2016 #coleg: Sonnenberg tables HB16-1005 (rain barrels)

From The Denver Post (Joey Bunch):

Committee chairman Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, tabled the bill after a list of people testified for it, including organizations that supported it a year ago.

Sonnenberg tabled the bill last year and never brought it up for another hearing. This year he pledges that there will be a vote, “even if I vote no.”


Sonnenberg said, first, rain-barrel users needed to recognize Colorado water law’s pecking order of water rights, known as the prior-appropriation system.

Sonnenberg also wants the state engineer’s office to maintain oversight, so that in times of drought rain barrels can be curtailed.

Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer over water supply and litigation, told Sonnenberg Thursday that regulating rain barrels would be difficult. Beyond checking yards to find the rain barrels, engineers would have to determine if shutting those barrels off would increase water for water rights holders elsewhere.

“It gets more difficult than just checking back yards,” he said.

That gave Sonnenberg pause.

He said that without meaningful enforcement “it would make the farmer pay for that depletion rather than rain barrels. That’s outside the prior-appropriation system, and I haven’t figured out how I’m going to deal with that now.”

Water law experts say rain-barrels are only technically illegal, because proving they injure the water rights of other users is nearly impossible. Nearly all of the water would be absorbed in the ground by the downspout or in the ground in the garden, a Colorado State University analysis indicated.

“We do not think any changes to the water cycle could be accurately quantified or measured,” said Chris Olson, a researcher and program manager at the Colorado Stormwater Center at CSU. “The water is going to be infiltrated or evaporated … The only difference is the timing, a day, maybe two, before the rain barrel is emptied.”

Garin Vorthmann, who represented the Colorado Farm Bureau, testified earlier that the powerful organization supports the legislation now that it includes the House compromises.

“It’s time to find a resolution to this ongoing conversation,” she told the Senate committee.

Danielson expressed disappointment but patience about the Senate logjam.

“I respect Sen. Sonnenberg’s decision to take a close look at this,” she said. “I am hopeful that we, along with rain barrel supporters such as the Farm Bureau, will be able to make rain barrels a reality.”

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

The move drew criticism from supporters, who pointed out that Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango supported the bill last year, and offered the swing vote again this year to advance the legislation out of committee.

The bill also earned overwhelming support in the House this year, where it started.

It marks the second time Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling delayed a vote on rain barrel legislation. He did it last year when the bill moved through his Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. It sat then for nearly a month…

The state’s prior appropriations system grants water rights to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity. A study by Colorado State University found that allowing 110 gallons of rainwater storage per household would not decrease surface runoff by any detectable amount on a typical lot.

On Thursday, Sonnenberg questioned Deputy State Engineer Kevin Rein about the Division of Water Resources’ ability to curtail the use of rain barrels based on a determination of injury, as the bill was earlier amended to require.

“It’s an overwhelming chore to go through all the yards in Denver. I think our first cut at that would be we would need to have some rain barrels identified that are resulting in a deprivation of water to the senior water rights downstream, and then we could make that evaluation,” Rein said.

Sonnenberg worried that farmers and ranchers would feel the pinch: “This could very easily go to the next guy, which may be that farmer in Brighton, and have to curtail him.”

Supporters of the bill hoped they would be able to convince Sonnenberg not to delay the bill because of compromises reached along the way. Amendments helped pass the bill in the House 61-3…

Unlikely groups who previously expressed concerns with the legislation have come on board, including Greeley Water and the Colorado Farm Bureau. “It’s time to find a solution in this ongoing conversation,” said Garin Vorthmann, representing the Colorado Farm Bureau.

But Sonnenberg wasn’t convinced, adding: “I want to be done with this … but right now, I’m not comfortable.”

Theresa Conley, a water advocate for Conservation Colorado, said she was “disappointed.”

“Fear is a very motivating thing,” she said. “Until the governor has signed this bill, I’m going to be working on it like it could die tomorrow.”

