New study shows that, ‘…natural climate swings and global warming appears to be driving a long-term decline in snowpack along the Rocky Mountains’

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From The Christian Science Monitor (Pete Spotts):

“I was shocked” when this result emerged, says Gregory Pederson, a hydrologist at the US Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman, Mont., who led the [study] effort. Similar shifts show up in the 1300s and 1400s, when the Rockies experienced warming periods, he says, but temperatures then weren’t nearly as warm as today. Nor was the shift as strong. Many studies have documented the West’s declining snowpack. And at least as early as 2005, some researchers began to notice the potential regime shift that Dr. Pederson and his colleagues see, notes Klaus Wolter, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo…

The new study, conducted by a team of scientists in the United States and Canada, drew on tree-ring records that the team related to snowpack. The scientists focused on three broad regions in the Rockies that host the headwaters for major Western river systems, such as the Columbia, Missouri, and Colorado Rivers. While the shrinking snowpack in the 20th and early 21st centuries is not unprecedented from a climate-history standpoint, at no time in the past 800 years have so many people relied so heavily on these winter snows for their fresh water…

Typically, gains and losses of mountain snowpack seesaw between the northern and southern Rockies with these natural swings in Pacific climate patterns, Pederson explains. This feature stands out in the team’s data throughout the past millennium, with a couple of notable exceptions around 1350 and the early 1400s, when warmer average temperatures reduced snowpack up and down the length of the Rockies at the same time. The seesaw still occurs to some extent. But since the 1980s, snowpacks again have been declining along the entire length of North America’s geological spine, regardless of the state of these natural climate swings.

More climate change coverage here and here.

Trail Creek restoration project underway, cost set at $4.5 million

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From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The project launched this week by foresters and private-sector partners will try to rework the altered flow of Trail Creek to make it more natural. For Fort Collins-based hydrologist Dave Rosgen, this also is a chance to demonstrate techniques increasingly in demand worldwide…

“This is how Mother Nature does it,” he said Friday, describing his plan to stabilize what has become a sluice for corrosive sediment. The steep banks will first be reshaped, and fallen tree trunks will be used to reinforce the new channel. Then, the stream bed will be raised by about 7 feet so water carrying sediment disperses into a willow studded plane instead of racing down stream. “We’re going to basically go back in here and re-establish a braided, meandering channel,” Rosgen, 69, told a gathering of county and federal employees…

Rosgen has developed formulas for calculating rates of erosion, enabling detailed analysis of mountain slopes, fire impact and hydrology. His team at Wildland Hydrology Inc. has restored dozens of damaged streams in Argentina, Costa Rica, Tanzania and around the western United States.

Ever since the Hayman fire, heavy rains have led to increasingly severe flooding across the scorched burn area. Foresters and volunteers have tried to address this, planting 3.5 million tree seedlings. “But it seems that 137,000 acres doesn’t heal as quickly as we’d like it to,” said Pikes Peak District Ranger Brent Botts.

More restoration coverage here.

Fort Morgan City Council approves water rate changes

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From The Fort Morgan Times (Jenni Grubbs):

The water rates had been scheduled to increase by 4 percent in January, but Acting City Manager Jeff Wells told the council Tuesday night that an increase of 5 percent was necessary to cover the cost of running water and wastewater treatment operations in the city, as well as the purchase of water and other water-enterprise-related costs, such as complying with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. “We initially thought the regular increase would be enough, but it wasn’t,” Wells said. “Where we’re at is not where we expected to be.” The council approved the suggested 5 percent increase, which Wells said likely would amount to about $3 per month for average residential users.

More infrastructure coverage here and here.

DefendTheColorado.org website launches to build awareness of upper Colorado River basin streamflow issues

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Say hello to DefendTheColorado.org, a new website designed to connect interested people and raise awareness of the issues around transbasin diversions from the Upper Colorado River here in Colorado. Here’s a report from Tonya Bina writing for the Sky-Hi Daily News. From the article:

For the Trout Unlimted Project, [Editorial Photographer and Videographer Ted Wood of Story Group, Boulder] brought in Boulder colleagues Beth Wald, a photojournalist who of late has been covering environmental and cultural stories in Afghanistan, and Mark Conlin, a seasoned underwater photographer.

“We launched the project as a way to get more visibility of the stream-flow issues on the Fraser and Upper Colorado,” said Trout Unlimited’s Randy Schoefield. “What we’re trying to portray is the community’s deep connection to the river.”

The Story Group plans to add more portraits to the website in coming days and weeks. Eventually, Trout Unlimited hopes to host public events that display the portraits as well as work by other photographers, granting a full sense of the river’s significance in Grand County and the consequences of further transbasin diversions.

Click on the thumbnail graphic above and to the right for a map of Denver Water’s collection system. More Colorado River basin coverage here.

An October tamarisk control operation on the North Fork of the Gunnison River used cutting and herbicide treatments

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From the Delta County Independent (Kathy Browning):

On Oct. 21, volunteers worked on a half-mile of the easement. Tamarisk, Russian olive and Siberian elm were cut out and stumps of the invasives were treated with herbicide. Tamarisk and Russian olive were introduced in the 19th century as ornamentals. Tamarisk is now seen as a problem as it out-competes native plants for moisture and displaces them along river eco-systems in the West.

Webb Callicutt, Delta County weed coordinator, trained volunteers on how to apply the herbicide.

