#Drought expands over the southwest and southern plains #ColoradoRiver #COriver #snowpack

US Drought Monitor March 27. 2018.

From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Arizona Daily Sun:

A federal drought map released Thursday shows dry conditions intensifying across northern New Mexico and into southwestern Arizona. Every square mile of Nevada and Utah also are affected by at least some level of dryness.

On the southern high plains, Oklahoma is ground zero for the worst drought conditions in the United States.

The exceptional drought in the Panhandle — an area dominated by agriculture — has more than doubled in size. Many farmers rely on precipitation to help water their crops as pumping groundwater is the only other option…

Crop conditions around the region are declining as extreme drought spans from Kansas and Oklahoma to California. In New Mexico, about three-quarters of the winter wheat crop is in poor to very poor condition as meaningful moisture has been scarce since last fall.

Along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, the irrigation allotment will be less than half of what farmers received last year. Water orders will begin next week and officials with the local Irrigation district are encouraging growers to use their surface water as soon as crops demand it…

In Arizona, there’s concern for ranchers as the poor range conditions have left stock tanks dry. On the Navajo Nation, a drought emergency was declared earlier this month and residents have started hauling water for their sheep and other livestock…

But officials aren’t expecting any cuts to the water delivery systems that serve much of Arizona’s population.

From The Albuquerque Journal (Ollie Reed Jr.):

The best snowpack in the state, in the Rio Chama Basin, is at 45 percent of normal. The Jemez and Pecos river basins are at 16 and 3 percent of normal, respectively, and the Gila and Rio Hondo basins are at zero.

Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist in the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service, said the snowfall season has peaked out.

“We are done there,” Fontenot said during a New Mexico Drought Monitor Working Group session this week. “What we have on the mountains is what you are going to get. What you see is what you get for (spring) runoff.”

[…]

The Drought Monitor Work Group, made up of members of the National Weather Service and state and federal agencies, determines the extent and severity of drought in the state. An updated drought map released Thursday shows that nearly 99 percent of New Mexico is in some stage of drought and more than 34 percent, the northern third of the state, is in extreme drought.

During the Working Group conference, Marshal Wilson of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture said there are reports that farmers in the northeast are planting less corn this year due to dry conditions and that livestock producers are downsizing their herds.

“We have started to see things getting pretty tough,” Wilson said. “The winter wheat crop was bad because we had no snow. We need moisture, and when we get it, high winds dry it out pretty quick.”

Wilson said ranchers are hauling water to herds and confronting a hay shortage that will make supplemental feeding of cattle a challenge.

Anthony Chavez, stage agricultural program specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency, said 15 northern counties now qualify for the federal Livestock Forage Program, which makes funds available to help ranchers buy feed for their cattle once a county has been in severe drought for eight consecutive weeks…

If there are silver linings, they are in the possibility of a better-than-normal summer monsoon season and the fact there is more water stored in most state reservoirs now than there was at this time last year.

Graphic credit: NOAA

A flurry of research illuminates snow’s foes — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

Depending on where in the West you are, this winter was either a winner or a big bust: Montana, for example, is swathed in snow while parts of the Southwest are dismally bare. As of late March, the Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack was well below average.

But the longterm trend is clear: Years of research show that the region’s snowpack is declining as the climate warms. About two-thirds of the West’s water comes from snow, and “we’re losing that natural reservoir,” says Sarah Kapnick, a hydroclimate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Forecasting the coming winter’s bounty months in advance could help Westerners prepare for surplus or scarcity, Kapnick says. Better predictions would allow officials time to implement flood control or water conservation measures, for example, and help farmers decide whether to plant thirsty crops or hardier ones.

The first step is understanding what can diminish a snowpack, like hotter temperatures, humid air and wind-blown dust. Here are three recent studies that dive into the snowpack and its foes:

Credit: California Cooperative Snow Survey via YouTube

THE STUDY: “Exploring the origins of snow drought in the Northern Sierra Nevada, California,” Earth Interactions, December 2017.

THE TAKEAWAY: Not all droughts are dry. A “snow drought” can occur even when there’s plenty of precipitation if it’s so warm that it falls as rain instead of snow.

WHAT IT MEANS: To understand what causes snow droughts, scientists from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada analyzed decades of monthly snow measurements from the northern Sierra Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. They identified several snow droughts caused by a variety of factors, including dry periods, warm weather and rain falling on snow and melting it.

The researchers found that some weather patterns have inconsistent impacts: For example, atmospheric river storms, bands of water-soaked air that can drench the West Coast, might initiate a snow drought if they bring mostly rain, or end one if they deliver snow.

While snow droughts aren’t a new phenomenon — the scientists found evidence for one in 1951, the earliest year they studied — it does appear that they are becoming more common. “We’re seeing them stack up a little bit more now,” says Benjamin Hatchett, one of the study’s co-authors. That trend will likely continue as the climate warms, stressing both ecosystems and economies that depend on snow and the water it holds.

