#Snowpack news from @NWS: National Snowfall Analysis, accumulation from 2017-09-30 through 2018-01-16

A trace in Florida, and look at W. Montana and the totals from lake effect snow around the Great Lakes.

#NE’s Ogallala aquifer largely unaffected by drawdowns experience in other states

High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)

From KLKNTV.com (Zach Worthington):

Recent geological studies have found water levels in the Ogallala or High Plains Aquifer have been dropping at an increased rate in certain areas of the Midwest, including Colorado, Kansas and Texas.

Groundwater levels in neighboring states have been dropping for decades…

Areas in Colorado are experiencing these declines due to this reason.

“In that part of Colorado, they are looking at about 14-15 inches of rain per year – that’s not very much rain – they are pumping groundwater that largely isn’t going to be replaced. So, to an extent, once it’s gone, it’s pretty much gone,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln geologist Aaron Young.

The decline in groundwater levels, especially in the mid west are worried for the future of their industry.

Fortunately for Nebraskans, precipitation levels have been higher in recent years, which has led to greater water resources to draw from when the dry season arrives.

Nebraska also has regulations in place that limit the amount of water that can be pumped during the dry parts of the year as well as limits on the installation of new wells.

Something that geologists can not account for is the continued impact of climate change. When recharging the aquifer it is better to experience precipitation levels that accumulate over a longer period of time, rather than flash flooding which can be washed into nearby rivers or streams.

“Water levels or groundwater storage is in pretty good shape, we do have some problem areas, parts of the western part of the state where we are drying up deep ground water that is hard to replace,” said Aaron Young.

In wake of these recent findings, some of the alternatives that are being looked into are better irrigation technology and more efficient land usage.

#Snowpack news: SWE increases across #Colorado, still a long way to go to a normal snowpack

Click a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

And here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for January 16, 2018 from the NRCS.

Westwide SNOTEL basin filled map January 16, 2018 via the NRCS.

BizWest’s CEO Roundtable recap: Maximize crop per drop

Photo credit Wikimedia.

From BizWest.com (Ken Amundson):

Northern Colorado ag professionals are searching for strategies to return to profitability in the face of headwinds that include water shortages, over-regulation, labor shortages and increasing costs.

In fact, the difficulty in consistently producing a profit makes selling available water shares increasingly attractive, which makes the ag industry precarious for future generations.

Ag professionals gathered Tuesday morning at Elevations Credit Union in Windsor to participate in BizWest’s CEO Roundtable. The event is sponsored by Elevations, HUB International and EKS&H…

Markham said that about 30 percent of the water originally brought into the region by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is used for agriculture and the remainder for municipal uses. As cities grow, there’s more pressure on water-share owners to sell.

Finding a way to mitigate that pressure from urban users of water occupies a lot of time for ag professionals. Mark Sponsler, CEO of Colorado Corn Growers, said a stopgap solution to “slow the bleeding” might be to encourage cities and farmers to work together in a way that reduces the need of farmers to sell their water rights. In a dry year, for example, it might be more advantageous for farmers to lease their water rights to cities instead of fighting drought to produce a crop. The cash payment for water in that year might enable a farmer to make improvements that would make the farm more profitable in future years. City needs could be met in the dry year without permanently drying up neighboring farms.

Sponsler called the approach a “risk-management tool” for use in dry years. He said it isn’t the ultimate answer. “We absolutely need more water storage,” to store water that would otherwise flow out of the state.

Mary Kraft, principal of Kraft Family Farm in Fort Morgan, a large dairy operation, agreed on the need for storage. She noted that Colorado water law is extremely complicated and that conservation doesn’t always produce the result that some think. She said secondary water-right owners downstream depend upon water being used upstream so there are return flows into streams and aquifers. She also said that decisions to lease water to non-agricultural uses can result in a reduction in feed grains that dairies like hers need to produce milk.

Competition for water resources, among other considerations, has resulted in Sakata Farms deciding to forego production of sweet corn and cabbage. Sakata is looking to diversity in the use of its 3,000 acres, Robert Sakata said. “We can’t sell a 4-inch ear of (sweet) corn,” he said, which can happen if there isn’t enough water to produce traditional corn ears.

