Three Things To Know About #ColoradoRiver Plans In The Works — KUNC #COriver #aridification

A big beach during sunset in Cataract Canyon, above Lake Powell, on Oct. 1, 2018. Low flows in the Green and Colorado rivers have left Lake Powell less than half full and left big beaches along the rivers above the falling reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From KUNC (Luke Runyon/Bret Jaspers):

Water managers along the Colorado River are trying to figure out how to live with less.

Climate change is growing the gap between the river’s supply, and the demands in the communities that rely on it, including seven western U.S. states and Mexico. The federal government recently released proposals called Drought Contingency Plans designed to keep the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs from falling to levels where water is unable to be sent through the dams that hold up Lakes Powell and Mead.

The river’s two basins are working on separate plans to manage the risks posed by dwindling water supplies. The Upper Basin — comprised of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — is focused on protecting water levels within Lake Powell. The reservoir is 45 feet lower now than it was in October 2010. It’s projected to fall another 15 feet in the next year.

Powell acts as the Upper Basin’s savings account, and water managers in those states say the water it holds keeps them compliant with a 1922 agreement that divvied up the river’s water and promised a certain amount to downstream users. Violating that agreement could spark a decades-long legal battle among government agencies throughout the basin.

In the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, the problem is overuse. Essentially, more water exists on paper than in the river itself. That supply-demand gap is causing the country’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, to drop too, increasing the likelihood of a federal water shortage declaration at the start of 2020.

Because they make fundamental changes to how the river is managed, the plans will require congressional approval before they go into effect. The plans are an attempt to patch problems that arose from a set of river management guidelines agreed to in 2007…

Here are the top three things to keep an eye on as water managers attempt to get the plans finished:

1. Will the Upper Basin create a protected pool in Lake Powell?

The most contentious portion of the Upper Basin plan is the establishment of a conservation pool in Lake Powell…

2. Will Arizona capitalize on California’s offer to cut back?

Some Lower Basin water managers see their Drought Contingency Plan as a rare opportunity. For the first time, California is willing to cut back its water deliveries when Lake Mead drops past 1,045 feet in elevation. California has the highest priority water rights in the Lower Basin in times of shortage. Under current rules, the Central Arizona Project, which feeds Phoenix and Tucson, could lose every last drop of its Colorado River allocation before California has to take even a modest curtailment…

3. What effect will Mother Nature, federal officials have?

Whether these plans move from draft proposals to signed agreements is still uncertain. Outside forces could either speed up or derail the ongoing negotiations.

In August, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman gave the seven basin states an end of year deadline to finish their Drought Contingency Plans. Mexico has already agreed to cutbacks, but only if the Lower Basin states finish and sign their plan.

Arizona is the sole basin state that requires state legislative approval before it can officially sign a deal, and there are currently no plans for a special session before the end of the year. Federal officials could give some leeway to that end of year deadline as long as states can show progress is being made.

State officials in the West are adamant they don’t want the federal government steering the ship when it comes to Colorado River governance, and the threat of interference could be enough to get the plans over the finish line.

Another pressure point is the weather. It was the unprecedented dry conditions that forced water managers to the table to come up with the 2007 guidelines, and then again to form the Drought Contingency Plans. The 2018 water year — from Oct. 1 2017 to Sept. 30 2018 — wrapped up as one of the driest on record for the entire Colorado River Basin.

If the El Nino weather pattern currently taking shape in the Pacific Ocean fails to pummel the southern Rocky Mountains with wintry storms, expect the heat to get turned up even more to get these agreements done.

Colorado River Basin. Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

@USBR selects three submissions to receive prizes for the eradication of invasive mussels in open water prize competition

Quaggas on sandal at Lake Mead

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today that Reclamation has selected three submissions for its prize competition seeking ideas to eradicate mussels in open water. Steven Suhr and Marie-Claude Senut will receive a full award of $80,000 for their idea while Wen Chen and Absar Alum with Stephanie Bone will each receive $10,000.

“Providing water managers with new tools to control invasive quagga and zebra mussels is an important part of protecting infrastructure and ecosystems,” Commissioner Burman said. “Reclamation is committed to working with our partners to prevent the spread of quagga and zebra mussels in the West.”

The prize competition was a theoretical challenge and sought innovative solutions to eradicate invasive quagga and zebra mussels from large reservoirs, lakes and rivers in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner. Invasive mussel infestations pose a significant logistical and economic challenge for local communities, recreationists and water managers. There is no practical method available today for the large-scale control of invasive dreissenid mussel population once they become established.

Steven Suhr and Marie-Claude Senut, founders of Biomilab, LLC, proposed using genomic modification to induce a lethal malignant hemic neoplasia in mussels that can be transferred from one mussel to another by proximity. They suggested utilizing the CRISPR/cas9-mediated genome modification to target the function or expression of endogenous dreissenid mussel p53 or telomerase reverse transcriptase genes, or to introduce the viral SV40 Tag gene. This submission for the prize competition received $80,000.

Wen Chen, a research scientist at Harvard Medical School, proposed utilizing single stranded DNA/RNA oligonucleotide-based aptamers to target the modified amino acid 3,4 dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA) or dreissenid specific foot proteins to interrupt attachment, eventually leading to mussel mortality. The use of aptamers to target DOPA and foot proteins to interrupt mussel settlement is a novel idea and received $10,000.

Absar Alum of BioDetek with Stephanie Bone proposed genome modification to develop male mussels that produce sperm containing a light triggered optogenetic switch to drive upregulation or downregulation of cyclin-b expression resulting in death of the fertilized egg. This strategy relies on sunlight penetration into the upper portions of a water body to turn on the optogenetic switch in free-floating, transparent developing eggs and embryos. It was found to be a novel idea and received $10,000.

A total of 238 solvers signed up to solve this challenge and more than 100 solvers submitted solutions. Of those solutions submitted, 67 were deemed viable and were judged. Reclamation collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Molloy & Associates on this prize competition. To learn more about this prize competition please visit https://www.usbr.gov/research/challenges/mussels.html.

The results of this prize competition will support a broader effort by the federal government, as well as work by the Western Governors’ Association, western states, and tribes to protect western ecosystems, water infrastructure and hydroelectric facilities from invasive mussels. To learn more, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/mussels.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a method of genome editing that exploits a natural DNA-snipping enzyme in bacteria, called Cas9 (CRISPR-associated protein 9) to target and edit particular genes. CRISPR stands for Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, which are segments of DNA of a particular structure found widely in bacteria and archaea (prokaryotes). In the wild, the CRISPR-Cas9 system is part of the prokaryotic immune system, which can snip out of the genome DNA acquired from foreign sources such as phages (bacterial viruses). The same molecular machinery is now being used to enable genetic material to be cut from and pasted into the genomes of other organisms, including eukaryotes such as humans. It might offer a tool for curing genetically based diseases. Graphic via Cambridge University

A WISE Approach to Water Reuse: Q&A with Lisa Darling — @WaterEdCo

WISE Project map via Denver Water

Click here to go to Water Education Colorado (Rachel Champion) and read the whole interview. Here’s an excerpt:

Lisa Darling, Water Education Colorado’s trusted board president, has years of experience working with water reuse—we sat down with her to learn more. Lisa works as executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA), an organization that formed in 2004 when rapidly-growing south metro communities reliant on declining non-renewable groundwater realized they had to shift their water portfolios if they were to be sustainable. Now SMWSA relies on the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency Partnership (WISE) between Denver Water, Aurora Water, and 13 SMWSA members, reusing water from Aurora’s Prairie Waters Project—which Lisa worked on for Aurora before moving to SMWSA in 2017. An excerpt of the interview is available in the fall 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine, but you can follow along with the full interview here!

Who Needs Halloween? #ClimateChange will bring plenty of tricks and very few treats — Kate Marvel

Yes, there is still lots of ice in Antarctica, but it’s melting faster than ever. bberwyn photo.

From Scientific American (Kate Marvel):

In 2018, the idea that we need a special holiday to be scared feels a little strange. Zombies, vampires, and werewolves don’t seem so frightening when the real world provides us with Vladimir Putin, white supremacists, and greenhouse gas emissions. And trust me, as a climate scientist, I’m frightened every day. Watching our best projections of future climate is like watching a horror movie you can’t walk out of. And the worst part is the willful ignorance of the characters. I mean, who could be so stupid as to walk straight into a house they know is haunted?

We know a little bit about the horrors that await us in the climate haunted house—we did, after all, build it ourselves. Walk in to the entrance. Above the door is that most frightening of instruments—but not just any thermometer. This one is wrapped with a wet washcloth. It’s measuring something called the “wet bulb” temperature: a combination of heat and humidity—a quantity that’s predicted to rise dramatically as the climate changes. When the wet bulb temperature gets too high, it restricts the human body’s ability to cool itself off by sweating. When it exceeds about 80°F, people working outside run the risk of dangerous overheating. When it’s higher than 95°, you—even if you are healthy, lying down, and naked in the shade (and why would you not be?)—will be dead in six hours.

The hallway teems with rats, some the size of human infants. Climate change, it has been pointed out by skeptics, will be good for some species. And this turns out to be true, just not for humans. The shorter winters mean longer breeding seasons for urban rats, and they’re manifestly enjoying themselves. In these increasingly ideal breeding conditions, two rats can, within three years, turn in to almost half a billion.

The hallway leads back to the kitchen. It’s not well-stocked. Climate change has disrupted the food system. Earlier springs mean blooming fruits are more vulnerable to the occasional frost. Summers are longer, hotter, and drier, causing more crop failure. Heavier downpours carry agricultural runoff to already polluted lakes and rivers. But the most horrifying thing here is the refrigerator. Heat stress and drought associated with climate change have reduced global yields of barley and pushed up prices. There is no beer.

Off the hallway is the living room, where the TV blares news of war, conflict, and massive refugee movements. It’s made worse by the rise of demagogues who exploit even small-scale adversity by blaming large groups of other people. Why did we think “adaptation” to climate change would mean “carefully considering the facts and making sober, scientifically—informed decisions”? Based on historical precedent, that was always a long shot.

Walk through to the bedroom, where you’ll find the greatest horror of all. On the bed lies a person who, at first, looks healthy and serene. But she stares at the ceiling apathetically and does nothing. After walking through the haunted house, she’s too terrified to do anything. She’s never called her representative or senators. She’s never marched or petitioned or organized in her community. She didn’t even vote in the last election. And then you realize: the bedroom is an optical illusion, a hall of mirrors. The person in the bed is you.

We don’t have to live in a horror movie. In fact, if we focus only on scary things, we miss the true meaning of Halloween, which is to force small children into humiliating costumes for our amusement. My own toddler insists that he wants to be “a squid that helps people,” which mystifies his parents and reveals a poor understanding of cephalopod biology. But that kind little squid, and his pirate and dragon and pumpkin and monkey friends, are going to grow up to live in the house we build for them. I think we should at least try to chase the demons out first.

Last Ditch Standing: A tale of water inequality in the West — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

My parents have a small garlic farm in Western Colorado in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. They bought the place just over a decade ago, along with a couple of shares of water from the ditch which runs through their property. It’s a nice little plot of rural Colorado with good dirt and nice views, but it wasn’t until this terribly dry summer that they realized how valuable the land is. The Farmers Ditch, diverted from the North Fork near Paonia, has some of the most senior rights in the valley. They are water-rich in an arid world.

Since white settlement began here back in the late 1800s, the communities of the North Fork have revolved around coal and agriculture. Three underground coal mines churned away for decades, their bounty loaded upon mile-long trains headed for power plants in the Midwest and beyond. Paonia and the surrounding mesas have long been renowned for fruit, vegetables and, for a time, marijuana.

After surging to a peak just over a decade ago, coal began its hasty, nationwide decline, and now only one of three mines in the North Fork is still operating. Meanwhile, small-scale agriculture has taken over as one of the main economic pillars of this idyllic valley: Cherries, peaches, hops and hemp. Agricultural interests also are a strong political force rising up in resistance to proposed oil and gas drilling because of its detrimental effect on the water, which is becoming more and more precious in a warming world.

Thanks to the dramatically sere appearance of the natural landscape, the North Fork Valley provides a stark visual reminder of the importance of large-scale irrigation in these parts. A ditch along a hillside becomes a sharp divide between the dry, sparse, dusty dobie-land above the ditch; and green, grassy, cottonwood- and cattail-strewn land below it. This is true even where no active irrigation is taking place; the ditches are generally so leaky that they create artificial wetlands in areas that are distant from fields or crops or lawns.

Most of the irrigation water comes from the North Fork, which begins at the confluence of Muddy Creek and Anthracite Creek. Paonia Reservoir sits just above the confluence, on Muddy Creek. Typically the reservoir fills up during the spring and early summer, during which the natural flow in Anthracite Creek is adequate to fill all of the downstream ditches. When Anthracite starts to wane, water is released from the reservoir to keep the ditches flowing, usually into August and sometimes even until late October. In late June or early July the river’s total flow reaches equilibrium with the volume diverted from it, causing the river through Paonia to dry to a tiny, warm trickle that is good for sustaining only crawdads and mosquito larvae.

Even more shocking than the annual desiccation of the riverbed is the way in which so many water rights holders continue to pull their maximum share from the ditch, even if it’s not needed, even if they have no crops or even lawn to irrigate. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. Meanwhile, only a handful of the small-scale farmers have bothered to install more efficient irrigating systems, and most of the ditches continue to leak like sieves. That may be fine in a time of abundance, but these are times of increasing scarcity.

Paonia Reservoir — which gets its water from aptly named Muddy Creek — is filling up with mud. When constructed in 1962, the reservoir had 21,000 acre feet of capacity; today only 14,000 acre feet of capacity remain. So the amount of water available to irrigators is diminishing, even during wet years. But this year was one of the driest on record, which prompted downstream, senior water rights holders to put a “call” on the river in mid-June, at least a month earlier than usual, forcing junior, upstream holders to stop diverting water. By the time August rolled around, all but a few ditches in the North Fork had been shut down or had their flows drastically curtailed. Farmers Ditch, meanwhile, kept running right up to the brim.

The farmers of the North Fork Valley make up a fairly tight-knit community. They share seedlings and knowledge, hay balers and tillers, trade garlic for meat. So one would expect them to respond to a water crisis in much the same way, with the haves on Farmers Ditch sharing their bounty with the have-nots whose ditches ran dry. At the very least, you’d expect the haves to cut down on their own water use, even if just out of respect for their less fortunate neighbors.

But that’s not how it works in the arcane world of Western water. This summer most of the folks on Farmers Ditch carried on like they would any other year, using up their entire share of water and letting whatever they didn’t use run off across the mesa tops to evaporate and seep into the earth while their dry-ditch neighbors looked on helplessly. I watched one landowner wastefully dump a steady stream of irrigation water on his dusty horse pasture, turning it into a nasty mud bog where only a few thistles grew, while a mile away crops wilted. Wealth-inequality may be the scourge of our nation, but it’s water inequality that will increasingly plague the arid West.

The ostentatiously water wealthy are not entirely to blame. I’m confident that most of them would have been happy share their bounty if they could. But there’s no simple mechanism for this kind of cooperation. My parents can’t just turn a valve and send their water across the valley to their fellow farmer. The system wasn’t designed that way. It is the system that needs changing.

“The solution is, in a sense, straightforward,” writes John Fleck in his book Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West. “Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.”

Fleck’s referring to the macro of the Colorado River Basin here, but it also applies to the micro of irrigation districts everywhere. New rules, new systems, new ways of operating are needed that would incentivize efficiency and that would allow the Farmers Ditches of the world to share with the others in the community who aren’t so fortunate.

When it comes to water, though, we Westerners tend to get entrenched in the use-it-or-lose-it culture, which is anathema to cooperation and to efficiency. Still, this is not unsurmountable. When pushed up against the wall, Westerners have become more limber in their approach to water. Take Las Vegas, which has managed to cut per capita water use enough so that it’s been able to grow its population without robbing Great Basin farmers of their groundwater — at least so far.

And then there’s another, smaller instance of cooperation that bears mentioning. After the Sunnyside Mine upstream from Silverton, Colorado, shut down in 1991, the owners put a boxcar-sized plug, or bulkhead, into the mine’s main tunnel to keep the 1,600 gallons-per-minute of acid mine drainage from going into the Animas River watershed.

Not long afterward, the region suffered through what at the time seemed like a horrible drought, prompting a downstream ditch company to make a call on the Animas River.

That’s when Silverton discovered that the founding fathers had failed to file for water rights back in the early days of the town, leaving the town with some of the most junior rights on the entire river. They faced the very real prospect of having to shut down their municipal water intakes. Instead, the Sunnyside Mine stepped up and opened the valve on the giant plug, releasing enough water (and treating it) to satisfy the downstream call, and buying Silverton time during which it could seek out a long-term fix. (Then the mine shut the valve down again and water backed up in the mine to disastrous effect, but then, that’s another story.)

It’s this sort of out-of-the-box, pragmatic, cooperative thinking that the West is known for, and that has helped many a community transition successfully away from extraction-based economies. Now the warming, drying region is faced with a much bigger, tougher transition, with even higher stakes.

Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

Western Slope wants limits on water sent to #LakePowell in response to #drought — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A big beach during sunset in Cataract Canyon, above Lake Powell, on Oct. 1, 2018. Low flows in the Green and Colorado rivers have left Lake Powell less than half full and left big beaches along the rivers above the falling reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Western Slope water managers have doubled down on their position that they will oppose federal legislation creating a new regulated pool of water to boost the falling level of Lake Powell unless Colorado adopts a policy that the pool should be filled only on a voluntary basis.

At a well-attended water meeting last week, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that without a new state policy putting limits on how water can be stored in the big reservoir, “You will find that our district, the Southwest District and hopefully others will be, frankly, opposing the federal legislation.”

Mueller said his district and the Southwestern Water Conservancy District “have to have those guidelines” in order to protect agriculture on the Western Slope, a stance first expressed by both districts in September.

In response to the Western Slope’s concerns, a policy on how to fill a new “demand management storage” pool in Lake Powell is being drafted by the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for review by the agency’s directors Nov. 15.

“I can’t say with certainty, but I believe that policy will be established and will allay the concerns that we’ve heard,” Steve Anderson, a CWCB board member representing the Gunnison River Basin, said Tuesday at the meeting.

But there may be still be a gap between the protections the Western Slope wants and the Front Range’s stance, which is that it may be necessary to fill the proposed pool of water in Lake Powell through mandatory cutbacks in water use if voluntary efforts are not enough.

Water managers from Southern California to Wyoming are watching the ongoing debate because if Colorado can’t reach a consensus, an ongoing effort to establish a “drought contingency planning” program could falter.

Draft “DCP” agreements are now under review in seven states. They would change the way water is stored in Lake Mead, which primarily affects the lower Colorado River Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

In the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the DCP agreements would set up a process to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, if necessary.

The agreements also would create a pool of water in Lake Powell that would be shielded from current regulations that balance water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Regional water officials are working hard to gain widespread consensus by Dec. 14 for the DCP agreements in both the upper and lower basins, and given how slow water policy usually moves, it’s a tight timeline.

The necessary federal legislation to implement the program may be introduced during the coming lame-duck session in Congress, and any significant opposition to the legislation, such as that from the Colorado River district, could derail the effort.

And the differing views between Western Slope and Front Range water managers now appear to be the largest obstacle to gaining consensus in the four upper-basin states.

“I’m not aware of any other issue that has risen to the top like this,” said Amy Haas, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which is coordinating the upper basin’s drought contingency efforts. “I know that some discussions have been difficult in other states, but not to this degree.”

Officials on both the Western Slope and the Front Range do agree on many aspects of demand management storage in Lake Powell, which is designed to keep Glen Canyon Dam both producing hydropower and releasing enough water to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

They agree that such a program should include equitable reductions in the use of water from both sides of the Continental Divide.

And they agree that the effort should start with a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” approach, with the goal of incentivizing irrigators to fallow fields and send the conserved water downriver to Lake Powell.

But where they differ is the potential use of mandatory reductions in water use if voluntary measures are not enough to keep Glen Canyon Dam operating as usual.

In a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River and the Southwestern districts said the state must declare that “Colorado’s contributions to the demand management program will be generated exclusively through voluntary, temporary and compensated contributions of water.”

The key word there is “exclusively.”

The two districts also said they were concerned “that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted.”

Meanwhile, the Front Range Water Council, which includes the biggest water providers from Pueblo to Fort Collins, told the CWCB in a Sept. 13 letter that if there is not enough water generated through a voluntary program, the state “may wish to pursue alternative measures to ensure continued compliance with the Colorado River Compact.”

To Western Slope officials, “alternative measures” sounds like mandatory “anticipatory curtailment,” where water rights are cut back by the state to avoid a compact call.

State officials continue to stress that the state is not developing a mandatory curtailment program and is only focusing on a voluntary program.

However, the Colorado River District’s Mueller has been telling Western Slope water managers that the Front Range, which uses large amounts of water from the Colorado River, is eager for mandatory curtailment.

“There are major water users, major interests in this state on the Front Range, who are talking about that,” Mueller said Tuesday at the water meeting, which was attended by about 200 Western Slope water managers and users. “Because they either don’t think we are going to get the money for a voluntary program or maybe they see advantages to be had in mandatory curtailment.”

But Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the president of the Front Range Water Council, on Friday rejected Mueller’s assertions that it was pushing for mandatory curtailment.

“That’s not our preference, that’s not our hope, that’s not what we want to see — it’s just reality,” Lochhead said. “It may happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But it’s not something we’re rolling out, and the first priority should be voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

But he also said, “At the end of the day, if we’re in trouble from a compact standpoint, the state is going to have to exercise its authority.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Oct. 29. The Summit Daily News published the story in its print edition on Oct. 30.

#ColoradoRiver: The precarious plan for the #LakePowellPipeline — @HighCountryNews #COriver #aridification

Proposed Lake Powell pipeline. Map via the City of St. George.

From The High Country News (Emma Penrod):

Nearly a decade ago, Gabriel Lozada, a man with a wiry frame and waves of steel-gray hair who looks exactly like the mathematician he is, set out to answer what he thought was a relatively simple question: Could Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline — a plan to ferry Colorado River water to southern Utah — live up to the state’s rosy forecasts of growth and prosperity? Or was it more likely to tank the economy of a small but lively retirement community in the southwestern Utah desert?

Lozada, a theoretical mathematician at the University of Utah and a pro bono consultant for the Utah Rivers Council, suspected that government officials were overstating the pipeline’s benefits and ignoring its potential costs. So he began building a mathematical model of its possible impacts on southern Utah residents. While proponents argued that the project was necessary to stave off water shortages, Lozada warned that it might trigger an economic crisis.

But how could he be sure? Even today, more than a decade after it was first proposed, no one seems to know what the pipeline — with 140 miles of buried pipe and five pumping stations between Lake Powell and the town of St. George — is going to cost, much less how it will impact local water rates. Communications from within Utah’s state water agencies, obtained during this investigation, suggest officials purposefully withheld those details from the very taxpayers who might ultimately be saddled with the bill. Federal officials also seem wary of the state’s scanty financial information. In September, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declined to take action that would have exempted the state from more rigorous financial scrutiny. Despite this, the state Division of Water Resources “remains fully committed to this project,” according to Division Director Eric Millis.

As pressure mounts over the project’s fate, Lozada has been consumed with trying to discern how the pipeline will impact the residents of Washington County, the intended recipients of its water. And in the process, he’s made enemies. His research has become mired in a back-and-forth with Jeremy Aguero, a rival economist in Las Vegas whom the Washington County Water Conservancy District hired to conduct its own cost analysis. His conclusions are very different from Lozada’s. Where Lozada predicted a 500 percent increase in water rates — amounting to about $370 more per person, per year — Aguero originally promised Washington County could fund the pipeline for just $25 per person per year, an increase of less than 27 percent.

Aguero pointed out errors in his rival’s math, which Lozada corrected; he now believes the water districts’ plan to triple its water rates — potentially increasing residents’ costs by more than $300 per year — may, just barely, pay for the pipeline. But he doesn’t believe residents will pay such prices without buying dramatically less water, negating the need for the pipeline.

And he has grown increasingly frustrated by the county’s unwillingness to reconcile the two models and publish a single accurate number. And though Lozada has released his work, Washington County has not released the details behind Aguero’s analysis. “Who knows what else is wrong with the model?” says Lozada. “They’re not transparent about it, so I can’t see what’s wrong.”

Aguero has also been reluctant to stand by his conclusions. In June 2016, when a state records committee forced him to release a PowerPoint presentation created for the water district regarding his $25-a-year model, he disowned it. The $25 figure, he said, was merely a placeholder in an interactive exercise intended to spur discussion about how the public would prefer to pay for the pipeline. The real model, he claimed, did not exist in a format that could be released. He later told local journalists the average residents’ water bill would increase by just $52. Aguero did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

It’s not just the cost that is obscure; it’s also unclear who will pay the bills. Historically, water projects of this scale were constructed with federal funds. But those dollars have largely dried up, and residents of northern Utah — who continue to outnumber their southern counterparts by a wide margin — oppose a state subsidy for the project. That would leave still-small Washington County to pay for a billion-dollar-plus pipeline essentially by itself.

County officials believe the expense will be worth the risks once they realize their vision for a more vibrant community with jobs and a quality of life that will keep their children nearby. But it’s those very descendants who could end up saddled with billions of dollars in debt should the increased cost of water cause local growth to stall.

Washington County is currently one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. In recent decades, it’s been discovered by Californians looking for a warm climate with a lower cost of living, and northern Utahns seeking affordable land with milder winters. The quiet desert town of St. George is now a bustling retirement community with a thriving tourism industry. That rapid growth has become Utah’s justification for building a pipeline to provide water, despite a nationwide drop in water use in the last decade, suggesting that a growing population won’t necessarily need more, and Lozada’s anticipation that local residents won’t pay.

Before the population explosion, state leaders envisioned the Lake Powell Pipeline as a way to use Utah’s share of the Colorado River to spur economic development in Washington County. Abundant water, they hoped, would attract exciting new economic opportunities that would inspire local youth to build lifelong careers at home in the rural West. But by now, it’s clear that the pipeline is no longer needed to achieve that vision; Washington County began transforming in the 1980s and ’90s.

Amid the growth of the budding county, the Utah Legislature agreed in 2006 to build the Lake Powell Pipeline — with certain conditions. According to the terms of the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, the state will pay for the construction of the pipeline, but only if the recipients of the water, Kane and Washington counties’ water conservancy districts, enter into a contract to purchase it. According to the state statute, the water will be sold at a price that enables the state to reclaim the costs associated with designing and building the pipeline, with interest, over 50 years.

According to David Clark, the now-retired state legislator who originally introduced the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, the law was designed to emulate the way the Bureau of Reclamation financed large water projects in the past. But since federal dollars are harder to come by today, the act assumed that the state would play the role of the federal government. The act does not, however, Clark said, authorize a state subsidy for the project.
Outside analyses, though, have since raised doubts about Washington County’s ability — or plans — to pay for the pipeline in full.

Tied to promises that new residents will foot the bill, local leaders have hatched a complicated scheme to raise funds for it. But their plan relies heavily on the county’s continued growth, presenting a nebulous moving target as the pipeline’s costs become increasingly unclear.

