Colorado looks dry and warm.
Colorado looks dry and warm.
Colorado looks dry and warm.
Since last month’s briefing, sea-surface temperature (SST) anomalies have cooled slightly in the area of the central equatorial Pacific Ocean that helps define El Niño and La Niña events, called the Nino3.4 region (see first map below). The average of these weekly anomalies for the last month was nearly -0.9ºC, which falls in the category of a weak, bordering moderate, La Niña state. For the previous month, the Nino3.4 anomaly was -0.7ºC.
Sub-surface ocean temperatures were on a warming trend, although that has now been somewhat tempered (see second figure below). These sub-surface conditions are often a preview of what’s to come at the surface, so it’s likely that La Niña conditions at the surface will diminish in the next couple of months.
Making a quick end to La Niña even more likely is a recently burst of westerly winds in the western Pacific, likely related to a Madden-Julian Oscillation event. La Niña is sustained in part by stronger-than-normal trade winds that blow from east to west, so these bursts of winds from the west can help break down a La Niña event. The wind event can be seen in the bottom left corner of the leftmost panel in the third image below. Barnston said what sets apart this wind event from another one a few months ago is the eastern extent of it — a few months ago the event was confined to the western Pacific.
Because IRI and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predict that La Niña will continue for now, the ENSO alert level remains at a La Niña Advisory, which was initially issued in November.
To predict ENSO conditions, computers model the SSTs in the Nino3.4 region over the next several months. The plume graph below shows the outputs of these models, some of which use equations based on our physical understanding of the system (called dynamical models), and some of which use statistics, based on the long record of historical observations.
The average of the SST anomalies predicted by the models in this month’s forecast are similar to the predictions in last month’s forecast. The means of both the dynamical and statistical models show gradual warming, with both crossing into neutral ENSO territory by the March-May season. The dynamical models warm more quickly and eventually reach a mean anomaly of just over +0.5ºC in the October-December season. The statistical models’ mean anomaly only reaches about +0.2ºC, similar to last month’s prediction. This period at the end of the forecast, however, is past the spring predictability barrier and is highly uncertain.
Based on the model outputs, odds for La Niña conditions are only slightly above the odds for neutral ENSO in the the current February-April season, with both around 50%. Neutral conditions then take over as the most likely ENSO state through most of the northern hemisphere summer. By the August to October season, El Niño chances become (barely) the most likely, but, again, uncertainty is high.
The official probabilistic forecast issued by CPC and IRI in early February indicates similar overall trends in ENSO probabilities, but with less likelihood of El Niño in the later months. This early-February forecast uses human judgement in addition to model output, while the mid-month forecast relies solely on model output.
Click on the thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
From The Vail Daily (Pam Boyd):
On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the town of Gypsum is hosting a water summit — an information session aimed at letting residents know what water restrictions could look like if the current weather pattern continues. At the town of Eagle and at Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, water regulations are an on-going effort to make sure everyone uses water wisely, restrictions are the next step if customers fail to do that.
According to Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll, the most recent snowpack reading for the municipal watershed is at 30 percent of the 30-year average. While there is still time for that to turn around, he said the town wanted to begin discussions with residents about what a dry year means because many of them have never had that experience.
“We want to have the dialogue with our residents,” Shroll said. “The last time we had to look at water restrictions, our population was probably around 3,000 people.”
With Gypsum’s population now twice that amount, Shroll said residents need to be educated about drought condition watering restrictions, especially since the town recently revised those rules.
“We haven’t touched our water rates in years,” Shroll said, noting that depending on where they live, town residents see different rate structures. In older residential areas, domestic water is used for outdoor irrigation but in some of the new subdivisions — such as Buckhorn Valley and Chatfield Corners — nonpotable water is used for irrigation.
The town’s water ordinance calls out 15 different categories of residential and commercial users, both in town and out of town, but the base rate for Gypsum water service is $25 per month for a maximum of 20,000 gallons. As the town looks head to a possible dry year, Gypsum has instituted drought surcharges in their water rates. The surcharge will be 20 percent of the 1,000 gallon rate for users who exceed the maximum amount of water allowed for their categories.
As Gypsum communicates this new surcharge plan, Shroll said the town also wants to make sure residents are aware of the voluntary water use restrictions that are already in place:
Water lawns every other day and apply a maximum of 1 inch of water
Water lawns between the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 a.m.
Wash cars and equipment no more than once a week
Refrain from using water to clean off driveways, parking lots or streets
When the town imposes mandatory water restrictions, residents are required to abide by those rules and fines can be levied if they don’t.
As Gypsum lays out the rules it expects its residents to follow, Shroll said the town will also abide by the regulations.
“We are not going to ask our residents to conserve if we aren’t willing to do it as well,” he said. “Even with nonpotable irrigation systems at most of our town parks, we will be looking at cutting back our irrigation.
