Compared to last year’s lackluster winter and poor runoff this spring, many of the basins are reporting good numbers for the percentage of “snow water equivalent” that has accumulated compared to the median.
As of Wednesday, the Bear River area sat at 89 percent, Weber-Ogden River was at 96 percent and the Provo River-Utah Lake-Jordan River clocked in at 98 percent.
Southeast Utah is not doing as well, sitting at 66 percent as one of the most drought-stricken regions of the state continues to experience water-related challenges.
Southwest Utah, too, sits at 72 percent…
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey, some Utah regions have snow water equivalent above the median, such as the Price River San Rafael Region at 112 percent and Duchesne River basin at 107 percent.
By 8 a.m. Wednesday, the Bountiful bench had picked up 4 inches of new snow and Salt Lake City, at an elevation of 5,088 feet, received 7.5 inches.
Powder Mountain Ski area in Weber County reported it had received 8 new inches of snow in two days’ time and a Ski Utah snow report released Wednesday said 11 inches of new snow was adding to a 40-inch base at Brian Head.
…as Colorado’s drought intensifies and the state grows desperate to increase snowpack, a new study is helping create buzz around cloud seeding. And for the first time, Colorado is stepping up its game and plans to try cloud seeding not just from generators on the ground, but by airplane.
Cloud seeding, or weather modification, is mentioned multiple times in the Colorado Water Plan.
And a drought contingency plan approved this month by half of the seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin coalition includes three key components: reducing water consumption, managing reservoirs and “augmenting” the water supply through cloud seeding and removal of water-sucking tamarisk, or salt cedar trees.
“By itself, cloud seeding is not a drought buster, but it is one proven method to use along with demand management and reservoir operations,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs.
A breakthrough study of cloud seeding by aircraft involving University of Colorado and University of Wyoming researchers took place in 2017 in the mountains of southwest Idaho. It captured attention after its results were published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For the first time, researchers — in a second aircraft flying near the cloud-seeding plane — could see silver iodide enter the clouds and form snow crystals.
“We unambiguously can show it works in the atmosphere,” said Dr. Katja Friedrich, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at CU and one of the study’s authors. “That was very revolutionary.”
In the experiment, funded by the National Science Foundation with support from Idaho Power Co., the cloud-seeding airplane passed through the clouds dropping flares of silver iodide, a compound that attaches to water molecules and forms crystals. The turboprop soaring above the Payette Basin also flared silver iodide from its wings as it flew through clouds rich with supercooled water droplets, ripe for seeding.
The research plane flew near the seeded clouds and was able to record via radar that silver iodide caused the water molecules in the clouds to freeze. The researchers’ radar detected water molecules inside clouds becoming “glaciated” and growing heavier after they were seeded with silver iodide, forming snow.
Now that they’ve proved cloud seeding works, follow-up work is needed to determine how much snow it actually produces and whether it’s an efficient way to increase snowpack, Friedrich said. Cloud seeding in Colorado is a $1.2 million annual operation, and according to the best estimates of researchers, can increase snowfall anywhere from 2 to 15 percent per storm…A turboprop plane, a King Air C90 owned by Weather Modification International, recently began seeding clouds in southern Wyoming. Now the North Dakota-based company is working with Jackson County, Colorado, on plans to boost snowfall in the lower Medicine Bow Range northwest of Fort Collins.
Snowpack from that mountain range ends up in the headwaters of the North Platte River and Walden Reservoir, northeast of Steamboat Springs. Jackson County water officials have filed permits for the project with the state Department of Natural Resources and final approval is only a matter of paperwork..
The CAP board’s vote last week caps five months of intense politicking over the plan, which was many times in serious jeopardy. In the last few weeks, oft-squabbling interest groups and agencies finally began to coalesce around basic principles for a plan.