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Megan Schrader):

“There has been a lot of misinformation put out on this bill,” Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said Thursday afternoon. “I’m not comfortable. I’m going to help get an extension and we’re going to lay this over until I can be comfortable, until we can make sure that someone else isn’t paying for someone else’s rain barrel.”


Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and sponsor of House Bill 1005, said it’s like Groundhog Day (the movie) where the same day keeps being repeated…

“I had fully anticipated that the bill would pass and at least with a super-majority,” Merrifield said. “I’m still confident that we’ll pass a bill. I’d like to do it sooner than later.”

Merrifield said concerns could have been addressed on the floor with amendments.

Sonnenberg said he was thrown by testimony from the state water engineer Thursday and needs time to work out his concerns but he pledged to bring the bill for a vote.

“I’m tired of this,” he said. “I’m tired of this issue. I’m confident they have been very willing to work and talk and have these conversations. I think it’s fixable, I just honestly right now can’t think what that is. I will bring this to a vote even if I vote no. We will have closure on this.”

Photo via the Colorado Independent
Photo via the Colorado Independent

#Snowpack news: Good snow in the #Colorado mountains, blizzard Front Range

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

#AnimasRiver: Whither runoff and pollutants?

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via WRAL.com:

More than two dozen state, tribal and local agencies said they will monitor the Animas and San Juan rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah at about 18 sites.

It isn’t clear yet what effect the spring and summer runoff will have on any metals that settled to the bottom of the rivers after the spill.

Snowpack in the Colorado mountains that feed the Animas — which joins the San Juan in New Mexico — was 81 percent of the long-term average Thursday. Kevin Houck of the Colorado Water Conservation Board said he didn’t expect a higher-than-normal runoff.

That could change if spring snows are heavy, Houck said, adding that the outlook will become clearer next month.

A crew led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently triggered the 3 million-gallon spill at the inactive Gold King Mine Aug. 5 during preliminary cleanup work.

The EPA estimates the spill sent 880,000 pounds of metals into the rivers, and some settled into the sediment on the bottom.

The metals included arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. Water utilities briefly shut down their intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers. The EPA says the water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.

Colorado, New Mexico and Utah joined with the Navajo, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes — whose land is crossed by the rivers — to compile a plan to monitor the waterways and some wells. They will also test the sediment in the delta where the San Juan empties into Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

They said they will share their data and will train first-responders and water users about what to do in the event of a flood or other emergency.

Cities, counties, health departments and water districts along the rivers are also participating in the preparations.

Separately, the EPA released an updated plan Thursday for its own water-quality monitoring to last at least through August.

The agency said it planned to monitor 30 river locations in the three states. At least some of those sites appeared to be the same ones the states will monitor.

Meanwhile the Democrats in Congress are pushing for reform of the General Mining Act of 1872. Here’s a report from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

“While voluntary and philanthropic efforts may provide relief in certain instances, they cannot come close to truly addressing the vast scale of the problem,” said a letter from the lawmakers, including Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Colorado Rep. Jared Polis and four others.

They sent the letter to committee chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and are requesting a hearing on two bills aimed at tackling the inactive mines problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 500,000 inactive mines around the West and that tens of thousands are leaking, contaminating water with acidic, metals-laced drainage from mines.

The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act would create a fund from fees on industry to clean up abandoned hardrock mines…

Lawmakers also are considering legislation to encourage voluntary cleanups by reducing liability under the Clean Water Act when well-intentioned work causes more harm…

And the EPA aims to stabilize the first 60 feet of the collapsed Gold King Mine portal and install a structure to control drainage, Grantham said.

“Operations at the Gold King Mine will resume as early as possible in the late spring, early summer, depending upon road conditions and any remaining avalanche hazards around the mine,” she said.

Finally, the EPA has released their final monitoring plan in the aftermath of the Gold Kind Mine spill. Here’s a report from Peter Marcus writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to examine water and sediment quality, biological communities and fish tissue at 30 locations under a variety of flow and seasonal river conditions along the Animas and San Juan rivers.

