Paper: Large wildfires bring increases in annual river flow — Oregon State University

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

From Science Daily:

Large wildfires cause increases in stream flow that can last for years or even decades, according to a new analysis of 30 years of data from across the continental United States.

Enhanced river flows are a good news, bad news proposition. The good news is more water can be a boon, such as serving as a hedge during times of scarce water. The bad news is more water can also be a detriment, especially when it comes with an increase in contaminants, such as sediment or nutrients, caused by the greater runoff that follows vegetation losses to fire.

Prescribed burns on the other hand were not found to significantly alter river flows.

“That suggests smaller, prescribed burns can be a management tool for potentially decreasing the threat of bigger fires and creating more resilient forests without having a major effect on water yields,” said co-corresponding author Kevin Bladon of Oregon State University.

The findings are important because they bring new insights into how water resource managers should look at fire, especially with the frequency of severe blazes on the rise in the face of global climate change.

Bladon, a hydrologist in OSU’s College of Forestry, and collaborators looked at three decades of data regarding fires, climate and river flow from 168 river basins in the lower 48 states.

In watersheds where more than 19 percent of the forest burned, annual river flow increased significantly.

“The impacts of big fires on surface freshwater resources hadn’t been previously studied at this scale, nor have they been factored into regional water management strategies,” Bladon said. “But large fires are increasing and that heightens concern about their impacts on water in our forest streams and for downstream potable water.”

More than two-thirds of U.S. municipalities get their drinking water from a source that originates in a forest, he said.

“Trace the water back from that tap in your kitchen and you begin to see why it’s important to care about what can happen when there’s a large fire in the forest where your water comes from,” he said. “And because of the sheer number of sites we looked at, we can say with a fair degree of confidence that as area burned and wildfire severity increases, so too do the impacts on annual water yields.”

Bladon notes that for nearly a half-century through the late 1990s, wildfire trends were either holding steady or declining.

“All of a sudden there’s an inflection point and it goes up in terms of area burned,” he said. “We had been spending as a nation $500 million a year fighting wildfires, and since 2000 that’s grown to the order of $2 billion a year. Suppressing and putting out wildfires now chews up more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget. We need to find a way off that treadmill.”

There are two factors behind the rise of wildfires, Bladon said: a generally warmer, drier climate, and the fuel left behind by earlier suppression efforts.

“Now when forests burn, they can burn with much greater severity,” he said. “One percent of the fires, the high-severity ones, eat up 90 to 95 percent of the money being spent on suppression — money that’s being taken away from management activities that could serve to reduce the likelihood of severe fires and produce healthier forests.”

The effects of fires’ relationship to water flow are most pronounced in the West, where climates tend toward warm temperate or humid continental. Despite regular droughts, the semi-arid lower Colorado region showed the greatest fire-induced river flow increases.

“People see and smell the smoke from fires and when it’s gone, they think it’s over,” Bladon said. “But actually the impacts on other values, such as water, are just beginning at that point.”

Findings were published this week in Nature Communications. Researchers from the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Energy collaborated on the study, and those two agencies also provided financial support for the research.

Youth #Climate Case Vs. U.S. Government Will Head to Trial in October — Climate Liability News

The youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States attended the Ninth Circuit hearing in December. Photo credit: Robin Loznak

From Climate Liability News:

On October 29, 21 young people suing the federal government for violating their constitutional right to a safe climate will finally have their day in court.

The date was decided Thursday at a conference in Eugene, Ore., between attorneys for both sides and Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin. The case will be heard by United States District Court Judge Ann Aiken.

The case, Juliana v. United States, was originally filed in August 2015 by young plaintiffs from across the country and became the first in which a U.S. court has recognized the constitutional right to a safe climate. Aiken became the judge to do that when she initially sent the case to trial in November 2016. She recognized “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.”

The young people are asking the court to order the federal government to make and stick to a science-based plan to stabilize and protect the climate for future generations.

“In the coming months there will be depositions of the parties, defendants’ disclosure of their experts, and expert depositions in late summer,” said Julia Olson, lead attorney for Our Children’s Trust and co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs. “We will build a full factual record for trial so that the Court can make the best informed decision in this crucial constitutional case.”

The case was initially filed against the Obama administration and was later altered to make President Donald Trump a defendant. In the days before Obama left office, the Justice Department response to the case confirmed many of the young plaintiff’s claims, including that monthly global average concentrations of CO2 have reached the dangerous threshold of 400 parts per million. In allegations regarding sea level rise, they admitted levels are slightly greater than what the plaintiffs claimed.

The federal government has tried repeatedly to have the case dismissed, including the most recent, a writ of mandamus request that was denied by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

When the Justice Department attorneys argued that the October trial date was too soon, that they needed more time to find expert witnesses, Coffin replied: “Where am I missing something? Given your admissions in this case, what is it about the science that you intend to contest with your rebuttal witnesses?”

Supported by Our Children’s Trust and Earth Guardians, the case is one of several climate-related legal actions brought by young people in several states and countries.

Apply to be a Water Literate Leader of Northern Colorado, applications due July 20, 2018 — @ColoStateNews

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains aquifer.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jennifer Dimas):

Water is emerging as one of the most important and controversial subjects to be addressed in the 21st century. Water issues are particularly complex and understanding the nuances is critical for good decision-making. Many who have helped communities make sound water decisions are nearing retirement age. Northern Colorado needs a new crop of water literate leaders.