Water districts have the authority to levy property taxes, and so tax increases to help pay for the pipeline are already planned in Washington County, according to Ron Thompson, a proud descendant of pioneer settlers and the general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District. The cost of fees associated with new development in the county will roughly double, and the price of purchasing water from the district — a water wholesaler that sells to the surrounding cities — is expected to triple.

Many of these changes have already begun to take effect. Water rates alone will increase enough to generate about $2 billion in revenues, Thompson said, and that by itself could cover the projected $1.1 billion-to-$1.8 billion cost of construction.

Critics like Lozada say that Thompson’s figures don’t take into account numerous complicating factors, such as the fact that the water district is also on the hook for the state’s development and permitting expenses, which have already cost Utah tens of millions of dollars and will likely cost even more, given a recent federal ruling that will subject the pipeline to additional government scrutiny. Nor does it take into account interest rates, or the possibility that local growth and demand for water could slow if costs soar.

If growth slows, the water district’s projected revenues will fall, potentially trapping the county in a negative feedback loop that could make it impossible for it to repay the debt. Then Utah’s taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

But local officials dismiss fears that growth will stall. The price of the average house in Washington County has increased 12 percent in the last year, Thompson said, and people are still moving in. If the average home price has gone up $25,000 in one year, he doesn’t see how adding $8,000 in development fees over the next decade is likely to slow growth.

Jon Pike, the mayor of St. George, is similarly unconcerned that the pipeline would cause growth to stagnate. He believes that, even if water rates increase, current residents will be willing to pay. “The measure I look to is, who are the people electing? And they are electing people who are pro-Lake Powell Pipeline,” Pike said. “Anti-pipeline people are not getting elected.”

Critics of the project fear the public is making decisions based on false promises. As steep as the current price increases may seem, even Lozada’s figures assume the state’s estimated construction cost of just under $1.4 billion is accurate. But email communications from within the Utah Division of Water Resources, obtained by High Country News through state records requests, indicate that it is not.

MWH Global, an international water and natural resources consulting firm that has since merged with Stantec, originally put the cost of the pipeline at around $1.3 billion in 2009. But in late 2015, the consulting firm drew up a new estimate that concluded construction costs had escalated by several hundred million dollars during the intervening years.

Though the original 2015 estimates have not been released, a revised version of the December 2015 report predicted that the project would cost about $1.5 billion, and possibly as much as $1.9 billion. That potential escalation has not been communicated to the public. Instead, public officials often insist that there are currently no cost estimates available for the project.

Email exchanges between the project leadership team at the Division of Water Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District show that local water managers repeatedly pressured the state and its contractors at Stantec to revise their projections of how much each element of the pipeline would cost. One extended argument, for example, involved the cost of bringing in soil to bury the 140 miles of pipe — Thompson, the leader of the Water Conservancy District, was certain he could find cheaper dirt than what Stantec anticipated paying.

After several months of discussion, the contractors begrudgingly agreed to reduce the estimate to a range of $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion — despite the fact that all parties also quietly added some $140 million in extra features to the project during the same timeframe, according to a memo circulated in early 2016.

Officials with the Washington County Water Conservancy District were particularly persistent in their requests that the state and its contractors reduce the amount they planned to hold in reserve in case of unforeseen costs, which initially accounted for nearly 4 percent of the overall estimate. Despite the lead contractors’ repeated warnings that the large contingency fund would be necessary “based on our experience performing other large water resource programs throughout the U.S.,” state officials ultimately sided with the water district and reduced the contingency fund by 75 percent.

Slashing that fund decreased the reported price of the pipeline by tens of millions of dollars and reduced the overall amount Washington County has to prove it can raise. But it also increases the chance that the actual cost will exceed what the county is able to pay — potentially leaving taxpayers statewide on the hook should some aspect of the pipeline prove more expensive than planned.

Emails exchanged between state engineers and Stantec staff also show the parties used “significant input and feedback” from the water district to create a carefully crafted picture of Washington County’s costs should the pipeline not be built. Initial drafts suggested constructing the pipeline could cost more than the conservation and “mitigation” efforts that would be required in its absence. Subsequent analyses greatly increased the cost of “mitigation” in the event the pipeline was not built.

But as internal emails show, even state employees questioned the accuracy of some components of the new revisions, such as the anticipated cost of using special soil-coating compounds as ground cover if the county didn’t have enough water to support growing thirsty lawns.
The capriciousness of the pipeline project has begun to alienate some of its most important allies. Thompson, who sent numerous emails to the state and its contractors demanding revisions to the cost estimates, said he felt the state was biased toward overstating the cost of the project. But he still believes that, with careful management, the Washington County Water Conservancy District can complete the pipeline under budget. Mayor Pike, on the other hand, said he has long suspected that it will cost more than state and county officials have let on. Even if the state’s figures are in the ballpark, Pike said, inflation and other delay-related costs continue to pile up.

Washington County officials originally hoped to break ground in 2020, but that timeline was removed from the water district’s website after an abrupt series of decisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission introduced months of unanticipated delays — and increased the rigor of the analysis the project will undergo at the federal level. Construction costs have also dramatically increased in the state of Utah in recent years — the cost of hiring laborers alone jumped 6 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to state data.

Washington County may be able to raise $2 billion dollars by tripling its water rates. But officials’ ongoing game of cost-estimate hot-potato suggests that even $2 billion may not be enough.

Because of so many lingering questions about Washington County’s ability — or intent — to repay the state for the pipeline’s ultimate cost, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert created an Executive Water Finance Board in 2017 to vet the project. The board’s work has only just begun, and its members are reluctant to weigh in on the pipeline’s feasibility. But their current projections suggest that the state’s entire tax base may be insufficient to fund it — risking an $80 million annual shortfall that could spur significant tax increases throughout Utah.

Despite the funding quagmire, proponents of the Lake Powell Pipeline continue to believe that it’s worth the risk. For all their expressed desire to secure economic prosperity for their children, there is reason to believe it’s not just the fate of Washington County that is at stake. Unlike the states in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Upper Basin states like Utah aren’t entitled to a finite amount of water under the Colorado River Compact. Rather, Utah is entitled to a proportion of the water that is left over after the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — take their share. But given the ongoing aridification of the Colorado River region, it’s not actually clear how much entitlement Utah has left.

“The amount of water available in the state of Utah is not known,” said Jack Schmidt, who holds the Janet Quinney Lawson endowed chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “And when reference is made to unused allocated water, one cannot assume that water is actually available to be developed.”

The possibility that water deliveries from the Lake Powell Pipeline could be cut off or curtailed by shortages on the Colorado presents yet another issue inside the financing conundrum: Washington County is expected to repay the state of Utah by purchasing pipeline water. If there is no water available for sale, Utah does not get paid.

But that reality hasn’t tempered the desire of Washington County officials to see their little community grow. Development benefits everyone, said Pike, the mayor of St. George. Pike hopes his community will attract a tech boom of its own with the promise of plentiful water. “Some people say they want the good old days,” Thompson agreed, “but that’s not what I want.”

But as state and local officials wrangle over the specifics of who might eventually foot the bill, there’s still a chance that Washington County residents could avoid paying it. Under Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, it’s the state — not the county — that will end up doing so, should Washington County’s efforts to pay fall short.

Is that unfair? Washington County Water District Manager Thompson doesn’t think so. Growth in Salt Lake City was once made possible by large, expensive water projects funded by a nationwide tax base. If Utah writ large has to raise taxes to pay off multimillion-dollar budget deficits, then so be it, he says. In his mind, it’s Washington County’s turn.

Emma Penrod (@EmaPen) is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health, with an emphasis on water. Email HCN at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

First efforts to revive populations of #Colorado’s state fish seemed fruitless. Then the #greenback cutthroat trout surprised everyone — again — @ColoradoSun

Greenback cutthroat trout photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

From The Colorado Sun (Jesse Paul):

The species — previously considered extinct — is thriving in Herman Gulch, off Interstate 70, after initial stocking attempts now appear to be successful

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists first tried to reproduce and reintroduce the greenback cutthroat trout into a stream, not far from Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, in the summer of 2016.

When they returned the next summer, the results were grim. Researchers examining the ribbon of stream that winds down Herman Gulch found that none of the thousands of inch-long swimmers that were hauled up a steep trail by volunteers and placed in the waterway had survived.

But as history has shown, there’s never really an end to the story of the ancient, threatened greenback cutthroat trout.

A few months later, in September 2017, there was a good sign.

“Lo and behold, we found some of the fish that we stocked as young-of-year in September 2016,” said Boyd Wright, a native aquatic species biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northeast region. “We thought that it was a failed plant. We are seeing those fish, albeit in a very low percentage of what we stocked out.”

The news for greenbacks got better from there.

The creek has been stocked five times since 2016. Last year, CPW put in older fish, some of which were about 5 inches long.

“The real success story, I think, right now is with those fish we stocked last year as 1-year-olds,” Wright said. “We’ve seen on average about 35 percent survival on those. We’re really happy with that level of success. A year later, they’ve lived through a winter, they’ve lived through a runoff cycle. That’s significant.”

State wildlife officials chose the Herman Gulch stream, near a popular hiking trail, because a barrier where it spills into Clear Creek near I-70 prevents other types of trout — browns, brooks and rainbows — from sullying the genetics of the pure greenback population.

Before stocking the greenbacks, biologists remove other trout species from the creek.

CPW says the retention rate of the greenbacks in Herman Gulch is an encouraging sign for projects that the agency is working on to reintroduce the fish in other watersheds…

Greenbacks are being stocked in Dry Gulch, near Herman Gulch, and there are two more streams where CPW is building barriers — at a cost of about $250,000 — to stock the trout and keep other species out.

“Everything we know about this system tells us that it should support a population of native trout,” Wright said of Herman Gulch. “For us, we expect to have reproductively mature fish by 2019 and will best be able to detect if those fish reproduce successfully by 2020. If we see 1-year-old fish in the system in 2020, we know we had good, successful reproduction in 2019. I think 2020 is going to be a big year for this project.”

The hope is then to replicate that success elsewhere…

That passion for the greenbacks and for fishing was on display on a recent weekday morning. Several dozen volunteers from Trout Unlimited gathered with CPW officials waiting for a truck filled with thousands of tiny greenback cutthroats to arrive from Mount Shavano Fish Hatchery near Salida.

They huddled together in the chilly wind since the truck was more than an hour late. But they didn’t care about the delay.

“It’s pretty amazing to see not only the fish take hold, but the people it brings out in support of this,” Omasta said of the different people involved in hauling the trout up to Herman Gulch. “Just this past summer we had families, we had kids from middle school and a high school, walking alongside old fishermen.”

The volunteers fashioned an informal line as they waited for sloshing, 2-foot-tall, clear-plastic bags, each filled with 500 tiny greenbacks. They stuffed the bags into backpacks and headed uphill to free them into Herman Gulch.

As volunteer Brett Piché strolled up to the stream, several 5- or 6-inch greenbacks darted back and forth in the water. Piché placed his bag of fish in the water and, after a few minutes, carefully released its contents into the crystal-clear stream.

Immediately, a larger greenback swam up and gobbled a few of its smaller brethren and darted away.

Herman Gulch via TheDenverChannel.com

@USBR begins Mancos Water Conservancy District repayment contract negotations for Jackson Gulch Canal System rehabilitation, November 5, 2018

Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marc Miller, Justyn Liff):

The Bureau of Reclamation is initiating negotiations on an amended repayment contract with the Mancos Water Conservancy District for the rehabilitation of the Jackson Gulch Canal System and other infrastructure. The first negotiation meeting is scheduled for Monday, November 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. at the Mancos Community Center, 117 North Main Street, Mancos, Colorado.

The amended contract to be negotiated will provide updated terms, and further flexibility to fund rehabilitation work for the project. All negotiations are open to the public as observers, and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty-minute comment period following the negotiation session.

The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting, or can be obtained on our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/index.html, under Current Focus or by contacting Marc Miller at 185 Suttle Street, Suite 2, Durango, Colorado, 81301, 970 385-6541 or mbmiller@usbr.gov.

#Drought news: West Slope reservoirs update

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

This low water year in western Colorado, part of a longer-term drought dating back nearly 20 years, is exposing not just onetime valuables, but also the vulnerabilities of the region to negative consequences when the snow and rain refuse to fall.

Beaches closed at reservoirs, and boat ramps were left high and dry. So were some irrigators, particularly ones with junior water rights who in some cases got essentially no irrigation water this year.

The first-ever call went out on the Yampa River, resulting in curtailment of water use by some water rights holders.

The water level at Blue Mesa Reservoir is at just 30 percent of capacity. It’s at 81 feet below full pool elevation. Nicki Gibney, an aquatic biologist with the National Park Service, said that’s the second-lowest ever since the reservoir first filled. She’s been dealing with one outcome of the low water levels — an outbreak of unsafe levels of cyanotoxins created by algae in the Iola Basin section of the reservoir. While it can harm humans, it’s a particular threat to dogs because of their propensity to drink water from lakes.

And never mind dogs. Try being an endangered fish this year on the 15-mile stretch between the irrigation diversion points in the Palisade area and the confluence of the Gunnison River downstream. Flows dipped below 200 cubic feet per second over almost a two-week period starting in late September, dropping as low as 150 cfs or so at times. Those are the kinds of flows more typically found on tributaries of tributaries of the Colorado River, rather than on the river itself. Water so low can kill off some of the aquatic insects on which fish rely, warms up to temperatures that stress the fish, and runs clearer than when the river is at higher levels, making the fish easier pickings for predators such as great blue herons…

HISTORIC LOWS

Storage in the Colorado River system, as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation based on 10 reservoirs it operates, fell to 47 percent of capacity as of Oct. 1, from 55 percent last year. Oct. 1 is the annual start of another water year for the Colorado River system, as another snowpack season gets underway. In percentage terms, that’s the lowest storage level at the start of a water year since that system was fully built out and filled.

The Bureau of Reclamation says unregulated inflows to Lake Powell for the 2018 water year totaled 4.76 million acre-feet, or 44 percent of the 30-year average, making it the third-driest year on record. Unregulated inflows are calculated amounts designed to indicate what flows would be if not influenced by operations at upstream reservoirs.

The unregulated inflow into Lake Powell in September was a mere thousand acre-feet, the lowest on record. It’s so low that the Bureau of Reclamation rounds it off as being 0 percent of average. The second-lowest September unregulated inflows occurred in 2012 and totaled about 100,000 acre-feet.

The Bureau of Reclamation says unregulated inflows into Powell were above average just four out of the past 19 years. The reservoir’s storage is currently at 45 percent of capacity, and water officials in the Upper Colorado River Basin are hard at work pursuing drought contingency measures, potentially including measures to reduce demand, to keep Powell from falling too low. Should it empty too much further, that would threaten its ability to produce, and generate revenues from, hydropower, and to deliver water to downstream states to comply with a 1922 interstate compact.

FRAGILE SYSTEM

Hannah Holm, coordinator of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, said the message she’s been hearing over and over this year is that reservoir storage enables western Colorado to get through one bad drought year like this one, “but if we get another one it’s going to be a totally different story.”

“… A lot of the reservoirs we have are not really enough to help us weather two or three dry years. It just kind of brought home to me how fragile our whole system is, as far as our whole water management system.”

She said it’s pretty resilient on a year-to-year basis, but the question is how vulnerable it may be in the long term, particularly in light of forecasts suggesting a high likelihood of more and deeper droughts in the future, when higher temperatures are expected to exacerbate the problem.

Even this year, Holm said, it’s been “kind of eye-opening” to hear stories of irrigators basically getting no water in some areas.

“Never mind what their water rights are, there just wasn’t any water to take,” she said.

Alan Martellaro, division engineer for District 5, the Colorado River Basin district of the state Division of Water Resources, said if it wasn’t for upstream reservoir storage, things would have been “extremely bad” for water users on the mainstem of the river this year. But he said some water users on side tributaries where there wasn’t water storage experienced some pretty dire conditions.

Base flows in streams fell because there’s less groundwater to feed them. Low base flows also mean more pressure is placed on reservoirs to make up for that water.

“We’ve pretty much exhausted our storage supplies from Green Mountain and Ruedi (reservoirs) just to get through this summer. It’s going to be helpful to have just an average snowpack this winter to replenish this storage,” he said.

Martellaro said a number of streams had calls on them the entire irrigation season. On those streams there was never enough water to satisfy all water rights on any given day, and some owners of junior water rights never got water…

‘UNPRECEDENTED’ FOR YAMPA

“It was just an unprecedented year,” said Doug Monger, a Routt County rancher who also is a county commissioner and serves on the Colorado River District board.

After a winter with lower-than-average snow, the typical summer rains failed to come, and hot, blistering winds dried everything out, he said. The result was that first-ever call on the Yampa, which Monger said up to now has been regarded as a “free river.” He said the call served as a wake-up call. Many irrigators had never previously bothered to put in measuring and shutoff devices required for water rights to be administered based on the seniority of those rights. Monger said irrigators, himself included, realized they need to up their game in ditch operations and measuring and accounting for water use…

Klaus Wolter, a research scientist in Boulder with NOAA, said by email that he’s still trying to determine what the developing El Niño means for Colorado. He cautioned that El Niño winters are often dry in midwinter over the mountains, so the state can’t count on the favorable moist weather pattern that began this month to continue.

Still, he has seen wet falls often presage decent winter snowpacks, and said if the moister-than-normal conditions this fall keep going into December, “it will tilt the odds toward a good snowpack/runoff year.”

“Current indications are encouraging for above-normal moisture in November, so I am guardedly optimistic overall,” he said.

Reservoir operators, irrigators and municipal water suppliers will be watching snowpack levels closely this winter. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as of the end of September, overall reservoir storage in Colorado was at 79 percent of average. That compares to 117 percent of average a year earlier. Colorado’s above-average storage levels over the last year ended up proving crucial in providing backup water for snow and rain that failed to fall.

While storage levels were 90 percent or more of average across the rest of the state as of Oct. 1, they were about half of average in the Gunnison River Basin and in far southwest Colorado.

Martellaro said an average snowpack would typically be enough to fill reservoirs such as Ruedi and Green Mountain in the Colorado River basin in Colorado, along with reservoirs on Grand Mesa.

It can take multiple years for depleted, larger reservoirs such as Blue Mesa to refill. For now, Gibney is keeping a close eye on the cyanotoxin problem resulting from the algae there. Gibney said blue-green algae has been documented at the reservoir since the 1970s. It produces cyanotoxins under certain conditions that aligned this year. Just what conditions are required is still a matter of research, she said…

Algae problems also have been an issue in recent years on the White River in Rio Blanco County. Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras said his agency has been looking into what is leading to algae growth there, and other factors may be behind it other than drought.

‘DISMAL’ YEAR FOR IMPERILED FISH

Meanwhile, Tom Chart, program director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, is reflecting back on what he said has been a “dismal” year in terms of flows in that crucial river stretch below Palisade. The program seeks to protect the razorback sucker, humpback chub, bonytail and Colorado pikeminnow.

The program tries to keep average monthly flows on the 15-mile stretch above 810 cfs, more than four times the flows experienced at times this year. For a time the stretch benefited from extra water releases by the Colorado River District as it lowered its Wolford Mountain Reservoir to do dam work. After that, Chart said, the 15-mile stretch’s flows were basically reliant on releases from upstream reservoirs of dedicated “fish pool” water totaling about 200 cfs, but some of that water is lost in transit as it soaks into the riverbed upstream or evaporates.

Contributions of water by other entities, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy, helped supplement flows later in the season. Chart said if it wasn’t for a combination of initiatives, the stretch of river likely would go dry in a year like this one.

#Arizona cancels water meeting amid difficult negotiations on #ColoradoRiver deal #COriver #aridification #drought

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

From Arizona Central (Ian James):

The talks are proving difficult, though, with points of disagreement over how the cuts should be spread around and how much water should be used to soften the blow for farmers in central Arizona who have the lowest priority in the state’s pecking order of water users.

The state’s top water managers canceled a Thursday meeting of a group they call the Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, saying in a statement that they wanted to “give time for additional discussions and analysis related to the four essential elements involved in this process.”

Those elements include how much “mitigation water” would be lined up for growers in central Arizona through 2026, as well as a water conservation plan and other elements of the proposed deal.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said in a joint statement that progress is being made through discussions between groups of stakeholders, “which we believe will lead to Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan.”

“The goal remains to complete the plan by the end of November,” the agencies said.

The biweekly meetings began in July and two more are scheduled on Nov. 8 and Nov. 29, by which time Arizona’s water managers hope to finish an agreement.

Much remains to be worked out by then.

“We have every possibility that they will come up with an agreement,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “But we’ve always known that there was a likelihood, some possibility, that they wouldn’t be able to get to agreement. If it were easy, we would have already had an agreement.”

Tribal leader calls proposal inequitable

The state’s water managers offered a proposal earlier this month, laying out a schedule of mitigation water deliveries that would go to farmers in central Arizona who would otherwise lose much or all of their water.

One potential approach for freeing up water to make an agreement work would be paying some high-priority entities, such as a tribe or agricultural water district, to leave some farmland fallow and send that water elsewhere.

But the proposal quickly ran into opposition, with the proposed numbers generating debate.

“When people are being asked to give up water or do without water, it’s a really big deal,” Porter said. “This is really about what are contract holders willing to give up?”

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community rejected the initial proposal in a letter to the state’s top water managers.

“Tribes are deeply concerned about the prospect of drought being declared on the Colorado River as soon 2020, both on their respective tribal nations and economies, but also on the greater Arizona economy,” Lewis said in the Oct. 19 letter to Thomas Buschatzke of the state Department of Water Resources and Ted Cooke of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

When your neighborhood goes boom — @HighCountryNews

Karley Robinson with newborn son Quill on their back proch in Windsor, CO. A multi-well oil and gas site sits less than 100 feet from their back door, with holding tanks and combustor towers that burn off excess gases. Quill was born 4 weeks premature. Pictured here at 6 weeks old.

From High Country News (Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz). [You may need to refresh the page for the embedded soundcloud audio to show up.]:

PART ONE: CHAOS ON THE VERGE OF CATASTROPHE

A few days before Christmas last year, a dispatcher for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office was working through a routine set of calls, ranging from missing cats and parking ticket warrants to domestic disturbances, drunk drivers and a possibly armed meth-head menacing a neighbor. Then, at 8:48 p.m., came a jarring alert: The Windsor Severance Fire Rescue frequency reported a unit “responding to an explosion at an oil well site.”

It was 32 degrees and clear on Dec. 22, 2017. A thin, fresh blanket of snow covered Windsor, Colorado, an increasingly suburban community about 60 miles north of Denver. The dispatcher’s tones scrambled rural firefighters more accustomed to grass fires and car accidents than an explosion at a hydrocarbon factory. Stress levels skyrocketed as the first responders described the scene over their radios.

“We’ve got oil burning from an oil fracking truck,” one said, reading the operator’s name from a sign: “Extraction Oil. Extraction.”

“I can see flames about 30 feet in the air, and smoke.”

More than 350 homes were within a mile of the site, and 911 calls from residents flooded the switchboard. The Greeley Police Department emergency call center summed up a report: “Heard big boom. Shook the house. Looks like an oil rig is on fire. Can see flames.”

The first engine laid down two hoses and called for another 2,000-gallon water tender, but the incident commander realized that with so much flammable material, they’d need specialized foam concentrate designed to smother hydrocarbon fires. “Water’s not going to put the fire out,” he said over the radio. “Our best bet is to cool everything around it until we can get foam.”

Karley Robinson, a 25-year-old medical assistant, was playing Dungeons & Dragons at home with her husband and brother when they were shaken back to reality by a huge “boom.” They stepped outside to see the night illuminated, flames shooting skyward, flashing lights rushing to the scene. Robinson figured it was coming from the massive oil and gas site less than a mile away. But then she remembered the well-pad complex, sitting just 130 feet from her kitchen window.

Robinson’s 5-year-old daughter padded up to her parents. “Mommy, is everything going to be OK?” she asked.

Robinson reassured her daughter, “I think everything’s going to be OK.” Still, she called Extraction Oil and Gas, the operator of the exploded well, and left a message: “Hey, I’m right down the street from where one of your rigs blew up.” Even though a different operator owned her backyard wells, she hoped for “some assurance that my house wouldn’t explode.”

It’s a situation that could unfold in any of the dozens of Western communities that have been stampeded by drilling rigs during the latest oil and gas boom: An inferno fueled by toxic, flammable hydrocarbons in backyards, near schools and baseball fields and suburban dwellings. The potential for catastrophe has grown especially high in neighborhoods like Robinson’s. Nearly half of Colorado’s 55,000 active wells are in Weld County, where Robinson lives and thousands more are on their way. Locals call it “Welled County.”

Robinson’s D&D campaign sat abandoned on the kitchen table while she comforted her daughter. But the phone never rang.

When Windsor Severance Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Todd Vess heard the blast, he thought something had fallen in his basement; that’s how close it sounded. The department’s alert system flashed “oil and gas explosion” on his phone, but at first Vess wasn’t too concerned. Dispatchers received plenty of false alarms regarding drilling sites, especially concerning the fiery nighttime flaring of excess fuel.

Another battalion chief called and told Vess this was the real deal: Flames were consuming an oil and gas site, and a trauma unit was on its way. Vess calmly “prepared for the worst” as more than a dozen neighboring fire districts and regional airport rescue squads converged on the Stromberger well pad with fire engines, water tenders, and trucks carrying firefighting foam. Responders reported flames at least 50 feet high. One firefighter called in for directions and received some deadpan guidance over his radio:

“You’re not gonna miss this, Joe.”

On the well pad site, every oil worker’s nightmare flashed to life with the first terrifying explosion. The crew had been conducting “flowback operations,” probably the most dangerous stage of oil and gas development. After drilling, operators “complete” the well via hydraulic fracturing, or pumping a mixture of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure to release hydrocarbons from tight rock formations more than a mile underground. Afterwards, the fracking fluids, along with other toxic chemicals, dissolved solids and heavy metals flow back to the surface at high pressure. The liquids are sorted, stored and eventually moved off-site. The Stromberger facility, which sprawled across an area larger than eight football fields, contained 19 flowing wells, along with an assortment of other industrial apparatus, much of it filled or flowing with a salty, flammable chemical and hydrocarbon stew.

“Do an emergency shut in. SHUT IN NOW!” supervisors yelled, desperate to ensure that no more oil and gas leaked out and caused an even bigger blast.

Workers darted around frantically, shutting off valves, with some of them wielding fire extinguishers. Ernie Bouldin, 57, a supervisor for one of Extraction’s contractors, Colter Energy, who was on-site that night, said that the workers’ quick action helped avoid the worst-case scenario. If they hadn’t shut everything down, Bouldin later said, “It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”

Pressurized pipelines popped beneath their feet and heat singed their coveralls on the freezing night. As workers hustled to shut valves before heading to a designated “muster” area, two of them saw a figure silhouetted against the flames. Houston “Ty” Pirtle staggered aimlessly, arms hanging awkwardly by his sides. They rushed over and heard him wheezing through a damaged airway. That’s when the chilling reality sunk in: The explosion had touched one of their own.