And water usage is at least partially causing increased interest in hemp crops, which require less water. Morris Beegle, CEO of Colorado Hemp Co., said that Colorado hemp farmers till 9,000 of the total 25,000 acres of hemp produced in the United States. He expects the Colorado hemp acreage to double in the short term because of favorable legislation in Colorado and because some traditional farmers are looking at alternative crops that require less water.

Finding ways to “maximize crop per drop” of water is on the minds of Colorado farmers, Sponsler said. Drip technologies are advancing, but they’re expensive. “It’s like buying the farm all over again,” he said.

Yet such strategies may be necessary for the future of agriculture. Jason Brancel, CEO of Agfinity, a farm co-op, said farmers and suppliers are getting more sophisticated in how they evaluate the costs of crop inputs. “If I have an input need for diesel fuel, when is the best time to make that investment in fuel,” Brancel asked. “Last summer, there was a run-up in the price of corn. How many (farmers) took advantage of that small window of increased price?” he asked.

Bob Yost, CFO of A1 Organics, said that re-use of waste materials as compost and soil enhancements has the potential of increasing yields, saving water and decreasing costs. A1 Organics takes organic waste from farms and food manufacturers and reconditions it for use in products such as MiracleGro.

Tom Haren, CEO of AGPROfessionals, said what he’s seeing in the development of ag operations in several states across the West is that next-generation family farmers are few and far between. “We’re seeing efficient and scaled (large) operations, or specialized operations like hemp farmers” having success, he said.

Farmers also said workforce is a big issue, especially in operations that require hand labor. Kraft said her dairy operates now with about five positions unfilled because it can’t find enough labor. That means that some jobs don’t get done or some staff members work double shifts. Kraft, who said uncertainty in federal immigration law is a factor, is considering technological changes that would reduce the workforce. Yet, while a robot can accurately place a milking machine on a cow, it can’t evaluate whether that cow needs medical attention, she said.

Costs of technology plus the cost of minimum wage increases — 2018 wage increases will cost Kraft about $250,000 — come out of profit with no easy way to make it up.

A comment about potential positive impact from the new federal tax structure drew a muffled laugh from the group. “Farming should benefit (from the new law), but you have to make a profit to benefit,” said Mike Grell of accounting firm EKS&H. He said the increase in the inheritance-tax threshold — from $11 million to $22 million — could positively benefit large farmers seeking to pass their operations to the next generation.

“The catch,” Kraft said, “is that you have to die before the next administration takes office. Whoever comes in could change everything.”

Boulder County land use regulations contribute to organic farmer failure

Photo credit: Isabelle Farm Lafayette, Boulder County, Colorado.

From The Boulder Weekly (Matt Cortina):

One obstacle that many farmers, particularly small-scale organic farmers, agree exists is the County’s Land Use Code, which they find restrictive, keeping them from buying infrastructure and engaging in activities that would help make their farms financially viable.

So the County, in response to complaints about the Code, reached out to the community a few weeks ago, asking farmers and members of the public to comment on how the Code can be improved. On Jan. 18, the County Land Use Department will hold a public meeting to share the results and hear more concerns.

But there’s been controversy about the process by which the County has engaged farmers and citizens in this attempt to update the Code; it’s fitting, as this is the latest in a series of controversies regarding agriculture on Boulder County unincorporated land.

Mark Guttridge owns Ollin Farms just south of Longmont. He notes that in the first three weeks open to public comment, only one farmer submitted his thoughts. One reason might be, he says, is because current Land Use Code is enforced only when there are complaints, and that many farmers may be operating in violation of code out of necessity, thus incriminating themselves by participating in the survey.

For instance, Guttridge hosted about 80 Boulder Valley School District students recently to teach them about carbon sequestration, cover crops and other regenerative farming techniques. But the event exceeded the six events he’s allowed to host each year on his farm per the County’s Land Use Code. The six-event limit is an arbitrary rule, Guttridge says, developed from one isolated incident and applied to the rest of the farmers in the County. (An additional six events are allowed with a special review process with the County.) He says it prevents farmers from hosting a culturally impactful amount of farm-to-table dinners, educational events, ceremonies and more, which could also provide valuable income.

