Pacific Northwest’s Winter, Warm and Wet, Is Climate Change Preview — Circle of Blue

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 12, 2015 via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 12, 2015 via the NRCS

Snowfall in the West will probably decline under climate change. Even in areas with more precipitation that moisture will likely come as rain. This is a big water rights question as many irrigators do not have storage and will likely not have much end of crop season water. Here’s a report from Brett Walton writing for Circle of Blue. Click through and read the whole post. Here’s an excerpt:

Famously overcast and stormy in the cold months, the Pacific Northwest is normally a haven for snow lovers. From volcanic peaks to valley basins, winter resounds with the glee of cherry-cheeked skiers and the terror of thunderous avalanches. Mount Baker, a mainstay of the Washington state ski circuit, is accustomed to skyscraping snow accumulations deep enough to entomb an 18-meter (60-foot) building.

Not this year. Record-warm temperatures expose bare mountain ridges and disappoint ski bums and lift operators alike. Despite average levels of precipitation, rain is falling, not snow. Snowpack in much of the Olympics, the remote Washington peninsula mountain range, and in the Cascades, the spine from here to northern California, is less than 30 percent of normal.

It is a worrisome development, say hydrologists. Snowpack acts as a natural reservoir, a bank of moisture that melts slowly and keeps rivers flowing through the heat of the August dry season when spawning salmon, big wheat fields, and apple orchards are most in need of water…

Snowless conditions in the Cascades this winter are a cautionary signal for the entire American West, which is undergoing a “major hydrological shift” from snow to rain because of higher temperatures, according to a paper from University of Idaho researchers published last July. Their analysis projects that the area in which temperatures are cold enough for snow in the 11 western states will decrease by roughly 30 percent by mid-century…

Water managers need to balance a constellation of competing interests, from hydropower generation and flood protection, to fish health, forest fire risks, and water supply to cities and farms. The old playbook for operating dams and reservoirs must be revised and adapted to the new hydrology, managers say.

To do so, they argue, local, state, and federal governments must continue a recent trend of investing in stream gauges and equipment that monitors river flows, snow levels, and weather patterns. These tools are the guide ropes that managers use to allocate water and prepare for droughts and floods…

Better Management through Better Data

On-the-ground data is the lifeblood of hydrological forecasting. Computer models that predict conditions up to a year in advance need to be calibrated and refined by comparing the model’s output with historical measurements. The region’s river forecast centers use stream flow information from U.S. Geological Survey monitoring networks and snow measurements from National Resources Conservation Service sites.

Both Seattle Public Utilities and the Bureau of Reclamation use forecasts from the Northwest River Forecast Center, one of 13 regional forecasting divisions of the National Weather Service. Yet even as the complexity of river forecasting increases, and hydrological cycles are more disrupted than ever before, the nation’s resolve to pay for data collection and analysis is in transition.

Two years ago, at the height of Congress’s drive for fiscal austerity, some 618 stream gauges were shut down by the U.S. Geological Survey and its local partners for lack of money. Federal dollars used to support half the cost of operating a jointly-funded stream gauge. Now, the federal share is down to 30 percent. National Water and Climate Center officials told Circle of Blue last year that they deferred maintenance of many snow-monitoring sites after a 15 percent budget cut in 2011 and a 7 percent retraction during sequestration in 2013.

Recently, though, Congress increased funding for the National Streamflow Information Program, which goes toward stream gauges, by $US 6 million in 2014 and $US 1.2 million in 2015, a 26 percent increase over two years. It was enough money to provide full support for 1,000 of the 8,100 monitoring sites in the national streamflow program. The remaining sites are paid for by state and local agencies.

“Congress is starting to get it,” Pixie Hamilton told Circle of Blue. Hamilton is the national coordinator of the Cooperative Water Program, a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey that facilitates data collection partnerships. “Congressional folks are understanding the value of stream gauges in their districts. Word is getting out that stream gauges serve multiple needs, and there is keen interest around the states and Congress to keep up these gauges.”

Still, there is room for improvement. The Cooperative Water Program’s budget — $US 59 million — has remained roughly the same for 25 years, cutting the real value of its funding in half because of inflation. More of the 4,759 gauges deemed a national priority could be supported by a full appropriation from Congress, and the federal cost-share for collaborative projects could be increased.

“We are creatures of the water cycle,” Fleming said referring to his water management colleagues. “The more we can enhance our knowledge and bring it into the decision-making, the better position we’ll be in.”

More infrastructure coverage here.

