@BYU study: Wildfires increase winter #snowpack — but that isn’t necessarily a good thing

Jordan Maxwell and Sam St. Clair researched the impact of wildfires on snowpack. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Here’s the release from Brigham Young University (Todd Hollingshead):

Deep in the Tushar mountains, some three hours south of BYU’s campus, Ph.D. student Jordan Maxwell and two other students found themselves in deep snow, both literally and figuratively.

It was December 2014 and the students had just started field work under the tutelage of BYU professor Sam St. Clair for research on the impact of wildfires on snowpack levels. Unfortunately, the snowmobiles they’d been using could go no further and there were still dozens of measurements they needed to take.

“So, we put on our skis and got to work,” Maxwell said.

The students would go on to log between 15 and 20 miles of backcountry skiing each day in the field, measuring snow depth levels and snow water equivalency at 30 sampling spots within the footprint of the Twitchell Canyon Fire, a 2010 mega-fire that consumed 45,000 acres and was the largest active wildfire in the United States at the time.

The team also measured the presence, height and diameter of trees at each location and whether or not those trees were killed by the fire. After crunching the data, collected over that winter and the next, they found pretty impressive numbers: there was an 85% greater snow depth in areas that burned completely compared to areas that didn’t burn at all.

“Fires mean more snow into the system initially because of reduced trees that usually block and hold the snow temporarily on branches,” said St. Clair, a professor of plant and wildlife sciences. “It’s a really good outcome for north-facing slopes where the snowpack will hold in the shade, but If you’ve got a south-facing (sun-exposed) aspect with a deep snowpack and a rapid spring melt, now there is a higher chance of erosion, loss of nutrients and potential of flooding for downstream communities. The larger and more severe the wildfire, the increased flood potential for valleys.”

The research also revealed a 15% increase in snow-water equivalent — the amount of water contained within the snowpack — for every 20% increase in tree mortality in the burned areas.

The findings, recently published in Environmental Research Letters, represent the first study to examine the effects of burn severity on snow accumulation and water equivalence using direct measures. The researchers believe the study has considerable implications for water forecasting, especially given that snow-water resources from mountain watersheds provide fresh water for over 20% of the global human population and more than 65% of Utah’s water resources.

According to St. Clair, the new data helps paint a more complete picture on water security. To estimate future water resources, he said hydrologists should not only consider topography, aspect (north vs. south facing slopes) and how wet or dry a winter is, they also need to account for the increasing number and severity of wildfires and burn potential to properly assess the risks for flooding and drought.

“Wildfire regimes are changing forest ecosystems, and now we know they’re impacting water hydrology too,” St. Clair said. “This is our future — increased fired due to climate change. As a fire ecologist, this research is now in the center of what everyone cares about.”

Added Maxwell: “This project was impactful in the scientific community because it shows that not only an increase in the number of fires or in the area they burn, but also the severity of the fire, may have a large effect on the amount and quality of water that’s available for us to use. As climate anomalies become more frequent, we have seen and will likely continue to see more severe fires.”

Read the full study here: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab5de8

@ColoradoStateU engineering hosts interactive #climatechange exhibit, March 3, 2020, panel

Take a journey through climate change with a visit to the exhibit, Real People, Real Climate, Real Changes. Bring your family and friends, and learn together how climate is changing and how it is affecting people’s lives around the country and around the world.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Anne Manning):

Real People, Real Climate, Real Changes” – a traveling exhibit launched by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) – is on display at the Colorado State University Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering this spring.

To celebrate the exhibit and partnership, NCAR and the college will host an NCAR Explorer Series panel discussion and reception from 5-7 p.m. March 3 in the atrium of the Scott Bioengineering Building, 700 Meridian Ave. (northeast corner of Laurel and Meridian avenues), in Fort Collins. The event is free and open to the public. The panel will begin at 6 p.m.

Registration, parking

Due to limited space, registration is required at https://advancing.colostate.edu/NCAREXHIBIT. Parking is free after 4 p.m. in Lot 310 on the north side of the Lory Student Center.