Denver media and official reports portrayed the events of that winter night as a quickly contained fire that posed little danger to the public or the environment. But first responder dispatch tapes not made public until now, along with newly released documents and interviews with workers, experts and first responders, paint a darker picture, one of chaos on the verge of catastrophe.

The Windsor explosion highlights what many neighbors wonder: Who is looking out for their safety? Neither the state agency overseeing the oil and gas industry nor the health and environment department conducted an independent investigation of the disaster or its environmental impact. The only fine levied was a small one against an on-site contractor for workplace safety violations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, issued a “Notice of Alleged Violation” against Extraction in August, which has the “potential to result in a penalty.” But no penalty has been announced. And even as Extraction Oil and Gas acknowledges that it still doesn’t know exactly what happened in Windsor, the company continues to receive approval to drill more wells in even more densely populated towns.

Nevertheless, fallout from the incident continues to ripple across the state, particularly along the Front Range, where drilling rigs are popping up in backyards while brand-new housing developments sprout next to old oil and gas fields. It’s become a rallying point in an intense campaign around a November ballot measure that would require oil and gas wells to be located farther away from homes and schools.

The incident also reminded Robinson, the young mother, that she may have traded her family’s safety for the low cost of their home. Robinson just had her second child in August, a boy born four weeks premature, and now it’s always on her mind.

“I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette with my family,” she said.

In his eight years as fire chief for the city of Windsor, Herb Brady had watched the steady encroachment of oil and gas wells on new subdivisions, and vice-versa. He had become accustomed to gratefully receiving the “baubles and trinkets” the energy companies offered his rural fire department, including expensive gas monitors and financial donations. He thought “fracktivists” bent on shutting down the industry were hysterical troublemakers.

The Stromberger explosion reshaped his worldview.

Now living in Houston, the 55-year-old said he sees how industry money manipulates public opinion and local politicians, projecting a false aura of competence and oversight over “petrochemical plants in people’s backyards.” The industry wields influence throughout Colorado, blocking even modest legislative reforms, pressuring regulators and using the courts to get huge tax breaks and intimidate opponents. Brady now recognizes what he calls his “detrimental reliance” on state and federal agencies that oversee the industry. “I always thought that the COGCC and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) were on top of things, and all I had to do was do my job.”

Now, he said, “The public has a right to be concerned. It is a dangerous situation.”

For Brady, seeing that firefighters responding that night lacked the necessary protective gear and training underscored just how unprepared rural departments are for an event of this magnitude. “It was just a roll of the dice, the fact that nobody died. We were lucky.”

Right before the blast, the Stromberger crew of 13 “flow-back operations assistants” and three supervisors ticked through their routine rounds, inspecting the wells and aboveground storage tanks, 23 separators, seven combustors and miles of piping around the site. Bouldin, one of the site supervisors on duty, said the workers were “like family” to each other, even as they bitched about the cold and the long hours.

Bouldin, who is on medical retirement unrelated to his oil and gas work, spoke on the record about the explosion; another worker spoke with a promise of anonymity because he still works in the industry. Others relayed through intermediaries that they were told not to speak to journalists, or that they “don’t want to relive it again.” Pirtle and his family did not respond to multiple interview requests, although they did share information publicly as he was convalescing.

Houston Pirtle was known for being a hard worker, the kind you’d want on your team. With less than a year of experience, the 6-foot-tall, 190-pound man was still a “green hat” on the Stromberger site. According to a social media post from his mother, Pirtle had been through some rough patches in his personal life recently, but the Colter job provided stability and good pay (employees typically start at $16 an hour, plus a per diem). The weeks-long blocks of work, sometimes 14 hours a day, were tough, but things were looking up for the 26-year-old, his wife, Rachel Darrah, and their two toddlers.

That night, Pirtle was working in a shack and making hourly rounds to monitor the levels, pressure and temperature readings for the valves, flow-back storage tanks and separators. The generator that powered his shack’s light and a nearby portable heater had been acting up lately. A sensor is supposed to shut the generator down if it detects unsafe gas levels, but it kept blinking off, seemingly at random. Repairmen had repeatedly tried troubleshooting it, but hadn’t replaced it.

The troublesome generator, which was not “spark-proof,” was placed about 10 feet from the trailer, much closer than the 100 feet recommended to reduce fire risk under best industry practices by the American Petroleum Institute. Everyone knew that was a bad idea, but it’s one of the many small concessions that complex sites make to keep running. Elsewhere, a flameless heater, which also was not “spark-proof,” had been moved to within about 10 feet of the flow-back storage tanks to keep a set of pipes warm on frigid winter nights. Wires and pipes weren’t arranged as neatly as usual, creating a high-octane obstacle course. No Extraction employees were on-site, but company spokesman Brian Cain said “an experienced contractor” served as a company representative.

Extraction’s accident report filed with the COGCC does not identify a root cause for the explosion, but the investigations support one theory. According to an OSHA investigative report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a third-party forensic team that Extraction hired after the fact found leaks in piping designed to contain hydrocarbon gas emitted from the flow-back storage tanks. Leaked gas may have pooled in a corner surrounded on two sides by 32-foot-high, flesh-colored sound barriers, trapped close to the ground by an inversion of cold air.

The balky generator went out, possibly because the gas sensor triggered a shutdown. Pirtle’s trailer went dark, so he bundled up to go check on it.

Once there’s a pool of gas, any spark can light it. When Pirtle tried to restart the generator, something — the engine kicking on, two pipes scraping together, a bit of static from a fleece jacket — provided that spark. The tank went up in a fireball in an earth-shaking blast, sending the workers scrambling to protect the site. Smaller explosions set off other fires around the site, threatening to spread into a chain reaction of flame.

Even though the workers trained daily for such an emergency, Bouldin said the true test for any crew only comes in the face of real fire. “None of them ran,” he said proudly. Bouldin, three hours into his 13-hour shift, was 150 feet from the exploded tank. Alert workers darted around to manually close ball and wheel valves to stop the hydrocarbons flowing to tanks and through the miles of pipes around the site. “If you don’t shut those off right away,” Bouldin said, “a lot of people are going to die.”

The blast badly burned Pirtle’s hands and face and seared his windpipe. Two workers carried him away and applied cream from an on-site first aid kit to his second- and third-degree burns, while supervisors kept a running headcount. Bouldin sped his pickup truck through “ungodly” heat and helped hoist Pirtle into the cab. An ambulance met them at the edge of the site to take the injured man to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.

The rest of the crew was taken to a nearby hotel, where many of the men stayed during their 28-day-on, 14-day-off shifts, for a standard emergency debriefing, then returned to the well pad to meet their worried families.

Bouldin acknowledged that there were “things (Extraction) should have fixed,” but said that ultimately they were small issues. “We wouldn’t have done it if we thought it would have put anyone in danger,” he said.

Jason Brooks, general manager for U.S. operations for Colter Energy, which is headquartered in Canada, said the company would “not reply to any inquiries surrounding the fire.” Extraction spokesman Cain said in an email that the company “considers safety to be our utmost priority and our record of operations in this basin reflects that commitment.”

Even though he’s not in the field anymore, Bouldin still wakes up at night thinking about what happened to his younger co-worker. “He got burned pretty danged good,” Bouldin said. “We were pretty tore up about that.”

Bouldin’s voice faltered when asked if his mind had changed about how the site was managed. “Right now,” he said, “I’d tell you this was unacceptable.”

The Windsor explosion and its aftermath reflect an unnerving aspect of life under the latest — and largest — oil and gas boom to hit the West, whether in Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico, Utah or here on Colorado’s Front Range. Over the past two decades, new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques have allowed the industry to access oil and gas locked up in deep shale formations and to cluster multiple wells on single pads. They’ve concentrated these mini-industrial sites closer to communities, taking advantage of laws and regulations put into place during earlier demographic and technological eras. As Colorado’s population has increased from 4.3 million to more than 5.6 million since 1999, the number of active oil and gas wells over the same time period has increased from less than 22,000 to almost 55,000 today — a 150 percent increase.

These twin growth spurts mean that large drilling operations and vast residential developments are spreading like competing invasive species, often right on top of each other. Subdivisions near the exploded Stromberger pad sport bucolic names like “Peakview Estates,” “Greenspire” and the ironic “Windmill Homes.” Meanwhile, residents deal with constant thumping sounds, foul smells, industrial lights and toxic emissions from fracking operations a Frisbee-toss away from backyard play areas.

Fearful and frustrated citizens in towns from Lafayette to Loveland and beyond have educated themselves about arcane subsurface mineral rights law while fighting for greater local control. Some cities passed fracking bans, which were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Two months before the Windsor explosion, nine local governments signed a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, stating: “There is a large and growing consensus that this intensive industrial activity does not belong in residential neighborhoods, near schools or hospitals, or in close proximity to drinking water supplies.”

Even some industry officials have publicly stated that safety issues are getting short shrift. Citing former executives saying that top management had de-emphasized safety considerations, Anadarko shareholders filed a class action suit late last year, claiming the company’s Colorado operations were a “ticking time bomb.”

When Battalion Chief Vess arrived on the scene, small explosions rocked the chilly night as pockets of pressure blew and ignited. The firefighters approached the fire as they would any other, sending firefighters and engines as close to the burning equipment as seemed prudent. The incident commander determined that Engine 1 would be their “line in the sand” at what seemed like a safe distance from the facility.

With flammable fluid still leaking and the danger of re-ignition high, firefighters couldn’t extinguish the blaze with water. So they started calling in specialized firefighting foam from regional responders, companies and local airports.

Extraction employees arrived on-site, urging firefighters to protect the well heads and warning them about new hazards. Firefighters relayed the information to Command. At one point, a “little house” near Engine 7 was Extraction’s “primary concern” because it contained valves that checked the back pressure. “If that goes, all the back pressure’s going to go.”

New events raised more alarms. “The separator is something that’s at high risk,” said a voice on the radio. “We need to get some water on that quickly.”

Smaller explosions continued to go off. A voice broke in over the firefighter frequency, relaying a message from Extraction’s liaison: “We’ve got a serious hazard behind the green heaters on the east side where the real heavy black smoke is coming up. He described those as ‘bombs.’ If they go, then we’re all getting hurt.”

Another explosion, and the tone of the communications took on more urgency. The incident commander took over. “We need to pull our people back. Everybody pull back. We’re going emergency traffic … All units pull back to a safe location at least to the command post. All units begin clearing out. You guys get your people and your engine out of there, now.”

One of the firefighters wanted to make sure that he heard correctly, because there was no way to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment without sending personnel closer to the burning site. “If you want apparatus, we’re going to have to make another trip back in.”

“That’s negative. Go ahead and just get your people out.”

Two firefighters started to go back in anyway, trying to retrieve equipment. The incident commander ordered them to stop.

“All units, from command,” he said. “We’re abandoning the site. We’re letting it go.”

PART TWO: THE AFTERMATH

Water tenders and trucks kept arriving, bearing 265-gallon “totes” of foam in 4-by-4-foot tanks and 55-gallon drums, requiring a ratio of 97 parts water to three parts foam. Initially, water supply was tight. It took five minutes to drive each way to the closest hydrant and five minutes to fill each tender, plus waiting time as drivers lined up for their turns. Firefighters called around for a second water source, and at one point sought a highway flare to thaw a frozen connection to a second hydrant. Extraction, which has contracts for emergency water, trucked in more in 18-wheelers.

Uncertain about how soon the fires would be contained and lacking specialized expertise even in well-heavy Colorado, Extraction called in Houston-based Wild Well Control, a company that’s responded to oil disasters from Kuwait to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A crew mobilized in Texas but didn’t arrive on-site until daybreak.

All night long, firefighters kept a steady stream of foam and water aimed at the facility. Eventually, the abandoned equipment was no longer in danger. Firefighters worked throughout the next morning, monitoring flames that occasionally licked up and popped like bottle rockets.

Firefighters ended up using more than 3,500 gallons of foam. Retired Fire Chief Brady said that figure doesn’t include an undisclosed amount that was rounded up from private sources, including other energy companies like Noble Energy. Windsor Severance Fire only had two totes. “We used pretty much all the foam in northern Colorado,” Brady recalled, leaving many first responders without any on hand after the fire. Replacement foam had to be trucked in from Texas.

The specification sheets for the foams state that they contain anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of some form of ethylene glycol, a major component of antifreeze, plus an undisclosed percentage of “proprietary” materials that contain chemicals known as PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” they are long-lasting in groundwater and of concern to public health officials and oil and gas industry operators alike. They have been notably linked to contamination near Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base and other military sites.

During the night, a mixture of water and firefighting foam began flowing towards the site perimeter. Firefighters brought earth-moving equipment in to contain the runoff. Brady said that a “caravan” of big trucks brought in by Extraction were loaded with the runoff and carted away. Extraction refuses to say where the material was disposed of, and the state does not require such a disclosure. Extraction’s Cain said in an email: “The material was taken to a licensed commercial disposal facility. That’s all I have to share.”

Ultimately, Extraction Oil and Gas “remediated” the Stromberger site by carting away 406 tons of dirt over a week in April, according to manifests filed with the COGCC. They deposited that dirt in the North Weld County landfill, a clay-lined facility that does not accept hazardous waste. The soil was classified as “Non-regulated solid: E&P Contaminated Soil” on a “non-hazardous manifest.”

That nonspecific description of “Exploration and Production” wastes exemplifies the opaque regulations governing the industry. In 2002, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency reclassified fluids emitted from oil and gas drilling operations as non-toxic waste that did not need to be reported. These wastes include produced water containing multiple contaminants, as well as drilling fluids, stimulation fluids, liquid hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon-bearing soil.

The so-called shale revolution took off, and reclassification soon led to exemption. In 2005, then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s “Energy Task Force” led to legislation that exempted hydraulic fracturing fluids from every major federal environmental law.

Doc Nyiro, environmental protection manager for Waste Management, which operates the North Weld landfill, wrote that firefighting foam-contaminated soil is acceptable at the site. Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the COGCC said there is no requirement to report the use of firefighting foam, nor to test for related chemicals when companies dump potentially contaminated soil in landfills.

As one consequence, Health Department spokesman Mark Salley wrote in an email, “The extent of PFAS contamination in Colorado’s groundwater is unknown.”

Colorado’s most infamous gas explosion occurred on April 17, 2017, when a leak in an underground pipeline exploded a suburban home in Firestone, less than 25 miles north of the Denver city limits. The blast killed two men, Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law, Joe Irwin, and severely burned Martinez’s wife, Erin.

It was followed by a flurry of “never-again” statements. Though Colorado has not seen another household explosion, natural gas infrastructure continues to pose dangers around the country. In January this year, five workers were killed in an oil well explosion in Oklahoma. In September, explosions linked to natural gas pipelines killed one person and destroyed several homes in three Boston neighborhoods, just a week after a western Pennsylvania town was evacuated for its own pipeline fire.

The Windsor blast is a reminder that the hazard remains high, stoking the fears of communities potentially in harm’s way. According to a 2017 study by the Colorado School of Public Health that analyzed state accident reports, there were 116 reported fires or explosions at Colorado oil and gas sites between 2006 and 2015 — an average of almost one per month. But those numbers only reflect incidents covered by the state’s reporting requirements at the time, which, as the authors noted, were less stringent than those in Utah, a state hardly renowned for its strict environmental rules.

Until recently, Colorado only required companies to report explosions and fires if they resulted in an injury to the general public that required medical treatment, or if there was “significant damage” to a well or equipment, a judgment left to the operator’s discretion.

The authors say the number of actual fires and explosions in Colorado likely would be almost two and half times higher — more than one incident every two weeks — if the state had stronger reporting requirements. They noted: “The increased size and complexity of operations at multi-well pads will likely continue in the future, particularly in urban and suburban areas, increasing the potential risk for those living and working in close proximity to these sites.”

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees COGCC, said, “Any spill or fire is one too many, and we continue to work hard to reduce those events.” Hartman added that with more than 55,000 active wells in the state, 116 accidents is “equal to one event every 1,573,276 well/days,” or days a well is operated. “The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”

Still, operators have reported more than 40 fires and explosions at oil and gas facilities since the end of 2015, when the Colorado School of Public Health team stopped their data analysis — more than one a month. The incident descriptions are often vague and are buried in the COGCC’s difficult-to-navigate website. Several incidents caused fatalities, including an oil tank battery explosion in Mead a month after Firestone, which killed one worker and injured three.

State oil and gas inspector Mike Leonard, who was on the scene in Windsor that night, says people outside the industry tend to conflate the causes of these oil and gas accidents. “What happened at Windsor is not what happened at Firestone,” Leonard said. “It’s not what happened at Mead.”

Those distinctions may indeed be lost on Colorado communities where wellpads and infrastructure loom over houses and schools. Whatever the cause of individual explosions and fires, keeping neighborhoods safe poses a daunting challenge for under-resourced first responders. “Nobody is really talking much about the low-probability, high-consequence events,” said Don Whittemore, a former assistant fire chief for Rocky Mountain Fire and an internationally recognized expert on disaster response. “Your average Joe Firefighter isn’t prepared for these kinds of events.”

In February 2018, partly in response to the Firestone tragedy, COGCC tightened its reporting requirements to include “any accidental fire, explosion, or detonation, or uncontrolled release of pressure.” A bill to make those agency rules permanent passed the Democrat-controlled state House last session. But industry officials opposed the bill, and the Republican-controlled state Senate killed it.

Concerns about oil and gas development go well beyond explosions. The same gases that fueled the Windsor explosion can also harm human health and the climate.

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet more quickly than carbon dioxide, can leak during the extraction and transportation of oil and gas. It is often accompanied by volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a major contributor to the ozone problem in Colorado, where some areas have violated federal ozone health standards for years. Studies from around the country have linked proximity to those emissions with multiple health and environmental impacts, including increased cancer risks and adverse birth outcomes. According to COGCC, there were 17,254 detected leaks in 2017 from compressors, pressure relief devices, pump seals and other sources. (Most were repaired.)

In Colorado, those oil-and-gas-related VOCs aren’t being adequately measured. The Windsor explosion brought that into sharp relief. Detlev Helmig, a scientist at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research, ran an air-monitoring station in Boulder tracking levels of known carcinogens like benzene and toluene. A Windsor resident emailed Helmig after the blast, wondering if his monitors had picked up anything. If enough gas had leaked to cause a well-pad fireball, they wondered, couldn’t there be toxic levels of benzene in the air?

Helmig was stunned to see sharp spikes in ethane and benzene levels that night, the highest levels measured before or since. “With very, very high certainty,” Helmig said, there was a huge release of gases in the hours before the explosion. Given the wind patterns at the time, the gases most likely came from the direction of Windsor, but because Helmig’s monitor is about 40 miles away from the explosion site — and there’s not a similar monitor closer — the exact source couldn’t be pinpointed.

In August, Boulder County’s funding for Helmig’s monitoring station ran out.

In this case, Helmig believes, what people don’t know can hurt them.

“There’s an expectation that changes in regulations will cause improvements to air quality. But the only way to know is to measure,” he said. The state health and environment agency, Helmig says, “doesn’t seem to have the resources or the interest.”

PART THREE: THE FIRESTONE NEXT TIME

Industry advocates acknowledge the dangers of oil and gas work, but prefer to highlight new technology and training that makes it safer. On Aug. 22, at the 30th annual Colorado Oil and Gas Association Energy Summit in Denver, attendees — some sporting “Frack Yeah” ribbons on their badges — talked up their role as “good neighbors.”

COGA distributed pamphlets detailing more than $9 million in donations from members last year. Executives encouraged giving employees paid time off to volunteer, or paying to maintain schools and libraries.

Yet critics continue to push back. The upcoming 2018 election will allow voters to weigh in on one of the most influential policy measures in years. Proposition 112 would require wells to be at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, parks and other buildings, a distance that industry says would severely curtail new production in the state, but advocates say will make neighborhoods safer.

Also on the November ballot is an industry-backed measure, Amendment 74. It would regard any government law or regulation that could have an impact on private property values — including basic zoning codes and subsurface mineral rights — as a “taking” that would require governments to reimburse property owners. The environmental group Conservation Colorado wrote that Amendment 74 would “paralyze state and local governments in their capacity to protect the health and safety of citizens.” The Colorado Municipal League, hardly a firebrand on these issues, circulated a memo exhorting its members to defeat 74 because of its “far reaching and potentially disastrous consequences.”

The oil and gas industry has launched an all-out blitz, fighting the setback initiative and promoting the takings amendment, at times using dubious methods — harassing signature gatherers and spending millions of dollars on public relations campaigns. Chip Rimer, senior vice president of global operations for Noble Energy, told the August COGA conference that the 2018 midterms would be “one of the most influential elections for our industry.” He cited a Common Sense Policy Roundtable report predicting 147,000 lost jobs over 12 years if the setback initiative passed, telling attendees to imagine a town the size of Boulder going dark. “If that doesn’t get your blood boiling,” he urged the crowd, “you’ve got to get your passion up.”

Protect Colorado, a political action committee opposing any ballot initiatives that would limit fossil fuel development, had pulled in more than $30 million in 2018 as of early October, and had spent more than $20 million that year in part on radio, television and digital advertising. Extraction has contributed nearly $3 million this year to Protect Colorado, while Noble Energy and Anadarko have collectively contributed more than $10 million.

At the mid-August COGA conference, Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates — Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton — both stated their opposition to Proposition 112. Even though Polis famously advocated for stricter controls on fracking in the past, including a 2,000-foot setback, he said the latest measure was “simply the wrong solution for Colorado.”

Often lost in the debate are regulations, or the lack thereof, restricting how close new homes can be built to existing oil and gas infrastructure. In Firestone, the exploded house was built just 170 feet from an unregulated and abandoned gas line owned by Anadarko Petroleum, 20 feet further than the required setback in the town.

In Windsor, new homes are supposed to be 350 feet from oil wells. But Karley Robinson’s home ended up less than the distance of an Olympic swimming pool lap from tank batteries and combustors, due to a setback loophole used by developers and energy companies. “Once the plat is approved, the property owner has the right to build,” said Town of Windsor Planning Department Director Scott Ballstadt. “The setbacks don’t apply to building permits.” The wells, in turn, were approved before the houses were all built, meaning that the oil and gas commission’s setback rules apparently didn’t apply. Even if they did apply, the town setbacks are measured from the wellheads, not other oil and gas infrastructure that can leak or explode. This kind of play by housing developers, many of whom lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies, occurs throughout the state.

Randy Ahrens, the mayor of Broomfield, a booming burg halfway between Denver and Boulder, couldn’t get the Windsor blast off his mind. Ahrens had spent six years working in oil and gas, but was skeptical of the industry’s impact on his community, which some residents were starting to call “Doomfield” because of the influx of well permit applications. Extraction had been seeking approval to drill 84 new wells in his town; how could he assure residents that what happened in Windsor wouldn’t happen there?

He still hasn’t gotten a good answer. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission never conducted an independent investigation, instead relying on an accident report from Extraction that failed to identify a “root cause” for the incident. Instead, the company laid out possibilities for the source of the leak (possibly an open valve or a depressurized tank) and the source of the spark, including a vague mention of “unknown worker activities.” The state accepted the filings.

Asked if Extraction’s self-investigation into the Windsor explosion was sufficient, the COGCC’s Leonard said, “Everything they put in that report lines up with what I saw that night.” He explained that the state primarily wants to ensure that another accident like that won’t happen again; inspectors now know to look for where heaters and generators are sited.

The state agency’s authority is limited, so its investigation and any discipline had to focus on Extraction, not on contractors like Colter that may share blame. Industry insiders say that essentially creates a system of plausible deniability, allowing companies to hire contractors for the most dangerous work. “That’s part of the game that gets played,” says Bouldin, the former Colter supervisor. “They keep their fingers out of it so they can blame somebody else.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment says that the cleanup from any oil and gas fire, explosion or spill is not their responsibility.

None of this offered much comfort to Mayor Ahrens, who emailed Extraction’s inconclusive report to staff and voters alike, vowing to push for more information. “At the end of the day,” he said in an interview, “I don’t think they (Extraction) really know what happened.” At one testy city council meeting, Extraction executives walked out when asked about their safety record.

In response to Broomfield’s concerns, Eric Jacobsen, Extraction’s senior vice president of operations, wrote a letter stating that the company had identified probable gas and ignition sources that might have contributed to the Windsor explosion. “Because it is difficult to pinpoint the exact contributing gas or ignition source as the definitive cause of the incident, we have implemented corrective actions that address all of these possible sources in our operations going forward.” Among those: enhanced supervision of flowback operations, better on-site gas monitoring and new contractor training.

Despite Ahrens’ ongoing concerns, state law makes it difficult for Broomfield to say no to new drilling. After Extraction executives originally told Ahrens that Broomfield could receive a million dollars a year in new revenue, Ahrens says he told them, “I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”

As of mid-October, the COGCC had approved 71 new wells in Broomfield.

With his family by his side, Houston Pirtle was stabilized at the hospital. Speaking to CBS Denver on Jan. 3, His wife said that Pirtle’s first words when they removed the tubes from his throat were to ask how she was doing. “That’s just who he is,” Darrah said. “(He) wanted to make sure me and the kids were okay.”

Pirtle’s family had to set up a GoFundMe campaign that raised $11,000 to help keep his wife and two infant children afloat as he recovered. Bouldin, the retired supervisor, splutters with contempt when asked about the way Pirtle was treated. “The big leaders of this chain are too cowardly to step up and take responsibility,” he said.

Pirtle’s family got through his initial convalescence with help from the funds they raised. Within months, Pirtle was back in the field, still physically and mentally scarred. A friend said Pirtle is “up and down.”

OSHA investigated the accident, but the agency’s legal mandate is narrowly focused on worker safety issues, not dangers to the public. It’s even more limited because there are no federal safety standards for oil and gas industry workers. Instead, OSHA relies on “best industry practices” collected by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade group.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean the best practices,” said Richard “Dean” Wingo, a former OSHA regional manager based in Dallas. “The best practices could be beyond what the industry recognizes, but OSHA is not going to hold them to that.”

Colter Energy, the contractor whose workers were on-site, was ultimately cited for a handful of workplace safety violations. OSHA levied a $7,068 fine, but that was negotiated down to just $3,534 for two “serious” violations: keeping the generator and heater too close to a separator.

According to SEC filings, Extraction Oil and Gas listed $8.8 million in net income in the second quarter of 2018, selling 73,563 “barrels of oil equivalent” per day in crude oil and gas. The company’s top two executives earned more than $25 million each in 2016 after it went public. XOG’s stock value has since halved, but the state has approved applications from Extraction and its subsidiaries for nearly 400 wells since October 2017; the companies have nearly 700 more permits pending.

For its role as operator in the Windsor fire, Extraction escaped without a fine from the federal or state government. It did, however, reimburse 13 local government entities a total of $140,013.02 for more than 20 hours of firefighting and support.

The Stromberger well pad’s neighbors, still reeling from that night, realize that they have to live with the risks or pay a high price to move. Heidi Jette, a mother of five who lives within a mile of the blast, said it helped pierce the industry’s assurances that everything is safe. “When you realize everything that’s out there, it’s just scary,” said Jette. “There’s so much that gets brushed under the carpet. Everyone is kind of in denial.”