As a sign of how much the debate has calmed, CAP’s board endorsed a plan introduced only a week earlier by the head of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, with which CAP was at war a year ago. CAP board members also dropped plans to push four amendments to the state’s proposal that were unpopular with other water users. The board did, however, condition that approval on making sure that developers and farmers achieve “certainty” about their access to water supplies that would compensate for the plan’s proposed cutbacks in CAP deliveries.
The drought-contingency plan would leave one-third to one-half of the CAP’s annual supply in Lake Mead from 2020 through 2026, without causing immediate, major economic disruption.
This bit of hydrologic alchemy would be accomplished by replacing some water supplies that would be cut with “mitigation” supplies from other sources. To make the drought plan even more complex, some of those mitigation sources are also controversial, which has forced planners to find still more sources to offset their environmental impacts.
The plan has gained strong support from a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official, Leslie Meyers. She runs the bureau’s Phoenix office and sits on the 40-member steering committee representing water interests that is reviewing this plan.
More importantly, U.S. Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is pleased with Arizona’s progress and believes the state has met her goal of producing a plan by the end of this year, Meyers said. “While it’s probably not perfect, it’s close. It’s good,” Meyers said.
It’s questionable at best whether the plan can be finalized by the end of the year, since everyone agrees that unsettled issues raised by the plan still need discussion. But the blueprint approved by the CAP board almost certainly will be the guts of whatever plan is approved.
Drought in Colorado has a widespread impact on an economy where tourism and recreation play important parts, with money-drawing activities like rafting, fishing and skiing. But when it comes to agriculture – a $40 billion industry that generates $7 billion in revenue for the state, ultimately a fraction of Colorado’s GDP – Colorado is a state divided. Some counties have no ties to ranching and farming, but those that do rely on it heavily for taxes, jobs and revenue.
That divide has meant that many Colorado residents sailed through the summer mostly free of drought concerns, while ranchers and farmers faced a significantly different picture. With nearly all of Colorado experiencing some level of dryness or drought, many farmers opted not to plant at all due to lack of water, creating an economic shortfall.
“I am certain that the dry conditions that we saw up to July — the warm and dry conditions — will have an impact on the economy,” said Peter Goble, a drought specialist with the Fort Collins-based Colorado Climate Center. “We saw plenty of crops fail.”
The decisions to cut back on planting have Colorado high on the list of states that had to abandon acres this planting season, with more than 152,000 that weren’t planted due to lack of water. State officials are expected to release early next year an exact tally of economic losses wrought by this year’s drought, but stories and numbers from around the state suggest that they will be noticeable.
Farmers around Colorado have been forced to sell off cattle they couldn’t afford to feed, according to reports given to state officials. In southeastern Colorado, Baca, Kiowa, Otero and Prowers counties had, in total, tens of thousands of acres that went unplanted due to fears that the crops would fail, otherwise known as “prevent planted” acres. The USDA declared a drought disaster in 47 of 64 counties in Colorado, making farmers eligible for federal aid. As hay prices climbed at the end of the summer, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order easing regulations on hay transport in an effort to reduce the cost of hay for ranchers.
To be sure, Colorado farmers planted nearly 4 million acres of crops this year, and the losses might be significantly less than what farmers faced in 2013, another severe drought year, when more than 340,000 acres were prevent planted and as twice as many acres failed. But in the past, even losses of many thousands of acres have cost agricultural communities hundreds of millions of dollars.
Since 2002, drought has affected Colorado’s urban and rural residents differently. While Front Range and mountain residents have grappled with major wildfires, Colorado’s agricultural communities have ridden a roller coaster of good years and bad. Farmers, for instance, have prevent planted hundreds of thousands of acres over the past six years, even as vast networks of reservoirs have allowed Front Range cities to keep their residents largely free of water restrictions. This year’s summer drought was no exception…
Too little water in the Arkansas River meant that Otero County, home to the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes and a major corn and wheat producer, lost nearly half its corn crop this year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture records. Nearby Prowers County lost thousands of acres of wheat, sorghum and corn. And just a little bit further north, Elbert County rated 100 percent of its crop this fall as poor quality, state officials reported.
