#Snowpack news: Have we hit the statewide water year 2017 peak?

Yes, unless the melting stops and precipitation returns. Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

After a healthy start to the snow season, the flakes just stopped falling after early January. Fort Collins has received about 5 inches of snow since our last big storm in January, and halfway through what’s usually the snowiest month of the year, we have received a trace of snow.

State climatologist Nolan Doesken calls this our “abbreviated winter.” And while it’s lovely to hike Horsetooth without a jacket in February, the warmth and dryness don’t bode well for regional drought, residential lawns and fruit trees that bud early during warm winters.

Fort Collins has received about 9 inches of precipitation in the last 12 months, compared to a normal amount of about 15 inches, rendering our moisture levels “really painfully low,” Doesken said.

The coming spring, which officially starts Monday, is our best shot at catching up, Doesken said. If spring storms don’t come through, it’s time to start worrying about worsening drought.

So what’s to blame for our lack of moisture? Blame it on the jet stream, that meandering wind ribbon that brings Northern Colorado much of its winter cold snaps and snowstorms.

In recent months, the jet stream has wriggled just north of our reach, bringing big snows to Wyoming and leaving Northern Colorado out to dry. South of the jet stream sits a pesky high pressure ridge that keeps conditions warmer and dryer than usual.

You can also blame this winter’s weirdness on climate change, according to Doesken.

“Normal temperatures have definitely risen,” Doesken said. “You’d expect every three to six years you’d have one year that was considerably below the long-term average, and we just haven’t been seeing any years like that.”

Weather data from this season is a bit deceptive because several short-lived cold snaps evened out average temperatures. February’s freak ice storm and early January’s intense cold snap and snowstorm made this winter look more average on paper than it felt for residents.

Oh, and don’t forget all the crazy wind we’ve seen lately. Northern Colorado has been collecting red flag days for weeks, with gusts of wind fueling grass fires and knocking trees into houses and cars.

Doesken argues the winds aren’t so crazy, although Northern Colorado wind data is admittedly sparse…

Back in Northern Colorado, mountain snowpack will probably save us from the worst-case scenario of regional drought paired with tepid water supply. A burst of big snows from mid-November to mid-January amped up mountain snowpack from about half of the average amount to nearly 160 percent of the average by Jan. 12. A recent dry and warm spell for the mountains has eaten into that abundant snowpack level, but we are still above average…

“We’re moving into our normal wetter season from the Front Range eastward,” Doesken said. “Will it arrive before we get more wind and heat? It’s always sort of a wait and see.”

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

When Denver-based federal Snow Survey Supervisor Brian Domonkos, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, released his March 1 water forecast, he noted that the water in the snowpack of the Yampa Basin was 115 percent of median for the date. And, the water currently stored in Stagecoach Reservoir, just east of Oak Creek, and in Yamcolo Reservoir, on the edge of the Flat Tops south of Yampa, is more than 120 percent of average.

But Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy, which owns the two reservoirs, said March 9 his office is looking at the snowpack on a weekly basis — and sometimes, on a daily basis, this time of year — and tweaking how much water it is releasing from Stagecoach. It’s all about balancing releases of water with the projected inflow of melting snow in order to get to the finish line with a reservoir that’s full, but not too full.

“It’s hard to outthink the weather, but so far, it look pretty good,” McBride said March 9. “We’re making full (hydroelectric) power right now at Stagecoach and bringing it down a little bit. It’s carbon-neutral power, and we’d like to make as much as we can.”

McBride said he’s less interested in reports of average reservoir storage, because those numbers can be skewed by either record low or record high years. He and District Engineer Andy Rossi meet with the dam managers every Monday to strategize.

With the reservoir level at Stagecoach almost 125 percent of average going into the second week of March, one might think dam managers have it made. But McBride doesn’t take anything for granted. After heavy snowfall in both December and January, the upper Yampa Valley has seen meager snow in February, continuing through the first week in March. Spring snowmelt can peak suddenly, catching dam operators by surprise, and summer precipitation could falter, causing the level of the reservoir to slip as irrigators seek to flood their hayfields.”

“On March 1, we start tracking the river and every drop that goes in or out of Stagecoach,” McBride said. It’s also “the beginning of our administrative year for water rights.”

Upper Yampa keeps close track of the same snow-measuring sites (referred to as snotels) the Conservation Service manages but customizes the data for its needs. Bullish snowpack measurements in early March don’t necessarily convert to a smooth runoff for dam managers. McBride observed that, while the snotels at higher elevations are reflecting above average snowpack, “town looks kind of dry.” That leads him to wonder if low elevation runoff might occur earlier than usual this season, affecting inflow at the dam later in spring.