Snowpack news

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 12, 2015 via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 12, 2015 via the NRCS

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best) (Click through for the graphics):

Across much of the West last week it was a wonderful week, as good as they get for March or even April. Except, of course, that it was early February.

In Fraser, the warmth was unsettling to Andy Miller. To have streets bare of snow was one thing. But out on the cross-country ski trails, he found the snow conditions unlike anything he could remember seeing in his almost 40 years of residency. Off trail, the snow was sugary, without a base. But more disturbing was the wetness of the ski trails themselves.

“We used to get spoiled. We put on green wax and, on warm days, a dab of blue. Waxing skis was never much of challenge,” says Miller, a town trustee in Fraser.

But on the ski trails, Miller has been putting purple, a softer wax, on his skis and this week thought he actually needed klister, the softest of waxes ordinarily reserved for skiing on hot spring days.

It’s something I can’t ever remember happening before,” says Miller.

Memory loss? Not at all. Records collated by the Colorado Climate Center show the entire state in the grip of a mid-winter heat wave from Jan. 27 to Feb. 29.

“The northwest portion of the state was 15 degrees above average, and other parts of the state were 12 degrees above average,” said Wendy Ryan, assistant state climatologist.

Steamboat Springs had the highest temperatures for that period in 105 years of record-keeping. Snowfall has been reasonable, but the snowpack has shrunken with the warm temperatures. Instead of a three-wire winter, as ranchers called a year of deep snow, it’s a one-wire winter.

In Summit County, it was the warmest mid-winter period ever in the 54 years of record-keeping at Dillon. In Crested Butte, it was the 5th warmest out of 100 years. And at Grand Junction, it was fourth warmest after 116 years of measurements.

After a dry January, attention turned to reservoir levels. Many are near capacity, a legacy of the big winter of 2013-2014. That’s a little less the case in southwest Colorado.

Lawns on south-facing houses in Telluride were bare last week. How often does that happen in Telluride in early February? “About once or twice a decade,” said Art Goodtimes, a resident since 1981.

West of Durango, the unpaved parking lot at the tiny Hesperus ski area looked like it was made to order for a Tough Mudder race: spatter-the-windshield muddy.

At Beaver Creek, temperatures that hit 40 degrees seemed to favor ski racers in the World Alpine Ski Races who went first, before the snow turned slushy and skis got grabby.

In Crested Butte, the lean snow is causing organizations of the annual Ally Loop ski race to alter starts and finishes.

In the Cascade Range, dump trucks have been called upon in years past to haul up to 55 loads of snow from Mount Bachelor to a ski and snowboard event held each mid-February in Bend, Ore. This year, snow is too scarce and temperatures so balmy that a motocross stunt team was scheduled to replace the snow sports, reports the Bend Bulletin.

In California, it was worse. The state water agency there said that January will likely go down as the driest month in California’s recorded history. Along the shores of Lake Tahoe, “people are raking, picking up pine cones and wondering if winter is only for those who live on the East Coast,” reported the Lake Tahoe News in early February. The website described the situation as “horrible.”

In Alberta, it was dry enough for prescribed burns in the Banff-Canmore area. In Jasper, the Fitzhugh talked about melting snow and rain showers. But examining weather records from the past 30 years, the newspaper blamed faulty memories, not errant weather.

“Despite our memories of frigid Januaries, full of long johns, woolies and frozen eyelashes, this January’s weather … is nothing new or unusual.”

But in Fraser, weather during the last few weeks has been distinctly different from what Miller remembers or the icy climate in which the town 70 miles northwest of Denver takes perverse pride. The town got the title in the 1950 and 1960s when local weather tracker Edna Tucker reliably got up every few hours to note the temperature. Morning radio shows—this was before TV—often had Fraser as coldest in the nation, with minus 30 and minus 40 not all that uncommon in January and February.

This winter, says Miller, it got to 20 below one night. He also remembers that in decades past, the temperature might warm to almost freezing at night – a sure signal of more snow, followed by the icebox once again.

Now, even after a storm, it’s staying well above zero. This icebox clearly is busted.

Rain to replace snow in the Sierra Nevada

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Those big dumps of snow that the Sierra Nevada is famous for? In the future, as the air warms, many of them will be replaced by big drenchings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2014 was the 38th straight year with global annual temperatures above the long-term average.

In California, temperatures last year averaged 61.5 degrees Fahrenheit in California, or 4.1 degrees hotter than the 20th century average, reports the San Jose Mercury News, citing a new report issued last week by federal scientists.

