Where Is El Niño? And Why Do We Care?


From Climate Central (Andrea Thompson):

the reason we still care so much about it, following all of its tiny fluctuations toward becoming a full-blown El Niño, is that it can have important effects on the world’s weather, including in the U.S. It can even boost global temperatures, helping set the planet on the course to be the warmest year on record.

In their monthly update, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University said there is still a two-thirds chance that a weak El Niño event emerges and that it will likely do so in the October-to-December timeframe, lasting until spring 2015.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re essentially taking one step forward, that is one month forward since last month,” CPC forecaster Michelle L’Heureux told Climate Central.

While the conditions that mark an El Niño — such as warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific and a reversal of prevailing winds in the region — haven’t fully gotten in synch, they still can, and in some cases are, impacting the global climate and weather.

There’s a robust connection between El Niños and quiet Atlantic hurricane seasons, which the 2014 season has turned out to be, and hurricane experts have said that the burgeoning El Niño is part of the reason.

Even though waters in the eastern and central parts of the tropical Pacific haven’t consistently been warm enough to herald an El Niño, they are still affecting the atmosphere in a way that creates more stable, subsiding air over the Atlantic and more wind shear. Both of those factors tamp down on hurricane formation and development.

“This is fairly typical in fall” when the system is leaning toward El Niño conditions, L’Heureux said.

Those warmer waters, particularly ones in the central tropical Pacific, also helped bump this past summer into the books as the warmest summer on record. That heat has put 2014 on the path to possibly becoming the warmest year on record. If the El Niño continues to develop and forms before the end of the year, it will help nudge the planet toward that record.

The story isn’t quite the same for other El Niño impacts, namely the connection to a wet winter in Southern California. Only strong El Niños are associated with above-average winter precipitation there, something the region desperately needs in the midst of a three-year drought that is one of the most intense in the state’s history. But with this El Niño expected to be a weak one, the picture for California’s winter is unclear right now.

Reclamation: Check it out! Two Reclamation employees perform a rope inspection of Granby Spillway #ColoradoRiver

Leaf-eating beetles laying waste to salt cedar trees — the Albuquerque Journal


From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Introduced in the 19th century to protect railroad bridge abutments, praised for its ability to protect riverbanks from erosion, vilified for alleged water-sucking ways while simultaneously defended as wildlife habitat, the story of the Eurasian tamarisk – also known as salt cedar – is a textbook example of unintended consequences.

The beetle, introduced in small populations in an attempt to control the tamarisk, is the latest example. Brought from Europe to Utah and Colorado a decade ago, along with small populations in Texas, the beetle has run amok, spreading far beyond the narrow range biologists predicted.

After initial beetle arrival in 2012, the beetle rapidly spread uninvited up and down New Mexico’s rivers.

“Last year was really the year of the beetle,” said Oglesby, an attorney at a University of New Mexico water policy think tank and board member of the Tamarisk Coalition, a nonprofit tracking the beetle’s spread. “It came charging down the Jemez. It came charging down the Rio Grande, and now it’s charging up the Pecos as well.”

The beetles lay their eggs on tamarisks, with their larval offspring eating the leaves, quickly turning green patches of trees brown. Depending on local conditions, they often do not kill the tree outright, leaving it bristling with dead growth that nevertheless can sprout new leaves the following year.

Getting rid of tamarisk always has been an article of faith along Western rivers, but the dying trees along rivers’ edges in New Mexico and around the West are raising new questions – about fire risk and lost habitat for birds and other creatures that have made their homes in the artificial forests…

Oglesby saw the entire panoply of the tree’s history on display as he and a group of colleagues kayaked down the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque one recent fall afternoon.

Tamarisk swarmed over the river’s banks, crowding out native vegetation. In some areas, humans had intervened at great expense to clear them, creating an open bosque cottonwood forest.

But everywhere the scrubby tamarisk remained, there were signs of beetles chomping their way through them.

Formed to pursue habitat restoration along Western rivers, the Colorado-based Tamarisk Coalition now has become the de facto chronicler of the beetle’s spread. The group’s 2014 monitoring efforts are not yet complete, said Ben Bloodworth, who is overseeing the effort for the group.

But preliminary reports suggest that the beetle has become firmly established in Bernalillo and Valencia counties, and that a second population of beetles introduced in Texas has made its way through Las Cruces and is moving north up the Rio Grande.

The first beetle introductions, in Colorado and Utah, were approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the belief that the beetle’s impacts would be local.

Once it became clear the beetle was spreading much farther than expected, the agency stopped the program, but the beetle has continued to spread, undeterred…

For now, action in the middle Rio Grande is limited to monitoring the beetle’s progress. “People are just waiting and watching,” Oglesby said.

More Tamarisk control coverage here here and here.