In the weeks following the fire, former Windsor Fire Chief Brady said his conscience bothered him. “I’m scared for the firefighters, and I’m scared for these communities,” he said. He began sharing his views, but said that nobody wanted to hear them. “Between the lack of information and the cover-up,” he told himself, “I’m done.”

He doesn’t know what will happen if things don’t change. However, he does know that he no longer wants to be responsible for Colorado’s neighborhood oil rush. “Is this situation really OK with the citizens?” he wondered.

“If it is, well, there you go.”

Daniel Glick is a co-founder of The Story Group. Previously, he worked for Newsweek for 13 years and has also written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine and more than a dozen other periodicals.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Science, HuffPost, 5280, Undark, National Journal, Ars Technica, Industry Dive and Greenwire. He was a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.

Glick, Plautz and photographer Ted Wood are members of The Story Group, an independent, multimedia journalism company based in Boulder. TSG produces print and video stories for publications and electronic media, focusing on environmental and resource issues in the West.

How air pollution is destroying our health — the World Health Organization @WHO

Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:

As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (e.g. stoves, lamps), the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year. The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.

Air pollution is hard to escape, no matter how rich an area you live in. It is all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

From The Guardian (Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor):

Simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more, but ‘a smog of complacency pervades the planet’, says Dr Tedros Adhanom

Air pollution is the “new tobacco”, the head of the World Health Organization has warned, saying the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more.

Over 90% of the world’s population suffers toxic air and research is increasingly revealing the profound impacts on the health of people, especially children.

“The world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”

@COParksWildlife: The 2017 Economic Contributions of Outdoor Recreation in #Colorado A regional and county-level analysis

Recreational vehicle: Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read the report. Here’s the executive summary:

This study, conducted by Southwick Associates for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, estimates the economic contributions of outdoor recreational activity in Colorado during 2017. The results are provided at the state-level as well as for 7 regions within the state.1 Focusing on the state-level results below, the total economic output associated with outdoor recreation amounts to $62.5 billion dollars, contributing $35.0 billion dollars to the Gross Domestic Product of the state. This economic activity supports over 511,000 jobs in the state, which represents 18.7% of the entire labor force in Colorado and produces $21.4 billion dollars in salaries and wages. In addition, this output contributes $9.4 billion dollars in local, state and federal tax revenue. Similar interpretations can be applied to the regional results. Outdoor recreation constitutes a substantial part of the Colorado economy.

Note: Part of the analysis for this study was based on work performed or supported by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA, 2017). This study uses a broader definition of outdoor recreation, and for this reason the results of these two studies should not be directly compared. Rather, these two studies should be used together to gain a better understanding of the economic contributions of outdoor recreation to the Colorado economy.

From The Denver Post (Judith Kohler):

Gov. John Hickelooper joined staffers from several different state and federal agencies, outdoor businesses and conservation groups along the South Platte River in Lower Downtown to unveil the latest survey of the state’s outdoor recreation economy. Hickenlooper noted the big increase in the overall economic contribution — to $62.5 billion from $34 billion in 2013.

“This puts it as one of the top economic drivers of our economy,” Hickenlooper said. “That’s a $35 billion contribution to our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s more than 10 percent.

“And this is the one that is really staggering. This is up about 60 percent from the last number I saw — 511,000 jobs. That is a monster of commitment to our economy,” Hickenlooper said.

Those jobs, up from roughly 313,000 about five years ago, include those directly supported by the industry and jobs indirectly associated with and benefiting from outdoor recreation.

The results are in a report conducted by Southwick Associates for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It estimates the contributions of outdoor recreational activity in Colorado in 2017. The last report by Southwick looked at activities during 2012 and 2013.

The economic figures in the new study differ from those in the Outdoor Industry Association’s numbers for Colorado. The trade association places Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy at $28 billion and the number of direct jobs at 229,000. The difference, said state officials, comes from the state report’s inclusion of more activities, like using urban hiking and biking trails and parks, and builds on previous surveys as part of Colorado’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.

The governor signed an executive order Friday creating the Interagency Trails and Recreation Council. It directs state agencies to continue collaborating to promote conservation and outdoor recreation and advance the Colorado the Beautiful initiative, whose goal is ensuring that every Coloradan lives within 10 minutes of a park, trail or green space.

PARCHED: #ClimateChange and growth are pushing #Colorado toward a water crisis — @COindependent #COWaterPlan

From The Colorado Independent (Susan Greene):

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water plan has been big on collaboration, but short on action. He’ll leave the toughest decisions to his successor.

Russian thistle in dry former Lake Powell along the Colorado River in Hite, October 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado had plenty of reasons to worry about water by the time it elected John Hickenlooper in 2010.

The state was in its 11th year of drought. The health of its rivers was waning. And early projections of a statewide shortfall had cities and suburbs starting to stress out.

More urgent concerns have surfaced over Hickenlooper’s two terms as governor.

The drought has now lasted 19 years. Low precipitation and hotter temperatures have cut river flows by nearly 20 percent, with no end in sight. And the Colorado River, the state’s main source of water, is over-tapped to the point of possible federal intervention.

Colorado’s population, in the meantime, has skyrocketed with help from Hickenlooper’s pro-growth agenda, while its main source of water funding has proven unreliable. Ranchers are auctioning their cattle early because vegetation is so dry. Trout this past summer were too hot and sluggish to put up a fair fight. And nearly all Coloradans could smell the smoky urgency as wildfires burned our parched forests.

The “dry heat” that used to seem like a plus in Colorado has started, increasingly, to seem like a minus.

Hickenlooper has touted his administration’s 567-page water manifesto as the answer to a looming shortfall in which the state’s water demands are expected to exceed its supply. “Colorado’s Water Plan shows us how we can move forward together to ensure we continue to enjoy sufficient supplies for our vibrant cities, productive farms and incomparable environment,” he said when releasing it in 2015.

“We are not at a crisis,” he told The Colorado Independent earlier this month. “I don’t think (Coloradans) should be hysterical, but I think it’s a necessary concern for everyone.”

Factors both in and out of Hickenlooper’s control, however, have cast doubts about Colorado’s ability to avert a water shortage. Though the governor with the glass-half-full outlook has raised awareness about the state’s water supply problems, he’ll leave office in January without a strategy on how, specifically, to solve them. A growing chorus of experts says his failure to put forth lasting solutions has left Colorado in hot water.

“We’re not goring oxes any more.”

Colorado’s governors typically have acted as referees rather than visionaries on water policy, if they’ve acted at all. Hickenlooper set out to make a difference in 2013 when he ordered the first statewide water plan to stave off what at that point was projected to be a shortfall in 2050.

By most accounts, he didn’t engage in the specifics. But he saw to it that planners invited input from farmers and ranchers, anglers, rafters and kayakers, environmentalists, and industrial users and municipal users, meaning those of us who hope to keep washing our dishes and showering. All told, his administration likes to note, some 30,000 Coloradans commented on the plan as it was being drafted.

It fell to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a division of the state Natural Resources Department, to write a plan that reflected the state’s diverse water interests and put them in the broader context of 19th century water laws and 20th century legal obligations to keep the Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Colorado rivers flowing to neighboring states.

Released in November 2015, the plan calls for gleaning 500,000 acre-feet of additional water a year – or enough to supply nearly a million people – to avoid the projected shortfall. It seeks to achieve 80 percent of that through conservation, 10 percent through storing more water in aquifers or reservoirs created by new dams, and 10 percent through temporary water transfers from agriculture.

An unusable dock at Green Mountain Reservoir, October 2018. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Environmentalists, though unhappy with the prospect of more dams, applauded the plan for acknowledging the effects climate change is having on water supplies. (Utah’s water plan avoids that subject altogether.) They, along with members of Colorado’s $28-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry, saw it as a victory that the plan seeks to keep as much water as possible flowing in rivers.

Farmers and ranchers, though fearful that those environmental goals might threaten their water rights, embraced the plan’s commitment to preserving agriculture at a time when massive swaths of farmland and the water rights tied to them are being sold off to cities. That practice, known as “buy and dry,” has, along with urban sprawl, caused Colorado to lose about 1 percent of its agricultural acreage a year since the turn of the century.

For the officials who run municipal water districts, the plan didn’t much affect their efforts to keep water flowing from the faucets, toilets and sprinkler systems of the 90 percent of Coloradans who live in cities and suburbs. Though most of those districts were already managing their limited supplies, they embraced the spirit of statewide collaboration with agriculture and environmentalists that Hickenlooper says is needed to work out solutions.

That spirit, that ethos that “we’re joined at the hip,” as the governor puts it, has earned his water plan props in a state that is said to have coined the term “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” Those who’ve worked around water policy long enough to remember the bitter, two decade-long fight over the proposed Two Forks Dam see the kinder, gentler approach as the only path forward.

“Colorado’s water world badly needed a new construct,” said Melinda Kassen, a Colorado-based water policy expert with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “What the water plan does is make a shift in who needs to be at the table, and insist that there be a table instead of just litigation in the first place.

“We’re not about goring oxes any more.”

“Because this administration opened lines of communication about water,” added CWCB Director Becky Mitchell, “we’re in a better place than before Gov. Hickenlooper took office.”

Where the plan falls short

For all its big ideas about collaboration, the state water plan lacks specifics.

Its broad-brush, aspirational goals have left water users in all sectors wondering about details. Some are asking how, for example, the state will be able to preserve its farming and ranching heritage while also quenching the needs of population growth, which long has been slurping up agricultural water supplies. Others wonder how, especially in a prolonged drought, the state will manage to store more water in aquifers and reservoirs while simultaneously keeping more water flowing in rivers.

“There are a lot of ideas in that plan that seem, to me at least, mutually exclusive,” said Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. “If you ask me, it’s all feel-good words with nothing concrete coming out of it. I mean, they’re not even working with current numbers.”

Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

By numbers, Schmidt means data projecting water demands and supplies. CWCB’s last comprehensive set of projections, known as the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), was released in 2011 but was based on 2008 data that didn’t factor in climate change. Those were the numbers upon which the projected 2050 water shortfall was based.

James Eklund, who ran the Colorado Water Conservation Board while the plan was being written, told The Colorado Independent in 2015 that a new SWSI would be ready in 2016. Months later, he pushed that date to early 2017. That deadline came and went as Eklund quit for a job as a private water lawyer. Mitchell, the state water planner who replaced him at CWCB’s helm, said the agency had been having problems coming up with roughly $2 million to pay for the study, which is now expected for completion in July 2019, three years behind schedule.

“We were overly optimistic about when we could get it out,” said Greg Johnson, the state’s chief of water supply planning.

Some experts question the wisdom of having released a water plan based on such outdated numbers. Tying the plan to more accurate supply and demand projections, they say, would have offered a clearer picture of Colorado’s water realities and conveyed to policy makers a more pressing sense of urgency.

That urgency stems not just from the fact that 19 years of drought have dropped significantly less snow in Colorado’s high country, but also from research showing hotter temperatures are causing what water there is to evaporate or be absorbed by plants at alarming rates. A study by Colorado State University shows that from 2000 to 2014, flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below those recorded the previous 93 years. Similar shifts could be seen this past summer when the state had to set unprecedented use restrictions on the Yampa and Crystal rivers to keep them from running dry.

Hydrologists note that so much has changed in their projections that they are no longer referring to the 19-year dry spell as a drought because that term implies a return to 20th century snowpack levels, which they say is not going to happen. If temperature and precipitation trends continue, as they are expected to, CSU’s data shows Colorado’s water supplies would diminish another 15 percent more by 2050 in addition to the 19 percent decrease that already has taken place.

“That 34 percent turns this drought from a serious challenge to a disaster,” said CSU hydrologist Brad Udall, co-author of the CSU study (and former member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors). “Policy makers need to be paying attention, close attention, to this data.”

Map courtesy of Colorado State University

Aside from updated data, the water plan also lacks specifics on strategy. The planners assigned to write it struggled for more than a year with the last section, Chapter 10, which promised to lay out “measurable objectives, goals, and critical actions,” and was meant to be the plan part of the plan.

But a close read of that chapter shows very few measurable goals for which the administration can be held to account. The plan underscores the importance of “instream flows” – keeping more water in rivers to protect their ecological balance – for example, but avoids setting levels for what those flows should be. Without those kind of specifics, critics say it’s toothless.

“I found that incredibly frustrating,” said Amy Beatie, former executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that buys and leases water so it can be returned to rivers. “We need more than conceptual agreement. We need specific expectations and goals before we’ll see any real progress.”

The administration’s reluctance to commit to specific strategies is perhaps most apparent in the way it has structured decision-making. Under the plan, nine “roundtable” groups – representing Colorado’s eight river basins plus metro Denver water users – are free to choose which water projects should receive state funding.

“You’d think that if they’re spending the state’s money, there would be a clear articulation by the state of the objectives for that spending,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, Colorado’s biggest municipal water district. “Instead, what you get with that type of bottoms-up approach is a grab bag, a something-for-everyone dynamic that’s not particularly effective in advancing a statewide vision.”

Lochhead is a former state Department of Natural Resources director who served as Colorado’s lead water negotiator under three governors. Although he has described Hickenlooper’s willingness to create a water plan as an “act of political courage,” he has been saying for three years that the end product is not a plan at all, but rather a “compendium of ideas and platitudes.”

He is especially critical that Hickenlooper has not done more to address the impact urban sprawl is having on water supplies. He says the administration should have made more progress helping to establish water markets to allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights without losing them long term. And he cites what he calls the state’s “failure” to not eliminate regulatory impediments to water reuse and recycling projects and to not speed up permitting processes that, for example, have delayed Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir for almost 20 years.

“A commitment to collaboration is all well and good, but it’s not going to get us there,” Lochhead said. “Somebody needs be more aggressive in making some real decisions on where we’re going to come up with enormous amounts of water. But that’s not going to happen, at least under this administration.”

More than a dozen municipal and state water officials interviewed over the past year have echoed Lochhead’s frustrations, but would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs or jeopardizing their agencies’ working relationships. Almost all said the water plan lacks clear strategic goals. And several felt that the public engagement aspect took on absurd proportions. Though they laud efforts to seek public comments while the plan was being drafted, they say the administration’s insistence that the number of comments reach into the tens of thousands had less to do with an authentic interest in those comments than it did an interest in inoculating the plan from criticism.

One Front Range water manager who asked not to be named likened state water planners, during the public comment phase, to “those kids in high school who rushed around asking everybody to sign their yearbook.” The manager added: “The thinking seemed to be that the more people they got to comment, the more validating or popular … the plan would seem. It’s kind of hard to take a plan like that seriously.”

For all the time and the nearly $4 million the administration put into creating the water plan, Beatie, the Colorado Water Trust’s former executive director, says she expected it would reflect what she calls “the strategic heart of Colorado’s water community” – an honest recognition that “there’s not enough water right now, right here, for progress, real progress not to hurt.”

“But what they came up with is basically just a multi-page tome that’s more narrative than a plan. It’s just a giant thing that just sits on everybody’s desk.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper touts his water plan as pioneering. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

Hickenlooper dismisses criticism that his plan lacks depth, saying, “One of the most important things we laid out are sets of priorities.”

“Any time you try to do something for the first time and you are … a pioneer, you’re going to get some challenges,” he added. “We knew it was going to be hard and that’s why we tried to engage so many people in the process.”

Who should conserve

The governor raised the hopes of environmentalists and water policy reformers in his 2014 State of the State address by saying that “any conversation about water needs to start with conservation.” The “C” word long had been left out of statewide water discussions.

It still is.

That’s because Hickenlooper’s plan puts the entire conservation burden on municipal districts, whose users consume about 8 percent of the state’s water. The plan expects virtually no conservation from agriculture, which consumes about 87 percent.

The governor defends the approach, saying, “Denver Water and all the utilities along the Front Range” have “a moral obligation” to “conserve as much as humanly possible,” and also an obligation to help “sustain food supplies.”

Colorado’s biggest municipal water districts say their conservation programs are meeting those obligations.

Denver Water has reduced per-capita water consumption by 25 percent and says it’s using about the same amount of water district-wide since 2000 despite the addition of about 250,000 more customers. The agency serves about a quarter of Colorado’s population with 2 percent of the state’s water.

“We and the other Front Range water utilities are all basically moving as fast as we can through water efficiency. It’s not something we need to be told to do or incentivized to do by the state. It’s something that we’ve been doing and paying for by ourselves for a long time,” Lochhead said.

Aurora Water has more junior water rights than Denver’s water rights and has started quenching many of its customers’ needs with a $653-million reuse project that turns Platte River water captured downstream of Denver’s wastewater treatment plant into drinkable water. Fast-growing communities such as Castle Rock and Parker have similar projects in the works.

Though most of Colorado’s large municipal water districts are willingly embracing further conservation efforts, their managers say the additional water they’ll collectively be able to save won’t be nearly enough to meet Hickenlooper’s 400,000 acre-foot statewide conservation goal.

“The numbers aren’t realistic because the margins don’t make sense. It’s not feasible to expect all the conservation to come from municipalities when they don’t use even close to most of the water in the state,” said Alexandra Davis, Aurora Water’s deputy director and head of its water resources division.

“What the plan doesn’t say – what nobody will say out loud – is that some of the conservation burden is going to have to fall on agriculture because there’s nowhere else for it to come from. It just is. We need to face that idea rather than pretending that agriculture doesn’t need to be part of this equation.”

That equation, Davis and other municipal water bosses say, needs to address what they describe as enormous amounts of water being wasted by flood irrigation techniques and by seepage from the unlined, dirt ditches through which water is still delivered to many farms and ranches. If cityfolk and suburbanites have to use water more efficiently, they argue that countryfolk should, too.

John Harold, a sweet corn grower in Olathe, is one of the few growers who’ll agree, at least publicly.

“What you see out here are farmers buying all kinds of fancy new tractors but using irrigation methods and open ditches that are more than 100 years old,” he said.

“We’ve got to wake up and become more efficient. But, unfortunately, you have to hit most farmers with a sledgehammer to get them to realize that.”

Others say it’s a myth that farms waste massive amounts of water, and a misconception that more efficient farming and ranching practices could save enough to make a significant difference in the statewide conservation goal.

“That portrayal of us as big water wasters, it’s offensive,” said Paul Kehmeier, a farmer in Eckert who says his 93-year-old father Norman raised him, like Norman’s father and grandfather before him, to use only what’s needed.

Unlined water ditch in Fort Collins. (Photo by Tina Griego)

As Kehmeier tells it, water delivered through the kind of unlined dirt ditches his forebearers built “isn’t being wasted” through seepage, “it’s just being rerouted to natural drainage.” He says any amount that could be saved through lining those canals would be “marginal.” Likewise, he adds, it would make no significant difference if he watered his alfalfa “using flood irrigation or using an eyedropper” – “those alfalfa are going to consume the same amount of water to grow, no matter what.”

That viewpoint is shared by some outside the agricultural community. Anne Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science in the Obama administration’s Interior Department, agrees that “agricultural efficiency doesn’t necessarily save water.”

“So it’s a hard question about what additional contribution agriculture should make,” said Castle, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado. She said expects that economics, not efficiency efforts, will ultimately drive agriculture’s role in helping to avert a statewide water shortfall.

A leap of faith

Colorado’s water law system is predicated on the notion of “beneficial use” – meaning that water must be “used,” even if that means wasted, in order for users to keep their rights to it. That system long has created a built-in disincentive for farmers and ranchers to conserve.

It also has led to suspicions about “alternative transfer mechanisms,” the kind of economic incentive on which Hickenlooper’s water plan is banking. ATMs are deals in which farmers or ranchers are paid to temporarily fallow their land and transfer their water rights for municipal use or conservation purposes. Water planners tout them as a flexible way to save more water as prolonged drought and population growth are putting firmer demands on state supplies.

“The key word here is ‘flexible,’ meaning that by changing cropping patterns temporarily – which is something agriculture has a long history of doing – these are short-term solutions when there’s a squeeze,” said Eric Wilkinson, who recently retired as chief of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

But few growers have been willing to agree to such deals, fearing that the process will strip them of their water rights.

“Farmers, from my perspective, don’t like change. They also don’t like risk,” said CSU’s Udall. “For these things to work, farmers need to believe they won’t lose their water.”

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

In the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District – which spans from Brighton north to Greeley, and east to Fort Morgan – not even one grower has been willing to make that leap of faith. The concern, says Executive Director Randy Ray, is that even temporary water transfers like ATMs require applicants to go to water court and quantify their “yield” – the amount of water their farms or ranches use. Once a yield is quantified, it’s open to public examination, which can trigger long and expensive battles in which more junior water rights holders pose challenges, sometimes trying to degrade or devalue the applicant’s senior water rights. Ray likens that process to getting an involuntary haircut.

“Once you go to water court to quantify your yield, you make yourself vulnerable to getting scalped. Nobody wants to take that risk, at least around here.”

Some 340 miles to the west in Eckert, Paul Kehmeier rolled the dice on the land his great-grandparents homesteaded in 1894. In the hierarchy of water rights, his are senior – and valuable.

When the drought hit in 2001, he and his father Norman figured it would pass the way other dry spells had on the West Slope. Farmers, Kehmeier notes, are “eternal optimists.”

But in 2016, after a decade and a half of drought conditions, father and son decided that waiting for more rain and snowmelt would be less an act of optimism than of foolishness. And so they agreed to participate in a pilot project with CSU and the Nature Conservancy whereby, for a price, they stopped irrigating about 60 acres of land from late June through mid-September of that year and let the water flow “down the creek” into the Gunnison River, then to the Colorado River. The deal was part of a larger project funded by the Walton (as in Walmart) Family Foundation to test the efficacy of water markets in Colorado.

“The only way to meaningfully conserve water in agriculture is to not grow crops, plain and simple. And the only way to make that happen is to make it worth a farmer’s while financially,” said Kehmeier, who was pleased with the outcome and would agree to similar water transfers in the future.

Although he said he and family appreciate what he calls “all the nostalgia and warm feelings about agriculture” put forth in Hickenlooper’s water plan, they realize that “when push comes to shove, (municipal) users with the political power and money are going to get what they want, and everybody knows that.

“I don’t think we can turn back the tide.”

The funding question

Paying farmers to send water “down the creek” on a scale large enough to achieve meaningful savings will require money. Lots of it. And the most frequent criticism of Hickenlooper’s water strategy is that nobody knows where that money will come from.

Even the water plan’s price tag has been questionable.

Eklund said in 2015 that implementing the plan would cost $20 billion. He wouldn’t specify which water priorities and projects that amount would fund. Rather, he said that his estimate was a rough, “back-of-the-napkin” analysis that considered “numerous funding areas.”

Weeks after her appointment as Eklund’s successor in 2017, Mitchell put the water plan’s price tag at what she called “a more realistic $40 billion.” That higher price included water quality projects and funding to restore flows and ecosystems in Colorado’s rivers.

Hickenlooper’s pro-business-, pro-development-, and PR-sensitive office cringed at that disclosure. Over the past year, Mitchell has reined the figure back to $20 billion. “It’s what we can do, reasonably, as a state,” she now says.

Of the $20 billion, about $16 billion is expected to come from municipal water districts via consumer water rates, and another $1 billion from federal grants and revenues from the state severance tax. That tax, levied on oil and gas companies for drilling, long has been Colorado’s biggest source of water funding. Revenues were at $68 million annually in fiscal year 2014-2015, but took a nosedive in fiscal year 2015-2016 just as the water plan was being released. State officials have decided that severance tax revenues fluctuate too dramatically to reliably carry out the water plan.

That leaves a funding gap of more than $3 billion for parts of the plan that don’t already have revenue streams. Those include subsidizing conservation by municipal water districts in economically depressed parts of the state, paying to rehabilitate streams and rivers after decades of over-depletion, and paying farmers like the Kehmeiers to temporarily fallow their land.

Hickenlooper will leave office in January without having identified a way to fill that funding gap. “Some of the funding is still not locked down,” he acknowledges. His departure comes just as a new development on the Colorado River has created additional pressure – one far more urgent than a looming shortfall in 2050 – to conserve.

The federal government has given Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah until the end of the year to agree on a plan to send more water to Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in which the four Upper Basin states store Colorado River water, to ensure they can meet their contractual obligations to deliver a certain amount annually to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Lake Powell is less than half full after years of drought and overuse. If Colorado fails to conserve enough water to help replenish it or otherwise meet the terms of the “drought contingency plan” the Upper Basin states are currently negotiating, the feds could step in and curtail our access to river water.

Rain above Hite Crossing. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

“If the same hydrology (patterns) that started in 2001 continue, Lake Powell will be dry within three years. It is a very serious situation, an existential threat that we need to be acting on sooner rather than later,” Lochhead said, noting that the state’s water strategy needs to be more proactive than simply hoping we have a few big snow years “To me, that’s not preparing. We’re staring a crisis in the face.”

“We have to get after it,” added CU’s Castle. “Every year we wait, it gets worse.”

Tom Gougeon is president of the Denver-based Gates (as in Gates Rubber Company) Family Foundation, which funds ways of balancing Colorado’s disparate water needs. Given that “there’s a lot of stress on the system right now,” he says it’s important to harness “that sense of impatience and urgency.”

Gates has an ally in the even deeper-pocketed Walton Family Foundation, the biggest private funder of sustainable water projects on the planet. Walton has taken a special interest in funding conservation projects and water banks along the Colorado River.

Recognizing that Colorado can’t wait for Hickenlooper’s successor to come up with a funding source, the two philanthropies have formed a 25-member working group to make a recommendation.

“This plan is only as valuable if it has secure, sustainable funding to support it,” said Ted Kowalski, the head of Walton’s Colorado River Initiative.

Made up of experts representing a wide variety of water interests throughout the state, the working group is considering a bottle tax, a tourism tax, and a tax on sports betting as possible funding options. Whichever of those or other methods it picks, the goal is to raise $100 million in revenues annually, totalling $3.2 billion by 2050, the year in which the shortfall is currently projected.

The group aims to come up with a suggested funding plan in the next few weeks, then urge lawmakers to start crafting bills for the 2019 session, which starts when Hickenlooper leaves office in January.

In the meantime, a state-organized group called the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) is attempting a parallel effort to come up with a water funding recommendation, but sources close to those talks say they’re languishing.

By most accounts, it’s easier for philanthropies to prod movement because they don’t face the political pressures that politicians do. Hickenlooper is eyeing a bid for president.

“We don’t operate on two- or four- or six-year terms. We’re uniquely situated in asking people to participate in the conversation because we can have a longer view,” said Kowalski.

Added Gougeon: “The fact that we’re not the decision makers, I think, gives us the freedom to explore these possibilities.”

Water, post-Hickenlooper

Whichever funding option is recommended, it will likely require voter approval. The working group is eyeing the 2020 ballot, allowing almost two years to educate Coloradans about statewide water needs.

But state Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, wants to push for a ballot issue in 2019: “The truth is that Colorado doesn’t have the luxury of waiting,” he said.

