazards planning, the state has a full spectrum of variables to juggle.

To assist with drought or flood planning, the Colorado Water Conservation Board provides technical assistance to local communities, supplying them with information to help them implement projects for public safety and property protection. “The state’s role is to facilitate the flow of information so that folks get the right information at the right time and recommendations on how to respond to it,” says Veva Deheza, section chief of the CWCB’s Office of Water Conservation and Drought Planning. “But in the end, we really have no ability to dictate the response—that’s all done at the local level. We can’t ‘fix it’ when a water provider runs out of water.”

Too little, too late

Running out of water is completely within the realm of possibility. At least five major droughts have occurred in Colorado during the past 100 years: at the turn of the last century, during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, 1952 to 1956, 1974 to 1977, and the most recent from 2001 to 2004. Really, according to Doesken, in about nine out of ten years, drought conditions are present for at least part of the year in some portion of Colorado. “You rarely go for long periods without significant or extreme drought,” he says. “Even in the good times, we’re usually walking a fine line before the next drought.”

One of the “good times” occurred in the late 1990s when the state experienced one of the wettest periods in its recorded history. That was followed by a couple of dry years—and then came 2002. As an individual year, Doesken says 2002 approached a worst-case drought scenario: It was preceded by several dry years so reserves were already drawn down, and then a poor snowpack winter was followed by an extremely dry spring and summer. “Most of the major water providers made it through 2002 with enough water,” says Doesken. “What was really looking terrible was 2003.” But in March 2003, a reprieve came in the form of a three-day storm that dropped 30 to 40 inches of snow on most of the Front Range. “That storm essentially said to us, ‘Here—you’ve got another year to think about it,’” says Doesken.

And think about it we did. “2002 was a huge wake-up call, and Colorado hasn’t been the same since,” says Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute. That drought was the catalyst for a huge sea change in Colorado water, says Waskom, evidenced by the amount of water being purchased and transferred, the recognition of groundwater over-appropriation in some basins, concerns about dry-up of agricultural lands, the implementation of permanent conservation programs and so on.

Also as part of that wake-up call, people began to question whether the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, a blueprint for assessing and responding to drought statewide, was sufficient to address current drought scenarios, says Deheza.

Now, the CWCB is leading a comprehensive update of that plan. First developed in 1981 at Gov. Richard Lamm’s behest, the drought plan was updated last in 2007 to comply with Federal Emergency Management Act guidelines. Deheza says the 2010 update will be a complete overhaul. The revised plan will look at drought impacts, and it will focus heavily on assessing the state’s vulnerability to drought.

“When you talk about drought planning, you’re talking about identifying triggers and indices around the state that help you monitor for drought conditions and do a better job planning for them,” says Deheza. A drought trigger is a specific indicator that activates a management response, such as a reservoir level dropping to less than 50 percent of its storage capacity.

In 2002, fire was the trigger that got everyone stirred up about drought, says Waskom. “The spring rain never came, and it got hotter and hotter. Forest Service staff would come to our task force meetings literally smelling of smoke,” he recalls.

The 2010 revision will include an evaluation of all drought triggers. “The first drought plan was written back in the 1980s,” says Deheza. “We’re asking, ‘Are there other triggers that are better indicators now? Are there new tools to help states do a better job of monitoring drought?’”

The monitoring mechanism of the drought plan is carried out by the state’s Water Availability Task Force, an inter-agency team convened by the governor that meets regularly to share information on monitoring tools, impacts and climatology. To carry out its monitoring role, the task force uses tools such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL (SNOpack TELemetry) measurements, the Palmer Drought Index, and Statewide Water Supply Initiative reports.

“A big part of the task force is looking at climatology far enough ahead so that Colorado isn’t caught off guard by the next drought,” says Waskom, who sits on the agricultural impacts sub-task force under the umbrella of the larger team. “You can’t wait until the fires are burning and you’re in the midst of it.”

Despite the existence of the drought plan and the task force, Deheza says Colorado has a long way to go when it comes to drought planning. “We as a state and as a citizenry should know that drought is part of a semi-arid environment, and yet we’re still not prepared even for the natural variability that occurs in the system.”

