@USDA: 2018 Predicted to be Challenging Wildfire Year

Sprague Fire September 2017. Photo credit the Associated Press via The Flathead Beacon.

From the USDA (Jennifer Jones):

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen briefed members of Congress yesterday on what to expect in the coming fire season. (To view photos from yesterday’s briefing, please view the 2018 Fire Briefing and MOU Signing Flickr album)

The USDA Forest Service is well prepared to respond to wildfires in what is currently forecast to be another challenging year. In 2018, the agency has more than 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines, and hundreds of aircraft available to manage wildfires in cooperation with federal, tribal, state, local, and volunteer partners.

Large parts of the western U.S. are predicted to have above-average potential for significant wildfire activity this year, according to the latest forecast released by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The “National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook,” released May 1st, predicts above-average significant wildland fire potential in about a dozen Western states at various times between now and the end of August, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

Wildland fire potential depends on weather and fuel conditions, which can and often do change, so NIFC issues an updated Outlook on the first day of each month. The number of wildfires and acres burned annually depends not only on wildland fire potential, but also on the number and timing of lightning strikes and human-caused ignitions.

“By mid-summer, we expect warmer and drier-than-average conditions, large amounts of grass, melting of below-average snowpack, and increasing potential for thunderstorm activity and lightning starts to create above-average potential for significant wildfire activity in a large part of the western U.S.,” said Ed Delgado, National Program Manager, Predictive Services, NIFC.

An interview with Delgado on the May 1 Outlook is available at http://www.nifc.gov.

At this time, the Forest Service believes the number of firefighters, engines, aircraft, and other wildfire suppression assets to be appropriate to meet its needs within available funding. However, if the wildfire season turns out to be as severe as the current NIFC Outlook indicates, the agency’s wildfire suppression costs could exceed available funding, requiring the Forest Service to transfer funds from non-fire programs to make up the difference.

In 2017, the Forest Service’s wildfire suppression costs reached a historic high of $2.4 billion. Through the 2018 Omnibus Bill, Congress provided the Forest Service with a total of $1.5 billion for wildfire suppression this year and changed the way that wildfire suppression is funded beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. In the long run, this will allow us to continue our non-fire mission operations uninterrupted, including on-the-ground forest health improvements that prevent catastrophic wildfires from threatening lives, homes, and communities.

Nationally, nearly nine out of ten wildfires are human-caused. Members of the public can help the Forest Service and other wildland fire agencies by learning how to prevent human-caused wildfires. The fewer human-caused wildfires that agencies like the Forest Service have to respond to, the more they can focus on the lightning-caused wildfires that can’t be prevented. Campfires are the single biggest source of human-caused wildfires on land the Forest Service manages.

For more information about campfire safety and how to prevent other types of human-caused wildfires, visit http://smokeybear.com.

Downstream From a Dry Western Winter — Western Resource Advocates

Sprague Lake via Rocky Mountain National Park.

From Western Resource Advocates (Jon Goldin-Dubois):

If you watched the skies this past winter, you know that in much of the West it was a dry one. With few exceptions, precipitation across the region was far below normal over the past season. In parts of southern Colorado and New Mexico, snowfall this winter was half of what we’ve come to expect – and rely on – over the last four decades. Snowpack is well below average in most of the West, and this shortfall is causing serious concern for our spring and summer water supplies, the river activities we all enjoy, and the risk of wildfire in our alpine forests.

Admittedly, it could have been worse. A few late-season storms in February, March, and April have gone a long way to boost our snowpack. If this long, dry winter has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t live storm to storm, and month to month, hoping for the best. The effects of climate change in the region have made the storms we rely on more erratic and less predictable. It’s also causing the dry spells between storms and rainy, snowy seasons to be longer, deeper, and more devastating.

This means that stream flows in many rivers across the West are going to be slim this year, sometimes disastrously so. In some places, flows could be as much as 40 percent below normal as we head into spring and summer. This spells trouble for farmers and ranchers, and for the thousands of anglers, rafters, kayakers, and other outdoorists who spend millions of dollars in our region. If a rising tide lifts all boats, falling stream flows may leave too many of those boats stranded.

But this dry winter is an unmistakable message that the impacts of a changing climate are playing out right now in the West – and are likely to get worse in the coming years. The skiers among us saw it this winter when the snows didn’t fall consistently, and the rest of us will feel it when there’s little snow to melt this spring. We’re seeing it first-hand, and we know that a changing climate is transforming the West.

