Summary: October 29, 2019
While the majority of the Intermountain West experienced below average temperatures last week, many spots remained dry. Most of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico received less than a tenth of an inch of moisture last week, with larger accumulations focused over the Continental Divide and mountains in Colorado, the I-25 corridor, and many locations throughout Wyoming. Month-to-date, the Four Corners region has mostly missed out on the moisture. Monthly climatological contributions indicate that October is an important precipitation month for eastern Utah, and unfortunately, they have not received much.
On a positive note, we’ve had a solid start to the snowpack accumulating season. Although early, it is promising to see percentiles near and above the median for snowpack throughout the IMW as of October 28. The lowest percentiles (which are closer to 50, or near average) are scattered along the central UT mountains and the San Juans in southwest CO.
Streamflows are still in okay condition in the Upper Colorado River Basin as they remain near baseflow. Expect many of the gages to go “offline” as they become ice affected over the coming days and weeks. Soil moisture is showing quite a bit of drying, thanks to a hot and dry summer and lack of monsoon. Since the soils will be freezing and not thawing for the rest of the cold season, moisture doesn’t matter much now. But those dry soils will come into play again during the spring thaw.
Cold conditions will continue over much of the region this week, but warming will return to the southern part of the IMW in early November. While some more precipitation accumulations are expected (mostly over Colorado) this week, there is an increased chance for drier than average conditions returning to the region.
From Colorado State University (Anne Manning):
The horizontal drilling method called hydraulic fracturing helps the United States produce close to 4 billion barrels of oil per year, rocketing the U.S. to the top of oil-producing nations in the world.
The highly profitable practice comes with a steep price: For every barrel of oil, oil and gas extraction also produces about seven barrels of wastewater, consisting mainly of naturally occurring subsurface water extracted along with the fossil fuels. That’s about 2 billion gallons of wastewater a day. Companies, policymakers and scientists are on the lookout for new strategies for dealing with that wastewater. Among the most tantalizing ideas is recycling it to irrigate food crops, given water scarcity issues in the West.
A new Colorado State University study gives pause to that idea. The team led by Professor Thomas Borch of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences conducted a greenhouse study using produced water from oil and gas extraction to irrigate common wheat crops. Their study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, showed that these crops had weakened immune systems, leading to the question of whether using such wastewater for irrigation would leave crop systems more vulnerable to bacterial and fungal pathogens.
“The big question is, is it safe?” said Borch, a biogeochemist who has joint academic appointments in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Have we considered every single thing we need to consider before we do this?”
Produced water experiments
Typically, oil and gas wastewater, also known as produced water, is trucked away from drilling sites and reinjected into the Earth via deep disposal wells. Such practices have been documented to induce earthquakes and may lead to contamination of surface water and groundwater aquifers.
The idea for using such water for irrigation has prompted studies testing things like crop yield, soil health, and contaminant uptake by plants, especially since produced water is often high in salts, and its chemistry varies greatly from region to region. Borch, who has conducted numerous oil and gas-related studies, including how soils fare during accidental spills, wondered if anyone had tried to determine whether irrigation water quality impacts crops’ inherent ability to protect themselves from disease.
The experiments were conducted in collaboration with plant microbiome expert Pankaj Trivedi, a CSU assistant professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, and researchers at Colorado School of Mines. The team irrigated wheat plants with tap water, two dilutions of produced water, and a salt water control. They exposed the plants to common bacterial and fungal pathogens and sampled the leaves after the pathogens were verified to have taken hold.
Using state-of-the-art quantitative genetic sequencing, the scientists determined that the plants watered with the highest concentration of produced water had significant changes in expression of genes plants normally use to fight infections. Their study didn’t determine exactly which substances in the produced water correlated with suppressed immunity. But they hypothesized that a combination of contaminants like boron, petroleum hydrocarbons and salt caused the plants to reallocate metabolic resources to fight stress, making it more challenging for them to produce disease-fighting genes.
“Findings from this work suggest that plant immune response impacts must be assessed before reusing treated oil and gas wastewater for agricultural irrigation,” the study authors wrote.
Read the study: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.9b00539
From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):
The state of Colorado’s investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program has spawned the spinoff of several additional groups to study the issue, underscoring persistent tensions between the Western Slope and Front Range water managers.