Fog rolls in below snow-dusted peaks on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. In relatively humid places like the Pacific Northwest, more water melts from the snowpack during the wintertime than in more arid regions. Brooke Warren/High Country News

THE STUDY: “Humidity determines snowpack ablation under a warming climate,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2018.

THE TAKEAWAY: The amount of moisture in the air drives wintertime dips in the snowpack. There’s more midwinter snowmelt in humid corners of the West than arid ones.

WHAT IT MEANS: Scientists from the University of Nevada Reno and the University of Utah scrutinized decades of weather and snow records from 462 sites across the West to understand why water in the snowpack sometimes dwindles during the wintertime.

They found that relatively wet places experienced more wintertime melting. During humid weather — a stretch of foggy days, for example — water vapor in the air condenses on the snowpack, releasing energy and heating the snow. Clouds and moist air also prevent nighttime cooling, pushing the snowpack closer toward thawing, sometimes well before spring. “If (snow) is melting and not sticking around to the times later in the year when we need and expect that water, that’s a real problem,” says Adrian Harpold, a hydrologist at the University of Nevada Reno and co-author of the study.

Harpold says parts of the Western snowpack could be hit hard by amplified humidity in the future. Because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, places near the ocean or other large bodies of water will likely experience more humidity — and more melting.

Layers of dust stripe the sides of a pit dug into the snow in Colorado. Dust deposited or exposed on the surface of the snowpack contributes to faster warming and melting. Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies

THE STUDY: “Variation in rising limb of Colorado River snowmelt runoff hydrograph controlled by dust radiative forcing in snow,” Geophysical Research Letters, December 2017.

THE TAKEAWAY: Snow covered in dust melts faster than clean snow, because it absorbs more energy from the sun. In some areas, dust influences the speed of spring snowmelt more than air temperature.

WHAT IT MEANS: Dust blown in from the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau periodically darkens alpine slopes in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. A team of scientists examined air temperature, dust deposition and how quickly a handful of rivers in the area rose in the spring between 2005 and 2014. Dust was the dominant factor: Spring runoff happened more quickly in years with more dust, regardless of whether the air was warm or cool.

Understanding how dust affects snowmelt and spring runoff is crucial for water management, says Tom Painter, an author of the study and a snow hydrologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A bigger, faster pulse of water could stress infrastructure and increase the risk of flooding.

That doesn’t mean air temperature is completely irrelevant. After all, that’s what determines how much precipitation falls as snow rather than rain. “That is an enormous impact on the water resources as well,” Painter says.

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News.

Stunning drops in solar, wind costs mean economic case for coal, gas is ‘crumbling’ — ThinkProgress

Aspen gets more than half of its electricity from wind turbines just north of I-80 in the Nebraska panhandle. Photo credit The Mountain Town News.

From ThinkProgress (Joe Romm):

Prices for solar, wind, and battery storage are dropping so rapidly that renewables are increasingly squeezing out all forms of fossil fuel power, including natural gas.

The cost of new solar plants dropped 20 percent over the past 12 months, while onshore wind prices dropped 12 percent, according to the latest Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report. Since 2010, the prices for lithium-ion batteries — crucial to energy storage — have plummeted a stunning 79 percent.

“The economic case for building new coal and gas capacity is crumbling,” as BNEF’s chief of energy economics, Elena Giannakopoulou, told Bloomberg.

At the same time, solar and wind plants — which are increasingly being built with battery storage — are eating into the utilization of existing coal and gas plants, making them far less profitable. For instance, the super-efficient combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants that have been popular in recent decades, were designed to be used at full power between 60 percent and 90 percent of the time.

But their actual utilization rate (also called the “capacity factor”) has been plummeting in recent years, and is now close to a mere 20 percent in countries as diverse as China, Germany, and India.

#Colorado adds 70,000 new folks in 2017

Colorado Springs with the Front Range in background. Photo credit Wikipedia.

From KOAA.com (Bill Folsom):

Growth in Colorado is booming. State census numbers just out, show Colorado’s population jumped by around 70,000 people in 2017…

When it comes to water supply, Colorado Springs utilities planners look decades into the future. Within the last year they completed what is called an Integrated Water Resources Plan. “That really looked at our future water supply, 50 plus years out. And a big component of that was estimating our future demand based in part on population.”

[…]

The supply is strong right now and into the near future, but they know long term growth will require expanding our water system. Front Range water comes from an extensive system of reservoirs, pumps and pipes. “If we didn’t change our system at all with our current configuration or our water supply system we’re probably good on water supply for at least another 20 to 25 years.” Growth, however, is expected to continue, so planning is happening now for future water needs. “When we need to start thinking about bringing in additional storage, maybe expanding some of our reservoir storage, perhaps building new reservoirs.”