Rosa Brey of the Colorado Canyons Association explained why it was partnering on this project. “We are a Grand Junction based group and are looking to expand our membership and our volunteer base in Delta and Montrose counties,” Brey said. “The other reason we are involved is because this river flows into the Gunnison which flows through several of our conservation areas. So if we can get tamarisk eradicated on the upstream sections of the river, then there will be fewer seeds that will flow down the river and down into the conservation areas.”

More tamarisk control coverage here and here.

School of Mines graduate students plan to study the geothermal aquifer underlying Pagosa Springs next May

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From the Pagosa Sun (Jim McQuiggin):

That research will involve two projects, one large scale, the other much smaller in scope.

Dr. Terry Young (head of the Geophysics department), Dr. Michael Batzle and Dr. André Revil (both professors of geophysics) described the research their School of Mines team will conduct in Pagosa.

Although faculty and students would be researching numerous characteristics of the aquifer, that research would be the result of the two primary studies: deep seismic profiles made of a portion of the aquifer and passive, “geoelectrical methods” of data collection — “including self-potential, electrical resistivity, and induced polarization” — that Revin describes on his website.

As far as deep seismic profiling, Young said that, “The technique is very similar to medical technology, such as an MRI or a CAT scan.”

What Young meant was that significantly large sound waves are directed beneath the earth’s surface, allowing a computer to translate the received echoes as shapes and depths (much in the way that an MRI — Magnetic Resonance Imaging — provides three dimensional images of a patient).

Those sound waves will be generated through the use of so-called “thumper trucks” — 60,000-pound pieces of equipment that generate controlled seismic energy.

Through both reflection and refraction, seismic surveys of the subterranean topography are achieved as seismic waves, travelling through a medium such as water or layers of rocks, are recorded by receivers, such as geophones or hydrophones.

Revin’s research, on the other hand, measures electrical signals associated with the movement of water in porous, fractured materials to locate the movement and characteristics of geothermal water.

With dozens of graduate students in tow, working with Mines faculty, the team will mobilize in specific areas throughout Pagosa Country, attempting to map portions of the aquifer for the first time ever.

More geothermal coverage here and here.

Pacific Institute: ‘Water for Energy — Future Water Needs for Electricity in the Intermountain West’

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From The Pacific Institute:

The production of electricity, from fuel extraction to generation, has growing impacts on both water availability and quality. The new analysis from the Pacific Institute evaluates future water needs for different energy futures and identifies a growing risk of conflicts between electricity production and water availability in the U.S. Intermountain West. The new report also identifies strategies to ensure the long-term sustainable use of both resources.

The study, Water for Energy: Future Water Needs for Electricity in the Intermountain West, examines the water requirements for current and projected electricity generation within the Intermountain West, which is the area bound by the Rocky Mountains in the East and the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains in the West. While water and energy conflicts are increasing across the United States, the Intermountain West is of particular interest for this study because it has a growing population (and growing demand for energy and water), a diverse fuel mix for power generation, and existing water constraints and limitations that are expected to worsen.

Under current trends, by 2035, water withdrawals and consumption for electricity generation in the region are projected to increase by 2% and 5%, respectively, over 2010 levels – but water availability is already affecting power plant operations and siting in the Intermountain West. And in addition to the water needed for electricity generation, population and economic growth will increase demands for water resources, even as climate change makes the available water supply less reliable.

Here’s the link to the report. Here’s the introduction:

In the past few years, there has been a growing interest in the complex connections between energy and water, typically called the energy-water nexus. For much of the 20th century, these two vital resources have largely been analyzed and managed separately, with different tools, institutions, definitions, and objectives. We now know, however, that there are very important links between water and energy and that long-term sustainable use of both resources requires more comprehensive and integrated study and management. The current report addresses the water implications of energy choices and offers some new insights into the water risks of different electricity futures.1

The energy sector has a major impact on the availability and quality of the nation’s water resources (Table 1). Water is used to extract and produce energy; process and refine fuels; construct, operate, and maintain energy generation facilities; cool power plants; generate hydroelectricity; and dispose of energy-sector wastes. Some of this water is consumed during operation or contaminated until it is unfit for further use; often much of it is withdrawn, used once, and returned to a watershed for use by other sectors of society.

Energy use also affects water quality and ultimately human and environment health. The discharge of waste heat from cooling systems, for example, raises the temperature of rivers and lakes, which affects aquatic ecosystems. Wastewaters from fossil-fuel or uranium mining operations, hydraulic fracturing, boilers, and cooling systems may be contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive materials, acids, organic materials, suspended solids, or other chemicals (EPA 2011, Urbina 2011). Nuclear fuel production plants, uranium mill tailings ponds, and under unusual circumstances, nuclear power plants, have caused radioactive contamination of ground- and surface-water supplies (EPA 2010). Too often, however, these water-quality impacts are ignored or inadequately understood.

Thanks to KUNC’s Kirk Siegler for the heads up via Twitter (@kunc). Here’s his post. He writes:

The report, “Water for Energy,” concludes that water scarcity in the inter-mountain West will continue to pose problems for electricity production unless a set of concrete action steps are taken.

Heather Cooley, the report’s lead author, says many western power plants and other energy producers such as oil and gas operations aren’t implementing as many conservation tools as they could.

“By adopting dry cooling, by expanding energy efficiency improvements and having greater reliance on renewables, we can dramatically reduce the water requirements for electricity generation in the West, and therefore reduce our vulnerability to future water supply constraint,” Cooley said.

More energy policy coverage here.