In June, the Colorado Water Conservation Board named 74 people — most of them experts in their fields — to nine workgroups charged with helping the state study whether a water-use reduction plan is right for Colorado. Now, some roundtables and conservation districts are forming their own grassroots stakeholder groups to study demand management outside of the state’s formal process.
One of those is the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. The stakeholder group, chaired by Kirsten Kurath, who is general counsel for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, invited Front Range water providers to an informal meeting on Monday to discuss demand management and address some assumptions about the contentious topic.
Although representatives from Northern Water and Aurora Water initially accepted the invitation, a subsequent letter from the Front Range Water Council made it clear that Front Range water interests were circling the wagons and closing ranks. The FRWC is an ad-hoc group made up of representatives from Front Range urban water providers.
In a letter signed by FRWC chair and Denver Water CEO James Lochhead, the group declined Kurath’s invitation to the meeting.
“We feel it is best at this point not to have ‘official’ side meetings regarding demand management and what a demand management process/program may look like because, particularly with press present, such conversations may lead to confusion and may undermine the state process,” the letter reads.
Kurath said she was extremely disappointed and discouraged by the response.
“It seemed like a great opportunity as part of our workgroup to invite folks from the Front Range Water Council and chat with them about what we are thinking about demand management,” Kurath said. “We do need to work at relationship-building between these historically adverse parties.”
So, why is demand management a touchy subject that highlights tensions between Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range? It may be because some in Western Slope agriculture worry that Front Range water providers, backed by a reliable pot of money from their rate-paying customers, can simply pay ranchers to fallow fields without having to reduce their own water consumption. Some Western Slope agricultural water users have voiced concerns about how to create a demand-management program that reduces water use equitably across all sectors, not just agriculture.
On top of that, some fear that if fields are no longer producing crops, a cascade of unintended consequences for the local economy could be the result. The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are studying the secondary economic impacts of demand management.
“What are the economic impacts should someone decide not to grow a crop?” said Frank Kugel, executive director of the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District. “What about the tractor-supply store, the feed stores, the restaurants and the workers that work on those farms?”
Adding to the controversial nature of demand management is Colorado’s social and cultural backdrop. At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations. Under such a program, ranchers and farmers could get paid to leave more water in the river.
But Andy Mueller, general manager of the CRWCD, said the concept of intentionally saving water goes against the age-old Western water adage of “Use it or lose it.” Some irrigators believe their water right, which is seen as a property right, could be considered abandoned if they don’t use their entire share of the water all the time, although it is rare in Colorado for this aspect of the law to be enforced by the state.
“We are asking people to change 150 years of cultural, family, political traditions,” Mueller said. “What we need to do in the water-policy world is help provide people with security and confidence they are not unintentionally damaging themselves for the future and that they are protected and have economic certainty.”
To this end, the river district also is forming a demand-management stakeholder group of its own. Mueller said the goal is to convene a group of roughly 30 water users to figure out how their interests would be protected if a demand-management plan is implemented.
“It’s a really critical thing for our actual water users to be driving the train because they know how their farms work,” Mueller said. “If you get ideas from them, they are much more likely to work in the long run.”
Water from ag?
Although some might assume that the easiest way to save a large amount of water in a demand-management program is to take it from Western Slope agriculture, Front Range water providers say that isn’t the case. Lochhead said that Denver Water would participate in a demand-management program along with everyone else using “wet water,” not just by throwing money at the problem.
Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water, agreed that water savings solely from Western Slope agriculture isn’t the solution.
“I get the impression from some West Slope entities … that they think the whole burden of demand management is going to come on the backs of the West Slope,” he said, “and honestly, I don’t think anybody on the Front Range Water Council is saying that.”
These were some of the issues Kurath was hoping to clear up in a meeting with her stakeholder group and Front Range water providers.
“We just wanted to explore that with folks,” she said. “It was a real disappointment to me to have them decide they didn’t want to participate.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Oct. 30 edition of the Times.
Click on a thumbnail graphic 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:
This Week’s Drought Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor week saw widespread improvements in drought-stricken areas across portions of the South, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic, as moderate-to-heavy rainfall accumulations were observed associated with storm systems fueled by residual moisture from Tropical Storm Olga. Across these areas, precipitation accumulations ranged from 2-to-10 inches leading to improvements on the map in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. In California, numerous wildfires are burning across northern and southern portions of the state, including the Kincaide Fire (the state’s largest active fire) in Sonoma County that has burned approximately 76,000 acres. In southern California, firefighting efforts have been hampered by strong Santa Ana winds that are causing extreme fire behavior…
On this week’s map, no changes were made across the region. According to the October 25th North American Land Data Assimilation System (NLDAS), the current total column soil moisture percentiles were at 70% or greater across North and South Dakota while some dry soil pockets were present in eastern Colorado. Average temperatures for the week were 3-to-15+ degrees below normal with the greatest negative anomalies observed in the plains of Colorado and Wyoming…
Across most of the region, dry conditions prevailed with the exception of some snowfall activity in the central and northern Rockies, as well as in the Uinta and Wasatch ranges of Utah. According to the NRCS SNOTEL network, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels are above normal across all of the major drainage basins in the northern half of the region. In California, numerous wildfires are burning across the state including the Kincade Fire near the northern California community of Geyserville where approximately 76,000 acres have burned, according to the October 30th National Interagency Coordination Center’s Incident Management Situation Report. In southern California, low humidity and strong Santa Ana winds have led to extreme fire weather conditions that have exacerbated fire-fighting efforts in the greater Los Angeles area. During the past week, average temperatures were below normal across most of the region with the exception of California where temperatures were 3-to-9 degrees above normal. Further inland, well-below normal temperatures were observed across the eastern Great Basin and Intermountain West with average temperatures ranging from 6-to-15 degrees below normal…
Widespread showers and thunderstorms were observed during the past week in the Deep South in association with post-tropical cyclone Olga, which made landfall Saturday along the central Louisiana coast. Across the region, rainfall accumulations ranged from 2-to-10 inches across Louisiana and Mississippi—leading to one-category improvements in areas of Severe Drought (D2), Moderate Drought (D1), and Abnormally Dry (D0). Likewise, improvements were made across eastern Tennessee in areas of Extreme Drought (D3), Severe Drought (D2), and Moderate Drought (D1) where rainfall accumulations ranged from 1-to-3 inches. In Texas, bands of heavy rainfall (2-to-4 inch accumulations) were observed in the Hill Country, Gulf Coast, and North Texas leading to one-category improvements; areas in the western part of the state were generally dry leading to expansion of areas of Moderate Drought (D1) and Abnormally Dry (D0). According to the USDA for the week ending October 27, the percent of subsoil by state rated short to very short was as follows: Mississippi 12%, Arkansas 16%, Louisiana 3%, Tennessee 39%, Oklahoma 38%, and Texas 55%. Average temperatures were mainly below normal across the region with the greatest negative anomalies observed across the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles where temperatures were 10-to-15 degrees below normal…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy accumulations ranging from 2-to-5+ inches across portions of the South, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. Lower accumulations (<2 inches) are expected across a swath extending from eastern Texas northward across most of the Plains states and Upper Midwest. Out West, liquid accumulations of generally less than 1 inch are expected across the Rockies and North Cascades of Washington state. The CPC 6–10-day Outlook calls for a high probability of above-normal temperatures across the Far West, Great Basin, and Southwest while areas east of the Rockies are expected to be below normal with the exception of Florida. In terms of precipitation, there is a high probability of below-normal precipitation across the Pacific Northwest, northern California, northern Great Basin, and the Intermountain West as well as in the central and southern Plains, lower Midwest, South, and Mid-Atlantic. Conversely, the northern Plains, Upper Midwest, southern Texas, and Florida are expected to have above-normal precipitation.
From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):
Utilities plans water and wastewater rate increases, effective Jan. 1, that would drive up the typical residential bill by $5.71 a month, a commercial bill by $7.90, and an industrial bill by $99.55.
From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via The Aspen Times:
The Colorado River District recently received special recognition from the Special District Association of Colorado.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District was named the 2019 J. Evan Goulding District of the Year by the association. The award is given annually to single out a district that demonstrates exceptional leadership and community spirit.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District, commonly known as the Colorado River District, was created in 1937 to oversee conservation, use and development of water resources of the Colorado River and its principal tributaries in the state of Colorado.
The river district is composed of 15 Western Slope counties with about 500,000 residents. The district covers about 29,000 square miles or roughly 28 percent of the land area of the state. It works to protect 70 percent of the water resources in the state. One way it fulfills its mission is through water storage and operational solutions that ensure economic, agricultural and environmental health of western Colorado. It also undertakes legislative and regulatory advocacy at the state and federal levels.
The district is overseen by a board of directors with one appointed representative from each of the 15 counties.