After the first year, “the need for additional monitoring and assessment and the entities best suited to undertake further monitoring will be determined,” according to the plan…

The EPA on Thursday also announced that it would make $2 million available for additional monitoring needs designed to complement the yearlong effort.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation will monitor the spring runoff.

Spring 2016 is the first snowmelt season in the Animas and San Juan watershed since the spill. There is concern that heavy metal concentrations in the river may rise as flows increase, posing a risk to downstream communities and aquatic life. A large spring snowpack has increased those concerns.

The preparedness plan includes sensors providing real-time data, including turbidity and flow levels. The plan also calls for water quality sampling at regular intervals to track river conditions.

The San Juan Basin Health Department will rely on the real-time data, beyond the periodic sampling performed by the EPA.

“Based on currently available data, San Juan Basin Health believes that use of the river this year poses no additional health risks as compared to previous years, but as conditions change over the course of the monitoring program, we will assess data from all sources in order to improve our decision-making and keep the public safe,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of the San Juan Basin Health Department.

“EPA’s comparison of current and historic data at long-term monitoring sites will be essential for determining if the August incident has changed river conditions,” she added.

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie questioned whether the EPA should commit to more than a year of sampling, suggesting that a more permanent monitoring plan could come as part of Superfund efforts.

Local communities and the state have expressed support for a Superfund designation, which would inject large amounts of dollars into treatment.

“To me, that’s not long term, that’s a start, and sets up the basis for long-term monitoring,” Brookie said.

San Juan County Administrator William Tookey pointed out that monitoring is not as critical to his community because it does not use the Animas for drinking or agriculture.

“Our concern is that there’s adequate monitoring in there so that our downstream partners get the protection and notice they need so it doesn’t put them in a bind,” Tookey said.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt added: “I’m pleased with the cooperation amongst the downstream entities to monitor the spring runoff in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill. With the winter snowpack and ongoing acid mine drainage in the Animas watershed, it’s critical we have this level of cooperation not only this year but throughout the Superfund cleanup process.”

Fall data, also released on Thursday, showed that sampling from 27 locations were below “risk-based recreational screening levels,” according to the EPA. Officials added that the data were consistent with pre-event conditions.

Data are compared to recreational screening levels for long-term exposure. The analysis takes into account such things as how a person would contact the river and for how long.

An EPA spring sampling event is underway, which will be followed by additional sampling in June and again in the fall.

After collecting data for a year, the EPA will assess it, consult with partners and decide what further monitoring or other actions are needed.

The goal is to consistently evaluate river conditions over time to assess impacts to public health and the environment. Researchers will examine fluctuations over time and location based on seasonal factors, such as precipitation and snowmelt.

The sampling locations will span Cement Creek, the Animas and San Juan rivers, and the upper section of the San Juan arm of Lake Powell.

Here’s a photo gallery about the spill from The Durango Herald.

The latest “Water Matters” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Colorado Water Trust

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado Water Trust receives $20,000 from ESPN for Roaring Fork Restoration

Flows on the Roaring Fork River, particularly through the middle of Aspen, tend to dip to extremely low levels toward the end of summer, even in years with average precipitation. This year, we are working toward enrolling Aspen’s water rights in a flow restoration program that will allow them to cut back their water use while still protecting their water rights. As part of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s Change the Course Campaign, ESPN stepped forward with a $20,000 grant to support our efforts to restore flows to the Roaring Fork.

In an effort to tell the story of the work we are doing in Aspen, ESPN invited us to attend the 2016 Winter XGames to showcase our efforts to restore and protect flows in the Roaring Fork River. It was a great multi-day event that allowed us to engage with hundreds of XGames fans. We are so grateful to ESPN for this unique opportunity for outreach and support!

