Looming drought in 2017 is a concern in eastern Colorado. About 500,000 acres (0.7 percent of Colorado) in central Lincoln County is already in severe drought. A much larger swath across the Eastern Plains counties, covering 23,560,000 acres (35.3 percent of Colorado), is in moderate drought. This region has not received any meaningful precipitation since late summer. When combined with the 2017 weather outlook, ranchers and land managers have reason for unease.
To address this issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado State University-Extension, and the Yuma County Conservation District partnered to put on a drought workshop at Kirk, Colo., on Jan. 23, 2017. The workshop was well attended, with 25 participants from nine counties across eastern Colorado. The participants were also a diverse group, representing ranchers, government land managers and CSU Extension agents. In the morning, a series of talks discussed range management under drought conditions.
Don Schoderbek, CSU Extension specialist, discussed the mechanics of range plants, how plants change during a drought, and what this all means to livestock producers. Did you know that a grass plant sets its growing points (buds) for new growth the previous summer? This means that late summer moisture is crucial for new plant growth the following year. New growth, in turn, is critical to root survival. This is where grazing comes in. Grazing mediates the amount of green leaf material, which supply roots with energy. The roots, despite being located below ground, are the ‘body’ of the plant year-to-year. Having healthy roots leads to more vigorous plants, which translates into in tougher plants during drought.
Drought is more than what happens in the rain gauge, it is a dynamic process that affects each ranch differently. It is the link between precipitation and management, according to Roy Roath, retired CSU Professor and Extension specialist. Your management actions in the good years will determine how intense the drought is. Improving plant cover is a place to start. Having higher cover allows you to ‘catch’ additional precipitation. Roath discussed his work on the Meadow Springs Ranch near Carr, Colo. After 10 years of managing with cover as an objective, the ranch withstood the drought of 2002 without major stocking rate or surface water impacts. Ask yourself, how nice would it be to have healthy, running springs during a drought?
Following a beef lunch, the group travelled to the Wise Ranch north of town for a pasture walk. This informal discussion looked at different areas of the pasture, and evaluated how the pasture is responding to drought. They also looked at a variety of different range plants, and how they benefit the land. Even so-called ‘nuisance’ plants like yucca, cactus and sand sage help catch moisture. Having a diverse forage base is also better for livestock production. To learn more about rangeland drought management, contact your local NRCS or CSU Extension office.
The recent “atmospheric river” weather pattern that pummeled California with storms from late December to late-January may have recouped 37 percent of the state’s five-year snow-water deficit, according to new University of Colorado Boulder-led research.
Using NASA satellite data, computer models, and ground-based snow sensors, researchers at CU Boulder’s Center for Water Earth Science and Technology (CWEST) estimate that the recent storms deposited roughly 17.5 million acre feet of water during the month of January. Compared to averages from the pre-drought satellite record, that amount represents over 120 percent of the typical annual snow accumulation for the Sierra Nevada range.
Snow-water deficit represents the cumulative annual deficit below the average annual snowpack water storage. On average, California has experienced a snow-water deficit of approximately 10.8 million acre feet per year from 2012 to 2016. The total five-year snow-water deficit over that period is roughly 54 million acre feet, but two powerful recent storms appear to have recouped roughly 37 percent of that total in less than one month.align=”right”
Atmospheric rivers — including the so-called “Pineapple Express” phenomenon known to affect the U.S. west coast — funnel large amounts moisture out of the tropics and bring heavy rain and snow over short periods of time. In January, some areas of northern California received 20 feet of snow in a just over two weeks with some ski resorts and higher elevations more than 30 feet.
While the heavy precipitation is good news for the state, the researchers caution that there is still a long way to go before California will make up its snow-water deficit.
“When the snow stopped falling five years ago, the state had to tap into its groundwater reserves to keep up,” said Noah Molotch, director of CWEST and a research associate at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). “One snowy winter won’t be able to entirely reverse that, but there is, at least, some cautious optimism.”
Molotch indicated that the recent storms brought much needed snow but have also brought some flood risk.
“The concern moving forward relates to what happens with the weather for the rest of the winter,” said Molotch. “Reservoirs across the Sierra foothills are now relatively full and if we get another intense atmospheric river with warmer air temperatures, the risk for rain-induced flooding is considerable.”
“Early in the storm cycle, lower mountain elevations received some rain but the vast majority of the mountain precipitation has come as snow – which is exactly the way we need this precipitation,” said Thomas Painter, lead snow scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal investigator of NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory. “As snow, it releases to reservoirs and ecosystems more gradually and efficiently, without the catastrophic flooding.”
“The start to winter has been the best California has seen since 2011 and gives water managers hope for relief from what has been a historically dry five-year period,” said David Rizzardo, Chief of Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting for the California Department of Water Resources. “The valuable data gathered by the CWEST and NASA Earth Science teams gives the California Department of Water Resources a broader sense for how much water is being stored in our snowpack, allowing us to fine-tune vital seasonal runoff estimates which are used by water managers and reservoir operators across the state.”
The California Department of Water Resources will release the results of its most recent snow survey on Feb. 2. Final data will be available at that time.
Governments, agencies and organizations have until Feb. 3 to submit comments to the EPA, which will be considered as the agency makes a decision.
La Plata County commissioners plan to submit comments and discuss the matter in a 3 p.m. Monday work session and again in a special meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Tribes can ask the EPA to be treated as a state, which allows them to adopt and administer water quality standards. Under the Clean Water Act, a state can determine the level of purity and quality of its own waters. The Southern Utes have no such standards under the Clean Water Act.
There are eight river basins in La Plata County over which the tribe has some jurisdiction, and standards adopted by the tribe would influence upstream discharge permit holders near these waterways, including the city of Durango, town of Bayfield, the Durango-La Plata County Airport and South Durango Sanitation District.
It is unclear whether, if the EPA approves the request, the tribe’s standards would be equal to or more stringent than regulations governing areas upstream, and if the process would be transparent.
The Southern Utes have considered this action for years.
If the EPA approves the application, which details the tribe’s ability to effectively govern a water quality program, the agency would then consider approval for a set of standards as a separate action, which could take years…