Tag Archives: Colorado

A Single Drop


Photo Credit: Louise Docker

Each year brings warnings of drought and with it, the implementation of water conservation measures. How do climatologists know if a lack of precipitation is a drought indicator or simply part of the earth’s natural cycle?

In a word: Data.

Pike's Peak Weather Station

Pike’s Peak Weather Station      Photo Credit: NOAA

Everything water related, including drought, begins with precipitation. Systematic weather reporting in Colorado began in the 1870s and 1880s, with the first weather reports coming from Pike’s Peak in 1873. In the late 1880s, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation supporting the “Colorado State Weather Service” and in 1890, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over climate monitoring and reporting. It was also in 1890 that the Cooperative Observers, a group of now more than 8,700 volunteers, began providing observational meteorological data in real time.

Today, precipitation in Colorado is tracked by a statewide network made up of the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Cooperative Observers. Together, they have set the standard for mapping and monitoring precipitation—recording the data that provides a history of precipitation across the state and thus sets a baseline for drought.


Cooperative Observer Station      Photo Credit: NOAA

Currently, there are 200 to 250 weather stations in Colorado—some have operated continuously since the late 1800s. The longer a station has been compiling data, the better for revealing precipitation patterns and detecting abnormalities, which indicate something more serious. Still, a lack of data points across the state has kept climatologists from having a complete picture of Colorado’s precipitation.


Photo Credit: Greg Goebel

Early on, data was not representative of mountain precipitation—a large part of Colorado—because gauges were primarily located in valleys, where the majority of people lived. With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, data gaps were filled in the 1980s when they installed rain gauges in mountain forest clearings. Those mountain gauges improved coverage, but it was another 15 to 20 years before climatologists could establish a record that allowed them to truly understand Colorado’s climate.

With its vast size, it seems nearly impossible for there to be enough technology, information or data points to cover the entire state of Colorado. Tracking precipitation data has always been a time-consuming process. “When I started working here [Colorado Climate Center] in 1977, everything was done by hand,” says Nolan Doesken, Colorado State Climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University (CSU). “Each week, we would receive the precipitation reports from around the state, add up the totals, plot them on a huge map, draw the contour maps and then write up a report.”


Photo Credit: USDA

Surprisingly, this hands-on approach continued until 2000, when computers were finally used for precipitation mapping. However, the use of technology comes with its own set of issues. “Creating a map by hand was a more intimate process,” Doesken acknowledges. “You were more likely to question outliers in data. With a computer, people are less likely to question the results. They trust the computer.”

Regardless of technological improvements, including the addition of weather satellites, there have always been, and still are, limitations to what technology can achieve. Some areas are difficult to reach for installing rain gauges, others have low populations or populations of people who are not interested in reporting precipitation data—fewer rain gauges means fewer data points from which to gather information.

“Weather satellites only tell part of the story,” says Doesken. “Radar might show that precipitation is falling in a particular area because it is collecting information from 12,000 feet above a field; however, that rain is evaporating before it reaches the ground. We need data from the ground level to see the whole picture.”


Rain Gauge      Photo Credit: Famartin

The 1997 Fort Collins floods revealed that rain gauges were not showing the variability of rain and snow across the state; the heaviest rainfall leading up to the flood missed all of the official gauges, creating a situation where city officials were unaware of what was coming. This weather event resulted in the creation of The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) in 1998; a way to improve the quality of precipitation data, both locally and internationally.

CoCoRaHS is comprised of a community of volunteers 600px-Community_Collaborative_Rain,_Hail_and_Snow_Network_logo.svgdedicated to monitoring precipitation in their own, literal, backyards. After collecting precipitation data—rain, hail and snow—volunteers send their results to CoCoRaHS. Where there are more volunteers, there are more data points. Increased data points result in comprehensive data. CoCoRaHS volunteers cover gaps where there are no other weather stations and provide ground-level information that cannot be gathered by satellites.


March 2003 Blizzard, Evergreen        Photo Credit: NOAA

Data collected by CoCoRaHS members during Colorado’s historic March 2003 blizzard proved to be invaluable. “Volunteers did a fantastic job of monitoring precipitation,” Doesken exclaims. “Without their data, we would not have known that there was a hole in the storm, just over Lyons, Colorado. The town was surrounded by areas receiving several feet of snow, while Lyons received only 2 to 3 inches. We never knew what we were missing before!”

As methods for precipitation data collection continued to improve, it became clear that past methods of determining drought were woefully inadequate. In the late 2000s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) came online and a clearer picture of drought emerged.


Photo Credit: USDA

When the USDA started using NIDIS to determine if certain counties qualified for drought relief, Doesken and his coworkers were forced to acknowledge that their picture of drought was incomplete. “We discovered that our assessments of drought were crude,” Doesken says. “In reality, we probably don’t get drought depiction right. We realized that we needed to be doing a better job of depicting drought on a local level, particularly on the Eastern Plains.”