Some of the college’s leading experts in climate change will serve on the panel, including Jim Hurrell, former director of NCAR who is now Scott Presidential Chair in Environmental Science and Engineering at CSU. His research in atmospheric science centers on analyses and model simulations of climate, climate variability and climate change.

Other panelists

Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer at Weather Underground, who helped develop the traveling NCAR climate exhibit as a consultant.

Tami Bond, CSU’s Scott Presidential Chair in Energy, Environment and Health and professor in mechanical engineering, who studies complex links between energy, climate and human choices.

Ellison Carter, CSU assistant professor, civil engineering, who studies health impacts of household energy use.

Emily Fischer, CSU associate professor, atmospheric science, who studies impacts of oil and gas development on air quality and connection between fires and air quality.

David Randall, CSU University Distinguished Professor, atmospheric science, who studies the effects of clouds on climate and how to represent cloud effects in climate models.

Russ Schumacher, CSU associate professor, atmospheric science, and Colorado State Climatologist, who studies weather forecasting and precipitation extremes such as flash floods.

Exhibit through March 12

The interactive exhibit will be open to the public in the Scott Bioengineering Building atrium through March 12.

“Our faculty are conducting innovative research on energy, air quality, protecting our environment, and water – all areas impacted by climate change – so we are excited to showcase this exhibit,” said CSU engineering dean Dave McLean. “NCAR and Jim [Hurrell] have given us a wonderful opportunity to better connect with our community, and also help tell the story of the science behind climate change.”

“Real People, Real Climate, Real Changes” was developed by NCAR and the UCAR Center for Science Education to help share the science of climate change and how it impacts people’s lives. The exhibit was made possible with funds provided by the National Science Foundation.

Using pictures, infographics, and personal stories, the traveling exhibit explains how scientists know the climate is changing, what that future may look like, and how the impacts are affecting people, from flooding and drought to sea level rise and severe weather. The exhibit also allows visitors to explore how their own choices make a difference.

Cañon City councillors approve #stormwater project

Cañon City photo credit DowntownCañonCity.com

From The Cañon City Daily Record (Carie Canterbury):

The Cañon City Council on Monday approved by majority vote a bid for the stormwater capital improvement project in the Dawson Ranch and Wolf Park subdivisions to Avalanche Excavating in an amount not to exceed $1,081,074.

The council in 2018 authorized financing through certificates of participation to fund an $8 million stormwater capital improvement plan and specific stormwater projects.

City Engineer Adam Lancaster said the newly approved project entails the replacement and installation of culverts of various sizes and lengths at 10 separate locations within the subdivisions…

“This project will make significant improvements in Dawson Ranch,” said Mike Gromowski, the chairperson of the Dawson Ranch Homeowners Association. “Stormwater currently does damage to about 150 properties with each major storm. … If we don’t do the work now, it will only cost more in the future – it will never get cheaper.”

#Snowpack news: SWE is in the average range or above across #Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

And, here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for Feburary 18, 2020 from the NRCS.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 18, 2020 via the NRCS.

@SenatorBennet Calls on @EPA to Deliver on Promises Made in #PFAS Action Plan

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

Here’s the release from Senator Bennet’s office:

One Year After EPA Pledged to Act on PFAS Exposure, Key Parts of the Strategy Have Yet to Be Implemented

Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined a group of senators in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler requesting he provide an updated timeline for when the EPA will implement commitments made in the agency’s plan to combat exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The EPA released its PFAS Action Plan one year ago today and has yet to implement many of the commitments outlined in the strategy. Bennet, who raised concerns about flaws in the EPA’s initial plan, is an author of the PFAS Action Plan of 2019 and has long worked to address contamination issues across Colorado.

“As you are aware, communities across the country are struggling to respond to the widespread issue of PFAS contamination. The human health risks from this class of chemicals, which include birth defects, various forms of cancer, and immune system dysfunction, are still being examined, and the uncertainty has caused great concern among our constituents,” wrote Bennet and the senators in the letter.

