If a tree falls in the forest, does our water suffer? – News on TAP

Reducing catastrophic wildfires and restoring forests help protect the watershed and maintain the quality of our water.

Source: If a tree falls in the forest, does our water suffer? – News on TAP

Denver: Girls and Science, March 4 — @Nature_Colorado

Click here for all the inside skinny:

Join us for Girls & Science at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to ignite a passion for science in young girls. The Conservancy’s Clubhouse, “Secrets of the Prairie,” will introduce young potential scientists to prairie ecology. Girls ages 8-13 will be able to meet our scientists, see how your wingspan compares to an eagle, discover how to find to “hide” from predators and show your creativity by making animals at our arts and crafts table.

Adult bald eagle on the Alsek River. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.
Adult bald eagle on the Alsek River. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.

Valuing water rights

Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov
Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov

From The Colorado Real Estate Journal (Brett Bovee):

Water rights tied to properties can come in all sorts of flavors, but some of the most common are mutual ditch company shares, nontributary groundwater rights (sometimes referred to as Denver Basin rights) and units in a regional water storage project (such as Colorado-Big Thompson units). All of these types of water rights have different characteristics and associated value.

The most common way to value a water right is to document comparable sales. This is similar to methods employed in other real estate sectors. The difficulty with water rights is finding other sales, which transferred water rights that were indeed comparable to the subject water right of interest. You wouldn’t call a two-bedroom bungalow and a seven-bedroom estate comparable just because they are both houses in close proximity.

The same type of attribute information is important in valuing water rights. Aspects such as reliability, transferability and location (buyers) all factor into a water right’s value. When accurately comparable sales can be found, they provide the best indication of value. This is the most common valuation technique employed in areas with active water rights trading such as the Front Range.

Another method is looking at the potential income that could be generated from having the water supply that a water right provides. This often is applied to agricultural lands, by comparing the added value of being able to irrigate and grow higher-value crops, instead of dryland farming. For most other water uses, the analysis of income is complicated by other business, resource and manufacturing inputs.

A third method is looking at a replacement cost if the water right and the associated water supply were not available. For example, if a water user did not have ownership of a mutual ditch company share, what would the cost be to develop and utilize a new groundwater well? Another example is to consider the costs associated with a municipality acquiring and developing alternate water sources. The replacement-cost approach basically informs what the value of a water right might be by looking at the additional costs incurred by a buyer if they chose a different water right or source. In the residential real estate world, it would be like valuing a newly constructed house by looking at the cost of an old house plus the cost of the remodel and repairs.

Are water managers taking flood risk seriously enough? Should we plan for dam failure?

From The High Country News (Krista Langlois):

For the past several decades, paleo-hydrologist Victor Baker of the University of Arizona [has been studying the] flood history of the Colorado Plateau. [And] he’s found that floods much larger than any in recorded history are routine occurrences [and] he feels his research is being largely ignored by agencies and public utilities with infrastructure in the path of such floods.

Oroville spillway outfall February 11, 2017 below the catastrophic failure. Photo credit @ProComKelly.
Oroville spillway outfall February 11, 2017 below the catastrophic failure. Photo credit @ProComKelly.

Earlier this month, when a spillway at the nation’s tallest dam in Oroville, California, nearly buckled under the pressure of record rainfall, the consequences of under-estimating flood risks were brought into sharp relief. Dams aren’t built to withstand every curveball nature can throw — only the weather events that engineers deem most likely to occur within the dam’s lifespan. When many Western dams were built in the mid-20th century, the best science to determine such probabilities came from historical records and stream gauges.

But that record only stretches back to the late 1800s, a timespan Baker calls “completely inadequate.” Today, technology allows scientists to reconstruct thousands of years of natural history, giving us a much clearer picture of how often super-floods occur. “The probability of rare things is best evaluated if your record is very long,” Baker explains.