Parched lakebed of Green Mountain Reservoir, October 2018. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Regardless of which year, there will be obstacles. A long list of other statewide needs – such as education, health care, rural broadband, and possibly transportation – will be competing for state funding. And Coloradans have a less than stellar record of approving water taxes. Voters in 2003 soundly rejected a statewide water funding ballot measure in a defeat blamed largely on the fact that the initiative gave no specifics about which water projects it would fund. Politicos say a future measure, if it’s to succeed, would need to be more specific than the 2003 effort and than Hickenlooper’s 2015 water plan.

It will be in the ironing out of those specifics and deciding which water projects would and wouldn’t be funded that one of Colorado’s most outspoken water watchdogs expects the spirit of collaboration at the core of Hickenlooper’s water plan could break…

As Castle, the former Interior Department undersecretary, tells it, “It will require dedicated leadership at the highest levels in order to make progress” convincing voters to approve a statewide water tax and leading Coloradans to conserve enough water to start replenishing Lake Powell.

“I don’t know the extent to which either of the two candidates (for governor) will prioritize achieving some of these goals,” she said.

Neither Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis nor Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has much experience with water policy. Neither tends to raise the issue on the campaign trail. And neither particularly impressed their audiences when speaking to state and local water officials at the Colorado Water Congress in August. In prepared remarks that Stapleton recited like a term paper and Polis delivered with a notable lack of energy, both said they’d carry out the water plan and find a way to raise the $100 million a year to do so.

Stapleton seemed to favor sports gambling as a funding option. He hedged when asked about climate change’s effects on water resources. And he said the state will need to build new ways to store water because “conservation won’t get us where we need to go.” Some water wonks bristled when he mispronounced the word aquifer.

Polis emphasized a heavy investment in conservation and water efficiency. He said “growth needs to pay its own way” when it comes to water infrastructure. And he said he would oppose any transmountain diversions (projects carrying water from the West Slope to the Front Range) “that are not universally agreed upon.”

Both campaigns since have refused to answer The Independent’s questions about the specifics of their candidates’ water stances.

“I would like to hear more specifics from them about some of the fundamental policy issues. I think a lot of people would,” Lochhead said. “My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough. Things need to move more quickly, a lot more quickly, than they are today.”

Whichever candidate wins in November will have to persuade state lawmakers and voters from urban areas – who already will be shouldering 80 percent of the cost of implementing the plan through their water rates – to agree to an additional water tax.

He also will have fences to mend with folks who’ve complained that Hickenlooper’s administration has iced them out about where state water policy is headed.

In September, a group of West Slope water users slammed Eklund (the former CWCB director whom Hickenlooper kept as Colorado’s lead negotiator on the Colorado River), accusing him of a lack of transparency about his talks with other Upper Basin states on how to manage water in severe drought and replenish Lake Powell. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, had especially harsh words about what he saw as Eklund’s refusal to keep his group apprised on the agreement to bank water in Lake Powell. Growers on the West Slope fear that water banking efforts could strip them of their water rights.

“We haven’t seen those documents that are about to be executed. We’ve been told that we don’t need to see them. We’re not OK with that. We don’t think it’s acceptable. We think those documents need to be shared with us and frankly the impact of those documents needs to be shared with the water users of the Western Slope and the state of Colorado,” Mueller was quoted last month by The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.

His remarks called into question how “joined at the hip” statewide water interests really are, despite Hickenlooper’s push for collaboration and trust.

Eklund since has shared the details Mueller sought, but continues to be distrusted not just on the West Slope, but also among some of his former state colleagues and other water officials who have questioned whether his work practicing water and infrastructure law at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs conflicts with his representation of the state on Colorado River issues. In response, he says he won’t make his client list public. “My firm wouldn’t allow that.”

Though he has advised Polis on water, infrastructure and regulatory issues, Eklund says he’s not vying for another political appointment. “I’m not interested in a position with a Polis administration, or a Stapleton administration, for that matter,” he told The Independent Sunday.

He says he has told Polis what he tells anyone who asks about the water challenges Colorado is facing: “That at this point, we’ve not been doing the kind of conservation that we need to bend the curve at Lake Powell, and that Colorado’s governor will need to oversee and encourage scaling up by the entire water community for it to do any good. That’ll take leadership right now, when it’s hard for me to overstate the urgency that we face on this river.”

Eklund lauds Hickenlooper for setting a tone of collaboration not just in Colorado, but with the six other Colorado River states with whom he negotiates. That approach, that ethos of “we can work together to control our destiny,” he said, “has become our brand as a state.”

“Governor Hickenlooper believes that our brand can be exported.”

Leadership on water and other environmental issues requires a certain art in messaging, the ability to strike a balance of conveying urgency without creating panic. Udall underscores this point by quoting Colorado physicist and environmental activist Amory Lovins: “You can’t depress people into action.”

“In politics, being a doomsdayer doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Udall, the son of a congressman and presidential candidate, nephew of an interior secretary, and brother of a U.S. senator. “This state has more positive things going on than anywhere else in the West. We have a lot of really good people here trying to come up with solutions. Are they trying hard? For the most part, yes. Are they doing enough? No.”

As Udall tells it, Colorado needs more than branding to avert a water crisis.

“Climate change is coming at us faster than anyone expected just a few years ago. The wheels are coming off and nobody seems to be responding quickly enough,” he said. “We need leaders willing to take swifter action.”

#Drought news: No change in depiction for #Colorado

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Summary

Outside of additional heavy rain across the southcentral United States, conditions were generally quiet across the Nation. The break from the recent active weather pattern led to a quiet week in the U.S. Drought Monitor, with changes mostly confined to the South. While lingering wetness further reduced or eliminated drought from the Four Corners into Texas, short-term dryness was developing over parts of the Southeast. Note: the weekly drought analysis incorporates rain that has fallen through 12z Tuesday (8 a.m., EDT); any precipitation that falls after the data cutoff will be included in the following week’s assessment. Consequently, the heavy rain — associated in part with the remnants of Eastern Pacific Hurricane Willa — that has impacted (or will impact) much of the southern and eastern U.S. through the weekend will be accounted for next week…

High Plains

After recent improvements to the region’s lingering drought areas, conditions were unchanged during the past week. Mostly dry weather prevailed, with temperatures averaging up to 5°F above normal on the northern Plains. Across the region, recent rain and snow have helped to recharge water reserves and soil moisture while aiding pasture recovery and improving prospects for winter wheat establishment. However, significant longer-term moisture shortages linger in the Moderate to Extreme Drought areas (D1-D3), with precipitation over the past 365 days totaling locally less than 60 percent of normal…

West

A respite between storms afforded local experts an opportunity for further assessment of the current drought situation, with locally heavy precipitation arriving in southern portions of the region after the drought monitoring period. Precipitation up to the data cutoff (12z Tuesday, or 6 a.m., MDT) generally totaled less than an inch (liquid equivalent), though amounts were locally higher in the Four Corners Region and immediate environs. Modest reductions were made in eastern New Mexico to Abnormal Dryness (D0), Moderate Drought (D1), and Severe Drought (D2), where this week’s rain pushed 6-month precipitation totals to near- to above-normal levels. Farther west in southern California and western Arizona, discussion with local experts as well as a detailed analysis of longer-term precipitation deficits and satellite-derived vegetation health data supported trimming the coverage of D2 and D3 (Severe to Extreme Drought); in particular, 24-month precipitation has climbed to near-normal levels along the California-Arizona border. In contrast, dry weather persisted in Northwestern drought areas, where 180-day precipitation has tallied a meager 20 to 50 percent of normal. Rain and snow will be needed soon to prevent an expansion and intensification of drought across the Northwest. Conversely, another moisture-laden storm was bringing moderate to heavy rain and mountain snow to the lower Four Corners after the end of the monitoring period…

South

Another round of moderate to heavy rain was responsible for additional widespread reductions of drought intensity and coverage. Much of central and eastern Texas was doused with 2 to 6 inches of rain, with amounts locally more than 10 inches from the eastern Edwards Plateau to College Station. This rain fell on top of downpours from the preceding two weeks, pushing 30-day totals to locally more than 20 inches. As a result, Texas drought was confined to a relatively small area east-southeast of Amarillo at the end of the period, where 365-day precipitation totals remained between 60 and 75 percent of normal. Farther east, moderate to heavy showers (1-5 inches, locally more) also led to additional reduction to the lingering Abnormal Dryness (D0) in northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Smaller reductions to D0 and D1 were made in southwestern and northeastern Oklahoma, coincident with locales where another round of rain pushed 180-day precipitation totals to near- or above-normal levels. In contrast, small expansion of D0 was made in northeast Oklahoma in locales which largely missed the recent rain and have subsequently seen deficits at or beyond 6 months begin to climb…

Looking Ahead

A wet weather pattern is in store for much of the southern and eastern U.S. The combination of moisture associated with the remnants of Hurricane Willa, a pronounced southward dip in the jet stream (a trof), and a blocking high over the northern Atlantic Ocean will lead to a wet and colder weather pattern across the East. The storm responsible will continue to track across the nation’s southern tier, having already produced moderate to heavy rain and localized flooding in parts of the Four Corners Region. The storm will bring moderate heavy rain across the Gulf Coast States before churning slowly up the East Coast over the weekend, producing wind-swept rain and inland snow. A second faster-moving system will follow the Nor’easter, maintaining the threat of rain and high-elevation snow in the Northeast. Meanwhile, much-needed moisture will sweep across Northwestern drought areas in two waves, with the second system early next week potentially leading to fresh snowfall in the central and northern Rockies. Despite the nation’s active weather, the Southwest will turn drier. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for October 30 – November 3 calls for near- to above-normal precipitation over much of the nation, with drier-than-normal weather limited to the West Coast and lower Southeast. Cooler-than-normal weather is expected across the eastern third of the nation and from the central Plains to the Great Basin, while above-normal temperatures linger across the western Gulf Coast and in the Pacific Coast States.

US Drought Monitor change map October 23, 2018.

@USBR: Glen Canyon Dam High Flow Experimental Release #ColoradoRiver #COriver

November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

On November 5-8, 2018, the Department of the Interior will conduct a high-flow experimental (HFE) release from Glen Canyon Dam. This HFE will include a peak magnitude release of approximately 38,100 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 60 hours (four days including ramping from baseflows to peak release) to move accumulated sediment downstream to help rebuild beaches and sandbars. This HFE will be the first conducted under the 2016 Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) HFE Protocol; similar HFEs were conducted in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 in accordance with the 2011 HFE Environmental Assessment Protocol. The 2018 HFE is expected to provide resource benefits in the near term and will also provide scientific information to be used in future decision making.

This HFE will not change the total annual amount of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Releases later in the water year will be adjusted to compensate for the high volume released during this experiment.

An Ambitious Reuse Plan for the South Platte Basin — Headwaters Magazine @WaterEdCO

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

From Headwaters Magazine (Nelson Harvey):

Conceptual project would capture and store flows before they cross into Nebraska.

Colorado is expected to add 3 million new residents by 2050, and many of them will likely settle along the northern Front Range. That growth will spur a massive mismatch between water supply and demand—a gap of roughly 500,000 acre-feet per year by midcentury, according to Colorado’s Water Plan. Since 2015, a group of Front Range water providers called the South Platte Regional Opportunity Working Group (SPROWG) has been looking for ways to bridge that future gap through collaborative multi-purpose water projects, without diverting more water from Colorado’s Western Slope or drying up eastern Colorado farmland in the process.

“[This is] about making our water systems as efficient as we possibly can, and then seeing how large the remaining supply gap is and what the next steps will be,” says Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a member of SPROWG, and president of Water Education Colorado’s board.

Along with South Metro, SPROWG includes representatives from Denver Water, Aurora Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, the North Sterling Irrigation District and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. The group is seeking to capitalize on a surplus of untapped reusable water in the lower South Platte River near the Nebraska border, which accumulates there through return flows from the Denver Metro area and farms upstream. According to the South Platte Storage Study, an effort funded by the Colorado legislature and completed in early 2018, Colorado sent an annual median volume of 293,000 acre-feet more water to Nebraska than the South Platte River Compact requires between 1996 and 2015. SPROWG aims to enable the reuse and exchange of more of that water before it leaves the state.

“The central problem is that [future] demand will largely materialize in growing communities located roughly along the north-south axis of Interstate 25, while data and modeling tell us that available water supplies in the basin generally occur much further downstream where the river traverses the plains,” says Doug Robotham, a consultant who helped initiate SPROWG and facilitates the group’s discussions.

The conceptual project that SPROWG is now pursuing would remedy that mismatch through the creation of about 175,000 acre-feet of new water storage in three locations: 50,000 acre-feet near Henderson, 100,000 acre-feet downstream near Kersey, and 25,000 acre-feet further east near Snyder. The concept could also involve the construction of a pipeline from the Snyder-area reservoir back to the South Platte River north of Denver. This would enable the storage, reuse and exchange of several types of water, including native South Platte River flows in wet years, and legally reusable water supplies. Reusable supplies include transbasin diversion water, unconnected well water, and other sources imported into the South Platte system.

SPROWG’s analysis suggests the concept would generate 54,600 acre-feet of dependable “firm yield” every year. That’s only about one-tenth of the South Platte Basin’s looming water supply gap, but Joe Frank of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District says the concept would have added benefits for farmers and ranchers in eastern Colorado.

“It provides a viable alternative to buy and dry that has and continues to threaten lands within our boundaries,” says Frank. The economies of many eastern Colorado towns are dependent on irrigated agriculture and will suffer if acres are removed from production by cities acquiring agricultural water to support growth, Frank says.

Much research remains before SPROWG’s concept solidifies into an actual water project. SPROWG partners recently received $155,000 in funding from the Metro and South Platte Basin roundtables, and at press time they were waiting on approval for an additional $195,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Reserve Account. Over the next year, they’ll use those funds, together with $120,000 of their own money, to hone in on which municipal, agricultural and recreational water users could benefit from the SPROWG concept. They’ll also study how the concept would be funded and governed, and the exact size and location of the proposed storage facilities and water reuse pipeline.

Click here to read the whole issue of Headwaters and while you are there become a member and support water education in Colorado.

#Colorado’s 2017-2018 water year was warmest ever & second driest #drought #aridification

Graphic credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

It was the warmest year in 124 years of records in Colorado and the second driest, too.

A new report from the Colorado Climate Center examined temperature and precipitation records for the 2017-2018 water year, which ended Sept. 30.

“We live in a climate where we’re going to be limited for water. That will happen from time to time. But what set this year apart is the combination of heat and dryness,” says Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist.

For precipitation, 2002 was actually drier. This past year was bone-dry in the Four Corners area but mostly dry across the state. The notable exception was the state’s northeastern corner, which was somewhat average or above average in precipitation.

But even in the northwestern corner, the Yampa River ran low and the first ever “call” was imposed on water users of the river.

This year’s high temperatures can best be seen as part of trend that began in the 1980s. They also comport with climate change models.

Climate models remain uncertain about precipitation levels, but they do predict greater extremes. This was the third drought winter in 16 years, points out Schumacher, whereas droughts in the 20th century were more widely spaced. [ed. emphasis mine]

The year’s high was 110 degrees Fahrenheit at Las Animas, along the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. The year’s coldest was 29 below zero in late January at Taylor Park, near Crested Butte.

But the individual weather station statistics tell the broader story. Here, in those places with 30 years of data and a few with 124 years, there were more days with record heat than record cold.

“We had several times more warm extremes than cold extremes,” says Schumacher. “That is really the story.”

There were 1,696 case of record high temperatures compared to 560 record low temperatures at the stations.

Even more pronounced were the higher overnight temperatures. There were 2,971 highest minimum temperatures and just 292 lowest minimum temperatures. One night in June, it got down to only 78 degrees F in Grand Junction.

There were also more 90-plus days altogether, including several records. Montrose, located just north of the San Juan Mountains, has an average of 34 of those hot days after 113 years of record-keeping. This year it had 78. Denver had 53 days of 90-plus weather, well shy of the record of 67 set in 2012.

Mountain towns were not immune to heat. Steamboat Springs had 11 days of 90-plus temperatures, above the average of 4 but well short of the record 29 days in 2002.

Dillon, located more than 2,000 feet higher in elevation, kept its record intact. It has yet to hit 90, at least in modern record-keeping. The town was moved to a higher elevation when Dillon Reservoir was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

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

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

Boulder County Land Use Director issues determination in response to @DenverWater (Gross Reservoir Dam Expansion Proposal) request

Here’s the release from Boulder County:

Determination states that Denver Water must obtain a permit under Article 8 – Location & Extent Areas & Activities of State Interest (1041)

Denver Water requested that Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case determine the applicability of the Boulder County Land Use Code to Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir.

Denver Water has argued that it is exempt from having to submit its project for Location & Extent Areas & Activities of State Interest (1041) review under Article 8 of the Land Use Code.

Director Case responded to Denver Water on Oct. 22. His determination is that Denver Water’s proposed reservoir expansion project is subject to review under Land Use Code. Before undertaking the project, Denver Water must obtain a permit under Article 8 of the Code.

Documents:

  • Gross Reservoir Dam expansion proposal determination letter to Denver Water, October 22, 2018
  • Determination request letter from Denver Water, October 12, 2018
  • Denver Water may appeal the decision to the Boulder County Board of Commissioners as provided for under 8-406(B).

    Land Use Code Section 8-406 Determination of Whether a Proposed Activity or Development Must go Through the Permit Process states that “The Director shall determine the applicability of Section 8-400 to the conduct of any proposed activity or development. The Director shall make this determination within 10 calendar days after the Director receives a written request from the applicant stating the reasons why the proposed activity or development is not subject to Section 8-400.

    Background

    The Board of Water Commissioners for the City and County of Denver, aka “Denver Water,” is in the process of applying for a planned expansion of the Gross Reservoir Dam in southwest Boulder County. While this is not a Boulder County project, the reservoir resides entirely in unincorporated Boulder County.

    The Army Corp of Engineers issued its Record of Decision granting Denver Water a federal permit for the project in July 2017. However, before it can commence the project, Denver Water must still receive approval of its hydropower license amendment application from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

    Boulder County has intervened in the FERC application noting many reasons why the county finds the application to be deficient. In its motion to intervene, the county outlined nearly 20 points of contention with the project.

    Boulder County has intervened in the FERC application noting many reasons why the county finds the application to be deficient. In its motion to intervene, the county outlined nearly 20 points of contention with the project.

    On March 20, 2018, the county responded to FERC’s Supplemental Environmental Assessment, once again pointing out the deficiencies that Boulder County finds in Denver Water’s FERC application and FERC’s environmental assessment of the project.

    The county plans to further address impacts and concerns during a county (local) land use review process and has explained to FERC that Denver Water must obtain required county permits before it undertakes the project. Denver Water has not yet applied for a permit under Article 8 of the Boulder County Land Use Code (also known as a 1041 permit).

    A 1041 review would allow the Boulder County Planning Commission and the County Commissioners to conduct public hearings and review the application according to the criteria in the Code.

    More Information

    More information can be viewed on the county’s Gross Reservoir Dam Expansion Proposal information webpage. Also, individuals can sign-up to receive Boulder County-related hearing and meeting announcements concerning the proposed Denver Water Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. You can unsubscribe at any time.

    To receive notices about the Gross Reservoir project from Denver Water, look for the “Sign Up for Email Updates” option at the bottom of the page on the Gross Reservoir project website. All notices of meetings, minutes, and updates on the proposed project (also known as the “Moffat Collection System Project”) can be found on Denver Water’s website at https://grossreservoir.org/.

    The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Grand Valley Water Users Association meeting recap #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    The head of the Upper Colorado River Commission on Tuesday told a Grand Junction audience that proposed new interstate agreements contain important provisions aimed at helping fend off the short-term threats that drought poses to the region.

    Amy Haas, the commission’s executive director, says the centerpiece of the new deals from the perspective of Upper Colorado River Basin states is a provision providing for storage in Lake Powell and other Upper Basin reservoirs for water that might be conserved through any demand management program in the Upper Basin.

    “There’s no point in implementing and administering a program in the Upper Basin without that storage capacity,” Haas said at the forum.

    The event was hosted by the Grand Valley Water Users Association and hosted at Colorado Mesa University by CMU’s Hutchins Water Center. It focused on drought contingency planning, demand management and the potential implications for Western Slope agriculture.

    Importantly, Haas said, the newly reached agreements spell out that water conserved through a demand management program could be used only for purposes of complying with a 1922 river compact between upper and lower basin states. It wouldn’t be subject to releases from Powell under the language of an interim agreement reached in 2007 that seeks to balance water levels between Powell and Lake Mead downstream.

    Haas said it took heavy negotiations to obtain that assurance…

    The recently released draft agreements, which officials say will require federal enabling legislation, include a drought contingency plan for Upper Basin states and another for Lower Basin states. A key aspect of the Upper Basin plan entails possible implementation of a demand management program if agreement can be reached between Upper Basin states.

    The Colorado River District, a 15-county Western Slope entity, has been concerned that addressing the storage element now might pave the way for demand management before proper discussion has taken place on what parameters such a program should have. The district fears that demand management could end up primarily targeting West Slope agriculture. It wants any program to be limited to voluntary, temporary and compensated measures, with the impacts borne equally across varying regions of the state and water users.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board has directed its staff to develop a draft policy guiding development of any demand management program in the state.

    “It will be voluntary, compensated and temporary,” CWCB board member Steve Anderson, also general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, said at Tuesday’s forum…

    Haas said a key consideration will be how to pay for a compensated program. An Upper Basin pilot demand management program conserved some 22,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $4.5 million through 2017, according to a report released earlier this year…

    Haas called that “an expensive endeavor.” She said a demand management program would need to conserve 200,000 to 500,000 acre feet of water to make a difference, and questions surround how to fund that.

    Water sampling takes flight at Dillon – News on TAP

    Next-gen technology means new uses for small, remote-controlled devices.

    Source: Water sampling takes flight at Dillon – News on TAP

    #ColoradoSprings Sand Creek stormwater project finished

    Heavy rains inundate Sand Creek. Photo via the City of Colorado Springs and the Colorado Springs Independent.

    From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

    The city announced completion of the project on Oct. 22, noting it’s one of 71 projects the city agreed to complete under a 20-year, $460-million agreement with Pueblo County. Since that deal, inked in 2016, the city has completed six projects, says city spokesperson Vanessa Zink via email.

    Check out the entire list here

    The work on Sand Creek took 10 months and spanned a half mile, the city said in a release. Crews filled and reshaped the creek, installed grouted boulder drop structures to step the creek down and rebuilt the natural habitat along the creek. “The project raised the bottom of Sand Creek and regraded the banks back to a stable slope to prevent erosion and provide flood protection for up to a 100-year storm event through the half-mile improved section that will ultimately improve water quality for downstream communities,” the release said.

    Funding for the project broke down this way: $3.9 million from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant; $600,000 from the state and $1.5 million from the city.

    A Record Number of Scientists Are Running for Congress, and They Get #ClimateChange


    From Inside Climate News (Marianne Lavelle):

    [Joseph] Kopser is one of more than a dozen scientists running for Congress this November—a record number that reflects a groundswell of political activism in the scientific community triggered by the anti-science agenda of President Donald Trump’s administration, especially on climate change.

    Kopser is quick to point out that the political attacks on science pre-date Trump. His district is a prime example: He’s running to fill the congressional seat of retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who spent the past six years using his power as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to cast doubt on consensus climate and environmental science…

    The scientist candidates and their supporters say the political movement has the potential to transform Congress, injecting a critical mass of evidence-based thinkers who could lessen the influence of ideology on decision-making. It could help catalyze real debate on solutions to address climate change and a host of other issues, they say.

    Already, the scientists are having an impact, forcing some GOP opponents to attempt to rebrand themselves to appeal to voters who are concerned about the environment. But the collective clout of the engineers, physicians and other scientists running for Congress ultimately will depend on getting elected, and their odds vary widely depending on the political landscape of their states and local districts…

    Many of the more than 60 scientist candidates who were running for Congress lost in the primaries, but that hasn’t discouraged Naughton or other supporters.

    “I think that’s just a reflection that a lot of scientists are not strong on political skills,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a physicist who himself made the transition from the lab to legislative chamber. Representing New Jersey’s 12th district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, at a time a handful of scientists served in Congress, Holt said he saw first-hand how their presence could make a difference.

    “Almost every issue that comes before a legislature has some science, somewhere,” Holt said. “If there’s not a scientist in the room—and the way things are on Capitol Hill, there usually isn’t—the facets of an issue that could be illuminated by science won’t even be noticed.”

    #ColoradoRiver Crisis Demands Focus on Farm #Conservation Programs #COriver #aridification

    Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground), which is facing one of its driest years in recent history. Low flows on the Crystal have spurred action from the state, including curtailment and a call for instream flows. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

    From Water Deeply (Hannah Holm):

    Small programs can go a long way to save water and help farmers survive the coming shortages on the Colorado River. These should be the next focus for policymakers now wrestling with drought contingency plans.

    Recently, policymakers in the states that share the Colorado River have made headlines for their progress toward developing a drought contingency plan. This plan is intended to keep water levels in the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, from falling too low to keep water flowing to all the people and farms that rely on it. Within Colorado and the other upstream states, the plan also seeks to preserve the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam and fulfill legal obligations to the downstream states.

    There is significant concern that water use cuts may be required if ongoing drought makes it difficult to keep honoring those obligations. Regional water leaders have strongly advocated that any use cuts to protect reservoir levels should be voluntary, temporary and paid for.

    This matters to farmers such as [Tom] Kay, because they don’t want to be legally required to cut their water use. It also matters to communities like Hotchkiss, because their economies depend on farms using water to grow crops. So a drought contingency plan that prevents a crisis in the big reservoirs and avoids legally required water use cuts would be good for Kay and good for Hotchkiss, as well as for many others in Colorado and the rest of the upstream states.

    However, what about when water delivery cuts are mandated by nature rather than laws and policies? When the snow doesn’t come, and you aren’t downstream from a big reservoir, or your reservoir is already tapped out, you sometimes have to make do with less, regardless of how good your water rights are or what the policy documents say. That was the case for many irrigators this past year, and is likely to be the case more often in the future as temperatures continue to warm.

    When there is simply less water to go around, infrastructure investments such as the cost-share program that helped Kay buy his sprinklers can make the difference between viability and non-viability for farms and ranches and their rural communities. There are lots of scattered programs that can help with this, some focused on water quality and habitat improvements, and others focused on irrigation efficiency. They’ve brought millions of dollars to rural communities and done a lot of good. But some programs have also suffered from excessive red tape and poor planning.

    As policymakers are working to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead functioning, it would be worth sparing some time to also think about the programs supporting drought resilience in headwaters communities, and how to make them more effective.

    @USGS and Colorado School of Mines announce long-term partnership

    Junior environmental engineering students measure water quality parameters for their field session client, Clear Creek Watershed Foundation. (Credit: Deirdre O. Keating)

    Here’s the release from the USGS (David Ozman):

    CSM to be new home of USGS labs, 150 government scientists

    Today, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke joined Paul C. Johnson, president of Colorado School of Mines, to announce a long-term partnership between the university and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The partnership will bring more than 150 USGS scientists and their minerals research labs to the university’s Golden, Colorado, campus where government scientists and Mines faculty and students will work together in a new state-of-the-art facility. Johnson and Zinke were joined at today’s announcement by Senator Cory Gardner and Congressman Ed Perlmutter, as well as Mines Board of Trustees Chairman Thomas E. Jorden and Roseann Gonzales-Schreiner, USGS Associate Director for Administration and Acting Director of the Southwest Region.