Roaring Fork River back in the day
Roaring Fork River back in the day

EPA Announces $3.3 Million in Funding for Water Reuse and Conservation Research/Research will measure health and ecological impacts of water conservation practices

Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Cathy Milbourn):

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced funding to five institutions to research human and ecological health impacts associated with water reuse and conservation practices.

“Increasing demand for water resources is putting pressure on the finite supply of drinking water in some areas of the United States,” said Thomas A. Burke, EPA Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “The research announced today will help us manage and make efficient use of the water supply in the long term.”

Water conservation practices that promote water reuse are becoming increasingly important, especially in the western United States, where factors such as climate change, extreme drought, and population growth are decreasing water availability. To help promote sustainable water reuse, this research will evaluate how reclaimed water applications such as drinking water reuse, replenishing groundwater, and irrigation can affect public and ecological health.

EPA announced these grants in conjunction with the White House Water Summit, which was held to raise awareness of water issues and potential solutions in the United States, and to catalyze ideas and actions to help build a sustainable and secure water future through innovative science and technology.

The following institutions received funding through EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program:

Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) Alexandria, Va. to actively identify contaminant hotspots, assess the impact of those hotspots on human and ecological health, and quantify the impact of water reuse and management solutions.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Urbana, Ill. to develop a new framework to understand how adaptive UV and solar-based disinfection systems reduce the persistence of viral pathogens in wastewater for sustainable reuse.

Utah State University, Logan, Utah to assess the impacts and benefits of stormwater harvesting using Managed Aquifer Recharge to develop new water supplies in arid western urban ecosystems.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nev. to quantify microbial risk and compare the sustainability of indirect and direct potable water reuse systems in the United States.

University of California Riverside, Riverside, Calif. to measure levels of contaminants of emerging concern in common vegetables and other food crops irrigated with treated wastewater, and to evaluate human dietary exposure.

More information on these grants is available at: https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/recipients.display/rfa_id/591/records_per_page/ALL


Aspinall Unit spring operations forecast

Aspinall Unit dams
Aspinall Unit dams

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The March 15th forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 530,000 acre-feet. This is 79% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently 92% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 560,000 acre-feet which is 68% of full. Current elevation is 7487.3 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.

Black Canyon Water Right

The peak flow and shoulder flow components of the Black Canyon Water Right will be determined by the May 1 forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir. If the May 1 forecast is equal to the current forecast of 530,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the peak flow target will be equal to 3,426 cfs for a duration of 24 hours. The shoulder flow target will be 300 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25. The point of measurement of flows to satisfy the Black Canyon Water Right is the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the peak flow and duration flow targets in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be determined by the forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir and the hydrologic year type. At the time of the spring operation, if the forecast is equal to the current forecast of 530,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the hydrologic year type will be set as Average Dry. Under an Average Dry year the peak flow target will be 8,070 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days.

Projected Spring Operations

During spring operations, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The magnitude of release necessary to meet the desired peak at the Whitewater gage will be dependent on the flow contribution from the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries downstream from the Aspinall Unit. Current projections for spring peak operations show that flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon could be in the 5,000 to 5,500 cfs range for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. If actual flows on the North Fork of the Gunnison River are less than currently projected, flows through the Black Canyon could be even higher. With this runoff forecast and corresponding downstream targets, Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an elevation of around 7507 feet with an approximate peak content of 720,000 acre-feet.

West Salt Creek landslide was, “was a cascade of landslide events” — Jeffrey Coe

Grand Mesa mudslide before and after via The Denver Post
Grand Mesa mudslide before and after via The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

“Our results revealed that the rock avalanche was a cascade of landslide events, rather than a single massive failure,” said the study led by Jeffrey Coe, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The 2.8-mile-long West Salt Creek landslide on the Grand Mesa on May 25, 2014, was the longest such slide in Colorado history.

The report found the sequence began with an early morning rockfall event that combined with a later earth failure.