“Last year, we had pretty good snowpack, but the (July/August) monsoons weren’t very good,” McBride said. “We want to be 90 percent sure we’re going to fill.”

On the other hand, McBride said, the ideal scenario would be if the snowpack that feeds Stagecoach came off “nice and slow, and we can control it.”

McBride hopes against a heavy rain-on-snow event that could bring the snowpack off faster than dam managers can keep up with. Were that to happen while ice still covers the reservoir, there’s a chance chunks of ice could be washed over the spillway and potentially cause damage.

Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for March 17, 2017.

Westwide basin-filled SNOTEL map March 17, 2017 via the NRCS.

Webinar: Stream Management Planning – Merging science and stakeholder involvement to support river health and community needs

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From Audubon:

Stream Management Planning – Merging science and stakeholder involvement to support river health and community needs
Wednesday, March 22, Noon – 1 p.m. MT

Rivers play an important role to all members of a community, and people with a wide range of interests have a stake in how rivers and the lands around them are managed. Engaging stakeholders in a process that incorporates their interests is critical for stream management plans to be effective and practicable. In this webinar, we describe the practical aspects of stream management planning, including understanding values and interests, assessing available resources and capabilities, and evaluating potential management strategies. This process overlays a rigorous scientific assessment using the River Health Assessment Framework (RHAF). Successfully communicating these scientific findings and their management implications to a diversity of stakeholders is critical to developing a community-supported and executable plan. Recently-completed and in-process stream management plans provide working examples of how detailed scientific analysis and community input come together for evaluating the costs and benefits associated with alternative land use, water management, and restoration scenarios.

Presenter biographies
Seth Mason. Seth Mason is the Principal Hydrologist at Lotic Hydrological, a consulting firm based in Carbondale, CO. He received his M.S. in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences from Montana State University and his B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He specializes in hydrological modeling; stream characterization; deployment and operation of data collection and management systems; and development and coordination of water quality monitoring and assessment activities. Seth works extensively with city and county governments, federal agencies, and 501(c)3 organizations on a variety of watershed, land use, water quality, and water quantity issues.

Julie Baxter. Julie is a Senior Associate with Acclivity Associates and lives in Steamboat Springs, CO. She is a certified planner and floodplain manager with 13 years of experience assisting federal, state, and local governments in strategic planning, outreach and communications, and mitigation and resiliency planning. She enjoys developing stakeholder engagement and outreach activities to support highly technical projects. Her past experience includes serving as the program manager for the natural hazards mitigation planning program for FEMA Region VIII in Denver from 2009-2015. Prior to FEMA, Julie worked in the private sector as a project manager, as the communications specialist at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, and as a GIS and natural resources specialist for the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife. Julie has a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Oregon.

Mark Beardsley. Mark’s experience is grounded in a diverse educational and practical background. He holds B.S. degrees in chemistry and biology, an M.S. in ecology, and supplemental studies in environmental philosophy and mathematics, along with more than 20 years hands-on field experience as a stream, riparian and wetlands scientist. Mark specializes in interpreting scientific data to assess the functional condition of streams and wetlands and to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration and mitigation. He is a leader in the development, testing, and implementation of Colorado’s FACWet, FACStream, and RHAF functional assessment methods and is well-versed in all the common ecological and geomorphic assessment frameworks. As a freelance scientist and principal of EcoMetrics, Mark designed and carried out ecological research projects, hundreds of site-scale assessments, watershed inventories, and stream and wetland restoration projects that use natural approaches.

Register here

How to spot a fake water worker – News on TAP

Thieves target homeowners by posing as utility workers; follow these tips to make sure you don’t get ripped off.

Source: How to spot a fake water worker – News on TAP

Opinion: Bill Promotes Opportunities for Implementing More Aquifer Recharge and Recovery Projects in Colorado

Your Water Colorado Blog

By Ralf Topper

HB 17-1076 is currently making its way through the legislative process having passed the House and the Senate.  This legislation, concerning rulemaking for artificial recharge of nontributary aquifers, opens the door for opportunities to implement aquifer storage and recovery programs in nontributary aquifers outside of the Denver Basin.  Nontributary groundwater, as defined in Colorado Revised Statute 37-90-103 (10.5), is groundwater whose connection to any surface stream is so insignificant that it is considered isolated from the surface water for water rights administration purposes.

