Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.
Here’s an excerpt:
A mixture of rain and snow accompanied a low pressure system from the Great Lakes to New England during early January. An upper-level low and its associated surface low tracked across the central and eastern U.S. from January 11 to 13. More than 4 inches of snow blanketed areas from Kansas east to the middle Mississippi Valley, Ohio Valley, and mid-Atlantic. Snowfall reports of up to 20 inches were reported from northern Missouri, while 8 to 13 inches of snow occurred in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Periods of onshore flow continued to affect the West Coast although precipitation generally averaged below normal across the Pacific Northwest during the past week. A vigorous upper-level low approached southern California on January 14, bringing heavy snow (6 to 12 inches) to elevations above 5,000 feet and locally heavy rain (more than 1 inch) from the Los Angeles area south to San Diego…
A lack of snowfall this winter resulted in an increase in the coverage of abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) across parts of Wyoming. Basin snowpack is running below average in the Wind River Range and SPI values in western Wyoming are below -1 on timescales from 30-days to 6-months. Heavy precipitation (over 0.5 inch, liquid equivalent) for this time of year prompted a 1-category improvement to drought conditions over south-central to southeast Colorado, including the counties of Pueblo, Otero, and Bent. This past week’s precipitation is more than their monthly average for January. Crop reports from this region indicate that winter wheat was successfully planted. Although no additional improvements were made to southwest Colorado this week, the Sangre de Cristos and San Luis Valley will be reassessed next week.
Moderate to heavy snow (more than 0.5 inch, liquid equivalent) blanketed much of Kansas and southeast Nebraska. Snow also occurred across the Colorado Rockies and along the Front Range, but precipitation was generally lighter east across the high Plains. Despite mostly dry weather across the Dakotas this past week, no changes were made to the existing D0 and D1 areas since it is a relatively dry time of year and soils are frozen…
Locally heavy precipitation (more than 2 inches) fell across southern California for the second consecutive week. Precipitation amounts have ranged from 2 to 5 inches, liquid equivalent, during the past two weeks from Lompoc south to the Los Angeles area. 1 to 2 inches of precipitation has generally been observed from Los Angeles south to San Diego during the past two weeks. The recent and ongoing heavy precipitation has triggered mud slides along burn-scarred hillsides. Based on near to above average precipitation during the 2018-19 water year to date, a continued increase in water storage on Lake Cachuma, and 12 to 24-month SPIs, the D3 area was upgraded to D2. Recent heavy precipitation and 12 to 24-month SPIs also support an upgrade from D2 to D1 across southern California. Additional improvement may be needed across southern California in next week’s USDM with heavy precipitation occurring after 7am EST on Tuesday.
Drought coverage and intensity remained steady this week across the Pacific Northwest. However, precipitation deficits of 5 to 10 inches exist for the water year to date (October 1, 2018 to January 15, 2019) across western Oregon and southwest Washington. Also, basin average snow water content is running below 60 percent of normal across the southern Cascades. Due to these factors, the Pacific Northwest will be closely monitored during the remainder of the 2018-19 water year.
Abnormal dryness (D0) was expanded across northwest Montana, Idaho, and western Wyoming where ACIS indicates that precipitation has averaged less than 50 percent of normal during the past 30 to 90 days. Soil moisture ranking percentiles are in the lowest 30th percentile across northwest Montana. Low snow levels this winter along with favorable ground water levels precluded a further expansion of D0 across the Snake River Plain. Although snow water content is running between 50 to 75 percent of normal across western Idaho, it is too early in the 2018-19 winter to expand coverage of moderate drought (D1). Central and eastern Montana remains snow-free as temperatures have averaged near 10 degrees F above normal during the past 30 days. If a lack of snow cover persists, then abnormal dryness may be needed in later releases.
