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Climate and Water: The Shifting Hydrograph


Researchers say climate change is already effecting Colorado farms and ranches-but not necessarily in the way people might expect. Because the state is so dry, farmers here rely on irrigation to raise their crops. But they, and climate researchers, are less concerned about there being enough water than when that water will be available. As Maeve Conran reports for our Connecting the Drops series, climate change means spring runoff is coming earlier, and that creates new challenges for farmers.  


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Mark Guttridge farms organically in Longmont in East Boulder County on Ollin Farms. "In 2012 we were
in a drought year and it got hot really early just like it did this year in June.  By the end of August, by the
very end of August and early September there was hardly any water coming down there so we did lose
crops on that side that year, all our winter squash didn't have time to finish off so we lost a lot of winter
squash and pumpkins that year."
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 Ollin Farms uses drip irrigation on these late summer and fall crops of cucumbers, radishes, beets and
root crops. The farm irrigates with a mixture of municipal water and ditch water. 
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 Jeff Lukas, is the research integration specialist for Colorado and Wyoming with the Western Water
Assessment, an applied research program at CU Boulder, part of CIRES. In 2014, Lukas led the revision of
the WWA’s 2008 
Climate Change in Colorado report with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

"We have the most confidence that the annual cycle of snow melt and run off continue to shift earlier,"
Lukas says. "We’ve seen a trend toward earlier spring snow melt and run off over the past 30 years or so
and the projected warming which we have very high confidence in means that that run off will continue to
shift earlier and then the low stream flows that we naturally get in late summer will also expand their
season and so we’ll see even lower summer stream flows."

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Kim Hutton is a water resources engineer with the City of Boulder. About 70 percent of the water that the
city uses comes from surface waters falling as rain or snow in Middle Boulder Creek or North Boulder
Creek, the remaining water comes from the Colorado River, Western Slope Water, which is also surface
water, so 100 percent of the city's water supply comes from precipitation falling as rain or snow. Hutton
says that due to the city's storage capacity, they might be on the winning end of the equation with earlier
snow melt. 

"It actually may work to our benefit  in that the water supply is available and based on our water rights,
we're able to fill our reservoirs earlier in the season than we would be under today's conditions," Hutton

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Taryn Finnessey, is the Climate Change Risk Management Specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“Colorado has always had a variable climate, and we will continue to always have a variable climate but we feel that the earlier shifts in the run off can be directly attributed to climate change," Finnessey says.


Take the Next Step: Read & Get Involved

The Colorado Foundation for Water Education wants to help you speak fluently and get involved with climate and Colorado's Water future. Check out the following: 


Connecting the Drops Partners

Connecting the Drops is a radio collaboration between Water Education Colorado and Colorado Community Radio Stations KGNU, KDNK and KRCC.


 Support for 2017 programming comes from CoBank

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