All that recent cold weather? Blame a wobbly Polar Vortex

Wavy Polar Vortex January 5, 2014 via NOAA
Wavy Polar Vortex January 5, 2014 via NOAA

From NOAA:

‘Polar vortex’ is the new buzzword of 2014 for the millions of Americans learning about its role in producing record cold temperatures across the country. Meteorologists have known for years that the pattern of the polar vortex determines how much cold air escapes from the Arctic and makes its way to the U.S. during the winter. Now climate scientists want to know if a warmer Arctic is influencing its behavior.

The polar vortex is a high altitude low-pressure system that hovers over the Arctic in winter. When the polar vortex is strong, it acts like a spinning bowl balanced on the top of the North Pole. The image on the right shows a strong phase of the polar vortex in mid-November 2013. Dark purple depicts the most frigid air tightly contained in an oval-shaped formation inside the invisible bowl. The light purple line forming the outermost boundary of the cold Arctic air is the jet stream in its normal west-to-east pattern.

In early January, the polar vortex weakened and broke down*, allowing fragments of cold air to slosh out of the bowl into mid-latitudes. The image on the left shows the weakened vortex formation on January 5, 2014. The high pressure building up in the Arctic slowed down the jet stream, which caused it to buckle into deep folds and flow farther south than usual, introducing cold Arctic air into the central and eastern U.S.

In recent years, climate scientists have noticed that the jet stream has taken on a more wavy shape instead of the more typical oval around the North Pole, leading to outbreaks of colder weather down in the mid-latitudes and milder temperatures in the Arctic, a so-called “warm Arctic-cold continents” pattern. Whether this is normal randomness or related to the significant climate changes occurring in the Arctic is not entirely clear, especially when considering individual events. But less sea ice and snow cover in the Arctic and relatively warmer Arctic air temperatures at the end of autumn suggest a more wavy jet stream pattern and more variability between the straight and wavy pattern.

Understanding the connections between the Arctic warming trend and more severe weather in the mid-latitudes remains an active area of research. But even as Earth’s average temperature rises, natural patterns of climate variability are expected to still operate in a warmer world. There have been many other cases of natural climate oscillations influencing our winter weather in recent years. The unusually cold winter of 2009-2010 proved that record-breaking snowstorms can still coexist with global warming, as did the frigid start to 2011, which resulted in another wintry winter for the eastern United States.

*CORRECTION: This sentence originally attributed the breakdown of the polar vortex to a sudden stratospheric warming event, which did not actually develop.

2014 Colorado legislation: Drought, floods, USFS taking of water rights

Trail map for Powderhorn Ski Area via liftopia
Trail map for Powderhorn Ski Area via liftopia

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

We entered the year facing an epic drought, which then dissipated. Epic floods on the Front Range in September inflicted significant damage to water infrastructure. And epic amounts of indignation flared as the U.S. Forest Service attempted to require ski areas to transfer their water rights to the federal government as a condition of permit approvals.

All of these issues are reflected in proposed water legislation that has been introduced in the Colorado legislature in 2014…

• Senate Bill 14-017 seeks to limit the replacement of irrigated farmland with irrigated lawns. The bill would prohibit approval of new subdivisions that buy agricultural water rights to serve their residents unless lawns are limited to 15 percent or less of the total area of the residential lots.

• House Bill 14-1026 seeks to make it easier for agricultural users to lease some of their water right to other users as an alternative to permanent “buy and dry.”

The bill would allow those who free up water through fallowing some land, deficit irrigation (giving crops less water than they really want) or planting less thirsty crops to ask the state engineer for permission to change the use of that water without having to designate exactly what the new use will be. Water court wouldn’t be involved unless there was an appeal.

• Senate Bill 14-023 seeks to remove “use it or lose it” disincentives for irrigation efficiency improvements that could benefit streams.

The bill would allow irrigators west of the Continental Divide, who reduce water diversions through increased efficiency, to transfer or loan the rights to the “saved” water to the state to improve streamflows and would ensure that those rights are not legally abandoned. This only applies to water that was not consumed under pre-efficiency practices, but rather lost in transit, and is only allowed if it won’t damage someone else’s water right…

• HB 14-1002 would appropriate $12 million for a new grant program to repair water infrastructure damaged by a natural disaster.