Three other Western states—Alaska, Arizona and Nevada—also experienced their hottest years since 1895, when modern instrumentation became widespread. And Anchorage, Alaska, didn’t have a single day in 2014 in which the temperature dropped below zero, the first time in 101 years of record keeping.

A report by the Aspen Global Change Institute, a non-profit that caters primarily to visiting physicists, finds that the temperature in Aspen has increased during all seasons since 1940. However, precipitation, including snowfall, has increased.

Climate scientists say that it’s only going to get warmer.

Mike Dettinger, with the U.S. Geological Society, was in Lake Tahoe recently, and he echoed the forecast that the average snowpack for the Sierra Nevada in 2050 is expected to be half of what it is now.

“With more rain, less snow, and larger storms, it all comes together that the flood risk goes up in the Sierra,” Dettinger said, according to an account in Lake Tahoe News.

While peak runoff today is in May, rising temperatures will cause peak runoff to eventually be in April, said Arlan Nickel, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Tahoe News also noted that Jim Hansen, one of the most vocal of scientists about the need to abate the burning of fossil fuels, also spoke at the conference.

“If you add C02 to the atmosphere, it’s like putting a blanket on the planet,” he explained.

The Lake Tahoe News reported that Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argues that the only way to solve the problem is to levy an across-the-board fee on carbon, with revenues redistributed to households.

From InkStain (John Fleck):

The Colorado Basin’s two primary reservoirs lost, on paper, a million acre feet of water because of January’s dry snowpack, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That’s the difference between what we expected to end the current water year with based on the January forecast, versus what the forecast looks like today, a month later. The Bureau’s monthly “24-month study” (it comes out once a month and projects conditions for the next two years, hence the name – pdf here) anticipates 1.162 million acre feet less water in Lake Powell than was expected just a month ago.

As currently forecast, that means Lake Powell is expected to drop 8 feet in elevation in 2015, while Lake Mead drops 7 feet.

2015 Colorado legislation: House approves ‘flex-use’ water bill [HB15-1038] — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel


From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

Several Western Slope lawmakers didn’t get their way Tuesday on a bill that is designed to prevent so-called buy-and-dry tactics on water rights for farms and ranches.

While supporters of the measure, HB1038, say it gives water rights owners more flexibility in selling a portion of their water for other beneficial uses, opponents said it forgets water rights owners who aren’t parties in those sales.

The bill, which cleared the Colorado House on a bipartisan 42-22 vote, creates a “flex use” change in water decrees, which supporters say is designed to create a different option for water suppliers from buying agricultural water rights and then diverting that water from a farm or ranch.

But opponents said it has the potential to impact other water users, and would force them into water court to resolve issues created by those new flex decrees.

“The way water law works right now is, if you want to change the use then you go to water court and you prove that it’s not going to damage any other water right,” said Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio. “What this bill does is, it does away with that process and bypasses the water courts. It will force legitimate water rights owners to go to water court if they feel like their water rights have been devalued.”

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said the bill will end up doing the opposite of what it’s intended, saying that such decrees will increase the value of water and spur more sales for municipal uses, leading more farms and ranches to stop producing and dry up their lands as a result.

At the same time, it will harm farmers and ranchers who want to continue in agriculture but aren’t parties to those flex agreements because it will force them to go to court to protect their water rights.

“They don’t know if they’re going to have enough money to farm the next year, and if they are damaged they certainly don’t have the resources to bring it to water court,” Coram said.

Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, said that’s not going to happen because water owners still have to carve out agreements that keep the water for beneficial uses. At the same time, the bill will help address the growing need for municipal water in growing Front Range communities without drying up nearby farms and ranches, she said.

“We’re helping preserve agriculture and rural Colorado, addressing the state’s water needs and conserving our more precious natural resource,” she said.

The measure heads to the Senate for more debate.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Judge rules that Adams County stormwater utility is exempt from TABOR

Adams County photo via CIG
Adams County photo via CIG

From The Denver Post (Anthony Cotton):

A judge in Adams County ruled Monday in favor of the county in a lawsuit filed by residents who opposed the stormwater utility fee that was approved by the county commissioners in 2012.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2013 by the Stop Stormwater Utility Association, which argued that the fee was really a tax and therefore a violation of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the Colorado Constitution because the collection was not approved by voters.

“Throughout this process the county has maintained the belief that the stormwater utility is a fee, not a tax and is necessary to provide storm water related services and facilities,” Commissioner Chaz Tedesco said.

