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Guest opinion: Why the California drought matters to Western Colorado

The Colorado River flows through Hot Sulphur Springs as seen last winter. West Slope water interests are concerned about the ongoing drought in California and the effect it could have on water use in the Upper Basin states.

The California drought is bad enough that it's getting attention in unusual corners. Dramatic drought headlines are being shared on social media by people who've never posted anything about water before.

Lots of people now know that it takes about a gallon of water to produce a single almond, although fewer realize that many other foods have an even bigger water footprint.

The reality just about matches the hype. California entered April with its lowest-recorded snowpack (just about gone), causing the California Department of Water Resources to declare that the state's drought is now "firmly rooted in its fourth consecutive year." The New York Times reported that groundwater pumping to compensate for lower streamflows and depleted reservoirs has dropped groundwater levels up to 50 feet in some places.

In response, California introduced its first-ever regulations that move towards limiting groundwater pumping, and then decreed the first-ever mandatory cuts in urban water use. Agricultural cuts had already been required by a simple lack of water.

“The reality just about matches the hype. California entered April with its lowest-recorded snowpack (just about gone), causing the California Department of Water Resources to declare that the state’s drought is now ‘firmly rooted in its fourth consecutive year.’”

So why does this matter to Western Colorado? One reason is that we share the Colorado River. Southern California relies on both the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada snowpack within California. Less water available within the state means more reliance on the already-stressed Colorado River.

For over 10 years, a combination of drought and over-use has led to ever-larger bathtub rings in the massive reservoirs of Lakes Powell and Mead. Failure to bring supply and demand into balance in California and the rest of the Lower Basin could eventually impact Colorado and other upstream states.

In addition to being upstream from California on the Colorado River, Coloradans are also downstream, in that much of our produce is grown in California. More severe cuts to irrigation could impact access and prices.

The drought in California could also contain a degree of foreshadowing for us. A major factor in the California drought is higher temperatures, which has exacerbated the impact of scanty rain and snowfall. A recent climate vulnerability study for Colorado indicated that climate models give a mixed story on whether Colorado will be wetter or drier in coming decades, but results are fairly consistent in forecasting hotter temperatures, which in turn lead to greater water demands by both crops and natural vegetation.

Finally, we may be able to learn something from how Southern Californians have responded to heightened competition for water. As in Colorado, farmers are the primary users of water in southern California, and as in Colorado, urban areas have a long history of seeking to take that water. In California, however, there's a longer track record of non-permanent transfers, where instead of "buying and drying" agricultural water, urban water providers pay irrigation districts to fallow a portion of their lands each year and send the un-used water to the cities.

A group of Western Colorado farmers and water providers recently toured southern California to learn more about these non-permanent transfers. The financial rewards to participating farmers are quite substantial, and the farms remain viable.

The tour was part of an effort by the Colorado River District and others prepare for the possible need to cut back on water use to prop up water levels in Lake Powell so that it can keep generating power. A key concern is to share the burden of any cut-backs equitably, and to provide adequate compensation for those who participate.

Watching how Californians deal with their water crisis through conservation and innovative water sharing practices could help us develop the tools to avoid our own crisis.

Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This column is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.