The lawmakers went on to underscore that the PFAS Action Plan alone is insufficient to address the full scope and urgency of the problems associated with PFAS exposure, which is why failure to take an initial step to implement this plan is particularly concerning. They also highlighted that the EPA committed to establish federal drinking water standards last year for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, but have also failed to follow through on that pledge.

In their letter, the senators also addressed other parts of the plan that have not been prioritized, including important remediation efforts to help expedite cleanup of PFAS contamination under the EPA Superfund law.

“Yet, despite then-Administrator Scott Pruitt committing the EPA to designating these materials [PFOA and PFOS] as hazardous substances in May 2018, the EPA has not even sent a proposal to the Office of Management & Budget for interagency review, let alone published it for public comment,” wrote Bennet and his colleagues.

The senators closed their letter with a request that the EPA provide an update on the status of every commitment made in the PFAS Action Plan, as well as an update on the timeline for executing the priorities included in the strategy.

The text of the letter is available HERE.

Bennet has long worked to address the health effects, cleanup, and reimbursement issues associated with PFAS, chemicals used in firefighting foams that have contaminated drinking water sources near military bases across the country, including at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado Springs.

In 2017:

  • Bennet pushed for a nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS and for additional funding for remediation and clean up.
  • Bennet secured $10 million for the nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in the 2018 omnibus package.
  • Bennet secured an additional $44 million in funding for Air Force environmental restoration and remediation in the 2018 omnibus package. A significant amount of that funding was used for remediation around Peterson AFB in Colorado.
  • Bennet supported a provision in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that required a plan on how the Department of Defense might reimburse state or municipal agencies that expended funds to provide alternative water supplies.
  • In 2018:

  • Bennet wrote to the CDC to ask that the nationwide study include communities in Colorado near Peterson AFB.
  • Bennet visited communities around Peterson AFB to receive an update on remediation efforts. There, Bennet also received an update on the challenges water districts are having receiving reimbursement for steps they took to clean up drinking water.
  • Bennet demanded the Trump Administration (CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)) release the results of a study regarding what levels of certain chemicals are safe in drinking water. According to news reports at the time, the EPA had been working to block the release of results from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study on the toxicity of certain PFAS.
  • Bennet passed an amendment to provide funding for the Department of Defense to reimburse state and municipal water authorities for actions they took to clean up and mitigate PFAS in drinking water. The amendment was included in the Department of Defense-Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill, which passed the Senate in 2018. The provision was not included in the final version of the bill that was signed into law.
  • Bennet wrote to the CDC/ATSDR to voice disappointment that the CDC will not include military and civilian firefighters in its investigations of the human health effects of PFAS contamination pursuant to Section 316 of the FY19 NDAA.
  • In 2019:

  • Bennet and his colleagues introduced the PFAS Action Plan of 2019, legislation that would mandate the EPA, within one year of enactment, declare PFAS as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup funds under the EPA Superfund law, and enable a requirement that polluters undertake or pay for remediation.
  • Bennet introduced an amendment to the NDAA to authorize the U.S. Air Force to reimburse local water districts, like those around Peterson AFB, for actions they took to treat and mitigate PFAS contamination.
  • Following Bennet’s 2018 letter calling on the CDC to include Colorado communities near Peterson AFB in the nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS, Bennet praised the agency’s decision to include these communities.
  • From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Michael Karlik):

    More than 12,000 El Paso County water users have been impacted by the chemical, which tainted the Widefield aquifer.

    In 2016 the EPA lowered its health advisory levels for the compounds, vastly expanding the number of southern El Paso County residents considered at risk for exposure. A subsequent study tied the contamination to the decades-long use of a firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base.

    Water districts in the towns of Security, Widefield and Fountain have either tied into uncontaminated water from Colorado Springs Utilities, or installed filtering systems to eliminate the chemicals.

    In the letter, the senators say they believe the agency has not acted quickly enough to make water safe…

    The lawmakers are asking for the EPA to prioritize the establishment of a maximum contamination level for drinking water and to allow cost-recovery for cleanup by labeling PFAS as hazardous substances.