We can and should tighten our belts to conserve water wherever we can, and we can get smarter about long-term efficiency and reuse strategies to get us through dry summers. But we can also work to solve the climate problem at its core by focusing on aggressively reducing carbon emissions in the energy sector – the largest contributor to the increasing impacts of climate change. Our window is closing rapidly, but it is still open, providing an opportunity for urgent action from all of us to restore a healthy climate.

By working with utility companies and energy users across the West and leveraging the cost parity between renewables and traditional fossil fuel energy, we can create a business environment where investing in clean energy and cutting carbon pollution are good for utility bottom lines, save customers money and protect the planet. Grid-by-grid, we can transform the West into a clean energy leader to address climate change and its impact on our snowpack, our rivers, and our communities. Your support is what makes this work possible.

#ColoradoRiver Basin forecast = 42% of average inflow to #LakePowell #COriver #drought #aridification

A wall bleached, and stained, in Lake Powell. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith @AspenJournalism.

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

“It was an extreme year on the dry side, widespread across the Colorado River Basin,” says Greg Smith, a hydrologist at the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) in Salt Lake City…

The Colorado River’s tributaries in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are all projected to flow at below average levels. The San Juan, Animas, Dolores and Duchesne rivers in Colorado and Utah are among the regions worse projections for flows.

“These are the really sad basins,” Smith says, noting that each basin saw snow measurement sites at record low levels, ranging from just 51 to 66 percent of normal. The only river within the watershed projected to flow above average is the Upper Green River in southwestern Wyoming…

Already depleted reservoirs along the Colorado River like lakes Powell and Mead are likely to take a hit with low river flows. Lake Powell is expected to see its fifth lowest runoff season in 54 years, according to the CBRFC. The reservoir is forecast to receive 43 percent of average inflow. That’s a downgrade from April’s forecast when it was projected to record its sixth-lowest runoff.

Smaller reservoirs within the system will see their supplies drop as well. McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado is expected to have its second lowest runoff on record, and Navajo Reservoir in northern New Mexico is on track to record its third lowest…

More than 68 percent of the Colorado River watershed is experiencing drought conditions that are classified as severe or worse. Smith says warm weather throughout the basin could cause many Rocky Mountain rivers and streams to reach their highest seasonal flows within the next week.

Reusing water becoming a theme, but Colorado River snowpack a mystery — The Mountain Town News #WaterintheWest2018

The Dolores River, below Slickrock, and above Bedrock. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Recycled and reused water was a recurrent theme in comments at the inaugural Water in the West Symposium in downtown Denver on April 26, particularly in regards to Colorado’s South Platte River Basin.

The 243,000-square-mile basin includes Denver and other cities of the northern Front Range, with a population now of 3.5 million expected to grow to 6.1 million by 2050. Viewed as an economic region, it includes not only the nation’s 9thmost agriculturally productive county, Weld County, but also arguably what Mazdak Arabi, associate professor at Colorado State University, suggested is the fastest-growing economic river basin in the United States.

But the South Platte Basin has, from the 1890s forward, outstripped its native supplies, depending instead upon vast amounts of water imported from across the Continental Divide.

“Any water imported from the Western Slope should be reused and recycled to extinction,” said Mizraim Cordero, vice president of government affairs for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola North America, talked about “cleaning up water as much as they can and reusing it” in its operations.

Dan Haley, chief executive of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, talked about recycling of water used in hydraulic fracturing. Fracking, he said, uses only 0.10 percent of Colorado’s water each year, and the wells created by the fracking operation typically produce for 25 to 30 years.

Colorado always has had de facto water reuse. Water drained off a farmer’s field goes into the river and becomes the source for another farm downstream. Ditto for sewage treatment. The South Platte River is virtually a trickle at times as it flows through Denver—until enlivened once again (at least by standards of the arid West) by the gushing waterfall of releases from the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

Beginning in 2010, with completion of Aurora’s Prairie Water Project, reuse was stepped up. Aurora drilled wells along the South Platte near Brighton and now pumps the water 34 miles and 1,000 feet higher to a high-tech treatment plant along E-470 and then mixes it with more water imported directly from the mountains.

This water infrastructure has also been put to use in the expanded WISE partnership, which was directly referenced by Bart Miller, of Western Resource Advocates. Denver Water provides some of its rights to reuse its water imported from the Western Slope to be used again by south metro communities that have been heavily reliant upon diminishing aquifers.