• HB 14-1005 would reduce legal hurdles for rebuilding irrigation diversions in cases where flooding changed the stream in such a way that the original diversion point would no longer work.

The bill allows water-right holders to relocate a ditch headgate without filing for a change in water court, as would normally be required, as long as the change won’t damage someone else’s water right…

Colorado ski areas and other water interests strongly opposed a recent U.S. Forest Service policy requiring ski areas to transfer their water rights to the federal government as a condition for approving permits.

Ski areas sued, and the Forest Service backed down last fall, but the residue of the controversy can be seen in HB 14-1028. This bill would label any water right obtained by the federal government as a condition for a permit as “speculative” and cause it to revert back to the original owner.

More Colorado legislation coverage here.

Snowpack news: Early season snow kickstarts the schussing season

Snow water equivalent as a percent of normal January 16, 2014 via the NRCS
Snow water equivalent as a percent of normal January 16, 2014 via the NRCS

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

In the West, some states are enjoying their best snowpack in years. And early too. In others, the new year has only brought more dry weather. That’ll mean significant water problems later in the year…

Northern Colorado has been deluged with snow this winter. Storm after storm has delivered, leaving river basins for the South and North Platte well above average percent for the amount of precipitation received so far this water year, which begins Oct. 1…

While Northern Colorado is sitting pretty, the southern half of the state could be in for some trouble if spring snow storms don’t roll through. There’s been little respite for residents of the Arkansas River valley near Rocky Ford. Dust storms were kicked up in high winds at Christmas-time outside La Junta.

Conditions aren’t nearly as bad in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an agricultural powerhouse, but could devolve quickly. Farmers in the traditionally dry region are paying close attention.

From The Denver Post (Steve Raabe):

Colorado’s ski season is off to a strong start, with the largest group of resorts reporting a 22 percent increase in skier visits through the end of December. Heavy early-season snowfall allowed ski areas to open more terrain than usual and contributed to the good launch, according to a report released Monday by Colorado Ski Country USA.

While the increase was vivid compared to relatively weak performance in the same period last year, the industry trade group said early-season activity was 6.7 percent higher than the five-year average for the period from October through December.

“Riding momentum from last spring and buoyed by early-season snow this fall, the season got off to a very positive start,” Melanie Mills, president and chief executive of Colorado Ski Country USA, said in a release. “While we’ve set a brisk pace, there is still a lot of ski season left. With such wonderful conditions we’re optimistic that the momentum will continue.”

The group’s report was compiled from 21 member resorts in Colorado, representing most ski areas except those operated by nonmember Vail Resorts, which owns Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in the state.

In a separate report released Monday, Broomfield-based Vail Resorts also said it saw gains for its Colorado and Utah resorts this season through Jan. 5. But Vail’s overall results for the ski season to date were mixed at its eight mountain resorts in Colorado, Utah, California and Nevada. Vail’s five ski areas in Colorado and Utah reported a 7.4 percent increase in skier visits compared with last year. But at its three resorts surrounding Lake Tahoe, where early snowfall has been poor, visits were down 23.4 percent.

Vail Resorts chief executive Rob Katz said in the release Monday that he is confident that the company will meet its financial projections. “However,” he said, “our confidence is predicated on more normalized conditions returning to Tahoe.”

Vail said ticket revenue in Colorado and Utah was up 11.7 percent.

The good snow that boosted Colorado resorts’ performance through December has maintained in early January.

In a 48-hour period through Monday afternoon, Steamboat reported 13 inches of new snow, 12 inches at Copper Mountain, 11 inches at Eldora and 10 inches at Telluride.

The snow allowed resorts to open more terrain earlier, prompting comparisons to the 2007-08 ski season.