Beneficial rain and high-elevation snow continues to prompt minor improvements to the intensity of drought across New Mexico. Based on the latest indicators, moderate drought (D1) was reduced in Grant and Hidalgo counties in southwest New Mexico, while a slight decrease in severe drought (D2) was made to the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Heavy precipitation (rain and high-elevation snow) shifted east to Arizona after 7am EST on Tuesday. This heavy precipitation may result in minor improvement in next week’s USDM, but 6- to 1- month percent of normal precipitation remains well below normal…
Widespread precipitation (more than 0.5 inch, locally more) was observed across the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Louisiana, and eastern Texas. This precipitation maintained high soil moisture and streamflows throughout much of the southern Great Plains and lower Mississippi Valley. A slight reduction in the D0 and D1 areas was made to Cameron County in extreme southern Texas as more than 0.5 inch of rainfall occurred in the eastern part of that county. Persistent, dry weather along with periods of enhanced winds resulted in a slight expansion of abnormal dryness across the Texas Panhandle…
During the next 5 days (January 17-21, 2019), a low pressure system is forecast to develop across the southern Great Plains and then track northeast to the Ohio Valley. This low pressure system is expected to become a strong coastal low near southern New England. A swath of moderate to heavy snow and freezing rain is likely to accompany the winter storm from the middle Mississippi Valley northeast to the northern mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Although mostly dry weather is forecast across ongoing drought areas of southern Texas, light rainfall is anticipated across southern Florida during the next five days. Widespread rain and high-elevation snow are forecast throughout the western U.S. through early next week with heavy snow likely across the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and Rockies. In the wake of the central and eastern U.S. winter storm this weekend, arctic high pressure is forecast to shift south from Canada and bring the coldest temperatures so far this winter to the northern Great Plains, Midwest, and Northeast. Periods of rainfall are expected across the western Hawaiian Islands during the next five days.
The CPC 6-10 day extended range outlook (January 22-26, 2019) indicates enhanced odds for below normal temperatures across much of the eastern two-thirds of the continental U.S .along with the central Rockies, Great Basin, and Southwest. Above-normal precipitation is favored from the Mississippi Valley to the East Coast and also across the northern and central Great Plains. High odds for below-normal precipitation are forecast across the Pacific Northwest, Great Basin, and California. Above normal precipitation is favored throughout Alaska, while above normal temperatures are most likely across southern mainland Alaska and the Alaska Panhandle.
From Ciruli and Associates (Floyd Ciruli):
Newly inaugurated Governor Jared Polis had a low-key and positive start on water. His natural resource transition included Hickenlooper’s in-house water expert, John Stulp. Water policy in his State of the State address was only one paragraph, but it succinctly supported the State Water Plan and advocated getting it funded. He linked Colorado’s water to its agricultural needs, which is one of the key principles of the plan. That is, preserving agriculture in Colorado requires intelligent and prudent water management.
State of the State on Water
“The lifeblood of our agriculture industry is water – which is why we must commit to a bipartisan and sustainable funding source for the Colorado Water Plan. Governor Hickenlooper, along with the leadership of John Stulp, did extraordinary work bringing together a coalition of Coloradans from all corners of our state to create the Water Plan. Now we’re going to do our part by implementing it.” State of the State address, Jan. 10, 2019
Dealing with the water gap that is well identified in the State Plan is essential to protect irrigated agriculture and support the state’s quality of life and economy. The largest number of residential, business and agricultural water users are in the Arkansas and Platte basins. Their needs must be balanced with other users and uses, including recreation, wildlife and aesthetics.
From the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District via The Monte Vista Journal:
The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD) is seeking farmers for a pilot project in 2019 to cost-share on the purchase and installation of soil moisture probes. The project will include soil mapping and placement of probes that will give farmers immediate access to soil moisture data in their fields through an online portal and smartphone app. The goal of the effort is to determine if this data can help farmers with their irrigation decisions and lead to water conservation.
The project is open to farmers in parts of Alamosa, Conejos, Rio Grande and Saguache counties. The SLVWCD will contribute up to $2,000 per quarter section of land. The financial cost to the farmer will vary, depending on the selected vendor. Farmers are allowed to leverage other incentive programs such as RCPP to meet their cost-share requirement.
Participating farmers will select a vendor who is able to complete detailed soil mapping of each field. The vendor will then install soil moisture probes in accordance with the recommendations from the soil mapping. The vendor will also provide software that will allow farmers to access real-time weather information and soil moisture data from either a cell-phone application or a web-site portal.
Participants will be required to share the following data with the SLVWCD: The Water District Structure Identification (WDID) of the well or diversion structure used to irrigate the field; the annual quantity of water applied in water years 2013-2018 by the WDID structure and other water sources; the quantity of water applied on a minimum of a monthly basis for any year(s) enrolled in the pilot program; and soil mapping and soil moisture probe data.
At the end of the program’s first year, the average water application data will be compared to 2013-2018 in an effort to determine if use of the soil moisture probes improved water conservation.
Funding for the project was provided by the San Luis Valley Conservation and Connection Initiative and the Colorado Water Conservation Board Colorado Water Plan Grant Program.
To apply for the program contact Matt at the SLVWCD at 589-2230 or email@example.com by Feb, 28.