    “This is a great day for the USGS and for Colorado School of Mines,” said Secretary Zinke. “The majority of USGS’s work is on federal lands in the west, but their research is also used by government agencies, the private sector, universities, nonprofits and partners all over the world. Partnering with Colorado School of Mines, a world-class earth science research institution, and co-locating our scientists and researchers creates incredible opportunities to spur innovation and transformational breakthroughs, while also providing an incredible pool of talent from which to recruit.”

    “With this new facility, the USGS and the School of Mines will have a revolutionary shared workspace for the world-class research and education that the USGS and the Colorado School of Mines are famous for delivering to the country,” said USGS Director Jim Reilly. “We look forward to this expansion of our efforts in the great State of Colorado and I’m distinctly honored to be the Director at the time of this development.”

    “The expanded USGS presence at Mines will capitalize on our collective expertise to address the availability of mineral and energy resources, environmental challenges and geo-environmental hazards, all of which are of critical importance to national security and the economies of Colorado and the nation. It will also create an incredibly unique educational environment that will produce the leaders we need to tackle future challenges related to exploration and development of resources here on Earth and in space, subsurface infrastructure and sustainable stewardship of the Earth,” said Mines President Paul C. Johnson. “We want to thank our Colorado congressional delegation, especially Rep. Ed Perlmutter and Sen. Cory Gardner, for their help in forging this exciting partnership with the USGS.”

    “I’ve been working hard to convince everyone that Colorado and the School of Mines are a perfect match for the United States Geological Survey,” said Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO). “This move highlights the scientific leadership of our state. We will be putting USGS in a modern facility in a state where research on their core mission areas can be performed right out their back door. Their water resource research will be particularly useful to Colorado and other western states as we continue to grapple with long-term drought. I’d like to welcome Dr. Reilly and his team to the campus and thank Secretary Zinke for his leadership on this issue.”

    “This new Subsurface Frontiers Building on the Mines Campus will be a tremendous asset for their faculty and students, and housing USGS staff and lab space will further cement the strong relationship between Mines, USGS and the Department of the Interior,” said Congressman Ed Perlmutter (D-CO-7). “This was a team effort, and I want to thank everyone for their hard work to make this happen.”

    USGS and Mines, renowned for their expertise in the earth sciences and engineering, are expanding a long-standing relationship to catalyze even greater collaboration among USGS scientists and Mines faculty and students in the name of tackling the nation’s natural resource, security and environmental challenges, and exploring frontiers where the next innovations in earth and space resources, technology and engineering will occur. The relationship between Mines and the USGS goes back more than 40 years, with the USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center and its National Earthquake Information Center already calling the Mines campus home.

    The Yampa River set records for low flow in water year 2018

    Floating the tiger, Yampa River, 2014. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck) via The Craig Daily Press:

    The past water year, which began in October 2017 and ended in September, broke records on the Yampa. Average temperatures in much of the Yampa River basin were the warmest on record, and for the first time ever, the main stem of the Yampa River was placed on call, meaning use of Yampa water was curtailed.

    This summer, the portion of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs city limits was open to summer recreation — including tubing, fishing, and paddling — for about 40 days, one of the shortest summer seasons on this stretch of river. For much of the summer, the river was under a voluntary closure as the water was too hot, too low or without enough dissolved oxygen to meet streamflow standards set by the city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to protect river habitat.

    Warm and dry summer

    The Yampa and Colorado rivers peaked in mid-May, and according to long-term averages of daily flows, both rivers normally peak in June. This led to the second earliest start to tubing season on the Yampa in 10 years.

    A warm spring played a role in this — as snow melted off the mountains earlier, water flowed downhill into the river and its tributaries earlier. This water year was the warmest on record in the state, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

    In Routt County, about half of the county saw its warmest water year on record, while parts of central and south Routt saw temperatures in ranges that placed it among the top 10 percent of the record.

    Most of Routt County received below normal precipitation this year, though the area fared better than other parts of Colorado. The National Weather and Climate Center’s snow telemetry sites in the Routt County area received 70 to 80 percent of average precipitation this year, through July, August and September saw lower rainfall compared to historic averages.

    “Statewide, this was the fourth driest year in the 123-year record,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “It was fourth only to 2012, 1934 and 2002.”

    This year was the driest water year on record in southwest Colorado, western Moffat County and parts of the San Luis Valley, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

    Human-caused temperature increases and drought have caused earlier spring snowmelt and shifted runoff earlier in the year across the southwest, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

    “Not only are we in situations where we get less water, but we get it earlier, which makes for a longer season of need,” said Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

    His agency operates Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs.

    The early runoff means producers kicked off the irrigation season earlier, too. Producers are also seeing longer growing seasons in Colorado, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Reservoir water keeps flows up

    Drought conditions and warm temperatures have made supplementing the Yampa River’s natural flow with releases of reservoir water a consistent practice in recent years.

    Since 2012, the Colorado Water Trust has purchased reservoir water to supplement flows in the Yampa River. This year, Tri-State Generation and Transmission also released water from Elkhead Reservoir to keep up power generation at Craig Station.

    The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program releases water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide habitat for bonytail, razorback suckers, and humpback chub. These releases are determined based on the amount of water flowing by the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge near Maybell in western Moffat County.

    “Obviously, when you have low flow years, you have warmer stream temperatures and then less habitat available to aquatic life,” Romero-Heaney said.

    In Steamboat, the river dropped to 50 cubic feet per second — low flow — during spawning season for brown trout, she added. That made habitat more difficult to come by, and Romero-Heaney said it could have impacts to fish populations in the upper Yampa.

    The Yampa Valley suffered major droughts in 2002 and 2012. In 2002, the USGS reported less than 10 cubic feet per second of flow at the Maybell gauge at the Yampa River’s lowest points in the summer, said Erin Light, area division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    Reservoir releases likely kept the water higher than that mark this summer. The USGS streamflow gauges can’t show how much water is natural flow and how much is reservoir water, so stream gauge measurements don’t reflect the full picture when it comes to water…

    When the call was administered for about two weeks in September, the water at the Yampa’s lower reach through Dinosaur National Monument fell to about 18 cfs — its long-term average for the same time frame is about 260 cfs. At Lily Park, near the Little Snake River’s confluence with the Yampa, irrigators’ pumps were sweeping the river, Light said earlier this year.

    Planning for the future

    Romero-Heaney said flows on the Yampa in Steamboat were “extremely low,” falling below 34 cfs at the gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat…

    The city outlined its plans to purchase reservoir water on contract to boost flows in dry periods in the Yampa River Streamflow Management Plan released this summer. The plan also seeks to implement voluntary projects that would pay water users to participate in projects enhancing the health of the river.

    Earlier this year, some of the city’s water rights were curtailed in the call. As droughts and warm temperatures become more common, releases to augment river health will likely have to be balanced with releases to augment municipal water.

    Miliken turns dirt on brine treatment process infrastructure in effort to bring their water treatment plant back online

    Photo credit: By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21001564 via Wikipedia

    From The Greeley Tribune (Sara Knuth):

    The $3.4 million Frontier Water System, which will improve [water quality in water discharged] to the South Platte River and bring the town into compliance with state standards, is on track to be completed in June.

    Once the system is up and running, it will give officials the ability to treat one-fourth of the town’s water. Right now, Milliken relies on Greeley and the Central Weld County Water District to provide the town’s water…

    When the town officials are finished with the plant, the reopening will happen just more than five years after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment closed it, citing violations in the amount of selenium the town was releasing into the South Platte River. After receiving multiple warnings, the town faced fines of up to $10,000 per day. The fine was ultimately reduced to $140,000, but the town had to shut down the facility, stop treating its own water and look for another solution to meet the state’s standards.

    “This will be treating the return water, the brine that comes off in the treatment process,” said Milliken town administrator Leonard Wiest. “When you treat the water, you get some drinking water and then you get the junk that is collected in the treatment process. Now, that has to be treated.”

    As part of the project, the town contracted with Golden-based Stanek Constructors, Inc., Frontier Water Systems and JVA Consulting Engineers.

    4 takeaways from this year’s Water Congress – News on TAP

    From avoiding ‘Day Zero’ to getting creative with funding, what one expert learned after a few days with Colorado’s water geeks.

    Source: 4 takeaways from this year’s Water Congress – News on TAP

    “The water around a Utah uranium mine is growing more polluted” — Salt Lake Tribune #ActOnClimate

    White Mesa Mill. Photo credit: Energy Fuels

    From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

    The following was researched and written by Emma Penrod for The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

    There once was a time when the children of White Mesa played outdoors without their parents fearing for their health.

    But for as long as Yolanda Badback can remember, the remote town in southeastern Utah has worried about the smell emanating from the plant to the north and the trucks that signal the plant’s awakening after periods of dormancy.

    “I see the trucks that go in and out every day now,” Badback said. “I don’t know what they’re hauling, but they go in and out.”

    Badback is more familiar with the White Mesa uranium mill than many within her community. As a child, she tagged along with her uncle and longtime critic of the mill, Norman Begay, as he went to meetings in his quest to understand what the mill was doing and whether it was safe to live just over 5 miles downwind of such an operation. She later picked up where her uncle left off, searching for answers among confusing, and sometimes conflicting, information state, tribal and company officials have to offer.

    “I’ve been going to these meetings for a long while,” she said. “I don’t trust them anymore.”

    The mill’s current owners, Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources, tout the plant as one of the last capable of milling ore into purified uranium. As such, they say, the mill is a critical national asset — an argument they’ve leveraged to garner political support for the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument and for tariffs on imported uranium.

    But the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — White Mesa is a part of the reservation — watches the polluted groundwater beneath the mill with growing concern, though state officials insist the pollution comes from other sources.

    The contaminated water appears to be moving toward the town, said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the tribe, and concentrations of potentially harmful substances such as heavy metals are on the rise. The acidity of the groundwater has increased. And state regulators, Clow said, don’t appear to share the tribe’s interest in addressing the pollution.

    At this point, Clow said, “I think it would be the tribe’s preference that the facility shut down. But that’s a big ask there.” So instead, the tribe has focused on persuading the mill’s owners to phase out some of its older waste facilities, which they believe are more prone to leaking.

    There’s one problem: Records from a yearslong court battle indicate that the newer waste-holding facilities, which are not in use currently, may have been built improperly.

    As of now, the town’s drinking water remains clean, but Clow worries unchecked pollution will jeopardize the tribe’s relationship to its ancestral home.

    “The mill has been there for 38 years now, and that’s a pretty short window of time compared to how long the tribe was there before,” he said, “and how long the tribe is going to be there after the mill, and all of that contamination.”

    ‘Giant bathtub’

    In fall 2009, second-generation mine excavator Mark Kerr scored a gig at the White Mesa mill. The job involved the construction of a 40-acre tailings cell, a sort of retention pond Kerr described as a “giant bathtub in the ground” in which the mill would store its waste product. At nearly $5 million, the contract was a midsize project for Kerr’s company, KGL Associates. But the company was in financial trouble and struggling to make payroll.

    “It was a nice job,” Kerr said. “We wanted the job.”

    They wanted the job badly enough, transcripts from a later lawsuit suggest, that Kerr likely shaved his bid to razor-thin margins to undercut competitors’ prices.

    At first, the job seemed to go as planned. The mill’s engineering contractor, Geosyntec Consultants, had laid out what seemed to be a pretty straightforward process: Kerr’s company was to remove the topsoil for later applications, blast a 40-foot-deep hole in the ground, and then clear away the majority of the debris, leaving at least 3 feet of dirt to line and smooth the bottom of the cell.

    About six months in, Kerr received notice from Geosyntec that all the loose debris from the blasting needed to be removed “at no cost to the [mill’s] owner,” according to a May 5 memo.

    “And I refused,” Kerr said, estimating that the free rock removal could have cost his company somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000. “I said we’re following the specs. … That’s when further blowups started happening.”

    Kerr continued to argue with the mill’s owners and consultants about compensation. The engineers, as Kerr and staff he had on site recall, repeatedly insisted that all loose rock must be removed. If not, Kerr said they told him, the gaps between the rocks could collapse under the weight of the cell when it was filled with water and eventually waste.

    Two weeks later, Kerr received a second memo from Geosyntec. He could leave the loose rock in place, but, “to provide a firm and unyielding surface,” the memo states, Kerr’s employees must compact the rock by wetting it down and driving over it repeatedly with heavy machinery.

    Again, this memo said the work should be done “at no additional cost.”

    Kerr proceeded as directed, but his previous arguments with the engineers weighed on him. A cave-in beneath the cell could puncture the liner that, like a kitchen trash bag, prevents waste from leaking. But unlike a plastic trash bin, the excavated “bathtub” Kerr built would allow liquid waste to escape, potentially polluting the groundwater beneath the mill site. How could he be sure this rock compaction would prevent the mill’s “trash” from poking a hole in the liner?

    He began peppering Geosyntec staff with questions via email and through the company’s standard request for information forms. Where is the documentation proving this methodology is safe and effective? Does this meet the requirements of the mill’s operating permits? Do state regulators know about these changes?

    Instead of answers, Kerr received a letter from Geosyntec’s attorneys objecting to his use of the request for information process and asking him to “revise or rescind” his questions. “It is not our experience to be cross-examined on the grounds of an engineering determination by means of an [sic] request for information,” the letter states.

    Kerr’s company walked off the job a few months after the dispute began, leaving at least 4 acres of the cell covered in loose rock. By August 2010, he said, KGL Associates was broke.

    State, federal regulators weigh in

    The mill’s current owners, Energy Fuels Resources, consider Kerr’s claims “completely unfounded” but did not answer specific questions.

    “KGL is a disgruntled former contractor who walked off the job, owes us a lot of money, and simply appears to be harassing us,” the company’s spokesman, Curtis Moore, said in an email. Kerr, Curtis said, is expressing “sour grapes” after losing a $4 million lawsuit.

    That series of court actions began when subcontractors sued the mill for nonpayment, causing the mill to sue Kerr’s KGL.

    According to the mill’s complaint, Kerr’s company not only walked away from the project without paying its subcontractors, but also failed to comply with requested changes to the cell, which resulted in construction defects.

    A court arbitrator ultimately concluded that Kerr owed the mill nearly $4 million in damages, plus attorney fees. And the arbitrator found that the mill’s decision to withhold payment from Kerr was justified, given his company’s poor performance, which forced Energy Fuels to hire a second contractor to complete and correct KGL’s work, including, Curtis said, the 4 acres Kerr claims remain unfinished.

    However, the court laid the blame for any environmental contamination related to the cell’s poor construction at the feet of both parties. “The contamination issue is one of shared fault,” the arbitrator concluded.

    Kerr repeatedly appealed until he ran out of money. The judgment against him stands, though his concerns about the excavation remain.

    As his case wound through the courts, Kerr began contacting the state Division of Radiation Control. Division engineers, he hoped, would have documentation to prove that the mill had made significant changes to his original job specs. But, in a late 2011 letter, the division told him only that the mill’s engineers had not notified the state of changes in their excavation plan — probably because the changes weren’t considered significant.

    Next, Kerr approached the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which conducted a brief investigation and determined his fears were partially substantiated: State regulators needed more stringent requirements when there were changes in construction specifications. The NRC reassured Kerr, however, that Utah had promised to tighten its reporting requirements.

    The NRC concluded that the change did not appear to pose a safety concern. According to the agency, state regulators assured federal overseers that their review of the cell’s quality had taken the new excavation methods into account. To Kerr, this assertion flew in the face of the state’s written letter to him that the changes were not reported to the Division of Radiation Control.

    A review of the state’s records shows a quality assurance report produced by Geosyntec that describes several changes to the cell’s design, but the change in excavation specifications is not mentioned. And current division leadership continues to hold the position originally stated to Kerr. Any changes were probably deemed by the on-site engineers — including a state engineer — to be insignificant.

    “We haven’t seen any issues with the tailings cell since,” said Phil Goble, who oversees the radioactive materials section within the now-combined Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

    Tribe isn’t convinced

    That’s not necessarily the way environmental officials with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe see it. They point to state-collected data that show “a fair amount” of fluid escapes the new cells’ liners and enters a leakage containment system. The fluid has been pumped out and hasn’t entered the environment, but the leaks leave tribal authorities wary.

    Even with superior liner technology, “it’s still releasing fluids,” Clow said. “So when we hear that the three legacy cells north of it, which have … inferior liners, that those can’t possibly be leaking, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”

    The White Mesa mill sits atop several plumes of groundwater contaminated with heavy metals, including uranium and other concerning pollutants. The pollution predates the construction of the new tailings cells — including the cell Kerr excavated, which is not currently in use. But the contamination is spreading toward the White Mesa community, Clow said, and concentrations of some pollutants are increasing.

    The state holds that the contaminants aren’t coming from the mill — or, at least, that there isn’t proof the tailings cells have leaked. The groundwater contains chloroform, which, if consumed, can cause damage to the brain, liver and kidneys, from a metals-testing operation that once operated on the mill site. Employees there used to put the chloroform down the drain, where it entered an unlined septic system that ultimately leaked into the groundwater, Goble said.

    A separate plume of nitrates, a class of acidic salts that in certain circumstances may cause cancer, beneath the mill does appear to be a result of what Goble described as “poor housekeeping within the mill.” But it didn’t come from the tailings cells, he said.

    And the overall increase of acidity in the water below White Mesa — that’s not coming from the waste cells, either, Goble said, because it occurs in groundwater both uphill and downhill from the cells.

    But Clow remains concerned about the rising concentrations of heavy metals, especially those that don’t occur naturally in the White Mesa area.

    One of the issues in trying to tie the pollution to the mill, Clow said, is that neither the state nor the tribe — which maintains its own test wells to monitor groundwater independently — has the historic data necessary to make the case that the metals do not occur naturally in the groundwater.

    To their credit, Clow said, state scientists have conducted detailed studies and data reviews to try to determine what the area’s background levels may be. Baselines based on these analyses have been established. But when the amount of pollution exceeds the baselines, Clow said, the state has simply invalidated its own baselines and establishes new ones, rather than attempt to regulate the mill.

    “The concentrations just go up, and then that’s what they call background,” Clow said, “and that’s where we tend to diverge from the state’s interpretation.”

    Asked whether state regulators have revised background levels at White Mesa, Goble explained a legal process by which Energy Fuels could request to have the background information tied to the mill revised. He indicated Energy Fuels has initiated this process, but did not elaborate.

    A 2013 letter to Energy Fuels shows the Division of Radiation Control agreed to revise several background levels for groundwater at the site, including the benchmark for uranium. According to the letter, the amount of uranium in the groundwater had increased gradually, but the division agreed with the company that the increase was the result of natural causes.

    The tribe also diverges from Utah officials’ assessment of the health risk posed by the contamination. State officials have repeatedly argued that the contaminated water is not used by the tribe — that the community of White Mesa draws its drinking water from a deeper source that remains clean.

    While it’s true that the town wells draw from the cleaner, deeper water, Clow said, the tribe worries the drinking water supply could, eventually, become contaminated. And tribal members do use springs fed by the shallow aquifer for traditional ceremonies.

    “The statement that the tribe doesn’t use the water … is patently false,” he said. “The tribe was there for centuries before anyone else, and so they have traditionally used those springs and seeps, and collected plants for food and medicine on White Mesa, and harvested animals around White Mesa.”

    Town’s troubles

    Clow holds that the town of White Mesa, which predated the mill, will surely outlast the operation — and therefore that the mill should be more concerned about potential impacts for thousands of years to come. But the town may not be such a permanent fixture. Its 2010 population of 242 has decreased by half since that tally, according to U.S. Census data.

    Despite being a lifelong resident, Badback said she sees no future there for her three sons.

    “I encourage my kids to go forward, go out,” she said. “I don’t want them to be stuck in White Mesa.”

    While environmental issues are part of her rationale, the town’s economic hardships and poor living conditions also factor in. According to 2016 U.S. Census figures, just 49 percent of the town’s adults are employed; Badback herself is without work. Her own living conditions are better than most, she said — she stays in a five-bedroom house with nine immediate and extended family members. At night, three people sleep in an outbuilding with electricity but no running water.

    When the mill first arrived in White Mesa, company officials touted it as a job creator, Badback said. But the mill has only ever employed a handful of tribal members, she said, and the work is unsteady, with frequent layoffs.
    Even if there were jobs, Badback said, she would never allow her sons to work at the mill. Her oldest recently moved to New Mexico to find work, and her middle child will soon join him.

    Though she would have liked to leave the town as a youth, Badback said she stayed because her grandparents did not speak English and needed an interpreter. She became a caretaker for her mother, who had been the family breadwinner, and then she had children of her own.

    These days she’s absorbed with trying to educate her neighbors about the mill. She holds community workshops and leads annual protests. But not everyone in town supports her, citing the civic facilities such as a community recreation center that the mill has donated and its unfulfilled promises about jobs.

    Badback doesn’t buy it. Instead, she helps organize surveys to evaluate the health of White Mesa children.

    “We only live one time; when we go, we’re not going to come back,” she said. “Our health is more important than a building. A building can stand for many years.”

    White River Basin: Proponents of storage on Wolf Creek now looking for financial backing

    The site of the potential off-channel Wolf Creek Reservoir on the White River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District wants to build the reservoir northeast of Rangely on Wolf Creek, a tributary of the White River on the Moffat County border, and pump water from the White River to fill it.

    The district is looking at two options, one with a working pool of 20,000 acre-feet, the second with a working pool of 90,000 acre-feet, at estimated costs of $119 million and $191 million respectively.

    The district envisions the reservoir meeting a variety of uses, including providing water to the town of Rangely, supporting oil and gas and oil shale development, providing water for endangered fish, and serving as a recreational attraction. In terms of total size, it is considering a reservoir holding 41,000 or 130,000 acre-feet of water. That would account for an additional nonworking pool that would continue to serve recreation needs at times of low water, provide an insurance water supply in circumstances such as during work on the pumping system, and make room for accumulation of silt.

    The problem of sedimentation has beset Kenney Reservoir, which sits upstream of Rangely on the White River. That is threatening its viability as a continued source of water for Rangely and as a recreational amenity.

    Dredging the reservoir would cost an estimated $700 million. Siltation is expected to be less of a problem in the case of a Wolf Creek reservoir because it’s off the main White River channel and the water would be pumped into it.

    Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District officials discussed their proposal in Glenwood Springs last week with the board of the Colorado River District, a taxpayer-funded entity consisting of 15 counties. The Rio Blanco district is hoping the river district will contribute $50,000 toward the cost of seeking permits for the project, which would be built largely on federal Bureau of Land Management land. It’s also seeking technical and other support from the river district.

    The district board plans to consider the request and act on it at a future board meeting. But Tom Gray, the Moffat County representative on the river district board, voiced general support for the reservoir proposal…

    Representatives of the Rio Blanco district pointed to dry years such as this one, and concerns about longer-term drought, in arguing on behalf of building new storage in the White River basin…

    The district plans to pursue funding from potential users and other sources such as the federal and state governments to pay for the project.

    International climate report warns of drastic, irreversible changes — @LauraPaskus #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    West Drought Monitor October 16 2018.

    From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

    If humans don’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade, we will not stop warming that’s expected to have widespread and catastrophic impacts upon the Earth’s ecosystems.

    That’s one of the most pointed findings in a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was tasked with studying how a 2.0° Celsius rise in global temperature will affect the planet, its ecosystems and human communities, compared with a 1.5°C temperature increase.

    According to the IPCC’s special report, if the Earth’s temperature increases by more than 1.5°C, the changes will be “long-lasting” and “irreversible.”

    Already, the global temperature—averaged between land and sea temperatures—has risen 1° Celsius, or 1.8° Fahrenheit, since 1880. That change has contributed to sea level rise, the melting of Arctic sea ice, coral bleaching of ocean reefs and ocean acidification. In places like the American Southwest, warming is already affecting snowpack, forest dieoffs, water supplies and wildfire season.

    “The more warming that we cause, the broader and more intense are the impacts in general,” said University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor David Gutzler, in summing up the main message of the report. “So, even for regions or components of the climate system for which the difference between 1.5° and 2° doesn’t represent a big threshold or tipping point, the impacts of climate change get considerably bigger.”

    That’s true here in New Mexico, where average annual temperatures have already increased by 2°F just since the 1970s, according to a number of sources, including a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    The faster rate of temperature increase here is due to the fact that continents warm more quickly than oceans, Gutzler explained: “The world is mostly ocean, and we are in the middle of a continent, so when people talk about global warming of one, two or three degrees, for our region, we’re thinking about double those numbers.”

    The #ColoradoRiver reservoir system is starting the water year at record low storage #COriver #aridification

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon) via Aspen Public Radio:

    Key reservoirs along the Colorado River are collectively at their lowest point at the start of a new water year since the last one filled nearly 40 years ago.

    As of Oct. 1 reservoirs that store the Colorado River’s water are at just under 47 percent of their capacity, according to recently released data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Put another way: Reservoirs that provide water to 40 million people and irrigate 5.5 million acres of farmland in the southwest are less than half full.

    The previous low point for the river’s collective reservoir storage was recorded in 2004 after years of dry conditions within the southwestern watershed caused the combined storage to drop to 50 percent of capacity…

    The combined storage figure takes into account the amount of water in ten of the river’s reservoirs, many built as part of the Colorado River Storage Project:

  • Fontenelle Reservoir, Wyoming
  • Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Wyoming and Utah
  • Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado
  • Morrow Point Reservoir, Colorado
  • Crystal Reservoir, Colorado
  • Navajo Reservoir, New Mexico and Colorado
  • Lake Powell, Utah and Arizona
  • Lake Mead, Nevada and Arizona
  • Lake Mohave, Nevada and Arizona
  • Lake Havasu, California and Arizona
  • Dry weather and warm temperatures have reduced the amount of water flowing into these reservoirs. But the Colorado River is also overallocated, where more water has been promised to farmers and cities than actually exists in reality. Year-to-year demands for the river’s water consistently outstrip the supply.

    Water managers throughout the seven states that rely on the river are currently trying to sell cities, farmers and tribal leaders on so-called drought contingency plans, which are meant to cajole water users to conserve more and fill the river’s reservoirs. Federal officials have given state leaders an end of year deadline to finish those plans.

    Funding Available for Agricultural Hydropower Projects — #Colorado Department of Agriculture

    Hydropower sprinkler system via Homelink Magazine

    Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture:

    The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are seeking applicants for on-farm agricultural hydropower projects. The total amount of available assistance for this round is $1,200,000. The funding is available to Colorado agricultural irrigators with appropriate hydropower resources.

    “This program gives producers a way to cut their costs and use their resources efficiently. It’s about water quantity, water quality, and energy resources,” said Sam Anderson, CDA’s Energy Specialist, “We focus on helping farmers upgrade outdated and labor-intensive flood-irrigation systems to more efficient pressurized-irrigation systems using hydropower, or retrofit existing sprinkler systems with a hydropower component.”

    The funding is part of the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Within RCPP, the Colorado irrigation hydropower program provides funding to agricultural producers to help them add hydropower to new or existing irrigation systems.