Studies show that communities with active conservation programs are better positioned to endure periods of drought, and encouraging such programs is part of Deheza’s job. But it’s important to recognize the difference between water conservation and managing for and responding to drought. “A drought is an extreme situation that calls for some pretty onerous restrictions,” says Deheza. “You’re asking for a quick and immediate response, and that usually requires you to put regulations in place.” But in a planning situation, she says, you try to motivate people to take actions that go beyond just turning off the tap.

Too much, too fast

Water shortage wasn’t the problem in Fort Collins on July 28, 1997; it was too much water—and no place for it all to go. Over a two-day period, intense rainstorms channeled a deluge of water down narrow Spring Creek. It was a catastrophic flood that claimed five lives, destroyed a residential trailer park, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Colorado State University campus. Should we have been caught off guard? Just 20 years earlier, the Big Thompson Flood left 144 people dead and caused more than $35 million in property damage—it was Colorado’s deadliest natural disaster.

Flash floods are another regular part of Colorado’s water cycle, but flood forecasting is also a science fraught with variables, and Grigg says our predictions have not been very good. “You can look backwards and study the statistics, and you can nail the average recurrence interval, but you can’t say when the next flood is going to happen.”

What we can do, Grigg says, is reduce vulnerability. “On the vulnerability side, a lot of things change,” says Grigg. “More people live in areas that are flood-prone, and dams also weaken over time. Is the state prepared? Are we doing emergency drills?”

Floodplain maps are a key tool in addressing vulnerability. Used by insurance companies, the National Flood Insurance Program, and local governments, the maps assist in evaluating the level of flood risk to homeowners and in determining where development should occur. “Accurate floodplain mapping is truly the foundation for a solid floodplain management program,” says Tom Browning, chief of the CWCB’s Watershed Protection and Flood Mitigation Section. “When you don’t have accurate maps, it makes it very challenging for local floodplain administrators to do their jobs.”

In 2003, FEMA launched an effort to update floodplain maps throughout the country. Now, the CWCB is spending $1.5 million in matching funds for FEMA’s grant dollars on the Colorado Map Modernization Program. “If you look at the flood maps from most parts of the country, they’re from the 1970s and 80s, and these are paper maps,” says Thuy Patton, state map modernization coordinator at the CWCB, which is leading Colorado’s modernization effort in all but the Denver metro area. “Since then, a lot of development has happened, and the maps haven’t been updated.” 

FEMA’s initial objective was to convert the paper maps to digital format, but as the project progressed, technical errors and missing information in the existing maps came to light. “Now the emphasis is on not only updating the maps, but also on correcting the mistakes and making sure the maps reflect the true risk,” says Patton.

While the modernization program will go a long way towards accurately identifying flood-prone areas, Grigg says we still need to be prepared for catastrophe. “A worst-case scenario would be a major flash flood that strikes in a steep area and triggers a dam failure or urban flooding that causes more disruption than we’ve ever seen.”

“Most of us see these rare disasters as probably not likely to happen in our lifetime,” says Browning. “But the Spring Creek and Big Thompson floods showed that these large events can and do occur, and they can exceed what the minimum design standard is in the floodplain management world.” The current building standard is a design that can withstand a 100-year flood event, but Browning says the CWCB endorses a higher design standard—for a 500-year flood—for critical facilities, such as hospitals and fire and police stations. But, he adds, there is the cost of infrastructure to consider coupled with whether the public values stronger building structures enough to pay the price with its tax dollars.

Doesken says societal values will always influence how the state’s water is used, both in times of plenty and times of scarcity. “You have to understand the tradeoffs,” he says, noting that prioritizing certain uses inevitably limit someone’s ability to do something else. And Colorado’s steep population projections point to a balancing act that will only become more precarious. Not only are Coloradans at risk as development pushes—and is allowed— into the floodplain, but a form of cultural drought—too many people depending on too little water—will make us more vulnerable to natural climatic drought cycles.

The CWCB Director’s Report for its July 2009 board meeting stated that water supply conditions have continued to improve statewide and that June 1 reservoir storage data show “the highest positive departure from average volumes since late summer of 1999.” But this is one of those times that Doesken refers to as “the good times,” and it won’t last. “Drought keeps showing up, and every couple of decades it shows up really ugly,” he says. “Any of the large water providers will tell you: You string three drought years in a row, and that’s a worst-case scenario. We do not have four-year capacity.”

It seems the CWCB would agree. “We feel confident that we will be seeing a lot more 2002 years happening,” says Deheza. “And quite frankly, we are not geared up for that.” 

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