That recycling itself combined with stepped up conservation in the metro area does itself pose a growing problem of its own. Jim McQuarrie, chief innovation officer at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, said total dissolved solids in the South Platte River have been rising. “The river is getting saltier and saltier and saltier,” he said. “We are creating a salt loop.”

Salt can be removed, creating a brine that poses a disposal problem. The technology is also expensive, as was mentioned by Mike Reidy, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Leprino Foods.

Leprino is the nation’s largest supplier of mozzarella cheese, most of which is produced in Western states and most of which is consumed in Eastern states. Part of that production comes from two cheese factories in Colorado, the first in Fort Morgan and more recently a plant in Greeley on the reclaimed site of the former Great Western sugar factory along the Poudre River.

In its operations, Leprino can reuse water, but not as completely as it would like. Reverse osmosis does a “pretty good job” of cleaning up water, but is very expensive. “It uses a lot of electricity. There has to be a better way.”

Figuring out that better way, Reidy went on to say, might be one role for the new water research campus being developed jointly by Denver Water with Colorado State University.

This was the coming-out conference for this new partnership. The Water Resources Center is to be located on the grounds of the soon-to-be-redeveloped National Western Complex north of downtown. Site of the annual stock show and rodeo, it’s bisected by I-70, with the most visible infrastructure being the aging but still functional Denver Coliseum. Both policy and technology research foci are envisioned.

The partnership was formally announced last September, but even then, much was yet to be worked out.Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, at the initial announcement, said the exact research area was yet to be determined,as well as how to set the work apart from that being done elsewhere.

A continued exploration of that question was another theme in the first day of the Water in the West Symposium. Denver Water plans to move its water quality laboratories to the campus. Lochhead said the agency conducts 200,000 water-quality studies per year.

Lochhead also talked about emerging water issues: nutrient loading, abandoned mine pollution and – yet again – the push to use recycled water. That reuse, he added, “will require innovation and a number of different policy innovations to ensure we protect public health while using water efficiently.”

Yet another suggestion came from Brad Udall, a senior climate research scientist at Colorado State University. He has carved out a specialty in trying to understand how the changing climate is impacting the Colorado River Basin. A 20 percent decline in precipitation has occurred in the basin—the source of much of the water of both cities and farms in eastern Colorado —from 2000 to 2017. This is despite a 5 percent increase in moisture content in the warming atmosphere.

“Something very odd and unusual is going on,” Udall said.

About half the volume of the reservoirs has been lost during this period, about two-thirds of which can be explained by reduced precipitation.

Increased temperatures is driving what is commonly thought of as drought. Temperature inducted losses in the basin will more than triple by 2050, he said, and increase almost six-fold by the end of the century.

Snowpack remains a mystery. “We really don’t know what is going on (with the snowpack),” he said in suggesting a topic area.

Perhaps the most over-arching statement came from Cordero, from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, who suggested that the campus can became the NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) for water.

Lochhead neatly summarized the reason for the symposium and the new partnership and research center at the 250-acre National Western Complex by using a phrase he has often used since becoming chief executive of Denver Water. Colorado, he said, cannot grow the next 5 million people the same way it did the first five million residents.

More more about water reuse in Colorado, see WateReuse Colorado.

Governor Hickenlooper Activates #Colorado #Drought Mitigation & Response Plan for Agricultural Sector — CWCB_DNR

Colorado Drought Monitor May 8, 2018.

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):

On May 2, 2018, in response to persistent and prolonged drought in portions of Colorado, the Governor activated the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the agricultural sector in the following counties:

Montezuma, La Plata, Archuleta, Conejos, Costilla, Las Animas, Baca, Prowers, Bent, Otero, Huerfano, Alamosa, Rio Grande, Mineral, Hinsdale, San Juan, Dolores, San Miguel, Ouray, Montrose, Saguache, Custer, Pueblo, Crowley, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Lincoln, El Paso, Elbert, Gunnison, Mesa, Delta, Garfield, Rio Blanco. [ed. emphasis mine]

All of these counties are experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought as classified by the US Drought Monitor, and many have already received some level of drought designation from USDA. If present trends continue, other regions and sectors of the state’s economy may also be affected. We will continue to monitor conditions in those areas.

