Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
From The High Country News (Emily Benson):
A handful of other scientists, from agencies and universities across the globe, swirled around the clearing and among nearby spruce trees. The researchers measured the snow with poles and rulers, radar and microwave sensors, and even packed a cooler with snow samples destined for micro-CT scanning at a lab in New Hampshire. Overhead, sensors affixed to airplanes made similar measurements throughout the day.
Snow delivers about 60 to 70 percent of the West’s water supply. The snowpack is an icy natural reservoir that swells throughout the winter, then melts during the summer, providing rivers, agricultural fields, and communities with water. But the amount of moisture in snow varies, and keeping track of how wet snow is across an entire landscape — information essential to the resource managers, farmers and scientists who forecast water supplies and flood potential — has proven difficult. To figure out the best way to do it, Hedrick and about a hundred other researchers converged on snowy, flat-topped Grand Mesa, in western Colorado, for an ambitious scientific treasure hunt in February. For three weeks, they took measurements and tested dozens of instruments and methods, looking for the optimum suite of sensors to survey what one scientist calls “the holy grail” of snow-sensing research: the amount of water held within the snow.
Government agencies monitor the Western snowpack at hundreds of locations across the region. But, useful as those point-measurements are, they don’t tell the whole story, says Kelly Elder, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the leader of the team that managed the ground campaign at Grand Mesa. Aerial measurements from a satellite or a plane that cover the entire landscape — not just a series of individual sites — are also necessary. “If we can measure from space, or from the air, then there’s hope,” Elder says.
Satellites are already doing some of that work: For decades, they have provided information about how much of the globe is covered by wintertime snow. But that’s not enough, says hydrologist Jessica Lundquist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “What that doesn’t tell you is, OK, do you have a thin little bit of snow, or do you have a really deep pile of snow?” Without corresponding knowledge of how deep and dense the snow is, researchers don’t know how much water is stowed within it.
Years of research suggest that there isn’t a “silver bullet” sensor that can measure snow’s water content on its own from a satellite, says Jeffrey Deems, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. One goal of the Grand Mesa research — part of a planned five-year project, the first year of which is supported by a $4.5 million NASA grant — is to find the ideal combination of instruments that might someday be launched on a satellite to monitor how much water is in snow worldwide. “We have all of these different techniques,” he says. “They all have shortcomings, but they all have advantages as well — and if we can put the right advantages together, we can solve the problem.”
The project’s aerial sensors include LIDAR, a “really fancy range-finder,” Deems says, that uses lasers to measure distances; by comparing scans taken before and after a snow dump, researchers can calculate snow depth. Measurements of the microwave radiation naturally emitted by the Earth are also part of the project: Different densities of snow modify the microwave signal as it moves skyward, so monitoring it from above can give an estimate of snowpack density. Additional airborne sensors measure the temperature of the snow and the albedo, or how much sunlight it reflects — factors that can affect how quickly it melts.
One of the difficulties of measuring snow from planes or satellites is that trees can get in the way. About half of the snow-covered landscape in the Western U.S. is vegetated, so for an aerial sensor to work in the West, it must be able to measure the snow beneath the canopy cover. Grand Mesa, with its 53-square mile flat top and range of forest types — from open shrub-land to dense stands of spruce and fir — is an ideal location to test how well different instruments deal with trees in the absence of other complicating factors, like large changes in topography. To ground-truth the aerial assessments, researchers conducted manual measurements — such as weighing trowels of snow — at about 100 locations across the mesa.
The researchers also visited another area, a steep alpine basin near Silverton, Colorado, to expose their instruments to a different set of conditions. That will help them find a suite of sensors that can work equally well over open Alaskan tundra and a forested Colorado hillside, Deems says. “Can we make the same system work and be resilient to these very different environments?”
From the Colorado Ag Water Alliance via The Ag Journal:
The next Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA) Ag Producers’ Water Workshop will be held Wednesday, March 22, at the Steamboat Springs Community Center, 1605 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free, and the organizers hope to have a good turnout of producers in the region.
The Colorado Water Plan aims to address the water needs of cities, agriculture and the environment in light of projected shortages. Agriculture is a focus.
What are alternative transfer methods? What’s the motivation for farmers and ranchers to participate in leasing or to improve irrigation efficiency? What are the barriers?
Brief, highly-focused presentations and panel dialogue will cover the basics, followed by opportunity for ag producers to ask questions and engage in dialogue about what they see as opportunities and barriers—and how those barriers and opportunities might best be addressed.
From High Plains Public Radio (Susan Stover):
Texas manages groundwater with the Rule of Capture. The groundwater belongs to the landowner without a defined limit. It’s sometimes known as the Law of the Biggest Pump.
Colorado and Kansas water law is based on prior appropriation, known as First in Time, First in Right. A water right owner can pump their permitted amount if it doesn’t impair a more senior right – a water right that was established earlier in time. When there isn’t enough water to meet all needs, the owners of senior water rights have priority. The priority system works well for streams. When stream flow is low, it is generally clear which upstream, junior users must be cut off to protect the more senior water rights.
For groundwater, it is more complex to identify which water wells are impairing a more senior water well. Groundwater often provides a baseflow to streams; when heavy groundwater pumping lowers the water table so there is no longer a connection to the stream and stream flow declines, is that impairment?
Colorado state law dealt with such concerns by defining “designated groundwater basins,” those in which groundwater contributes little to stream flow. The Ogallala aquifer lies in designated groundwater basins. This allows more groundwater to be pumped, which lowers the water table, but with less risk of impairing surface water rights.
In Kansas, action is taken when a junior water right well’s pumping directly impairs a senior water right well, whether it uses groundwater or surface water. However, no action is taken if problems are due to regional groundwater declines. Like Colorado, Kansas allows the decline of the Ogallala aquifer to get the economic benefit from the water.
Management of the Ogallala aquifer is a balance between protecting existing water right holders and conserving water for the future. Attitudes change over time on what is a proper balance. Much water law encouraged development of the aquifer and protects current users. Is that balance shifting more toward conserving and extending this resource further into the future?
From The High Country News (Elizabeth Shogren) via The Colorado Independent:
Just a few days in office, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency hosted an early Sunday morning breakfast for 11 Western governors. Scott Pruitt told them face-to-face what he’s said repeatedly since he was nominated: Under his leadership, the EPA will defer to states much more than it has in the recent past.
Pruitt made a similar vow to profoundly transform the agency the day before at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “We’re going to once again pay attention to the states across this country,” Pruitt told a gathering of Republicans. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA.”
This message resonated with the Western governors, regardless of their political affiliations, according to several members of the governors’ staffs. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-Independent whose state is 66 percent federal land, was “encouraged by (Pruitt’s) emphasis on state’s rights,” Grace Jang, Walker’s communications director, says.
The Western governors’ unanimity is striking in an era of intense partisanship and reflects the commitment they have to work together through the Western Governors’ Association. The breakfast was an annual event of that group, a rare hub of bipartisanship and consensus building in a polarized nation. The governors are in the midst of a major effort to transform the relationship between the federal and state governments to give them more input into federal regulations.
“The Republican governors were on the same page with their Democratic colleagues in telling Pruitt, we want it to be a partnership,” says John Swartout, senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “We haven’t been happy that the EPA hasn’t always treated us as a full partner. We can make progress together.”
As they ate scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and donuts at a square table in EPA’s Washington, DC, headquarters, the governors one-by-one told Pruitt their priorities. Over the course of two hours, many mentioned their desire to have more sway over federal environmental regulations.
Western governors have collaborated for about 100 years. Their desire to present a unified voice to Washington is driven in part because of the vast amount of federal land in the West, which means decisions made in Washington have acute impacts on their states’ economies. “It’s largely a function of being so distant from Washington and needing to amplify their distant voices,” said Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the group.
In the Western Governors’ Association, the governors focus on shared objectives and pass joint resolutions. In December, for instance, they passed a resolution calling for a greater role in crafting federal regulations and in other decisions by the federal government. Other resolutions present their consensus positions on a wide range of issues, including endangered species, wildfire fire management, invasive species and abandoned mine cleanups.
Western governors from both parties felt the Obama administration’s EPA failed to adequately consult the states as it crafted some important environmental regulations, such as the 2015 Clean Water Rule. (That rule was temporarily blocked in 2015, pending resolution of a court challenge brought by industry groups and 31 states.) “Had the EPA worked with us on the rule upfront it could have been a better rule,” Swartout says. EPA did address some comments the governors made about how the proposed rule impinged on state authority over water management, but not all of them.
Just this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to launch a rollback of that rule and, until it’s rewritten, limit federal oversight to waterways that are navigable, leaving the rest to the states. Pruitt announced that he would rescind the Obama rule and write a new one that “restores the states’ important role in the regulation of water.”
“We believe (Pruitt’s EPA) will partner with states in a way that’s meaningful; in a way that quite frankly the previous administration did not,” says Nephi Cole, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor policy.
Many scholars caution that undoing that rule will be particularly detrimental in the arid West, where so many small streams and those that run only intermittently are crucially important for wildlife and water quality and quantity. States tend to be more responsive to local industries, because of the benefits they bring to the economy like jobs and tax revenue.
But Cole argues that it’s a “false narrative” to suggest that giving states more control equates to allowing more pollution and less environmental protection. In another resolution adopted in December, Western governors assert that they want to be the ones to decide how to balance the needs of industry in their states and the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
During the two-hour breakfast, Pruitt spent most of the time listening to governors. (Most years, the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Energy and other cabinet members important to Western states attend the breakfast, but as of Sunday, Pruitt was the only one of those who had been confirmed by the Senate.) Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Pruitt to personally engage in the Gold King Mine controversy. A 2015 blowout at the mine unleashed a surge of acid mine drainage down the Animas River. Pruitt committed to visiting Colorado and meeting with local and state officials, Swartout says.
A big priority for some governors is that the EPA continues to negotiate settlements with companies responsible for creating toxic waste sites covered under Superfund.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, urged Pruitt to move forward with the plan to clean up the Portland Harbor, a Superfund site, so the city can revitalize the waterfront and create jobs. She also stressed her state’s continued commitment to fighting climate change, according to her press secretary, Bryan Hockaday.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who heads the Western Governors’ Association, wants Pruitt to keep the pressure on to finally reach a settlement on the Superfund sites in and around Butte, Montana, where historic copper mining and smelting left behind the nation’s largest toxic waste site, according to his press secretary, Marissa Perry. After many years, negotiations between the EPA and Atlantic Richfield Corporation, owned by BP, have picked up steam. Bullock wants to make sure the momentum isn’t lost.
While the Western governors break out of the hyper-partisanship that’s plagued other branches of government and see some opportunity to work with Pruitt, potential major budget cuts to the EPA may give Pruitt a lot less leeway to respond to state needs.
This week, the White House sent agencies an outline of the president’s draft budget that reportedly would gut the EPA’s $8 billion budget, cutting by 30 percent the grants it sends to the states to implement air, water and toxic waste regulations. Pruitt told E&E News that he’s asking the White House to retain more funding for the states to improve air quality, clean up Superfund sites and improve aging water and wastewater infrastructure. Programs slated for zero funding include grants to clean up abandoned industrial sites and funding to bring safe drinking water and sewer systems to Native villages in Alaska, according to the Washington Post. More details on the budget are expected later this month. It’s not clear if the White House can win approval for its vision of a much smaller EPA.
The proof of whether the governors and Pruitt will be able to work together will emerge in coming months, as the Trump administration pursues its agenda and rolls back existing rules. “We’re trying to work with him. We need to work with the federal government,” Swartout says. “It’s too early to know. We have to see how it all plays out. It’s just speculation at this point.”
Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. This story originally appeared in High Country News on March 3, 2017.