Is the #SouthPlatteRiver too salty? New study to examine water quality amid concerns — @WaterEdCo @ColoradoCorn

Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District Hite plant outfall via South Platte Coalition for Urban River Evaluation

From Water Education Colorado (Shay Castle):

The fields of Sterling, Colo., in May are a dependable trio of colors: yellow with the dried remnants of last year’s harvest; the deep brown of freshly tilled earth; and green from new growth. Another hue mars this palette in places, an unwelcome one: white. The color of salt. To crops, it’s the color of death.

There aren’t many patches of dead land. But there are enough to worry farmers and water officials that the same fate that has felled civilizations could befall cities along the South Platte River: that the land will become too salty to support plant life.

“Salinity is always a concern in agriculture,” said Grady O’Brien, a Fort Collins-based hydrologist who has been tapped to lead a study of salinity along the South Platte this year. Colorado Corn, a group representing farmers in the state, is sponsoring the study, with a $39,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

It’s too soon to tell if salinity is a problem on the South Platte. Preliminary sampling by Colorado Corn in September showed worrying signs. Measures were taken at a dozen points along the river from above Denver to the Colorado state line. As the water flowed downstream, its purity dipped noticeably.

Salt is actually a catch-all term for total dissolved solids, or TDS. TDS can include a number of things other than what the general population knows as salt, sodium chloride. In the world of water, “salt” can be magnesium chloride, uranium, selenium — any minerals, salts, metals, and ions that have dissolved in the water.

In samples taken last year near Waterton Canyon, TDS was measured at 162 parts per trillion. Samples taken near Julesberg, much farther down the river on the Eastern Plains, came in at 1,310 parts per trillion, according to data provided by O’Brien.

“Once the testing got down around Sterling, it was pretty darn toxic in terms of salt,” said Mark Sponsler, chief executive officer of Colorado Corn. “Those numbers gave us enough of a concern to want to do a more in-depth look.”

Map via Water Education Colorado.

The full study will review historical datasets from a handful of organizations, including several water districts, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Decades of information should reveal if the South Platte has gotten saltier over time, identify seasonal variations, and uncover potential sources of increased salt.

Salinization is not a new problem; it is as old as civilization itself. What is today Iraq, sometimes called the Cradle of Civilization, was once known as the Fertile Crescent. Centuries of irrigation concentrated salts in the soil to such a degree that nothing would grow.

A study released in early 2018 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 37 percent of drainage basins in the United States have been altered by salinity over the past century.

“The greatest threat to irrigated agriculture in the world is salinization,” said Timothy Gates, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. Gates has worked on the Arkansas River, Colorado’s saltiest, for years.

All water, even rainwater, contains salt. When applied to crops (or urban lawns and gardens), plants absorb the water and leave the salts behind, which accumulate over time. In the modern world, agricultural runoff contributes to salinity, as does the increasing use of de-icing compounds on roads.

But it may be in part state water policies that are driving salinization on the South Platte. As drought-prone Colorado focuses on conservation, water is reused more and more. Each use adds a certain amount of salt to the water it pulls from upstream. And while water quality regulations exist for things like uranium, selenium and nitrogen, there are no guidelines for TDS and their effects on agriculture, O’Brien and Gates said.

When Denver gets its water from mountain snowpacks, it is almost as pure as it can be, O’Brien said, at about 100-200 parts per million of TDS. By the time the city pumps treated wastewater back into the South Platte, it’s closer to 500-600 ppm. (Denver Water and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District declined to confirm TDS levels.)

Downstream of Denver, on its way to Nebraska, the South Platte winds its way past hundreds of miles of roads, farm fields, stockyards, and oil and gas wells. It passes near or through the towns of Brighton, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Fort Morgan, and Brush before it reaches the corn, bean and alfalfa fields of Sterling.

Each city, each wastewater treatment plant, each roadway “keeps adding to that salt load,” O’Brien said. “Salinity is increasing all the way through the basin.”

But Jim McQuarrie, director of strategy and innovation at Metro Wastewater, said wastewater treatment plants can and do improve the quality of the water they treat. For instance, the water Metro puts back into the South Platte has less magnesium and chloride than the water it takes in. “We actually net improve [those] salts.”