2014 CWCB ISF Workshop, January 29

Colorado instream flow program map via the Colorado Water Conservation Board
Colorado instream flow program map via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):

The CWCB’s annual Instream Flow Workshop will be held on the afternoon of January 29, 2014 at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center in conjunction with the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention. There is no fee for this particular workshop, and registration with the Colorado Water Congress is not required.

Each year, the CWCB’s Stream and Lake Protection Section hosts an annual workshop that provides state and federal agencies and other interested persons an opportunity to recommend certain stream reaches or natural lakes for inclusion in the State’s Instream Flow (ISF) Program. The entities that make ISF recommendations will present information regarding the location of new recommendations as well as preliminary data in support of the recommendation. There will be an opportunity for interested stakeholders to provide input and ask questions. This year’s workshop will include: (1) an overview of the ISF Program and the new appropriation process; (2) discussion of pending ISF recommendations from previous years; and (3) discussion of the role the ISF Program can play in meeting the Basin Roundtables’ nonconsumptive goals and measurable outcomes.

For a general overview of the new appropriation process, please visit:

Date: Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Time: 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Location: Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, Grand Mesa F Meeting Room, 7800 East Tufts Ave, Denver, Colorado 80237

More instream flow coverage here.

Dust on snow has an effect on runoff in the #ColoradoRiver Basin

Dust streaming across Four Corners April 29, 2009 via MODIS
Dust streaming across Four Corners April 29, 2009 via MODIS

From New West (Allen Best):

Neither rare nor normal…dust storms have been significantly denting the flow of the Colorado River, scientists report in a paper published recently in a journal, the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences. They say the dust causes the snowpack to absorb more solar energy during the spring, hastening runoff and robbing the river of water of 5 percent of its flow before it reaches the Grand Canyon. They believe the dust is mostly caused by human activities in desert regions…

Brad Udall, managing director of the Western Water Assessment and a co-author of the study, points out that this volume of water, 750,000 acre-feet annually, is twice the water right owned by Las Vegas, about half of what gets drawn through the Central Arizona Project, and about twice what the city of Denver uses.

“It’s a large chunk of water,” he says in a video posted at in a video posted at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences website.

Udall goes on to say that this understanding presents opportunity. Pinched by rapid population growth and what looks to be rapidly rising temperatures, cities of the Southwest have already begun studying their options…

If causes of the desert dust can be abated, says Udall, more native water will be available to cities and farms of the Southwest. However, the lower-basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada have so far shown little interest in the dust-on-snow findings, says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, an agency based in Glenwood Springs, Colo. It contributed $10,000 this year to the dust-on-snow research.

“I have my doubts that it will ever get much traction,” Kuhn adds. “My guess is that many will consider dust a problem without a real solution. What are the options, reducing recreation and development in the deserts?”

This growing understanding of how activities in desert country can affect high-mountain snowpacks was triggered by a casual observation one June day in the late 1990s. Tom Painter, then a graduate student, was hiking up a mountain peak near Aspen with his father. They paused that morning near a lingering patch of dirty-looking snow. Idly, the younger Painter scraped off the top layer of dirty snow, leaving a gleaming, white surface. Returning late in the afternoon, the Painters observed the darkened snow had shrunk significantly. The snow scraped clean that morning stood higher, like a mushroom, as it had melted far less.

Painter understood what had happened. White surfaces reflect more solar radiation than dark surfaces, a phenomenon called albedo. After all, snow on an asphalt driveway melts more rapidly than on a concrete one. What Painter didn’t know was the source of the dust and its larger effect in melting mountain snowpacks.

After getting his Ph.D., Painter teamed with Chris Landry, who had recently established the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton. Landry had grown up in Aspen and Whitefish, Mont., where he learned to ski. He had recently received a master’s degree in snow and avalanche studies at Montana State University. Settling in Silverton, an old mining town located at an elevation of 9,300 feet, Landry found an above-timberline valley called Senator Beck Basin suitable for ongoing alpine research. Although close to a paved road, it’s inaccessible to four-wheelers, unused by snowmobilers, and was never substantially tainted by mining.