HB 17-1076 is a first step in creating some administrative certainty and legal framework for districts in other parts of the state to consider implementing aquifer recharge and recovery projects to meet their water management objectives, and should be endorsed by the water community.  The bill’s use of the term “artificial recharge” is unfortunate, as the use of that term is dated in…

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@EPA: “…abolishing the agency…I personally think it’s a good idea” — Myron Ebell

From ColoradoPolitics.com (Peter Marcus) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The man who led transition efforts for President Trump at the EPA said the administration’s proposed budget signals a commitment to abolish the agency.

But Myron Ebell, a Colorado College graduate and an outspoken climate change skeptic who leads energy and environment policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said it is not an overnight effort.

The administration’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal released Thursday charts a course that could lead to the end of the federal environmental agency, Ebell said, speaking to a conservative group at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver on Thursday.

Ebell had proposed Trump make a 10 percent cut to the EPA in his first budget request. The proposal unveiled Thursday would cut the agency by significantly more, up to 31 percent. It represents about a $2.6 billion cut to the agency’s relatively small, when compared to other federal agencies, $8.2 billion budget.

The cuts would result in about 3,200 employees being laid off in the initial wave, which could include many regional staff. Denver is home to Region 8 headquarters, a multi-state jurisdiction that covers much of the Intermountain West, which employs about 500 people.

“I think there’s a serious commitment here to draining the swamp,” Ebell, calling upon a popular Trump campaign mantra, said to applause.

The preliminary budget request would eliminate as much as a fifth of the agency’s workforce, which stands at around 15,000. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, including energy grants that help to fight air pollution. Scientific research would also face massive cuts.

Environmental interests had feared Trump’s budget proposal would start to chip away at the EPA, ultimately leading to closure. News of the preliminary budget sent many into a tailspin, as it potentially signals a much faster outcome.

Trump also proposed a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department and a 5.6 percent cut to the Department of Energy.

“The president’s budget is a moral document, and President Trump has shown us exactly where he stands. These unprecedented cuts will hamper the ability of our park rangers, scientists, those who enforce the law against polluters, and other Coloradans from doing their important work,” said Jessica Goad, spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado.

“This is not just cutting the fat, this is a complete butchering of programs and jobs that are critical to Colorado.”

The move leaves specific uncertainty in Colorado, where the EPA has promised to cleanup toxic leaking mines that are spilling into the Animas River in Durango. The Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 was triggered by an EPA engineering error, causing about 3 million gallons of mustard yellow sludge to pour into the river.

In the aftermath of the spill, the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, which allows it to spend significant resources to implement a long-term water quality cleanup effort. Some worry those efforts would be diminished by reductions at the EPA.

But Ebell said a pushback to the EPA’s “regulatory rampage” does not mean that environmental controls would go away. He said regulations would still be enforced – especially on the state level – including around Superfund sites and clean drinking water.

“The question is, why do we need 15,000 people working for the EPA?” asked Ebell. “I understand why we need some … Maybe abolishing the agency is something that President Trump … would want to have a discussion about … I personally think it’s a good idea.”

Busting up the EPA is not a good idea, Myron.

Environmental Defense Fund looking for win-wins with farmers RE: groundwater depletion

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

[ed. Coloradans know that ranchers and farmers are key stakeholders in the preservation of habitat and water resources, and they grow our food.]

Here’s an interview with EDF staffers from Matt Weise writing for Water Deeply. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Environmental Defense Fund is launching a new Western water strategy that aims to solve the problems of groundwater depletion and habitat restoration by working jointly with farmers.

FARMERS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS have often been at odds. Farmers, for instance, rarely want it known that their land might host an endangered species, for fear regulations could come crashing down. Environmentalists are fond of regulations to protect natural resources, but rarely do much to help farmers comply.

These old patterns are beginning to change as the two camps find they have more in common than stereotypes suggest. One group working along this path is Environmental Defense Fund, which is developing a new Western water strategy aimed at helping farmers cope with scarcity.

The new policy, still being developed, aims to help farmers and irrigation districts comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). EDF also plans to help create water markets, so farmers can sell or trade water when they have a surplus…

To get a preview of the new strategy and how it can help both wildlife and farm economies, Water Deeply recently spoke with three EDF staffers: David Festa, senior vice president, ecosystems; Maurice Hall, associate vice president, ecosystems and water; and Ann Hayden, senior director, California habitat and Western water.

Water Deeply: What region are you focusing on, exactly?

Maurice Hall: Generally, we think of our problem set as the areas where irrigated agriculture is the prominent water use. That tends to correspond to the area where we have the biggest stresses on water and water scarcity issues.

