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Click here for all the inside skinny from Kansas State University.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
SNOWPACK ABOVE RUNOFF FORECAST
Official forecasts for spring runoff into Upper Colorado Basin reservoirs are below average, despite an above-average snowpack. This is due to low soil moisture resulting from a dry summer and fall. Details are in this forecast discussion from the Colorado Basin River Forecasting Center.
From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):
The Colorado River had a great 2019, with Lake Mead rising the most in a decade due to heavy flows into the river stemming from last year’s primo snowpack.
But 2020 isn’t shaping up as well, with a dry monsoon season and fall in 2019 paving the way for expected below-average spring summer runoff this year.
Right now, the April-July runoff is supposed to be 82% of average. That compares to 145 % of average in 2019, the second-best runoff season in the past 20 years, says the federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Despite last year’s excellent river flows, most experts also say the Colorado still faces long-term supply issues because of a prolonged pattern of below normal runoff that has existed since 2000 due to drought and climate change…
Last year’s high river flows, fueled by heavy late winter and spring snows, caused Lake Mead to rise 9 feet to a little more than 1,090 feet in elevation. That’s its highest year-end elevation since 2013, although it’s well below the lake’s 1,213 foot elevation at the end of 1999…
Part of the reason was that the federal government released an above-average amount of water last year from Lake Powell to Mead, of 9 million acre feet. The river’s tributaries between the two lakes also got a lot more water than usual.
Arizona and the other Lower Basin states also took a lot less water from the river than they normally do — the lowest amount in 33 years.
But that doesn’t mean the area’s long-term structural deficit is fixed, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Research Center, who posted last year’s favorable results on his “Inkstain” blog this week.
“Without bonus water released from Powell and extra-big inflows through the Grand Canyon, Mead would still be dropping,” he said.
The runoff forecast for 2020 is below average right now in part because total precipitation has been near to below average in the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin, said the forecast center.
Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack, which feeds the river that supplies Lake Powell, was at 90% of normal [January 10, 2020], U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show.
From Inside Climate News (Davis Hasemyer):
DOJ attorneys describe working with industry lawyers as a ‘team,’ raising questions about whether government was representing the American people.
In early 2018, a few months after the cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued several major oil companies over climate change, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice began a series of email exchanges and meetings with lawyers for the oil companies targeted in the litigation.
At one point, Eric Grant, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, sent an email to Indiana’s solicitor general saying that his “boss” had asked him to set up a meeting to go over a plan for the government to intercede in the cases on the companies’ behalf.
The cities were arguing that oil companies should be held liable for catastrophic flooding, sea-level rise and other harmful consequences caused by climate change. The DOJ was preparing an amicus brief in support of the industry, and the Indiana solicitor general was leading the charge by Republican attorneys general from 15 states to also file a court brief supporting the industry.
In another email, an assistant U.S. attorney general referred to the DOJ attorneys and industry lawyers—many of them former DOJ environmental lawyers—as a “team.”
The messages were among 178 pages of emails exchanged by government and industry from February through May 2018 as they worked together to oppose the cities’ lawsuits. They were obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) under a federal Freedom of Information Act request and shared with InsideClimate News.
Although the emails do not reveal the substance of discussions that took place during the meetings, they bespeak the unapologetically close relationship between the Trump administration and the oil industry. They also provide a window into the closely coordinated efforts to block the climate lawsuits between industry and the Justice Department’s environmental division, which touts itself as “the nation’s environmental lawyer, and the largest environmental law firm in the country.”
Legal experts say the conversations raise questions about the federal government’s objectivity and whether the Department of Justice, in these cases, was acting in the best interest of the country’s people.
The “boss” to whom Grant, the deputy assistant attorney general, referred in his email at the time was Jeff Wood, the Trump-appointed acting assistant attorney general leading the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Wood had landed at the DOJ after serving on the Trump-Pence campaign and after an earlier stint as staff environmental counsel to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who would become Trump’s attorney general.
Wood declined to comment, though he cited a footnote in the order by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup dismissing the cases that the federal government’s amicus brief supporting the oil industry had been submitted “at the Court’s invitation.” The dismissal is now being appealed.
Neither Grant nor his colleagues involved in the meetings with the industry responded to a request for comment. The Justice Department and industry lawyers also did not respond.
The climate lawsuits that grabbed Wood’s attention argue that the companies created a public nuisance—climate change—by producing fossil fuels that become the principal cause of global warming when burned.
“The rapidly rising sea level along the Pacific coast and in San Francisco Bay, moreover, poses an imminent threat of catastrophic storm surge flooding because any storm would be superimposed on a higher sea level,” the lawsuit filed by Oakland officials states. “This threat to human safety and to public and private-property is becoming more dire every day as global warming reaches ever more dangerous levels and sea level rise accelerates.”
The emails cover a period beginning in February 2018, six months after climate cases were filed, and ending in May, a few weeks after the Justice Department filed the amicus brief on behalf of the five oil giants named in the lawsuits.
At one time or another, six attorneys—one-quarter of the attorneys assigned to division’s Law and Policy Section—were brought into the loop with industry.
Justice Department attorneys had multiple conference calls with attorneys for BP and Chevron and hosted at least one in-person meeting at DOJ headquarters in Washington, prompting an attorney for BP to write at one point “thanks again for the helpful discussion last week,” according to the emails. The string of electronic notes shows the extensive effort DOJ attorneys made in coordinating various meetings with their oil industry counterparts.
One of the Justice Department lawyers the emails identified as participating in the strategy sessions with the industry has notified the appeals court considering the case that she will be appearing during the time allotted for the industry to present its arguments next month.
Just Raised Eyebrows or Red Flags?
Because the emails do not reflect the substance of the meetings, Justin Levitt , a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said it is difficult to assess whether ethical lines were crossed.
“If these meetings discussed the logistics of a DOJ amicus filing but not the substance of what the DOJ would file, it may be reason to raise an eyebrow but not a red flag,” he said.
It would be unusual and trigger questions if the meetings delved into the issues raised in the lawsuits, said Smith, a former deputy assistant attorney general in DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
“It wouldn’t pass the sniff test if the DOJ was trying to address substantive issues,” he said. “If the meetings were about the logistics, there’s nothing improper.”
In its amicus brief, signed by Wood, the government argues the lawsuits violate the constitutional principle of separation of powers between the federal and state governments.
“Balancing the nation’s energy needs and economic interests against the risks posed by climate change should be left to the political branches of the federal government in the first instance,” Wood wrote in the brief.
“The United States has strong economic and national security interests in promoting the development of fossil fuels, among other energy resources,” he wrote.
Wood, who has since left the justice department to become a partner in a Washington D.C. law firm representing clients in federal enforcement actions, also cites a 2017 executive order issued by President Donald Trump saying: “It is in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources.”
No Similar Conversations with the Cities
Pete Huffman, a staff attorney for NRDC, acknowledged the emails offer just a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes action, but says they are enough to raise serious questions.
“We would expect them to be working in what they think are the best interests of the United States,” he said. “We don’t think that working with the industry against climate action in most of these places is in the best interests of the United States.”
Especially worrisome is the apparent one-sided coordination with the industry, said Huffman, who signed an amicus brief filed by NRDC on behalf of the cities.
“We don’t know all the facts from these documents, but it starts to look less like trying to get to the best interests of the United States and more like coordinating in the best interests of the industry,” he said.
The conclusion of favoritism cannot be discounted because the emails do not reflect an attempt by DOJ to contact either the cities of Oakland or San Francisco, Huffman said.
“I can tell you for sure that DOJ never reached out to us,” said Alex Katz, chief of staff for Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker. The same for the San Francisco city attorney’s office, said spokesman John Cote.
A spokesman for the law firm now handling the two cases declined to comment.
Acting in Whose Best Interest?
Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the Vermont Law School, calls the apparent collaboration “troubling.”
While it’s within the realm of DOJ to express its view on the legal foundation of any case, the department should remain as objective as possible without the appearance of taking sides, he said. The government, he said, should have no contact with either side and simply express an opinion on the legal issues and allow the court to decide.
“From just the appearance standpoint here, it’s troubling to see any coordination,” Parenteau said.
That’s an especially disconcerting line to cross in the climate cases where the public has been put in jeopardy by the industry’s role in climate change, he said.
“The DOJ is supposed to represent the best interest of the people,” he said. “In these cases there is an existential threat to the public. So clearly the government is defending against the best interest of the public by cozying up to the industry.”
In a March 20 email, for example, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Ennis wrote to Ethan Shenkman, an attorney representing BP, inviting a conversation regarding the California cases.
“Jim Kilbourne, (an assistant U.S. attorney) who is copied here, told us that you would be interested in discussing the nuisance lawsuits filed against BP,” Ennis wrote. “Justin Smith and I would be happy to speak with you.”
The BP lawyer responds two days later: “Christine – many thanks for reaching out.”
A few weeks earlier, an attorney for one of the oil companies sent a note reminding a Justice Department lawyer that a judge in California had set a filing deadline for DOJ’s brief supporting the industry.
“Thank you for forwarding this,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Heminger responded. “Best regards.”
The Oakland and San Francisco cases—as well as the dozen other climate lawsuits—remain gridlocked in various legal proceedings from California to New York.
From The Lakewood Sentinel (Joseph Rios):
In the city of Lakewood, the Bear Creek Greenbelt is the place to be for residents who love the outdoors. Each year, the park, located at 2800 S. Estes St., attracts thousands of cyclists, hikers and others who get the opportunity to enjoy a scenic route to Denver, Bear Creek Lake Park or other places.
With a grant secured from the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board, the Colorado Youth Corps Association, a statewide coalition of eight corps that train children, young adults and veterans to work on conservation projects, will work with Lakewood to make the Bear Creek Greenbelt an even better place.
At the beginning of last month, the GOCO Board awarded the city of Lakewood a $34,000 grant to help remove Russian olive trees. The removal will be done through a partnership with Lakewood and Mile High Youth Corps, one of the corps that is part of the Colorado Youth Corps Association.
Russian olive trees usually reach 12 to 45 feet tall, according to Utah State University Extension. They’re typically found along floodplains, riverbanks, stream courses, marshes and irrigation ditches in the western area of the country and can displace native riparian vegetation, according to the university. The tree can also choke irrigation ditches and damage tires.
“Really, the big benefit is to protect and restore wildlife habitat. It’s part of a larger restoration effort that is going to have an impact on people and the landscape,” said Madison Brannigan, program officer at GOCO. The organization uses proceeds from the Colorado Lottery to preserve, protect and enhance the state’s wildlife, parks, rivers, trails and open spaces.
The other part of the restoration effort at the Bear Creek Greenbelt will involve planting native trees and shrubs, removing weeds, seeding native grass, installing fencing, planting wetland vegetation and improving water quality, according to a release…
Outside of training, members of the Colorado Youth Corps Association earn a payment and education award to use toward college or payment for student loans…
In total, the GOCO Board awarded $61,000 worth of grants in Jefferson County to fund Colorado Youth Corps Association projects. Outside of Lakewood, the Foothills Park and Recreation District received a $27,000 grant to remove invasive species and to support habitat restoration.
From The Vail Daily (James Dilzell):
Eagle River Watershed Council’s Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Program provides the foundation for this [Water Quality Report Card]. This collaborative effort collects data at nine fixed sites along the Eagle River and its tributaries. WQMAP allows our community to see threats as they emerge, monitor changes to river health and make guided decisions on priority areas to protect and preserve.
Collected data is compared to state standards set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Water Quality Control Commission. This allows for an understanding of current river health and highlights areas of success as well as areas of needed improvement.
Bill Hoblitzell with Lotic Hydrologic, which coordinates WQMAP for the Watershed Council, shared the findings and explained the importance of this program for the community. It is critical that decisions regarding our watershed are backed by science…
The 2019 Water Quality Report Card has outlined three major challenges to the watershed: Urban runoff and degradation of aquatic life, highway impacts to Black Gore Creek from traction sand, and water chemistry impacts from the Eagle Mine Superfund Site.
Land development poses a threat due to increased impervious surfaces, such as roads and roofs, that water cannot pass through. We might think of our community as a small and rural place, but Hoblitzell points out that “development densities and impervious surfaces in near-stream areas of Vail, Avon, and Edwards currently resemble much larger cities.” These developed surfaces allow contaminated water to rush into the river during rainstorms or spring snowmelt. Polluted water flowing into streams impacts sensitive insects that fish depend on for food.
Traction sand is a necessary part of winter, as it helps keep us safe and in control when traveling over Vail Pass. However, there are negative effects felt in Black Gore Creek due to the buildup of this sediment. It reaches the channel by way of runoff or snow thrown from plows.
A constant challenge to the Eagle River is the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. While the river has experienced improvement since cleanup efforts began, metal concentrations regularly increase during spring runoff and impact fish. Local stakeholders continue to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state on this cleanup effort.
None of these issues are new or unknown, but their identification as key challenges in the 2019 Report Card supports continued efforts to address them…
Review the full, interactive report and list of partners at http://erwc.org/research.
James Dilzell is the Education & Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://erwc.org.