USE WATER WISELY
“Use water wisely” is the mantra at Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. That message is true in both wet years and dry years, but when the snowpack is below average, wise water usage is more important than ever.
“We are really connected to our water resources here and they are our water supply,” said Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “What we are choosing to use is coming directly out of our water sources.”
Because people respect the recreational and aesthetic values that local creeks and rivers provide, Johnson noted that the conservation message is very tangible.
As the summer months approach, the district is tracking snowpack information, particularly at three sites monitored by the US. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOWTEL report. Those sites are showing snowpack below the 30 year average, but Johnson noted it is still too early to predict a drought year.
“They (the SNOWTEL readings) are a snapshot of one location on one day,” she said. “But we are taking our preparations seriously.”
REGULATION, NOT RESTRICTION
The district has recent history to learn from as it looks ahead to a possible dry summer. In 2012, when stream flows in August were very low, the district reached out to a stakeholder group to share information and ask for a voluntary reduction in water use. That effort was successful and the district never had to move to water restrictions.
On that subject, Johnson said if water restrictions become necessary, users are not forewarned. Johnson noted if they have noticed that more restrictive restrictions are coming, then customers often increase the amount of water in anticipation. That behavior makes the imposition of restrictions counter-productive, especially when every day conservation is encouraged.
“We really want people to take conservation seriously and reduce the amount of water use,” Johnson said.
The town of Eagle and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s water regulations mirror one another. They are:
No outdoor water use on Mondays
Odd numbered addresses can irrigate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
Even numbered addresses can irrigate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays
Outdoor water use is allowed before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
Eagle Public Works Director Bryon McGinnis noted that the current readings show snowpack at 85 percent of normal, saying that late winter and spring snowfall could still bring up the average. He echoed Johnson’s message that water regulations are always important for the town’s resources and urged people to voluntarily comply with the rules.
“We really want nobody to water on Mondays to get our tank filled up,” McGinnis said. “We will be asking people to conserve on their use and this year we will probably be more strict than in previous years.”
From The Rocky Mountain Collegian (Michelle Fredrickson):
This year’s drought is caused by a dearth of snow, which supplies Colorado with most of its water. The continued rise in Colorado’s population doesn’t help.
A drought in winter is a bad sign of what’s to come for summer, as a winter drought could increase risks in summer as well as exacerbate wildfire risk, which the state already suffers enough from. Unless there is a very snowy late winter and spring or an abnormally rainy spring and summer, Colorado is in for drought of increasing severity until next year’s snowpack…
Fort Collins and northern Colorado are currently labeled as ‘abnormally dry’ while Denver and the surrounding areas are labeled as ‘moderate drought.’ Grand Junction and most of the Western Slope are labeled as ‘severe drought.’…
Fort Collins Utilities implemented a Water Efficiency Plan, and water use has declined nearly 40 percent since 2000. Fort Collins is on track to hit the previous mark for 2020, and is aiming for an increased decline before 2030. It is actually illegal to waste water in Fort Collins, and last year Fort Collins Utilities identified and addressed 55 cases of such waste taking place.
Everyday citizens can help be more water conscious by critically thinking about the water they use. It’s easy to leave the water running while doing dishes, but is it really necessary? No.
Similarly, while this rubs some people the wrong way, not flushing the toilet every time can help save water, because the toilet is the number one consumer of water in a residence. If not flushing isn’t something you’re comfortable with, consider putting a half-gallon to a gallon filled jug in your toilet tank – older toilet especially use a lot of water, and by creating displacement in the tank, the toilet will use less water.
While we don’t need to restrict showering to 90 seconds twice a week like Cape Town, shorter showers can help anyone, anywhere. Leaks also account for 12 percent of daily water consumption; many people may have a leak that isn’t causing problems, so they don’t do anything about it. It’s important to call your utilities or maintenance people when you find a leak, because that can be a significant source of water waste.
Small things like turning off the faucet while washing hands or brushing teeth can also help stop water waste. Reusing shower water or pasta water to water plants can, too.
From Weather Nation (Mike Morrison):
Years like the one we’re in, where snow has been scarce reminds us all about the importance of water conservation. Snow pack in the Colorado Rockies acts as water storage and about eighty percent of Denver’s water comes from this mountain snow pack. Snow falling west of the continental that flows into the Colorado River feeds a demand, more than it can supply downstream. Years with a lack of snow in the mountains of Colorado (and other locations) can adversely impact recreation, agriculture, businesses, and residents who depend on the water from snow pack…
Snowpack levels across the Colorado Rockies are running well below average so far this year but there is still time for a comeback. There is a chance through the next couple of months for the La Nina phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation or ENSO to become neutral which could bring more moisture to the state through the spring.
Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for February 26, 2018 via the NRCS.
