FEATURE: Precious Drops

By on June 14, 2017

How the parched West relies on Wyoming’s water.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Mike Reid stands alone, looking at a swollen field of saturated wheat rows and snowmelt. The waters haven’t stopped pouring out of the Tetons for weeks, leaving the ground knee-high in snowmelt, with more runoff on the way.

A soft-spoken intellectual, Reid has always been a thrill-seeker, and farming in Teton Valley, Idaho, is its own sort of gamble. This year, the farmer should see a healthy crop thanks to a historically high snowpack. But there is no guarantee, no consistency to this work. Reid has been farming the valley for 10 years, and adjusting to the temperamental water supply flowing out of Wyoming has sculpted his livelihood, at times restricting his ability to turn a profit.

Reid runs a small 400-acre farm, and his experience is by no means anomalous. From large-scale 10,000-acre farms to massive fisheries and cities down the line that depend on the Snake River for water, when the Snake turns into the Columbia, even Portland relies on the Snake-Columbia to fuel the city. 

Indeed, “downstream” for Wyoming snowmelt has the potential to extend as far as the Pacific Ocean and even the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the “Headwaters State,” Wyoming holds the headwaters of four major river basins, including the Missouri-Mississippi, the Green-Colorado, the Snake-Columbia, and the Great Salt Lake.

During normal snow years, the water with an origination point in Wyoming is expected to provide everything from agriculture and infrastructure to tap water and recreation for millions of people in the US. On heavy snow years, like this past winter, excess snowmelt in Wyoming has the potential to restore parched locales across much of the drought-ridden Southwest.

Wyoming’s impacts on water resources, in-state and downstream, are not only the agricultural and commercial life force of the valley, they are also some of the most vital headwaters in the nation. And as the Southwest experiences drier days, Wyoming’s water will become more precious.

Waging bets

Water is a high stakes game no matter where your farm is located. Reid says farmers in Wyoming and Idaho finalize their crop plans during the capricious late winter months, planning their year’s projected investment based on predicted temperatures, weather patterns, and water availability. “Every year is a gamble,” he said, weighing the weight of his words. “This year looks like there might be plenty of runoff for the season, but by the late summer months, you never know.”

Wyoming state engineer Patrick Tyrrell reiterated this notion: “In some sense, farmers are the ultimate gamblers. They buy seed and fertilizer in January and February, so they have to be prepared to farm under just about any circumstances.” Oscillating wet and dry years can make those bets very difficult, but water demand is steady in Teton Valley, no matter the forecast.

Agriculture is a $27 billion industry in the Spud State, and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture is one of the largest contributors to the state’s economy. University of Idaho Agricultural Economist Garth Taylor estimates food production comprises roughly 20 percent of the state’s sales and a whopping 16 percent of its gross domestic product. All that agriculture requires a lot of water, especially since much of Idaho is arid, high desert.

To finance agriculture, Idaho owns 96 percent of the Snake River’s water supply. In 1992 Idaho farmers used the entirety of their water rights allocation, which ended up draining a lot of Jackson Lake and shutting down Colter Bay Marina for much of the summer season.

But when farmers can’t irrigate, crops die, which is a big problem for everyone. Reid worries that extended growing seasons—a result of a warming climate—are exacerbating water demand.

Since he’s been farming in the valley, he’s seen a 12-week growing season increase to 16 weeks. “We’ve started getting two additional weeks on each side—though you never know when a frost might hit—but now we’re seeing two extra weeks in the spring and two in the fall, and that is bound to stress existing water supplies,” he said. And it’s not just an extended growing season Reid is concerned about.

As populations continue to rise, Reid is afraid that the stress to sell off land will fall heavy on farmers, as water scarcity reduces profits, restricting which plants farmers can grow. Reid has needed to restructure his farm from his initial plan to produce high profit cash crops, which are usually water intensive, to raising cattle, because the crops related to cattle, like wheat, do not rely heavily on water. This is crucial in late summer months when water is at its scarcest. Problems are compounded by the price of land skyrocketing in Teton Valley. Reid believes this will encourage farmers to sell off their land, limiting food availability.

Just how much water does Wyoming have?

The US Drought Monitor released a report predicting the possible impact this year’s snowmelt could have: “Major drought improvements were made not only in California but at many areas of the West, including parts of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. The decent snowpack should greatly contribute to a good spring snow melt runoff and recharge if conditions are maintained.”