Otero County, with nearly 15,000 unplanted acres, is the among the top five counties in Colorado where farmers chose not to plant this year due to drought, according to the USDA. Farmers there typically plant 20,000 acres of corn a year, but this year nearly 9,500 acres went unplanted, records show…
Insurance will offer farmers some protection, but it can’t make up for having a crop. Other insurance policies, administered through the federal Farm Service Agency, require farmers to lose half their crop to be eligible for coverage. Those policies do not take into account losses from acres that were fallowed, that is, remain unplanted, Hanagan said.
The economic damage has been done, but farmers are already looking forward to next season with hopes for a better water year. While a lack of precipitation stunted summer planting, the state’s winter wheat crop, which has a fall growing season, got a good start with plenty of moisture.
But a lot depends on the winter and spring weather cycles, said Taryn Finnessey, the senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
State officials, meteorologists and farmers are expecting an El Niño cycle, which originates over the Pacific Ocean and tends to bring wet winters to Southern Colorado. In a place like Otero County, where farmers are heavily dependent on river water and snowmelt, that’s good news.
“We are hoping that we can get an El Niño,” said Finnessey. “We just don’t know when that is going to materialize. Or if it will materialize.”
The Montrose City Council voted unanimously, during its Dec. 18 meeting, to award a contract change order to RJH Consultants for $72,100 in the redesign of Cerro Reservoir.
The original amount of $270K had to be increased as “surprises in the reservoir’s design showed a lot of unforeseen layers,” said City Engineer Scott Murphy to the councilors on Dec. 18.
The dam at Montrose Reservoir on Cerro Summit needed major repairs earlier this year, which required the lake to be drained over the summer, as previously reported…
The city has been trying to figure out dam conditions there for some time and was more recently able to send divers down a 15-foot opening in the dam works for inspection, Murphy said.
This inspection confirmed it was time to replace the outlet works for the 1912 dam.
The outlet works consist of an 8-inch pipeline that runs through the dam’s foundation and below the western embankment; the pipe is about 50 feet below the crest of the dam and dates back to the original dam construction…
He added the city is currently working on its contract bid with Colorado Division of Water Resources.
“Something with this class goes through a pretty thorough review process with the state,” Murphy said, estimating the city should be awarded the contract in the next two months.
Shortly afterward ground will be broken in early February, he said. The construction will then start later that month and finished end of 2019.
The reservoir is tentatively planned to be filled in the spring of 2020.
The struggle to preserve the Salton Sea rages on as its shoreline retreats.
During migration season, birds pack the wetlands at the edge of the Salton Sea. Ducks dive, pelicans skim across the water’s surface, and hundreds of other species stalk the shores and bob on the surface of California’s largest, and most unusual, lake.
The Salton Sea is a vast, shallow body of water percolating in the hot desert inland of San Diego and a key stopover point for many birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Over the years, as other wetlands along the flyway have been lost to development, drought, or other causes, it has taken on an outsized importance for migrating birds. Nearly all of California’s population of eared grebes, for example, stop over at the lake, and at least a third of all the white pelicans living in North America dip in and out of its waters on their migratory travels.
But the Salton Sea is shrinking. Because of a host of reasons climate-related, agricultural, and political, less and less water ends up trickling into the lake each year, while the hot desert sun keeps evaporating its water away. And a year ago marked the end of some state-mandated inputs of extra water that had been keeping the Salton Sea relatively full for about 15 years. Without that extra water, the lake’s shrinking will start to accelerate—making it saltier, smaller, less welcoming to the birds that rely on it during migration, and more harmful to the people who live near its shores…
The Salton Sea took on its modern mien about 100 years ago, when an irrigation canal full of water from the nearby Colorado River broke open. It took nearly two years for the breach to be fixed, and in the meantime, Colorado River water gushed down into the Imperial Valley. The valley, as it happened, had no outlet, so the water pooled in a depression near its northern end, in the hollows left behind from lakes that had filled and dried that region many times over the geologic past. Eventually, the waters ballooned out, forming a vast, glistening inland lake covering over 350 square miles. And thus was born the modern Salton Sea.