Right now, there are two really big opportunities to insert new solutions. One is California, and in large part the opportunity we have now is due to passage of SGMA. Because of the stresses that is going to add to an already stressed system, it will cause us to have do a lot of things differently.

The second big opportunity is in the Colorado River Basin, especially in the Lower Colorado region. There are clear signs of imbalance on Lake Mead, the big storage reservoir that the Lower Basin states depend on.

Water Deeply: You’re developing an open-source toolkit to help people comply with California’s SGMA and a series of workshops. That’s kind of unusual for an environmental group, isn’t it?

Ann Hayden: We recognized that the responsibility SGMA was going to put on local agencies to figure this out was going to be a huge burden. Our strategy is really to target those folks in the Central Valley who seem more willing and better positioned to get out ahead of the far-off deadlines in SGMA, and figure out ways they can be credited for doing those things.

Specifically, we’re thinking of ways we can help with groundwater recharge and developing a groundwater market. We’re focusing on where those opportunities lie.

We also recognized that in order for this to be a sustainable solution, we really need to figure out ways in which we can get disadvantaged communities to have a seat at the table, and equip them with tools and resources to engage in decision-making. We’re working with partners on the ground in the Central Valley to establish a Water Leadership Program.

Water Deeply: And you’re actually working on trying to incubate new water markets. How will that work?

Hall: Consider, right now, the agriculture water users who have water rights. Because of the way we’ve built our system and the social norms and policies we have established, they have few choices of how they can use their water. They can either grow their crops or not use their water. Because if you don’t use your water, you lose the water right. So there’s an incentive to use the water whether or not it’s really economically viable, or whether it’s really what you want to do most.

So the value of water markets, generally, is to give those who have the rights some flexibility in how they use water, so they can manage it as an asset, as opposed to just an input of their agricultural production. That opens up a lot of options. Maybe I’m growing a crop I’m barely making money on, and somebody downstream needs some water to supplement their almond orchard. And I can trade my water to them and use less on my land, and we’re both better off.

One of the problems is that if you do that without the right sideboards in place, you can have some undesirable impacts. For instance, you might reduce the recharge to groundwater in your local areas because you’re not irrigating your field. So building water-trading programs that include those externalities is what is necessary going forward, and why we see the importance of us being involved in making this happen.

Water Deeply: You sponsored a bill last year, AB 2304, to help launch water markets in the state. What’s the status of that bill, and what comes next?

Hayden: We started working with the Association of California Water Agencies, which is also coming out with its policy principles on what should and could happen to improve water markets. There was a lot of common ground. Unfortunately, there’s a whole spectrum of perspectives among its members. When it came down to it, it was too challenging to gain full support of ACWA at this point to make movement on legislation. That said, we are committed to working with ACWA on other possible policy improvements, maybe those that don’t require legislation at first.

Hall: There have been really bad examples of what ill-planned water trades can do. A dramatic example happened on the Front Range of Colorado, where pretty significant communities have been dried up through purchase of agricultural land and the water rights that go along with them – so-called “buy-and-dry” transitions that have been in the news for decades. So we recognize we have more education to do.

Water Deeply: You also want to incentivize farmers to idle land for environmental purposes. Is this a kind of land trust?

Festa: What we’d like to do is create the economic systems that will allow farmers and ranchers to look at the environment, essentially, as a crop. They can manage their lands in ways that produce a very specific environmental benefit and get paid to do it. The concept is a cousin to things like conservation easements and land banks, where land is taken out of production. But in a lot of those cases, not much, oftentimes, is actually done to manage it for a particular environmental outcome.

Hayden: In the groundwater context, it is one area where we may have a nice linkage with land restoration. We’re probably going to see more land that has to go idle in order for farmers to adjust to how water supply is going to change under SGMA. We want to get out ahead of that and help farmers design good habitat on their land – and have them be paid for that. There also could be opportunities for farmers to do on-farm groundwater recharge, and ways we can design those activities that are also beneficial to creating habitat.

Water Deeply: Any examples on the ground now?

Hayden: We have a number of pilot projects where we have been able to test our habitat quantification tool. It’s a tool to be able to measure a habitat function on a parcel of agricultural land. It allows you to plug in different practices a farmer could implement to improve that function for a suite of at-risk species.

The one site where we’re about to launch a restoration project is called Elliott Ranch in West Sacramento. We were able to get Proposition 1 funding from the Delta Conservancy to be able to compensate that landowner to make some changes in agricultural practices and direct deliberate restoration on the property. We’re about to start on the actual project and get shovels in the ground in the next couple of months. That’s a project that’s really focused on Swainson’s hawk.

Groundwater movement via the USGS