#Drought monitor: 95% of #Wyoming abnormally dry or worse — WyoFile

Wyoming Drought Monitor map April 27, 2021.

From WyoFile (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Ninety-five percent of Wyoming is abnormally dry or worse, according to a nationwide drought monitor map released Thursday.

The pervasive dryness may have significant near-term impacts on grazing and irrigation, and could result in down-stream calls on Wyoming water as early as next year, experts say.

The current conditions statewide mark a seismic shift from a year ago when only 2% of the state registered abnormally dry or drier, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The driest areas — classified as “extreme drought” and covering 6% of Wyoming — span parts of Carbon and Natrona counties, plus small areas in Sweetwater and Fremont counties. There, a poor snowpack will produce runoff “inadequate for ranching and farming,” the center says.

Only parts of Sheridan, Johnson, Big Horn and Park counties are at or above normal moisture levels.

The monitor map, updated monthly, shows “exceptional” D4 drought — the driest condition on the center’s scale — in parts of Utah and Colorado and other areas of the southwest, but not Wyoming.

Western residents are already feeling the effects. Early season wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota caused Gov. Kristi Noem to declare a state of emergency there through June 1. Southwestern water scarcity along the Colorado River may curtail water use in other states but shouldn’t affect Wyoming this year, said Steve Wolff, head of the State Engineer’s Office Interstate Streams Division…

Snowpack vs runoff

This week remote monitors measured the water content of the snowpack statewide at 89% of median, according to Fahey’s weekly report. The Powder and Tongue rivers in the northeast had the highest readings at 129% and 124% of normal respectively. The Upper Bear River Basin in western Wyoming measured lowest at 57% of median…

“Even though the snowpack is almost 100%, runoff [could be] 50%, give or take,” Wolff said. “A lot of that water is just going to soak into the ground.”

[…]

The drought map shows that about 40% of Wyoming suffers from moderate, D1, drought, a level in which hay and forage yield is low, fire danger is elevated, fewer wildflowers bloom and less irrigation water is available.

“Severe, D2, drought” affects another 39% of Wyoming, stressing trees and reducing water pressure in some wells. In D2 drought, pastures are poor, overgrazing occurs and producers begin to sell cattle, according to the center.

See-saw changes in recent weeks saw areas west of the Continental Divide dry out. “Much of that area, especially in Teton County, was the one part of the state that had been doing quite well in terms of the drought map,” said Tony Bergantino, acting director at the Water Resources Data System in the Wyoming State Climate Office.

But last week severe drought, D3, moved into Teton County for the first time since 2016, he wrote in an email. That severe drought also grew to cover a large area of Lincoln County.

@NOAA Delivers New U.S. Climate Normals

Courtesy of Pixabay.com via NOAA.

Here’s the release from NOAA:

NOAA’s new U.S. Climate Normals give the public, weather forecasters, and businesses a standard way to compare today’s conditions to 30-year averages. Temperature and precipitation averages and statistics are calculated every decade so we can put today’s weather into proper context and make better climate-related decisions.

Normals may be familiar to most Americans by their inclusion in local daily weather information from television, radio, print, and digital media. Not only do Normals indicate how conditions measure up for the nation as a whole, but also for specific locations—from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, California. And, from Nome, Alaska, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

U.S. Climate Normals are designed—and best-suited for—better understanding what is happening today. Rather than assess long-term climate trends, Normals reflect the impacts of the changing climate on our day-to-day weather experience. Normals are not merely averages of raw data. Thirty years of U.S. weather station observations are compiled, checked for quality, compared to surrounding stations, filled in for missing periods, and used to calculate not only averages, but many other measures. These then provide a basis for comparisons of temperature, precipitation, and other variables to today’s observations.

Supplemental Normals for the 15-year period 2006–20 are being released simultaneously with conventional 30-year Normals for users who require information for periods closer to the present.

Why Update U.S. Climate Normals?
Member states of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are required to calculate their country’s normals at ten-year intervals. Countries follow recommendations by the WMO, which provides a framework for international cooperation among meteorologists, climatologists, and hydrologists.

The decadal update is the equivalent of the Census for those who use the dataThe decadal update is the equivalent of the Census for those who use the data. It replaces the previous set of U.S. Normals, which cover all 50 states and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam. NCEI and its predecessors have been the official source for U.S. Climate Normals since the 1950s. New data come from approximately 8,700 National Weather Service stations operated by NOAA, which include Automated System Observing Stations (ASOS) and Cooperative Observer Program (COOP) stations.

For the first time, Precipitation Normals have been created for more than 770 Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) stations managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and for more than 5,400 citizen science observation stations from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow (CoCoRaHS) Network. Calculating and making available the new averages is a significant undertaking that requires months of preparation by a team of climate scientists, including NCEI partners from the Cooperative Institute for Satellite Earth System Studies (CISESS) and NOAA Regional Climate Centers (RCCs).

Several new Normals will be introduced for the first timeNormals provide information about national and localized average temperature and precipitation as well as other parameters, such as snowfall, heating and cooling degree days, frost and freeze dates, and growing degree days. Several new Normals will be introduced for the first time, including Seasonal Normals representative of different states of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and High-resolution Gridded Normals, which are data that represent Climate Normals at 5 km intervals north and south across the contiguous U.S. to allow for easier calculations and mapping of climate averages and departures from normal. New Normals access tools will also be forthcoming from our RCC partners.

2021 Normals Table via NOAA.

By comparing averages to weather observations, anyone interested in the conditions at specific locations can learn whether a variable is above, below, or near average. For instance, the average temperature during the February 2021 Arctic air cold outbreak in the Dallas–Fort Worth area was 42°F below normal on February 16, according to the 1991–2010 Normals.

Along with the National Weather Service (NWS) and meteorologists and forecasters in the private sector, the new Normals impact the work of numerous public and private stakeholders, including the energy and agricultural sectors of the American economy, building design, infrastructure, construction, and several governmental organizations, such as the USDA.

Changes Since 1981–2010 Climate Normals
Changes can be subtle, depending on the region, season, and timeframeAs anticipated, changes have occurred in averages since the last ten-year update. Since two-thirds of the data (1991–2010) in the new set overlap with the previous version, changes can be subtle, depending on the region, season, and timeframe. Nonetheless, an upward shift in temperature averages is evident, but warming is not ubiquitous across the contiguous U.S. in either geographic space or time of year. Changes vary from season-to-season and month-to-month.

For instance, the north-central U.S. Temperature Normals—for those in the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest—have cooled from 1981–2010 to 1991–2020, especially in the spring. The South and Southwest are considerably warmer. Normals were also generally warmer across the West and along the East Coast.Precipitation-wise, the Southwest was drier; wetter averages emerged in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, especially the Southeast in the spring.

Average annual temperature change in degrees Fahrenheit for the contiguous U.S. from the 1981–2010 U.S. Climate Normals to the newest data in the 1991–2020 Normals, released by NOAA, May 2021. Averages indicate a warming pattern occurred in all but portions of the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains. Courtesy of CISESS.
Annual U.S. precipitation changes by percentage from the 1981–2010 U.S. Climate Normals to the newest data in the 1991–2020 Normals, released by NOAA, May 2021. Decreases indicate a drier Southwest, and increases indicate wetter sections of the Northern Plains, Great Lakes region, and Southeast. Courtesy of CISESS.

In the transition to the new set of Normals, shifts in the relative frequency of above- and below-normal conditions will occur. Shifts will be most discernible in areas of the country undergoing substantial warming in the last decade, as experienced in the West and Florida. In those cases, comparisons of averages to current conditions will trigger below-normal temperature days more frequently. This does not mean that conditions are “colder” in the absolute sense; in actuality, higher averages have raised the bar for warmth.

Climate Normals and Climate Change
U.S. Normals are useful to understand present-day conditionsRather than track or define long-term trends or changes in climate, U.S. Normals are useful to understand present-day conditions. For climate monitoring activities at NCEI, longer periods are referenced. The monthly State of the Climate reports produced for the United States and globe use twentieth-century averages (1901–2000) as benchmarks and will continue to do so. The yearly Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society State of the Climate report also relies on longer periods of record.

Several reasons underlie the use of the twentieth-century averages for climate change monitoring:

  • The 1901–2000 baseline offers more consistency as conditions change over time and is not subject to updates every 10 years.
  • The period is an easy-to-understand range when discussing long-term climate change with non-technical audiences.
  • However, long-term trends from decade to decade can affect baseline “normal” weather conditions. For instance, the last decade includes the warmest seven years on record for the globe, according to NCEI.

    Future Releases
    Additional products and services will be released later in 2021 and into 2022, including Daily Gridded Temperature and Precipitation Normals. Plans are also underway for NOAA NCEI to become a repository for climate normals from countries around the world.

    Legions of citizen scientists contributed to @NOAA’s new #Climate Normals

    The National Weather Service uses the Automated Surface Observing Systems for gathering surface weather observations. Credit: NOAA

    Here’s the release from NOAA:

    Thousands of amateur meteorologists across the United States help the National Weather Service track weather patterns by performing a daily task – checking the temperature and precipitation amounts on their property. These citizen scientists record and report their findings to the agency, every day.

    Daily temperature and precipitation observations collected by volunteer cooperative observers and Automated Surface Observing Systems are used by NOAA scientists to develop the 30-year average of weather and climate data, known as Climate Normals, set to update on May 4.

    “Forecasts are for today, observations are forever,” said National Weather Service Director Louis W. Uccellini, Ph.D. “Thanks to all of our cooperative observers. Your work is key to sustaining the climate record as we compute the average temperatures over the last 30 year period.”

    The National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Program, launched in 1890, is a network of over 10,000 volunteers gathering observations at roughly 8,100 weather stations located on farms, in urban and suburban areas, in National Parks, and on seashores and mountaintops. There are observers in every state and U.S. territory from Palau to Puerto Rico.

    “The century-long accumulation of weather observations taken by volunteer observers provide a baseline to compare yesterday’s weather and tomorrow’s forecast and establish record amounts,” said National Cooperative Observer Program Manager Amy Fritz. “The climate normals dataset are critical to several weather-related functions and help inform activities in many economic sectors such as agricultural, energy and travel.”

    Farmers and pilots were early adopters to the importance of weather observations

    Farmers know crop growth success is closely related to the weather. Monitoring local climate was and is a constant for them. In the early 1900’s, many farmers felt it their duty to the country to record and provide valuable weather data to the National Weather Service. Many cooperative observer weather stations have been passed down in families for generations. For 165 years, the Maddox Family from Rome, Georgia has provided the longest continuous record by a cooperative observer. As for farming locations, the Wright Family of Redrock, New Mexico, has been taking observations from their 320 acre farm for multiple generations.

    In 1926, the Air Commerce Act directed the National Weather Service to provide weather services to civilian aviation, so pilots would have information they needed to fly safely. This led the way for gathering weather observations at airports. Today, airports across the country have Automated Surface Observing Systems – instead of taking manual observations – gathering weather data to support airport operations and provide input for the climate record.

    More than 900 ASOS stations in the U.S. have been in continuous service for almost 30 years. Providing observations every minute of every hour of every day, each station includes sensors to measure wind speed and direction, dew point, air temperature, precipitation type and amount, visibility, cloud height and thickness, and station pressure.

    Assuring accuracy of local surface temperatures and precipitation is a challenging and evolving undertaking. Daily reports from the Cooperative Observer Program along with data from Automated Surface Observing Systems are quality controlled first by National Weather Service meteorologists then by a comprehensive sequence of automated computer procedures at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). In some cases, additional manual quality assessments are performed at NCEI.

    “If NOAA says a record temperature was set, you can trust that record,” said Fritz.

    To find a climate station near you, visit https://gis.ncdc.noaa.gov/maps/ncei/summaries/daily
    If you are interested in weather, consider becoming a volunteer for NOAA’s National Weather Service. We could use your help! Visit, https://www.weather.gov/wrn/get-involved to learn more.

    #ColoradoRiver Basin Hydrology Forecasts Paint Grim Picture — #Colorado River District #COriver #aridification

    Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Monitor map April 27, 2021.

    From the Colorado River District:

    Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer, and Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer, provided a disheartening update to the Colorado River District Board of Directors on the continuing drought and dire water supply outlook in 2021. Unfortunately, conditions have only worsened since January.

    For most of the last two years, monthly precipitation amounts have been below average within the Colorado River District. As of April 30, the snow water equivalent is well below average across the Western Slope with the Colorado basin at 72% of average, the Gunnison at 62% and the Yampa & White at 72%.

    In addition to the below-average seasonal snowpack, the temperature and precipitation model forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center are predicting a hot and dry summer with above-average temperatures across most of the southwest. Forecasters also predict below-average precipitation, particularly in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Most of the Colorado River Basin is currently in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

    Adding insult to injury, low soil moisture will adversely impact runoff. Models from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center suggest the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin has such low soil moisture that it will require up to 12 inches of water to reach saturation. This means that most of the snowpack is absorbing into the soils and not turning into runoff. With the sizable reservoir drawdowns from last year, very few reservoirs are likely to fill in the upcoming water year. This soil moisture deficit presents a significant challenge to refilling the Colorado River storage system, especially the lower, larger facilities, like Lakes Powell and Mead.

    The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-term modeling forecasts project this water year to be below average, with inflow into Lake Powell at about 5.13 million acre-feet, less than 47% of the long-term average. Furthermore, Reclamation projects that Lake Powell will end the water year near 3,557.03 feet elevation, holding about 8.10 million acre-feet in storage, which is 33% of its capacity.

    With these projections for Lake Powell, combined with similarly low projections for Lake Mead, Drought Contingency Plan operations will continue to be in effect for the Lower Basin in 2021 with lowered deliveries to the Central Arizona Project, Southern Nevada and Mexico. Should these projections continue to play out, the Lower Basin will enter a higher tier of shortage in 2022, prompting mandatory cutbacks under the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

    If the level of Lake Powell is projected to fall below 3,535 feet in elevation by October 2022 — which is currently within the worst-case scenario forecast — it would activate the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan. This would trigger coordinated releases into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and other upstream reservoirs to protect reservoir levels and maintain power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.

    There is still time for conditions to improve, but the outlook is not good.

    San Luis Valley Wetlands: Critical stopover habitat for bird migration and the ‘kidneys’ of the Earth — San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

    Cinnamon Teal by NPS Patrick Myers.

    From the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (Zaylah Pearson-Good):

    Introduction
    Each spring and fall, thousands of feathers slice through the brisk San Luis Valley (SLV) sky, alerting resident wildlife, local farmers, and eager birders to the change of season. Ranging from shorebirds to songbirds, a myriad of avian species visit this high-elevation desert as they migrate along the Central Flyway to their breeding and wintering grounds. Nurtured by the Valley’s mosaic of wetlands, riparian corridors, and agricultural fields, the SLV is a critical stopover for these determined travelers.

    Foundational to the health of any stopover habitat is the presence of water. As local hydrology continues to be threatened by high agricultural demands, persistent drought, mining of the aquifer, and water export proposals, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is unknown. By protecting both ground and surface water reserves, we honor the miraculous winged creatures that bring energy, life, and color to the San Luis Valley.

    The Importance of Migratory Stopovers
    From distributing nutrients, seeds, and pollen, to balancing local food chains, animal migrations enhance ecosystem health. Spanning hundreds to thousands of miles in distance, these impressive voyages speak to the beauty, intelligence, endurance, and collective determination of species worldwide. Coming at tremendous energetic costs, migrations also highlight the importance of maintaining healthy habitat along migratory corridors.

    Jenny Nehring and Cary Aloia, SLV biologists and partners at Wetland Dynamics, explain that many people “overemphasize the importance of wintering and breeding grounds,” when in fact, a successful migration also requires the presence of intact, resource rich habitats along the way (Interview, 2021). Without areas to rest and refuel like the SLV, birds would arrive to their destinations underweight and undernourished. For this reason, birds navigate not by the arbitrary borders and boundaries designed by humans, but by the geographical landmarks, such as rivers and wetlands, that represent feeding and resting opportunities.

    Connected by threads of wetland and marsh habitats, the Central Flyway offers safe passage to thousands of birds during their biannual migrations. From the thick boreal forests of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, this flight path is believed to support the movement of over 400 bird species each year (Bode, 2020). The San Luis Valley, a vast high desert shrubland in Southern Colorado, is a critical stopover for many migratory species. Blessed with interspersed wetlands, it is an especially important stop for Central and Pacific Flyway ducks, water birds, shorebirds, and the iconic Sandhill Crane (Ducks Unlimited).

    SLV Significance to Migratory Birds
    According to soil scientist and field ornithologist John Rawinski, the SLV’s drastic range in elevation, and therefore climate, creates a variety of distinct habitats for birds. Cradled by the impressive San Juan Mountains to the west and Sangre de Cristo’s to the east, the semiarid San Luis Valley ranges in elevation from 7,600 feet on the valley floor to over 14,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the harsh alpine tundra to the tranquil grasslands of the lowlands, this diverse habitat in the SLV yields impressive avian biodiversity. Over 360 species have been recorded in this Valley and surrounding mountains (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Over 250 bird species have been identified at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve alone. Of this count, many are migratory species including the Great Blue Heron, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Burrowing Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Cedar Waxwing, (GSDNPPC,pgs. 1-8).

    The SLV Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment identifies the San Luis Valley as being the “southernmost significant waterbird production area in the Central Flyway and the most important waterfowl production area in Colorado…” (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19). For birds that winter in Mexico and South America, the area is ideal for breeding. In fact, it is one of North America’s most critical breeding grounds for various species of duck and colonial wading birds, specifically the Cinnamon Teal (Ducks Unlimited). Similarly, priority duck species, such as Mallard and Northern Pintail depend on the Valley’s flooded wetlands and densely vegetated habitats for migration, nesting, and wintering (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19).

    For bigger bird species and waterfowl, the Valley functions as a vital rest-stop to regain stamina for the journey onward. For example, the SLV is an important destination for nearly the entire Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes as they fly along the Central Flyway. Due to their spectacular numbers and continued presence, this iconic wading bird highlights the value of the SLV’s high quality habitat.

    Sandhill Cranes in the SLV

    Sandhill Cranes West of Dunes by NPS/Patrick Myers

    Human Connection
    Dynamic, loud, and majestic, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Greater Sandhill Crane migration has attracted perhaps the most attention out of any bird to visit the Valley. These grey, long-bodied creatures have flocked to the San Luis Valley for ages, inspiring ancient Native American petroglyphs that date back up to 3,000 years (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Spanning nearly 6 feet in length, the “Big Bird” petroglyph located outside of Del Norte speaks to the impact that cranes have always had on SLV residents.

    As the cultural landscape of the region changed throughout time, so did the cranes’ relationship to the land. For example, early cranes primarily ate the resources found in wetlands such as mice, frogs, snails, tubers, and invertebrates (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). As European settlement and widespread agriculture took root in the SLV, cranes adapted their diet to become more general. Waste grain from farmlands, especially barley, began to comprise a large portion of their diet. While the cultural and physical environment has changed overtime, humans continue to celebrate this majestic bird. Since 1983, locals and tourists have gathered to honor, experience, and learn from the species at the Monte Vista Crane Festival. The annual celebration attracts thousands of visitors each year to marvel at nearly 20,000 dancing, chortling, and swooping cranes.

    Experiencing a Sandhill Crane migration can be a surreal and incredible moment. Cody Wagner, Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC), shares that Sandhill Crane migrations are “one of the last great migrations on the planet,” comparable to the caribou in Canada (Interview, 2021). It is incredibly powerful, and spiritual for some, to witness such a large quantity of charismatic travelers.

    Like the SLV, Nebraska’s Platte River (INAC’s location) is a critical stopover for cranes along the Central Flyway, hosting copious amounts of birds each season. Wagner reports that there can be as many as 200,000 Lesser Sandhill Cranes on any 5-mile segment of the river at a given time. One thing that Wagner loves about being surrounded by so many cranes is that by watching them, you find they have a lot of relatable qualities. Like humans, cranes dance, play, get loud, and also show both an awkward and elegant side. When out on the river, he describes their calls as being “ancient,” “unique,” and “a thing of beauty.” (Wagner, Interview, 2021).

    Local SLV ornithologist and soil scientist John Rawinski shares a similar sentiment with Wagner. Visiting the cranes every chance he gets at the Monte Vista Refuge, he describes the encounter as deeply therapeutic. By “observing the beautiful sounds of the cranes, their majestic flight, and archaic appearance” it sets his day at peace (Interview, 2021). While he acknowledges that one can view the migration of the cranes in various locations on the continent, there is something extraordinary about their presence in the SLV. Snow-capped peaks, a crisp blue sky, and a vast open valley all combine to set an incredible backdrop for the spectacular crane spectacle.

