When Aspen Journalism launched a weekly Data Dashboard feature about a year ago, one of the potential benefits was that by providing consistent, well-presented data visualizations on a handful of metrics, we could give readers new tools to see trends and understand processes.
From the beginning, keeping track of Lake Powell’s stored water has been an imperative, representative as it is of the health of the Colorado River basin’s water-supply system.
The dashboard’s interactive graphics let you zoom in and out on 20 years worth of Bureau of Reclamation data on storage volume and surface elevation at our nation’s second-largest reservoir. This information has perhaps never been more important as the reservoir was drawn down to its lowest levels since filling beginning in the second half of last year, dropping below the critical 3,525-foot elevation threshold in March, before climbing back above that with the seasonal runoff.
While preparing last week’s post — they typically publish exclusively on Aspen Journalism’s website on Tuesday — Data Desk Editor Laurine Lassalle and I noticed something unusual in the Lake Powell data. Compared to the week before, the reservoir’s water level rose, but its storage volume shrunk. That is not normally how it works so Lassalle inquired to learn that the change was due to the fact that a few days prior, the bureau had updated its estimate of Powell’s total storage capacity based on a recent study looking at how much sediment has accumulated at the reservoir’s bottom. Before July 1, the bureau’s numbers on storage capacity and volume were based on 1986 sedimentation data. After July 1, the values were updated with 2018 data. The result was that for the first week of July, the reservoir was storing 443,000 fewer acre-feet than was estimated using the 1986 data, with sedimentation levels rising approximately 4% between ‘86-’18.
The most sophisticated Powell observers knew this was coming, and the sedimentation study released in March was the subject of multiple Salt Lake Tribune articles, but this was the first time the implications of that study had been translated into the real-time data. We knew we had a story on our hands so we shifted gears, scrapped the dashboard for the week and worked on a piece focused on the data revelation. It was published on our website on Friday and was picked up over the weekend by our print collaboration partners at The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Craig Press.
The piece generated record levels of web traffic and Twitter engagement for AJ, with all eyes turning next to what the lower storage capacity will mean for the latest 24-month study estimating how much water is likely to flow in and out of Lake Powell. That’s the whole ballgame right now, as water levels were already projected to fall dangerously close to the 3,490-foot elevation below which you can’t make hydropower at the Glen Canyon Dam, and the federal government signals that it is prepared to enforce drastic water-use cuts to keep the system from collapsing. That 24-month study is due any day now.
Meanwhile, we resumed regular operations of the Data Dashboard this week, revealing that the reservoir’s water volume may have just recently peaked for the season, as the surface elevation dropped for the first time since April.
Also at Aspen Journalism this week, Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett reported on a local attempt to craft a workable water savings strategy that would compensate a Crystal River Valley rancher for using less than their usual allotment when flows get low in the late summer and fall. The six-year agreement between the Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch, operated by Bill Fales and Marj Perry, is a second attempt at crafting a framework that would result in water savings, after a three-year contract from 2018 never took effect as it was either too wet or too dry for the agreement to work. The agreement could be a model that is replicated elsewhere in the region. As Fales told Sackett, “Obviously we are like everybody else — we hate to see the river dry. Also Marj and I are fairly convinced that if there’s going to be problems and controversies over water, we’d rather be trying to find solutions ourselves than have one imposed on us by somebody else.”
And we are still Tracking the Curve of local COVID-19 data, with Tuesday’s update showing new-case incidence on the rise in Eagle County. The post also includes important insight from a Pitkin County health official on testing trends, now that more and more tests are conducted at home. That skews the overall test positivity rate up, since negative at-home tests don’t get reported. But that test-positivity number remains an important indicator of community transmission. Both Pitkin and Eagle counties have seen that rate climb over the last week.
That’s all for now; thank you for reading, and supporting, Aspen Journalism.
– Curtis Wackerle
Editor and executive director
Agreement will pay Cold Mountain Ranch to leave water in the river
By Heather Sackett | July 9, 2022
The goal of the program is to use voluntary, market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users — who often own the biggest and most senior water rights — to put water back into Colorado’s rivers during critical times.
After inputting the new data on July 1, storage values at the current elevation dropped 6%
By Laurine Lassalle | July 8, 2022
Updated Bureau of Reclamation data downgraded the reservoir’s volume of water stored by 443,000 acre-feet, based on a recent sedimentation study.
Most streams are flowing between 40% and 60% of average
By Laurine Lassalle | July 12, 2022
• The Fork was flowing at 665 cfs near Emma on July 10, down from 797 cfs last week.
• Lake Powell’s elevation reached 3,539.5 feet on July 10, slightly down from 3,539.8 feet on July 4.
• High air temperatures at the Aspen airport dropped below normal in late-June.
Documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties
By Laurine Lassalle | July 12, 2022
With 64 new cases since Thursday, Garfield County’s seven-day new COVID-19 case incidence rate is at 180 per 100,000. Eagle County, with 64 news cases, is at 196. Pitkin’s 32 new cases gives it a rate of 196. Nearly 30% of the reported COVID tests in Eagle County are positive.
“‘I greatly appreciate council’s support of $150,000 to basically bring the record of decision on the entrance to Highway 82 up to modern standards,’ Councilwoman Richards said. ‘We will have the information digitized and online and be able to reintroduce this to the so many people who are new to our community.'”
Source: aspentimes.com | Read more
“‘I live in Aspen and I’ve watched that missing middle disappear,’ Lipkin said. ‘My goal has been to do something that allows Basalt to remain Basalt and not become Aspen.’ Under his proposal, the most expensive of the missing middle units could be sold for up to $1 million in today’s dollars once they finally get built.”
Source: aspendailynews.com | Read more
A 150-year-old San Luis Valley farm stops growing food to save a shrinking water supply. It might be the first deal of its kind in the country
“Putting this single farm out of production is expected to preserve enough groundwater for the Rio Grande Water Conservation subdistrict surrounding the operation to meet its water sustainability goals — or come really close. This likely means the region can avoid state interventions and well-shutoffs, and other farms can continue operating and growing food.”
Source: cpr.org | Read more
How this tribe survives in Colorado’s worst drought region with as little as 10% of its hard-won water supply
“‘Tribal elders years ago warned that settlers’ ways would lead to climate disruption. They said, “One of the things you will notice is that it will be getting dry. So be careful. Whatever you do, don’t rely on the water.” Now increasingly the landscape is suffering,’ [said Knight, a former Ute Mountain Ute chairman]. ‘And we think we got it bad? The animals got it worse.'”
Source: denverpost.com | Read more
“Much of that oil traffic would pass through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where dozens of governmental entities have raised serious objections to the Utah project. Eagle County, the heart of Colorado ski country, filed its own suit.”
Source: sltrib.com | Read more
“The order, which took effect Thursday, puts a hold on about 5,800 water rights across the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers’ watersheds, reflecting the severity of California’s extreme drought.”
Source: latimes.com | Read more
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