Tyrrell called this past winter a “prodigious” snow year. But he was quick to caution against enthusiastic predictions about how much damage Wyoming snowmelt could rectify in one season after 16 years of drought. “It’s staying cool, so [the snowmelt is] not coming out fast yet, and the water will go into the ground and recharge water supplies because of such a big snowpack. But a larger system like the Colorado [River], well, we don’t contribute a good enough amount of water to it. You would need similar snowpacks [downstream] to really be of significant benefit to Lake Mead and Powell, but they’ll see a rise.”

Tyrrell’s office oversees water and water rights management for in-state water sources as well as the plethora of transboundary compacts and agreements in which Wyoming is involved. These compacts spread through most the of the West, literally supplying millions of people with produce and/or water. Ensuring that everyone gets their piece of the pie can be extremely difficult, even in water rich years like this one.

Managing riparian rights involves considering eight river compacts and four decrees to which Wyoming is bound, directly involving every surrounding state and many states down the line as well. States as far as Arizona are lining up for a long-awaited break in drought conditions.

Governor Matt Mead’s senior policy advisor for water Nephi Cole studied Wyoming’s water resources and drainage. He estimated the Snake River alone had a drainage of more than 5 million acre feet per year, with Wyoming total drainage averaging more than 18 million acre feet per year.

An abundantly snowy winter increases the state’s water exports. Even in the Tetons, everyone knows the resort got an atypically heavy dose of snow this past winter. JHMR reported 593 inches, and several areas, including Riverton and Rock Springs, had record years. The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported every major river basin in Wyoming saw an increase in snowpack in May.

Specifically, those cool May temperatures and heavier precipitation have caused snowpack levels in certain areas to read out as significantly above average. At the highest, Cheyenne is currently sitting at 1,100 percent snowpack. The Wind River Basin is at 377 percent, and the Upper Green is more than 700 percent, according to the Water Resource Data System. USDA’s regional snow report also indicates Wyoming is home to the only regions in the country experiencing more than 500 percent snowpack.

During his 16 years as Wyoming state engineer, Tyrrell hasn’t seen anything quite like it before. “I don’t ever remember sitting with this much snow this late in the season. The use should be fabulous, irrigators will have a plentiful supply for at least the first part of the summer, and we’ll see what August and September bring.”

But even now, with an abundant snowpack, it’s hard to say if the water will last. If the temperatures climbed quickly enough, flooding concerns could later turn to water shortage concerns, and Tyrrell insists there has yet to be a year when his department didn’t need to turn off someone’s water supply, so that senior water rights holders could receive their water allocation down the line.

As Cole always says, “First in time, first in line,” meaning those who own the oldest water rights have priority during water shortages, but trying to prepare for future water use, even with senior water rights as a template in place, can be difficult when access to water varies so dramatically from year-to-year.

Predictabilityvariability, and Mother Natures mood swings

Mead called water “Wyoming’s most precious natural resource.” As a building block of life, it’d be hard to deny his claim, but with growing populations, demand for that “precious natural resource” continues to skyrocket, and as temperatures fluctuate, it’s harder and harder to ensure states can meet the growing demand.

The National Integrated Drought Information System notes drought is affecting more than 36 million—approximately one in 10—people in the United States.

The trouble with contemporary projections is there is so much inconsistency in temperature and water supply. Professor Doug Wachob of the University of Wyoming’s Environment and Natural Resources Department believes the only real consensus concerning the predictability of future weather patterns is that it’s largely unpredictable.

“Due to climate change, how those same systems operated in the past might not be very good models of how they will perform in the future. … most models predict a warmer and dryer situation, but that is difficult to scale down to a local level. The truth is we really don’t know exactly how climate change will affect precipitation patterns, the amount of snow it will accumulate, those sorts of things. The future has a lot of questions around it that will be largely unanswered until we observe them.”

“There’s a quote I like,” he added, “‘All models are wrong, but some models are useful.’” Hence, unreliable models and unpredictable climate patterns relegate the development and implementation of appropriate legislation aimed at mitigating and/or managing water crises to reactionary practices at best.

Big water years like this past winter only further illustrate what an impact climate change is having on water management.

