#Colorado Primary #election June 26, 2018 #ActOnClimate

Mail-in ballots for the Colorado primary election are in the mail. (Mine arrived yesterday.) Please consider moving the environment to the top of the list of issues when you vote.

Fact: The Western U.S. is drying out and the more arid environment is exacerbating wildfires.

Fact: Action is required now to reduce global warming in the decades ahead.


CIRES-led team uncovers series of wildfire triggers that culminated in the big burn of 2017

Western wildfire seasons are worse when it’s dry and fuel-rich, and the chances of ignition are high—and all three factors were pushed to their limits last year, triggering one of the largest and costliest U.S. wildfire seasons in recent decades, according to a new paper. Climate change likely helped exacerbate fuels and dryness, the paper found, and people’s behavior contributed the sparks.

“Last year we saw a pile on of extreme events across large portions of the western U.S., the wettest winter, the hottest summer, and the driest fall—all helping to promote wildfires,” said Jennifer Balch, director of CIRES/CU Boulder’s Earth Lab and lead author on the study published today in Fire with INSTAAR, Columbia University, and University of Idaho coauthors.

The 2017 wildfire season cost the United States more than $18 billion in damages. That year, 71,000 wildfires scorched 10 million acres of land—destroying 12,000 homes, evacuating 200,000 people and claiming 66 lives. For comparison, 2016 saw only 5.4 million acres burned.

The research team sought to pinpoint the precursors that led to these fires, to support decision makers considering policies that might prevent or minimize future fire disasters. The study found that the three major “switches” affecting fire—fuel, aridity, and ignition—were either flipped on or kept on longer than expected last year.

It started with a wet winter. Increased precipitation early in 2017 fed the growth of fine grasses across the western United States—grasses that would later serve as fuel for fire. Summer and fall then swept in a wave of dry, arid conditions, baking the dense fields of grasses into dehydrated kindling.

With the fuel growth and aridity switches flipped on, the scene was set for the third switch: ignition. Nearly 90 percent of total wildfires last year were caused by people; previous work by Balch and her team has illuminated just how extensively humans exacerbate wildfire. Human activity triples the length of the average fire season.

Computer climate models project an increased risk of extreme wet winters in California, the paper notes, and a decrease in summer precipitation across the entire West Coast. Those models also tend to project a delay in the onset of fall rain and snow.

“We expect to see more fire seasons like we saw last year, and thus it is becoming increasingly critical that we strengthen our wildfire prediction and warning systems, support suppression and recovery efforts, and develop sustained policies that help us coexist with fire,” said Megan Cattau, Earth Lab researcher and a coauthor on the study.

Although naturally occurring climate variability influences environmental conditions that affect the wildfire season, that variation is superimposed on an anthropogenically warmer world, so climate change is magnifying the effects of heat and precipitation extremes, Balch says.

The authors conclude by noting many ways that policy makers have already taken action to build better and burn better in the face of increasingly flammable landscapes; and they urge continued attention to policies that address the challenge of wildfire.

“The 2018 wildfire season is already underway and here at home in the southern Rockies fuels are very dry,” said Balch. “It is forecasted that June will be a busy month in terms of wildfires due to severe drought and low snowpack.”

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

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

Denver: “Innovation in the water” — Clean River Design Challenge recap

Student showcase their winning design at a recent Board of Trustees meeting. Photo: Mark Stahl

From Metropolitan State University of Denver (Matt Watson):

Sometimes putting plastic in the river can be a good thing.

That was the idea put forth by the MSU Trash Getters, one of eight student teams from the Colorado School of Mines, MSU Denver and the University of Colorado Denver to participate in the Clean River Design Challenge.

The Trash Getters designed 3D-printed fish heads to float atop a waterway and collect trash in their mouths. The brightly colored bits of plastic, printed on campus at the Auraria Library, sit in the water and call attention to the very problem the design challenge hopes to combat: trash in our water.

The Greenway Foundation, a nonprofit helmed by Executive Director and MSU Denver Trustee Jeff Shoemaker, works to advance the South Platte River and surrounding tributaries as a unique environmental, recreational, cultural, scientific and historical amenity that links Denver’s past and its future. The foundation held its first-ever student design challenge in 2015-16 and a second competition in 2017-18. The competition is coordinated and led by TGF’s policy and water-resources arm, the Water Connection (TWC).

“The basis of this is to continue to bring awareness that trash in my neighborhood is trash in my waterways,” Shoemaker said. “That’s the education aspect; the other, more pragmatic aspect is we’re trying to create devices that can be taken from a scale version, put into a working prototype and actually be placed in Cherry Creek or the South Platte River.”