From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):
Gov. John Hickenlooper addressed the estimated 350 participants during the Wednesday event, touting his idea for how to fund the state water plan, NAFTA and other trade issues and what he sees as the next big opportunity for economic development in rural communities.
Hickenlooper has twice this month pushed for a statewide ballot measure to restructure the state’s severance tax collection system, a ballot measure that he indicated would come from the General Assembly. Colorado’s severance taxes are the lowest in the region, Hickenlooper told the audience, a situation worsened by a 2016 court decision that forced the state to refund millions of dollars to oil companies for property tax deductions disallowed by the state’s Department of Revenue. The court ruled in favor of oil giant BP in that case, and the state used severance tax revenues as well as other state dollars to pay those refunds.
State severance tax revenues are used to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas activity in rural communities, as well as pay for water projects. But the state has gone from about $150 million in those revenues two years ago to just $25 million last year, and that’s not enough. Hickenlooper hasn’t yet specified how he would want to see the severance tax structure changed. Currently, severance taxes are charged on the volume of oil and gas activity; one idea floated has been to charge something more like a flat tax, similar to how federal mineral lease revenues are collected.
State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, however, dismissed the governor’s proposal during the ag forum. He said Colorado does not have the lowest severance taxes in the region, and he does not support restructuring the current system.
The forum’s most popular roundtable was on industrial hemp opportunities, which drew dozens interested in learning about the crop. According to one recent study, 19 states now allow hemp production, and Colorado leads the way in the total number of acres planted, at just under 10,000 acres. That represents more than a third of the total acreage in hemp production and half of the hemp produced nationwide. That might not seem like much, but the state only granted growers authority on the plant four years ago, after Congress authorized its production in the last farm bill.
Alex Seleznov is treasurer of the National Hemp Association and runs Pure Hemp Botanicals. He led the session on industrial hemp, cautioning those interested in getting their feet wet to do it slowly, at perhaps two to five acres.
It’s not the crop that will bail out grain growers, at least for now, although some of those who attended the session indicated they would look at hemp as a way of bolstering slumping farm revenues.
Hemp’s opportunities are nearly limitless, Seleznov explained. Its uses range from building materials, known as hempcrete; car parts, fuel and fiber.
Another hot issue at the ag forum: legal and undocumented immigration. A panel of experts on labor issues in agriculture talked about the problems farmers and ranchers face in finding workers in an economy with very low unemployment.
Americans don’t want to do the jobs offered by many farms and ranches, according to the panel, and that’s made many turn to legal immigration and to undocumented workers. But that system has its own share of headaches…
Jon Slutsky, who owns LaLuna Dairy near Fort Collins, started out as a novice in the dairy industry with 64 cows. He and his wife now have more than 1,500 and have gone from just the two of them to 30 employees.
Slutsky was part of a team that produced a white paper on the state of agriculture in Larimer County. The 18-page paper noted that farmers are started to move away from certain labor-intensive crops because they can’t find the labor to maintain and harvest it. Robert (RT) Sakata, who farms 1,600 acres of vegetables, one of the largest vegetable farms in the state, this month announced he would stop growing sweet corn because he could no longer afford the labor costs for that crop. He has also stopped growing broccoli and cauliflower, and told this reporter he would continue to grow onions and grain corn, including on those fields that formerly grew other vegetables. The problem hit him hardest when he looked at the auction brochure for his corn equipment. “I got a lump in my throat” when he looked at the brochure, he said.
Sakata Farms has produced sweet corn for 74 years.
Kelli Griffith is executive director of the Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, a trade association for sheep and cattle herders. “We’ve had to advocate for our members in more political arenas,” Griffith told the audience. That includes the H2A agricultural visa program, which requires those who seek workers to deal with four different federal agencies. The program’s deadlines don’t work well for agriculture, Griffith said, requiring farmers and ranchers to estimate their workforce needs well in advance of growing and harvest season. Such a system leaves no room for changes, whether from drought or other situations, she explained.
The association is looking for relief with the H2A program, Griffith said. The minimum wage requirement for H2A can be higher than the federal minimum wage, because it’s based on the minimum wage in the state where the worker is headed. If it’s a foreign applicant, the farmer or rancher pays for the cost of the visa, travel, food and housing, she said, which allows herders to send home their entire paycheck since they have no living costs. She also noted that while the minimum wage for herders has doubled in the last three years, the number of applicants for those visas has actually dropped. The Larimer County report noted that the current US immigration system provides less than four percent of the workers needed in agriculture.
H2A also requires the employer to attest to the need, requiring proof that no American wants that job. If the labor need changes, the employer has to commit to paying the worker at least three-quarters of the contract, regardless of how early it ends.
The solution, at least to some, is automation. “It can’t happen fast enough,” Sakata told this reporter.
The ag forum is led by the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program; Sonnenberg, a graduate of the program, is the board chair.