    SLV Significance to Cranes
    Due to the memory of high-quality resources, nearly the entire population of Rocky Mountain Sandhills bottleneck in the SLV during their migration (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). In early February, the birds follow the Rio Grande River northward from their wintering grounds in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Upon reaching the SLV, they scatter themselves throughout barley fields, lakes, wetlands, and the Rio Grande, feeding on high calorie grains and nutrient dense aquatic invertebrates.

    While waste grains from the agricultural fields provide the birds with energy-rich carbohydrates, they derive the majority of their nutrients from invertebrates, which are especially important for healthy eggshell production (Wagner, Interview, 2021). For 1-2 month periods, flocks of cranes congregate in the region’s National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa, Monte Vista, Baca), Blanca Wetlands, and Russell and San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, where there are high concentrations of viable habitat (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 73).

    Travelling up to 300 miles in a single day, Sandhills exert incredible energy during their biannual migrations (INAC). The stopover in the Valley allows the cranes to regain energy and strength to complete the journey to their breeding grounds in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (including portions of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah). The Lesser Sandhill Crane, a slightly smaller version of the Greater Sandhill, travels even farther with its northern territory extending into the arctic. In the fall, the Valley will again serve as a rest-stop for the cranes as they venture back to their winter home in New Mexico.

    John Rawinski speaks to the importance of the Valley as a safe resting place for the cranes. He describes the aquatic habitats of the San Luis Valley as a“safe haven” for birds to relax and rest (Interview, 2021). By roosting in 6-8 inches of water, Sandhills are protected from predators such as coyotes, raccoons, and foxes. Water serves as an alarm system for the birds, as few predators can enter their roosting habitats without splashing loudly and alerting the birds to danger.

    From a conservationist perspective, the current Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes is stable. As omnivores, cranes have a fairly generalist and diverse diet, which speaks to their resilience as they do not depend on one sole food source to be well nourished. As well, cranes can modify their route if they sense insufficient resources along their traditional path. Rerouting demands additional energy, however, which can hurt crane populations and lead to malnourishment and unhealthy body weight (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). Efficiency is an important component to avian migration, and thus is the significance behind reliable, consistent stopover destinations.

    While cranes fortunately exhibit some resilient traits, they are currently vulnerable due to loss of habitat and the unforeseen impacts of climate change. The species, along with other migratory birds, cannot survive without wetlands. Wetlands are currently one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, putting the cranes and countless other species in danger. By recognizing the significance of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover, we are helping to keep habitat along migratory corridors connected. In this way, conserving ecosystems in the Valley is essential for the wellbeing of all birds along the Central Flyway.

    The Importance of Water
    Receiving less than 8 inches of precipitation each year, the San Luis Valley is one of the driest regions in the state of Colorado. In the past two decades, drought, reduced precipitation, and high rates of ground and surface water withdrawals have threatened some of the Valley’s most precious habitats: wetland and riparian areas.

    Sunset Over Wetland by NPS/Patrick Myers

    SLV Wetland Habitats
    Whether it is for nesting, breeding, feeding, or resting, all species that migrate through the San Luis Valley depend on the region’s wetlands. Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems that exist in low-lying depressions in the terrain. They are often referred to as the “kidneys” of the earth because they filter out pollutants, excess nutrients, and sediment from surface waters. They are also essential to the recharging of groundwater and protection against flooding and erosion events.

    Depending on the type of wetland, the habitat may be wet permanently, semi-permanently, seasonally, or temporarily. Variations in soil type, elevation, location, vegetation and climate create distinct types of wetland habitats, that service wildlife in different ways and at different times in their life history (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 17). For example, the Mallard and Northern Pintail ducks require wetlands with shallow water to forage, but seek refuge in wetlands with tall emergent vegetation during sheltering periods (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20). During nesting, both waterfowl species require distinct habitat, with the Mallards preferring habitats abundant with Baltic rush, and the Pintails choosing less dense vegetation, such as greasewood (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20).

    The SLV supports such a thriving community of migratory species, in part, because of its wide range of seasonal wetlands. In an analysis submitted to the Bureau of Land Management on SLV habitats and bird migration, Animas Biological Studies determined that shallow emergent and playa wetlands are “the most critical habitat type for migratory birds in both spring and fall” (pg. 15). Shallow emergent wetlands host a wide range of migratory species in their shallow pond and marsh like habitats. Characteristic of emergent vegetation like rushes and sedges, these habitats offer excellent feeding, nesting, and resting opportunities for migratory wading birds, waterbirds, and secretive marsh birds (ABS, pg. 3). Due to their semi-permanent to permanent quality, these SLV habitats are believed to be the most densely populated and used habitats by migratory shorebirds and waterbirds (ABS, pg. 3).

    Also supporting high biological density and diversity, playa wetlands are some of the Valley’s most unique wetland habitats. Intermittently saturated by either surface or groundwater, these wetlands have high soil alkalinity and salinity that may result in the formation of a white crust during drying cycles. According to John Rawinski, playa wetlands are both the most critical and vulnerable of wetland habitats because they host species that cannot survive in other environments. For example, SLV playas represent the largest nesting area for the Snowy Plover, a threatened North American shorebird that thrives in dry salt flats (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Additionally, several birds classified as “rare” are known to inhabit these distinctive wetlands, especially at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Long-billed Curlew, Short-eared Owl, Black-crowned Night-heron, Foster’s Tern, and the White-faced Ibis (Malone, p. 3) Playa wetlands are also host to a globally endangered plant species, the slender spider flower (Malone, p. 4).

    Wetland threats in the SLV
    Wetlands are both the Valley’s most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems. While only representing 2% of Colorado’s total area, wetland and riparian habitats support over 80% of wildlife species throughout their lives (Wetland Dynamics, p 36, 2019). Furthermore, wetlands are believed to be the most imperative habitats for birds that are classified as “at-risk” (Rondeau et al., pg. 93). In other words, Colorado’s most threatened species are also most reliant on wetland ecosystems.

    Unfortunately, wetland conservation has been historically insufficient. In a report prepared by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the authors write that “Threats to wetland species are high and protection is generally poor” (Rondeau et al., p 128). Cody Wagner with the Audubon confirms this point in saying that many people undervalue these habitats; “Wetlands are held in less esteem by the public and have been historically viewed as a waste of space” (Interview, 2021). As a result, across the country, these habitats have been intentionally drained, burned out, converted into cropland/developments, polluted, or compromised by invasive species.

    Due to reduced precipitation, severe droughts, earlier peak runoff, unsustainable agricultural practices, and high demands from water users, wetlands in the SLV have suffered. Wetland Dynamics, a small business committed to the conservation of critical SLV ecosystems, reports that nearly half of the Valley’s total wet acres have been lost since the 1980’s (pg. 80). With water use continuing to exceed supply, conservation of local water resources will be instrumental to restoring and protecting these habitats.

    Wetland declines are of great concern for many reasons. Not only does it strain bird migrations, but losses also pose a threat to the surrounding environment. With less available habitat, birds will be forced to congregate in the few viable wetlands that remain. According to a study under the Society for Conservation Biology, wetlands overburdened by high densities of birds can cause “the destruction of wetland vegetation, impose heavy losses in local agricultural crops, increase the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and decrease water quality” (Post, et al., p. 911). Furthermore, crowded habitat is also detrimental to wildlife, potentially leading to increased competition for resources, poor reproductive success, and reduced longevity.

    Willet and White Faced Ibis by NPS/Patrick Myers

    Riparian Habitat
    Defined as the interface between a river or stream and the surrounding terrain, riparian areas are hotspots for migratory species. Densely vegetated with native grasses, willows, sedges, rushes, and cottonwoods, these areas are sanctuaries for resident and seasonal wildlife in the arid SLV. Common bird species to utilize these local ecosystems include the Bullock’s Oriole, Great Horned Owl, Northern Flicker, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, and the American Kestrel (USFWS, 2014). Similar to wetlands, riparian habitats are some of the sparsest habitats in the region. Riparian habitats support about 80% of resident bird species but represent only 3% of the landscape in the Intermountain West (Wetlands Dynamic, p 20).

    Intersecting the SLV near Del Norte, the Rio Grande supports imperative riparian habitat for avian species. For example, the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area protects 4.5 miles of the Rio Grande, which is considered “Critical Habitat” for the federally-endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (COGO, 2018). The surrounding uplands (sagebrush and grasslands) host Sage Thrashers and Mountain Plovers, both of which are suffering a decline in population (GOCO, 2018). The Higel State Wildlife Area also protects several miles of the Rio Grande. This area is known to be critical habitat and breeding ground for the Willow Flycatcher, and the threatened, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 42).

    The Rio Grande is considered a critical migratory corridor as it offers species a continuous stretch of riparian habitat along their path. From the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande River supports an otherwise thirsty landscape along its 1,900-mile path. Feeding seasonal wetland and riparian habitats, the Rio Grande brings life to parched deserts and valleys, allowing for both human and wildlife communities to thrive.

    Jenny Nehring describes the Rio Grande as a “green ribbon in a very dry landscape” that directs birds towards resources along their high-energy voyage (Interview, 2021). The Rio Grande offers safe passage to countless migratory species, including the Sandhills, who utilize the river for both navigation and nourishment. Audubon New Mexico reports that roughly 18,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes, 200,000 waterfowl, and thousands of other water and shorebird species utilize New Mexico’s Rio Grande Corridor. Whether it is for wintering, migration, resting, feeding or nesting, the Rio Grande is an irreplaceable resource for migratory birds.

    Threats to the Rio Grande
    Excessive water use of the Rio Grande has become a growing concern. As early as the start of the 20thcentury, surveyors were already noticing the impact of SLV irrigation on the river. A USGS survey of the San Luis Valley in the early 1900s relayed that “the waters of this stream [Rio Grande river} are greatly over appropriated, even in the flood season” (Siebenthal, pg. 19). Currently, high water demands by agriculturalists, coupled with the drying impacts of climate change, have continued to tax this critical water supply. The upper Rio Grande is projected to decrease in volume by one-third in the coming years (Audubon New Mexico). Furthermore, over 90% of historical wetlands and riparian habitat along Rio Grande Corridor have already been lost in the last 150 years (Bode, 2020).

    Wetland Dynamics shares that with the projected impacts of climate change, warmer water temperature and reduced stream flow could decrease the Rio Grande’s “extent of overall flooding across the watershed” (pg. 28). Already, the Rio Grande Basin Implementation plan is anticipating a 30% decrease in the river’s stream flow (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 28). Reduced flow and thus flooding from the Rio Grande would have dramatic consequences for the wetland and riparian ecosystems that require surface water input. Visiting and resident wildlife would greatly suffer as a result of this major habitat loss.

    Young Great Horned Owl by NPS/Patrick Myers

    A Changing World for Birds
    Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.

    The Importance of Birds
    A Changing World for Birds
    Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.

    The Importance of Birds
    Besides their striking beauty and relaxing melodies, birds play essential roles in balancing ecosystems and ensuring a healthy environment. During migrations, birds visit a diverse range of landscapes. Travelling thousands of miles, birds pick up and disperse nutrients and seeds. This process contributes to a more biologically diverse and productive ecosystem. Many birds also consume large quantities of insects as they migrate, which serves as a natural pest control for farmers. Lastly, certain aerial migrants, such as bats and hummingbirds, are important pollinators along their respective flyways. This is especially true for flower pollination.

    In addition, birds are sensitive to environmental fluctuation, and therefore are considered good indicators of ecosystem health. Scientists have used the presence or lack of birds to learn about the impact of toxic pollutants such as PCBs and heavy metals in the environment. By ensuring healthy landscapes for birds, we reflect a healthy environment for human residents too. In this way, birds play a helpful role in teaching humans about the land in which they are a part. In the San Luis Valley, the continued visitation of large numbers of migratory species indicates that our landscape is blessed with prosperous habitats capable of supporting a wide range of life forms. With water export proposals such as RWR threatening our local water reserves, we cannot take these ecosystems for granted.

    Renewable Water Resources (RWR)
    Proposal Connected by a series of pipelines running through Poncha Pass, Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposes to remove 22,000 acre-feet of SLV water from the deep aquifer each year. This trans-basin water diversion would transfer local water to growing municipalities in the Front Range at the cost of SLV’s economy, ecology and future. Backed by former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner and former Governor Bill Owens, RWR is one of many nonlocal investors who have attempted to remove thousands of acres of feet of water from the SLV a year. Opposed by SLV water managers, towns, environmental advocacy groups, and many ranchers/farmers, the impacts of RWR’s proposal would have horrific impacts on the local environment.

    Potential Impact
    Central to the study of ecology is that everything is connected. Hydrology is no different. By removing thousands of acres of water out of the deep aquifer each year, the health of the shallow aquifer, as well as wetlands and rivers that sustain life above it, are put at risk. As SLV ground and surface water reserves are already over-appropriated and declining, the San Luis Valley cannot afford to lose any more water. As a scientist and advocate for the environment, John Rawinski notes that, whenever there is potential for water to leave the San Luis Valley, “the big loser is always wildlife” (Interview, 2021). While humans have the ability to buy and transport water, wildlife and the habitats on which they depend do not have this freedom. The resident and migratory species of this Valley cannot afford to lose their most precious resource at the hands of those who desire to profit from it.

    Conclusion
    Spanning nearly 120 miles from north to south, the San Luis Valley supports vibrant communities of wildlife. Attracting avian species from all across North America, the SLV stands out as a significant stopover for migratory species. High quality wetlands and riparian areas sustain these winged travelers as they cover thousands of miles during their migrations. These incredible voyages attract nature lovers, balance local ecosystems, and encourage local biodiversity. However, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is jeopardized due to water scarcity. The Valley is faced with an urgent call to conserve water resources. For wildlife and human inhabitants, we must prevent water miners from exporting water, implement more sustainable forms of irrigation and land stewardship, consider water re-use, and unite private and public landowners in habitat conservation. The future of wildlife and humans in the San Luis Valley is depending on a commitment to protect our water.

    Works Cited

    Animas Biological Studies (ABS). “2015 Migratory Waterbird and Shorebird Surveys to Inform Solar Energy Zone Planning, Avian Impact Minimization, and Species Conservation in the San Luis Valley, Colorado.” 2016.
    Audubon New Mexico. “Priority Birds in New Mexico.” National Audubon Society. https://nm.audubon.org/birds/priority-birds
    Bode, Christi. The Fragile Flyway: Conserving the Rio Grande Corridor. Vimeo, 4 November 2020, https://vimeo.com/475587503
    Ducks Unlimited, “Colorado Conservation Projects.” https://www.ducks.org/colorado/colorado-conservation-projects
    Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO). “New State Wildlife Area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Thanks to Collaborative Effort on the Upper Rio Grande.” 2018. https://goco.org/news/new-state-wildlife-area-colorado’s-san-luis-valley-thanks-collaborative-effort-upper-rio-grande
    Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC) at Rowe Sanctuary, “Sandhill Crane Facts.”National Audubon Society.https://rowe.audubon.org/crane-facts
    Malone, Dee. “Ecological Systems of Colorado: Inter-Mountain Basins Playa.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP). November 2017. https://cnhp.colostate.edu/projects/ecological-systems-of- colorado/details/?elementID=365181&wetland=1
    Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Colorado (GSDNPPC). “Bird Checklist.” National Park Service, 2006. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/upload/bird-checklist-2006-508.pdf
    Nehring, Jenny & Aloia Cary (SLV Biologists and Owners of Wetland Dynamics). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 8 March 2021.
    Post, et al. “ The Role of Migratory Waterfowl as Nutrient Vectors in a Managed Wetland.” Conservation Biology, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1998.
    Rawinski, John. (SLV soil scientist and ornithologist). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good,12 March 2021.
    Rondeau, R., et al. “The State of Colorado’s Biodiversity.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program,ColoradoState University, Fort Collins, Colorado, 2011. Siebenthal, C.E. “Geology and Water Resources of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. United States Geological Survey, Water Supply paper #240, 1910.
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS) “Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife and Habitat.” 2014. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Baca/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS). “Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado” 2020. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html.
    Wagner, Cody. (Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 2 March 2021.
    Wetland Dynamics. “San Luis Valley Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment: Historic and Current distribution of Wetlands and Riparian Areas Recommendations for Future Conservation.” Final Edition 2, 8 May 2019,

    Ritschard Dam in Grand County is showing an increasing risk of failure, prompting a new engineering study: “A crack causing internal erosion is the primary driver of the risk of dam failure” — @AspenJournalism #ColoraadoRiver #COriver

    A truck drives out to Ritschard Dam, which forms Wolford Reservoir, on July 13, 2016. The River District will spend $323,840 to study potential cracking and erosion at the dam after a study found it is at greater risk of failure than previously thought.
    CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    The Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board of directors has approved a contract with an engineering firm to address problems with a dam that are turning out to be worse than previously thought.

    At its second quarterly meeting, held in April, the River District board agreed to pay $323,840 to HDR Engineering to further study the movement and potential cracking at the district-owned Ritschard Dam. The dam forms the 66,000-acre-foot Wolford Mountain Reservoir across Muddy Creek, about 5 miles north of Kremmling in Grand County. Muddy Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River.

    River District staff, aware since 2008 that the dam is settling and moving more than expected, have been monitoring the situation. However, a 2020 Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation prepared in December by HDR Engineering for the state’s Dam Safety section of the Division of Water Resources found that the risk of internal erosion of the dam due to cracking had increased from a 2016 evaluation. That year’s evaluation estimated the chances of a dam failure at 1 in a billion in any given year; the 2020 report found a 1.5-in-10,000 chance of a dam failure.

    A crack causing internal erosion is the primary driver of the risk of dam failure.

    “It is currently expected that the core will crack at some point, if it has not already done so,” the report reads. “Although a deep crack through the core would represent a severe defect and a serious dam safety incident that significantly compromises the dam’s ability to store water, formation of a crack does not necessarily mean the dam would breach.”

    Ritschard Dam has an impermeable clay core that is covered on the upstream and downstream sides with rockfill. Because the rock-fill is poorly compacted, the dam’s outer shells are still moving, especially on the downstream side. The 122-foot-tall dam was built for the River District in 1995 by D.H. Blattner and Sons of Minnesota. The cost was $42 million.

    According to the report, normal reservoir operations that involve cycles of drawdown and refill appear to have a detrimental effect on the deformations. Even if the dam does not breach, there could still be very serious incidents that necessitate emergency actions and downstream evacuations or a reservoir restriction.

    “The probability of a serious dam safety incident will only increase over time as deformations continue, and therefore there is urgency in taking actions,” the report reads.

    The report said risk of dam failure at Ritschard is about the same as the historical failure rate for dams built prior to modern dam safety. Generally, a dam designed and constructed in the 1990s should have a much lower risk of failure than the historical rate.

    The River District has been monitoring the dam with instruments, but HDR Engineering will help identify areas that could benefit from additional inclinometers, which measure slope angle, and piezometers, which measure underground water pressure.

    “First and foremost, the River District puts public health and safety as our number one priority always, and every action we take is with public safety in mind,” said River District chief of operations Audrey Turner, who is acting as spokesperson on Ritschard Dam matters. “The River District has and will continue to increase our monitoring and emergency preparedness at the dam as recommended by the report.”

    The River District also will use a LiDAR survey program — which utilizes lasers for remote sensing — to track and visualize dam deformation, stockpile emergency materials onsite such as gravel and riprap and is planning an exercise for the fall that will improve the community’s emergency preparedness.

    It’s still unclear whether or when the dam will need to be rehabilitated; that’s what adding more monitoring instruments may help the district figure out.

    “There are still some other areas of exploration and additional information before any decision is made toward the rehabilitation of the dam,” Turner said.

    A view of the upstream side of the dam that forms Wolford Reservoir, on Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, above Kremmling. A recent dam safety evaluation found that the dam is at greater risk of cracking and internal erosion than previously thought.
    CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH / ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Runoff season operations

    The dam deformation won’t stop the reservoir from filling this runoff season. The plan is to still fill the reservoir, as long as the drought conditions allow. Turner said the River District also will still be able to fulfill all of its contract demands for water later in the summer.

    Dam Safety has signed off on the district’s operation plan, which calls for letting Denver Water make releases from Wolford instead of from other Western Slope reservoirs in order to get the reservoir level down to 10 feet below the crest as soon as possible after it fills with runoff.

    “The plan looks well thought out, and we appreciate the proactive steps taken to continue to monitor conditions and toward emergency preparedness,” Bill McCormick, chief of Colorado’s Dam Safety Branch, said in an email to the River District.