    For example, past projects have helped farmers use irrigation water to generate electricity, offsetting some of the cost of power for those farms. Other projects have allowed farmers to run large center-pivot sprinkler systems on hydro-mechanical power without the need for any electricity.

    The overall hydro program is funded and assisted by 14 agencies and groups, collectively contributing $3 million to the effort for project funding and technical assistance for Colorado agricultural producers.

    CDA is currently accepting applications for the next round of RCPP irrigation hydro projects. The application deadline is October 19, 2018. Applicants must be eligible to receive funding from the NRCS EQIP program. For more information and to submit an application, visit the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s ACRE3 hydropower website: http://www.colorado.gov/agconservation/hydro-navigation-guide or contact Sam Anderson at 303-869-9044 or CDA_hydro@state.co.us.

    Udall, Heinrich Announce USDA Grants to Support Acequia Associations & Traditional Communities, Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers, and Tribal Communities

    An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

    Here’s the release from Senator Tom Udall’s office:

    Nearly $525,000 in grants come from USDA’s Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program

    Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced three grants totaling nearly $525,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to benefit New Mexico’s traditional communities and acequia associations, Hispanic farmers and ranchers, and tribal agricultural communities in the state. The grants were made through the USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, which Udall and Heinrich have long supported to help socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and foresters in New Mexico and across the country who have historically experienced limited access to USDA loans, grants, training, and technical assistance.

    “New Mexico’s traditional communities have been stewards of our state’s water and land for generations, and this new funding will support acequia farmers and ranchers as they continue to manage our resources for generations to come. These grants will empower farmers and ranchers from Hispanic and tribal communities across New Mexico to continue producing for our state and the nation,” said Udall. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I have worked hard to preserve the Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program and to secure additional funding for these grants – because this program provides essential support to the farmers and ranchers who help make New Mexico strong, but who too often are overlooked or left behind when it comes to federal assistance. I look forward to working with our land grants, acequias, and other traditional New Mexico farming communities to build on this progress.”

    “Our farmers help drive New Mexico’s economy, especially in rural communities,” said Heinrich. “Acequia users, land grants, and tribal communities have cultivated land in New Mexico for centuries. I will continue fighting for New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers so they can continue our state’s long tradition in agriculture and promote long-term, sustainable use of our land and water.”

    The USDA grants announced by Udall and Heinrich include:

    Support for New Mexico Acequias and Traditional Communities: Udall and Heinrich announced a $135,964 grant for the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) for the New Mexico Acequia Farmer and Rancher Education Project, to strengthen the agricultural operations of the farmers and ranchers who use acequias or community ditches in New Mexico. According to USDA, “through a statewide membership network, NMAA will provide education and technical assistance to improve agricultural operations through irrigation efficiency, to train new and beginning farmers and youth, and to increase participation in USDA programs. NMAA will work with organizational and agency partners to ensure farmers, ranchers, and acequias meet eligibility requirements for USDA programs and to assist with USDA applications which will benefit over 300 producers. NMAA will also provide education and training through workshops and demonstration sites for new and beginning farmers and youth benefiting over 150 participants.”

    Support for Native farmers and ranchers from New Mexico tribes and pueblos: Udall and Heinrich announced two grants totaling $388,492 to benefit farmers and ranchers from tribal and pueblo communities. One grant will help expand access for Northern New Mexico pueblos to key USDA programs to benefit the ownership, operation, and profitability of family farms and ranches for pueblo farmers and ranchers. The second grant will help fund agricultural workshops, training, resources, and free consultations for farmers and ranchers on the Navajo Nation.

    More information can be found here.

    “Things are pretty dry” — Patrick Tyrell #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From WyoFile (Angus Thuermer Jr.):

    Wyoming’s water czar warned residents in the Green River drainage that an unprecedented 19-year drought could force regulators to shut off water diversions if users don’t voluntarily limit their use first.

    The Colorado River basin reservoir system that supports 40 million persons and a $1.4 trillion economy is at risk of severe disruption, State Engineer Patrick Tyrrell told stakeholders last week in Baggs, Rock Springs and Pinedale. Tyrell unveiled draft agreements among seven western states that could lead to voluntary, instead of mandatory, reductions in water use when that time comes.

    Demand management and associated programs, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown, could conserve enough water on a voluntary basis “so I don’t have to go turn somebody off upstream.”

    A demand-management program would be “an alternative to that hard regulation,” Tyrrell said, in which those with the most recent water rights would be curtailed first.

    “We’re doing it so we maintain control of our own destiny,” Tyrrell said of the proposed agreements.

    Although Colorado River system reservoirs can hold four years worth of runoff from Wyoming mountains and other ranges across the 250,000 square-mile basin, persistent drought has reduced lakes Powell and Mead to 42 and 38 percent of their respective capacities…

    “Things are pretty dry,” Tyrrell told more than 40 persons in Rock Springs on Wednesday. August saw 2 percent of normal flow into Lake Powell, and September saw “well below” 1 percent of normal.

    “To save the West’s forests, scientists must first learn how trees die” — @HighCountryNews

    Pinon and juniper forests that burned in the early 2000s show little sign of regeneration. Pony Fire, Happy Camp, Siskiyou County, California. Photo credit AWeekOrAWeekend.com.

    From The High Country News (Cally Carswell):

    There are few better places than Frijoles Mesa to study the mortality of trees. This tongue of land lies partly within the grounds of Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. To the west rises Cerro Grande, a mountain riddled with the charred skeletons of fir and pine trees. To the southwest are the lingering scars of another fire, one so intense that its heat alone killed trees that weren’t consumed by the flames themselves.

    The mesa itself is an exceptionally tough place to be a tree, even where the land has escaped conflagration. This summer, many ponderosas were so short of water that their weakened limbs snapped like pretzel sticks. The trees that sit behind a padlocked gate off State Road 4 were also struggling. This is tree physiologist Nate McDowell’s outdoor laboratory. Here, he’s enclosed piñon and juniper trees in transparent silos, cranked up the heat and deprived many of water – in order to watch them die.

    McDowell spent his early career studying the towering conifers of his native Pacific Northwest and came to Los Alamos in 2003, eager to begin a U.S. Department of Energy job that would allow him to set his own research agenda. But looking out his office window at New Mexico’s characteristic piñon-juniper woodlands, he had second thoughts. “This is not a forest,” he scoffed. The stout, pear-shaped junipers – one of the most common species here – resembled ill-kept hedges more than trees, all arms and twisted torsos, barely showing any leg. “They were like a weed to me,” he remembers.

    Like weeds, junipers are durable. Those outside McDowell’s window were still green, but the piñon around them were dead. During the deep drought of 2002 and 2003, piñon died throughout the Southwest in historic numbers. Had the Old Testament told stories of forest die-off, as it did of floods, the carnage around Los Alamos would have been called “biblical”: More than 90 percent of the area’s piñon succumbed. “What a bummer,” McDowell sulked. “I’m a tree physiologist, and the trees are all dead. What am I gonna do?”

    At first, the cause of the trees’ demise seemed obvious. The punishing drought badly weakened them, and when beetles bored through their bark, the trees couldn’t muster enough sap to pitch them out. Once inside, the beetles mated, multiplied, dug tiny tunnels and spread a fungus that cut off the flow of water and nutrients, killing the tree.

    But Dave Breshears, a University of Arizona professor and arid lands ecologist who had studied the woodlands for years, suspected that the truth was more complicated. During the 1950s drought, tree death seemed less extensive, even though that drought was longer and drier than the more recent one. What was different about this drought was temperature: It was a degree or two hotter.

    Breshears’ observations inspired McDowell to take a second look at the struggling forest. It’s common knowledge that trees die during and after a drought, McDowell says, but “nobody can predict where it will happen, when it will happen, what trees it will happen to. That means we don’t understand it. That was exciting to me – there’s a science question there.”

    Why do trees die? It’s a deceptively simple question in urgent need of answers: Trees are dying at alarming rates not only in the Southwest but in Colorado, the Northern Rockies, Alaska and elsewhere. This summer in northern New Mexico, even junipers began to expire in droves.

    It might seem surprising that, in 2013, we don’t know how trees die. We understand tree growth so well that we can decipher its code – tree rings – and reconstruct droughts thousands of years in the past. So why is tree mortality such a mystery?

    “There has been a long tradition in plant science where, if your plant died during your experiment, you were bummed out,” McDowell explains. “It was like, ‘Ugh, we’ve gotta start over.’ The question was never, ‘Why did it die?’ ” Besides, he adds, tree death didn’t seem particularly pressing. “I think people inherently look at trees as these stable things in our lives, like mountains. We didn’t know there was a problem.”

    Western forests are confronting new versions of familiar foes. In the 1990s, a series of warm winters and summers in south-central Alaska allowed bark beetle populations to explode and kill millions of old spruce trees. Beetles gained similar strength in the Rockies during mild winters in the late ’90s and early 2000s, killing not only their usual victims but also entire hillsides of ancient whitebark pines, which live at altitudes once too frigid to support the insects.

    Farther south, piñons were also attacked, but by a beetle that, unlike its fellows in the Rockies, typically preys only on the weak. Here, scientists believed the industrious insects were less the cause of death than the final straw: a strong shove to trees with one foot already dangling over the cliff.

    The piñons died during what Breshears dubbed a “global-change-type-drought.” It’s impossible to blame any particular weather event on climate change. Still, the drought was a glimpse of the future, when droughts are predicted to be hotter and drier. Breshears and his colleagues found that it took 15 months in extremely dry soils to kill the piñons around McDowell’s office. The heat, they believed, had increased the overall death toll by siphoning more water from soil and plants, though they couldn’t yet prove it.

    Dramatic changes in Southwestern forests had been expected – eventually. Desert edges are already marginal tree habitat, and were predicted to become especially vulnerable to the future’s hotter, more intense droughts. Still, the amount of dead wood around Los Alamos was startling. Piñons didn’t die only at the ecological boundary between woodland and grassland, the dry end of their range where Breshears and others believed climate change impacts would first become visible. Instead, piñons died almost everywhere they grew.

    No community can comfortably afford to lose its forests. Besides being nice places to hike and ski, forests provide food and shelter for birds and wildlife. Leaves scrub the air of pollutants humans saturate it with. And forests shelter winter snow, the source of most Westerners’ water supply, filtering it to rivers and streams in spring.

    More important from a global perspective is the fact that forests ingest an estimated quarter to a third of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, effectively keeping the earth’s burner turned down. When trees die, they not only stop absorbing CO2, but they also decompose, gradually releasing the carbon stockpiled in their wood. If enough forests collapse, the flame on the planetary heating element could turn from “low” to “high.” Instead of slowing global warming, forests could start to make it worse.

    Computer models either don’t account for future tree death caused by climate change, or they do so simplistically. These shortcomings worry scientists, and with good reason: The most troubling thing it could mean is that the dramatic forecasts the models currently produce – the ones predicting not only a warmer climate, but also the fundamental transformation of life on earth – are understated.

    Before scientists can more accurately predict our future climate, they have to complete a simpler task – at least, one that sounds simpler. They need to understand, in mechanistic detail, how trees meet their end.

    After Nate McDowell spent a few years studying the inner lives of junipers, his attitude toward the trees softened. What junipers lack in majestic height and open, shady understories, they make up for in pluck and perseverance. McDowell, a spry, 41-year-old former endurance runner, began to appreciate these qualities. “They’re just so tough,” he says. “You have to respect someone who’s tough.”

    Juniper doesn’t cower in the face of drought. Even when extremely short on water, it doesn’t close its stomata – the tiny pores on its needles that regulate the tree’s basic bodily functions. Stomata allow trees to consume carbon dioxide and photosynthesize. They also let water escape, creating the tension that pulls water upward through the tree’s circulatory system. If there’s too little water in the soil, a tree’s pipes can fill with air and break.

    To prevent this, many trees close their stomata during droughts. Juniper, with its deep roots and sturdy build, doesn’t. When extremely stressed, it begins severing the water supply to entire limbs – reducing the amount of water the whole tree needs to survive. This is why smooth, naked branches – the desert’s version of driftwood – often protrude from living junipers otherwise covered in stringy bark and sharp needles.

    Piñon is more cautious, slamming its stomata shut during drought. Perusing data Breshears and another colleague collected during the drought, McDowell had an epiphany: For a year, the piñons that died endured a level of water stress that should have kept their stomata shut. Photosynthesis is to trees what cooking is to people. It’s how they eat. In trying to protect themselves from dying of thirst, he thought, maybe piñons had starved to death instead.

    McDowell hypothesized that drought could kill trees either through thirst or starvation, and that owing to their different coping strategies, juniper would die of thirst while piñon would starve. Since the hypothesis is based on fundamental plant biology, and because juniper and piñon manage risk so differently, studying them could reveal basic mechanisms of death that can be tested and tweaked to model mortality elsewhere.

    McDowell first tested his hypothesis in a drought experiment in central New Mexico. One set of trees was irrigated, another deprived of water, a third received whatever the sky provided, and all were poked and probed. The piñons in the “droughted” plots, nudged by beetles, perished first, but within a few years junipers, which beetles ignored, died too. Apparently, neither strategy was enough to protect the trees from long-term drought. Rather than perishing of thirst or hunger alone, both species died from some combination of both.

    The Frijoles Mesa experiment adds another variable: heat. On the mesa in mid-August, McDowell pried open an acrylic cylinder enclosing a diminutive, maybe 6-foot-tall juniper, and invited me to wedge myself inside. The tree was alive, but had the scrappy look of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A fan roared on and off. The air was warm, the experience claustrophobic. After a minute or two, I showed myself out.

    The chambers are kept at a consistent 9 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperatures, the sort of weather all these trees may have to cope with in the latter half of this century, especially during a drought. The study is young, but McDowell has found evidence of heat’s disruptive effects. Elevated temperatures seem to cause both piñon and juniper to devour their carbohydrate reserves more quickly, for instance. “But it’s not that clean,” he says. During winter, extra warmth can boost photosynthesis.

    Tree mortality is a complex and dynamic process. But despite all the remaining questions, a flurry of research over the last five years has helped crystallize an important message, says Breshears. “We have gained a huge amount of confidence that, under warmer conditions, we’re going to get a lot more mortality.”

    In mid-August, I hiked into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Santa Fe with Park Williams, a 32-year-old climatologist who, until recently, worked out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory with McDowell. When we strolled past Hyde Park Lodge, his eyes began to dance. In two weeks, the California native would marry his girlfriend at the lodge. He had proposed to her underneath a coast redwood, his favorite tree.

    A half-mile or so up a steep trail, we gained a sweeping view of the fortresses of pine and fir on facing hills. Williams wore a navy trucker hat and aviator sunglasses with blue-blocking lenses. “When I first look at this mountainside, it looks totally green,” he remarked, handing me his sunglasses. The lenses made it easier to see red-orange flecks in the blanket of green, like the first autumn leaves snagged in a lawn. “I think we’re seeing the beginning of something that in another one or two years will be much more widespread.”

    Williams hasn’t studied this forest, but his offhand prediction has some basis. Last fall, he authored a high-profile study concluding that if climate models’ temperature projections are correct, and if carbon emissions remain at current levels, most mature conifers in the Southwest could die by 2050 or soon after. The tall ponderosa haunted by Mexican owls? Mostly gone. The old piñon that produce sweet nuts prized by New Mexicans? For the most part, toast. Douglas fir, the largest conifers native to Arizona and New Mexico? Them, too.

    Williams made a convincing – and frightening – case that warmer temperatures alone could kill the trees, even without changes in rain and snowfall. Using tree rings from piñon, ponderosa and Doug fir – the species that occupy the Southwest’s warm and dry, and cool and wet niches – Williams created something called a “forest drought stress index.” It showed, surprisingly, that drought stress is driven as much by growing season temperatures as winter snowpack.

    Drought is not always a problem of scarce rain or snow, though that’s how we usually think of it. Hot weather can also impose drought conditions on plants. Minor temperature increases have an outsized effect on the amount of water the atmosphere can hold: When the temperature goes up, the atmosphere gets a lot spongier. The relationship is exponential. Stubbornly set on fulfilling its potential, warm air sucks water more greedily from both plants and soil. If the water supply it’s drawing on becomes depleted, the tension begins to strain a tree’s water columns. Picture an eager child sucking the last drops of a milkshake from a straw: The water columns, like the straw, collapse. That’s bad news for trees, no matter their coping strategy.

    Williams also found a strong correlation between water stress and the forested acreage killed by beetles and wildfire in the past 30 years. “Even if we think of a couple degrees of warming as relatively minor,” Williams says, “forests notice a couple of degrees, and they express it by dying.”

    Because the atmosphere’s sponginess is so strongly dictated by temperature, climate models can help predict how fast it will climb. “I considered a scenario where we begin curbing emissions significantly yesterday,” Williams says. “Even in that most optimistic scenario, we’re looking at megadrought conditions by the 2070s.” In other words, even if we began to aggressively control carbon pollution tomorrow, the heat guaranteed by past and ongoing emissions could still devastate Southwestern conifers.

    “By 2050, it doesn’t matter if it’s wet or dry, it’s just too damn hot out,” McDowell explains. The sense of inevitability that accompanied Williams’ conclusions changed how McDowell views his work. At first, he was intrigued by the novel scientific questions involved in tree mortality. “Now I feel like I have a moral obligation to speak up,” he says. “We’re not just going to lose a bunch of trees, we’re going to lose most of them in the Southwest. By 2050, we could be looking at Albuquerque vegetation in Los Alamos,” a landscape now surrounded by forests. “Albuquerque has grass and creosote bush.”

    Such radical changes are unlikely to be confined to the Southwest. A newer modeling effort that Williams and McDowell participated in estimates that the Pacific Northwest could lose 60 percent of its conifers to heat-induced water stress by 2100 – an especially sobering finding for McDowell, whose love of forests was lit at an early age by the old Doug firs on Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. “Can you imagine the Olympic Peninsula without trees?” he asks.

    Such a future is hard to imagine. Many Western forests still look healthy, with plump, verdant canopies. But even some of the healthiest-looking stands may already be stressed.

    In mid-July, U.S. Geological Survey forest ecologist Nate Stephenson drove me to a long-term forest-monitoring plot in Sequoia National Park, a few hours north of Los Angeles. As we left the shrubby foothills, where one could break a sweat standing still at 9 a.m., the temperature dropped 20 degrees, shadows painted the pavement, and giant sequoia appeared – the titans of the Sierra Nevada. The plot itself was blanketed with ferns, and full of soaring sequoias and lichen-covered sugar pines.

    Stephenson helped establish the network in 1982, measuring off the first plots with string. He is wildly passionate about the Sierra Nevada: In graduate school, he designed a thesis project that allowed him to hike 500 “glorious” miles a summer in Sequoia’s backcountry. After he earned his Ph.D., he returned to Sequoia with no promise of permanent employment. He wasn’t interested in going where the jobs were. Stephenson has now studied this place for 34 years. But it can still surprise him. When he expanded the plot network across different elevations in the early ’90s to study how climate affects forests, he says, “It didn’t occur to me that by the mid-2000s, we would already be able to detect an increase in tree mortality.”

    Around that time, Phil van Mantgem, a scientist who worked in Stephenson’s shop, began analyzing growth and mortality in the plots. He expected dull results – birth and death rates usually reach equilibrium in old growth – but something peculiar appeared in his data: Background mortality rates – the rate at which trees die in a healthy forest – had doubled. “We thought we did something wrong,” Stephenson says. “We tried to make it go away. We couldn’t.” The only possible cause they couldn’t eliminate was the average temperature, which had risen almost 2 degrees F since the 1980s.

    Stephenson and van Mantgem ran the same analysis for old-growth forests West-wide. They found the same pattern: At many high-, mid- and low-elevation plots, from California to Idaho, Arizona and Colorado –– even in Washington’s Hoh Rainforest –– conifers were dying at double the rate they used to.

    “Every year, you expect some people to die in your hometown,” Stephenson analogizes. “If that death rate started to creep up slowly, it doesn’t create a dead landscape all at once, but you would sit up and go, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening?’ ”

    As in so many ecological stories, what’s happening is complicated. “There is something tied to temperature that is probably responsible for what we’re seeing,” says van Mantgem. But exactly what that something is may vary from forest to forest. At mid-elevations in the Southern Sierra, where the sugar pines and sequoias live, the increase in mortality seems to be tied primarily to a temperature-induced increase in the atmosphere’s demand for water – the same thing Park Williams expects to happen more in the Southwest. But at higher elevations and in wetter forests, like the Hoh, warmer temperatures may instead be favoring the fungi and insects that attack trees.

    What the uptick in background mortality ultimately portends is also uncertain. But the forests’ response to mild temperature increases, van Mantgem says, indicates their vulnerability. “(The results) might be telling us that they have chronic stress as things get warmer. Then if you get an acute stress, like a severe drought, it might be something that hits you over the head.” That is, it might be something that takes out a centuries-old forest in a year, or two – or, in the case of a forest fire, overnight.

    The Southwest has already experienced such sudden shocks. One of the most dramatic occurred just a few miles from McDowell’s outdoor lab. There, in 2011, an aspen tree fell onto a power line, sparking a fire stoked by hot, dry weather and drought-seasoned fuels that burned 43,000 acres in its first 14 hours. The Las Conchas blaze raged through pine and fir canopies on the Jemez Mountains’ eastern flank, killing entire stands. Some are unlikely to regenerate, ever, and are already being replaced by oak and locust shrubs. The worst-hit and driest areas have yet to sprout much of anything at all.

    “That is the land manager’s worst nightmare,” Stephenson says of the Las Conchas Fire. “The biological potential has been lost, there’s going to be soil loss, erosion, the trees’ seed source has been killed off. That was not an easy transition.”

    If the warming trend continues – as it surely will without heroic intervention – Stephenson hopes land managers can slow the pace of change and influence its outcome for key forests in the Sierra. The Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, for instance, contains the most massive tree on the planet – known the world over as the General Sherman. “It’s a place of high social value,” Stephenson says. To help protect the Giant Forest from sudden death in an insect outbreak or a big wildfire, managers can thin trees and set small, controlled fires to reduce competition and increase the resilience of individual trees. If research begins to show that certain species can’t survive the future climate, Stephenson says, managers may decide to let those trees go, assisting their migration to more hospitable terrain and perhaps planting new species in their place.

    So far, though mortality among many of the area’s tree species is increasing, the giant sequoias seem unchanged. There’s too little information to draw strong conclusions about the whole population, but preliminary studies suggest that, in their prime habitat, the trees are actually thriving, benefiting perhaps from an extended growing season. Coast redwoods also appear to be growing vigorously, perhaps basking in extra sunlight as coastal fog declines.

    Of course, this trend could change. These two iconic giants slurp more water than any other trees on earth, and future changes in water supply could hurt. Desperate measures to save them – like installing sprinkler systems – are already being discussed. “Mortality of big trees is a one-way street,” says Stephenson. “You can’t replace them once they’re gone.”

    Models are useful in planning for the future, but we needn’t wait for them to be perfected in order to start grappling with the effects of climate change on forests. The mechanisms and trends scientists like Nate McDowell, Park Williams and Nate Stephenson are uncovering are already in motion – and gaining momentum. The future is all around us, plain to see.

    That’s especially true in the Jemez Mountains. USGS research ecologist Craig Allen has spent his career in this landscape, never growing bored. Allen is a whip-smart man with boyish, straight-cut bangs whom McDowell calls “one of the godfathers of tree mortality.” Like Stephenson, a colleague and friend, he’s studied the same place for 30-plus years.

    Change itself does not surprise him. But some of the changes he’s seeing now are painful. “Because trees live longer than we do, we tend to view them as timeless,” Allen says. “It’s unsettling when these landscapes flip overnight.” Asked about his favorite tree species, Allen deflects the “unfair question,” but acknowledges that he loves old trees the most. The longer a tree lives, the more visible its history becomes – in gnarled bark, fire scars, and in the case of conifers, flattened tops. “You can feel this sense of endurance,” Allen remarks. “In human terms, we would call it wisdom.”

    Allen has spent a lot of time thinking – and publishing papers – about the global significance of the rapid changes in the Jemez. “I don’t want to overstate the lessons of the Southwest for the rest of the world,” he says. “But it’s a preview of what could happen.” Drought won’t kill all of the world’s trees; some forests may get wetter and grow better. Still, the expected increase in global temperature is so extreme that it could easily convince most trees that they’ve moved to a new planet, and outweigh the potential upsides of climate change for plants, such as more carbon dioxide to consume.

    Forests’ widespread vulnerability is already evident. A hot, dry spell in Europe in the mid-2000s wiped out oak, fir, spruce, beech and pine. Drought has picked off aspen, jack pine, and black and white spruce in Western Canada’s boreal forest – at both high and low elevations. A once-in-a-century drought in 2005, followed by another five years later, killed vast numbers of trees in the Amazon rainforest.

    “One thing we are going to lose, and it might be in most places later this century, is old trees,” Allen says. “Even if the system can still grow abundant vegetation, the historically dominant old trees are dominant because they’re tuned to that historic climate window – which is already not the climate that we’re in.”

    As grim a prospect as that is, it is also an opportunity to make the forests we still have more resilient – and to start doing so now. It is possible, even in the Southwest. The region goes through natural wet and dry cycles, and within the next 10 years, says Allen, the current dry spell is likely to let up. That will ease the pressure on trees from wildfires, beetles and the weather itself, and allow land managers to more safely thin forests with low-intensity fires. Combined with landscape-scale mechanical thinning, these measures could soften the blow of the next drought, and reduce the risk of future catastrophic fires or insect outbreaks. If managers want to plant trees – perhaps more drought-hardy species from other places – the wetter cycle will give seedlings an opportunity to establish themselves.

    Most of the old trees we love may still perish, but there are better and worse ways for that to happen. When landscapes change incrementally, they are more likely to maintain species diversity, soil health, and basic functions like erosion control. Past droughts that killed trees in what seemed like apocalyptic fashion, Allen says, in fact caused a gradual reshuffling of the landscape. The 1950s drought, for instance, killed most ponderosa at the dry end of the tree’s range, but not all. It didn’t leave a treeless landscape, prone to the kind of erosion and soil loss that follows severe wildfire. “It didn’t leave a desert,” Allen says. Piñon and juniper replaced the dead ponderosa. Going forward, change of this sort may represent a best-case scenario. The question is: How fast can new trees colonize landscapes as the old trees die?

    If his daughter or his twin boys have children, Allen wonders, what will they want to know about the forests he knew? He is brainstorming a new project: documenting the size, age, diversity and three-dimensional structure of trees in old forests, archiving tree-ring samples and the histories they hold, and recording the sounds of birds and wind blowing through the canopy. He also hopes to document what ancient forests mean to people by involving artists, poets, ethnographers and the elders of cultures for whom forests are important. Such a project, he is starting to think, might be just as important as scientific research. Someday, even if only through a virtual experience, his grandchildren could still walk through the Jemez Mountains’ ponderosa or the Olympic Peninsula’s rainforest, and hear the whisper of the breeze through the treetops.

