Wildfires used to be rare in the Great Plains

Firefighters from across Kansas and Oklahoma battle a wildfire near Protection, Kan., Monday, March 6, 2017. (Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

From The Washington Post (Chris Mooney):

The grasslands of U.S. Great Plains have seen one of the sharpest increases in large and dangerous wildfires in the past three decades, with their numbers more than tripling between 1985 and 2014, according to new research.

The new study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that the average number of large Great Plains wildfires each year grew from about 33 to 117 over that time period, even as the area of land burned in these wildfires increased by 400 percent.

“This is undocumented and unexpected for this region,” said Victoria Donovan, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “Most studies do document these shifts in large wildfires in forested areas, and this is one of the first that documents a shift, at this scale, in an area characterized as a grassland.”

Donovan published the study with two university colleagues. The research looked at large wildfires, defined as fires around 1,000 acres or more in size.

In other parts of the globe, such as Africa’s savannas, grassland fires are extremely common — and that used to be true for the Great Plains as well. But in the past century or more, Donovan explained, wildfire suppression techniques — such as rapidly catching fires and putting them out — had largely eradicated them from the region.

However, they’ve begun to come back, a trend that has been consistent with not only climate change but also an incursion of more invasive plant species that could be providing additional fuel, Donovan said. However, the study merely documented the trend toward increased large wildfires, without formally attributing its cause.

2011 saw a particularly large surge of Great Plains wildfires, which accounted for half of the total acreage burned in the United States that year.

By specific region, some of the largest wildfire increases occurred in the Cross Timbers region of Texas and Oklahoma (which saw a 2,200 percent increase in the total area burned), the Edwards Plateau of Texas (a 3,300 percent increase), and the Central Irregular Plains, encompassing parts of Iowa and northern Missouri, as well as parts of Kansas and Oklahoma (1,400 percent increase).

Guido van der Werf, a scientist at VU Amsterdam who studies global forest fires and was not involved with the current study, said it was difficult to attribute causes behind the recent uptick in burning.

“These grassland fires are somewhat different than the forest fires we are probably more used to, and follow-up research is needed to better understand what the drivers of the upward trends were,” he said by email. “Agricultural abandonment could be one, wetter conditions later in the record another one (leading to higher and more continuous fuel beds), climate change leading to warmer temperatures, etc.”

Van der Werf said that in Africa, grassland fires have actually declined as more land has been converted to agricultural use. “Interesting to see that in other areas with other stages of development opposite trends are found,” he said.

Max Moritz, a wildfire researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, who also was not involved in the study, said the new results are consistent with other work. But he added that he suspects that they reflect not so much human-caused climate change, but rather, changing human behavior.

In particular, he cited a study from earlier this year led by Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado at Boulder, which found that humans were overwhelmingly responsible for lighting U.S. wildfires over the past 20 years (presumably mostly by accident).

“Balch et al (2017) show the Great Plains to have increasing patterns of both lightning- and human-caused fires over this period; yet the vast majority here are caused by humans,” he said by email. “This suggests that the trends in question may largely be due to shifts in the amount, type, and timing of human activities.” For some time, wildfire researchers have worried about the growth of what they call the “wildland-urban interface,” in which more and more people are living in proximity to areas conducive to burning.

Added Moritz:

None of this should downplay the importance of dealing with anthropogenic climate change! However, it does highlight the importance of human ignitions and where/how we build our communities on the landscape. Wildfire is not going away anytime soon. We must learn, as a society, to coexist with wildfire.

Indeed, if the climate is changing in a way that increases the risk of wildfires, even as blundering humans are venturing more and more into areas where they might accidentally light them, then the two phenomena could compound each other.

Thus, it seems pretty complex to isolate the cause of the strong upsurge of plains wildfires in the United States. But whatever the cause, Donovan said, the Great Plains region isn’t used to wildfires, and that’s the real problem. Wildfire authorities tend to invest their resources out west.

Indeed, the cost of fighting wildfires in the United States has already exploded, leading to the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service pulls resources from other programs because it has to use them to fight fires.

“This shift could potentially strain wildfire management resources in the future,” Donovan said.

42nd Annual Colorado Water Workshop, June 21-23, 2017

Rural and Urban Water Issues in an Evolving Political Landscape

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register.

Western State Colorado University

@ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through June 12, 2017 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

#Snowpack news: Revised #ColoradoRiver runoff numbers still show gains in Mead and Powell #COriver

The evolving end-of-2018 Colorado River storage projections (June 2017) via John Fleck.

From InkStain (John Fleck):

…you can see the forecast for Mead and Powell jumping up with the big snowpack, then dwindling as that potential big runoff turned into actual not-so-big-runoff. But it’s important to note that Lake Mead is still forecast to end 2018 226,000 acre feet above the projection made back in January, and Lake Powell is still projected to end 2018 up 1.8 million acre feet above the January projection. That’s a result of how the rules apportion water between Powell and Mead.

