Climate cases set the stage for oil and gas leasing reform — @HighCountryNews #KeepItInTheGround #ActOnClimate

From The High Country News (Carl Segerstrom):

Over the last few years, residents of the western Colorado town of Paonia, the longtime headquarters of High Country News, have planted yard signs, skipped ultimate frisbee to attend public meetings, and embarrassed themselves and each other during a karaoke-themed fundraiser — all in the name of preventing oil and gas development in their watershed. Despite their efforts, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service approved major fracking projects, in 2015 and 2017, just above this small community, where agritourism and a renewable energy training facility are growing as coal jobs fade.

What public pushback didn’t stop, a federal court in Denver has temporarily halted. In late March, Colorado U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ruled the agencies failed to fully consider climate and wildlife impacts in approving the projects, and ordered them to rework their environmental reviews. It is the latest in a string of decisions regarding federal environmental planning for oil and gas development and leasing on public lands. Another judge also recently rejected oil and gas leases in Wyoming, citing an inadequate analysis of how they would harm the climate; together, the rulings have blocked development approved by both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Environmentalists see the decisions as major victories and an opportunity to slow down the “energy dominance” agenda of the Trump administration. At the same time, they’re aware that courts alone can’t prevent the administration from increasing leasing and drilling on public lands. But in the details of the decisions, and in growing public awareness and activism around climate action, they see a chance to slow or stop oil and gas development on public land.

Oil and gas drilling has been delayed above Paonia, Colorado because agencies didn’t adequately analyze climate and wildlife impacts. Courtesy of EcoFlight via The High Country News.

The courts are merely delaying, rather than actually preventing fossil fuel development over climate concerns. That’s because the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) governs process, not outcomes. The law requires disclosure, “but NEPA doesn’t have the kind of teeth to force agencies to act on climate change,” said Clare Lakewood, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Practically speaking, (BLM) will do the analysis the court directed,” and likely continue with the fracking project in western Colorado, said Laura King, a lawyer for the Western Environmental Law Center. Steven Hall, the BLM Colorado communications director, said the agency will work with the groups that sued to address the issues identified by the court.

While it would be foolhardy to expect the Trump administration to change its plans based on a climate analysis, just a few years ago the Interior Department appeared to be taking climate change more seriously. In 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a moratorium on federal coal auctions and initiated an environmental review of the entire federal coal-leasing program. Though that review was never completed — and the moratorium was overturned in short order by Trump’s then-secretary, Ryan Zinke — the data collected during it were published late last year in a report by the U.S. Geological Survey. That report shows that the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels from federal lands is responsible for approximately one-fourth of the carbon dioxide emissions produced in the United States.

The report not only showed that federal lands are a major contributor to climate change, it also demonstrated that tools exist to track and estimate how they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Now, federal judges are keen to see those tools employed to inform agency decision-making. In a ruling that is delaying 303,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Wyoming, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote that by omitting analysis of the cumulative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, the BLM failed to abide by environmental laws. He also wrote, “BLM could decline to sell the oil and gas leases at issue here if the environmental impact of those leases — including use of the oil and gas produced — would not be in the public’s long-term interest.”

The judge’s assertion is critical for activists who want to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The Interior Secretary is directed by law to hold quarterly oil and gas lease sales. But if the BLM has the power to decline to issue the leases based on their ultimate contribution to climate change, that could pave the way for future administrations to phase-out or even eliminate fossil fuel leasing on public lands. “We think the agencies have complete discretion,” to issue a moratorium on new federal fossil fuel leasing, said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

Climate action is not coming from the current partisan Congress, an Interior Department led by former industry lobbyists, or a president who blames wind turbines for cancer while praising the beauty of coal. But recent court decisions are giving future administrations a legal footing to phase out fossil fuel development on public lands, and bolstering environmental activists like the karaoke-singers in Paonia by posing an important question: Is fossil fuel development a sensible way to manage public land for future generations?

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA. Email him at

#Snowpack/Runoff news: Most of #Utah’s reservoirs are expected to fill

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS, Note that yesterday’s widespread snowfall is not included.

And here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for April 10, 2019 via the NRCS.

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

Giddy would not necessarily be too strong of a description of the mood at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, where water managers, hydrologists and storm forecasters and others reviewed the current mountain snowpack and talked of more moisture to come.

