Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This U.S. Drought Monitor week saw minor improvements in drought conditions in areas of the West including: northeastern California, northern Nevada, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Alaska. In Texas, persistent rainfall led to the complete removal of drought conditions from the state. In the Northeast, Northwest, and Southeast, short-term precipitation deficits, low streamflows, and pockets of dry soils led to further deterioration of conditions. Significant rainfall accumulations this week were observed along the western Gulf Coast, portions of the Mid-Atlantic, Northern Rockies, and Southeast. In southeastern Florida, seven-day rainfall totals were impressive with some coastal areas receiving nearly fifteen inch accumulations. Temperatures across most of the conterminous U.S. were below normal during the past week with the largest negative departures across the Central and Southern Plains, lower Midwest and Mid-Atlantic where average temperatures were four-to-ten degrees below normal. Conversely, temperatures were four-to-ten degrees above normal in the North Plains and High Plains of Montana…
Across the Plains, only minor changes were made on the map this week including removal of the remaining area of Moderate Drought (D1) from west-central Oklahoma. Overall, the region was relatively dry in western portions while eastern portions received modest rainfall accumulations of generally less than two inches. Temperatures were two-to-ten degrees above average in the Northern Plains while further south below normal temperatures prevailed…
During the past week, average temperatures were below normal across the most of region. Overall, the region was generally dry with exception of areas of northeastern California, northwestern Montana, and south-central Oregon where modest precipitation accumulations were observed (one-to three inches). On the map, improvements were made in an area of Severe Drought (D2) in northeastern California and northern Nevada where overall conditions have continued to steadily improve during the past year. According to the NOAA NCEI Climatological Rankings, Nevada Climate Division 1 (Northwestern Nevada) experienced its 9th wettest 12-month period (May 2015-April 2016) on record. In northwestern Oregon, short-term dryness and degraded streamflow conditions led to the expansion of areas of Abnormally Dry (D0). In northwestern New Mexico, improvements in soil moisture and streamflows led to the reduction of a small area of Moderate Drought (D1). Coming into the summer months, Lake Mead currently sits at 37% full while Lake Powell is slightly higher at 48% full, according to the May 23rd U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Water Supply Report…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for significant rainfall accumulations across the nation’s midsection – primarily focused on Texas, Plains, and western portions of the Midwest with accumulations from three-to-six inches while much of the South and Western U.S. area forecasted to be generally dry. The CPC 6–10 day outlooks call for a high probability of above normal temperatures in the eastern half of the U.S. and Far West while below normal temperatures are expected in the Desert Southwest, extending northward into the eastern Great Basin and Central Rockies. Below normal precipitation is forecasted for the Pacific Northwest, much of California, western Great Basin, and across portions of the Northeast while there is a high probability of above normal precipitation across the Northern Rockies, Plains, Mid-Atlantic, South, and Southeast.
Nervous investors, concerned about their nest eggs, will check the financial markets. Is the New York Stock Exchange up? What direction is the NASDAQ moving?
For people living in the American Southwest, water levels in reservoirs play the same role. And Lake Mead is the blue chip, the biggest, most consequential, most widely watched piece in the game. When water levels are up, spirits are unburdened. People are confident in their place in the desert.
But when water levels are down, a cloud of worry creeps in, bringing questions about the fragility of life in the drylands. Down, way down, is where Lake Mead is today. On May 18, just before sunset, the surface elevation of America’s largest reservoir crossed the 1,074.7 foot threshold, setting a new record low for the iconic water body. The next day another record low was set. In fact, every day since then the reservoir has broken the old mark. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages Mead, expects the daily decline to continue through June. The reservoir is 36 percent full — or, to look at it another way, 64 percent empty.
Public worry has evolved to a transcendent regional anxiety, and moving the Southwest to action. Communities are investing in new equipment and partnerships in order to adapt to the basin’s new math. Las Vegas spent nearly $US 1.5 billion to construct a water intake at the bottom of the lake and a pumping station to lift the water. Los Angeles, which is outside the basin but gets Colorado River water delivered by canal, is cutting reliance on imported water. Phoenix and Tucson, often viewed as ideological opposites, agreed in 2014 to coordinate the use of their water facilities, to maximize storage and minimize cost. Most remarkable of all, California — which holds the most power in the basin and the most secure rights — is in talks with Arizona and Nevada on a new conservation agreement. That agreement would reduce California’s annual take of the Colorado River for the first time.
Mead started to tumble at the turn of the 21st century, when drier conditions took hold in the Colorado River Basin. With every new annual low the sense of urgency in the seven-state, two-country watershed grew. A landmark 2007 agreement worked out a formula for declaring a shortage in the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, and for restricting water withdrawals from Mead. The three states are now working to delay that day of reckoning by keeping more water in the big reservoir.
A reckoning is imminent. The climate and the Colorado are drying. There are proposals from the upper basins states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — to take more water out of the river, which will reduce flows into Lake Mead. Utah filed a federal application earlier this month for a pipeline to draw water from Lake Powell, located upstream from Mead.
Topography is another complication. Because the canyon that holds the lake is v-shaped, water levels fall more quickly near the bottom. Every one-foot drop in elevation equates to 80,000 acre-feet of water lost — an acre-foot is 326,000 gallons — or more water than San Francisco uses in a year. It all adds up to a long-term forecast of diminishing supplies.
There is no time to waste. The timetable for action is accelerating. The record lows are coming sooner in the season – July 9, 2014; June 23, 2015; May 18, 2016. All eyes are on the number 1,075. If Mead’s elevation in August is projected to be lower than 1,075 feet at the start of the following year, then a shortage would be declared. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates a 56 percent chance of a lower basin shortage by 2018. This means water cuts from the Colorado for Arizona and Nevada (and potentially for California, depending on how the ongoing negotiations shake out).
Despite the gloomy forecast, there are encouraging signs of camaraderie. A shortage would have come sooner if not for concerted conservation efforts in recent years. A $US 11 million program that was agreed to in 2014 is paying for conservation projects that bank the saved water in Mead. A similar program is taking place in the upper basin.
All told, a shortage will not decimate the basin. Its punch is more psychological at the moment than physical. But it is symbolic of the difficulty ahead if Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, or 1,025 feet, or even near the 950-foot level where hydropower generation would cease. The sternest tests for the Colorado River Basin — both political and hydrological — are still to come.
New organization to push for more aggresive steps to curb greenhouse gases
Is Colorado a hotspot for global warming?
Nine Colorado cities and counties are forming a new group that aims to push the state to take more aggressive action to slow climate change.
The new group, Communities for Climate Action, will lobby the state government and participate in state agency proceedings to to represent local interests in climate protection, energy efficiency, and clean energy, according to Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, which is administering the new organization.
Saunders said the coalition’s goals could include support for pro-climate bills in the State Legislature, advocating for an effective state plan to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan and lobbying Gov. John Hickenlooper to urge more aggressive state climate actions.
State legislators in Colorado rarely vote unanimously, and when they do it’s usually in support of a pom-pom proclamation such as espousing eternal support for the Denver Broncos or some other feel-good cause.
The Colorado Water Rights Protection Act was approved unanimously this spring before being signed into law April 21 by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The unanimity, however, glosses over strong disagreements.
The Boulder-based law firm that drove the proposal needed three years to get it approved. Then, once it was passed, an environmental group that helped craft the law’s language declined to be interviewed, because it was, in the words of a spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado, “neutral” about what the law says.
Welcome to the wonky, sometimes wacky, world of Colorado water.
This new law is frequently described as a “message.” It tells the federal government that Colorado has sovereignty over all matters involving water appropriations.
The rub lies in water on federal lands. A majority of Colorado’s 14 million acre-feet of water originates on federal lands, which cover near 36 percent of the state’s land mass. Should the federal land agencies have just a little say say-so in how diversions affect ecosystem functions?
Bypass flows have caused the quiet argument. In some cases, the Forest Service requires small amounts of water remain in creeks and rivers when issuing special-use permits or rights of way for diversion infrastructure such as dams, ditches, and pipes. The Forest Service cites the need for resource protection. Bugs need water, and fish needs bugs. They also need water, too. Most creatures do.
Near Winter Park, bypass requirements govern diversions from Vasquez and St. Louis creeks by Denver Water. Another requirement mandates bypass flows from Strontia Springs Dam, on the South Platte River southwest of Denver. Still another involves a hydroelectric facility near Georgetown.
The authority, however, lies in contested territory. In 2004, a district court judge agreed with Trout Unlimited that the Forest Service not only has bypass flow authority but also responsibility in some cases to use that authority. A higher federal court took on the case, but ruled on procedural issues, not the substance of the case.
But environmental groups stood by quietly when the Forest Service in 2011 said that ski areas, as a condition of their permits to operate on federal land, had to transfer their water rights to the agency. The reasoning was that water is a critical component of ski area operations, such as for snowmaking. The agency wanted the water rights to be attached to the special-use permit.
That’s really no different than Colorado’s requirement of state school trust lands leased for agriculture. These are the lands—a section in each township—given by the federal government to Colorado at statehood, in 1876, to be managed for income to benefit public schools. There are now about three million acres. Water rights used in agriculture must be transferred to the state when the land is leased.
The ski industry loudly opposed the Forest Service requirement. If a ski area figures out how to make snow with less water, for example, why shouldn’t it be able to move the water elsewhere? Too, some water used at ski areas comes from elsewhere. Both Aspen and Vail, for example, use water that originates in rivers at their bases. Finally, late last year, the Forest Service threw in the towel.
The Forest Service also retreated from a directive declaring that the agency has control over groundwater underlying its lands.
The dividing line
Glenn Porzak, a Boulder-based water attorney who was behind the new law, is adamant that the federal government has no role in determining water allocations in Colorado. “The only way you own that water is if you go through (state) water court,” says Porzak, who has for decades represented many ski areas and other water agencies in the Vail-Summit County area.
Western Resource Advocates, a leading environmental organization, was unwilling to stand by the Forest Service in the tiff with ski areas. Rob Harris, the group’s senior staff attorney, says the Forest Service over-reached, likening it to “poking them in the eye a little bit.”
But the group stood firm that it would oppose any state water rights law that rejected bypass flow authority. “We view the legal question as being well settled,” says Harris, pointing to the 2004 decision by the federal district court. “Most people would be depressed if they went to their favorite tract of national forest and found that the creek was dry,” he adds.
Rep. KC Becker oversaw the compromise. A Democrat from Boulder, her district has key parties on both side of the issue as well as the Eldora, Loveland and Winter Park ski areas. It also includes Grand County. Along with Summit and Eagle counties, it bears the brunt of transmountain diversions from the Western Slope. The three counties said in March that they were ready to oppose the bill if it constricted their ability to impose conditions on diversions. Language favored by the state attorney general’s office would have potentially allowed water diverters to sue Grand County for “takings” of property, said the county’s water attorney, David Taussig.
Leaving water in creeks at certain times and situations was integral to Grand County’s support of Denver’s stepped-up diversions through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir. The concept, supported by Denver, is that when water is diverted is equally important to how much. In hot, dry weather, added diversions could leave the Fraser River too shallow and warm for fish.
What does it accomplish?
Even in headwaters counties, some heralded the new law. Rick Sackbauer, who chairs the board of the Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, called it a “great victory for water right holders in the Eagle River valley and throughout Colorado.”
Greg Walcher, former director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Bill Owens, said the law “signals the state attorney general, and state agencies, that they are not only cleared, but encouraged, to take legal action when Colorado water rights are threatened by federal overreach.”
The law’s one shortcoming, said Walcher in his op/ed in the Grand Junction Sentinel, was that it was “watered down” by the neutral language about bypass flows.
That neutrality is why Becker, the bill’s primary sponsor, thinks environmental groups should be happy with the law, too. Not all of them are, though.
“My guess is that no one on the D(emocrat) side wanted any daylight between them and the citizens of the state on this, no matter how they feel about it deep down,” said one knowledgeable individual, concerned about job security. “The feds are everyone’s favorite whipping boy on just about everything, and especially water.”
“All true,” said Chris Treese, legislative affairs director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, when he was read these words.
Treese doubts Colorado’s message law will resolve anything. Tension between the state and the federal government over water will remain. “This will continue to be an issue and a question of perspective.”
The bigger issue is the sufficiency of flows for environmental purposes. Laws adopted in the early 1970s have resulted in water rights called instream flows for environmental protection. They serve the same purpose as the federal government’s bypass flows, argues Porzak, the attorney who works on behalf of ski area interests.
Others think far more must be done. In the dry summer of 2012, for example, the South Platte River was reduced to small puddles downstream from diversions for electrical production and farm ditches. The Yampa River through Steamboat Springs looked no better until an agreement was struck that July to return flows.
But linking arms with federal agencies to secure water is always going to be looked upon with suspicion in Colorado. If the Broncos are the state’s de facto religion, state administration under the doctrine of prior appropriation ranks close behind. Even the water that flows out of the Eisenhower Tunnel has an owner and a priority date adjudicated by a state court.
It’s why legislators took so many years to pass the law making it legal to put a coffee can under your back porch to collect dripping rain. The rain barrels were a matter of principle.
The majority of private wells tested in the Widefield, Security and Fountain area have tested above new levels announced Thursday for chemicals that may cause low birth weight in children or certain types of cancer.
Fourteen of the 17 wells tested so far were above the newly announced levels – leading health officials to say some people who rely on those wells may want to switch to bottled or treated water. Those people include infants, nursing or pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant.
In addition, health officials are urging people using private wells that draw from the Widefield aquifer to contact El Paso County Public Health and get their water tested for free.
In the meantime, people using those wells – especially those at highest risk – also may want to use other sources of water, said Larry Wolk, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s executive director and chief medical officer.
“It’s really more out of caution and trying to be as conservative as possible to provide the advisory and pass on the information,” Wolk said.
The developments mark the latest in a growing concern over the presence of perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in groundwater across the nation.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate the chemicals, but they are on a list of potential pollutants that might be regulated in the future.
On Thursday, the EPA issued new health advisory levels for the human-made chemicals, which have been used for decades in firefighting foams, furniture fabrics, food wrappers and in chemicals used to protect carpets and clothing.
The EPA’s previous alert level was 200 parts per trillion. But current research – while limited – suggests the chemicals may cause low infant birth weight.
As a result, the EPA lowered its advisory level Thursday to 70 parts per trillion.
Low birth weight has been linked to a higher risk of physical or developmental health issues later in life.
Links also may exist between PFCs and several conditions, including kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage and thyroid issues, the EPA said.
Determining the exact risk in humans is difficult, because research has only focused on animals so far, Wolk said. Still, many companies that once used PFCs have stopped them.
The new advisory is a so-called lifetime advisory – meaning that the chemical may be harmful after repeated use over a long period.
The 14 wells that tested above the new health advisory level did not exceed the old level, said Tom Gonzales, El Paso County Public Health’s deputy director.
State health officials say that historical data does not show a “significant difference” in low birth weight between areas where PFCs have been detected and the rest of El Paso County. However, their analysis is ongoing.
The source of the contaminants remains unclear, Gonzales said.
Several other water sources near the aquifer – such as surface water – as well other wells tapped into it are being analyzed to pinpoint its source. The tests usually take about three weeks to process.
The county Health Department plans to continue testing water in the area through March – all to gain a better idea of where the PFCs originated.
The aquifer stretches from Stratton Meadows area to Fountain and extends east to the Colorado Springs Airport. It’s the only one in Colorado where PFCs have been detected, Wolk said.
The chemicals initially reached or exceeded the EPA’s old health advisory levels in three public wells in Security and one public well in Widefield.
That water, however, has been diluted with water pumped into the area from the Pueblo Reservoir.
Local health officials’ main concern has been private wells that draw directly from the aquifer, of which there are an estimated 87.
For those people, Gonzales urged water quality tests. They are available by calling El Paso County Public Health at 575-8602.
El Paso County health officials are aware of more people using water contaminated with chemicals that may cause low infant birth weight.
Security Mobile Home Park, which has about 150 residents, and the Fountain Valley Shopping Center appear, to be drawing from Widefield aquifer wells with unhealthy levels of perfluorinated compounds, said Tom Gonzales, El Paso County Public Health’s deputy director, during a Board of Health meeting Wednesday.
Further, residents on the western end of Security and Widefield may be using water with unhealthy levels of the compounds, water district managers said. That is because efforts to dilute it do not appear to work well enough…
It’s a lifetime advisory – meaning adverse health effects might happen after prolonged use over years. Those effects include low infant birth weights and kidney and testicular cancer.
The Widefield aquifer, which stretches along Interstate 25 from the Stratton Meadows area to Fountain and east to the Colorado Springs Airport, appears to be the only aquifer in Colorado contaminated by PFCs at levels triggering health alerts. The contaminants’ source remains unknown.
Different types of wells pull from the aquifer.
Concerns first centered on public wells, which help supply water to thousands of people in the area via a few water districts. Some of those wells tested positive for elevated levels of PFCs during initial tests by the EPA. In those cases water from the Pueblo Reservoir was used to dilute the chemicals.
However, in a few areas, those efforts may not be working well enough, officials with the Widefield Water and Sanitation District and Security Water and Sanitation Districts said.
Each district serves roughly 18,000 or 19,000 residents. Water serving some of those people – especially those on the western end of each district – may be using water with too many PFCs. That is based on tests performed prior to the middle of last week, and further testing is ongoing.
In Security, the issue may be of particular concern on peak water usage days, when the district must use a higher ratio of well water to meet demand, said Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
As a result, the Security water district will institute voluntary watering restrictions from June 1 to Oct. 1 to limit water usage, he said. Those restrictions are three days a week, based on address. [ed. emphasis mine]
El Paso County Public Health officials also have been testing private wells, which are often only used by one household and tap directly into the aquifer, meaning they do not include water from other sources.
The vast majority of the roughly 15 to 20 private wells tested have registered levels above the new EPA advisory level, and more testing is ongoing.
Gonzales once again urged people drawing from private wells to contact the health department for free tests, to determine the PFC levels of their drinking water.
In the meantime, he said the health department is working on ways to remove the chemicals from the water.
“That is our number one priority right now,” Gonzales said.
From the Associated Press via the The Colorado Springs Gazette:
Federal regulators announced tighter guidelines [May 19, 2016] for human exposure to an industrial chemical used for decades in such consumer products as non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets and microwave popcorn bags.
The cancer-causing chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, has been found in the tap water of dozens of factory towns near industrial sites where it was manufactured. DuPont, 3M and other U.S. chemical companies voluntarily phased out the use of PFOA in recent years.
Also at issue is the related chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, used in firefighting foam.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the stricter guidelines for the chemicals after years of pressure from public health experts and advocacy groups. The agency said the new limits were prompted by recent scientific studies linking PFOA and PFOS to testicular and kidney cancers, as well as birth defects and liver damage.
“EPA will continue sharing the latest science and information so that state and local officials can make informed decisions and take actions to protect public health,” said Joel Beauvais, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water. “This is an important part of our broader effort to support states and public water systems as we work together to strengthen the safety of America’s drinking water.”
Trace amounts of PFOA and PFOS can be detected in the blood of almost every American as the result of exposure through food and consumer products. But of specific concern to regulators is the risk posed to residents in the relatively small number of communities where higher levels of PFOA and PFOS have been found in public drinking water.
EPA now says long-term exposure to either chemical at concentrations above 70 parts per trillion could have adverse health impacts. That’s significantly lower than the agency’s prior advisory level based on short-term exposure of 400 parts per trillion.
Under the EPA’s new guidance, water systems where concentrations of PFOA or PFOS are found above 70 parts per trillion are advised to promptly notify local residents and consult with their state drinking water agencies.
EPA said public notification is especially important for pregnant or nursing women because of the impact the chemicals can have on the development of fetuses and infants who are breastfed or drinking formula made with tap water.
In 2013, EPA ordered about 4,800 public water systems nationwide to test for PFOA. More than 100 cities and towns in 29 states had trace amounts of PFOA, but none exceeded 400 parts per trillion.
However, the new lower limit means that a handful of those communities will now qualify as having water with contamination levels above the advised threshold.
EPA’s national survey also did not include many smaller communities located near sites where the chemicals were used for decades.
Hoosick Falls, New York, is located near a plastics plant and where the water supply system serves just 4,500 people, wasn’t included in the testing. PFOA levels of 600 part per trillion were discovered in village wells in 2014 because residents demanded testing amid concerns about what they perceived as a high cancer rates.
More recently, testing turned up PFOA concentrations of about 100 parts per trillion in the drinking water of nearby Petersburgh, New York, and North Bennington, Vermont, which also had plastics plants. A second round of water testing in North Bennington recently yielded readings of up to 2,730 parts per trillion — nearly 40 times the EPA’s new advisory limit.