“Losses”, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote, “loom larger than gains.” This is one of the foundational principles of the field of behavioral economics. That’s what’s going on with the headlines. It felt like we had that water, and then we lost it.

But the final numbers are important. This year’s runoff has not been as big as we all hoped, but it was still enough to push projected reservoir levels up.

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):

Several hundred billion gallons of water vanished from federal forecasts for Lake Mead over the past two months, but Bureau of Reclamation officials insist there’s no reason to panic.

In April, the bureau was predicting that the man-made lake east of Las Vegas would finish 2018 about 21 feet higher than it is today. Now the bureau is forecasting a 4-foot drop in the surface of the reservoir over the next 18 months — a difference of 25 feet.

But not to worry, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City. It’s too soon to say which scenario might turn out to be true…

The bureau released its latest forecast for the river and Lake Mead this week as part of its monthly operational study, which predicts the most likely reservoir conditions over the next two years.

The dramatic change in those projections over the past two months also illustrates how much of the reservoir’s fate is determined by policy, not Mother Nature.

The coordinated rise and fall of Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream is governed by a complicated federal framework, implemented in 2007, that is designed to protect minimum water levels in the nation’s two largest man-made reservoirs through 2026.

In April, it looked as if the water would be high enough in Lake Powell and low enough in Lake Mead to trigger a much larger release than usual downstream to Mead in 2018. Forecasters now expect Lake Powell to fall just short of the so-called “equalization” level, resulting in a more modest water release.

Davis noted that even under the new, less promising projections, Lake Mead is still expected to be just high enough on Jan. 1, 2019, to avoid triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Such a shortage would require both Arizona and Nevada to reduce their use of water from the river…

How much water is that?

Over the past two months, federal forecasters have significantly reduced their projections for the water level in Lake Mead. Instead of gaining about 21 feet between now and the end of 2018, forecasters now expect the lake to lose about 4 feet.

So how much water does that 25-foot difference represent?

Every foot in Lake Mead contains roughly 100,000 acre-feet of volume, so the recent adjustment by forecasters amounts to 2.5 million acre-feet of water. That’s equivalent to 814.6 billion gallons, which is enough water to supply the Las Vegas Valley for about a decade.

Former Grand County manager, Lurline Underbrink Curran, given award by Colorado Water Trust — @AspenJournalism

Lurline Underbrink Curran photo credit Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Lurline Underbrink Curran, the long-time Grand County manager, was lavished with praise Wednesday evening at the Denver Botanic Gardens, but she may have told the best joke.

Curran said she learned she was to be honored by the Colorado Water Trust after being asked to sit in on a conference telephone call with the group’s directors. The group’s mission is to restore flows in Colorado Rivers in need.

The news they purported to share seemed to comport with that mission. The new administration, they told her, had a keen interest in the Colorado River, and there were plans to remove all the dams —and make Mexico pay for it.

As she wondered what Water Trust directors were imbibing, they broke the real reason for wanting her on the phone: They wished to bestow her with the 2017 David Getches Flowing Water Award.

Getches was a law professor at the University of Colorado known to be an “inspired creator of new alternatives to old stalemates.”

Grand County long was Colorado’s best example of a stalemate. It was hit early and often for water diversions to solve Colorado’s intractable problem: about 75 percent of the state’s water originates west of the Continental Divide and almost 90 percent of people and the best agriculture lands lie to the east.

About a decade ago, at a water workshop in Gunnison, Curran described her county’s position simply: Denver, she said, had been thinking ahead—and Grand County had not.

But when two Front Range water agencies announced long-standing plans to incrementally expand diversions from the Granby-Winter Park area, Grand County chose a more sophisticated approach. It wasn’t neither hell no nor roll over.

The result is called Learning by Doing, which is premised in a cooperative effort to scientifically manage diversions in ways that cause least harm to native flows in the Fraser Rivers and its tributaries as well as the Colorado River itself.

The Windy Gap reservoir, located on the Colorado River near Granby, is part of a transmountain diversion system in Grand County. It’s been the focus of much of Underbrink Curran’s work. Photo credit Northern Water.

Sense of purpose

Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, which distributes water to the Boulder-Fort Collins-Greeley area through the Colorado-Big Thompson project, said he wasn’t immediately impressed with Curran when negotiations began. “I vividly remember walking out of that meeting and thinking, ‘I don’t really appreciate that woman.’”

After four years of “very extensive, intense negotiations,” he instead found Curran to be a “visionary” who was nonetheless “pragmatic but with a keen sense of purpose.”

“The Colorado River is far better now and into the future because of Lurline’s efforts and her stubborn determination to make it better,” he said.

Curran grew up in Kremmling. She had a circuitous route to public service. She managed the local bowling alley before going to work at the Grand County Courthouse in Hot Sulphur Springs, first as a secretary, then a planner before being chosen as the county manager.