As a result of this activation the following actions will be taken:

1) The Drought Task Force will be activated under chairmanship of directors from the Departments of Natural Resources, Local Affairs, and Agriculture. The first meeting of the Task Force was held on May 7th.
2) The Agricultural Impact Task Forces (ITF) will be formally activated. The Ag ITF chairpersons have scheduled a call for the 16th of May. All other ITFs should be on notice should conditions deteriorate.
3) All agencies will assign: (1) A senior level manager who can commit the resources of the department to act as a drought coordinator and (2) Task Force chairpersons and participants as indicated in the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.
4) Lead agencies will be prepared to take action for drought response and to mitigate drought impacts as appropriate.

Should you have specific questions about the activation please contact Taryn Finnessey, Sr. Climate Change Specialist at taryn.finnessey@state.co.us or 303-868-5302.

“Eagle River Valley State of the River Meeting ” recap

In 1922, Federal and State representatives met for the Colorado River Compact Commission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among the attendees were Arthur P. Davis, Director of Reclamation Service, and Herbert Hoover, who at the time, was the Secretary of Commerce. Photo taken November 24, 1922. USBR photo.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

At an Eagle River Valley State of the River Meeting held at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on Wednesday, May 9, Colorado River District Director Andy Mueller talked about the potential impacts of curtailment. The district, funded by a small property tax levy, includes 15 counties that fall into the Colorado River watershed.

Mueller said under current state water law, the burden could fall most heavily on municipal and industrial water users on the Western Slope and Front Range.

That’s because state water law operates on a “first in time, first in line” system. That means agricultural users on the Western Slope, many of whom have held their water rights since before 1922, have priority over other users.

But those other users include the state’s main population centers, including Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs. Mueller said taking water from politically powerful areas could create “chaos” in the state.

“It’s not realistic” to curtail home water taps and fire hydrants, Mueller said.

Again, a curtailment order has never been issued. And, Mueller said, the current prospects of such an order, even during the present prolonged drought cycle in the west, is only about 25 to 30 percent.

But, he said, the risks to upper basin states are enormous.

That’s why state and federal agencies are working on planning for drought.

Brent Newman, of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that planning includes researching ways to manage water demand and continued cloud seeding to boost winter snowfall.

Demand management is the state’s “last line of defense,” Newman said, but it has to be evaluated.

The ultimate goal is avoiding a drop in Lake Powell water levels that makes it impossible to spin the hydroelectric generators at Glen Canyon Dam.

Newman said if that day comes, everything from streamflows to Lake Mead to income from the power produced would be affected. Electricity prices would rise, Newman said, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation would lose income that’s used to pay for existing and future water projects, as well as fish-recovery and other environmental efforts. The impact spans the continent “from Jackson Hole to Tijuana,” Newman said.

The clock is already ticking on drought contingency planning. Newman said a 2007 agreement based on the original compact expires in 2026, with the states set to re-convene starting in 2020.

And, Newman said, it’s not just upper basin states that are planning. Lower basin states are also looking at voluntary reductions in water use, he said. A draft of that plan cuts 1.1 million acre-feet per year in use.

“There are a lot of opportunities and challenges,” Newman said. “We need to ensure users aren’t being harmed.” And, he added, “a lot needs to be investigated before implementing anything.”

#RioGrande River: “Once the water for the farmers runs out, the river will just dry up and that could come as soon as July” — @JFleck #drought #runoff #aridification

From InkStain (John Fleck):

The final forecast numbers put this year’s runoff at just 18 percent of the long term average. The flow right now at Embudo, as the Rio Grande is entering New Mexico’s populous middle valleys, is the second lowest it’s ever been at this time of year. Records there go back to 1889 – the oldest USGS gauge in the nation.

It’s not clear yet whether we’ll have complete drying through the Albuquerque reach, but it’s a possibility. The last time that happened – a zero cfs reading at the Central Avenue gauge – was 1977. The last time we’ve been under 30 cfs – which is still a trickle, but for all practical purposes is dry – was 1983.

From KOB.com (Eddie Garcia):

“Once the water for the farmers runs out, the river will just dry up and that could come as soon as July,” Fleck said.

So far, Fleck says, it’s the second-worst year on record for the once-mighty river.

“Unprecedented in many, many decades – certainly in the lifetime of most of the people who live in Albuquerque today – to see a dry Rio Grande through the middle of this town,” he said.

Some areas have already dried up, like a section near Bosque del Apache in Socorro County. That’s why Fleck says, it’s more important than ever to conserve water.