Photo Credit: USDA

They discovered that drought is far more locally dependent than they originally thought. For example, in Phillips County—a population of 4,356 and an area of 688 square miles—drought is reliant on something as simple as a farm’s location in the neighborhood. While one farm has plenty of water, the next farm over is experiencing a drought. Without data proving that the farmer is experiencing drought, grants and loans that provide drought relief will not be available to them.


Photo Credit: Ken Lund

Precipitation across Colorado has been monitored for more than 100 years. The data collected has helped climatologists determine the risk of drought which allows policymakers to plan for the future. While the system is imperfect, weather satellites and radar have improved, and on-the-ground data collection has increased. We are learning where there are breaks in coverage and knowledge, providing the opportunity for further improvements and a better understanding of how precipitation and drought impact our state.

Collecting precipitation data informs the way that we plan for the future. Keep an eye out for the upcoming summer 2017 issue of Headwaters Magazine, which will focus on how water data can impact policy decisions, public safety, water conservation and our own personal behavior.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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Filed under Climate and Drought, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Data, Environment, Headwaters Magazine

Water Books from the Board of Trustees

The CFWE Board meets three times per year across Colorado

The CFWE Board meets three times per year across Colorado.  Here we are in Jan. 2014 at the Ralph Carr Justice Center in Denver.

CFWE is blessed to have a diverse and helpful Board of Trustees.  All 22 of them are committed to making CFWE the best water education organization in the state of Colorado, and I greatly appreciate their expertise and guidance.  Its not surprising that they, like our staff, are a bunch of “water geeks” who spend countless hours in their personal and professional lives thinking about our most important resource.

At each of our three yearly Board meetings, our Board Development Committee Chair, Chris Treese, does a round of introductions so we can learn a bit about each other.  At our January meeting, the question asked of each member was “What is your favorite water-related book?”  This was such a great list, I wanted to share it with our CFWE readers.  I hope you can find one or two titles here that will help get you through the remainder of a cold Colorado winter.  Do you have titles to add?  If so, please let us know!

Board member Chris Treese leads introductions each meeting

Board member Chris Treese leads introductions each meeting

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  • The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – Dr. Seuss
  • Birds of Prey – Wilbur Smith
  • The Burning Shore – Wilbur Smith
  • Bob Sakata, American Farmer – Daniel Blegen
  • Defend and Develop: A Brief History of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s First 75 Years – Bill McDonald and Tom Cech
  • Rivers of Wind: A Western Boyhood Remembered – Gary Perley
  • The Colorado Doctrine – David Schorr
  • Adrift – Steven Callahan
  • Goodbye to a River – John Graves
  • The Emerald Mile – Kevin Fedarko
  • Milagro Bean Field War – John Nichols
  • Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water, and the Future  of  the West – Charles F. Wilkinson
  • Written in Water: The Life of Benjamin Harrison Eaton by Jane E. Norris and Lee G. Norris
  • Great River, The Rio Grande in North American History – Paul Horgan
  • A River Runs Through It – Norman Maclean
  • The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  • Downriver – Will Hobbs
  • River Thunder – Will Hobbs
  • Cadillac Desert – Marc Reisner
  • The Secret Knowledge of Water – Craig Childs


Filed under Book Club

The State of Colorado Coal

CFWE’s most recent Headwaters magazine on energy took a look at coal in Colorado.  Writer Josh Zaffos interviewed Jack Ihle, Xcel Energy’s director of environmental policy about the switch from coal to natural gas…

HW 32 coversmallEven with the rush toward natural gas, the push for renewables, and potential carbon emissions regulations, Ihle says Xcel—and Colorado—aren’t likely to fully divest from coal. Xcel is upgrading pollution controls at several coal plants to further limit smog and air pollution and keep the plants running and in compliance with Clean Air Act regulations. “We see value in balance even as certain drivers like emissions regulations will cause us to look harder at cleaner resources,” Ihle says. “Coal has been a very cost-effective resource and price-stable for a long time, and we’ll look for ways to make it as clean as we can.”

And the use of coal in Colorado isn’t the only thing changing.  So too is its mining.  High Country News recently published a great blog post discussing the future of coal mining in their backyard of Paonia.

“Coming out of the mountains is expensive,” says Bob Burnham, an independent Denver-based coal industry analyst. Mines in the Indiana Basin, which includes parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, are much closer to Southeastern power plants. Even Powder River Basin coal from Montana and Wyoming has an advantage over most Colorado mines: it doesn’t have to cross the Continental Divide.

As TVA cuts its coal consumption, it will cut especially deeply from its Colorado suppliers, says Mansfield. That’s especially bad news for Paonia, whose three local coal mines predominantly sell to TVA.