By combing the Colorado River, the Green River and others in the Southwest for sediment deposits and other flood evidence and then carbon-dating the results, Baker has concluded the short-term record severely underestimates the size and frequency of large floods. On the Upper Colorado near Moab, Utah, Baker and his team estimated the average 500-year flood at roughly 246,000 cubic feet per second, more than double the 112,00 cfs that scientists had estimated drawing on the stream gage record alone. Baker’s calculations put the 100-year flood at 171,000 cfs, also much greater than the previous estimate of 96,000 cfs. In comparison, legendary flooding in 1983 and 1984 that nearly overwhelmed Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam, just downstream, peaked at just 125,000 cfs. (The dam has been bolstered since then, and today engineers say it can handle flows up to 220,000 cfs.)

[…]

Does this mean dams like Oroville and Glen Canyon need to be fortified to withstand bigger storms? Officials from the Bureau of Reclamation are confident that Glen Canyon, at least, is equipped to handle even “extremely large hydrologic events.” And The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reluctant to apply paleo-hydrology research to existing infrastructure, in part because we’ve altered rivers so much that some Corps’ scientists believe ancient flood records are no longer realistic indicators of current risks.

But Baker believes it would be foolhardy to not at least create contingency plans for the possible failure of some of the West’s biggest dams. That Japanese officials were warned about Fukushima and didn’t act is “an embarrassment,” Baker adds. “We may have some similar things occurring in the United States, if we don’t seriously pay attention to this science.”

@EPA Waters of the US rule on the chopping block

From The Conversation (Reagan Waskom, David J. Cooper);

President Trump is expected to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to revise the Clean Water Rule, a major regulation published by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers in 2015. The rule’s purpose is to clarify which water bodies and wetlands are federally protected under the Clean Water Act.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt led a multi-state lawsuit against the rule as Oklahoma attorney general, and has called it “the greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen.”

At the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, we work in partnership with the farm and ranch community to find solutions to difficult western water problems. Farmers and ranchers often express frustration with one-size-fits-all worker protection, food safety, animal welfare, immigration, endangered species and environmental regulations. So we understand their concern that this rule may further constrain agricultural activities on their land.

In particular, they fear the Clean Water Rule could expand federal regulations that impact their private property rights. However, regulatory agencies and the regulated community need to know the limits of the Clean Water Act’s reach so they can take appropriate measures to protect water resources. If the rule is scrapped, we still will need to know which water bodies require protection under the law.

Which waters?

The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects the “waters of the United States” from unpermitted discharges that may harm water quality for humans and aquatic life. However, it leaves it up to EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to define which waters the law covers.

Agencies and the courts agree that this term includes “navigable waters,” such as rivers and lakes. It also covers waterways connected to them, such as marshes and wetlands. The central question is how closely connected a water body must be to navigable waters to fall under federal jurisdiction.

Our Clean Water Rule protects the streams and wetlands that feed our rivers, lakes, bays, and coastal waters. These waters are critical for agriculture, healthy communities, our economy, and our way of life. Graphic via @EPA.
Our Clean Water Rule protects the streams and wetlands that feed our rivers, lakes, bays, and coastal waters. These waters are critical for agriculture, healthy communities, our economy, and our way of life. Graphic via @EPA.

In 2001 and 2006, the Supreme Court handed down rulings that narrowed the definition of protected waters, but used confusing language. These opinions created regulatory uncertainty for farmers, ranchers and developers.

The Supreme Court wrote in the 2006 case, Rapanos v. United States, that if a water body had a “significant nexus” to a federally protected waterway – for example, if a wetland was some distance from a navigable stream but produced a relatively permanent flow to the stream – then it was connected and fell under federal jurisdiction. But it failed to clearly define the significant nexus test for other situations.

The Clean Water Rule seeks to clarify which types of waters are 1) protected categorically, 2) protected on a case-by-case basis or 3) not covered. Here are some of the key categories:

  • Tributaries formerly were evaluated case by case. Now they are automatically covered if they have features of flowing water – a bed, a bank and a high water mark. Other types, such as open waters without beds and banks, will be evaluated case by case.
  • “Adjacent waters,” such as wetlands and ponds that are near covered waters, are protected if they lie within physical and measurable boundaries set out in the rule.
  • “Isolated waters” are not connected to navigable waters but still can be ecologically important. The rule identifies specific types that are protected, such as prairie potholes and California vernal pools.
  • Vernal pools form in winter and spring and support many types of animals and plants. Photo credit BLM.
    Vernal pools form in winter and spring and support many types of animals and plants. Photo credit BLM.