    Denver Water leases 40% of the water in Wolford. After 2020, the Front Range water provider was supposed to have become the owner of that water. But the deal is off, at least temporarily, while the dam’s problems are studied.

    “The River District and Denver Water have temporarily postponed that transfer of ownership to allow the parties to conduct further study related to the risk-assessment recommendations,” Turner said.

    Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the two entities mutually decided to extend the lease temporarily while they determine the next steps.

    “We were supportive of the 2020 risk assessment and shared some costs of that process along with the expertise and guidance of our engineering team,” Hartman said in an email. “We’ve continued to consult on the path ahead and will remain engaged in helping to develop and guide the upcoming engineering study.”

    Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 3 edition of The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and Steamboat Pilot & Today.

    #Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Agricultural Water (virtual) Symposium, May 25, 2021

    From email from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (Phil Brink):

    Topics and Presenters:

    1) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding for ditch and irrigation companies: For the first time, ditch and irrigation companies can now apply for USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding. What types of improvements are eligible for funding, and what are the payment rates and eligibility requirements?

    Presenter – Kindra Brandner, USDA – NRCS EQIP Program Manager, Colorado

    2) Mountain Meadow Deficit Irrigation (early) Results: During the summer of 2021, irrigated meadows in the Kremmling area were deficit irrigated to learn more about the effects of deficit irrigation on forage production, soils, and the amount of water that could be conserved.

    Presenter: Dr. Perry Cabot, Irrigation and Water Resources Leader, CSU Western Colorado Research Center, Fruita, CO.

    3) How to Secure your Water Right and Navigate Division of Water Resources (DWR) Records for Information: Water rights are valuable. You will learn how to access information about your water rights via the DWR HydroBase online resource AND the steps needed to help secure your water rights.

    Presenters: John Rodgers, P.E., Colorado DWR HydroBase Coordinator and

    Corey DeAngelis, P.E., Colorado DWR Division 1 Engineer.

    Webinar Details: Tuesday, May 25, 2021, 11:00 – 12:50 pm.

    Register: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_kBhD2jlkR4KNSULbNq1A-w

    To prepare your computer or mobile device in advance: https://zoom.us/download. Otherwise, you will be prompted to download and install Zoom when you join the meeting.

    Contact: Phil Brink at phil@brinkinc.biz or Erin Karney; erin@coloradocattle.org; 303-431-6422

    Cattle have their evening meal in the San Luis Valley. Credit: Jerd Smith

    Amid #drought, Interstate Stream Commission seeks federal support — #NewMexico Political Report

    New Mexico Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

    From The New Mexico Political Report (Hannah Grover):

    As much of New Mexico faces exceptional drought conditions, the Interstate Stream Commission authorized its chairman to ask the Department of Interior for financial support.

    The commission approved delegating that authority to commission chairman during its meeting on Friday.

    The chairman will work with State Engineer John D’Antonio to request funding for both long-term and short-term drought relief.

    The short-term relief could be something like assistance for farmers, said ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Peterson…

    Low water flow in rivers

    The major water basins in the state are experiencing low flows in rivers.

    The Upper Colorado River Basin had 89 percent of normal snowpack this year, but the back-to-back years of drought left the soil dry. This led to more of the runoff soaking into the ground rather than flowing downstream, according to the staff report at the start of the meeting. This has left flows in the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers at 50 percent of the historic average during March and April.

    Meanwhile, the Gila and San Francisco rivers are flowing at 5 to 21 percent of the historic average for March and April.

    The headwater tributaries of the Pecos River were flowing at 39 to 47 percent of average during the time period from October to March, according to information from the New Mexico Drought Taskforce. In the Canadian River Basin, the headwater tributaries were flowing at 18 to 67 percent of average.

    During the October to March time period, the Rio Grande streamflow upstream of Albuquerque ranged from 35 to 67 percent of average, according to the drought taskforce report…

    The Rio Grande Compact is preventing New Mexico from storing water in reservoirs built after 1929 because of the low levels and the state currently owes water from the Rio Grande to downstream users.

    Meanwhile, water users in the Pecos River basin will be relying on augmentation wells this year.

    Reservoirs below capacity

    As streamflow in much of the state is well below average, the reservoirs have dropped.

    Ute Reservoir near Logan is at 65 percent capacity, leaving community boat docks on dry land and needing to be shut down. Other reservoirs in the Canadian River Basin aren’t faring any better. Eagle Nest Reservoir is at 43 percent capacity and Conchas Reservoir is at 23 percent capacity.

    Meanwhile, in the northwest portion of the state, Navajo Reservoir is 62 percent full. Because of the low amount of water in Navajo Reservoir, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is not having the spring peak release this year that is usually done to clear out the channel and improve habitat for endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow.

    Slight increase in #Colorado’s #drought conditions — The Kiowa County Press

    From The Kiowa County Press (Chris Sorensen):

    One week after Colorado saw the first drought-free area in the state since mid-2020, drought worsened for part of the state according to the latest report from the National Drought Mitigation Center.

    The change came in northwest Colorado, where much of Rio Blanco County, and smaller areas in Moffat and Garfield counties slipped from extreme drought into exceptional conditions. Recent higher temperatures – occasionally reaching 80 degrees – along with little moisture over the past week, contributed to the decline. The area also saw red flag warnings for high fire danger.

    Much of western Colorado has been in extreme and exceptional drought since late summer.

    Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending April 27, 2021.

    The remainder of the state remained stable for the week, though late-week moisture may show some additional improvements in the next report. Northeast Colorado received rain during the week, with portions of Logan and Phillips counties falling under flood warnings as late as Thursday morning. There were a few reports of as much as 11 inches of rain in parts of those counties, which contributed to flooding that damaged local roads and closed Highway 59 at one point…

    Colorado Drought Monitor April 27, 2021.

    USDA statistics rate more than half of the topsoil short or very short of moisture in Colorado (57%), Montana (57%), and Wyoming (55%), and nearly two-thirds or more so rated in South Dakota (62%) and North Dakota (80%). In Colorado, 32 percent of the winter wheat crop was rated in poor to very poor condition. Several Colorado communities were asked to voluntarily conserve water.

    Overall, one percent of the state is drought-free, with an additional 10 percent in abnormally dry conditions, both unchanged from the previous week. Moderate and severe drought were also unchanged at 29 and 28 percent, respectively. Extreme and exceptional conditions swapped, with extreme drought falling to 15 percent from 17, while exceptional drought increased to 17 percent from 15 in the prior week.

    Water treatment plants that will remove ‘forever chemicals’ from El Paso County water nearing completion — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #PFAS

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Mary Shinn):

    Three new water treatment plants in Fountain, Security and Widefield needed to remove toxic “forever chemicals” from the groundwater, carrying a heavy price tag of $41 million, are nearing completion.

    The plant in Widefield was finished in February, the Security plant is expected to be operational this week and the Fountain plant is expected to be complete in June, following a pause in construction that lasted more than a month, officials with each district said.

    Construction of the Fountain plant was halted because the supplier of critical piping for the plant could not provide it, said Dan Blankenship, utilities director for Fountain, adding that the supplier’s work was delayed by the coronavirus. In a written statement the Air Force Civil Engineer Center said work on the $7 million plant in Fountain is expected to resume May 3. The other two plants are expected to cost a combined $34 million, the statement said.

    The Air Force is paying for the water treatment plants that will remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from groundwater because investigations showed the contamination came from Peterson Air Force Base, where firefighters used a foam rich in one of those compounds for decades to put out aircraft fires…

    Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

    Water providers stopped using the groundwater after the contamination was discovered in 2015 and 2016, and studies are still ongoing to learn about the long-term health consequences of the contamination. The compounds’ ability to stay in the body led to their nickname “forever chemicals.”

    Encouraging results from one of the studies conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines showed that the amount of chemicals in blood samples taken from 53 exposed residents dropped from 2018 to 2019, according to a presentation of results. The median level of the chemical most closely associated with firefighting foam dropped 50% in the participants, results showed…

    The new treatment plants are meant to protect the public from additional exposure to the chemicals and allow the districts in some cases to return to using a key water source.

    In Security, the new plant was tested in December, and water samples showed it was removing problematic chemicals down to undetectable levels, said Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts.

    #COVID19’s impact on Southern #Colorado rafting was rough, but not as bad as expected — The #Pueblo Chieftan

    Recreational vehicle: Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

    It’s hard to imagine, but for some rafting company owners, COVID concerns did not decimate business last summer. In his 10 years at the helm of Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center, owner Brandon Slate has never been as busy as he was last summer despite the global pandemic.

    “Last year (in the spring) phones were not ringing at all and we ended up having the busiest season since I’ve been running the company,” Slate said. “It was crazy.”

    Andy Neinas, Echo Canyon River Expeditions owner, said he is ready to put the challenging year of 2020 behind him and focus on the upcoming summer season. It was the restaurant portion of his business and the high costs of transporting customers to the river that hurt his bottom line…

    According to the Colorado River Outfitters Association’s annual report, the late start to the rafting season was compounded by the health regulations which forced rafting companies to run at partial capacities…

    “Reduced rafting participation is reflected in the 2020 economic impact on the state’s economy,” the report reads. “Due to high unemployment, the downturn in travel and reduced discretionary spending, this report reflects the significant impacts our industry encountered.

    “However, outfitters displayed resiliency and adaptability in an unprecedented environment.”

    Overall number of rafters taking to Colorado waterways totaled 430,175 last summer, a reduction of 112,230 customers or a nearly 21% decline. On the Arkansas River, the impact was not as stark.

    There were 182,005 rafting clients boating the Arkansas in 2020, down just 8,241 customers or 4.3% less when compared to 190,246 rafters in 2019.

    The statewide economic impact for commercial rafting in 2020 was $148. 7 million, compared to a 2019 impact of $184.9 million. Although there was a $26.2 million difference, the numbers were “much more robust than anticipated,” according to the report.

    In the Arkansas River Valley, rafting brought $24.5 million in direct expenditures to rafting companies in 2020, down just $1.3 million from 2019’s $25.8 million. All totaled, the economic impact of rafting — when other expenditures such as lodging, restaurant, dining and gasoline sales are figured in — was $62.9 million to the area in 2020, down $3.1 million for 2019.

    No ‘just’ transition yet after 2019 closing of #coal plant and mine in western #Colorado — The Mountain Town News

    Nucla. Photo credit: Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    At Nucla and Naturita, two small communities in Western Colorado, the transition from a coal economy has begun. As for a just transition?

    No, not yet says Sarah Backman, a local attorney who, like many others in these towns an hour west of Telluride, wears a lot of hats.

    Backman and others hope that the proposed Just Transition appropriation bill being heard in the Colorado Legislature for the first time on May 6 will deliver money for their communities, to continue the work already underway.

    “I don’t feel like we have a just transition, but hopefully if this bill passes, (the money) can be allocated quickly so that we can continue our efforts to transition our community,” she says.

    Nucla Station was a 100-megawatt plant that was closed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission in September 2019 in response to anti-haze enforcement by the federal government. The plant faced more stringent regulation of emissions of nitrous oxide, a component in haze, also called smog, and upgrades to the aging plant would have been expensive.

    The first unit at Craig Station will also be closed by the end of 2025 as a result of the same settlement.

    Nucla Station had 76 employees and the accompanying mine 35 at one time. At closing in November 2019, they had 35 and 23, according to Tri-State. Ten remain at work on reclamation of the sites.

    As for the roughly $2 million in property taxes paid annually by Tri-State, that is mostly gone, too. The plant and mine represented about 43% of property tax valuation in the west end of Montrose County, where the communities are located.

    This is from the April 30, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Sign up at http://Big Pivots.com.

    In small communities, a few people tend to wear a lot of hats. It’s often the same faces on the water districts, chamber, historical society – you name it.

    Backman is one of those in addition to being a young mother. She says that the prevailing vision in the communities is of developing an economy more strongly reliant on tourism. Tourism has its weaknesses, she says, but it’s not boom or bust. And, if far off the beaten paths of Colorado, Nucla and Naturita have much to work with.

    Telluride lies an hour to the east, and some in the community work there or have businesses catering to the Telluride economy. Moab lies 90 minutes to the west, and Grand Junction a little longer to the north.

    There are slickrock canyons of the San Miguel River, the eye-pleasing forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. In the west end of Montrose County, a place with 2,500 residents in the 2010 census, there is a place called Bedrock, located in the Paradox Valley, so-named for its queer geology. It is bisected by the Dolores River.

    There’s also a place called Uravan, from which the uranium used by Madame Curie in her experiments during the 1920s was mined.

    The Manhattan Project of World War II spurred a boom in uranium mining. That boom petered out in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving widows who, as Peter Hessler documented in his 2010 piece in the New Yorker (and this writer learned in a 2006 visit), pined for the good old days and a return to uranium mining. It hasn’t happened yet. See: “The Uranium Widows

    With this focus on tourism, not uranium, the effort is on drawing visitors for events such as the dark skies festival, scheduled for June. In this, the community will be in the company of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Canada’s Banff resort communities in celebrating dark skies.

    Canyon country abounds west and north of Nucla and Naturita. Photo/West End Economic Development Corporation via The Mountain Town News

    Another multi-hatted community doer is Aimee Tooker, the president of the West End Economic Development Corporation since its founding in 2014.

    “We have been working on economic development ever since then,” she says. In 2017, the group got a $836,000 economic development grant to pay for programming funding., but that grant will be exhausted within the next year. She hopes that Colorado funding will continue to put wind into the sails of this effort.

    The coal plant’s closing was done two years earlier than expected. Tri-State was paying $2 million in property taxes to local jurisdictions. That’s not a huge sum in many places, but these are small places. The population of Nucla is 644, and that of Naturita is 486.

    “This is 67% of the tax base of our emergency services district,” says Tooker.

    Tri-State is providing a $500,000 grant to the communities over the course of five years to West End Pay It Forward Trust. It’s welcome but not enough, say those in the Nucla-Naturita community trying to build a bridge to a new, more diversified economy.

    How will state funding help these two communities? “By keeping our boots on the ground,” replies Tooker. She cites a plan to beautify the main street in Nucla.

    Paul Major has worked with the Nucla-Naturita community. Until recently, he operated the Telluride Foundation, a philanthropy. He remains on Colorado’s Just Transition advisory committee.

    He credits Tooker, Backman, and others for their drive and ambition. Instead of whining about the closing of the plant, he says, they’re working hard to make their community a great place to live. “It’s a cliché, but they are really leaning into it,” he says.

    How climate change is worsening drought — Environmental Defense Fund #ActOnClimate

    US Drought Monitor April 27, 2021.

    From the Environmental Defense Fund (Naomi Cohen-Shields):

    Spring is in full swing across the U.S. – flowers are blooming, pollen is blowing – and this means that the 2021 heat wave, hurricane, and wildfire seasons are just around the corner.

    After the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season produced a record number of named storms and record-breaking wildfires ravaged the Western U.S., vulnerable communities are bracing for more. However, another extreme weather event linked to climate change has been quietly afflicting the U.S. year-round with no signs of letting up and at risk of becoming permanent – widespread drought.

    Drought conditions have been ongoing since early summer 2020 – and have persisted, worsened, and expanded dramatically – across vast portions of the continental U.S. Since October 2020, almost all of the High Plains and Western regions and more than half of the South have been experiencing some level of drought. More than 50% of Western drought conditions are categorized as either extreme or exceptional drought. Even more drastically, extreme and exceptional drought have comprised more than 75% of drought conditions across the Four Corners region (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico) since late autumn.

    NOAA predicts that these widespread dry conditions are likely to continue and spread throughout the spring, especially in the Southwest. This poses major threats to the region, including increased risks of wildfires, parched rangelands, stressed irrigation systems, and crop failures.

    Just as climate change has worsened many extreme weather events, it has also impacted droughts. The excess heat now trapped in the climate system draws out more moisture from soils, thereby worsening drought conditions. Reduced snowpack volumes, earlier snowmelt, and changing precipitation patterns – also linked to climate change – exacerbate the water stress induced by droughts. And for numerous individual events across the world, scientists have attributed the increased likelihood and severity of droughts to human-driven climate change.

    The severe drought currently afflicting the Western U.S. is exacerbated by both climate change and a La Niña event – where cooler water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean result in less rainfall over the southwestern U.S.

    The role of climate change in droughts

    Spring is in full swing across the U.S. – flowers are blooming, pollen is blowing – and this means that the 2021 heat wave, hurricane, and wildfire seasons are just around the corner.

    After the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season produced a record number of named storms and record-breaking wildfires ravaged the Western U.S., vulnerable communities are bracing for more. However, another extreme weather event linked to climate change has been quietly afflicting the U.S. year-round with no signs of letting up and at risk of becoming permanent – widespread drought.

    Drought conditions have been ongoing since early summer 2020 – and have persisted, worsened, and expanded dramatically – across vast portions of the continental U.S. Since October 2020, almost all of the High Plains and Western regions and more than half of the South have been experiencing some level of drought. More than 50% of Western drought conditions are categorized as either extreme or exceptional drought. Even more drastically, extreme and exceptional drought have comprised more than 75% of drought conditions across the Four Corners region (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico) since late autumn.

    NOAA predicts that these widespread dry conditions are likely to continue and spread throughout the spring, especially in the Southwest. This poses major threats to the region, including increased risks of wildfires, parched rangelands, stressed irrigation systems, and crop failures.

    Just as climate change has worsened many extreme weather events, it has also impacted droughts. The excess heat now trapped in the climate system draws out more moisture from soils, thereby worsening drought conditions. Reduced snowpack volumes, earlier snowmelt, and changing precipitation patterns – also linked to climate change – exacerbate the water stress induced by droughts. And for numerous individual events across the world, scientists have attributed the increased likelihood and severity of droughts to human-driven climate change.

    The severe drought currently afflicting the Western U.S. is exacerbated by both climate change and a La Niña event – where cooler water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean result in less rainfall over the southwestern U.S.

    The role of climate change in droughts

    Droughts are often defined as periods of relative dryness and reduced soil moisture. Although droughts can be influenced by water management and land use practices, climate-related factors such as rainfall and evaporation determine underlying conditions. Today’s climate change, driven by increased emissions of heat-trapping gases, is playing a major role in the increasing severity of drought through its influences on both rainfall and evaporation.

    Here are the three main ways that human-caused climate change is influencing droughts:

    1. Increasing temperatures are enhancing evaporation and therefore drying out soils and vegetation. For example, last summer was one of the hottest and driest on record in the western U.S. This spring, soil moisture content in the West is at its lowest level in 120 years, and fuel moisture content in the Santa Cruz mountains is at a record low.
    2. Altered circulation patterns are impacting characteristics of storms, such as where they develop and what path they take. For example, the 2020 summer monsoons never arrived in the Southwest, further exacerbating water stress there.
    3. Reduced snowpack volumes and earlier, quicker snowmelt from increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns threaten to lower water supply in many regions. For example, snowpack volumes have decreased by around 40% in some western areas over the past 35 years. This year alone, snowpack in California is less than 50% of its normal volume, and snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin reached only 75% of its median.

    Scientists have found that human-caused climate change increased drought severity in the Mediterranean, Western Amazon, South Africa, Russia, India, Australia, and southern Europe. Many of these locations are already areas that suffer from water scarcity.

    Scientists have also studied individual drought events across the world, and found that many major droughts were made worse by climate change, including in Texas (2011-2012), East Africa (2011), California (2013-2015), Kenya (2016-2017), and Cape Town (2018). Researchers found that human-caused climate change made the majority of the drought events studied more severe or more likely to occur. In Cape Town in particular, scientists suggest that human-driven climate change tripled the likelihood of the 2018 water crisis.

    Why droughts are so devastating

    The U.S. has experienced at least one billion-dollar drought every year from 2011-2018. In comparison, the country experienced only four billion-dollar droughts throughout the entire 1980s. While droughts occur most frequently in the Southwest, the most damaging and costly droughts have occurred in the Southern Plains – where major impacts to the agricultural and ranching industries have been devastating. Like with other extreme weather events, the impacts of severe droughts disproportionately burden already disadvantaged communities.

    Unlike other weather-related disasters that make headlines from immediately visible damages, droughts are simmering disasters whose impacts gradually accumulate with time. However, the effects of severe drought are felt acutely across society and ecosystems:

    • Agriculture: Water stress and increased temperatures lead to crop losses that can devastate farmers who are dependent on crop yields for their livelihoods. Increasingly dry rangeland also negatively impacts livestock production, as it becomes increasingly difficult to feed and hydrate large herds.
    • Ecosystems: Drought can result in major fish kills as bodies of water dry up. They can also lead to pest outbreaks, declines in wildlife, and forest diebacks – all of which reduce the viability of key ecosystem services that we depend upon.
    • Infrastructure: Outdoor recreation industries may see declines as a result of drought, and physical infrastructure can be damaged from shifting soil and moisture levels. Drought conditions are also likely to increase the risk and severity of destructive wildfires.
    • Economy: Droughts have resulted in $249.7 billion in damages since 1980, with an average of $9 billion in damages each year since 2010.