MSU Denver faculty, staff and community members pitch in to clean up the Cherry Creek as part of the recent Roadrunners Give Back Day in partnership with the Greenway Foundation.

The student teams were scored in Round 1 on their trash-collection designs in December, with two teams from Mines placing first and third and an MSU Denver team second. The teams with the top six designs were given $1,000 to build scale models, which were then put to the test for Round 2 in April in a flume at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In addition to educating people and looking for innovative solutions, the design challenge provides students with hands-on, competitive experience.

“For students to spend a semester coming up with a concept, then have to stand up in front of a dozen working professionals in the world of water and defend their model – in a competitive way, where there are actually winners and losers – is a very valuable experience,” Shoemaker said.

In the BOR Hydraulics Lab testing, which was Round 2 of the competition, MSU Denver students shined. The first-place team was the Water Association of Student Steward Urban Program, the student water-education club associated with the One World One Water Center. The Trash Getters’ fish-head design finished third behind the Colorado School of Mines, which took second.

The top three models will be displayed July 26 at the 15th annual Reception on the River, where students will get a chance to network with more than 200 people from the water industry. The hope is that one of the models, or a combination of them, will work its way into the water in the coming years. TGF/TWC just got the first draft of professional engineering drawings based on the 2015-16 contest winner and will develop a prototype in the coming months for planned testing in Cherry Creek .

The water-cleanup efforts at the Greenway Foundation and MSU Denver aren’t limited to design and engineering, either. Foundation volunteers regularly pick up trash from Denver waterways, while the WASSUP club has adopted a section of Cherry Creek for a monthly cleanup project and University faculty, staff and students partnered with the Greenway Foundation as part of Roadrunners Give Back Day.

To learn more about Denver’s waterways, contact the Greenway Foundation at info@greenwayfoundation.org.

Voices from the River: Thank a beaver for your trout stream — Trout Unlimited

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Colorado Trout Unlimited (Toner Mitchell):

I recently visited a tailwater stream known for its capacity to produce lots of brown trout, some of them quite large. The reservoir feeding this stream is operated exclusively for downstream agricultural users, the result of which is that the fishery is also renowned for its poor conditions in winter, when dam releases are curtailed and the stream becomes a thin vein of shallow puddles, trickles, and exposed spawning redds. Since this stream is in the coldest corner of New Mexico, anchor ice is common.

I was pleased to see the latest work of the beaver population, knowing that their ponds would provide winter refuge for fish. But I was there to see the leveling device (beaver deceiver) installed by the New Mexico Game and Fish department to mitigate the legitimate though misplaced concern of downstream irrigators, who felt that the beavers were holding back valuable water from ranches and farms. The deceiver was working as intended, sending water downstream while limiting the pond’s depth and expanse so as not to inundate an adjacent parking lot.

My next stop was a nearby fly shop. I proudly reported my observations to the proprietor, who proceeded to give me an earful. The stretch of stream occupied by the beavers had always been a money spot for his guides and their clients. Until, that is, the beavers took up residence. The pond had since become a bugless sucker hole devoid of trout, and though he acknowledged the positive impact of the beaver impoundment on riparian storage and late season flows, the shop owner judged the local beavers as a net detriment to the fishery. Beavers are either good or bad, he opined, never both.

The beaver is a keystone species, generally defined as an organism that exerts an outsized influence on the function and even formation of an ecosystem. Beaver dams capture peak flows, prolong spring runoff, while supporting and extending baseflows with water stored in riparian aquifers. Their deep ponds concentrate nutrients and macroinvertebrates; they provide shelter and security for trout, especially in winter.

Understandably, the perceived downside of beavers comes with the keystone package. Like wolves, another disproportionately influential animal, beavers disrupt on a landscape scale. They not only plug up streams, but ditches, culverts, and bridges. Their dams inundate yards, fields, and pastures used by livestock and campers. Beavers kill and eat prized trees. The disgruntled fly shop owner hypothesized that his favorite run-turned-hated-beaver-pond might have warmed too much to harbor the trout it once did and, along with possibly consuming too much oxygen, accumulated silt may have buried insect production.

For what little it’s worth, I’ve personally witnessed few instances where beavers have negatively impacted trout. I don’t doubt that it happens, certainly not in this case, but I think such stories should be viewed in the broader context of watershed health. Consider how many of our highest quality fisheries (and grazing pastures) were literally made by beavers. They cleared trees to build their dams, which filled with trapped sediment and forced channel migration across floodplains. Over time, floodplains expanded and thickened thanks to further beaver-induced sediment deposition. This long process created thick, spongy meadows, essentially grass-skinned reservoirs feeding streams with cooled groundwater.

In addition to logging, mining, grazing, floodplain development, and road building, our large scale beaver extirpation in the late 1800s contributed greatly to watershed degradation. Without beavers, natural and man-made “nick points” went unrepaired, leading to channel incision and headcutting. By armoring and straightening streams for flood control, we actually intensified flooding by concentrating flow and increasing its cutting force. As a result, our beaver-created meadow reservoirs have been drying from within for many decades.

As climate change tightens its unpredictable yet certain grip on our landscapes, it falls on us, the ultimate keystone species, to restore the land’s capacity to absorb disturbance while maintaining function. To hedge against drought, we must lift and spread water tables and reconnect streams with their floodplains, especially in headwater regions. Reconnected floodplains will also enable our streams to de-energize high intensity precipitation events, particularly important in this era of common wildfire.

Where beavers live, we must make them welcome, as they are the cheapest and most efficient means of restoring the greatest acreage of watershed in the shortest timeframe. They work around the clock and accept food as payment; no matter how hard we try, we will never find a better deal than that.

And where they don’t live, we must imitate them; thanks to conservation groups in New Mexico, including the Truchas Chapter of TU, imitating beavers may soon become the hottest trend in stream restoration. Volunteer-made beaver dam analogs (BDAs) employ natural materials and are designed to pass water, trap sediment, and raise riparian water tables. Combined with willow and cottonwood plantings, which provide stream shading and future beaver food, BDAs create true beaver habitat and often attract the real animals to continue this important work.

As a wise man I know once said, “In times of flood, prepare for drought. In drought, prepare for flood.” I’m not sure, but I think this guy may have been a beaver in a previous life.

Toner Mitchell is TU’s New Mexico Water and Habitat Program coordinator for New Mexico.

Essay: Flash #Droughts: A Review and Assessment of the Challenges Imposed by Rapid-Onset Droughts in the United States #aridification

US Drought Monitor May 29, 2018.

Click here to read the essay from Jason A. Otkin. Here’s the abstract:

Given the increasing use of the term “flash drought” by the media and scientific community, it is prudent to develop a consistent definition that can be used to identify these events and to understand their salient characteristics. It is generally accepted that flash droughts occur more often during the summer owing to increased evaporative demand; however, two distinct approaches have been used to identify them. The first approach focuses on their rate of intensification, whereas the second approach implicitly focuses on their duration. These conflicting notions for what constitutes a flash drought (i.e., unusually fast intensification vs short duration) introduce ambiguity that affects our ability to detect their onset, monitor their development, and understand the mechanisms that control their evolution. Here, we propose that the definition for “flash drought” should explicitly focus on its rate of intensification rather than its duration, with droughts that develop much more rapidly than normal identified as flash droughts. There are two primary reasons for favoring the intensification approach over the duration approach. First, longevity and impact are fundamental characteristics of drought. Thus, short-term events lasting only a few days and having minimal impacts are inconsistent with the general understanding of drought and therefore should not be considered flash droughts. Second, by focusing on their rapid rate of intensification, the proposed “flash drought” definition highlights the unique challenges faced by vulnerable stakeholders who have less time to prepare for its adverse effects.

The 416 Fire and memories of 2002 — and 1879 — @JonnyPeace

From Jonathan P. Thompson:

Someone noticed a puffy cumulonimbus cloud rising up in the gap formed by the Animas River gorge and gave a little cheer. Winter and spring had been freakishly dry and warm, and we really could have used the rain. Something was off about the cloud, however, and we all grew quiet. It wasn’t a cloud at all, but a billowing tower of smoke.

That was 2002 and the smoke was from the Missionary Ridge Fire, ignited that afternoon on a slope about 35 miles south of where we sat. Over the coming weeks, the blaze would eat through 73,000 acres of parched scrub oak and aspen and conifer forest along with 83 structures. The local tourism economy, already dampened by the Dotcom bust and the 9/11 attacks of the previous year, was battered. It would be remembered as southwest Colorado’s summer of discontent.

Memories of and comparisons to that summer emerged last week when the 416 Fire broke out just across the valley from where the Missionary Ridge Fire was sparked 16 years earlier. The comparisons, unfortunately, are apt. Precipitation for the 2018 water year (which started Oct. 1, 2017) has thus far mostly mirrored 2002. Flows on the Animas River are slightly better than they were 16 years ago, but only slightly (see accompanying graphs). The conditions are therefore in place for a rerun of that smoky summer.

At this point, however, the 416 Fire does not appear to be a Missionary Ridge repeat, at least in terms of severity. The 2002 blaze was started by an errant spark, possibly from a car’s exhaust pipe, in the early afternoon of June 9, and it had blown up to 6,500 acres within hours. As I write this, the 416 Fire is spreading much more slowly, having charred 2,400 acres — and no homes — after four days of burning. High winds and hot temperatures could change all of that, of course.

The cause of the 416 Fire remains unknown. Embers from the coal-fired narrow gauge train that travels between Durango and Silverton are a fire hazard, yet the US Forest Service has reported the ignition point as being in the right of way of Highway 550, meaning the fire just as easily could have been started by a motorist’s tossed cigarette butt. In any event, the railroad and the tourism economy that depends on it will be affected. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR officials say they won’t run the train until June 10 at the earliest, and after that will use a diesel locomotive — to the displeasure of authenticity-seeking passengers. (UPDATE 6/6: InciWeb continues to list fire cause as “unknown,” but the coordinates it gives for the fire, and witness accounts, indicate that the fire started near the railroad tracks, not long after the train passed, far from Hwy 550. Also, the D&SNGRR announced on 6/5 that train service will be suspended until at least June 17.)…

It’s certainly too early to guess how big of a blow the 416 Fire — and any other fires to follow — will have on the regional economy. Still, it’s a tough break coming after a thin ski season and at the beginning of what will surely turn out to be a rough one for commercial rafters, with or without any more fires. It’s also a potent reminder that climate change is bad for a lot of things, including the local economy.

While 2018 is shaping up to mirror 2002, it also closely resembles another dry and disastrous time — the summer of 1879. No one was keeping official tabs on the weather or snowpack or streamflows back then, but from anecdotal and newspaper reports, we can gather that the 1878-79 winter was just as dry and warm as 2017-18. And the results were equally smoky: In early June of that year, a blaze broke out a few miles north of where the current 416 Fire is burning. It ended up charring 26,000 acres of relatively high-altitude forests.

To read more about the Lime Creek Burn, and the way it was used in anti-Ute propaganda; the local community’s love/hate relationship with the tourist train; and a heck of a lot more, get a copy of my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

From The Durango Herald (Shane Benjamin) via The Cortez Journal:

Federal firefighters have not released the cause of the 416 Fire. A federal wildfire information database, InciWeb, lists the cause as “unknown.” A longitude and latitude entered into the database pinpoints the fire just west of the train tracks in an area where nothing else is around. Chione confirmed that is about where the fire started.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is not taking responsibility for the fire, but that could change based on the outcome of local and federal fire investigations, General Manager John Harper told The Durango Herald on Tuesday…

The U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Land Management are conducting the investigation, according to an email sent Tuesday from Cam Hooley, acting spokeswoman for San Juan National Forest.

“A team of trained investigators was on scene as soon as Friday night, the day of ignition,” she wrote in the email to the Herald. “USFS investigators include both local and regional personnel. Because of the size of the fire, the cost of suppression and the impact on the community, the investigation team will take the time needed to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation before any determinations are released. No timeline has been given for release of information.”

Chione and his neighbors often spot fires started by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The Meadowridge subdivision, with eight houses, sits only a couple hundred feet east of the train tracks and is located on a steep grade between Hermosa and Rockwood – an area known locally as Shalona Hill.

Locomotives work hard to power up the mountain, and some hot cinders from the coal-fired engine land on the ground and start little fires. A pop car typically follows each train three to five minutes behind the train to look for fires. Five minutes behind the pop car is a water tender that can douse flames, if necessary.

It is not unusual for the train to start spot fires through this section of track, Chione said. In fact, residents are so aware of the fire danger that they converted an old insecticide spray truck into a brush truck that can spray water to help douse the spot fires.

When he sees a fire, Chione typically calls his neighbor, Cres Fleming, who either walks down to the tracks to help extinguish flames, or if the fire is more serious, drives the water truck to the tracks to help douse the blaze.

“I got a call on Friday morning after the second train had come by that there was a small fire at the bend in the tracks,” Fleming said. “I high-tailed it over there with the truck, and as I came up on the railroad tracks, I saw the fire was probably 35 feet up the hill from the tracks. The railroad patrolman was there on his radio, I guess letting dispatch know what was going on. The fire at that point was really too much for his small sprayer that he had on that first pop car.”

Flemming unraveled the hose on his make-shift water truck, but he had a water-pressure problem. By the time the hose was working, the fire had advanced 80 or 90 feet up the hill – beyond the reach of his sprayer.

“It was moving incredibly fast,” Fleming said. “I fired a stream of water and dragged a hose up the hill, which is hard for me because I’m not exactly young any more.

“I feel sort of heartbroken that I just missed putting that fire out because I know it has really caused a lot of problems for a lot of people,” Fleming said. “If I had been there a minute earlier, I think I could have gotten it.”