From The Crested Butte News (Cayla Vidmar):
As water levels in Colorado decline, the long-term impact on the Western Slope are concerning to area water experts. The worry is that water demands down river and on the Front Range will dry up the Western Slope and change the character of this area of Colorado.
Last fall the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) released a policy statement on water demand management and compact administration, which addresses the way in which water in Colorado will be managed to meet downriver demand requirements. The document is a response to the “worst hydrologic cycle in the historic record,” which began in the year 2000, and a need for drought contingency plans to meet Colorado water compact demands, according to the policy statement.
This work comes at a time when the local reservoir, Blue Mesa, which serves as a storage for meeting downstream water demands, has remained steady at the lowest point it’s been at all year, coming in at 7,438 feet, or just eight feet above the 1977 record low.
Bill Trampe, board member for the Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD), shared concerns with the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners last month about demand management for the Western Slope, and potential implications for all industries that utilize water on this side of the Rocky Mountains—especially in the face of Front Range expansion and its financial abundance.
Chief of these concerns was the threat of involuntary, uncompensated demand management—Front Range entities buying up water rights on the Western Slope or municipal condemnation of Western Slope agricultural operations, both of which would “change Western Colorado,” according to Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the CRWCD.
The CWCB policy statement explains that “continued drought or worsening water supply conditions in the Upper Colorado River Basin could increase the risk” of Lake Powell storage declining below critical levels for operation, and “mandated curtailment of the exercise of water rights to maintain compliance with the Upper Colorado River Basin and Colorado River Compacts.”
In response to this risk, the CWCB worked with myriad stakeholders and government entities to develop a “drought contingency plan that can help minimize and mitigate the risks associated with consistently below-average water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.”
“What the West Slope is adamant about is that a voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management plan be created,” Pokrandt says. “The alternative is uncompensated, forced curtailment [for water users].” The biggest concern facing voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management is a lack of funding.
An example of voluntary, compensated demand management is paying ranchers to fallow hay fields for a season or more, but as previously reported in the Crested Butte News, this isn’t a great deal for ranchers because it can take years for the quality of hay to return to what it was pre-fallow.
But as Pokrandt says, “Colorado will need to find a source for demand management compensation.” He explains that without compensation, “We would see many current agricultural [entities] go out of business and their water rights sold. In other words, we would have a massive shift in water rights ownership that would not be in the best interest of western Colorado.” However, Pokrandt writes that the Gates Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation contributing to the quality of life in Colorado, “just funded and facilitated a discussion on dedicated Colorado Water Plan funding to cover this subject.”
The point Pokrandt makes is that Front Range utilities can “wave around their checkbooks and buy out Western Slope producers who could not resist the money,” which as he explained previously, would cause a shift in water rights ownership on the Western Slope. For those who do resist, Pokrandt says, the “Colorado Constitution allows for municipal condemnation of agriculture,” meaning a government agency can forcibly buy property for fair market value for a public purpose, according to the law of eminent domain.
“This would change the face of western Colorado from an economic, landscape, cultural, recreational and environmental perspective,” says Pokrandt…
This work will involve organizing stakeholders, water entities and the public in tackling specific problems, including: federal legislation to create a demand management pool in Lake Powell where saved water can be stored; finding money to pay producers to not use water that can be sent to Lake Powell; legal protections to make sure water is actually getting to Lake Powell, also known as “shepherding,” a way to account for the water so amounts are known and recognized; and understanding what temporary fallowing does to the economy, particularly secondary impacts from producers earning money without paying for seed purchases, equipment, etc.
From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Liz Forster):
A forecast published this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for much-below-average — 50 percent to 70 percent — to below-average — 70 percent to 90 percent — spring runoff across most basins in Colorado. Several points in north-central Colorado and in the Arkansas Basin could fare better, with predictions of near-average or 90 percent to 110 percent of runoff.
“What we’re seeing is a lot better than what we observed last year,” said Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist with NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. “We have a long way to go, though, because we have a moisture deficit from last year to make up for.
Last year’s drought, the second worst in 124 years, parched soils across the state. Before entering rivers and streams, snow and runoff first must satiate a very thirsty ground.
“You see a spring pulse that is not as big and that comes earlier,” said Jeff Lukas, a research integration specialist for Colorado and Wyoming for the Western Water Assessment.
Farmers using diversion systems to irrigate and wildlife and fish that need stream depth for spawning and shelter are primarily hurt by smaller and earlier runoff, Lukas said.