But the lake was in a hot, dry part of the world where summer temperatures routinely hover far above 100F. Left to its own devices, it would have quickly evaporated away in the beating desert sun. But in the 1920s, locals decided to use the lake as a place to divert all the water that ran off the farms that carpet the surrounding valley. In essence, they put the lake on long-term life support. The district had rights to vast quantities of Colorado River water, and agriculture was booming in the valley, so in those early decades plenty of runoff went rolling downhill into the lake.
Wild birds quickly flocked to this new oasis in the middle of a desert. In 1930, a wildlife refuge was established in its fringing wetlands, and it quickly filled with birds and bird watchers. Over the years, over 400 species of birds have been spotted along the shores of the lake—nearly half of all species observed in the entire U.S…
The new reality—and the debate about solutions
The full extent of the new reality for the Salton Sea hasn’t yet fully manifested, says Bruce Wilcox, a secretary with the California Natural Resources Agency who oversees Salton Sea policy. The lake’s surface has dropped about twice as much this year as it did the year before, but it will take some time to really feel the impacts, he says.
But the future is going to be challenging under the best of circumstances, Wilcox warns. Over the next decade, the lake is projected to shrink by thousands of acres each year, exposing nearly 100 square miles by 2028, and nearly triple its current salinity—unlivable for most things that live in water and inhospitable to anything else along its shores.
The loss of the water was not a surprise: some variant on this plan has been in the works for decades. Shoreside debates have raged over how to manage the shrinking lake. Some want to fill it back to its mid-century depths, in an attempt to recapture its glitz and glamour. Others want to do whatever it takes to keep the wetlands habitat intact.
Currently, the state has a plan in place to reconstruct wetlands over about half of the area that will be exposed in the next decade. But so far, the plans have been stalled, with only one project on the southern end of the lake inching forward.
But all it will take is action, says Cohen. “It’s a pretty straightforward concept,” he says. “Once you put up the water and build the wetlands, the birds respond quickly; there’s a huge explosion of biological activity.”
And at the same time, the costs to human health from a shrinking lake have grown more obvious. As the lake recedes, it leaves behind vast swaths of playa, full of fine-grained material that had collected on the lake bottom over the last century. Wind kicks up dust from the playa, which irritates lungs and is loaded with all the compounds and materials that have run off from agricultural lands over the years. Exactly what’s in the playa dust and what that does to human lungs is not yet fully known, but it could include a slew of organic compounds and minerals that exacerbate the already high asthma rates in the county.
“We think there is something else besides the mineral composition that’s causing health impacts,” says Roya Bahreini, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Riverside, who has been studying the dust from the region. “But we don’t know what it is yet.”
All plans to deal with the shrinking lake focus heavily on tamping down the playa dust. “Now, this is a desert, so we will never stop dust from blowing,” says Wilcox. But many different strategies—from dumping water on the surface to building landforms that interrupt the winds’ path over the dusty playas—are being tested and, hopefully, implemented soon, says Wilcox.
The whole project is a mess of urgent needs, says Wilcox. “It’s like a big envelope of Jello,” he says. “If you push in one area it pokes out in another area.”
But something has to be done, says Lucia Levers, a water researcher at the University of Minnesota whose research has focused on the Salton Sea. The replacement wetlands being built to make sure the migrating birds still have their stopover spot are better than nothing, she says—at least they’re some kind of substitute for the key habitats that are being lost as the lake shrinks and gets saltier. But the bird populations are already fragile, since they’ve lost so much of their other habitat along the flyway. So if the replacement wetland habitat doesn’t get built, and soon, well—”there’s no substitute for the substitute. This is the end of the line,” she says. “And if this spot goes, it’s all going to go.”