As we learned in writing about it, the switch from coal to natural gas is much more complicated than it might appear.  Get informed on this important topic and tell us what you think!

Nicole SeltzerNicole Seltzer is the Executive Director of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education


by | December 13, 2013 · 8:27 am

What I’m Reading: The Emerald Mile

Nicole Seltzer

Nicole Seltzer

As those close to me know, I am a poor student of history.  It’s not that I see no value in learning about the past (being “doomed to repeat it” and all) but most historical films or books don’t hold my attention.  And this just makes me feel guilty.  I am an educated woman of the 21st century–I am supposed to be enthralled by an esoteric tome on the history of all things.  Right? Well, to be straight with you, I’m generally not.

To compensate for my lack of interest, I often look for the “guilty pleasure” book that keeps me hooked but also teaches me a few things along the way.  For example, I made it through Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy over the summer, giving me some insight into World War I and II.  But even better is when I find a non-fiction book that combines adventure, history and things I care about like water and boats!  A tall order, you say?  Well, you clearly haven’t yet read The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko’s history of the 1983 Colorado River flood and its impact on dam operators and river runners alike.

CFWE Executive Director Nicole Seltzer, braving Grand Canyon whitewater in 2012

CFWE Executive Director Nicole Seltzer, braving Grand Canyon whitewater in 2012

Here is a quick blurb from the jacket cover…

 IN THE WINTER OF 1983, the largest El Niño event on record—a chain of “superstorms” that swept in from the Pacific Ocean—battered the entire West. That spring, a massive snowmelt sent runoff racing down the Colorado River toward the Glen Canyon Dam, a 710-foot-high wall of concrete that sat at the head of the most iconic landscape feature in America, the Grand Canyon. As the water clawed toward the parapet of the dam, worried federal officials desperately scrambled to avoid a worst-case scenario: one of the most dramatic dam failures in history.

In the midst of this crisis, beneath the light of a full moon, a trio of river guides secretly launched a small, hand-built wooden boat, a dory named the Emerald Mile, into the Colorado just below the dam’s base and rocketed toward the dark chasm downstream, where the torrents of water released by the dam engineers had created a rock-walled maelstrom so powerful it shifted giant boulders and created bizarre hydraulic features never previously seen. The river was already choked with the wreckage of commercial rafting trips: injured passengers clung to the remnants of three-ton motorboats that had been turned upside down and torn to pieces. The chaos had claimed its first fatality, further launches were forbidden, and rangers were conducting the largest helicopter evacuation in the history of Grand Canyon National Park.

For anyone interested in Colorado River hydrology, the history of dam building in the West, the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970’s, white water boating or the Grand Canyon, this book will have you hooked from page one.  It deftly weaves together stories about the history of commercial river running, the building and operation of Glen Canyon Dam, and the reckless yet poetic “speed run” during the height of the flood through the Grand Canyon.

But the thing I appreciated most was the author’s own musings on water in the west.  My favorite passage from the book is toward the end, as he tries to make sense of the dichotomy that exists at the base of Glen Canyon dam, which is also the start of the best wilderness adventure most people will ever have…

 “And together the canyon and the dam offer a far more meaningful reflection of the society that claims them both: its triumphs and its failures; what it has been willing to sacrifice and what it has chosen to preserve; the things it celebrates and those it mourns; the price it has willingly paid for progress and modernity, as well as the lessons that have been levied by those transactions. Perhaps nothing else speaks so succinctly and with such eloquence to who we are as a people— where we have come from, what we have gained and lost on our journey, and what we must eventually embrace to make ourselves whole.”

In reading the book, I felt a kinship with Mr. Fedarko (though I’ve never met him).  Partly for his obvious love of one of my favorite places on earth: the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Mostly because he was able to aptly balance the stories of two completely opposite worlds.  This is what CFWE strives for every day, and it’s great to find others working in the same vein.  I was therefore excited to extend an invitation to Mr. Fedarko from CFWE and the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University to visit Denver and speak about the book.  Look for a date in January 2014, and in the meantime, pick up a copy of The Emerald Mile.  It’s a pleasure to read that you don’t need to feel guilty about.


Filed under Book Club, Staff

Climate and Cattle

Cattle ranching in Jackson County

Cattle ranching (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drought can devastate Colorado’s agricultural industry, as we’ve seen this year in the Arkansas River Basin. An article pulled from this blog for the Grand Junction Free Press’ Water Lines column begins to highlight the impacts southeastern Colorado is seeing:

Area producers are seeing economic impacts — the 2013 winter wheat crop was almost nonexistent, corn planting for 2013 was less than 5 percent of average and there’s been at least an 80 percent loss of rangeland — projected crop loss for the region is more than $72 million. The impact is wide ranging and producers worry that they haven’t seen the end of it.