    Future droughts in a warming world

    Droughts are expected to last longer and become more severe in the years to come. This is because we anticipate further warming from continued emissions of heat-trapping gases. While we also expect more rainfall overall across the U.S., scientists predict that increases in evaporation will outpace increases in precipitation, leading to more frequent and extensive dry periods.

    The U.S. Southwest in particular is projected to trend towards megadrought periods – which can last two decades or longer – as climate change continues. For other regions of the country, such as the West Coast, rapid flips between droughts and floods are predicted. These abrupt changes will make it much harder to effectively balance water storage and flood management. There is also a concern of permanent drought.

    In 2015, Texas experienced the highest summer drought threat of any U.S. state, by a wide margin. By 2050, nine states are projected to face an even higher summer drought threat than Texas currently does. Drought and water deficits, which go hand in hand, are together projected to become the highest risk climate impact for 40% of U.S. cities.

    We can still change course

    No matter how the weather fluctuates in the near future, if we continue to emit heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates the threats from droughts will continue to pile up. We must act now to slow down climate change and mitigate the worst impacts.

    If we take concrete steps to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C instead of 2 degrees C by the end of the century, we could avoid doubling the level of global water scarcity. This may prevent 318 million people from being exposed to water stress.

    But some temperature increases are already locked in, so we must also prepare our communities – especially farmers and vulnerable populations – to deal with increased water stress. This includes strategies such as draining less water from major river sources, crop-switching to alternatives that need less water, supporting water re-use policies, and enacting drought contingency plans across affected regions.

    2021 #COleg: $15 million just start of what Colorado will need for just transition from coal

    Craig. Photo Credit: Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    Nearly all coal plant to close by 2030

    A bill proposing to allocate $15 million toward just transition of Colorado’s coal-dependent communities and associated workers has been introduced in the Colorado General Assembly.

    This should be understood as just the beginning of what will be needed, as Colorado begins laying down its giant fleet of coal-powered power plants in the next decade, says Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

    Dougherty co-chairs the just transition advisory committee created by legislators in 2019 when they set up the Office of Just Transition. The office is charged with identifying or estimating the timing and location of facility closures and job layoffs in coal-related industries and their impact on affected workers, businesses, and coal transition communities. It is also to help coal-dependent communities such as Craig, Hayden, Pueblo, and Brush create transition plans.

    Dennis Dougherty

    “This is a good step forward,” Dougherty told Big Pivots. “When we get closer to coal closures, we are going to see a magnitude of 10 to 15 times that amount annually.” He expects about $100 million a year will be needed as the coal plant closures accelerate in around 2025 and 2026.Best of all, he said, would be if the federal government steps up to shoulder most of the financial burden of the transition from coal to other fuel sources, mostly renewables. The stimulus package provides one opportunity.

    In Nucla and Naturita, where a coal plant and mine closed in 2019, local leaders hope state aid will allow them to continue efforts to fill the void created by the loss of coal jobs. See story, “No Just Transition yet.”

    The bill, HB21-1290 (Additional Funding For Just Transition), has bi-partisan sponsorship, including Rep. Daneya Esgar, of Pueblo, and Sen. Steve Fenberg, of Boulder the Democratic majority leaders in the two chambers of the Colorado Legislature. Other sponsors are Rep. Perry Will, of New Castle, and Sen. Bob Rankin, of Carbondale. Both are Republicans whose districts include the state’s coal plants and mines in the Yampa River Valley.

    Of that proposed allocation, $8 million would go to a fund for assistance in development of rural economic diversification and transition roadmaps as was set forth in the final Just Transition Action Plan issued in December by the state’s embryonic Office of Just Transition.

    Dougherty emphasized that the goal will be to assist communities such as Craig in defining their futures, not impose plans from Denver.

    “Our top priorities are equipping community leaders with the resources and staff they need to do impactful economic development work,” he wrote in an op-ed with Beth Melton, a Routt County Commissioner, who is co-chair of the advisory committee.

    Craig and Moffat County have had active transition planning for several years, although the urgency picked up after Tri-State announced in January 2019 its plans to get out of coal in Colorado by 2030. A transition committee has accelerated its work in the Nucla-Naturita area.

    Pueblo recently has begun forming a just transition team, with representation from the city, the county, its two colleges, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, among others.

    Another $7 million of state funds would be earmarked for a coal transition worker assistance program. The money could be used to expand existing apprentice programs, the training capacity of such programs, and the placement of coal transition workers into such programs.

    This is from the April 30,2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com.

    The bill further stipulates that the money could be used to provide tuition reimbursement and provide for job search assistance and individualized financial transition. This would include job search assistance but also family assistance.

    A maximum of 5% could be used for administrative purposes in the Office of Just Transition, to a maximum of $750,000. In a 2019 law, legislators created the office in 2019 and also an advisory committee with diverse representation.

    The proposed law specifies that a “coal-transition worker” can include not just miners but also those working at power plants and in transportation, including railroads. Eligible workers would include those laid off after Jan. 1, 2017.

    Colorado had several relatively small coal-plant closures prior to 2017 and one plant, the Cherokee power plant north of downtown Denver, whose fuel was switched from coal to natural gas.

    Since then, Tri-State Generation & Transmission’s small coal plant near Nucla, in southwestern Colorado, was closed in September 2019. Xcel plans to close Comanche 1 and 2, its plants near Pueblo, in 2022 and 2025. From 2025 to 2030, coal plants at Craig and Hayden will also be closed. Xcel plans to retain its Pawnee coal-fired power plant at Brush but switch the fuel to natural gas in 2028.

    By decade’s end, Colorado could just have one coal-fired power unit remaining, the Comanche 3, which was completed in 2010. But its status is uncertain, as it has been a lemon so far, with many costly repairs paid for by Xcel ratepayers. Minority owners of the plant are Intermountain Rural Electric Association and Holy Cross Energy.

    #Wyoming Integrated Test Center To Host Large-Scale #CarbonCapture Test Project

    Graphic credit: The Nature Conservancy

    Here’s the release from Governor Gordon’s office:

    Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center will host one of two projects selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for Phase III funding of a large-scale pilot carbon capture project.

    DOE announced today it has awarded $99 million to two projects for Phase III of their Demonstration of Large-Scale Pilot Carbon Capture Technologies funding opportunity. Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) was awarded $51,699,939 from DOE, and with additional non-federal funding, this project will bring over $64 million in research dollars into Wyoming.

    “I am delighted that Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) has been selected to move forward in this process, and that Wyoming has been chosen to host this important demonstration of cutting edge carbon capture technology,” Governor Mark Gordon said. “This is exactly the type of research that was envisioned when the ITC was developed and Wyoming will continue to support these efforts.”

    “Membrane technology is a most promising version of carbon capture, and now it can move forward to the pilot project phase,” the Governor added. “This is also an example of technology that, if commercially successful, can be exported for carbon capture projects at home or abroad. The more carbon capture technologies that are available, the more likely it is that Wyoming coal will be an important part of our future electricity supply.”

    The Integrated Test Center and MTR have been working together since 2018 when MTR selected the ITC as its testing location as part of the Phase II tasks related to this funding opportunity.

    “We could not be more thrilled for MTR and we are excited to welcome them onsite as they start working on this next phase of testing,” said Jason Begger, Managing Director of the ITC. “At this scale, we will be able to demonstrate carbon capture technology at a sufficient level to demonstrate to utilities the next step can be a commercial version.”

    MTR will be operating in the large test bay at the ITC and utilizing approximately 10MWe of flue gas from Dry Fork Station.

    More information on this project is available on the DOE website. Learn more about the Wyoming Integrated Test Center here.

    #Climate study predicts life-altering changes for Greater Yellowstone — WyoFile

    In Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Pixabay via NOAA

    From WyoFile (Dustin Bleizeffer):

    Average temperatures are rising in the Greater Yellowstone Area, resulting in less snow, earlier runoff and major economic implications in the western headwaters region, according to a newly released climate study. The changes threaten to upset traditional land uses and commerce for a region that has seen its population more than double in the past 50 years.

    “Temperature increases will bring warmer days and nights, warmer winters, and hotter summers in the coming decades,” according to the draft climate and water assessment for the region. “These warmer conditions will affect water supplies, natural and managed ecosystems, economies, and human and community well-being in the [Greater Yellowstone Area].”

    The peer-reviewed Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment; Past, Present, and Future Climate Change in Greater Yellowstone Watersheds is open for public comment until April 30. The final report is scheduled for release in late June.

    It’s the first major climate assessment to focus on the Greater Yellowstone Region, which the National Park Service describes as “one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth.” The region is the ancestral home to more than a dozen Native American tribes, a diversity of wildlife, hydrothermal features and, of course, the nation’s first national park.

    According to the study:

  • Average temperatures are projected to increase 0.31°F per decade.
  • Snowpack is shrinking between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation.
  • Drier conditions will make the region more prone to fire.
  • Mature whitebark pine trees are dying off.
  • The region is more prone to invasive species outbreaks.
  • Changes in the timing and rate of snowmelt are affecting fish spawning and the health of aquatic systems.
  • Changes in grassland habitats are altering bison migratory patterns.
  • Rising temperatures are affecting food availability for songbirds.
  • The assessment has implications for a large portion of Wyoming beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Region, said Bryan Shuman, director of the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center at the AMK Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, a lead author of the report.

    Senate Passes $35 Billion Water Bill, but Bigger Infrastructure Fights Loom — The New York Times

    Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

    From The New York Times (Emily Cochrane):

    he Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a $35 billion measure to clean up the nation’s water systems, offering a brief moment of bipartisan cooperation amid deep divisions between the two parties over President Biden’s much larger ambitions for a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package.

    Republicans and Democrats alike hailed passage of the bill on an 89-to-2 vote as evidence that bipartisan compromise is possible on infrastructure initiatives, but lawmakers in both parties suggested that the spirit of deal-making could be fleeting.

    Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders have said they want Republican support for a broad infrastructure package that aims to improve the nation’s aging public works system and address economic and racial inequities, after pushing a nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill into law with just Democratic votes. But Republicans have panned those proposals, which are to be financed with tax increases on high earners and corporations, and Democrats have said they may have to move them unilaterally if no compromise can be reached.

    “We’re trying to work in a bipartisan way whenever we can — and this bill is a classic example,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said of the water bill. “It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do the whole thing bipartisan, but we’ll do as much as we can.”

    The legislation approved on Thursday would authorize funding to shore up the nation’s water systems, particularly in rural and tribal communities that have long been neglected and suffer from poor sanitation and unclean drinking water. A House Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said House committees had their own substantial proposals and looked forward to negotiations.

    Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to drop to 600 cfs May 1, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifcation

    A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Saturday, May 1st, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    2021 #COleg: If methane were at a dinner party…. — The Mountain Town News

    Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    How Colorado legislators propose to begin crimping methane emissions in the built environment

    If methane were a guest at a dinner party in Colorado, it’d be noticing that the hosts have started checking their watches and begun to make comments about a busy schedule the next day.

    SB 21-246 (Electric Utility Promote Beneficial Electrification), introduced last week by Senator Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, is the latest evidence from legislators that they want methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, to begin thinking about moving on. The bill is scheduled to get its first hearing Thursday afternoon at the Colorado Capitol.

    Instead of burning natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings to provide heat, warm water and for cooking, Fenberg’s bill would encourage use of electricity for those purposes. The process is being called beneficial electrification.

    “Fossil gas and petroleum products will contribute to supplying Colorado’s energy needs for many years to come,” says the bill, submitted by Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder. “Nonetheless, transitioning to clean electric homes and businesses is a critical strategy for improving public health and safety, saving energy, creating family-sustaining jobs, and helping the state meet its greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets.”

    The bill is premised on the expectation of a complete reversal during the next decade in how Colorado’s utilities generate electricity. In 2020, coal and natural gas were responsible for 78% of electrical production in Colorado, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. By 2030, utilities responsible for nearly all of electrical sales expect to be at 80% renewables. Some aspire to even higher levels. Holy Cross Energy has adopted a 100% goal.

    That language echoes the Colorado Decarbonization Roadmap that was issued in January by the state’s energy office. Buildings lag electrical generation and transportation among the leading sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re not far behind. Importantly, we don’t replace buildings every 10 or 15 years, the way we do cars. That’s why those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions see need to begin work now on fuel switching in homes and other buildings.

    The roadmap envisions electricity denting use of natural gas in the next 30 years. Coupled with electrification of transportation and population growth, the increased demand will cause demand for electricity to double, according to a study by the consulting firm E3 that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.

    Colorado’s attention to methane comes after a decade of growing concern about methane, both nationally and internationally. The New York Times on Sunday previewed what it called a “landmark United Nations report” that reflects a “growing recognition that the world needs to start reining in planet-warming emissions more rapidly, and that abating methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, will be critical in the short term.

    While cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions will remain urgent, “it’s going to be next to impossible to remove enough carbon dioxide to get any real benefits for the climate in the first half of the century,” Drew Shindell, the study’s lead author and a professor of earth science at Duke University (and a consultant on efforts to abate methane from coal mines in Colorado’s North Fork Valley), told the newspaper.

    “But if we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we’ll see public health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” Shindell said.

    This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To get copies, sign up at https://bigpivots.com

    Fenberg’s bill is not nearly as ambitious as the coming UN report might suggest is needed. However, it’s bold in that it seeks to shift the direction by nudging gas utilities to offer more carrots to customers to nudge the shift along.

    The primary lever for this shift would be adoption of a relatively new metric for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of demand-management programs, something called the social cost of methane. The new metric seeks to apply the real, long-term costs of greenhouse gas pollution to deliberations about utility programs.

    In this it’s similar to the social cost of carbon, an attempt to evaluate the real costs of carbon dioxide pollution.

    Methane pollution, though, has a much higher price that reflects its short-term heat-trapping properties, about 80 times as powerful over the course of the first two decades, after which it has mostly dissipated. The cost assigned is $1,746 per short ton. The social cost of carbon was set by statute in Colorado at $46. Both, however, are subject to inflation.

    This house in Candelas, a development in Arvada, is among the 40,000 a year being constructed in Colorado, very nearly all of them connected to natural gas lines. Photo/Allen Best

    Fenberg’s bill falls short of mandating fuel switching. The bill explicitly prohibits the PUC from requiring the removal of gas-fueled appliances or equipment from existing structures or banning the installation of gas service lines to new structures.

    Instead, the bill intends for the PUC to push the utilities to offer attractive programs to customers such that they will voluntarily use electricity in new construction or replace gas fixtures such as furnaces and water heaters in existing homes and other buildings.

    Several other bills also seek to tamp down emissions of methane and the combustion of natural gas.

    Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, has a bill—now being reformulated—that calls for a renewable natural gas standard, somewhat similar to that adopted by Colorado voters in 2004 for electrical generation. The intent of SB21-161 (Voluntary Reduce Greenhouse Gas Natural Gas Utility) is to encourage natural gas utilities with 250,000 customers or more to capture methane from dairies, landfills, and existing and abandoned coal mines in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

    HB 18-1286 (Energy Performance For Buildings) would require owners and managers of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to benchmark energy use and comply with performance standards, tamping down greenhouse gas emissions.

    SB21-108 (Public Utilities Commission Gas Utility Safety Inspection Authority), submitted by Sen. Tammy Story, a Democrat from the Evergreen area, has safety as its motivation, but it would also result in fewer inadvertent emissions of natural gas from the transmission and distribution pipelines.

    Separately from the legislative agenda, both the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have adopted regulations in the last year that seek to crimp emissions of methane during extraction and transmission.

    Cuts to Central #Arizona Project #water called “planned pain” — #Arizona Daily Star #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

    From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

    The vast majority of those cuts will fall upon Pinal County farmers who have taken CAP instead of pumped groundwater for 35 years. CAP is the principal drinking water source for Tucson, but the first round of cuts will have no impacts on the city’s CAP supplies.

    At a virtual briefing Thursday, the heads of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they’ve known for many years that shortages will be coming and that they’ve stepped up with detailed plans for it.

    They stressed the large amount of negotiation and other work that went into the drought plan. They discussed in detail how a large number of water providers, tribes and other entities offered both water supplies and money to provide relief to farmers and others whose water supplies will be cut.

    Central Arizona farmers, due to lose 320,000 feet of CAP water in 2022, will get about 105,000 of that back in water supplies from other sources. They’ll also get money from a wide variety of sources to drill wells for another 70,000 acre- feet.

    A group of Phoenix-area cities and several tribes, including the Tohono O’Odham west of Tucson, stand to lose 60 percent of a separate CAP pool called Non-Indian Agricultural water, because it used to belong to farmers. They’ll get 75 percent of that back through mitigation approved under the drought plan.

    In response to questions Thursday, Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said they see no reason to plan for additional cuts beyond what the drought plan envisions before that plan expires in 2026.

    There’s no need to limit population growth to hold down demands for the state’s limited and shrinking water supplies, despite calls for that from some environmentalists, Cooke and Buschatzke also said Thursday…

    The cuts are necessary because Lake Mead is forecast to fall to 1,067 feet by the end of 2021. Under the 2019 drought plan, CAP will takes that first major cut in deliveries if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts in August that Mead will fall below 1,075 feet in December.

    At Thursday’s briefing, Dan Bunk, a Bureau of Reclamation official, laid out a series of grim statistics showing the decline in river flows and reservoir levels.

    Today, Lake Mead is at 38 percent of its total capacity and Lake Powell is at 35 percent of capacity, said Bunk, of the bureau’s Lower Colorado River office in Boulder City, Nevada.

    Lake Mead has dropped 15 to 16 feet since a year ago and Powell has dropped 35 feet in the same period, he said…

    Snowpack levels peaked this year at 89 percent of median levels. Soil moisture is at near record low levels in the river’s Upper Basin, he said…

    This year is on pace to be the river’s third or fourth driest runoff season in modern-day records, he said. The 22 years of drought the basin has had since 2000 represents the driest period on record even when looking at longer-term, tree ring and other paleo records dating back 1,000 years, he said.

    Because of these forecasts, and because of continued bleak forecasts for the river in 2023, water researchers Kathryn Sorensen at Arizona State University and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico have said Arizona should start looking now at how to use less water or find alternative sources. Arizona and the other river basin states are gearing up for what’s looming as extremely complex, contentious negotiations for new guidelines for the river system starting in 2026.

    Droughts Longer, Rainfall More Erratic Over the Last Five Decades in Most of the West — @USDA #drought #aridification #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Here’s the release from the USDA (Kim Kaplan):

    Dry periods between rainstorms have become longer and annual rainfall has become more erratic across most of the western United States during the past 50 years, according to a study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Arizona.

    Against the backdrop of steadily warming temperatures and decreasing total yearly rainfall, rain has been falling in fewer and sometimes larger storms, with longer dry intervals between. Total yearly rainfall has decreased by an average of 0.4 inches over the last half century, while the longest dry period in each year increased from 20 to 32 days across the West, explained co-senior author Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the ARS Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.

    “The greatest changes in drought length have taken place in the desert Southwest. The average dry period between storms in the 1970s was about 30 days; now that has grown to 45 days,” Biederman said.

    Extreme droughts are also occurring more often in the majority of the West according to historical weather data as there has been an increase in the year-to-year variation of both total rainfall amounts and the duration of dry periods.

    The time between rainfalls has become longer and the rains occurred more erratically in the Southwest during the last 50 years. Photo credit: The Mountain Town News/Allen Best

    The time between rainfalls has become longer and the rains occurred more erratically in the Southwest during the last 50 years.

    Biederman emphasized the growing fluctuations in drought and rain patterns as the most significant change.

    “Consistency of rainfall, or the lack of it, is often more important than the total amount of rain when it comes to forage continuing to grow for livestock and wildlife, for dryland farmers to produce crops, and for the mitigation of wildfire risks,” Biederman said.

    The rate of increasing variability of rainfall within each year and between years also appears to be accelerating, with greater portions of the West showing longer drought intervals since 2000 compared to previous years.

    Notable exceptions to these drought patterns were seen in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and the Northern Plains region of Montana, Wyoming, and the most western parts of North and South Dakota. In these regions, the researchers found some increases in total annual rainfall and decreases in drought intervals. Together, these changes support what models have predicted as a consequence of climate change: a northward shift in the mid-latitude jet stream, which brings moisture from the Pacific Ocean to the western United States, according to Biederman.