McQuarrie said discussions are ongoing about how to improve on all fronts when it comes to salinity: “Wherever there are opportunities for us to avoid unnecessary addition of TDS, we are working on that now.”

By some measures water coming from upstream has improved over the years, said Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District. In his region, nitrates from fertilizers used to cause algae and moss growth in rivers and reservoirs, but the problem has dissipated in recent years.

“With increased regulation on municipal effluent,” said Yahn, referencing the outflow that comes from upstream wastewater treatment plants, “the water quality is better in a lot of ways.”

And despite the few crusty patches of field surrounding Sterling, he said farmers aren’t yet worried, though they are looking forward to what the data has to say.

The study is scheduled to be completed in late October.

Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

#Colorado #Conservation, Sportsmen Groups Laud Passage of Bill to Help Fund #COWaterPlan — @wradv #COleg

The Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, upstream of Glenwood Springs. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From Western Resource Advocates (Jamie Trafficanda):

Today, conservation and sportsmen groups across Colorado lauded the bipartisan passage of a bill that would raise funds to protect and conserve the state’s water from the tax proceeds on some forms of new sports betting. A portion of the revenue generated would go to a Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund governed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and help support some of the water conservation, agricultural projects, river health, “smart” storage, and demand management needs for the state. The sports-betting measure must be approved by the voters this fall.

“Colorado leaders are making a safe bet to ensure a more resilient future for our thriving communities, agriculture, businesses, recreation and wildlife,” said Brian Jackson, Senior Manager, Western Water, at Environmental Defense Fund. “We are hopeful voters will recognize the urgent need to protect our most precious resource, water, and that this measure will be a slam dunk at the ballot box this fall.”

“As Colorado’s population continues to grow and climate change stresses our water supplies, Colorado’s Water Plan lays out a roadmap to secure our water future. But to make that plan a reality, we need to establish a dedicated funding source,” said Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers Program Director at Western Resource Advocates. “If approved by the voters, this measure would provide an important down payment and have an immediate impact on Colorado communities.”

“Passing this bill represents key progress toward protecting our rivers and clean drinking water today and into the future,” said Drew Peternell, Director of the Colorado Water Program at Trout Unlimited. “But the challenges our water supply faces are long term. We’ll need additional, long-term sources of funding to make sure we have enough water to sustain Colorado’s economy, especially in rural agriculturally-based areas.”

“This bill is an important step to a secure water future,” said Matt Rice, Colorado Basin Director at American Rivers “Now this effort will go to referendum to be considered by Colorado’s voters. If it’s passed, the revenue generated will support our rivers, secure clean, safe, reliable drinking water for our communities, and preserve our agricultural heritage.”

“The Colorado Water Conservation Board estimates that implementing Colorado’s Water Plan and safeguarding our water will require at least $100 million annually for the next 30 years,” said Melinda Kassen, Senior Counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership “If voters approve this bill through the referendum process, the revenue generated would be an important down payment that gets the ball rolling for multiple uses, including river protection and restoration. That said, the revenue from this bill won’t get us all the way there. As we use these funds to demonstrate value for fish and wildlife resources, we can build the case for the benefits to Colorado of taking the next step to find additional funds for this important work.”

It will be a while before those high-mountain trails melt-out #snowpack

Coyote Gulch enjoying a lunch break in the San Juans.

From OutThereColorado.com (Spencer McKee):

If you’ve got early summer high-altitude hiking plans in Colorado, you’ll probably want to pack snow gear for your trek. Colorado’s snowpack is very high above the typical average around a majority of the state. This means that many high-altitude trails will remain snow-covered late into the summer season…

Thankfully, this deep snowpack will likely help Colorado when it comes to wildfire and drought. Unfortunately, it will likely impact your summer plans.

According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, snowpack won’t melt off significantly at Colorado’s highest elevations until late-July or August. While snow shoes, traction spikes, and crampons can help you overcome this hurdle, mountain roads that allow access to many popular trailheads will also have late openings.