There are other issues farmers are taking with the Code. Greenhouses, in certain zones, are disallowed because they’re considered part of “intensive agricultural uses,” even though Guttridge says they’re critical to keep his farm financially stable in the winter and keep key organic material such as seedlings alive.

Wyatt Barnes of Red Wagon Farm says the rules regarding farm stands are financially prohibitive (and complex). In his case, he either has to run his farm store off-site or limit the amount he can sell at his on-site store.

“Getting empty land and only using it for a farm stand does not work financially. No one can get a foothold to start a business and grow it to where maybe they could buy an entire property to dedicate to a farm stand,” he says.

The County, of course, must act not only on behalf of the farmers but of the people who live near agricultural operations. Traffic, machinery, blocked views — those are negative impacts. Walt Pounds operates a farm on 60 acres of a conservation easement north of Longmont. He understands the concerns neighbors have, but operating a successful farm simply necessitates certain bits of infrastructure, he says.

“The neighbors definitely prefer to not see any change to the property and … they like looking out across the pasture, so they don’t want to see any active ag development,” Pounds says. “I do think that’s a problem. We have a beautiful county and it’s because we didn’t allow overdevelopment, and I very much appreciate that. [But if] the answer from an ag perspective is not to do any [land improvements], you end up with a perpetual decline in soil fertility and noxious weeds, and it isn’t remedied.”

Amy Oeth, planner at the Boulder County Land Use Department, says that although “agri-tourism can help support an agricultural operation,” there are impacts on the environment, neighbors and other farmers. To what extent the County would expand agri-tourism possibilities for farmers, Oeth says there is not a “set view on the appropriate scale.” The open comment period, ostensibly, is an opportunity to broaden that scope.

But Guttridge says despite the fact that the County is soliciting input on specific regulations, the underlying relationship between farmers and County regulators needs to change.

“We need a cultural shift in the County,” he says. “Most of the farmers I’ve talked to, it’s not the specific code, it’s this culture of hindering instead of helping.”

Barnes says the Code is “intentionally vague,” and agrees that a cultural shift needs to occur in order to support farmers.

“There is no way to read [the Code] and really understand what will happen when you go to do something,” Wyatt says.

Pounds says the application of the Code is as bad, if not worse, than the Code itself. He says he spent a year and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to site a small piece of infrastructure on his property.

“[The Code application] is very onerous,” Pounds says. “The practices that we have in Boulder County are far more rigorous and difficult than they would be in other parts of the state by far.”

In response, Oeth wrote in an email that the County “hopes to further understand the community’s viewpoints and where opportunities exist for making changes as identified through this initial outreach.”

Land Use Code amendments may sound like small potatoes to the general public, Guttridge says, but improving the Code is critical to advancing sustainable agriculture — if the public appreciates that, they need to have a say in this process. However, the process is muddied for public involvement, he says. With the deadline for public comment Jan. 12, Guttridge thinks the public hasn’t been engaged well enough.

“It’s kind of hard for someone from the public to access [the public comment form] because there are general categories … that are not providing the background the average citizen needs to engage in this process,” he says.

Oeth says the public meeting on Jan. 18 will feature Land Use staff members able to answer questions.

Ironically, education events at Ollin Farms and other agricultural spots would be one way to get the average citizen up to speed. The Boulder County Farmers’ Markets are often the only interaction citizens have with farmers, but it’s not easy in those situations to convey concepts like regenerative farming and carbon sequestration — and how regulations regarding how many interns can live on your property or which animals can graze affect the ability to execute those groundbreaking environmental concepts.

“In general, there’s a new form of agriculture coming, a new paradigm of agriculture being blossomed,” Guttridge says. “To me, it’s summarized by putting the ecosystem back in the field. We’re seeing farms bringing animals and managing multiple crops. You need greenhouses, new people. In some ways, it’s a little more intense.”