The newest Colorado River management widget: the “System Conservation Program” — John Fleck

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

From JFleck at Inkstain:

The Colorado River Pilot System Water Conservation Program crept forward last week, in the process demonstrating an endearing quirk of Colorado River Basin water governance – no one is in charge. This no-one’s-in-chargeness is one of the central themes of my book. With the System Conservation Program, the folks not in charge are handing me an easy story line.

The news was the announcement Wednesday (press release here, scroll to the bottom of this post for the full solicitation document) of a “Funding Opportunity for Voluntary Participation in a Pilot System Water Conservation Program.” It’s a modest effort among basin water agencies to pool some cash to “conserve Colorado River System water for storage in Lakes Powell and Mead.” The $11 million involved is not nearly enough to fill the empty reservoirs, and no one expects that it should. Rather, it is an experiment in the construction of a new kind of water management widget aimed at staving off a particular kind of disaster – a tragedy of the commons among the nine states (seven in the U.S., two in Mexico) trying to figure out how to share the shrinking river.

When I say “no one is in charge,” I’m not describing a state of either anarchy or chaos. It’s actually a pretty orderly system. Rather, the system operates via a set of emergent properties based on existing rules and institutions, developed collectively, and people who know one another and are trying to figure out how to solve problems together by collectively developing new widgets. As opposed to, say, Secretary of the Interior Jean-Luc Picard just saying, “Make it so.”

Here’s how the newest widget would work. The big municipal water agencies representing the basin’s four largest metro areas – Southern California, Phoenix-Tucson, Las Vegas and Denver – pool money in a fund to pay farmers or cities to do something (the request for proposals doesn’t specify what) to “develop short-term pilot projects that keep water in Lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and compensated mechanisms.” In other words, we’ll pay you to cut your water use and leave the water in the river, so it can get to the reservoirs. (The proposal letter says the water could come from cities or farms, but who are we kidding? The water’s gonna come from farms. I promise to correct this post if I turn out to be wrong on this.)

It is being done this way because everyone knows there are problems (chiefly not enough water), but no one has the authority to impose solutions, to mandate that water users use less in a way that’s binding across the basin, leaving any individual user with the classic “tragedy of the commons” dilemma – if Phoenix gets real and slashes its use, that would just leave more surpluses for L.A. The two alternatives, therefore, are to continue draining the reservoirs, with confusion and uncertainty about who would bear the brunt of shortages once the shit gets real, or some sort of collective action where everyone gets together and agrees on a plan to avoid said shortages. But wow, that’s sure hard to do.

If you look at the history of basin management widget invention over the last 15 years, the major innovations have emerged from fuzzy collective negotiations that are difficult for outsiders like myself to fully understand. The 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines, which led to a significant reduction in California’s overuse of surplus water, grew out of seven-state/federal negotiations that dragged on for a painful decade. (See Jim Lochhead’s remarkable history for a great picture of how that deal went down). The 2007 shortage sharing agreement, similarly, was a seven-state/federal affair, with the tent expanded in important ways to include environmental interests in the discussion. I don’t think that story has been written yet. (Buy my book! As soon as I finish writing it!)

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Western Governors protest U.S. Forest Service water directive — Las Vegas Review-Journal

Fen photo via the USFS
Fen photo via the USFS

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sean Whaley):

In a letter signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, the Western Governors Association is criticizing a proposed U.S. Forest Service directive that seeks significant changes to water policy without their involvement.

The agency says the proposed directive would create a more consistent approach in its evaluation and monitoring of the impact on groundwater from actions on national forest system land.

The Western Governors say the agency is over-reaching.

“This proposed directive was developed without any state consultation of which the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) is aware,” the letter dated Oct. 2 notes. “We invite the USFS to work through WGA, Western States Water Council, and individual states to facilitate dialogue on ways to improve this (and any future) proposed directive.”[…]

The USFS has said the directive is needed to establish a consistent approach for addressing both surface and groundwater issues that appropriately protects water resources, recognizes existing water use, and responds to the growing societal need for high-quality water supplies.

But Sections of the directive “assume that the service has some type of authority over the management of groundwater, which it does not,” the governors counter in their letter. “The proposed directive should clearly state that state issued water rights for allocations of water must be recognized. The USFS does not have the authority to limit the amount of withdrawals authorized by a state. Limiting the quantity of groundwater withdrawals through special use authorizations would, in effect, amount to superseding states’ authority to issue water rights.”

Sandoval and other governors also express concern about the “rebuttable presumption” that surface water and groundwater are hydraulically connected, regardless of whether state law treats these resources separately.

“The directive should defer to the laws of individual states in recognition of their authority over water management,” the letter says.

The governors also say the directive requires the federal agency to evaluate water right applications on adjacent land that could adversely affect Forest Service groundwater, which oversteps the agency’s authority.

The comment period on the proposed directive ended Oct. 3.