The slide near the town of Collbran lasted about 3.5 minutes and sent a wall of debris rocketing down from the Grand Mesa…

Worries of another catastrophe have persisted in the slide’s wake, particularly in June, when heavy rains prompted warnings. The main risk, officials say, is in early spring as snowmelt travels down the slide area.

Water that has collected in a depression near the top of the slide has created a “sag pond,” which continues to prompt fears among geologists of another catastrophe.

Obama issues drought directive, action plan on World Water Day

From the Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

Obama, at the first White House Water Summit held Tuesday in conjunction with World Water Day, announced an “action plan” to boost drought monitoring and forecasting capabilities in particular.

“There is nothing more important in the West than water,” said Catherine Greener, a member of the Colorado River advocacy organization Protect the Flows.

“Today’s executive action is an important step toward addressing the drought in the West and protecting limited water resources.”

Citing the 2012 drought that covered 65 percent of the nation and plunged farmers and ranchers into a financial nightmare, the administration outlined six steps to be taken this year, including extending federal water efficiency grants underway in California to other regions suffering from drought or those areas at risk.

The White House plan also calls for improving access to drinking water for communities most vulnerable to compromised supplies and mandates that drought impacts be included in emergency response plans as a condition for funding for new water and wastewater development projects.

The plan includes an accelerated emphasis on drought related research. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, will form an agencywide Western Water Applications Office housed at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. There, researchers will develop strategic applications analyzing satellite observations and airborne technologies to better meet the challenges of drought, flooding, declining snowpack and shrinking groundwater across the West.

The administration’s plan responds to a call for action in a report issued by the Western Governors’ Association, which asked that federal agencies coordinate their efforts in on the ground conservation efforts aimed at improving watershed health, enhanced data collection and subsequent sharing of information.

As part of the national response strategy on drought, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will award $3.5 million grants to five research institutions — including Utah State University in Logan — to study the health and ecological impacts of water conservation. The University of Utah is one of four research institutions that will share in $4 million to study how drought and wildfires affect water quality.

President Obama at Hoover Dam
President Obama at Hoover Dam

Funding Awarded for Two Small Hydropower Projects

Micro-hydroelectric plant
Micro-hydroelectric plant

Here’s the release (Christi Lightcap):

Two small hydropower projects have been awarded grants through the “Advancing Colorado’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency” (ACRE3) program. Both hydro projects generate electricity as water flows to the fields through irrigation pipelines.

The funding is part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The RCPP small hydropower program provides funding for technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers to install and maintain projects that address natural resource concerns in Colorado.

“The program addresses water quantity, water quality, and energy resource concerns by helping farmers upgrade outdated and labor intensive flood irrigation systems to more efficient pressurized irrigation systems using hydropower, or retrofit existing sprinkler systems with a hydropower component,” said Sam Anderson, CDA’s Energy Specialist. “Over the next three years, the project plans to install 30 hydro-mechanical or hydro-electric power systems across Colorado.”

2015 Grant Recipients:

  • Park Family Farm, Kersey, Colo., will receive $9,568 to install hydroelectric turbines that generate 10 kW of power for operating two center-pivot irrigation systems on 125 acres. The hydro turbines will power the center pivots through a net-metering agreement with Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association.
  • Susan Raymond, Hotchkiss, Colo., will receive $11,400 to install hydro-electric turbines for generating 8 kW through a net-metering agreement with Delta-Montrose Electric Association. The hydropower will produce electricity to run three center pivots on 37 acres and provide electricity for an on-site veterinary practice.
  • In addition to the $20,968 awarded by the ACRE3 program, the two projects will receive combined funding of $28,100 from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and additional funding from the USDA’s Rural Development REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) Program. These funds are made possible through the RCPP Pressurized Irrigation Small Hydropower Partnership Project, a partnership between CDA’s ACRE3 program and the NRCS, with the support of USDA Rural Development. The two grant recipients will use the funding to pay for the hydro turbines, improvements to the irrigation systems and pipelines, and water management planning.