In his ruling, Judge Mark Warner said “The utility is a government-owned business that receives less than 10 percent of its funds from state and local authorities combined, and is therefore an “enterprise” that is exempted from TABOR. Further, defendant has not engaged in an unconstitutional “bait and switch” by imposing the fee and using it, in part, for administrative and personnel costs.

“Further, the Court concludes the stormwater utility fee is reasonably related to the overall cost of providing services related water drainage and water related activities in the service area. Thus, based upon the foregoing interpretation of Colorado law, the stormwater utility charge is a fee, not a tax and not subject to TABOR.”

More stormwater coverage here.

#COWaterPlan: An Important Step — James Eklund @EklundCWCB

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013
Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

From The Washington Park Profile (James Eklund):

No single issue will have a more direct impact on Colorado’s future than our ability to successfully and collaboratively manage our life-giving water. Water pumps the beating heart of Colorado’s sublime appeal. It provides for thriving agriculture, the green hue of our forests, farm fields and, yes, even lawns, it courses through our wondrous landscapes and fills reservoirs and rivers cherished by anglers and rafters. It allows for more families and businesses to share in our state, entices tourists to visit and sustains our economies and environment.

But we only have so much of it. As our state continues to grow, how do we work together so that we continue to accrue all of these benefits water provides even as our supplies are limited – constrained both by what nature provides and what we’re obligated by law to send downstream, across state and national borders?

Further, how are we best to proceed and prepare when our finite supplies are subject to the volatility of Mother Nature as illustrated so starkly by recent drought, wildfire and flooding?

A statewide conversation to address these questions began in earnest in 2005, when roundtables, populated by people with myriad and often conflicting opinions and interests, convened in each river basin. Since then, these nine Basin Roundtables, along with a group that includes members from each roundtable (the 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee), have engaged in an unprecedented effort at consensus-building.

Those discussions bring us to today, when the Colorado Water Conservation Board – drawing on nine years of grassroots dialogue and more than 13,000 public comments through the roundtable and IBCC process – has released the first draft of Colorado’s Water Plan.

The water plan represents the consensus view from this process that unless Colorado takes a strategic, statewide approach to water, we will face a more difficult future and risk leaving the fate of our water to decisions and actions from outsiders, the federal government and other states within the Colorado River Basin.

Colorado’s Water Plan reflects agreement from water interests statewide on broad, near-term actions needed to secure our water future. These include efforts to conserve and store water, additional re-use and recycling of water and providing more options to agriculture to avoid the permanent dry-up of our farm and ranch land.

Colorado’s Water Plan doesn’t prescribe specific projects. Instead it outlines how various interests across basins can attain locally driven, collaborative solutions, and how balanced approaches can garner the broad support needed to accelerate projects and shorten the federal regulatory process often associated with water-related actions in Colorado.

With an issue as significant as water, it’s important to underscore what Colorado’s Water Plan does not do: In no way does it infringe upon water rights as a private property right; likewise is does not advocate for any kind of ban on buying and selling of those water rights among willing participants. It does not seek alternatives to our Prior Appropriation Doctrine that has guided water use since before our state’s founding; nor does it erode or in any way cede Colorado’s interstate compact entitlements.

But by creating a broad grassroots framework for how we, together, ought to approach and manage Colorado’s water, it gives us greater control of our destiny, sends a clear message of a unified Colorado vision to federal regulators and fortifies us against outcomes that could gradually be imposed upon us without a broadly supported path forward for our water.

The water plan published in December is not the end, but a beginning. We’ve published draft chapters online ( as we’ve assembled them as just part of our effort to maximize public participation beyond the public roundtable and IBCC process. This draft plan is now subject to more public comment, participation and revision, with a finalized version scheduled for submittal to Governor Hickenlooper later in 2015.

The plan itself will never be a finished one, however. We see Colorado’s Water Plan as an organic, living document, developed from the bottom up and shaped and shepherded by the public will and the evolving conditions and priorities necessary to maintain Colorado’s splendorous stature as a place to visit, explore, work and live.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

CWCB: The next Water Availability Task Force meeting is February 18

Cliff Palace Mesa Verde National Park via Wikipedia
Cliff Palace Mesa Verde National Park via Wikipedia

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

The next Water Availability Task Force meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 18, 2015 from 1:00p-2:30p at the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Headquarters, 6060 Broadway, Denver in the Red Fox Room.

The agenda is posted at the CWCB website.