“It’s been a pretty good snowpack year,” said Troy Brosten, Utah Snow Survey supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

During a briefing [April 9, 2019], Brosten pointed to snowpack numbers across the state that are anywhere between 104 percent of average to a whopping 197 percent of average in southeastern Utah, which was bone-dry last year and bore one of the country’s most significant drought designations.

Except for a thin slice across the top half of the state, which is still termed dry, the precipitation over the last few months has eliminated any drought classification in Utah, said Brian McInerney, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

February and March were phenomenal months for building snowpack, and the storm that swept into the state Tuesday and will linger into Thursday marks the beginning of a wet, cool pattern predicted to last through the month.

“It will be active, unsettled and colder than normal,” said Glen Merrill, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

The stormy pattern will just add to the snowpack, and water watchers are now shifting into a different mode, keeping eyes on reservoirs as the stormy weather continues…

With the exception of Red Fleet, which struggled with low flows, and Strawberry — which is huge — the state’s reservoirs should fill, Henrie said.

The other notable exception is Lake Powell, impacted by a near 20-year drought on the Colorado River. Henrie said these April storms will give it a good boost, but it will take many good hydrological years to recover.

Henrie noted that a few months ago he didn’t think he’d be paying much attention to the charts showing how quickly reservoirs are beginning to fill, but the storms changed that.

Ideally, the snowpack comes off in an orderly fashion — but McInerney said what is to come in May is anybody’s guess at this point.

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

According to a press release from Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District Manager Justin Ramsey, the recorded snow water equivalency (SWE) totals have dropped .01 inches, going from 40.6 inches las week to 40.5 inches this week.

Overall precipitation, though, has increased from last week, going from 39.1 inches to 43.2 inches.

The SWE median has increased, going from 30.2 inches to 31.6 inches this week.

Since Jan. 28, the SWE percent- age of median has increased each week; however, that trend came to an end this week with a reported drop of 6.2 inches, going from 134.4 percent of median last week to 128.2 this week.

The precipitation percentage of average has increased from last week, going from 121.4 percent of median to 127.8 percent of median.

The precipitation average is currently 33.8 inches, when last week it was 32.2 inches.

“The good news is the SWE is well above average, the bad news is, it does appear we hit the peak on March 23rd 18 days earlier than the average peak SWE,” the press release states…

For lake levels, four of the five lakes measured are full this week, with the exception of Stevens Lake, which is 72 inches from full.

Hatcher Lake, Lake Pagosa, Vil- lage Lake and Lake Forest are all noted as being full this week.

Last week, Lake Pagosa, Village Lake and Lake Forest were all full while Hatcher Lake was 16 inches from full and Stevens Lake was 103 inches from full.

Ramsey explained that all the lakes that are full were made full from precipitation…

Total cumulative available lake water for treatment and delivery this week sits at 90.6 percent when last week that total was 86.3 percent.

Total diversion flows remain at 5 cubic feet per second (cfs), with the West Fork and Four Mile diversions contributing 2 and 3 cfs, respectively.

Four Mile flows are still being diverted into Stevens, the press release notes.

From March 22 through March 28 this year, water production totaled 13.17 million gallons. Last year during that same time, water production was listed at 10.29 mil- lion gallons.

From March 22 through March 28 of this year, the Snowball water treatment plant produced 3.79 million gallons, while the Hatcher water treatment plant produced 9.38 million gallons.

From March 15 through March 21 of this year, water production was recorded at 13.43 million gallons.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 10, 2019 via the NRCS.

#Drought news: No change in depiction for #Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

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


After a dry March, a series of storms brought much needed precipitation to the Pacific Northwest, staving off further degradations in Washington and resulting in local flooding and broad drought improvements in Oregon. Elsewhere, the West remained largely status quo with the only degradation in drought conditions occurring in the Big Horn Mountains where snowpack has been well below normal all winter. The South and Southeast saw a mixture of improvements and degradations. Locally heavy rainfall brought improvements to parts of Texas, Louisiana, and the Carolinas while areas such as southeastern Alabama saw an expansion of moderate drought. Much of the remainder of the country remains largely free of drought and abnormal dryness…

High Plains

Precipitation across the High Plains was generally near normal over the last week, with the exception of northeast Nebraska and southeast South Dakota. Temperatures were warmer than normal in all but eastern North Dakota. Temperatures ranged from 3 degrees below normal in Grand Forks to 14 degrees above normal in the Nebraska Panhandle. No changes were made to the map this week and the area remains free of drought and abnormal dryness…