“From an agricultural standpoint this is a big area of the state and agriculture is the state’s number one economic area,” Finnessy said. Economics in the Arkansas Basin can impact the state’s economy as a whole.

Lost rangeland and high feed prices have caused cattle ranching to take a beating. Many ranchers in that part of the state are selling off their herds, from a Colorado Public Radio story aired yesterday:

John Campbell runs the auction. He says that because of the drought he’s auctioned off 3 times the normal amount of cattle this summer. And though that may be good for business today, he’s worried about the future.“When you sell off the factory, we won’t have the natural increase that those cows would generate for upcoming years,” said Campbell, who added some ranchers have totally liquidated their herds.

There’s worry that the cattle sell-off won’t have an impact just on Campbell’s auction, or the one across the street, but whole region’s economy – from the hotels to the banks to the restaurants. Continue reading


Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Headwaters Magazine, Staff

Celebrate Source Water During National Drinking Water Week



English: Drinking water fountain

Drinking water fountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


May 5-11 is National Drinking Water Week— as the EPA does their part to involve citizens and promote drinking water protection, consider source water in Colorado. As a headwaters state, we’re responsible for the water that nourishes 19 states and Mexico, plus we take pride in the quality of our water and the snow that falls to melt into water (isn’t that what the ‘Tap the Rockies’  campaign tapped into?).


As we wrote in the Winter 2013 issue of Headwaters Magazine,


Protecting the source of a water supply can be both personal and a matter of public health.

Source water protection work is in progress across Colorado, but looks different depending on the locale. Activities range from addressing nonpoint sources of pollution such as farm fertilizer runoff or contamination from roads, to reducing access to reservoirs or promoting forest health.

Grand Junction developed a watershed protection ordinance in 2007 after Genesis Gas and Oil acquired leases to drill within the Plateau Creek watershed on the Grand Mesa, a source of the city’s water. Residents were concerned about the potential impacts of drilling– particularly hydraulic fracturing– on their drinking water supply. To deal with these concerns, stakeholders including the cities of Grand Junction and Palisade, Genesis, federal land managers and local citizens came together, agreeing to a set of best management practices once drilling began. Genesis has avoided developing its leases within the watershed so far. In the meantime, Grand Junction is funding a water monitoring study to establish a baseline for the quality of its water.

Monitoring is something Colleen Williams, source water protection specialist with the Colorado Rural Water Association, frequently recommends to the water utilities she works with. By establishing a baseline for water quality, communities can track what is showing up in their water over time and watch for red flags. “It’s really important to have some way that they would know that there is a problem in that water source,” says Williams.

Some communities face concerns about oil and gas drilling, others with abandoned mine drainage or septic tank maintenance. Then there’s fire and drought– two of the biggest concerns, Williams says. Fortunately, much of Colorado doesn’t have contaminated water, she adds. A lot of the focus is on prevention– keeping water clean in the first place is far more cost-effective.

Williams also recommends public outreach and information sharing: “We want the community to encourage everyone to become a stakeholder, to become a steward of that drinking water source.”


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Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Headwaters Magazine

Water Smart: reflections on a conference and meeting future water demand

By Mark Shively, Douglas County Water Resource AuthorityEnglish: Vector image of the Las Vegas sign. P...

This week I attended the WaterSmart Innovations conference in Las Vegas.  The event is attended by water efficiency experts from all over the United States, as well as other nations.  It’s hosted by Southern Nevada Water Authority, the water provider to the City of Las Vegas.  Attendees included Colorado Front Range participants from Denver Water, Douglas County Water Resource Authority, Colorado Springs Utilities, Castle Pines Metropolitan District, City of Westminster, Parker Water & Sanitation District, Irrigation Analysis, Center for Resource Conservation, University of Colorado at Boulder, and Western Resource Advocates, as well as the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  We stayed at a hotel on the south side of town that included a rodeo arena that was hosting a quarter horse competition.  Really.

One topic repeated in the presentations and hallway conversations is that water prices are rising sharply everywhere.  The question you heard over and over was, “How are we going to pay for this?”.  Rather than rolling over to complaints about “We conserve, and prices still go up”, the City of Santa Rosa, CA pointed out to its citizens and the press that weather and population are the factors that drive higher water prices.  If you use water thoughtfully, the prices you pay won’t go up as much as if you use water in a wasteful fashion.  Population isn’t just growing in just Colorado.  It’s growing everywhere.  Drought isn’t just happening in Colorado.  In 2012, drought happened in most all of the United States.  The efficient use of water can slow the time until projects are needed, or decrease the size and cost of a project that’s needed.  Investing in water efficiency can be a good first step.  But, water projects are needed, and taxes and fees are needed to pay for the cost of these projects.  We need to pull together to give councils and boards the courage they need to make the case to customers and citizens for the money needed to provide for adequate water supplies. Continue reading


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