The year of 2016 could be considered a full-fledged archetype of unpredictability. As temperatures spiked in April and May last year, forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Climate Predictor expected above average temperatures and higher than average precipitation. According to Jim Woodmencey, chief meteorologist at Mountainweather.com, the temperatures actually settled down, coasting several degrees below average in July, even hitting a spate of days below freezing in August. But this was coupled with much lower than average precipitation. Below average snowpack melted off sooner than expected during the warm spring months, meaning limited water supplies in the water-scarce late summer months.

Lyle Swank of the Idaho Department of Water Resources could hardly believe how dry the later months of last summer were. “If you look statistically at the data, we’ve had drier and/or long summers than before, especially when you’re looking at 2016, which was the driest June, July, and August that we had ever had last summer.”

In contrast, this past winter Jackson Hole had its second deepest season since snow reports began more than 40 years ago. Woodmencey reported that winter events in the valley itself were atypical too. Deemed the “snowpocalypse” by locals, a February wind storm resulted in a multi-day power outage in Teton Village and surrounding areas, followed by warming temperatures and subsequent flooding. It was the first time Jackson Hole Mountain Resort shut down for multiple days since 1986.

“Snow and water numbers in the mountains might be mind-blowing,” Woodmencey wrote in his post-season snow report, “but what happened in town this winter was nothing short of being one of the wildest weather winters on record. Snow, rain, cold, warm… we had it all. And we had it over, and over, and over again.” The winter of 2016/17 got the record for “most rain fall” during a winter season.

With that much precipitation, it’s hard not to count that run-off before it melts. Electrifying as the prospect of replenishing water stocks might be, Tyrrell doesn’t think getting comfortable after one good snow year is a wise decision.

“The Colorado mountains didn’t get as much snow [as Wyoming],” he said, “so we’re muted by lower runoff in the upper Colorado; they don’t quite have the snowpack Wyoming does. No, I wouldn’t expect you to see the same drought concerns this year. But that doesn’t mean we should quit planning or working on long-term drought solutions. Is [the snowmelt] a helpful thing? Absolutely. But you don’t want to get lolled to sleep by one good snow year.”

The huge variability in predictions is reflected in the research journal Nature Communications’ April 2017 report. The study’s projections include everything from major drops in snowpack levels to even potential gains by 2040. Co-author John Fyfe says it’s hard to predict. Accounting for all the factors from climate change to naturally occurring cycles in atmospheric conditions could cause expected snowpack to vary greatly. He warns water managers to be prepared for either outcome. “It’s a cyclic phenomenon,” he said. “It’s eventually going to come around and bite you.”

But the overarching consensus, Fyfe says, is the West should expect water to become a scarcer resource in the future. The report explained that snowpack currently supplies about two-thirds of the West’s water, but that snowpack availability is dropping, and it’s dropping precipitously.

The report noted that from the 1980s to the 2000s, snowpack decreased by as much as 20 percent in some areas. Predictions are always tricky when it comes to weather, but Fyfe and co-author Chris Derksen concluded snowpack could continue to dwindle by as much as 60 percent within the next three decades if nothing changes. “The projected losses have serious implications for the hydropower, municipal and agricultural sectors in the region,” the report cautions.

A river runs through it

Managing water scarcity and mitigating its impact is nigh impossible. Wyoming is involved in compacts with seven states and Mexico, just in the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Wyoming’s drainage routinely sits at close to 18 million acre-feet per year, feeding into some of the largest river systems in the country.

The Green River, with its origination point in the Wind River Range, is one of the chief tributaries of the Colorado River (a segment of which is the most endangered river in the United States, according to the 2017 report America’s Most Endangered Rivers). The Green supplies more than 6,200 cubic feet per second to the Colorado when the two converge. That water accounts for nearly one third of the Colorado’s total northern water supply, providing millions of people with access to fresh water. However, due to overdraw, the Colorado River has already receded reducing its once rich, marshland delta in Mexico from 3,000 sprawling, square miles in the 1920s to just 250 today, according to Sarah Zielinski for Smithsonian Magazine.

“There’s a long-term deficit beyond just a short-term drought that we have to come to grips with,” Bill Hasencamp said. “There’s just not enough water in the Colorado River to meet the demands that were designed in the 1922 Compact.”

Hasencamp is the Colorado River Program Manager at the Metropolitan Water District, and he has been worried about managing water demand on the Colorado for more than a decade.