Municipal water suppliers tend not to feel the impacts of low runoff as immediately because of the storage capacity of reservoirs, Lukas said.
Colorado Springs Utilities’ systemwide storage, for example, is at 75 percent capacity compared with last year’s 84 percent and the 1981 to 2010 average of 72 percent, according to data presented at Wednesday’s Utilities board meeting. Furthermore, systemwide storage levels are expected to remain fairly steady over the next couple of months…
Utilities’ Water Conveyance team estimates its summer yield in February using snowpack data and NOAA’s runoff forecasts. Because of a wet 2017, runoffs in 2018 were less affected by soil moisture deficits, but were dragged down by the sheer lack of snow. At this time last year, statewide snowpack was at about 50 percent of normal and only 0.59 percent of the state was not in drought.
NOAA forecasters expected below-average or much-below-average runoff for nearly all forecast points in Colorado, with many areas expected to see less than 50 percent. Snowpack continued to deteriorate into the spring, leading to the fifth-worst runoff season since 1964 in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
From the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (Tanya Ishikawa) via The Telluride Daily Planet:
Local volunteers sample waterways throughout the year
Once a month you can find Ethan Funk kneeling down at the edge of Red Mountain Creek with a few bottles at his side. The bottles start out empty, but within a few moments they are filled with water tinted red from the high level of iron in it. After taking temperature readings of the water and air, he gathers up his supplies and heads back to his 2003 Toyota Tacoma truck, where he places the samples in the flatbed, records the time and temperatures, sets the paperwork aside, turns on the engine, and heads back down the mountain towards Ouray.
But Funk is not heading home yet. Before returning, he will visit five more streamside sites to gather more water samples. Then, he will head back to his lab in the back of his office, where he will analyze some samples for pH/alkalinity and hardness levels. Others he will package up to send to a laboratory in Denver, where they will be tested for heavy metals.
He is a citizen scientist for the River Watch program. Though he modestly claims not to be a water expert, the electrical engineer by day and radio DJ by evening has been volunteering to sample water in local creeks and rivers for nearly 13 years. The hydrological data Funk has gathered over the years adds up to thousands of points of data that help characterize water quality in Ouray County.
“I’m not doing this for people today. I’m doing this for people 100 years from now,” Funk said. “If we had information like this from 100 years ago, we would know how much of an impact that all the mining in our area has had on the watershed. But, we don’t, so we have to make estimates. With the data from the samples I take, now people 100 years in the future will understand what has happened to their water quality.”
“Real people doing real science for a real purpose” is the tagline for the statewide River Watch program, which has multiple purposes. Its mission is “to work with voluntary stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and utilize this high quality data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado’s waters. This data is also used in the Clean Water Act decision-making process,” according to the group’s website (http://coloradoriverwatch.org).
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Barb Horn started River Watch in 1989, modeled after monthly water sampling programs on Clear Creek and the Eagle River. Both streams were impacted by heavy metals flowing from shut down mines and tailings, which became EPA Superfund sites. Regulators, as well as stakeholders, needed a way to monitor the success of the cleanups.
“The Idarado Mine had just been declared a CERCLA (superfund) site, and I found ways to start River Watch,” recalled Horn, who is part of a five-person team that oversees the program throughout the state.
Starting with five school groups collecting samples at five sites on the Yampa River in 1989, the program grew to include more than 1,200 sampling sites called stations on 700 rivers across the state. Though all of those stations provided samples at some point, not all are actively being sampled today, due to a shortage of volunteers.
The national nonprofit Earth Force, in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), operates the program. Neither group has the funds to pay hundreds of people to monitor water quality monthly at more than 1,000 sites. CPW uses a mix of federal funds and Colorado Lottery funds to finance the program’s organization, database, heavy metals analysis, shipping cost and other administration.
“Volunteer monitoring produces data that is not free, but cheap,” Horn said.
Besides volunteer time, producing data from the hundreds of water samples each month takes additional time. While volunteers enter pH/alkalinity and hardness monthly numbers every month, data for the heavy metals takes up to six months for professionals to enter into the database.
“There’s a funny disconnect in this world right now: wanting all this accountability and wanting all this clean air and water, but not understanding that it costs money to get it,” she said. “What each taxpayer is paying to have clean water via the Clean Water Act is practically nothing.”
Horn describes the results of River Watch monitoring as baseline data — similar to when a person goes in for a physical at the doctor’s office.