The Colorado Water Institute, in cooperation with Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, has launched a non-partisan Water Literate Leaders of Northern Colorado program. Modeled after highly successful programs such as Leadership Northern Colorado, this program is for those who hold or aspire to political office, or other roles, including boards and commissions, which can impact regional water policy.

The Water Literate Leaders of Nothern Colorado will be a colloquium of emerging leaders from Northern Colorado’s communities who actively learn about Northern Colorado water from all angles including agriculture, urban, environmental, recreation, and business via presentations, dialogue and field trips. Members will have interaction and dialogue with regional water leaders to get an inside view of issues affecting Northern Colorado’s water future and will participate in visioning activities.

Meetings, including lunch, will be held from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the Community Foundation offices, 4745 Wheaton Drive in Fort Collins, on Sept. 13, Oct. 11, Nov. 8, Dec. 13 of 2018 and Jan. 10, Feb. 14, March 14, April 11, May 9 of 2019. The class fee of $150 has been kept low thanks to generous support from City of Greeley, City of Fort Collins, Town of Windsor and City of Loveland. A maximum of 20 participants will be chosen

Appy now for the 2018-2019 class

Criteria for acceptance include:

  • Has exemplified leadership in one of the Northern Colorado communities
  • Anticipates continued community leadership for the next several years
  • Concerned about the water future of Northern Colorado
  • Must make a strong commitment to attend all sessions
  • Applications due July 20
  • Applications due by July 20 and participants will be chosen Aug. 15.

    For more information and to apply visit the website or contact Mary Lou Smith at

    #ColoradoRiver Basin agriculture under stress — @WaterCenterCMU #COriver

    Western San Juans with McPhee Reservoir in the foreground

    From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

    As the Southwest keeps getting hotter and drier, people who rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for their livelihoods are facing the prospect of having to make due with less water. The impacts of reduced supplies will play out differently in different parts of the basin, but they will touch everyone.

    Despite the attention desert cities get for their golf courses and fountains, agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in the Colorado River Basin. The future of the region’s agriculture is closely entwined with the future of the river. In the lower basin states of California and Arizona, farms grow most of the country’s winter lettuce, as well as lots of alfalfa and cotton. In the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, rivers sustain orchards, vineyards, corn and vegetable fields, with larger acreages in hay and pasture grass for cattle.

    Thanks to large reservoirs upstream and the 1922 compact that divided rights to the basin’s water, lower basin water users have enjoyed steady access to their water allocations for decades. Upper basin farmers and ranchers are more at the mercy of nature. Without large, multi-year storage reservoirs upstream, dry years frequently mean smaller crops and selling cows.

    Now, as Lake Mead approaches a level that would trigger delivery reductions in the lower basin, Arizona farmers with junior claims are for the first time facing the likelihood of cuts. This has prompted discussions about how to soften the blow for them. In the upper basin, the impacts of drier conditions depend on details of location and water source. Since shortages are routine, there’s been no broad discussion about how to soften the blow.

    Don Schwindt farms in southwestern Colorado, one of the areas most affected by the current drought. However, he describes this year as not catastrophic for him, since he is receiving a little more than 2/3 of his normal water allocation. Schwindt’s water is supplied by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., which benefits from McPhee Reservoir. McPhee had good inflows in the winter before last, leaving water leftover in the reservoir to supplement the meager inflows from this past, very dry winter. Nearby farmers on other systems are devastated, however, receiving less than 50 percent of their normal supply.

    Paul Kehmeier raises hay on the southeast side of Grand Mesa. He has access to a small reservoir that filled only to about 1/3 of its capacity this year — it usually spills. He’ll get by this year, partly because he can lease his reservoir water to some orchards and the town of Orchard City. And bad water years tend to bring higher prices, since everyone’s production goes down.

    In the Grand Valley, Mel Rettig farms with water from the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District (OMID). His supply is fine, and he said he’s never run out of water. His father didn’t either, although they came close in 1939. OMID has senior rights on the Colorado River and storage in Green Mountain Reservoir upstream.

    Both Schwindt and Kehmeier noted that upper basin agricultural producers are used to variability. They have systems in place to adapt and plan ahead. However, if the mix of good and bad years tilts more towards the bad years, new strategies might have to be added. No single strategy will work for everyone, though.

    More efficient irrigation systems can help individuals make better use of a meager supply, and in the OMID system, they have increased the reliability of the whole system. But in situations like Kehmeier’s, where downstream neighbors pick up any runoff from upstream fields, the benefits are more limited.

    More options for water leasing might help some complete crops and others stay financially afloat to farm another year. Switching to crops that bring in more dollars per drop is another possibility. During California’s recent drought, many producers switched from hay to almonds and strawberries. New crops come with risks, though. Kehmeier notes that the agricultural landscape is littered with get-rich-quick schemes that didn’t work out. For a new crop to work, new growing techniques have to be mastered, and markets, processing facilities and distribution networks have to fall in place.

    Just as lower basin farmers are facing the fact that the supplies they have come to rely on can’t be guaranteed, upper basin farmers may find that the strategies that have gotten them through past droughts may not be enough to weather future challenges. It is in the public interest to support adaptation strategies, because ultimately, everyone who eats is an agricultural water user.

    Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Learn more about the center at