    Now Accepting Applications:
    CDA is currently accepting applications for the next round of RCPP Irrigation Hydro Projects and will award funding for six more projects this year. For more information and to submit an application, visit the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s ACRE3 energy website: http://www.colorado.gov/agconservation/agriculturalhydro or contact Sam Anderson at 303-869-9044 or Sam.Anderson@state.co.us. The application deadline is May 13, 2016.

    Drought news: D1 introduced in SE #Colorado

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


    Storms continued to chip away at drought across northern California and the Northwest, while short-term dryness led to further moderate (D1) drought expansion in the southwestern and south-central U.S. During the 168-hour drought-monitoring period, ending on the morning of March 22, some of the heaviest precipitation fell in non-drought areas of the South, Pacific Northwest, and upper Great Lakes region. However, the Northwestern precipitation reached southward and inland, targeting parts of northern California and the northern Rockies. Farther east, snow grazed a portion of the Northeastern dry (D0) region on March 21, while periodic but widely scattered showers and thunderstorms dampened the lower Southeast. Elsewhere, short-term dryness began to intensify across the southwestern and south-central U.S., where until recently crops such as winter wheat had been growing well and rangeland and pastures had not been experiencing much stress. However, that has started to change as short-term dryness, aggravated by high winds and temperature extremes, has reduced soil moisture and begun to stress crops…

    Southern and Central Plains

    Development of short-term dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) became more apparent across portions of the central and southern Plains, especially when windy weather resulted in a sharp increase in grassfires and blowing dust on March 22-23. A particularly severe wildfire flared in Woods County, Oklahoma, on March 22, later racing into neighboring Kansas. During the fire’s resurgence on March 23, aided by wind gusts above 60 mph, a large plume of smoke—easily visible on satellite imagery—raced northward across central Kansas.

    According to USDA, nearly half of the topsoil moisture was rated very short to short on March 20 in Kansas (46%) and Oklahoma (43%). A week ago, on March 13, topsoil moisture was just 37% very short to short in Kansas. Still, the majority of the winter wheat crop was rated in good to excellent condition on March 20 in Oklahoma (63%) and Kansas (57%). The Texas winter wheat crop was rated 47% good to excellent on the 20th.

    Complicating matters for winter wheat is that a significant freeze struck portions of the central and southern High Plains on March 20, with low temperatures ranging from 5 to 20°F in some of the coldest locations in southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and northern Texas. Ultimately, it may be difficult to determine whether damage, if any, to the winter wheat crop was caused by freeze injury or by drought. The freeze was immediately followed by a warm, windy spell; Garden City, Kansas, reported a high of 88°F on March 22, just 2 days after a daily-record low of 10°F.

    Unless significant precipitation occurs soon, a much broader area of the central and southern Plains, extending eastward into the middle Mississippi Valley, may be ripe for expansion of dryness and drought during the next few weeks. Many of these areas received extremely heavy precipitation as recently as late December, and the landscape still retains a “memory” of this rain in the form of subsoil moisture and streamflow that has only recently begun to diminish…

    Northern Plains

    Cooler weather arrived across the northern Plains, following spring-like warmth. A pesky storm system over the upper Great Lakes region produced widespread, generally light precipitation, including some snow. Precipitation in northern Minnesota was heavy enough to trim the coverage of abnormal dryness (D0). Most other areas remained unchanged, except for a small D0 increase in western Minnesota…


    Following northern California’s heavy precipitation events of March 4-7 and 11-14, dry weather returned across much of the state for several days. However, additional precipitation fell across northern California from March 20-22, providing further incremental drought relief. Specifically, some abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate to extreme drought (D1 to D2) was trimmed from the edges, largely due to robust streamflow and reservoir recharge.