With the exception of Wyoming, conditions in the West improved or maintained status quo. A series of storms brought heavy rain and mountain snow to the Pacific Northwest resulting in the elimination of abnormal dryness in northern California and a one-category improvement over much of Oregon. While Washington also received beneficial rains, the amounts were not sufficient to put a dent in the long-term deficits and drought emergencies still exist in several river basins. Elsewhere, reductions in abnormal dryness also occurred in western Idaho, and in northern and east-central Nevada. Moderate drought conditions developed in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming where snowpack has been low all winter…

Looking Ahead

By the time of this map’s release, a powerful storm will be impacting much of the U.S., bringing heavy rain and mountain snow to the West; blizzard conditions, flooding rain, and severe weather to the Plains and Midwest; and showers and thunderstorms to the South. Behind the storm, parts of the Southern High Plains in Texas and New Mexico will experience fire weather conditions as very dry air and high winds affect the region. As the storm progresses eastward, parts of the Northeast are expected to see rainfall by the end of the week. Another system moving towards the West Coast this weekend is expected to bring low elevation rain and mountain snow to the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West over the coming week. If the forecast verifies, next week’s map could see additional improvements to drought areas in the Northwest and South.

#Snowpack/#Runoff news: #Snowmelt timing dictates #whitewater season, folks are hopeful

Colorado River Basin High/Low graph April 10, 2019 via the NRCS.

From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Laurie Rink):

As of the beginning of April, snowpack in the Upper Colorado River basin sits at 130 perfect of normal. Snowpack conditions are well above where they were a year ago when we were wondering if western Colorado rivers would be boatable at all. Accumulating abundant snowpack over the course of the winter is important because it represents a temporary savings account that will be drawn upon for the remainder of the spring, summer and fall. his savings account provides our everyday drinking water, irrigation water for agricultural, in-channel flows that support fish and other wildlife, and the water we enjoy for river recreating.

Mother Nature, however, is largely in control of how quickly the water savings account is drawn down. As snow melts in the high country, the runoff makes its way down the rivers and streams of the Western Slope, with peak flow typically occurring during the months of May and June in the Colorado River. The timing of peaking flows and the volume of water that finds its way to rivers and streams is influenced by a number of factors. Conventional wisdom is that warm air temperatures and sunny days have a strong influence on the rate of snowmelt. Newer evidence is showing that human-induced factors are starting to shift historic patterns.

Researchers from Colorado State University have found that the timing and volume of runoff in the Colorado River is shifting due to higher temperatures now common in the basin, a result of human caused climate change. The phenomena of dust on snow, or the accumulation of blowing dust that settles on the surface of the snowpack, can also play a role by melting snow earlier.

Because of ongoing drought conditions and the notable lack of precipitation in 2018, soil moisture content in the Upper Colorado going in to the winter months ranged from 70 percent below average to less than 30 percent below average. Melting snow will need to replenish soil moisture before runoff occurs. In addition, many of the state’s reservoirs were depleted after the low water year of 2018. The net effect of these influences could mean a reduced peak streamflow and an overall reduced volume of water.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of reason to enjoy the bounty of this year’s anticipated runoff.

#ColoradoRiver #Drought Contingency Plans enabling legislation a win for #Colorado — @SenatorBennet @SenCoryGardner #COriver #DCP #aridification

Both science and science fiction say the future is going to be hotter, drier and dustier, and this silt-fall in upper Lake Powell in September 2018 captures the trend. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Fort Morgan Times (Brian Porter):

Once signed into law, the legislation will authorize the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plan agreements forged between the seven Colorado River Basin states and Native American tribes.

“Tens of millions of people in the western United States rely on the Colorado River to provide water for agricultural, municipal, and consumptive use, as well as support for our growing recreation economy,” Gardner said.

The Drought Contingency Plan enjoys widespread support in Colorado, including from the state and multiple Front Range and Western Slope water utilities.

“The Colorado River is the lifeblood of our economy, but in recent years we’ve experienced some of the worst drought conditions in centuries,” Bennet said. “Passing the Drought Contingency Plan is a win for the millions of people across the West who rely on the Colorado River.”


“Following the leadership of Coloradans and communities across the seven affected states, we are now one step closer to countering drought, addressing climate change, and strengthening Colorado’s agricultural and outdoor recreation-based economy,” Bennet said.