    A critical aspect of this study is the use of actual rainfall data from 337 weather stations spread across the western United States. Biederman contrasted this with the more common use of “gridded” data, which relies on interpolations between reporting stations and tends to smooth out some of the variability revealed by this work.

    “Fangyue Zhang, lead author of the manuscript and a post-doctoral researcher on our team, did the hard, painstaking work of compiling and analyzing data from more than 300 weather stations with complete daily records to reveal these changing drought and rainfall patterns,” Biederman said.

    “We were surprised to find widespread changes in precipitation have already occurred across large regions of the West. For regions such as the desert Southwest, where changes clearly indicate a trend towards longer, more erratic droughts, research is urgently needed to help mitigate detrimental impacts on ecosystem carbon uptake, forage availability, wildfire activity, and water availability for people,” said co-senior author William K. Smith, assistant professor, University of Arizona.

    This research was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

    The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.

    #Snowpack news (April 30, 2021): Nice bump in the #SouthPlatteRiver Basin from this week’s widespread rain and snow

    Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

    Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for April 29, 2021 from the NRCS.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 29, 2021 via the NRCS.

    Meanwhile in the Republican River Basin:

    Court breathes life into Navajo fight for #ColoradoRiver — E & E News

    Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation, a new study finds. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]

    From E & E News (Jeremy P. Jacobs):

    A panel of judges yesterday revived a critical bid from the Navajo Nation to force the federal government to meet its treaty obligations and address the tribe’s well-documented water woes.

    The decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could have far-reaching implications as the federal government, states and tribes begin renegotiating Colorado River water allocations while the waterway’s basin suffers through a relentless drought.

    The Navajo Nation sued federal regulators in 2003, arguing that the government’s operations guidelines for the Colorado River didn’t consider the tribe’s water rights or the amount needed to meet the government’s treaty obligations to the reservation.

    A federal district court dismissed the claim, but the 9th Circuit disagreed. The appeals court found that the Navajo Nation has major water problems, and Judge Ronald Gould raised questions about whether the government is fulfilling its treaty with the tribe.

    “Water is essential to life on earth,” Gould wrote. He later added: “[I]n the specific case of the Navajo Nation, news report have indicated that the Nation’s shortage of water have in part caused exacerbation of the risks from COVID-19.”

    […]

    Despite being filed nearly 20 years ago, the case is in many ways still in its early phases. At issue before the 9th Circuit was the lower court’s dismissal of the tribe’s “breach of trust” claim.

    Gould and the 9th Circuit found that the tribe had sufficiently brought that charge, and it should be considered. The 9th Circuit sent the case back to the lower bench.

    “[T]he district court,” Gould wrote, “only had to consider whether the Nation needs water to fulfill the promise of establishing a Navajo Reservation as a homeland for the Nation’s people.”

    Ripple effects

    The case is likely to send shock waves through the seven-state Colorado River Basin.

    Those states, the Interior Department and the 30 federally recognized tribes within the basin are about to begin negotiating new operations guidelines for the Colorado River that will determine each state’s allocations.

    The negotiations are expected to be contentious because there is less water to go around, due to drought and climate change. Arizona, for example, said yesterday that it is prepared to lose about a fifth of the water it receives from the river in the coming year because a shortage is expected to be declared.

    Interview: From dust bowl to #California drought, a #climate scientist on the lessons we still haven’t learned — The Guardian

    California Drought Monitor map April 27, 2021.

    Click through to read the full interview with Peter Gleick that’s running in The Guardian (Maanvi Singh). Here’s an excerpt:

    Peter Gleick argues there’s an urgent need to reshape our relationship to water: ‘There is enormous untapped potential for conservation’

    California is once again in a drought, just four years after the last dry spell decimated ecosystems, fueled megafires and left many rural communities without well water.

    Droughts are a natural part of the landscape in the American west, and the region has in many ways been shaped by its history of drought. But the climate scientist Peter Gleick argues that the droughts California is facing now are different than the ones that have historically cycled through the Golden State.

    “These are not accidental, strange dry periods,” said Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global thinktank that has become a leading voice on water issues in California and around the world. “They’re increasingly the norm.”

    Scientists are counting #SouthPlatteRiver critters to see what happens as the river gets redeveloped — Denverite

    Workers pose in front of the Boston and Colorado Smelter at Argo
    Photo Colorado Historical Society

    From Denverite (Kevin Beaty):

    It’s dawn on a Friday, and the small team of experts is making its way from Globeville Landing Park down to the South Platte River to count birds. Yes, the watershed is girded by a massive sewer pipe, garbage, railroad tracks and highways. Yes, cranes and construction crews loom over the water.

    And yes, it still teems with life.

    This once-neglected stretch of the river’s ecosystem was the reason for their visit, which formally kicked off the third-annual South Platte BioBlitz. It’s a regular count of all kinds of wildlife that thrive where the Platte passes the National Western Center, a massive construction project that’s turning historic stockyards and this isolated stretch of river into a center of commerce and culture.

    “Here we’re just tying to measure the impact of the construction and the improvement of the Western Stock Show Complex,” Azua told us. “Obviously urbanization has impacts on wildlife, and we’re just trying to monitor over several years to see what happens.”

    While Azua was hesitant to make any predictions, there was a general sense among the group that the project will first disrupt the habitat nearby and then, slowly, create conditions for a better quality of life. But they won’t know without data. So for now, they count…

    “(The river) was doing better than we thought,” he said. “Some of the species that are indicators of better quality habitat, like the dragon flies, were here. So that was a very pleasant surprise indeed.”

    […]

    Water quality in this bend of the river is not much different than other parts of town. Jon Novick, who oversees the city’s water monitoring program, told us most chemicals and metals on his radar don’t show up in higher concentrations here, even though it is the most-downstream segment in the city…

    “We need a few more years as we progress with the restoration,” Reading said. “My guess is, and my hope is, we’ll see a big increase in pollinators.”

    #Drought news (April 29, 2021): 32% of the winter wheat crop in #Colorado rated in poor to very poor condition

    Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

    Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

    This Week’s Drought Summary

    Several upper-level troughs and closed lows moved in the westerly jet stream flow across the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week. They dragged surface fronts and low pressure systems along with them. The weather systems moved across the West then generally followed two storm tracks after crossing the Rockies – one track was along the Canadian border, while the other track was along the Gulf Coast states. As a result, above-normal precipitation fell across parts of the West, much of the Gulf Coast from eastern Texas and Oklahoma to Georgia, parts of the Mid-Mississippi Valley, and parts of the northern Great Lakes and Maine. Precipitation amounts were generally 0.5-2.0 inches in the West where precipitation fell, but exceeded 2 inches across a large part of the Gulf Coast states. The rest of the CONUS had below-normal precipitation for the week. A swath from New Mexico to Lower Michigan, and parts of the northern Plains and Far West, had little to no precipitation. With upper-level troughs and surface cold fronts dominating the circulation pattern, weekly temperatures averaged below normal across most of the CONUS. Drought or abnormal dryness contracted in parts of the southern Plains to Southeast, where heavy rains fell, and in parts of the northern Plains and Northeast, where overall conditions warranted improvement. But drought or abnormal dryness expanded or intensified across parts of the West, Midwest, other parts of the Plains, and the Carolinas, as well as much of Hawaii and Puerto Rico. In these areas, precipitation deficits grew and soils continued to dry. These changing conditions were reflected in several drought indices and indicators, including the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), streamflow and groundwater levels, soil moisture measurements on the ground and from satellite as well as soil moisture models, vegetation-based indices such as VegDRI, and mountain snow water content (SWE) in the West…

    High Plains

    There were patches of 0.5-1.0 inch of precipitation in southeast Kansas, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, and the western half of Montana this week. But most of the region was dry, with less than 0.25 inch of precipitation falling. With improving conditions in the short-term (last 1-6 months), D0-D2 were pulled back in parts of South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. But D4 expanded in northwest Colorado, and D3 expanded in eastern North Dakota where this week was dry and 6-9-month SPI are D3-D4, deeper soils are bone dry, streams are low, and stock ponds are dry or almost empty. D1-D3 expanded in northern Montana, D0-D2 expanded in western Wyoming, and D0 expanded in southwest Kansas. In the Montana Highline, reports were received from Blaine and Hill Counties of low soil moisture and stockwater ponds failing to fill. Three dozen reports were received from North Dakota, through the Condition Monitoring Observer system, of drying ponds and creeks, hay and feed shortages, and fire risk. USDA statistics rate more than half of the topsoil short or very short of moisture in Colorado (57%), Montana (57%), and Wyoming (55%), and nearly two-thirds or more so rated in South Dakota (62%) and North Dakota (80%); 32% of the winter wheat crop in Colorado was rated in poor to very poor condition. Several Colorado communities were asked to voluntarily conserve water…

    West

    Precipitation amounts from the Pacific weather systems that moved across the West this week were patchy and not enough to erase months of deficits. Half an inch to locally 2 inches fell across coastal areas and coastal ranges of Oregon, Washington, and northern California; in the Sierra Nevada; northern and central Rockies; and Great Basin ranges. Rainshadow areas and valleys, and much of the Southwest, received little to no precipitation. There were minor contractions of D4 in New Mexico and D0 in Idaho, but worsening dry conditions prompted expansion of drought and abnormal dryness in several western states. D1-D3 expanded along the northern California coast, D0-D2 expanded in the Pacific Northwest, and D3 expanded in western New Mexico. In California, the Marin Municipal Water District board unanimously approved mandatory restrictions for its 195,000 customers in south and central Marin County which would take effect on May 1. The goal was to curb overall district-wide water use by 40%. The potential for water shortages in Marin County was so high that the Marin Municipal Water District was talking with East Bay officials about building a pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to bring water into the county if the upcoming winter is similarly dry as the past two. Such a measure was used during the 1976-77 drought. Record low reservoir levels contributed to California Governor Gavin Newsom proclaiming a regional drought emergency for the Russian River watershed in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. A super bloom of lupine covered parts of the Folsom Lake lakebed in the Beeks Bight nature area in Granite Bay as historically low rainfall left the lake unusually low. Folsom Lake is at 37% of capacity and 50% of the historical average for April 27, according to the California Department of Water Resources Data Exchange Center. Shallow wells were going dry in the San Joaquin Valley, while Tulare County ranchers were culling cattle for sale months earlier than usual and were considering idling row crops to leave water for higher-value permanent crops like nut trees. The prolonged drought is causing significant die-offs of juniper trees in large areas of central and northern Arizona, according to Forest Service officials. Between 50,000 acres and 100,000 acres of junipers were affected in areas of the Prescott and Kaibab national forests between Paulden and Ash Fork and north of Williams. The cause of death appeared to be water stress, although some insects were observed. Die-offs ranged from 5% to 30% of the tree population, with some pockets of dead junipers up to 15 acres. USDA statistics showed increases in the percentage topsoil moisture short or very short – up to 89% in New Mexico, 70% in California, 69% in Oregon, 61% in Washington, 50% in Utah, and 32% in Idaho. According to media reports, the Biden-Harris administration announced the formation of an Interagency Working Group to address worsening drought conditions in the West and support farmers, Tribes, and communities impacted by ongoing water shortages. The Working Group will be co-chaired by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to build upon existing resources to help coordinate across the federal government, working in partnership with state, local, and Tribal governments to address the needs of communities suffering from drought-related impacts. The Working Group will work to identify immediate financial and technical assistance for impacted irrigators and Tribes…

    South

    In the southern Plains, the western half of Texas and Oklahoma were dry this week, with little to no rain falling. But a half inch or more of rain was widespread across the rest of the South, with 2+ inches in streaks across eastern Oklahoma and Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, and southern Mississippi. D0-D3 contracted in eastern Texas, D0-D2 contracted in parts of Oklahoma, D1 disappeared and D0 contracted in Louisiana. But further west, D0-D4 expanded in southern and southwest Texas and D0 expanded in western Oklahoma. Dry or very dry soils grew in area to 67% of Texas and 29% of Oklahoma, according to USDA statistics, and 43% of the winter wheat crop in Texas was in poor to very poor condition. In the Midland-Odessa, Texas, area, 2020-2021 had the driest 13-month April-April period on record, and the fourth driest any 13-month period ever (behind 2011 which had the top 3 driest 13-month periods). Falling levels of the Edwards Aquifer triggered water restrictions in several Texas communities, including San Antonio, New Braunfels, and San Marcos…

    Looking Ahead

    A large low pressure trough moving out of the Southwest triggered areas of rain across parts of the southern and central Plains into the Midwest, and another system spread precipitation across the Northeast, as the new USDM week began. During April 29-May 3, another Pacific system will move into the country. These weather systems are forecast to spread an inch or more of precipitation across the southern Plains, Lower to Mid-Mississippi Valley, Tennessee and Ohio Valleys, southern Great Lakes, and Northeast. Bands of heavy precipitation – 3 inches or more – are expected across Texas to Arkansas and along the Ohio River. An inch or more of precipitation is projected to fall across parts of northeast Colorado, Wyoming, and northwest Washington. Half an inch or less of precipitation should fall across the Southeast from Florida to Virginia, New Mexico to the central Plains, the rest of the Great Lakes, and central to northern Rockies. No precipitation is forecast to fall over much of the northern Plains and most of the rest of the West. Temperatures are predicted to be near to above normal for the week across the CONUS. The outlook for May 4-8 shows drier-than-normal weather is favored for much of the West to Great Plains with wetter-than-normal conditions for most of the Mississippi River to East Coast region. Warmer-than-normal weather is likely across most of the western, southern, and East Coast states, except for the Mid- to Upper-Mississippi Valley, Great Lakes, and New England. Odds favor wetter-than-normal weather for southern Alaska and cooler-than normal weather for most of the state.

    US Drought Monitor one week change map ending April 27, 2021.

    April 2021 #Drought Update — @ColoradoDNR

    The U.S. Drought Monitor from April 20th showed slight improvements in areas near Larimer and Boulder counties. Similar to last month, exceptional (D4) drought currently covers 15% of the state; extreme (D3) drought covers 17%; severe (D2) drought covers 28%; moderate (D1) drought covers 29%; and recent precipitation resulted in patches of abnormally dry (D0) areas in 10% of the state.

    Colorado Drought Monitor April 27, 2021.

    The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) values from Jan. 11 to Apr. 11 highlight continued dry conditions on the western slope. North eastern Colorado’s SPI data points reflect areas of above average precipitation after January and March snowstorms. The 12-month SPI map depicts the long-term drought conditions due to precipitation deficits in 2020 across the state, especially in the west.

    The NOAA Climate Prediction Center three month outlook indicates increased chance of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation are in the upcoming months. These forecasts are consistent with long-term temperature trends, and a strong signal in seasonal models of inordinate high pressure ridging over the West. Monsoon season remains uncertain. The current La Niña pattern continues to weaken and is expected to revert to neutral conditions in the summer. This is typical; ENSO signals are often dampened in summer. Development of a 2nd La Niña year is anticipated this fall through winter. The last two 2nd year La Niña events were water years 2012 and 2018. Both were drought years.

    Water providers across the state report average to slightly below average storage levels and near normal demands. Drought management planning and potential restrictions are being discussed through multiple coordination groups. Stakeholders can follow along with state drought response actions and activities through public engagement pages for the Municipal Water Task Force and Agricultural Impact Task Force.

    Colorado Public Safety presented an overview of the wildfire outlook for the coming year to the Water Availability Task Force. Many factors contribute to the extremity of a fire season including humidity, lightning or human created ignitions, rainfall during monsoon season, and winds. In the past, Colorado’s fire season began in late May through June into late August and September. More recently, this pattern has changed around the state and fires can occur during any month. The number of fires has been decreasing across the nation, but the number of acres covered by fires has increased. In 2020, 4 of the 20 largest fires in Colorado occurred, including the first, second and third largest fires in the state’s history.

    #AnimasRiver projected to stay low over coming months — The #Durango Herald #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Durango Herald ( Shannon Mullane):

    Snowpack has already peaked, and remains below average

    Snowmelt season is in full swing, but one may not know that by looking at the Animas River, which this week more closely resembles a slow trickle through Durango than a roaring, muddy torrent more common for this time of year.

    The river’s flow Monday was about 328 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. By comparison, the average flow for April 26, based on 109 years of data, is 1,180 cfs. For reference, 1 cfs equals about 7.5 gallons flowing by a particular point in one second.

    The Animas River’s peak runoff is still to come, but on average, the river’s flow is expected to be lower than usual through July, according to the National Weather Service. In fact, the river is expected to see about 45% of the volume it normally sees between April and July, said Aldis Strautins, National Weather Service hydrologist…

    There are multiple reasons why the river is lower than average and projected to stay that way, Strautins said.

    First, the region is in drought. Almost all of La Plata County was categorized as “extreme” or “exceptional” drought as of April 22, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Those are the most severe of five drought rankings.

    Below-average precipitation and a poor monsoon season contributed to a dry summer and fall for Southwest Colorado, Strautins said.

    Dry conditions led to low soil moistures. What precipitation the region did receive was immediately absorbed into the soil instead of running off.

    As of Tuesday, the snowpack was at 57% of the basin’s average. It also peaked earlier than usual, March 28 instead of April 6, according to provisional Snotel data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    The snowpack started melting after a warm spell in early April, then the melt slowed because of winter storms and some cloudy, cool days.

    Warm weather, wind evaporates irrigation season — The #Cortez Journal #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

    Farmers expected to receive just a fraction of normal supply

    Runoff from below-average snowpack is forecast to result in the lowest project irrigation supply in McPhee Reservoir history.

    According to most probable forecast, Dolores River Basin snowmelt is expected to deliver 95,000 acre-feet of water to McPhee Reservoir, just 32% of the average 295,000 acre-feet average, reports the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. The forecast could also continue to drop.

    Full-service farmers of the Dolores Project are expected to receive just 1 inch per acre of irrigation water, or 4.5% of the 22 inches per acre provided when the reservoir fills, reports Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee.

    The forecast of 1 inch per acre is “the wost ever” for the Dolores Project, he said. The reservoir first filled in the late 1980s.

    The previous worst irrigation seasons for McPhee Reservoir were in 2013 and 2002, when farmers received 6 inches per acre.

    The amount of water predicted for this year is not enough for even one normal crop of alfalfa. With a full supply farmers typically get three to four crops of alfalfa per year. Farmers will be forced to consolidate crops into smaller acreage to produce anything on the limited water.

    This year’s forecast shows McPhee Reservoir will fill less than 40% of its 229,000 acre-feet active capacity, according to forecast models. The reservoir had no significant carryover supply from last year’s water season.

    Water shortages are across the board, except for domestic supplies for municipalities.

    Ute Farm and Ranch on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation is predicted to receive about 2,000 acre-feet, or 8.5% of the 23,300 acre-feet delivered when the reservoir has a full supply.

    The water supply for downstream fish habitat dropped to less than 5,000 acre-feet of the 32,000 acre-feet provided when the reservoir fills.

    Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, said snowpack in the Dolores Basin took hits from multiple angles.

    With the exception of a few good snowstorms, the basin experienced an extended dry period since April 2020, she said.

    No monsoonal precipitation last summer dried out soils, which will cause snowmelt to be absorbed into the ground before it hits the river and McPhee.

    Below-normal snowpack further suffered from warm weather and high winds in April, plus dust on snow that sped up evaporation.

    April precipitation at the Lizard Head Pass Snotel is below normal, showing 0.2 inches, or 15% of the average 1.4 inches for the month…

    On March 29, the Dolores Basin snowpack showed 83% of average for snow-water equivalent. On April 19, snowpack water equivalent had dropped to 32%.

    Water woes: Irrigators wrestle with another dry season — The #Taos News #RioGrande

    New Mexico Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

    From The Taos News:

    As the county enters the second consecutive year of less water in a drying trend stretching back two decades, irrigators across New Mexico are struggling to keep orchards, pastures, farms and gardens alive.

    The Upper Río Grande water basin that encompasses Taos County from the southern Colorado border south to Santa Fe, has three-fourths of the median usual snowpack as calculated over the last 30 years. The Río Grande in Colorado from the headwaters to the border is doing better at 110 percent of the median while the Jemez and Pecos basins had 64 and 52 percent of the median snowpack respectively.

    The basin outlook and water supply forecast report, released monthly by the Natural Resources Conservation Service from January to May, estimates the amount of surface water that will be available through July – information critical to farmers, river guides and municipal water managers.

    This year, the mountain snowpack in the Sangre de Cristos isn’t terrible, but the usual runoff of snowmelt that feeds river and flows into irrigation ditches hasn’t appeared.

    Some irrigators think that’s because 2020 was dry enough that now the thirsty soil is sucking up all the water from the melting snow before the flow makes it far.

    The U.S. Drought Monitor, produced weekly with data compiled about precipitation, soil and vegetation conditions, noted in early April that ‘due to a very limited monsoon season (in 2020) and sparse fall and winter snows, drought conditions have persisted across New Mexico. Severe to Exceptional conditions continue across the majority of the state.”

    Judy Torres, director of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, said she recently went on a tour of the Río Chiquito in Talpa. “The mayordomo (ditch boss) said it usually takes 48 hours to go from the mountain to Río en Medio,” she said. “This time it took 10 days and the water still didn’t make it all the way. The ground is just so dry.”

    […]

    Toby Martínez with the Jarosa Ditch in Ranchos de Taos said he sees good snowpack in the mountains that feed into the Río Grande del Rancho from which the acequia draws water. The wind over the last few weeks isn’t good, but the low temperatures have kept the snowpack in place, he said. “The mayordomos are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping we will still get flow,” Martínez said…

    The next water supply forecast will be released in early May and is available at http://nrcs.usda.gov. The Drought Monitor map is published every Thursday and is available online at http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu.

    #YampaRiver flow has business owners concerned — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From Steamboat Pilot & Today (John F. Russell):

    Despite his outward enthusiasm, Peter Van De Carr admits he is preparing for the worst as he looks over SNOTEL data collected by the National Resource Conservation Service that shows snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is about 80% of normal.

    “You know if things turned around, and we started getting wetter than average kind of system coming in, it might turn around, “ Van De Carr said. ”We should be seeing rafts and kayaks, but it’s not worth going right now.”

    Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, agrees the river flow is eye opening for this time of year.

    “I’m surprised at how low the river is right now,” Romero-Heaney said. “I think it’s an indication that there is not a lot of snow remaining in the valley, because it melted off so quickly. I believe it got soaked up by the ground, because the soil was already so dry after last year.”

    Van De Carr, who has owned Backdoor Sports for more than 30 years, said most years, the Yampa River peaks twice. First, when the snow in the lower valley melts fueling the Yampa’s spring flow and then again as the snow from the higher peaks melts and makes its way into the river below.

    “We usually have this valley runoff surge, and the river will come up to 1,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). Then it’ll start going down, and everybody thinks its peaked,” Van De Carr said. “It does not peak until there’s almost no snow left on Mount Werner.”

    But this year, that valley surge wasn’t as strong, and like Romero-Heaney, Van De Carr believes most of that moisture soaked into the dry ground before reaching the river…

    Unfortunately, for Backdoor Sports and many other businesses that rely on the river to generate cash flow the outlook for this summer is challenging…

    Hall said not having the river will hurt traffic on Yampa Street and his retail business, which rents paddleboards and gear…

    Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said while the snowpack is important, the most vital thing for his business is getting moisture in the spring and summer…

    Hall is also hoping the Yampa River Fund, which has been used in the past to purchase stored water, will be used to bring water into the Yampa later in the season if the valley doesn’t see wet, cool spring weather.

    Dust beneath snow: As #Colorado reservoirs drop, farmers fear the worst — @WaterEdCO #snowpack #runoff

    Dry agricultural land during Colorado’s 2012 drought. Photo by dalioPhoto, CC Flickr via Water Education Colorado

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    Colorado’s water storage reservoirs, struggling after two years of severe drought, are holding just 86 percent of their average supplies for this time of year, down dramatically from last year’s 107-percent-of-average mark.

    The South Platte Basin, home to the metro Denver area, has been blessed with heavy spring snows and its reservoirs are the fullest in the state, measuring 99 percent of average at the end of March, the latest data available from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    But the rest of the state’s storage pools are dangerously low.

    And it is the state’s farmers who are suffering the most due to last summer’s ultra-dry weather and a weak winter mountain snowpack. Hardest hit is the southwestern corner of the state, where the San Juan/Dolores River Basin’s reservoirs stand at just 59 percent of average, a dramatic drop from last year, when those storage pools were at 104 percent of average, according to the NRCS.

    Colorado reservoir storage March 31, 2021 via the NRCS.

    “It’s terrible,” said Don Schwindt, a grower near Dolores who sits on the Southwestern Water Conservation District Board as well as the board of the Family Farm Alliance.

    “We emptied virtually all of our [local] reservoirs last year,” he said, which means that there is little water to start the irrigation season if the spring runoff fails to deliver.

    Schwindt said growers in his region were already worried last fall after the summer monsoon rains failed to arrive. Those rains are key to adding moisture to the soil ahead of winter, and when they don’t come, the dry soil under the snow absorbs much of the spring runoff.

    In the Upper Rio Grande Basin, conditions are similarly dire, with growers preparing to reduce the number of acres they plant as the water forecast deteriorates.

    “On our family farm we will have to cut back half of our plantings if we don’t start getting runoff,” said Kit Caldon, an ag producer in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. “There is no way we will plant everything we have even if we have a great runoff because our reservoirs are so low.”

    Colorado, like other Western states, remains mired in a drought cycle that has seen four major droughts in the past two decades. The dry weather has sapped soils, raised wildfire danger, and drained underground aquifers on which farmers also rely.

    Kathleen Curry is a former lawmaker, a lobbyist and a rancher in the Upper Gunnison River Basin, where reservoirs are also running low on supplies.

    “Because we are high up in the basin, we are likely to be okay. But folks farther down are not going to be as lucky,” Curry said, referring to lower-altitude streams where spring flows are projected to be ultra low.

    In response to the increasingly alarming conditions, a year ago, the state activated its emergency drought action plan for the agricultural sector, a move that frees up of some federal funds to provide farm relief.

    But that federal help, while welcome, isn’t enough to offset the costs of what is shaping up to be another major drought year for Colorado’s farmers.

    “Whatever has been provided, no matter how good it is, it is inadequate for this kind of water supply year,” said Schwindt. “Poke down through the snow and you will find dust instead of mud. This is going to be a tough one to recover from.”

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    Why Rivers Need Their Floodplains — EOS

    The restored floodplain of the South Fork McKenzie River in Oregon, USA after the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire. Credit: Kate Meyer, USDA Forest Service

    Here’s the release from the American Geophysical Union (Ellen Wohl):

    Floodplains store materials moving downstream and, in doing so, provide habitat for a wide variety organisms. Water, dissolved materials, sediment, and organic matter move downstream, but individual water or solute molecules or sediment grains can be stored on floodplains for periods that range from a few minutes to 10,000 years for sediment on the floodplain of the Amazon River. Storage reflects the strongly three-dimensional movements of materials in a river corridor. Episodic exchanges of water, solutes, sediment, and organic matter between the channel, floodplain, and subsurface create a dynamic environment with diverse habitat. A recent article in Reviews of Geophysics examines the influencing factors and nature of floodplain storage. Here, the author answers our questions about floodplain storage.

    What different materials move around and are stored on floodplains?

    The main categories of material moving within and stored on floodplains are water, solutes, sediment, and organic matter.

    Storage of water on floodplains is critical during the extremes of weather: overflow of high water onto a floodplain can reduce the peak flow and limit flood damage, and storage of water in the subsurface of a floodplain can sustain base flow during dry periods.

    Among solutes, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus receive a lot of attention, partly because they represent a paradox. Although these elements are necessary to most living organisms, human activities have introduced such large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to rivers that the excess now creates severe environmental problems such as eutrophication, or lack of dissolved oxygen in the water that results in fish die-offs.

    Contaminants such as heavy metals or synthetic chemicals that attach to silt and clay can also be stored in floodplains, limiting the concentrations of these toxins in the channel.

    Burned uplands adjacent to the South Fork McKenzie floodplain after the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire. Credit: Kate Meyer, USDA Forest Service

    How does the concept of a “budget” help us to understand inputs, outputs, and storage on a floodplain?

    Thinking of a budget that applies over specified time and space scales can help to identify sources and processes that create inputs, outputs, and storage.

    The measurements used to create a sediment budget, for example, could help to identify whether a floodplain is losing mass through time (net erosion of sediment) at a rate that might alter the ability of the floodplain to attenuate flood peaks. Or, measurements that quantify sediment inputs and outputs could identify a net gain of sediment through time as a result of upstream changes in land cover or changing climate across the watershed.

    A floodplain integrates processes occurring throughout the upstream contributing area and creates a stratigraphic record of these processes. Changes in floodplain budgets over thousands of years can be interpreted from this stratigraphic record, facilitating our ability to infer the associated changes in watershed processes.

    What are some of the main natural factors that affect floodplain storage?

    Primary natural controls on floodplain storage are the width of the valley floor relative to the width of the channel. Many natural rivers alternate repeatedly downstream between relatively narrow and wider portions of the valley.

    The heterogeneity of the floodplain surface and stratigraphy also strongly influence storage. Generally, the more heterogeneous or patchy the floodplain, the greater the storage because the irregular surface and stratigraphy effectively slow the downstream movement of water, solutes, sediment, and organic matter.

    The fluxes of material moving down the channel also influence floodplain storage. Some of the sediment moving down a channel with a large sediment flux is more likely to be stored on the floodplain than in a river corridor with very little sediment moving downstream.

    How do human activities affect floodplain storage?

    Human activities can directly affect floodplain storage by disconnecting the channel and floodplain.

    Artificial levees and flow regulation exemplify human-induced changes that typically limit overbank movement of materials from the channel to the floodplain.

    People also change the character of the floodplain via land drainage and groundwater pumping that dry the floodplain and by changing the floodplain land cover through agriculture and urbanization.

    Aggregate mining on floodplains not only reduces sediment storage but severely disrupts the movement and storage of other materials on floodplains.

    Human activities can increase floodplain storage by introducing larger quantities of solutes or sediment to a river network. Excess nitrogen resulting from fossil-fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers is sometimes referred to as the nitrate time bomb because, even after nitrate inputs to a river network are reduced, the excess nitrate continues to accumulate at progressively higher levels in floodplain sediments.

    Overall, however, human alterations simply and homogenize floodplains and reduce floodplain storage.

    The restored floodplain of the South Fork McKenzie River during the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire. Credit: Kate Meyer, USDA Forest Service

    What is “floodplain restoration” and why is it needed? Can you give a specific example of a floodplain restoration scheme that improved resilience to natural and human disturbances?

    Floodplain restoration involves restoring processes that create and maintain floodplain functions, typically by restoring the three-dimensional exchanges of water, solutes, sediment, and organic matter between the channel, floodplain, and subsurface.

    Floodplain restoration is needed for at least three reasons. First, floodplain storage reduces downstream hazards associated with floods and excess sediment. Second, fully functional floodplains host high levels of biodiversity and provide ecosystem functions such as clean water. Third, floodplains have not received the legal protection afforded to navigable rivers in the US and other countries.

    Floodplains are likely to be in private ownership and to be heavily altered by agriculture and urbanization; consequently, they are endangered ecosystems. Ongoing river restoration at the South Fork McKenzie River in Oregon, USA has reconnected the channel and floodplain. When the Holiday Farm fire burned through the area in 2020, the presence of water on the newly reconnected floodplain decreased the burn severity in the restoration area.

    What are some of the unresolved questions where additional research, data, or modeling is needed?

    We have made good progress in measuring and modeling some of the processes involved in floodplain storage, especially for surface water and sediment, but there are huge discrepancies between our understanding of surface water and sediment dynamics and our understanding of subsurface water, solute, and organic matter inputs, outputs, and storage.

    Because our understanding of the movements of these latter materials is limited, we cannot yet integratively model how subsurface water, solutes, microbial communities, and organic matter, for example, interact within a floodplain over diverse scales of time and space. The ability to develop this type of model would be ideal for predicting floodplain response to restoration.

    In the meantime, treating floodplain restoration projects as experiments that are monitored and used to gain understanding that can inform future restoration is critical.

    —Ellen Wohl (ellen.wohl@colostate.edu, ORCID logo 0000-0001-7435-5013), Colorado State University, USA

    Thornton wins lottery award for Big Dry Creek work — #Northglenn/#Thornton Sentinel

    Screen shot from the City of Thornton Big Dry Creek Recreation & Floodplain Restoration Master Plan (Click image to read the report)

    From Great Outdoors Colorado via The Northglenn/Thornton Sentinel:

    Thornton’s work restoring 25 acres of the Big Dry Creek Open Space has been recognized by the Colorado Lottery.

    The Colorado Lottery announced on April 21 that it had awarded the city a Starburst Award for the project, which used lottery proceeds to help pay for the work.

    “Conservation is a key pillar for the Lottery. It includes not only conserving open space, but also upgrading recreational spaces, creating new places for Coloradans to play, and supporting ecosystems and wildlife,” said Tom Seaver, director of the Colorado Lottery. “This year’s Starburst Award winners aptly reflect the wide-ranging projects that our proceeds support. With now $3.6 billion going to our proceeds beneficiaries, we continue to look for new ways to grow revenue responsibly to protect more of Colorado’s great outdoors.”

    The $1,745,000 project used a $75,000 planning grant and $100,000 Great Outdoors Colorado Habitat Restoration grant to the City of Thornton, both Colorado Lottery proceeds, to help pay for the work.

    The city restored approximately 25 acres of Big Dry Creek Open Space, an important natural resource and ecosystem for east-west wildlife migration, as part of the project. Due to erosion and noxious weeds, Big Dry Creek’s floodplain had been severely compromised. GOCO funding was used to improve conditions along the creek and create overflow wetlands that will reduce flood hazards and protect water quality. These restoration efforts have also helped improve critical habitat for bald eagles, blacktailed prairie dogs, peregrine falcons, red foxes, and great blue herons, among other species.

    The Big Dry Creek project was the last remaining open space ‘pearl’ needed to create a complete system of open space corridors in Thornton. Big Dry Creek provides outstanding opportunities for passive recreation and wildlife habitat and encompasses almost 300 acres of open space areas that have been preserved through acquisition by Thornton and Adams County.

    Water & Tribes Initiative | #ColoradoRiver Basin — The University of Montana #COriver #aridification

    Colorado River. Photo credit: University of Montana

    I heard about this at yesterday’s AWRA Colorado Section Annual Symposium. Click through for the resources.

    The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people in two countries, seven states, and 29 Indian tribes. The demand for water currently exceeds available supply in any given year and is complicated by chronic drought and the uncertainty of impacts from climate change.

    The 29 federally recognized tribes in the basin depend on the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including cultural and religious activities, domestic, irrigation, commercial, municipal and industrial, power generation, recreation, instream flows, wildlife, and habitat restoration.

    These tribes hold legal rights to a significant amount of water, many of which are the most senior in the basin. Combined, the tribes hold rights to roughly 20 percent (or 2.9 million-acre feet) of the water in the Colorado River basin. With the oldest water rights in the basin, the tribes are in a position to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region.

    Since 2017, the Center has been working with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, Walton Family Foundation, Ten Tribes Partnership, and many other individuals and groups to enhance tribal capacity and advance sustainable water management in the basin through collaborative decision-making.

    The Initiative is guided by a broad-based Leadership Team (see a list of members and their bios below). It is not a decision-making body; does not speak on behalf of tribes, tribal associations, or any other organization or group; and is not an advocate for any particular interest or outcome. It seeks to enhance the capacity of tribes and to advance sustainable water management through collaborative decision-making.

    Leadership Team
    Tribal Members

    Bidtah Becker, Navajo Nation
    Leland Begay, Ute Mountain Ute
    Lorelei Cloud, Southern Ute Tribe
    Maria Dadgar, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (Jay Tomkus, alternate)
    Jason John, Navajo Nation
    Nora McDowell, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe
    Margaret Vick, Colorado River Indian Tribes
    Jay Weiner, Quechan Tribe

    Other Members

    Anne Castle, Getches-Wilkinson Center, University of Colorado
    Peter Culp, Culp & Kelly (Mary Kelly, alternate)
    Becky Mitchell, Colorado Water Conservation Board
    Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority
    Jason Robison, University of Wyoming, College of Law
    Tanya Trujillo, Colorado River Sustainability Initiative
    Garrit Voggesser, National Wildlife Federation
    John Weisheit, Living Rivers

    NASA | Megadroughts Projected for American West

    NASA scientists used tree rings to understand past droughts and climate models incorporating soil moisture data to estimate future drought risk in the 21st century.

    #Colorado farmers are heading into one of the driest planting seasons in the last 20 years — 9News.com

    From The Denver Post (Wilson Beese):

    We’re halfway through April and the longer days are warming up the soil, so Colorado farmers and ranchers are starting to plant.

    Colorado Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

    But a quick look at the drought map for Colorado shows why agriculture producers are concerned for the future of their crops. Almost 90 percent of the state is in a moderate drought.

    What makes this April stand out is how much land is an extreme or exceptional drought — nearly a third of the state. In the 21-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor, only Colorado’s 2013 drought shows more D3 and D4 conditions in April…

    Les Owen, the conservation services division director with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said the drought conditions are “extremely concerning” for farmers and ranchers.

    “Last year during the critical growing times when we needed moisture, there just wasn’t much in most areas of the state,” Owen said. “So folks have already been punched in the gut pretty hard from drought.”

    […]

    Owen noted that last year’s wildfires burned swaths of federal land that ranchers usually graze their cattle on.

    Appeal filed to sustain #ColoradoRiver flows and stop Gross Dam expansion — Wild Earth Guardians

    Gross Reservoir — The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will raise the height of the existing dam by 131 feet, which will allow the capacity of the reservoir, pictured, to increase by 77,000 acre-feet. The additional water storage will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and helps offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system. With this project, Denver Water will provide water to current and future customers while providing environmental benefits to Colorado’s rivers and streams. Photo credit: Denver Water

    Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

    Coalition stays the course in fight to halt construction of tallest dam in Colorado history

    A coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of appeal today in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to halt Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Dam in Boulder County and to protect sustainable flows in the Colorado River. The appeal challenges the dismissal by the lower court and asks the appeals court to order review of the merits of the case to ensure the health of the Colorado River, its native and imperiled species, and communities across Colorado that will be negatively impacted by the project…

    The conservation coalition, including Save The Colorado, The Environmental Group, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, originally filed suit on December 19, 2018, in the federal district court of Colorado. The groups’ litigation sought to halt Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and prevent an additional diversion of water from the Colorado River through its Moffat Collection System due to violations of federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The project would triple the storage capacity of Gross Reservoir and the dam would become the tallest dam in the history of Colorado.

    On March 31, 2021, the district court dismissed the coalition’s case finding that it was not before the proper court because the Federal Power Act provides the federal court of appeals with sole authority over hydropower licensing by the Federal Regulatory Commission.

    “Given the climate, water and biodiversity crises upon us, we need to be restoring river ecosystems, not destroying them,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This battle against the powerful water institution is not over and we will continue to fight for water and climate justice by working to reform this broken system of laws and policies.”

    “The Sierra Club opposes the Gross Reservoir expansion because of the massive environmental damage it would cause,” said Rebecca Dickson, Chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group. “If this project proceeds, hundreds of thousands of trees will be chopped down, countless habitats destroyed, and yet another waterway will be diverted from its natural course to the Front Range. On top of this, immeasurable amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere during the construction and transportation process.”

    “Denver Water’s plan to build the tallest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in seven states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The basin is slowly dying a proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as its communities and ecosystems face a water crisis driven by unsustainable demand, prolonged drought, and runaway climate change. We stand with our fellow conservation groups in continuing to oppose this misguided and reckless water grab.”

    “The expansion of Gross Dam is a shortsighted response to a long-term problem,” said Beverly Kurtz the President of The Environmental Group. “Denver Water should lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to the challenge of water scarcity, rather than destroying pristine areas of western Boulder County and further threatening the Colorado River with an antiquated dam proposal. Recent data confirm that predicted shortages of water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change are happening even sooner than expected. Building a bigger dam does not increase the amount of water available. The District Court needs to hear the merits of our case rather than establishing a dangerous precedent by deferring authority to FERC and the federal court of appeals.”

    “The year of decision, to not divert more water from the Colorado River, came and went about twenty years ago,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “We know this is true because the development of contingency planning agreements to avoid water shortages began in 2014 and the urgency to resolve this threat still remains. Yet the contradictions and absurdities to also develop a suite of diversion projects in the Colorado River Basin also remains. If the basin’s water managers will not even adapt to the hydrology they accept, how could they possibly adapt to the hydrology of the future? Our lawsuit is an appeal to accept the truth that the Colorado River has nothing left to give.”

    The groups’ appeal is posted here: http://pdf.wildearthguardians.org/support_docs/Notice-of-Appeal.pdf

    The organizations participating in this litigation are represented by the public interest environmental law firm Eubanks & Associates, PLLC.