    During northern California’s spate of heavy precipitation, the Yuba County community of Strawberry Valley—nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills at an elevation of about 3,800 feet—collected 11.04 inches of rain in a 72-hour period from March 4-7, followed by 10.44 inches in another 72-hour period from March 11-14. Higher elevations have received substantial snow; the average water content of the high-elevation Sierra Nevada snowpack has increased to 25 inches, up from 20 inches from the beginning of March. The 25-inch snow-water equivalency translates to 90% of the historical average as the traditional peak snowpack date of April 1 approaches. Snowpack is roughly average in the northern Sierra Nevada, but only about three-quarters of average in the southern Sierra. This is consistent with the winter 2015-16 storm track that has been more active across northern California and the northwestern U.S.

    From a water-supply perspective, the favorable news is that there is a nearly normal snowpack to melt off, in addition to the fact that the state’s reservoirs had already received nearly 6.5 million acre-feet of inflow by February 29. (This figure does not include any March inflow, which has been substantial in northern California.) In a typical recharge season, California’s reservoir inflow is about 8.2 million acre-feet; thus, even without factoring in March inflow and future snow-melt runoff, California has already received more than three-quarters (6.5 of 8.2 million acre-feet) of its average seasonal allotment of surface water.

    However, the improvement has not been evenly distributed, with long-term severe to extreme (D3 to D4) drought still entrenched across much of central and southern California, as reflected by less frequent storms during the 2015-16 wet season; still-low reservoir levels; less robust mountain snowpack; and continuing groundwater shortages…


    The latest parade of Pacific storms brought further relief from lingering dryness (D0) and drought (D1-D2) in the Northwest. Additional improvement was noted as far south as the northern tier of Nevada, where some trimming of moderate to severe drought (D1 to D2) in part resulted from strong streamflow in smaller creeks and rivers, as well as an increased risk of spring snow-melt flooding.

    Farther north, dryness (D0) and moderate to severe drought (D1 to D2) were reduced by varying degrees in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Notably, substantial dryness In Idaho was eliminated due to good reservoir recharge and snowpack accumulation that in most basins is coming close to, and in some cases has passed, the median annual peak value for the period of record. In addition, the latest batch of storms produced some heavy precipitation across the northern Rockies and environs. In western Montana, one of the remaining islands of moderate to severe drought (D1 to D2) was slightly realigned to better match existing snowpack deficits along the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide…


    Similar to the central and southern Great Plains, dryness and drought has quickly begun to ramp up across the Southwest. Most of the major changes to the depiction occurred in Arizona and New Mexico; both states experienced large increased in the coverage of dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1). For the Southwest, a complicating factor is that February and March warmth has prematurely melted high-elevation snowpack in many basins. This has resulted in favorable spring streamflow that cannot be sustained as snowpack disappears. In recent days, warm, windy conditions have led to wildfires and blowing dust. While fires and dust sometimes occur due to atmospheric factors independent of drought, short-term precipitation deficits have contributed to the recent increase of both. By the afternoon of March 23, the Baker Canyon fire northeast of Douglas, Arizona, had charred more than 5,000 acres of vegetation…

    Looking Ahead

    During the next 5 days, from March 24-28, an active weather pattern will cover many parts of the nation. A spring storm will cross the Midwest on Thursday and northern New England on Friday. Heavy snow will end early March 24 across the upper Midwest but continue across parts of Wisconsin and Lower Michigan. Meanwhile, locally severe thunderstorms can be expected across the South through March 24, possibly as far north as the Ohio Valley. During the weekend, a new storm system will emerge from the Rockies and begin to develop across the nation’s mid-section, trailed by a surge of cold air. The track of the second storm is expected to be farther south than the earlier system, possibly resulting in beneficial precipitation across the south-central U.S. In contrast, dry weather will prevail through March 28 in southern California and the Desert Southwest.

    The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for March 29 – April 2 calls for the likelihood of near- to above-normal temperatures across the eastern half of the U.S. and in the Pacific Northwest, while colder-than-normal conditions can be expected across the remainder of the West. Meanwhile, near- to above-normal precipitation in most of the country should contrast with drier-than-normal weather across the southern High Plains, northern California, and the Pacific Northwest.