    #ColoradoRiver District wants state policy on potential water-use cutbacks — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification @ColoradoWater @CWCB_DNR

    A big beach on the lower Green River in late September is indicative of the low flows in 2018, which have caused water levels in Lake Powell to continue to drop. Plans to bolster flows in the reservoir by sending water down the Green and Colorado rivers is raising hard questions for Western Slope irrigators.

    From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

    Before the Colorado River District will support pending federal legislation allowing drought contingency plans in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins to proceed, it wants the state of Colorado to adopt a policy putting limits on a new water-use reduction program designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.

    That was the clear message from the River District board that general manager Andy Mueller said he received during a passionate discussion during a district meeting Tuesday.

    “Most of the board is saying that at a bare minimum we have to have the state, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, affirm that there are in fact some sideboards and protections from the risks we face,” Mueller said, in summarizing the board’s discussion. “We’ve got to have some principles that guide the way this program is set up, and its consistency with the state water plan.”

    Mueller said the program has to be consistent with the state water plan, there has to be an equitable distribution of wet water coming from both the Front Range and the Western Slope, and the program has to be voluntary, temporary and compensated.

    “This board is not OK with the idea of a mandatory curtailment to fill a demand management pool,” Mueller said. “We don’t feel that there is legal or statutory authority for such a program.”

    The concerns of the River District directors stem from an ongoing multi-state effort to create and gain approval for “drought contingency plans” in the lower and upper basins.

    The lower basin states include California, Arizona and Nevada, and the upper basin states include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

    And as part of the regional “DCP” effort, it is anticipated that federal legislation will be required to implement changes to how water is managed in the upper and lower basins, with the goal of keeping enough water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to keep those massive reservoirs functioning in the face of an ongoing 18-year drought.

    The proposed changes include modifying the current regulations that guide how much conserved, or saved, water can be stored in Lake Mead by lower basin entities.

    The changes include developing a plan to release water in a coordinated fashion from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, which can send water down the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers, respectively, to Lake Powell.

    And the changes include creating a legally secure pool of water in Lake Powell to be filled with water conserved after fallowing fields, primarily, in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

    Officials from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City who are working on the drought contingency plans say legislation will be submitted to Congress during the lame-duck session after the midterm elections.

    And it’s widely assumed that such legislation will pass only if there is no opposition from entities that would be affected, such as the Colorado River District, which represents 15 Western Slope counties.

    Mueller said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the CWCB, a state agency that manages water planning, will adopt a guiding policy at its November board meeting about the creation of a demand management program.

    And a senior CWCB official Wednesday offered reasons for Mueller’s optimism, including that such a policy is now being drafted for the board’s consideration.

    “The policy statement will be informed by the public testimony, letters received, and the feedback we’ve heard from stakeholders around the state in the past year of aggressive public outreach,” said Brent Newman, who is the section chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section and the state agency’s point person on Colorado River issues. “Because we’re hoping to respond and provide CWCB leadership to concerns that our partners and stakeholders have raised, it will likely address these issues.”

    Newman also emphatically told the river district’s directors Tuesday that the state is not working on a mandatory curtailment program to avoid a call on the river system under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

    “Not myself, not the CWCB staff, not our board, not the Attorney General’s Office, not the division of water resources, not the state engineer, none of us at the state are assessing or recommending any kind of mandatory anticipatory curtailment scenario,” Newman said. “That is not in our books. Yes, we’ve had some water users say that if voluntary, temporary and compensated isn’t sufficient, you may have to look at this. We are not doing that.”

    It was also made clear during the river district’s meeting that “anticipatory mandatory curtailment” of water rights in Colorado is seen as a direct threat to family-run farms and ranches on the Western Slope.

    “If we want to push the Western Slope to the brink, where people start to actually sit down at the kitchen table and consider whether or not they ought to sell the farm to some outside-the-Western-Slope interest, this is how we get there,” said Marc Catlin, who represents Montrose County on the River District’s board, and also represents District 58 in the Colorado House.

    After Catlin’s comments, many other River District board members said they agreed.

    “This just shows how important it is to get the demand-management program right, and that we don’t rush into a demand-management pool in Lake Powell before we’ve had this discussion and before we’ve agreed to a policy and principles to guide us,” said Tom Alvey, the current president of the district’s board, who represents Delta County. “From all the perspective of water users on the Western Slope, there is huge concern about this.”

    Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.

    “It happened stunningly fast…From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape” — John Dahlke #ActOnClimate

    From National Geographic (Hannah Nordhaus):

    As the morning light grows over the eastern mountains, the outlandish mating ritual comes into view. The knee-high males strut around, puffing their white-feathered chests and splaying their tails. They chase one another and spar in a flurry of beating wings, heaving chests, and loud thunking. Meanwhile the females—smaller birds with brindled gray feathers that blend with sage and soil—stand around looking bored. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, and the human analogies are inescapable: singles bar, Venice Beach boardwalk, Senate hearing.

    Leaves and flowers of Artemisia tridentata.
    By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4424733

    The greater sage grouse is “unquestionably the most comical-looking bird I have ever seen,” ornithologist Charles Bendire noted in 1877. Back then there were millions of sage grouse across the American West. Native peoples and Anglo settlers alike hunted them for feathers and food. Camping in one Wyoming valley in the 1880s, naturalist George Bird Grinnell found it so crammed with grouse that it became a “moving mass of gray.”

    Such scenes are hard to find today. Less than 10 percent of the bird’s original population remains, about half a million birds scattered across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. Sage grouse need undisturbed sagebrush; the tough, drought-resistant shrub feeds the birds, especially in winter, and shelters them and their nests. But sagebrush is in retreat everywhere. Massive overgrazing a century ago cleared the way for invasive grasses that now fuel devastating fires in the western part of the bird’s range. Roads and subdivisions, transmission lines, farms, gas fields, and wind turbines—all disrupt what was once an unbroken sea of sage.

    Preserving sagebrush for grouse would help other animals that depend on the same habitat, such as pronghorn, mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and burrowing owls. But it might prove costly to ranchers, miners, oil and gas developers, and real estate brokers. In 2015 then President Barack Obama’s administration brokered what it hailed as a historic collaboration among those competing interests. Now President Donald Trump’s administration is weakening provisions that steered oil and gas drilling away from areas that had been reserved for sage grouse.

    It’s the age-old battle between those who want to preserve western lands and those who want to extract a living from them—only in this case, the burden falls on a comical, knee-high bird. As the sage grouse goes, so goes the West.

    One of the biggest factors in the grouse’s decline these days may be the astonishing increase in natural gas production in places such as the Green River Basin, south of Pinedale, Wyoming. In 1984, when biologist John Dahlke first visited, the basin contained sagebrush, a few fence posts, some two-track roads, and not much else—except the largest known winter concentration of sage grouse. They would lift from the sage in lumbering waves, Dahlke recalls: “The sky was full of them, bumping into each other, falling down.”

    That basin is now home to one of the most productive gas fields in the region. Called the Jonah Field, it’s crisscrossed with roads and cluttered with chugging, groaning infrastructure: gas wells, drill rigs, pipelines, sage-camouflaged service huts. Nearly all of that is on federal land.

    “It happened stunningly fast,” says Dahlke, who works as a wildlife consultant in Pinedale. “From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape.”

    The breakneck change has proved particularly hard on sage grouse because of their fidelity to ancestral mating and nesting grounds. Males return each spring to the same leks—clearings where they do their mating dances. Females usually nest within 500 yards or so of the previous year’s nest. Their chicks settle nearby.

    “Sage grouse are very poor pioneers,” Dahlke says. Rather than set off for better habitat—which is more and more limited—they dance doggedly on and nest among the bulldozers and flaring gas wells. Most birds survive in the short term, Dahlke says, but “incremental impacts” take their toll. The number of leks has dwindled. “The enormous winter flocks are now gone from the Jonah Field,” Dahlke says. “They are gone.”

    Only in the early 1990s did scientists start to realize the extent of the sage grouse’s decline across the West. In 1999 conservation groups filed the first petition requesting that the bird be protected under the Endangered Species Act. But for years the federal government, hamstrung by tight budgets and pressure from business interests, put off a reckoning. Listing sage grouse as endangered would sharply limit economic activity on the 173 million acres of public, state, and private land where sage grouse live.

    Greater sage grouse range map via the USFWS.

    But the threat of a listing motivated states to take action. In 2007 Wyoming, which houses more than a third of the remaining sage grouse and has an economy that depends on fossil fuel extraction, brought together a broad coalition—ranchers, industry representatives, conservation groups, land managers, and politicians—to create a policy to halt the bird’s decline.

    “We battled it out mightily,” says Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, which operates on the Jonah Field. “And then we put our interests aside and asked, ‘What is best for Wyoming?’ ”

    The group ultimately agreed to limit any development and restore disturbed areas within “core” grouse habitat—not including the Jonah Field, where the grouse population was already diminished—while allowing more intensive development elsewhere.

    The Obama administration’s $60 million federal plan was modeled on Wyoming’s. No faction got everything it wanted. But, Ulrich says, “it’s demonstrably working.” Industry got certainty: The administration promised it wouldn’t list sage grouse as endangered. Conservationists, says Brian Rutledge of the Audubon Society, got limits on development in important habitat. “Do we have issues?” Rutledge asks. “Of course. But we set standards and are measuring impacts. To me this is the future of conservation.”

    Not everyone agreed. Groups on left and right filed suit, arguing, respectively, that the plan would not adequately protect grouse or that the restrictions were “draconian.” “The certainty of not being able to develop is not the kind of certainty we want,” says Kathleen Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.

    The Trump administration agrees: For the sake of energy independence and not “destroying local communities,” as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed lifting some restrictions on development in key sage grouse habitat. Under another proposed policy, which could affect many species, the administration would allow regulators to consider not only the science but also the economic impact of listing species as endangered.

    #Drought news: SE #Colorado depiction improves

    Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

    Summary

    A wet weather pattern persisted across most of the nation, as the active Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific Hurricane Seasons continued. Hurricane Michael rapidly intensified just prior to slamming ashore in the Florida Panhandle, producing heavy rain across portions of the Southeast but causing fatalities as well as widespread, locally catastrophic damage to homes, businesses, infrastructure, and agriculture. Out west, moisture associated with Hurricane Sergio triggered additional moderate to heavy rain across the lower Four Corners Region. Abundant moisture associated in part with the remnants of Sergio also led to another round of heavy rain from Texas northeastward into the middle Mississippi Valley. Likewise, rain and snow afforded drought relief from the central and northern Rockies into the upper Midwest. The unsettled conditions continued across the southern U.S. after the period ended; any rain that fell after 12z Tuesday morning (8 am, EDT) will be incorporated into next week’s analysis…

    High Plains

    The overall trend toward improving conditions continued, with rain and snow on top of last week’s precipitation offering many of the region’s lingering driest areas additional much-needed moisture. In the Dakotas, moderate to heavy snow (nearly 6 inches reported at the NWS office in Grand Forks, ND, on October 10th) afforded a reduction to Abnormal Dryness (D0) to Extreme Drought (D3); two-week precipitation (liquid equivalent) has totaled 1 to 3 inches across the central and eastern Dakotas. Farther south, another wet week in Kansas pushed two-week totals to locally as high as 10 inches, supporting an additional reduction to the state’s Moderate (D1) and Severe Drought (D2). The western flank of this week’s rain added to the recent totals in southeastern Colorado, with 60-day precipitation surpluses of 1 to 4 inches supporting the reduction of D0, D1, and D2. Across the region, the recent rain and snow are helping to recharge water reserves and soil moisture while aiding pasture recovery and improving prospects for winter wheat establishment…

    West

    The favorable start to the 2018-19 Water Year continued, with rain and mountain snow reported across much of the region. Abundant moisture associated in part with the remnants of Hurricane Sergio led to 1 to 3 inches of rain in southern portions of California and Arizona, while precipitation amounts locally more than an inch (liquid equivalent) were noted from the southern Rockies northward into Montana and the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. The recent rain and mountain snow led to notable reductions of Abnormal Dryness (D0) and Moderate to Exceptional Drought (D1-D4) in Arizona and environs. Furthermore, additional assessment from experts in the field supported reductions to the drought intensity and coverage across eastern New Mexico as well as an adjustment (expansion) of Extreme Drought (D3) in central Utah. Coordination with local experts also supported a reduction of D0 and D2 in southern and northern Idaho, respectively, as impacts begin to subside due to the arrival of seasonably colder weather; furthermore, recent beneficial rain and snow in southcentral portions of the state (30-day precipitation up to 125 percent of normal) further supported the improvement. Despite the generally favorable start to the Water Year, however, areas from the Pacific Northwest southward into central California and the western Great Basin were mostly dry. In particular, Northwestern dryness remained particularly acute in the Cascade Range, with 6-month precipitation departures averaging 4 to 10 inches (locally more than 12 inches below normal)…

    South

    Another round of moderate to heavy rainfall — partly associated with remnants of Hurricane Sergio in the eastern Pacific — was responsible for additional widespread reductions of drought intensity and coverage. Much of central and eastern Texas was doused with 2 to 10 inches of rain, with amounts locally more than 12 inches from the Edwards Plateau to Lufkin. This rain fell on top of last week’s downpours, pushing 30-day totals to locally more than 20 inches. During the 7-day monitoring period, the axis of heavy rainfall (2-6 inches) extended east-northeastward across southeastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Louisiana, into western Tennessee; widespread 1- and 2-category reductions were made to the drought analysis, and with more rain falling after the Tuesday-morning cutoff, additional reductions in the lingering Abnormal Dryness (D0) are likely…

    Looking Ahead

    Mostly dry conditions will prevail across the contiguous U.S., with the threat of additional heavy rain confined to Texas. Showers will accompany a strong cold front over the eastern third of the nation Friday into Saturday, but amounts will be generally light. This same front will bring sharply colder weather on gusty winds as well rain and high-elevation snow showers to the northeastern quarter of the nation. In contrast, high pressure will maintain mostly dry weather across the central and western U.S., save for lingering rain and snow showers over the Four Corners States. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for October 23 – 27 calls for near- to above-normal precipitation over much of the nation, with the greatest likelihood of wetter-than-normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest, southern Plains, and eastern Gulf Coast. Drier-than-normal weather will be limited to the Great Lakes and Northeast. Warmer-than-normal weather across the eastern half of the nation — save for warmth across the central and eastern Gulf Coast — will contrast with above-normal temperatures from the northern Plains to the Pacific Coast States.

    Aspen officials finalize all agreements on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek dam cases — @AspenJournalism

    The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, in the Roaring Fork River basin. Under conditional water rights held by the city of Aspen since 1965, a 155-foot-tall dam would be built in this location on Maroon Creek to store 4,567 acre-feet of water. The city of Aspen has reached agreements with 10 opposing parties in water court to move the water rights to other locations. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

    The city of Aspen announced Tuesday it has reached settlement agreements with all 10 of the opposing parties in two water court cases where the city was seeking to maintain conditional water rights tied to large potential dams on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

    Craig Corona, the water attorney for Larsen Family LP, signed the last of the settlement agreements with the city Oct. 11. The other nine parties in the cases had all signed agreements by August.

    The city has filed all of the settlement agreements, or stipulations, with the Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs, along with a motion asking for a water court judge to approve them.

    If the judge approves the stipulations as expected, it would mean that the issues raised in the cases by opponents, and the state, would not be contested in a trial setting.

    Under the agreements, the city has agreed to walk away from the potential dam locations, roughly 2 miles below Maroon Lake in the Maroon Creek valley and 2 miles below Ashcroft in the Castle Creek valley, and instead pursue the right to store water in five other identified locations.

    Those locations include the city’s golf course, the Maroon Creek Club golf course, which is partially on open space property owned by the city, the Cozy Point open space, the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction, and a parcel of land next to the gravel pit purchased by the city specifically for future potential water storage.

    A map prepared for the City of Aspen that shows the five sites in the Roaring Fork River valley where the city of Aspen is proposing to store up to 8,500 acre-feet in water, based on its conditional rights to store water in the upper Maroon and Castle creek valleys.

    Moving the rights

    The city’s conditional water storage rights on Castle and Maroon creeks carry a 1971 decree date and the city plans to file a new application with the state water court to transfer the rights to the new locations, with their 1971 priority date intact.

    Under the agreements, the city could file for rights to store as much as 8,500 acre-feet of water in the new locations, without any opposition in water court from the entities in the Castle and Maroon creek cases.

    However, parties outside of the two cases could still file statements of opposition in the city’s expected change case.

    Under the agreements, if the city is not successful in moving the water rights, it cannot return and claim the water rights in their original locations on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

    The city filed its two diligence applications for Castle Creek Reservoir and Maroon Creek Reservoir in October 2016.

    The city’s conditional water storage rights on Maroon Creek are tied to a potential 155-foot-high dam backing up 4,567 acre-feet of water below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, in a pristine meadow within view of the Maroon Bells.

    The dam and reservoir would have been on Forest Service land and would have flooded portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

    On Castle Creek, the city has conditional rights to store 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam, mostly on private land but also flooding a corner of USFS property and the wilderness.

    Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager with the city, said once the water court judge approves the signed settlements, the city will begin to study in earnest exactly how much water it feels it needs to store in the potential new locations.

    And while the city would have six years to file its change case under the agreements, Medellin said she expects the city will file the application as soon as it is ready.

    Two news releases, one from the city and one from the four environmental groups in the cases, were sent out Tuesday heralding the settlements.

    “Throughout this process, City Council was acting in the best interest of its current and future water customers as part of prudent water management, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said in the city’s release. “I am proud we were able to safeguard our future water storage needs while also collaborating to protect sensitive wilderness areas.”

    And a release from the four environmental groups in the cases carried the subheadline, “Final agreement means Aspen will abandon plans to build dams on Maroon and Castle creeks.”

    Medellin acknowledged, however, that a key next step still needs to occur for the city in the cases, and that’s approval by the water court judge of the signed agreements.

    “We still need to hear what the judge has to say,” she said.

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

    Maroon Bells reflected in Maroon Lake. Photo credit: Wikipedia

    Here’s the release from Western Resource Advocates (Jennifer Talhelm, Will Roush, Matt Rice, David Nickum):

    “This agreement is a huge victory for the Maroon Bells Wilderness and the Maroon and Castle creeks. The city of Aspen deserves tremendous credit for agreeing not to build these dams and instead pursue smart water alternatives that will enable the city to respond to future needs and to climate change, while preserving this amazing natural environment that draws visitors from all around the world,” said Western Resource Advocates President Jon Goldin-Dubois. “Communities throughout the Colorado River basin face similar dilemmas; Aspen is showing true leadership by demonstrating that it’s possible to find solutions that protect our rivers, preserve our quality of life, and enable future growth.”

    “The signing of this final document means the end of conditional water rights that would have allowed dams to be built across Castle and Maroon creeks. The city of Aspen played a leadership role in working to find a set of solutions that will both protect Castle and Maroon creeks and ensure continued water for the citizens of Aspen,” said Will Roush, Executive Director at Wilderness Workshop. “Castle and Maroon creeks have tremendous ecological and community values, this is a moment to celebrate both the continuation of their free-flowing character and the partnership and collaboration with the city of Aspen that led to this outcome.”

    “This is a significant victory for rivers in the Roaring Fork Valley,” said Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin Director for American Rivers. “We applaud the city of Aspen for working with the community to find more sustainable and cost-effective water supply solutions. Thanks to the hard work and persistence of so many people who love this special place, these creeks will forever flow free.”

    “Sacrificing the places that make Colorado great is the wrong answer for meeting future water needs,” said David Nickum, Executive Director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “We appreciate the city of Aspen’s commitment to meet its water supply needs in ways that protect these much-loved valleys and creeks, and the wild trout that call them home.”

    If built, the dams proposed on Maroon and Castle creeks would have flooded important wildlife and recreation areas in addition to portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, forever changing two of the most beautiful, visited, and photographed valleys in Colorado.

    The plans were opposed by Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates, American Rivers, and Trout Unlimited, as well as several other parties, including Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service. This spring, after extensive negotiations, the conservation organizations signed agreements with the city, requiring it to relocate its water rights and abandon plans to build reservoirs with dams on Castle and Maroon creeks, regardless of whether it is successful in moving these rights to alternative locations. However, the agreements were contingent on the city reaching accord with other opposers in the case. Final agreement ending plans for a dam and reservoir on Castle Creek was reached in late summer. Today, the city announced a final settlement regarding the dam and reservoir on Maroon Creek.

    The agreements commit Aspen to pursuing more river-friendly water storage strategies. The city will seek to move a portion of its water rights to a suite of more environmentally friendly water storage locations within and downstream of the city limits, including a site near the gravel quarry at Woody Creek. The city of Aspen played a critical role in helping find solutions to protect the two creeks while maintaining an important source of water for the community.

    @NOAA: September 2018 and year to date were 4th hottest on record for the globe #ActOnClimate

    From NOAA:

    Warmth continued its steady march across the world last month, making for the fourth hottest September on record for the globe and the fourth warmest year to date, according to the latest analysis by scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

    In fact, the 10 warmest September global land and ocean surface temperatures have occurred since 2003 with the last five Septembers (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018) ranking as the five warmest on record.

    Let’s take a closer look at highlights from our most recent report:

    Climate by the numbers

    September 2018
    The average global temperature in September was 1.40 degrees F above the 20th-century average of 59 degrees. This was the fourth highest global temperature (tied with 2017) for September in the 139-year record (1880-2018). Last month was also the 42nd consecutive September and the 405th consecutive month with temperatures above average.

    The year to date // January through September
    The year-to-date average global temperature was 1.39 degrees F above the average of 57.5 degrees. This is the fourth highest on record for the January-through-September period (YTD) and 0.43 of a degree lower than the record high set in 2016 for the same period.

    An annotated map of the world showing notable climate events that occurred in September 2018. For details, see the bulleted list below in our story and on the Web at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/2018/09.

    More notable climate facts and stats

  • Land and seas warming continued: The globally averaged land-surface temperature was the sixth highest on record for September and the fourth highest for the YTD period. The globally averaged sea-surface temperature was fourth highest on record for September and fourth highest for the YTD.
  • Record-warm continents: Parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia experienced record warmth. Temperatures were at least 3.6 degrees F above average across southern South America, Alaska, the southwestern and eastern U.S., much of Europe, the Middle East and parts of Russia.
  • Sea ice coverage remained smaller than average at the poles: The average Arctic sea ice coverage (extent) in September was 26.5 percent below the 1981-2010 average, the seventh-smallest extent for September on record. The Antarctic sea ice extent last month was 3.3 percent below average, the second smallest for September on record.
  • The latest “Freshwater News” is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

    Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

    Click here to read the newsletter from Water Education Colorado. Here’s an excerpt:

    Dozens of public water systems on state watch list for lead contamination (Jerd Smith)

    Forty small communities, school districts and day care centers serving 51,000 people statewide are being monitored by state health officials because of concerns about potential lead contamination.

    It does not mean that these entities are violating rules governing lead contamination, only that small amounts of lead have been detected in their water samples at some point, according to Nicole Graziano, a water quality specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

    Once that occurs, under state and federal guidelines, water suppliers must embark on a rigorous sampling program that sometimes requires new water treatment and replacement of lead service lines.

    “If they’re on our list, it means they are active in our process, “ Graziano said. The rule has a long timeline, meaning that water providers can remain on the list for years as the problem is monitored, treated, and then monitored again to ensure treatment is working.

    The CDPHE regulates some 2,000 public water systems statewide. Roughly 1,000 of these are subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), Graziano said.

    Concern over the issue has risen dramatically since 2015, when Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, pushing millions of gallons of highly corrosive water through aging lead pipes, leading to a wave of contamination and a public health crisis.

    Under the LCR, more than 90 percent of samples must show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher in order to trigger an action order. During the Flint crisis, lead levels of 27 ppb were found, with one sample registering 158 ppb, according to published reports.

    These numbers are concerning, according to public health officials, because lead isn’t considered safe at any level, particularly for children, and levels as low as 5 ppb can be dangerous. Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Often these metals aren’t found in water once it leaves a treatment plant. But they can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through copper pipes as well as lead service lines in older homes and schools. To learn more about protecting your home or office from lead contamination here.

    By far the largest entity on Colorado’s watch list is Denver Water. The utility serves some 1.4 million customers in metro Denver and has been required to sample water from its customers’ taps, conduct extensive public education efforts on protecting against lead contamination, and change out thousands of lead service lines, which are major contributors to the problem.

    Earlier this year Denver Water, along with Aurora Water, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District and the Denver Greenway Foundation, sued the state health department over a new requirement that it add phosphorous to its water treatment processes to reduce the potential for lead contamination. Denver Water has asked the state to use a PH-based protocol instead. Talks to settle the lawsuit are underway now.

    Dozens of small communities are confronting the same problem, often with limited resources and big fears that a new, likely tougher, set of federal lead regulations is coming in response to the crisis in Flint. A draft set of these new rules is set to come out early next year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    According to the CDPHE, the systems on its watch list serve more than 51,000 Coloradans.

    Among them is the scenic Idaho Springs, population 1,746. Lead showed up in its tap water more than a decade ago, according to Dan Wolf, manager of the town’s water and wastewater system.

    Since being directed by the state in 2008 to boost the PH levels in its water treatment system, lead and copper levels in routinely collected samples of its tap water have been negligible, according to state records.

    But the higher PH levels are causing problems with other aspects of the system, Wolf said. Increasing the PH, for instance, has created an organic reaction with the chlorine used for disinfection, resulting in a set of carcinogenic byproducts known as haloacetic acids (HAAs).

    “Lead is not a significant issue for us anymore,” Wolf said. “But treating for lead and copper is causing higher levels of disinfection byproducts.”

    In response, Idaho Springs has asked the state to allow it to operate at a lower PH level, a request the state hasn’t ruled on yet, Wolf said.

    Two other entities on the list, Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine and Bearly Tawl Day Care Center in Evergreen, have shown elevated levels of lead at some locations in their buildings in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and both are being closely watched. Subsequent tests at both facilities have shown lead levels well below the action targets, according to state records.

    Bearly Tawl did not return a call seeking comment. But Jefferson County Schools’ spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school district has moved quickly to replace faucets and drinking fountains at Elk Creek and other schools to reduce lead levels and that all of its schools are now on a rotating sample schedule so that any elevated lead levels can be identified and addressed.

    Like hundreds of other school districts across the state and the nation, Jefferson County opted to use state grant money to test for lead.

    “We were concerned about the age of our buildings,” said Diana Wilson, executive director of communications at Jefferson County Public Schools. “Most of them are more than 50 years old.”

    In general, 50 years ago is when lead piping was outlawed, due to health concerns. Buildings constructed since then aren’t likely to have lead pipes, although some may contain copper pipe fittings.

    As drinking water concerns continue to echo across the state, some communities have opted to move forward and replace all lead service lines even though they are not on the watch list. Two years ago, the town of Paonia in Delta County, which relies on underground springs for its water, saw its water source reclassified under a new set of regulations designed to address concerns over groundwater contamination.

    The new classification meant it had to redo a significant portion of its water system, using bonds and grants. As part of that $4 million redo, it opted to go ahead and replace all of its lead service lines, according to Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight.

    “In a lot of small communities, their infrastructure is at the end of its life expectancy. But the fact of the matter for us is that we are going to be in very good shape.”

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    @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.