“Lake Mead is like going to Vegas,” he said. “You might win a couple of times. You might even hit a jackpot. But in the end, the odds are stacked against you.”

Even with the additional snowpack, Tyrrell believes Lakes Mead and Powell will have a hard time recharging, and has no doubt they won’t recharge fully after just one good year. Colorado owns more than 50 percent of the upper basin water in the Colorado River Compact, which means it gets approximately 3.86 million acre feet per year compared to Wyoming’s 1.04 million. As water rights go, all the water that originates in Wyoming that contributes to downstream riparian rights, by law, must pass through the state, regardless of Wyoming’s demand, agricultural or otherwise. The states in the compact also have a “use it or lose it” policy that means any water not used by the state must pass through and cannot be stored, then transferring that excess water to downstream water rights holders.

Even with this year’s heavy snow and robust spring runoff, Tyrrell can’t imagine Lakes Powell and Mead will recharge completely any time soon.

Lake Powell hasn’t been full since 1999.Its water levels have dwindled for the past 17 years. Today its high water marks are exposed more than 70 feet above the current water line. The lake sits at only 45 percent capacity. Tyrrell calls water stresses like this “structural imbalance.” That means that even though no one is overdrawing past their water rights, there simply isn’t enough water to go around.

Historically, neither Colorado nor Wyoming has used its total water rights allotments, or has allowed excess water to run down stream. But as Colorado populations soar (it happens to be the second fastest growing state in the union), it will continue to use water that had historically been considered excess. Wyoming is looking at a similar scenario, hoping to refurbish, expand, or construct 10 new dams before Mead leaves office, according to Cole.

But much of California and Arizona have come to rely on that excess water, which will inevitably exacerbate drought conditions in the future, once Colorado and Wyoming start using their full water rights. Water rights and access are a quagmire, especially considering restricted availability, but Tyrrell believes current allocations of water are the fairest way it could have been done, and that there is no threat Wyoming and Colorado will not have access to their full water rights in the future. Tyrrell considers water compacts ironclad pieces of legislation, even “bordering on constitutional.”

But there have been other go-arounds for many Southwestern states that have helped them bear the burden of water shortages. Because agriculture is such a big part of the Southwest, and water is already so costly, large farms in the area have seen heavy subsidies that cover the true cost of water, especially for irrigation. The Environmental Finance Center at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill estimates federal, state, and local government spend an average of $120 billion subsidizing the cost of water and waste water treatment every year. Adjusted for inflation, the government has spent $4.4 trillion on water and waste water subsidies over the last 50 years.

As many smalltime farmers with limited access to such subsidies often say, “Water flows uphill, toward money.”

According to The Economist, California’s agriculture consumes 80 percent of water resources granted to the state. However, irrigation water costs farmers less than 2 percent of what it costs residents of Los Angeles after subsidies and senior water rights allocations. How is this possible? As an example, the Water Education Foundation reported that San Joaquin Valley farmers and the Westlands Water District have until 2030 to repay $497 million for water projects— dams and canals — built in the 1960s. As of 2008, 15 percent of that debt had been repaid.

The federal government absorbed the cost of the dam at the point of construction and its continued maintenance.

Wyoming’s own water proposal is facing road blocks as plans to implement the governor’s 2015 Water Proposal are slow to get off the ground. The proposal outlines strategies to better utilize and protect water in the state of Wyoming, which include better use of water rights allocations and the construction of new reservoirs. The plans may be stalled a little bit as the state’s coffers dwindle post-coal, but the Wyoming-first mentality concerning proper management of water rights has many local farmers breathing a collective sigh of relief. Cole was happy to share that the state had already broken ground on several projects.

Based on the governor’s water strategy that Cole helped design, Wyoming is set to build, or rehabilitate, a total of 10 water storage facilities in the state, primarily aimed at building up a few “un-rainy day” funds to help mitigate the impact of unpredictable water supplies. Because expert consensus is, winters like this are not indicative of the new norm concerning water availability in the West.

But for now, as Wyoming continues to eagerly empty its metaphorical snowmelt coffers, it’s hard to envision that the flooded sidewalks and road closures in Jackson will someday put bread on someone’s table, or that the flood warnings and overflowing rivers are someone else’s relief from 16 years of drought. PJH

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