But the snow is by no means pristine. Pits dug to the ground in May or June at elevations of 11,000 to 12,200 feet reveal a snowpack that in places looks like an angel-food cake layered with chocolate frosting. Each layer represents a different storm. As the snow melts, the dust remains. By late May during the last two years, the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains has looked like a beige carpet…

Frequency of dust storms varies. In eight years of record-keeping, there have been as few as three and as many as 12. They have come anywhere form October to June, although most often in spring. Depending upon origin, including Utah, California and even Mexico, the dust sprinkled on snow looks red, black or tan.

Humans cause much of this dust. Studying sediments from an above-timberline lake accumulated during the last 1,200 years, scientist Jason Neff found an enormous change beginning in the 1800s. Dust deposition increased 600 percent. Later, after the 1930s, dust levels fell back to 500 percent. This increase in dust coincides with American settlement of the desert southwest. Later, in the 1930s, Congress adopted restrictions on grazing of public lands – possibly explaining the small decrease since then.

Working in the desert country of southeast Utah, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Jayne Belnap documented how dust gets picked up and blown. Setting up portable wind tunnels to simulate storms, she found undisturbed land yielded little dust. Disturbed lands
were another matter.

Still, a nagging question from water-user groups remained. “They would say, ‘We understand the influence on timing and rates (of runoff), but how does this affect yields?’” says Landry. “I had to say, ‘We don’t know yet. We don’t have a good answer for you yet.”

For that answer, Painter and associates set out to model the findings from Senator Beck Basin more broadly across the upper Colorado River Basin. Nearly all the water in the river comes from the upper basin, which also includes portions of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico…

Laurna Kaatz, climate scientist, describes the study as interesting, but says the effect of accumulating greenhouse gases on Denver’s water supply remains unclear.

“I don’t think we’re at a point we can say definitely that we know what will happen in the future and what we need to be prepared for in the future,” says Kaatz. “At Denver Water, we are doing our best to be prepared for the uncertainties that unfold.”

Kuhn admits he was surprised by the model that delivered the 5 percent estimate, which he believes could change with additional study. “The number is only as good as the model, but whether it’s 4 percent or 6 percent, that’s a lot of water.”

Driving frequently for the last 30 years between Glenwood Springs and Flagstaff, Ariz., where his parents live, Kuhn believes that livestock grazing no longer disturbs the soil significantly. Instead, he blames recreation, development and roads for breaking the microbial layers on desert soils, allowing dust to be picked up by winds.

The researchers are continuing their work, this time with a $1.6 million grant from NASA. They also seek to expand the dust-measuring network across the Colorado River Basin to other mountain research stations. Entirely new monitoring stations are needed in places such as Wyoming’s Wind River Range, a major source of Colorado River water, says Deems.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

‘Zero precipitation is below average pretty much anywhere’ — John Fleck

2014 Colorado legislation: Flurry of activity to help mitigate the effects of the September #COflood

Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280
Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

Environmental disasters — flood and fire — have inspired several new bills in both the House and Senate that could change how Colorado residents and businesses interact with the state’s natural resources. Other bills are meant to clear hurdles for those working to rebuild from recent disasters…

At least six bills came out of the Flood Disaster Study Committee, which convened for special sessions this fall after the catastrophic floods in September.

House Bills 1001, 1003 and 1006 offer tax exemptions to property owners, business owners and disaster relief workers affected by the flood. House Bill 1002 would set aside $12 million for grants to wastewater treatment facilities that suffered damage in the flood, such as the city of Loveland’s wastewater system.

Other flood-related bills:

• House Bill 1004 proposes changes to the Colorado Department of Public Safety that would allow for deploying certain disaster relief resources prior to a presidential declaration.

• House Bill 1005 addresses the issue of replacing ditch headgates wiped out by the September floods. The bill would change the process of how new gates are approved by eliminating the requirement that they be approved by Colorado Water Courts.

• House Bill 1006 is a tax remittance for local marketing districts. It sounds esoteric, but it was designed to help cities and towns, such as Estes Park, generate more cash flow while their businesses recover from flood damage, said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, a sponsor of the bill.