Dave Taussig, a water attorney in Denver and also a director of the Colorado Water Trust, also grew up in Kremmling. His parents had a ranch at Ute Park, which is now covered by the Henderson Mill’s tailings.

“In the past, the transmountain diverters would come over and then skedaddle as quickly as they could, never to be seen or heard from again,” Taussig said.

But what Grand County did this time creates a new dynamic.

The effort is “bearing fruit already,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with Sky-Hi News, the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. the Sky-Hi News published this story on June 15, 2017.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Rio Grande Basin @CWCB_DNR

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From The Alamosa News:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board is a known name with an often unknown role. However, one thing is certain, it is the guiding force behind water policy in the State of Colorado and has been a key provider of financial means for many important water projects in the San Luis Valley.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board was formed more than 75 years ago. The mission it was charged with was/is “To conserve, develop, protect and manage Colorado’s water for present and future generations.” Today, the CWCB is Colorado’s most comprehensive resource for water information, expertise and technical support.

The CWCB is also about those who serve. Fifteen board members govern the CWCB. Members are appointed by the governor and serve three-year terms. Each member hails from one of the nine basins of Colorado which are the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest, and Yampa/White respectively. They are responsible for tasks such as protecting Colorado’s streams and rivers, water conservation, flood mitigation, watershed protection, stream restoration, drought planning, water project financing, and the creation and oversight of the Basin Roundtables. In addition, the CWCB collaborates with other western states, as well as federal agencies, to protect state water apportionments.

Other personnel include more than 40 CWCB staff members who maintain a total of six major program areas or sections. The sections are management, finance and administration, interstate and federal, stream and lake protection, water supply planning, watershed and flood protection. These are the teams that report to the board members, make recommendations and do all of the behind the scenes work. The combined efforts of the CWCB board and staff have produced beneficial and needed results with water projects and issues throughout the state.

One example of a key initiative that was recently completed by the CWCB is the Colorado Water Plan. Until 2015, Colorado was one of the only western states that did not have a water plan. With the population of Colorado expected to see enormous increases, the demand for water is also projected to see a huge spike. There were/are also many challenges facing Colorado including an increasing water supply gap, agricultural dry-up, critical environmental concerns, variable climate conditions, inefficient regulatory process and increasing funding needs. As a result, Governor John Hickenlooper signed an Executive Order in 2013 which tasked the CWCB with the creation of a water plan for the State of Colorado.

After three years, the completion of the Colorado Water Plan was celebrated in November of 2015. Goals in the plan include meeting the water supply gap, defending Colorado’s compact entitlements, improving regulations, and exploring financial incentives. Meanwhile, the objective is to honor Colorado water values and ensure the state’s most valuable resource is protected and preserved for generations to come. The implementation of the Colorado Water Plan continues by working through individual issues in each basin. This is just one of the many complex areas the CWCB tackles on a daily basis.

With the many and often difficult issues the Colorado Water Conservation Board handles, what do these efforts mean to the Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley? The answer is the Rio Grande Roundtable. The Roundtable serves two critical roles. The first is to develop a comprehensive communication platform for stakeholders, and the second is as a conduit for funding basin water projects. The Rio Grande Roundtable itself exists because of the CWCB. The concept of the Basin Roundtables was established through the “Water for the 21st Century Act” with the intent of facilitating discussion and common sense solutions for Colorado’s water needs.

Currently, the roundtables across the state bring more than 300 individuals to the table. There is an even larger amount of needs and interests represented. Each basin is also required to have a plan. These plans must identify both consumptive and non-consumptive water needs as well as available water supplies and proposed projects and methods. The projects and methods of course, require funding. This is where the CWCB Water Project Loan Program comes in. On an annual basis, the CWCB has close to $50 million available for this program. These low interest loans are available to any agricultural or municipal borrower who can establish a clear need for the design and/or construction of a raw water project. Proposed projects must then clear an application process and obtain board approval. Once each of these measures are successful, the project can begin.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has been the recipient of millions of dollars in funding for crucial water projects, thanks to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. One notable example is the Rio Grande Cooperative Project. As a public/private partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, the Rio Grande Cooperative project was presented to the CWCB as a funding request for needed repairs to Rio Grande and Beaver Reservoirs. The request was successful and in 2013, Phase 1 of the repair process at Rio Grande Reservoir was complete. Beaver Reservoir completed its dam rehabilitation in 2016. This is just one way in which the CWCB has tremendously benefitted the San Luis Valley. In fact, it could possibly be argued that the Valley would be a much different place without the CWCB.

Colorado’s water and water in the Rio Grande Basin is and always will be an important matter. Many can agree that it must be used wisely. The Rio Grande Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board work to ensure that this valuable resource is managed well.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. Visit http://www.rgbrt.org. or http://cwcb.state.co.us.