Popular roads including Trail Ridge Road, Independence Pass, Mount Evans Road, and Kebler Pass were all still closed through Memorial Day Weekend. The Maroon Bells Scenic Area will be closed until June 15, according to Aspen Times. Also in Aspen, the Conundrum Creek Trailhead will be closed as well – and there’s not an estimated date of opening for that one yet. Less popular roads that are at high-altitudes are also likely to prove problematic late into the summer…

Long story short – there will be snow on fourteeners late into summer this year. If you’re planning to bag some of Colorado’s 50-some 14,000-foot peaks and you don’t have plans to wait for dry trails, make sure you plan ahead. Bring the right gear to safely get up and down the mountain. Be aware of avalanche risks by visiting the CAIC website. Click here for a few tips regarding winter mountain climbing in Colorado.

The continental United States recently finished its soggiest 12 months in 124 years of modern recordkeeping — @NASA #ActOnClimate

May 11 – 13, 2019

From NASA (Mike Carlowicz):

The continental United States recently finished its soggiest 12 months in 124 years of modern recordkeeping. The results are visible in satellite measurements of fresh water.

From May 1, 2018, to April 30, 2019, the lower 48 states collectively averaged 36.20 inches (919.48 millimeters) of precipitation, a full 6.25 inches (158.75 mm) above the mean. The previous record (April 2015 to March 2016) was 35.95 inches. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, ten U.S. states had their wettest 12 months, and three others were in the top three. Many of them were clustered in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.

According to the May 21 report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, just 2.72 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, among the lowest levels in two decades of records. California is completely out of drought for the first time since 2011. As recently as February 2018, one-third of the United States was in drought.

The map above shows how groundwater has responded to the unusually wet year. The colors depict the wetness percentile; that is, how the amount of groundwater on May 13, 2019, compares to all Mays from 1948 to 2012. Blue areas have more abundant groundwater than usual for the time of year, and orange and red areas have less. The map is based on multiple types of meteorological data (precipitation, temperature, etc.) integrated within an advanced computer model developed by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

May 11 – 13, 2019

The second map shows soil moisture anomalies, or how much the water content near the land surface was above or below the norm on May 11–13, 2019. The measurements are derived from data collected by the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, the first NASA satellite dedicated to measuring the water content of soils. SMAP’s radiometer can detect water in the top 5 centimeters (2 inches) of the ground. Scientists use that surface layer data in a hydrologic model to estimate how much water is present even deeper in the root zone, which is important for agriculture.

Much of the East and Midwest had an extremely damp autumn in 2018; land-falling category 5 hurricanes Michael and Florence dropped copious amounts of rainfall in the late summer; and California has been soaked by sporadic atmospheric river events and the effects of a mild El Niño. But there is no one explanation for the extreme precipitation of the past year. It does, however, fit with long-term increases in overall precipitation and with heavy rainfall events in our changing climate.

“I do not have an explanation for the weather systems that caused the heavy precipitation, but sea surface temperatures in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have been generally well above normal over the past year. This has surely added to the atmospheric water vapor content available to the precipitating weather systems,” said Ken Kunkel, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The pattern of precipitation over the past 12 months indicates general wetness over most parts of the U.S. but does not match projections of the future, which show increases mostly in the northern U.S. Thus, the recent wetness probably has explanations in addition to, or instead of, just anthropogenic forcing.”

In the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program in 2018, scientists reported: “a national average increase of 4 percent in annual precipitation since 1901 is mostly a result of large increases in the fall season. Heavy precipitation events in most parts of the United States have increased in both intensity and frequency since 1901…The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events are projected to continue to increase over the 21st century. Mesoscale convective systems (organized clusters of thunderstorms) in the central United States are expected to continue to increase in number and intensity in the future.”

Writing for The Washington Post, meteorologist Jason Samenow reflected on a record-setting year of rain in the nation’s capital: “The historic rainfall over the past year is somewhat of a random occurrence. It is mostly a result of weather patterns that have frequently arranged themselves, by chance, in an optimal way to squeeze water from the sky. Yet, at the same time, this record-wet year has occurred against a longer-term backdrop of climate warming and increasing precipitation extremes. In other words, climate change probably intensified the rain and increased the chance it would become a record breaker.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin and Joshua Stevens using soil moisture data from the NASA-USDA SMAP team and using GRACE data from The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and rainfall data from The Iowa Environmental Mesonet The Iowa Environmental Mesonet (IEM). Story by Mike Carlowicz.