    EPA estimated that the final Clean Water Rule expanded the types of water subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction by about 3 percent, or 1,500 acres nationwide. Opponents clearly think it could be much broader – and until they see the rule implemented on the landscape, their fears may have some basis in fact.

    Protecting drainage ditches?

    Industry and agriculture groups believe the new rule defines tributaries more broadly. They see this change as unnecessary overreach that makes it difficult to know what is regulated on their lands.

    Western farms are laced with canals that provide critical irrigation water during the growing season. These canals and ditches divert water from streams and return the excess through a downstream return loop, which is fed by gravity. Because they are open and unlined, they also serve as water sources for wildlife, ecosystems and underground aquifers. And because they are connected to other water bodies, farmers fear they could be subject to federal regulation.

    The only way to surface-irrigate in western valleys without affecting local water systems would be to lay thousands of miles of pressurized pipes, like those that carry water in cities. This approach would be impractical in many situations and incredibly expensive.

    More generally, farmers and ranchers want to be able to make decisions about managing their land and water resources without ambiguity or time-consuming and expensive red tape. In spite of EPA assurances, they worry the Clean Water Rule could include agricultural ditches, canals and drainages in the definition of “tributary.”

    Irrigation ditch and sprinkler, Silver Creek, Idaho.  Sam Beebe/Flickr, CC BY
    Irrigation ditch and sprinkler, Silver Creek, Idaho. Sam Beebe/Flickr, CC BY

    They fear EPA will use vague language in the rule to expand its power to regulate these features and change the way they are currently operated. They also fear becoming targets for citizen-initiated lawsuits, which are allowed under the Clean Water Act. Moreover, they are skeptical the outcomes will significantly benefit the environment.

    Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy argued that the rule would not unduly burden farmers. “We will protect clean water without getting in the way of farming and ranching,” McCarthy told the National Farmers Union in 2015. “Normal agriculture practices like plowing, planting, and harvesting a field have always been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation; this rule won’t change that at all.”

    All waters eventually connect

    Farmers and ranchers are independent by nature and believe they know what is best for the stewardship of their own land. They tend to be regulation-averse and believe voluntary approaches to water quality provide the flexibility needed to account for site-specific variations across the landscape. However, science shows that relatively minor effects at the edge of one field can aggregate across a watershed in cumulative impacts that are significant and sometimes serious.

    From an ecological perspective, scientists have long understood that surface water bodies and tributary groundwater within a watershed are connected over time. Even if it takes years, water will move across and through the landscape. Determining which tributaries have a “significant nexus” to traditional navigable waters depends on how you define “significant.”

    Even small wetlands and intermittent ponds provide ecosystem services that benefit the larger watershed. Wetlands and small water bodies that are geographically isolated from the floodplain may still impact navigable waters as either groundwater flows or surface runoff during heavy or prolonged precipitation events.

    In that sense, all water runs downhill to the stream eventually. As a dozen prominent wetland scientists wrote last month in an amicus brief to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is reviewing the Clean Water Rule, “the best available science overwhelmingly demonstrates that the waters [protected] categorically in the Clean Water Rule have significant chemical, physical, and biological connections to primary waters.”

    Scientists and ecologists agree interpreting the degree and frequency of this kind of connectivity requires site-by-site analysis. We now understand more clearly how isolated water bodies function on the landscape as part of a larger complex, and our knowledge can help clarify how directly water bodies are connected. But deciding where to draw the bright line of regulatory certainty may lie beyond the realm of science.

    If the Trump administration withdraws or weakens the Clean Water Rule, it is likely to leave regulators interpreting case by case whether tributaries and adjacent waters are covered, as they have been doing since 2006, and land and water owners guessing about what they can do with their resources. So in the end, repealing the rule won’t answer the underlying question: how far upstream federal protection extends.

    @AtmosNews: Snowmelt in a warming world

    Photos by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent, and courtesy of Dark Skies Inc of the Wet Mountain Valley.
    Photos by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent, and courtesy of Dark Skies Inc of the Wet Mountain Valley.

    Here’s the release from NCAR/UCAR (Keith N. Musselman, Martyn P. Clark, Changhai Liu, Kyoko Ikeda, and Roy Rasmussen):

    As the world warms, mountain snowpack will not only melt earlier, it will also melt more slowly, according to a new study by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

    The counterintuitive finding, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, could have widespread implications for water supplies, ecosystem health, and flood risk.

    “When snowmelt shifts earlier in the year, the snow is no longer melting under the high sun angles of late spring and early summer,” said NCAR postdoctoral researcher Keith Musselman, lead author of the paper. “The Sun just isn’t providing enough energy at that time of year to drive high snowmelt rates.”

    The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor.

    The findings could explain recent research that suggests the average streamflow in watersheds encompassing snowy mountains may decline as the climate warms — even if the total amount of precipitation in the watershed remains unchanged. That’s because the snowmelt rate can directly affect streamflow. When snowpack melts more slowly, the resulting water lingers in the soil, giving plants more opportunity to take up the moisture. Water absorbed by plants is water that doesn’t make it into the stream, potentially reducing flows.

    Musselman first became interested in how snowmelt rates might change in the future when he was doing research in the Sierra Nevada. He noticed that shallower, lower-elevation snowpack melted earlier and more slowly than thicker, higher-elevation snowpack. The snow at cooler, higher elevations tended to stick around until early summer — when the Sun was relatively high in the sky and the days had grown longer — so when it finally started to melt, the melt was rapid.

    Musselman wondered if the same phenomenon would unfold in a future climate, when warmer temperatures are expected to transform higher-elevation snowpack into something that looks much more like today’s lower-elevation snowpack. If so, the result would be more snow melting slowly and less snow melting quickly.

    To investigate the question, Musselman first confirmed what he’d noticed in the Sierra by analyzing a decade’s worth of snowpack observations from 979 stations in the United States and Canada. He and his co-authors — NCAR scientists Martyn Clark, Changhai Liu, Kyoko Ikeda, and Roy Rasmussen — then simulated snowpack over the same decade using the NCAR-based Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model.

    Once they determined that the output from WRF tracked with the observations, they used simulations from the model to investigate how snowmelt rates might change in North America around the end of the century if climate change continues unabated.

    “We found a decrease in the total volume of meltwater — which makes sense given that we expect there to be less snow overall in the future,” Musselman said. “But even with this decrease, we found an increase in the amount of water produced at low melt rates and, on the flip side, a decrease in the amount of water produced at high melt rates.”

    While the study did not investigate the range of implications that could come from the findings, Musselman said the impacts could be far-reaching. For example, a reduction in high melt rates could mean fewer spring floods, which could lower the risk of infrastructure damage but also negatively affect riparian ecosystems. Changes in the timing and amount of snowmelt runoff could also cause warmer stream temperatures, which would affect trout and other fish species, and the expected decrease in streamflow could cause shortages in urban water supplies.

    “We hope this study motivates scientists from many other disciplines to dig into our research so we can better understand the vast implications of this projected shift in hydrologic patterns,” Musselman said.

    From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Fort Collins Coloradoan:

    Scientists have long known the annual snowmelt is starting sooner as the climate warms. New research by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, found that when the snow begins to melt earlier in the season, it dissipates more slowly than it does in late spring or summer, in part because the angle of the early year sun is lower so its rays are less intense.

    The sun’s intensity is particularly important because the energy in direct sunlight is the biggest driver of snowmelt, said Keith Musselman, the lead researcher.

    Another factor that slows the snowmelt in the early season is the fact that nights are still cooler.

    The conclusions, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, could help explain why computer models show rivers fed by mountain snow are expected to run lower in a warming climate, even if rainfall increases as snowfall decreases, said Musselman, a post-doctoral fellow at the Boulder research center.

    The new study didn’t examine the broader consequences of the findings, but Musselman said some slow-melting snow that lingers in the mountain soil could be taken up by trees and plants or evaporate into the atmosphere instead of flowing into rivers and reservoirs, where people can use it.

    Changing the timing and pace of snowmelt could also have implications for the annual surge of spring runoff that helps keep rivers healthy, and for floods and flood control.

    “We think the impacts could be far-reaching,” Musselman said.

    Mountain snow is a vital water source around the globe. NASA, which is conducting an unrelated study on how to measure snow from space, says one-sixth of the world’s population gets most of its fresh water from snow.

    The snow that falls in Colorado’s mountains alone feeds four rivers that provide water to a dozen states and Mexico. One of those rivers, the Colorado, supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland.

    Douglas Creek Conservation District annual meeting recap

    White River via Wikimedia
    White River via Wikimedia

    From The Rio Blanco Times (Jennifer Hill):

    2016 saw the finalization and implementation of the Rio Blanco Land Use Plan. The plan, which had a four-year creation process, was accomplished in partnership with the former board of county commissioners. It endeavors to influence federal decisions by providing local input regarding federal lands. Because federal law requires that federal agencies, such as the BLM, give “meaningful consideration” to plans developed by local governments and conservation districts, the district has been able to gain a bigger seat at the table during the decision making process. The plan has already been put into use in addressing sage grouse issues and has allowed a conservation district representative to attend the BLM’s weekly NEPA meetings where they can officially comment on current issues, such as the BLM’s travel management plan.

    The other major event impacting the conservation districts was the news that their mill levy had been incorrectly assessed causing an 83 percent budget reduction for 2017. The mill levy, which began collection in 1989, is only eligible to receive monies from real property. However, since its inception, it was collecting on both real and personal property. According to Hendrickson the oil and gas industry were hit the hardest. The impacted companies were given the opportunity to request abatement for the past two years’ collection. Hendrickson expressed extreme gratitude that none of the companies had, and instead expressed support for the work undertaken by the districts. The companies left substantial money in the coffers of the districts, with Enterprise being eligible for $135,000, Williams $65,000 and XTO $30,000. To help ease the budget transition the former board of county commissioners helped fund the districts for the 2017 year.

    Meeker resident Gary Moyer, who sits on the National Association of Conservation Districts, provided a short update. The NACD is currently pushing for Congress to oppose any EPA authority over water quantity and the recently released BLM Planning 2.0. According to Moyer, Planning 2.0 does not allow for enough local input, despite the claim by the BLM that local input is the very purpose of the new plan. Moyer also cited concerns that it gives environmental groups who are not locally based a much bigger seat at the decision making table. He is hopeful that the plan will be killed by the Senate.

    Senator Cory Gardner’s office sent a representative to address the group. Betsy Bair, who manages Gardner’s Grand Junction office, confirmed that Senator Gardner does not support BLM Planning 2.0 and is opposing the BLM’s vent and flare regulations, which impact the oil and gas industry.

    The second half of the evening was filled with talk of water issues, many of which have significant impact to those living on the White River.
    Marsha Daughenbaugh of the Community Agriculture Alliance informed the group of an upcoming Yampa/White River Basin water workshop. The workshop will take place on March 22 in Steamboat. Agriculture producers will be provided with the opportunity to learn about The Colorado Water Plan and how it may impact them. More information can be found at coagwater. colostate.edu.

    Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River Conservation District discussed the importance of Colorado snow pack. “We are all snow farmers,” he said. Pokrandt talked about the increasing incidence of water being pulled from production agriculture to the front range and the need to keep water moving from the East to the West. The Colorado River Conservation District will be piloting a program this year to conserve water in the Grand Valley, paying farmers to leave fields fallow. Pokrandt expects more than $750,000 to be paid to participating farmers this year.

    The final speaker of the evening was Alden Vanden Brink from the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy. Vanden Brink updated the audience on the White River storage project, which is currently seeking to begin Phase II which includes modeling, preliminary studies and stakeholder outreach. Following Phase II the district will seek permitting, which Vanden Brink says can be a very long process.

    The Douglas Creek Conservation District meets monthly, on the first Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Rangely. In coming meetings they will be discussing the future of the district.