    #ColoradoRiver District provides funds for #BlueRiver basin project — Summit Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    A fly fisherman on the Blue River in Silverthorne on Nov. 28, 2020, which is designated a “gold medal” status based on the size and abundance of trout. Photo credit: John Herrick/Aspen Journalism

    From The Summit Daily (Taylor Sienkiewicz):

    The Colorado River District has approved funding for several projects across the Western Slope, including Phase 2 of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan in Summit County. The district allocated $25,000 to the project. The Blue River plan was created by the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited in 2019.

    The goal of the plan is to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem. The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.

    Phase 2 of the plan involves gathering data and analyzing certain areas of the Blue River basin identified as needing further analysis in Phase 1.

    Fear and the depleted #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

    Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada)
    CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

    From Writers on the Range (George Sibley):

    Some Colorado River tribulations today remind me of a folk story: A young man went to visit his fiancée and found the family trembling and weeping. They pointed to the ceiling where an axe was embedded in a rafter.

    “That could fall,” the father quavered. “It could kill someone!”

    Puzzled, the young man climbed onto a chair, and pulled the axe out of the rafter. Everyone fell all over themselves thanking him. But he quickly broke off the engagement, concerned that such inanity might be inheritable.

    This resembles ongoing ditherings over the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a 99-year-old agreement among the seven states through which the Colorado River meanders, on how the consumptive use of the river’s water should be divided to give each state a fair share. The agreement was necessary to get federal participation (money) to build dams to control the erratic river.

    The best they were able to do, given the sketchy information they had about each state’s future development and also about the flow of the river, was to divide the river into two “basins” around the natural divide of the Colorado River canyons: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in the Upper Basin; and California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Each basin would get to consume 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.

    This placed a responsibility on the Upper Basin states to “not cause the flow of the river at Lees Ferry (the measuring point in the canyons) to be depleted” below the Lower Basin’s share.

    A generous reading of that lawyerly clause in the Compact would say the upper states should just be careful that their water development doesn’t dip into the lower states’ allocation.

    A less generous reading would say that if for any reason the flow at Lees Ferry fell below the average of 7.5 million acre feet – whether it were due to over-appropriation by the upper states, or to a natural cause like a 20-year headwaters drought – the lower states would place a call on the upper states, which would have to cut back their own uses and send their water downriver, whether they “caused” the shortage or not.

    To maintain that flow in a drought, the upper states would bear the full pain of the drought for the whole river.

    Guess which interpretation the upper states chose for their own 1948 compact? Never mind that a Compact call from California (for its share of water) is nowhere mentioned in the 1922 Compact. The axe was planted in the rafter.

    They might better have asked how the 1922 Compact creators themselves envisioned the unknown future. The transcripts of the 27 Compact meetings show that the seven state commissioners and their federal chairman Herbert Hoover were concerned, as late as their twenty-first meeting, that they did not really know enough then about the river’s flows to make a permanent equitable division of the waters.

    Hoover summarized their concern, and their intent: “We make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division,” leaving the further apportionment of the river’s use “to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.” They even included in the Compact (Article VI) instructions for reconvening to consider “claims or controversy… over the meaning or performance of any of the terms of this compact.”

    By the drought years of the 1930s, it was already obvious that the 7.5 million acre-feet Compact allocations were unrealistic. That would have been a logical time for the upper states to pull the axe out of the rafter, before the river was so fully developed.

    But they didn’t, and as the Compact began to take on the aura of something carved in stone on a holy mountain, the fear of the “Compact call” gradually descended into expensive paranoia.

    The vastly expensive 24 million acre-feet of storage in Powell Reservoir just upstream from Lees Ferry was created to fulfill the upper Basin’s self-assumed “delivery obligation,” come hell or low water.

    But now, hellish low water has come to Powell, and Upper states are developing expensive “demand management” programs whereby someone yet unspecified would pay ranchers to fallow fields so their water can be “banked” in Powell against the dreaded “Compact call.”

    The seven states are now – finally – initiating negotiations on a more reality-based governance of the Colorado River. Let’s hope they have the good sense to pull that axe out of the rafters before negotiating fair water use under it.

    George Sibley

    George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. He has written extensively about the Colorado River.

    Cleaner water through corn — University of #California, Riverside

    The North Fork Valley, part of the service territory of Delta-Montrose Electric, has been known for its organic fruits and vegetables — including corn. Photo/Allen Best

    Here’s the release from the University of California, Riverside (Holly Ober):

    Activated carbon made from corn stover filters 98% of a pollutant from water

    Corn is America’s top agricultural crop, and also one of its most wasteful. About half the harvest—stalks, leaves, husks, and cobs— remains as waste after the kernels have been stripped from the cobs. These leftovers, known as corn stover, have few commercial or industrial uses aside from burning. A new paper by engineers at UC Riverside describes an energy-efficient way to put corn stover back into the economy by transforming it into activated carbon for use in water treatment.

    An illustration depicting how corn stover is turned to biochar, then to activated carbon for water filtration. (Abdul-Aziz et. al., 2021)

    Activated carbon, also called activated charcoal, is charred biological material that has been treated to create millions of microscopic pores that increase how much the material can absorb. It has many industrial uses, the most common of which is for filtering pollutants out of drinking water.

    Kandis Leslie Abdul-Aziz, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering, runs a lab devoted to putting pernicious waste products such as plastic and plant waste known as biomass back into the economy by upcycling them into valuable commodities.

    “I believe that as engineers we should take the lead in creating approaches that convert waste into high-value materials, fuels and chemicals, which will create new value streams and eliminate the environmental harm that comes from today’s take-make-dispose model,” Abdul-Aziz said.

    Abdul-Aziz, along with doctoral students Mark Gale and Tu Nguyen, and former UC Riverside student Marissa Moreno at Riverside City College, compared methods for producing activated carbon from charred corn stover and found that processing the biomass with hot compressed water, a process known as hydrothermal carbonization, produced activated carbon that absorbed 98% of the water pollutant vanillin.

    Hydrothermal carbonization created a biochar with higher surface area and larger pores when compared to slow pyrolysis- a process where corn stover is charred at increasing temperatures over a long period of time. When the researchers filtered water into which vanillin had been added through the activated carbon, its combination of larger surface area and bigger pores enabled the carbon to absorb more vanillin.

    “Finding applications for idle resources such as corn stover is imperative to combat climate change. This research adds value to the biomass industry which can further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” Gale said.

    The paper, “Physiochemical properties of biochar and activated carbon from biomass residue: influence of process conditions to adsorbent properties,” is published in ACS Omega.

    This #EarthDay, Rising to Meet the Challenges Facing Our Rivers — @Water4Colorado

    From Water for Colorado:

    Earth Day falls at a precarious time of year for Coloradans and our rivers. As spring arrives, many of us are returning to our favorite hiking trails, riverbanks, and camping spots for warm-weather recreation; others are enjoying the waning days of spring skiing or working off the winter rust and getting back on the river for some fishing.

    But by mid-April, Coloradans will also stand on the precipice of fire season. As the water year passes its peak, we take stock of drought conditions across the state; and snowpack begins to melt and start its journey from the headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to our rivers.

    The State of Our Rivers

    This year, snowpack in the mountains — which provides 85-90% of the Colorado River’s flow — has peaked early and is below average, again. The “Millenium Drought” in the southwestern U.S. is now over 20 years old. On top of last year’s dry summer and fall, forecasters expect below average runoff, and low streamflows later this year.

    Many of you may recall that last year, around this time, nearly a third of the state was drought-free. Unfortunately, all of Colorado is now experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with 32% classified as being in “extreme” or “exceptional drought.” This comes, too, on the heels of last year’s historic fire season that saw the three largest wildfires in state history.

    Additionally, as of Friday, April 23 — the day after Earth Day — 25% or more of Colorado’s streams, rivers, and wetlands lost protection as the roll-back of federal Clean Water Act protection went into effect in Colorado. This Trump-era policy exposes Colorado’s streams and wetlands — the state’s sources of clean drinking water and wildlife habitat — to degradation as a result of construction activities. Without a state program to backstop the loss of federal protection, this policy threatens many iconic areas of Colorado. Until 4/23, Colorado had been the only state to avoid implementing the rule because a judge issued an order keeping the policy from going into effect; now, that has been overturned. The below maps, put together by Coalition partners The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, illustrate the extent of potential damages to our critical streams and wetlands.

    The Good News

    Poised on the brink of another drought-heavy summer and devastating roll-backs to clean water protection, Earth Day may feel more urgent this year. Indeed, this holiday was created to recognize and promote environmental protection; and although on this Earth Day we are confronting sobering drought maps, below-average streamflow predictions and threats to Colorado’s vital headwater streams and wetlands, we also have a lot to celebrate.

    In the Colorado Recovery Act, Governor Jared Polis and Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett allocated up to $75 million for funding river-projects, wildfire mitigation, and drought response. Earlier this week, the Legislature gathered for a committee hearing on HB21-1260, which would allocate an additional $20 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board and grant-funded projects. And, sports-betting revenue continues to generate millions to fund Colorado’s Water Plan.

    Where the Money Goes

    Water plan funding allows for increased resilience to the types of climate change-induced drought we’re seeing statewide, and ensures that our rivers don’t dry up, agricultural heritage sustains, and flows are available to support world-renowned recreation.

    You can explore our interactive Colorado Water Plan Grant Projects Map here, and learn about the types of projects these funds benefit. Some examples include:

    • Updating agricultural infrastructure to replace aging equipment, improve efficiency and flows, prevent wasteful leakages, and restore natural environmental features.
    • Providing municipalities funding to ensure safe and reliable drinking water for all.
    • Sustaining Colorado’s rivers for recreational use, including flow restoration and river health projects which supports the robust ~$19 billion in economic activity that river-related recreation generates.
    • Funding innovative water education conversations, workshops, and experiences statewide on issues such as sustaining agriculture, educating the next generation of water users, and protecting watershed health.

    The CWCB is in the process of updating the Colorado Water Plan to include all of this and more. Do you have ideas for how the Water Plan can benefit your community? Share them here.

    Taking Time to Reflect

    Understanding the threats facing our rivers and the importance of well-funded, on-the-ground projects is crucial not only to our work here at Water for Colorado, but to our state and future generations of Coloradans.

    But in the end:

    We feel the best way to truly understand Colorado’s rivers — and therefore protect them — is to experience them. So, this Earth Day, find a riverbank, cast a line, watch a sunset over a reservoir, or simply give thanks for the clean water that flows from your tap. These things are precious, and Earth Day reminds us of that.

    Photo courtesy of Russ Schnitzer

    Drought Maps courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor

    Clean Water Rule roll-back maps courtesy of Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy.

    The Spring Newsletter 2021 is hot off the presses from the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Beverly Richards):

    Drought Conditions Stay Strong on the Western Slope

    West Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

    As spring runoff begins, water managers on the Western Slope turn to drought predictions for the season and well into the summer. Drought conditions continue to persist in most of western Colorado and throughout the southwestern United States. Many areas have continued in or have moved into the exceptional (D4) category and these conditions will likely carry us through the summer and into the fall.

    Gunnison River Basin High/Low graph April 23, 2021 via the NRCS.

    What does this mean for the water resources in the Upper Gunnison River Basin and downstream? Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 77 percent of average and the snow water equivalent (SWE) is at 12.9” for this time of year. The peak for SWE usually occurs between April 5 to April 17 and is typically at 14.7” at the peak.

    This means that going into spring runoff, we are below average in both snowpack and SWE. Add this to the fact that Taylor Park and Blue Mesa Reservoir are currently at 59 and 49 percent of full respectively, conditions this runoff season could continue to deteriorate, though demands will likely stay the same. The Bureau of Reclamation is forecasting that Blue Mesa Reservoir will only fill to 67 percent full and NRCS forecasts that streamflow will only be 57 percent of average for the season.

    Lack of soil moisture will also add to the problems for water managers this coming water season. Soil moisture in the entire state is classified as either the second lowest or record lowest in the 10-year average. This will have implications on streamflow if the soil profile must be filled first.

    The predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are that these drier conditions that are currently being experienced throughout the entire southwestern United States will continue and could result in the most significant drought since 2013. From April through June, warmer than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation is forecasted to continue, adding to the drier than normal conditions.

    The Upper Gunnison District realizes that diminished supplies means special attention MUST be paid to how we manage our water. We will continue planning for every contingency. Our mission this year is to get the word out about ways we can all adjust to drought and how we can all be mindful of our water use. It will take cooperation from everyone within the District to meet all our needs. Be an Upper Gunnison Basin Water Hero!

    ‘Forever Chemicals’ Levels In #Frisco Drinking Water Would Be Illegal In Three Other States, Residents ‘Shocked’ — CBS #Denver #PFAS

    PFAS contamination in the U.S. via ewg.org. [Click the map to go to the website.]

    From CBS Denver (Kati Weis):

    A CBS4 Investigates analysis of public testing data has found levels of perfluoroalkyl substances – commonly known as forever chemicals – in Frisco’s drinking water would be considered too high in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York. The levels would also trigger further testing requirements in Michigan.

    Jessica Johnson, who lives and works in Frisco, said she was unaware of the elevated levels.

    “I was pretty shocked, honestly, to learn that the forever chemicals were in our water,” Johnson said. “It’s concerning for me; thyroid issues run in my family, so I don’t really want to do anything that would exacerbate that, because I’m sure it’s probably looming on the horizon for me anyway.”

    The Findings

    While there is no federal legal limit, the EPA recommends drinking water not have more than 70 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS combined, but some states say that’s not good enough, setting more stringent legal limits…

    State health department testing conducted last summer found Frisco’s drinking water had a level of 58.5 for the chemicals regulated in Massachusetts and Vermont, more than twice the legal limits in those states. The testing also found Frisco had a level of 11 parts per trillion of PFOS, which would be above the safe limit set in New York. Frisco’s PFOA level was only 6.2 part per trillion, but would require quarterly testing in Michigan…

    The Town of Frisco says right now, there’s no health concern, because the PFAS levels are below the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion…

    Frisco spokesperson Vanessa Agee wrote in an email, “an interview with Frisco’s Water Division would do nothing to further your viewer’s understanding of PFAS or alert them to a health danger, which are in fact really admirable and helpful goals that we hope you have much success with, as it is vital that we have the facts and current understanding around this evolving research into PFAS and PFAS’ potential impacts on our health.”

    Asked why residents were not notified about the PFAS testing results, Agee wrote, “if there were a health concern, then the EPA and CDPHE would require individual notification of residents, and the Town would of course provide that notification swiftly because we authentically care about the health of our neighbors and friends, which is what Frisco’s residents are in this very close-knit community and county. The public would be very well served by understanding that the science around PFAS is evolving, understanding where that science is right now, and having knowledge about what is being done across Colorado and the country to better understand PFAS and their impact on health.”

    The state health department has also told CBS4 in a past interview that residents should not be concerned about the elevated levels, because they are below the health advisory, but that if residents are still concerned, they can look at purchasing a reverse osmosis filtration system for their home or bottled water…

    The Laws

    Currently, the state of Colorado has taken its own steps to begin regulating PFAS, for example, new state legislation has created a PFAS registry, so state officials know where industrial PFAS sources are located.

    But Josh Kuhn with Conservation Colorado says the centennial state should study the issue further and look at setting its own more stringent legal limits…

    What’s Next

    In the meantime, Agee says Frisco is in the process of conducting further testing in other areas of its water distribution system, including at the tap “to get a more comprehensive picture.”

    The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also says it’s in the process of developing a grant program to assist Frisco and other communities with additional testing.

    “The CDPHE grant program has not been launched yet so the Town Water Division is doing what it does best, providing safe and delicious water, while always striving to have a full understanding of the facts,” Agee said in an email to CBS4.

    The CDPHE says the testing will help officials determine what areas and private wells may be at risk for PFAS.

    One question remains: what is the source of the PFAS pollution in Frisco? PFAS can be found in a variety of household products, and even your clothes. The Environmental Working Group also found PFAS in cosmetics.

    The state health department is working to find an answer in Frisco, writing to CBS4, “we expect these (test) results to provide insight into where the chemicals may be coming from.”

    Opinion: Recycling #water has to become the norm because it is too scarce and too valuable to waste — The #Colorado Sun

    Morrow Point Dam, on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Colorado Sun (Ari Goldfarb):

    Like millions of teens around the world, my daughter enjoys long showers. Unlike many fathers of teens, however, I see a bright side to the family water bill.

    We’re not just taking showers. We’re growing grapes.

    Our family lives in Israel, the international capital of water recycling, where nearly 90% of our supply is used more than once. In our area of southern Israel, that means the water flowing down our home drain is used on nearby farms to grow some of the tastiest table grapes on Earth. Turns out my daughter is a friend of agriculture.

    Ari Goldfarb via Kando.com

    All over the globe, climate change is turning fresh water into an increasingly precious commodity. Many countries and regions suffer from extended drought. Rising temperatures increase evaporation from reservoirs. Snow falls less and melts sooner on mountains. And rising sea levels increase saltwater intrusion contamination in fresh water wells along coastal communities.

    The worldwide fresh water supply crunch comes as the Earth’s population grows by more than 80 million people per year.

    With increasing demand for water and a jeopardized supply, communities increasingly are turning to recycling technologies to stretch and make the most efficient use of existing water supplies. Critical to this is having a clear understanding of the quality of the water coming into any treatment plant before it is recycled.

    The greatest reuse per capita is happening in arid Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, Qatar, and Kuwait, though the No. 1 recycler of water by volume is the United States. The leading states for water recycling are Florida, California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado.

    In Orange County, California, engineers found it’s 15% cheaper to recycle water than to buy new supplies from rivers and reservoirs.

    But what about the yuck factor?

    The most important thing to remember is: No matter the water source — untrammeled mountain spring, or the river mouth of a major industrial city — it all must pass stringent health and safety tests before reaching your tap. In fact, recycled water often faces tougher quality control tests than river or lake water. Water reuse is safe.

    Another key point is that we’ve been relying on recycled water for years without realizing it. In the Southwestern United States, stream water in places like the Rio Grande and Colorado River is typically used several times before it ever reaches the ocean. (The demands on the Colorado River are so great from Colorado to Mexico that it sometimes does not contain enough water to reach the sea.) The same water used by cities near the headwaters is used again and again downstream by farmers for irrigation.

    Few people have second thoughts about using the same air as someone else. Why think about water differently?

    It’s important to remember that the vast majority of water, whether recycled or first-use, does not go to the tap for drinking. It’s for growing crops, irrigating parks and golf courses, and watering lawns. In many places where water is scarce, it’s possible, and often economical, to set up two separate water systems, one for outdoor and one for indoor potable use.

    Almost every city using recycled water in the U.S. sends the treated supply outside. Some cities pump recycled water underground to replenish aquifers. Most, however, reuse the water as an irrigation supply for farming or landscaping. One advantage of using recycled water outdoors: natural cleansing processes via vegetation, bacteria, and UV radiation do for free what would be more costly industrial processes in water treatment plants.

    The reality is that water on this planet exists in a closed loop on a closed cycle. There is a limited amount of this precious resource, and the double-whammy of climate change and population growth are putting extra pressure on the supplies we have.

    Water is too valuable to waste. In fact, it’s so valuable that we should use it again and again.

    Ari Goldfarb is CEO of Kando, an Israel-based company, providing data-driven wastewater management solutions to help cities worldwide keep rivers and oceans cleaner while stimulating the reuse of water. Kando is affiliated with the Israel-Colorado Innovation Fund which invests in and connects Israeli entrepreneurs with U.S. markets through Innosphere Ventures, a Colorado technology incubator.

    #Snowpack news: The #SouthPlatteRiver Basin’s second peak for the season very near the normal peak date

    Click on a thumbnail below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS. Now that all the basins are melting-out pay more attention to the percent of peak, slope of the downward line (melt rate), and this year’s peak date which were earlier than average.

    Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for April 26, 2021 via the NRCS.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 26, 2021 via the NRCS.

    #Colorado Distillers, Builders and Restaurateurs Get #Water Savvy this #EarthDay — @WaterEdCO


    Connie Baker, co-founder and head distiller for Marble Distilling in Carbondale, stirs mash during the distilling process. Photo courtesy of Marble Distilling.

    From Water Education Colorado (Sara Kuta):

    Beginning in 1970, Americans and later citizens across the globe have celebrated Earth Day on April 22. It’s a day dedicated annually to civic action, volunteerism and other activities to support and promote environmental protection and green living.

    This year, Fresh Water News is using Earth Day as an opportunity to highlight a handful of Colorado projects and businesses that are moving the needle on water conservation and sustainability. Here are their stories.

    Booze that doesn’t “destroy the planet”

    In 2010, Connie Baker attended distilling school somewhat on a whim — she’d always loved vodka and thought learning more about how it’s made would be a fun week-long vacation.

    In the end, though, Baker fell in love with distilling and, along with her husband, Carey Shanks, began planning to open a new distillery not far from their home in Carbondale, Colo.

    But after touring distilleries around the country for inspiration, they began to fully understand just how resource-intensive — and wasteful — distilling as an industry often was. Traditional distilleries send tens of thousands of gallons of clean water down the drain during the production process — water that could easily be reused, if only they had the right setup.

    “I love vodka, but I don’t want to destroy the plant to make it,” said Baker.

    Instead of accepting the status quo, Baker and Shanks decided to design and build their own sustainable distillery from the ground up. Their crown jewel? A custom water energy thermal system, WETS for short, that recaptures 100 percent of the water and energy used during the distillation process.

    They officially opened Marble Distilling in 2015. Ever since, their WETS system has saved more than four million gallons of water and 1.8 billion BTUs of energy per year. The recaptured energy is enough to heat and cool the distillery, which includes a five-room boutique hotel on the second floor, and to power much of the distilling process.

    The distillery’s water bill is regularly less than $100 a month. While most distilleries use the equivalent of 100 bottles of water to produce one bottle of vodka, Marble uses the equivalent of just one bottle of water per bottle of vodka. (They also make bourbon, whiskey and liqueurs.)

    Carey Shanks, co-founder of Marble Distilling in Carbondale, works in the distillery’s off-site barrel storage facility. Photo courtesy of Marble Distilling.

    “The only water we’re using for the spirit is what’s in the bottle,” Baker said.

    Baker and Shanks also freely share information about their WETS system and other sustainable elements with anyone and everyone who’s curious, including and especially other distilleries.

    “We don’t want to own this information,” Baker said. “We want to be leaders in the industry for change. We have proven over the course of six years that it absolutely can be done. It makes sense not only from a sustainability standpoint but from an economic standpoint. There’s no reason not to do it. It’s not any harder, so why wouldn’t you do it?”

    Sustainability at 14,000 feet

    The infrastructure atop the iconic 14,115-foot Pikes Peak is getting a refresh — and one that’s particularly friendly to water.

    Construction crews are finishing up work on the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex, which includes a visitor center, a high-altitude research laboratory, and a municipal utility facility.

    Visitors to the summit number upwards of 750,000 annually, and the previous facilities that welcomed them at the top were deteriorating. Replacing them created an opportunity to do things differently. The 38,000-square-foot complex, which is set to open around Memorial Day, aims to be net-zero for energy, waste and water consumption; it also hopes to become the first Living Building Challenge-certified project in Colorado, a rigorous green building standard created by the International Living Future Institute.

    The project, which is expected to cost $60 million to $65 million when complete, incorporates a number of water-saving and conservation features, including a pioneering on-site wastewater treatment plant, a vacuum toilet system, low-flow fixtures, and a rainwater harvest system for potential future use.

    Even with increased visitor numbers, the new complex is expected to use 40 to 50 percent less water than the 1960s-era Summit House it will replace. That water has to be hauled up the mountain, a 40-mile round trip.

    Construction crews work to build the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex atop Pikes Peak. The new complex features an array of sustainable design elements and aims to be net-zero for energy, water and waste. Photo courtesy of City of Colorado Springs.

    In 2018, crews hauled 600,000 gallons of fresh water to the summit, according to Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, a self-supporting enterprise of the City of Colorado Springs. (Colorado Springs operates the Pikes Peak Recreation Corridor, which includes the Pikes Peak Highway and related facilities, through a special use permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land.) The new facility should cut that down to between 300,000 and 350,000 gallons a year, Glavan said.

    “In the past, we used roughly a gallon to 1.2 gallons per person, and with this water system, we’re figuring we’re going to cut that down to 0.4 to 0.5 gallons per person,” said Glavan.

    Similarly, the water-savvy upgrades will allow the facility to halve the amount of wastewater it hauls down to the Las Vegas Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, which requires an 80-mile round trip.

    On top of the water efficiencies, the upgrades will also reduce vehicle trips and associated emissions. Freshwater trips are expected to drop from 127 to 72 per year, and wastewater trips from 174 to 69.

    The building also aims to be one of the first in Colorado to reuse water that’s been treated on-site. But for final approval from the state, complex managers must first prove that the wastewater system works, a process that will likely involve about a year of sampling, Glavan said. Assuming all goes according to plan, the facility will use reclaimed water for toilets and urinals.

    All told, the facility’s leaders hope that these and many other sustainable design features — undertaken as part of the highest-altitude construction project in the United States, on top of the mountain that inspired the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” — encourage others to reduce their impact on the environment in whatever way possible.

    Water-saving vacuum toilets in the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex, which also features an on-site wastewater treatment plant, low-flow water fixtures, and other water-saving features. Photo courtesy of City of Colorado Springs.

    “We’re proud to be doing it,” Glavan said. “It does cost a little bit more incrementally but we are America’s mountain and we’re hoping we’re setting an example for everyone. If we can do it up here at 14,000 feet, people should be able to do it at lower altitudes.”

    Restaurant redux

    While working as a hotel engineer at the ART Hotel in Denver several years ago, Mac Marsh noticed that whenever he responded to a maintenance request in the kitchen, the faucet was almost always running. But why?

    After some investigating, he found out that running cold water over frozen food was the industry standard when it wasn’t possible to defrost it in the refrigerator. These food-safety defrosting guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and followed by local health officials, are intended to keep restaurants’ guests safe and healthy, since keeping food cool as it defrosts helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and pathogens.

    But it takes one hour to defrost one pound of meat under cold water, which equates to about 150 gallons of water per pound. When he began to think about all the restaurants and all the food they defrosted on a daily basis, Marsh realized he had to act.

    He invented a novel solution to the problem: a device that can recirculate cold water in a sink or basin. His Boss Defrost device, which plugs into a power outlet, is also equipped with a thermometer, which helps users ensure the water stays below the recommended 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The Denver company began manufacturing the devices, now used in more than 25 states, in January 2020.

    The company’s leaders say Boss Defrost can reduce a restaurant’s defrosting water use to about 450 gallons per month on average, a sharp decline from the approximately 32,000 gallons that an average commercial kitchen uses to defrost food each month.

    “This water waste is food service’s skeleton in the closet,” said Diana López Starkus, who’s a partner in the business along with her husband, Chris Starkus, an award-winning Denver chef and farmer. “It happens all along the food chain, from fast food to fine dining, K-12 schools, college campuses, hospitals, hospice and state and federal buildings.”

    Though the pandemic — and ensuing restaurant shutdowns and capacity limits — slowed down the company’s growth, it also gave them an opportunity to expand into grocery meat and seafood departments.

    Sales picked up again when restaurants began to reopen, since their owners were looking for every possible way to save money as they recovered from the pandemic. Starkus said the device generally pays for itself in water bill savings in one to three months.

    “We like to say it’s a win-win-win,” Starkus said. “Good for the earth, good for your wallet and the easiest sustainability measure to initiate in 2021. “We’re passionate about empowering ourselves and others to create positive change toward a better future. That’s why we call it Boss Defrost, because every prep cook in the nation can become an environmental boss, someone that’s working optimally, respecting the resources at their fingertips and staying financially sound.”

    Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

    Stream Management Planning & Rancher Stewardship in #Colorado — The River Network

    Photo credit: The River Network

    From The River Network (Mikhaela Mullins):

    Since 2017, River Network has worked to increase the number and quality of Stream Management Plans in Colorado. Stream Management Plans, or SMPs, were developed as a result of 2015’s Colorado’s Water Plan, which set goals and measurable objectives to map out the future of water management in the state. One of these objectives is that 80% of locally prioritized streams have an SMP by 2030. River Network is helping watershed coalitions meet this objective by developing guidance on best practices, facilitating a peer learning network, and providing direct support to local coalitions throughout Colorado.

    “Everybody has an interest in water now. There’s a lot more fingers in the pie and it’s a lot easier to all work together to dig out the pie than it is to fight over it.” — Greg Higel, Centennial Ditch Superintendent

    SMPs are data-driven assessments of river health that help communities determine how to protect or enhance environmental and recreational assets in their watershed. SMPs are accomplished by stakeholders convening to evaluate the health of their local river through an assessment of biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data. This site-specific information is used to assess the flows, water quality, habitat, and other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values. To date, there are 26 SMPs that have been completed or are underway. SMPs are as much about people and communities as they are about the functional health of the river. Community and stakeholder buy-in is seen as a critical aspect of a successful SMP.

    As the second-largest economic sector and the largest consumer of water in Colorado, agriculture is a key stakeholder in SMPs. In the San Luis Valley, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project has done an incredible job at engaging local farmers and ranchers in their SMP and related projects, many of whom have been farming and ranching there for generations. In a recent trip River Network staff, Mikhaela Mullins, had the opportunity to hear directly from these ranchers to discuss the deep connection they have with the land and the Rio Grande River.

    Kyler Brown (left) and Thad Elliott (right). Photo credit: The River Network

    Local ranchers, Greg Higel, Rick Davie, Thad Elliott, and Kyler Brown, shared that stewardship for the land and water has always been important to them and their families. In recent years they had wanted to make improvements to their ditches, diversion structures, and headgates but lacked the resources to make these needed improvements. When they were approached by the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project about partnering on infrastructure improvement projects, they were eager for the opportunity to work together. “The river needed help, and we needed to make sure we did that right,” says Greg Higel, Centennial Ditch Superintendent. Through these partnerships, a number of ditches and related infrastructure were updated. Over time, the ranchers have been able to reduce the amount of time needed to maintain these structures and have seen water quality improve, wildlife return to their land, an increase in riparian plant diversity, and an increase in water quantity resulting in a longer season of water access. The ranchers spoke about how working with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project and other conservation organizations has been a win-win-win situation for all involved in these multi-beneficial projects.

    Thad Elliott with photos of the Rio Grande River from the 80’s. Photo credit: The River Network

    In the future, River Network will continue to support watershed coalitions as they tackle important river planning and identify how it can provide benefits to farmers and ranchers. River Network looks forward to continuing to shift the conversation between conservation and agricultural stakeholders by expanding the role of agricultural organizations, such as conservation districts, to have more of a leadership role. Learn more about the work that River Network has done in Colorado in this video.

    Learn more about the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project at http://www.riograndeheadwaters.org. Learn more about the River Network Colorado Stream Management Plan program at http://www.coloradosmp.org.

    As a hotter, drier #climate grips the #ColoradoRiver, #water risks grow across the Southwest — #AZ Central #COriver #aridification

    Hoover Dam, straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, holds back the waters of the Colorado River in Lake Mead. In 2016, Lake Mead declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

    From Arizona Central (Ian James):

    The water level of Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, has dropped more than 130 feet since the beginning of 2000, when the lake’s surface lapped at the spillway gates on Hoover Dam.

    Twenty-one years later, with the Colorado River consistently yielding less water as the climate has grown warmer and drier, the reservoir near Las Vegas sits at just 39% of capacity. And it’s approaching the threshold of a shortage for the first time since it was filled in the 1930s.

    The latest projections from the federal government show the reservoir will soon fall 7 more feet to cross the trigger point for a shortage in 2022, forcing the largest mandatory water cutbacks yet in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

    The river’s reservoirs are shrinking as the Southwest endures an especially severe bout of dryness within a two-decade drought intensified by climate change, one of the driest periods in centuries that shows no sign of letting up.

    With a meager snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and the watershed extremely parched, this month’s estimates from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Lake Mead could continue to decline through next year and into 2023, putting the Southwest on the brink of more severe shortages and larger water cuts.

    “What really is starting to emerge is this really long pattern, that we’re in a megadrought in a lot of the western U.S.,” said Laura Condon, an assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “It’s kind of like a cumulative impact, that we’ve just been getting hotter and drier and hotter and drier.”

    One of Lake Mead’s spillways the last time water lapped at the top of the spillway was 1999.

    Many scientists describe the past two decades in the Colorado River Basin as a megadrought that’s being worsened by higher temperatures with climate change. While the Southwest has always cycled through wet and dry periods, some scientists suggest the word “drought” is no longer entirely adequate and that the Colorado River watershed is undergoing “aridification” driven by human-caused warming — a long-term trend of more intense dry spells that’s here for good and will complicate water management for generations to come.

    Both Lake Mead and the upstream reservoir Lake Powell are dropping. Taken together, the country’s two largest reservoirs now hold the smallest quantity of water since 1965, when Powell was still filling behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam.

    The Colorado River has long been overallocated to supply farmlands and growing cities from Denver to Phoenix to Los Angeles. And the growing strains on the river suggest that Lake Mead, its sides coated with a whitish “bathtub ring” of minerals along its retreating shorelines, will continue to present challenges as the Southwest adapts to a shrinking source of water.

    “There will still be ups and downs and we will have wetter and drier years going forward but overall warmer temperatures mean we should expect a drier basin with less water,” Condon said. “Warmer temperatures increase the amount of water plants use and decrease snowpack. Even if we get exactly the same quantity of precipitation, a warmer basin will produce less streamflow from that precipitation.”

    Lake Mead was about 40% full in December 2019, but will almost certainly fall further this year, as will its companion reservoir of the desert southwest, Lake Powell. Photo/Allen Best

    […]

    Representatives of the seven states that depend on the river met at Hoover Dam in 2019 and signed a set of agreements, called the Drought Contingency Plan, laying out steps to reduce the risks of a damaging crash. Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up Lake Mead, while California agreed to participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to drop.

    The states’ water officials described the deal as a “bridge” agreement to temporarily lessen the risks and buy some time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages must be negotiated and adopted.

    Under the deal, Arizona and Nevada have left some water in Lake Mead in 2020 and 2021. Those reductions are set to increase next year under the “Tier 1” shortage, which the federal government is expected to declare in August.

    Looking downstream from the base of Hoover Dam. Concrete structure in the center of the photo is the outlet for the Nevada side emergency spillway.

    Arizona is in line for the largest cuts, which will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third and shrink the amount flowing through the CAP Canal to farmlands in Pinal County. Nevada is also taking less water, and Mexico is contributing under a separate deal by leaving some of its supplies in Lake Mead.

    “We have a plan to deal with these shortages,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We’ve known this was possible for a long time and have planned for it.”

    He and other officials say the Drought Contingency Plan never guaranteed the region would escape a shortage, but that it has reduced the odds of Mead falling to critical lows and has pushed back the possibility of more severe shortages and larger cuts. Buschatzke said voluntary conservation measures by the states and Mexico since 2014, plus the initial mandatory cuts over the past two years, have left about 40 feet of conserved water in Lake Mead.

    “We would already be in a Tier 2 shortage had that water not stayed in the lake,” Buschatzke said during a panel discussion hosted by the Arizona Capitol Times. “It’s what we can do to slow the reduction in Lake Mead and minimize the depth and length of the shortages.”

    […]

    A warmer watershed, a shrinking river

    Scientists have found that the Colorado River is sensitive to rising temperatures as the planet heats up with the burning of fossil fuels. In one study, scientists determined that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the river’s Upper Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming.

    In other research, scientists estimated the river could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise. They projected that for each additional 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of warming, the river’s average flow is likely to drop by about 9%.

    The past year has been especially harsh. Ultradry conditions intensified across much of the West, with extreme heat adding to the dryness throughout the Colorado River watershed. According to the National Weather Service, the past 12 months were the driest on record in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and the fourth-driest in Colorado, where much of the river’s flow originates.

    Lake Powell now stands just 36% full.

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    The reservoir typically gets a boost in the spring and summer as the river swells with runoff from melting snow. But this winter, the snowpack peaked at 88% of the long-term median and has since dropped to 71% of the median. The dry soils in the watershed are soaking up some of the melting snow like a sponge, leaving less water running into the Colorado and its tributaries.

    The amount of water that will flow into Powell from April through July is now estimated at just 38% of average.

    Water researchers Eric Kuhn and John Fleck said their analysis of the latest federal numbers points to some alarming possibilities. The two — who coauthored the book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River” — wrote in separate blog posts that a careful reading of the data in the 24-month study, which only goes out to March 2023, shows the projections point to bigger troubles at Mead and Powell later that year.

    Fleck wrote that the “most likely” scenario would put the level of Mead at an elevation around 1,035 feet at the end of September 2023, which would trigger larger cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, as well as California’s participation in reductions.

    “I’m talking about the midpoint in a range of possible outcomes,” Fleck wrote. “A run of wet weather could make things substantially better. But a run of dry weather could make them worse.”

    Kuhn wrote that the assumptions in the government study “do not fully capture the climate-change driven aridification of the Colorado River Basin.” He said the projections suggest Lake Powell could drop in 2023 to “a level that is troublingly close to the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.”

    […]

    Across the West, snow has traditionally stored a vital portion of the water, gradually melting and releasing runoff in the spring and summer. But that’s changing with higher temperatures. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, found in a study last year that the western U.S. has experienced longer and more intense “snow droughts” in the second half of the period from 1980 to 2018.

    “The main issue is the snow drought everywhere in the entire West, including Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado,” said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science. “When the snow is below average, it means low-flow situations in summer, drier soil moisture. And drier soil moisture increases the chance of heat waves.”

    The upshot, he said, is that “we have to prepare for a different hydrologic cycle, basically.”

    Warm and dry in the headwaters

    With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites…

    With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites.

    Other researchers have discovered that the dry periods between rainstorms have grown longer on average across the western United States during the past 45 years. Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Arizona found this trend throughout the West in their study, but they saw the most extreme changes in the desert Southwest, where rainstorms have been happening much less frequently.

    The average dry period between storms in the desert Southwest has gone from 31 days to 48 days, an increase of about 50 percent since the 1970s, the scientists found. Annual precipitation declined by about 3.2 inches in the region over that period, a much larger decline that the West as a whole.

    “In the desert Southwest, we were averaging around 10 inches and now we’re averaging around 7 inches,” said Joel Biederman, a hydrologist at USDA’s Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson. “That’s much more impactful when you consider that the amount in our region is smaller to begin with.”

    Biederman and his colleagues focused on changes that have been measured and didn’t attempt to parse the influences of natural variations and climate change.

    A separate analysis of climate data over the past 30 years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the nation’s “normals,” or averages, have shifted dramatically in a decade, growing wetter in the central and eastern U.S. and drier in the Southwest while climate change has pushed temperatures higher.

    Another group of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently looked at how interconnected extremes influenced by climate change — from floods to droughts and heatwaves — are expected to intensify in the future in the Colorado River Basin. They found these sorts of concurrent extreme climatic events “are projected to increase in the future and intensify” in key regions of the watershed.

    Lights out #Colorado — @Audubon

    Click here to take the pledge:

    Lights Out Colorado is a voluntary program to help migratory birds.

    The National Audubon Society, the International Dark Sky Association, and Denver Audubon are partnering to promote the new program.

    Every year in North America, more than 3.5 billion birds move north in the spring and 4 billion birds fly south in the fall. More than 80 percent of them travel at night, navigating with the night sky. However, as they pass over big cities on their way they can become disoriented by bright artificial lights and skyglow, often causing them to collide with buildings or windows.

    While lights can throw birds off their migration paths, bird deaths are more directly caused by the amount of energy the birds waste flying around and calling out in confusion. The exhaustion can then leave them vulnerable to other urban threats and deplete their energy needed for surviving migration and producing chicks in subsequent breeding seasons.

    Fortunately, the simple action of turning off lights can help birds navigate urban environments and protect them from unnecessary harm. The National Audubon Society, the International Dark-sky Association, and Denver Audubon have partnered to launch Lights Out Colorado, a new program that aims to help Coloradans save millions of birds as they take part in spring and fall migrations.

    Lights Out Colorado provides two simple steps communities can make to have a big impact on birds:

    • Shield outdoor lights to prevent light from being emitted upwards.
    • Turn off lights by midnight during bird migration seasons (April-May and August-September).

    It is particularly important to take these measures as early in the evening as possible, as migrants begin their nocturnal migrations at dusk, during spring and fall migration periods. In addition to helping birds, these efforts have the additional benefits of reducing energy usage and saving money.

    There are several common-sense exceptions to these guidelines. First, lighting activated by motion sensors can stay powered on. Second, businesses open late can keep their lights on until the business closes. Third, lighting needed for safety should stay on. Finally, local governments may choose from a variety of options for public lighting. Only lighting that is not needed should be shut off.

    TAKE THE PLEDGE
    Show your support for Lights Out Colorado