The bill would permanently change quarterly filings of lodging taxes to monthly filings, giving resort towns such as Estes Park a more steady stream of revenue to help bring in visitors.

• Senate Bill 007 is a bipartisan effort backed by Lundberg, Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, among others, that would allow county leaders to transfer money from a county’s general fund to pay for road and bridge repairs for up to four years following a governor’s declaration of disaster in their county.

More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Colorado Springs Mayor Bach touting regional stormwater solutions, eschews tax increase to pay for them

Flooding in Colorado Springs June 6, 2012
Flooding in Colorado Springs June 6, 2012

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Mayor Steve Bach acknowledged that Fountain Creek stormwater control is a regional issue, but said his job is to look after his own “sandbox.”

“We know it has to be a regional solution,” Bach told a gathering of El Paso County elected officials, including mayors from five other cities, Thursday. “But don’t expect me to sign off on a tax increase.”

That said, Bach said it would be the job of Colorado Springs City Council and El Paso County commissioners to determine the budget, but his responsibility is to make sure the money is spent wisely. He acknowledged that upstream users have an obligation to relieve downstream problems caused by development or deteriorating infrastructure.

Bach provided a list of stormwater projects in this year’s budget that total $24.8 million. The money will make a small dent in the city’s $534 million backlog of stormwater projects. The figure includes $11 million in new funds and $13.8 million in carryover funds from 2013 — money that was budgeted but never spent. It also includes wildfire mitigation funds that were not envisioned in 2009, when Colorado Springs made commitments on Fountain Creek flood control to downstream users in Pueblo County as part of its permit process for Southern Delivery System.

At the same time, El Paso County has a backlog of $189 million in stormwater projects, some of which overlap Colorado Springs boundaries. Meanwhile, Fountain has compiled its own list of $40 million in needed flood control projects.

Councilwoman Jan Martin repeated council’s concerns that a sustainable funding source is needed to meet SDS requirements and to protect Colorado Springs.

“I think the public is looking for us to come up with one solution, not multiple solutions,” Martin said. “We’re not that far apart.”

After the meeting, Council President Keith King said Pueblo needs to be included in regional discussions.

“I would hope that any regional solution includes Pueblo County and the city of Pueblo,” King said. “We need to look to the Fountain Creek watershed district for a solution.”

A regional task force that has been meeting for the past two years plans to make recommendations for a sustainable funding solution by the end of February, El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen said.

In the past, Bach has resisted any solution that would increase taxes.

Meanwhile here’s a report about a recent study of stormwater issues from Matt Steiner writing for The Colorado Springs Gazette. Here’s an excerpt:

Dave Munger, of the Pikes Peak Runoff and Flood Control Task Force, which is comprised of business leaders, city councilors, county commissioners, water district representatives and Colorado Springs Utilities representatives, presented the results of the November survey at the [El Paso County] commissioners regular meeting on Tuesday. The survey of 402 county voters showed most favor a regional solution with a steady stream of funding, but are adamant that the money shouldn’t come from added sales and property taxes or fees for El Paso County residents.

Hisey stressed that in order to find a long-term solution, however, new taxes and fees will likely be an inevitable reality…

Munger’s presentation Tuesday showed that flood coverage by media and several public meetings have kept awareness high since the first flash flood closed Highway 24 near Cascade on June 30, 2012, shortly after the Waldo Canyon Fire was contained.

While 61 percent of those surveyed said they had not been personally impacted by the flooding, 64 percent said flood control and storm runoff is “very important” to the entire Pikes Peak region.

The survey also took into consideration a series of mid-September floods that reached from southern El Paso County along the entire Front Range north to the Wyoming border. During those storms, thousands of people were displaced, roadways were washed out and 10 people were killed, including two in El Paso County.

Hisey said the next step in battling floods and regional stormwater issues is to “come up with some good ideas that might solve the problem” that will compliment several projects that have already been done by the county, the city of Colorado Springs, the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Department of Transportation. He said the task force plans to heed the results of the survey and have solid recommendations by the end of February for the best possible long-term plan.

More stormwater coverage here.