“We are doing the same thing for our rivers and that kind of monitoring takes a lot of time. It’s not glamorous. We’re not putting out fires. We want to know what preexisting conditions are,” she said. “The public believes that somebody is doing that but it’s expensive. The limited budgets that agencies have get used up for those (metaphorical) fires.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment implements the Clean Water Act in Colorado and does water quality monitoring. Due to limited funds, the agency cannot monitor the whole state every year, so they divide the state into four sections that align with major river basins. They have funds to monitor between 40-60 sites annually, 10 or so are monitored every year, the others every five years. When each site is monitored, data is gathered four to six times per year, not monthly.
River Watch data is much more comprehensive and long-term for rivers where the program consistently has volunteers.
“If we sample monthly, think of it as if we are writing a ‘War and Peace’ novel. If the state health department sampled at 40 sites two times a year, while we sample at 600 stations monthly, it’s like they are writing the abridged version of ‘War and Peace’ that you use to cram for the test. But they actually sample each site only twice in five years, which is like ripping a page out of that book and only having that much information,” she explained.
All River Watch data is public information available on its website, as well as on the Colorado Data Sharing Network (coloradowaterdate.org) and National Water Quality Portal (waterqualitydata.us). The data is also delivered to the state Water Quality Control Division annually.
In Ouray County, River Watch data has helped organizations like the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the nonprofit Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) make decisions about which reclamation and water quality improvement projects to pursue. It has also helped them analyze and understand the success of projects.
“Water quality data will become more and more important as climate change worsens,” Horn added.
Besides gathering this significant data, the other primary goal of River Watch is to give people hands-on science experiences, and an understanding of the value and function of Colorado’s river and water ecosystems. That’s why the program originated with teachers volunteering to do the sampling with their classes. Currently, teacher-led groups are estimated to make up approximately 80 percent of the sampling volunteers. The remaining 20 percent are a mix of individuals and adult groups.
Some volunteers have been sampling for the program for up to three decades, while others only last a couple years. Some have one site to sample, but others like Funk have six or more. The time commitment is usually about 15 minutes at each site, plus driving time. Both can take longer during the winter, when snow makes the roads more difficult to navigate and some riversides are only accessible by snowshoes. Sometimes it is even necessary to break through ice to get samples.
It typically takes around 30 minutes to analyze and record the pH/alkalinity and hardness data for each site; the paperwork, computer input and shipping of samples can take an additional 30-plus minutes for each site. A volunteer responsible for one site commits to around two hours a month, while those doing four or six sites pledge six-plus hours. Other annual requirements include a multi-day training, a half-day of demonstrating procedures with Horn, and sampling for habitat and possibly microinvertabrates, plus an extra sample of nutrients quarterly.
“It’s a rigorous program that produces high quality data. Field and lab methods align with the health department’s, so data is comparable. When River Watch goals match a volunteer’s interests, they get really excited about making an impact,” Horn said. “Volunteers are happy to be a cog in this big wheel that delivers data to organizations that can use it to make a difference.”
In Ouray County, Funk was preceded by student volunteers led by a Ouray High School science teacher. The other four sites in Ouray County, all downstream on the Uncompahgre River, started out with volunteers from Ridgway High School. Volunteers from the UWP took over the sites almost a decade ago, including Dudley and Sharon Case, most recently.
The Cases had previously volunteered to sample and test water for 10 years with their Sierra Club group in Illinois. For the past five years, the retired couple could be seen once a month, driving in their Jeep through Ridgway en route to Pa-Co-Chu Puk, north of the Ridgway Reservoir. They methodically stopped at spots along the Uncompahgre River. They found their way through willows, down boulders, under bridges and over mud and snow to get to the river banks — he with a handful of water bottles and she with a clipboard and thermometer.
“I was volunteering with the UWP river cleanups and plantings in Ridgway, and I mentioned to Agnieszka (the former UWP coordinator) that Sharon and I might be interested in River Watch,” said Dudley, who added that curiosity was the driving force behind his volunteering
“I had heard so much about the mines and mining in the San Juans that I was curious to find out how the mining had and was still effecting the Uncompahgre River each year,” he explained. “I am hoping that future generations will be able to use the data I have collected over my five years of doing it to help eventually clean up the mines and thus the river. I might have volunteered longer if we hadn’t decided to move away.”
UWP is currently looking for volunteers to take over the four sites that are no longer sampled by the Cases. For more information, visit coloradoriverwatch.org. If you’re interested in volunteering in Ouray, Montrose or San Miguel counties, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Tanya Ishikawa is a public relations professional for the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership.