The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

West Fork Fire June 20, 2013 photo the Pike Hot Shots Wildfire Today
West Fork Fire June 20, 2013 photo the Pike Hot Shots Wildfire Today

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

Wildfires and Our Mountain Streams

With the arrival of fall colors, wildfire season in the West is on the retreat. It’s important to look back on the toll these fires have taken on Colorado’s watersheds. In 2015, wildfires burned a record-breaking 10.1 million acres across the U.S., according to High Country News. We’ve seen a similar magnitude of burns this summer from California to Idaho and in our own backyard with the Hayden Pass, Cold Springs near Boulder, Beaver Creek and Sylvan Lake fires. Aside from the risks to houses and human lives, wildfires also pose threats to our watershed and river systems.

Wildfires have been scorching the earth as long as humans have existed. They are a natural force that keeps our ecosystems in check and natural cycles in motion. As human populations grow and encroach into wild places, wildfires have left that balance teetering. In mountain communities, our local firefighters, Forest Service, and water providers continuously monitor and manage the risks.

Increasing global temperatures means an increase in forest fires in the West, putting greater pressure on our natural resources, including water systems. So what kind of effects are they having on our rivers?

LOW TO MODERATE INTENSITY

Fires, when low-to-moderate in intensity, can actually maintain the long term health of forest and riparian ecosystems by facilitating vegetation succession, which leads to diverse riparian zones. Diversity and regrowth in riparian banks is essential in maintaining bank stabilization and the natural filtration capabilities of native plants. High water flow, flooding, and a surge in nutrients can provide natural habitat for fish reproduction, and can load organic matter that can spike productivity. When these fires are lower intensity, and even prescribed as a forest management tool, they carry on healthy, natural processes.

HIGH INTENSITY

The most detrimental effects to a watershed from high intensity fires are excessive erosion and runoff. Unburned forests act like sponges with rainfall, with the healthy vegetation and litter absorbing water and protecting the soil layer from intense rain. The plant layer slows down the water’s speed as it runs towards the river. The loss of vegetation after a burn leads to greater-exposed, loose soil and less absorption leading to higher runoff volumes. Some plants even release a waxy, water-resistant cover after being burned, further decreasing the forest’s absorptive capacity.

These effects can last years following a fire. The increased runoff leads to flash flooding as river banks overflow with excess volumes. Ash, woody debris, and sometimes fire retardant chemicals are flushed through our rivers, loading pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrate, and ammonia into our water systems. Increased runoff and loss of plants leads to stream banks eroding, adding on to increased sedimentation in our rivers which negatively effects spawning fish and can even clog their gills.

All of this harms aquatic insect life, water temperatures, fish habitat and reproduction, fisheries, and irrigation systems. Increases in sediment load can also put additional pressures on drinking water treatment processes and congest reservoirs downstream of the burn.

PROTECT YOURSELF

Our local firefighters and wildland specialists can only do so much to manage the force of fire — it’s essential to be proactive and aware yourself. Heed fire warnings and bans, fully put out fires while camping, and do not store your firewood on your deck. Homes should be surrounded by fire breaks, or 200 feet of defensive space between their perimeter and the nearest trees. Home consultation services, such as REALFire, exist in our valley to best protect where we live and work. More information can be found at http://www.realfire.net. If, as expected, our county population doubles by 2050, the wildland-urban interface will continue to be tested severely, but deliberate, responsible measures can prevent adding unnecessary risks to our already threatened watershed.

Lizzie Schoder is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel turning off, 600 cfs in Black Canyon

Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service
Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 1500 cfs to 600 cfs on Tuesday, November 1st. This reduction will follow the shutdown of diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel. Release reductions will be coordinated with Gunnison Tunnel diversion reductions throughout the morning of November 1st. River flows downstream may fluctuate during the shutdown period but flows should steady out at the current level by the afternoon. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 610,000 acre-feet which is 73% full.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. Flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for November through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should still be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

#Snowpack news: No major cool-off for a while, but it’s early

Colorado statewide snowpack map October 28, 2016 via the NRCS.
Colorado statewide snowpack map October 28, 2016 via the NRCS.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

October has been one of the warmest on record in Denver and temperatures around the state over the past several weeks have felt more appropriate for outdoor lounging than snow sports.

So as November begins with the promise of more above-average heat in the forecast, should Colorado’s skiers and snowboarders worry?

“It’s not time to panic just yet,” said Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist of OpenSnow, a website that tracks conditions on the slopes. “Even though we have very little snow, there’s not a very strong correlation with how the ski conditions will be toward the end of December.”

However, Gratz said, anyone looking to make early season turns might need to be patient because he predicts possible delayed opening days and limited coverage on open slopes. While Arapahoe Basin kicked off skiing and snowboarding in Colorado and North America on Oct. 21, other areas are waiting for the weather to start cooperating.

Wolf Creek Ski Area in southwest Colorado says it won’t open as planned on Friday. And Keystone Resort — also slated to open on Friday but facing a dearth of snow because of the warm temperatures — says it will make a decision in the next day or two about how to proceed.

“We’re going to cool down a little bit during the middle of (this) week, so there might be a little more high elevation snowmaking,” Gratz said Monday. “But I don’t see super cold weather coming and I don’t see around-the-clock snowmaking this week and potentially not the next week as well.”

Loveland Ski Area, which typically opens in mid-October, still had no set opening day as of Monday morning.

“We’re just waiting on Mother Nature to bring those cold temps back,” said John Sellers, Loveland’s marketing director.

Loveland began making snow on Oct. 3, but since then Mother Nature hasn’t made things easy. The good news, Sellers said, is the ski area has completed most of the work required to get its first run open, meaning a few more cold nights is all that’s needed to get the season kicked off.

Sellers said the goal is always to start getting skiers and snowboarders on the slopes as soon as possible. Last year, Loveland opened on Oct. 29…

Jim Kalina, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, says there won’t be any major cool-off in the near future and that the Climate Prediction Center is calling for above-normal temperatures through November.

NOAA: One month temperature and precipitation outlooks, October 31, 2016

One month temperature outlook issued October 31, 2016 via NOAA.
One month temperature outlook issued October 31, 2016 via NOAA.
One month precipitation outlook issued October 31, 2016 via NOAA.
One month precipitation outlook issued October 31, 2016 via NOAA.

#Colorado Springs: Have a voice in water planning [November 2] — @csindependent

Colorado Springs Collection System via Colorado College.
Colorado Springs Collection System via Colorado College.

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

Just months after activating the long-awaited Southern Delivery System Pipeline in April, Colorado Springs Utilities is hosting an open house on Wednesday, November 2 to gather comments for its Integrated Water Resource Plan.

The plan hasn’t been updated in 20 years.

Here’s the release:

With some of it traveling more than 200 miles to town, water continues to be one of Colorado Springs’ greatest challenges and opportunities. Water planners at Colorado Springs Utilities are looking to the future and how they can continue to provide reliable, safe and high-quality water for our community.

The public is invited to learn about the Integrated Water Resource Plan at an Open House Wednesday, Nov. 2 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Conservation and Environmental Center (2855 Mesa Rd., Colorado Springs). We will share information about our water system and our plan to meet future needs. Residents will have a chance to weigh in on long-term planning and provide input on water decisions for Colorado Springs. Topics include:

· Water system reliability
· Potential regional water service challenges and opportunities
· Water Supply challenges and risks
· Opportunities to mitigate risks
· Tradeoffs between risk and costs

The Water Resource Plan was last updated in 1996 and laid the groundwork for the Southern Delivery System.

“We have seen a lot change since the last plan was completed. Drought, fires, greater variability in supply and demand, and other factors have really challenged our water resources. The future of our water supply system is equally uncertain,” said Kevin Lusk, Colorado Springs Utilities water planner. “We have undertaken this planning process to address these challenges. It will set the direction for 50-plus years into the future with the goal of ensuring clean, safe and reliable water service for our customers.”

Customers unable to attend the Open House can review planning documents and provide input at http://csu.org.

Study: Next US President Must Act Fast on #ColoradoRiver — VOA #voteclimate #COriver

Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows
Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows

From the Associated Press via the Voice of America News:

A survey of policy- and decision-makers by the University of Colorado concluded that the president who takes office in 2017 could almost immediately face the prospect of Colorado River water supply cuts to Arizona and Nevada in January 2018.

“This is a nonpartisan issue. There’s a confluence of urgent issues that need to be dealt with,” said Anne Castle, former assistant U.S. Department of the Interior secretary for water and science.

The new presidential administration “will have an opportunity, no matter who it is, to help bring balance to this system,” said Castle, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment, which conducted the study.

The Colorado River Future Project focusing on critical issues for the river surveyed some 65 water managers, municipal and agricultural customers, conservationists plus government officials at the tribal, state, federal and Congressional levels…

It points to a continuing 16-year drought diminishing the amount of promised water and says the most urgent need is to firm up contingency plans and extend water-use agreements.

The agreements include a key share-the-shortage pact signed in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico. It expires in December 2017 and lets Mexico “store” water at Lake Mead – helping prop up the surface level of the crucial Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam.

The lake, currently at 37 percent capacity, is the measuring point for federal Bureau of Reclamation water supply decisions made every August.

So far, the level has barely remained above the point that would trigger a shortage declaration and cuts of 11.4 percent to Arizona’s usual water allotment, and 4.3 percent of Nevada’s supply…

The policy paper points to the complexity of negotiations among hundreds of water-rights holders dating to 1922, all overseen but not controlled by the federal government.

It says treaty negotiations involving the International Boundary and Water Commission are “at a decisive stage, and should not be derailed by unrelated political considerations.”

“This is too important to let concerns about immigration, drug trafficking, U.S. corporations and jobs derail it,” Castle said in a nod to hotly contested issues in the race between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Other urgent attention is needed, the study said, to determine whether San Diego and other Southern California water agencies will continue to replenish the shrinking Salton Sea after 2017…

“Nobody wants the feds to step in and run the process,” said Craig Mackey, co-director of the Denver-based organization Protect the Flows and one of those surveyed for the report.

He added: “But there’s a great opportunity for whoever the president is on Jan. 20 to set the tone for agreements at the local level. Hopefully we can hit the ground running.”

The Colorado River Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin is outlined in black.
The Colorado River Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin is outlined in black.