The County recently scrapped its Sustainable Agricultural Research and Innovation Initiative (SARII) program because of a controversial bidding process. SARII would’ve helped large farmers transition off GMOs, which were ordered to be phased out, but Guttridge and Pounds say high-profile cases like that obfuscate a larger point: that farmers in Boulder County are doing cutting edge research in sustainable farming, outside of GMO research, with little help and publicity…

The County did take a small step in the right direction, Guttridge says, with its Colorado State University-led program working with EcoCycle to study agriculture and composting. But given the relatively small scope of that, he and other local sustainable farmers are having to pick up the slack by organizing and hosting research initiatives. Even still, he says, the County, after scrapping SARII, hasn’t effectively managed the GMO transition.

#Colorado vulnerable to mudslides

Grand Mesa mudslide May 2014 via The Denver Post

Here’s a guest column from Paul Santi that’s running in The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

The ingredients for deadly debris flows are steep mountain slopes, a loose mantle of soil and rocks covering the hillsides and choking the valleys, and occasional severe rainstorms. These things converge surprisingly often, and most canyons around here have an apron of both ancient and fairly recent debris flow deposits at their mouths, revealing a historic legacy of these events. However, the next ingredient is the kicker: wildfire. Suddenly, the tiny bit of stabilization offered by our patchy arid-climate vegetation is gone. On top of that, rainfall on burned areas runs off faster and in much greater volumes, since any sort of interception by plants or infiltration into the ground is drastically reduced. Oh, and by the way, the changing climate means that wildfires have been more frequent and larger, and intense rainstorms are more likely. More water, more tumbling rock and debris, and more danger.

That was the story in California last week, as the fire-flood-mud sequence played out once again. That has also been the story in Colorado many times in the past. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned hillsides above Colorado Springs, and a rainstorm the next summer brought muddy debris down Highway 24 near Manitou Springs, tragically sweeping two people to their deaths. Post wildfire debris flows have destroyed houses and damaged roads and bridges above Boulder, Glenwood Springs, Durango, and many other Colorado cities over the last dozen years.

So what can we do about this? First, you need to know if you are personally in danger. The simple answer is that if you live near a canyon mouth, you live in risk from debris flows. If the forest above you burned, you are at even greater risk for the next few years, until the vegetation comes back. The same goes for highways crossing these areas. A more complex picture can be filled out with tools developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and others that predict that probability of debris flows, how big they will be, how much rain is needed to cause them, and where they will go. The USGS now routinely produces maps showing probability and volume for debris flows in areas where there were significant wildfires (over 80 of these maps were created in 2017 alone, including the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County that caused the maelstrom last week).

Second, and this is just as important, if you live near a canyon below a burned forest, evacuate when it rains, as even small storms can cause debris flows in this hair-trigger setting. Natural processes are highly variable and unpredictable, so warnings and evacuation orders have to be conservative — and this means that there will be false alarms. Don’t fall prey to “evacuation saturation” and ignore a warning because the last one didn’t pan out. It is heartbreaking to think of how many lives would have been saved in California last week had those families been somewhere else at the time.

Finally, we need to carefully consider where we are willing to build. Mountain canyons concentrate geologic hazards, and increase the likelihood of accidental fires. Therefore, the encroachment of our communities into steep forested terrain must be accompanied by planning and vigilance to protect ourselves. The scientific tools help, and they are getting better all the time, but our own awareness and caution can be life saving.

Aspen increases spending on water rights for 2018

Site of proposed maroon creek reservoir via Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Steart-Severy):

The city spent $89,000 [in 2017] on legal work to keep their rights to build reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks. The city faces opposition in water court from environmental groups, property owners and other government agencies.

One of the biggest concerns is that reservoirs on those scenic creeks would flood wilderness areas. That legal work will continue into 2018.

Next year, the budget for attorneys fees and other legal issues related to water rights grows to $330,000.

As the city works to keep the rights on Castle and Maroon creeks, staff has also hired consultants to find alternative locations to store water. So far, those studies have cost more than $300,000.