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 April 7, 2020 from the NRCS.
Students at the University of Florida who want to know how they are being protected from the COVID-19 pandemic can’t find out.
The university is hiding its emergency response plan under a legal loophole intended to keep terrorists and enemy combatants – not viruses – from exploiting government weaknesses.
Since the spread of coronavirus accelerated in recent weeks, local, state and federal officials throughout the United States have locked down information from the public. Examples include:
The city of Palestine, Texas, banned a news reporter from a city council meeting on March 23, even though fewer than a maximum of 10 people would be in the room, and did not allow the public to listen in on the meeting through a toll-free phone number, as required by state law.
The Council of the District of Columbia decided on March 19 that district employees do not have to respond promptly to public records requests any more.
The FBI no longer accepts requests for information online or by email because of the virus. If anyone wants information they must mail their request, which ironically is more apt to pass along the virus.
Throughout the country, journalists are barred from talking to staff at public hospitals and locations serving the sick. And with administrators limiting access to the hospital itself, journalists are unable to tell the public what is happening. Precautions can be taken to protect the health of everyone concerned and protect the privacy of patients.
And this is just in the United States. The Philippines threatens journalists with prison time for spreading false news about the virus, and the Committee to Protect Journalists is tracking the arrests of reporters in Venezuela, Niger, India and elsewhere, regarding coronavirus coverage.
Ironically, most of these information crackdowns started in mid-March, during national Sunshine Week, a time when news organizations and others promote citizens’ rights to access government information.
Some agencies are making the case that responding to records requests is not an essential need or function. Research suggests that access to government information is indeed essential for our health and well-being. Studies have shown that making government information open leads to cleaner drinking water, safer restaurant food, less corruption and more confidence in government.
James Hamilton, an economist from Stanford University, found that for every $1 spent by news organizations on public records-based investigative reporting, the public derives $287 in benefits. The free flow of information makes for a better society and a better economy. It’s a smart return on investment.
Indeed, businesses use public information more than anyone else – studies have shown that at some federal agencies three-quarters of Freedom of Information Act requests are submitted by commercial interests. Maintaining a free flow of information actually greases the nation’s economic machine, which could be more important than ever given its state today.
The recent information closures are reminiscent of actions immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when governments closed massive amounts of information, including records showing the dilapidated conditions of bridges and dams.
Rather than limiting public information, however, agencies can use this crisis as an opportunity to take governance to the next level – making government even more accessible to the public it serves.
A statement signed by 132 nonprofits from a broad spectrum of industries and political persuasions was issued on March 20, urging a measured response that serves the public interest.
“We strongly urge government branches and agencies to recommit to, and
not retrench from, their duty to include the public in the policy-making process, including policies relating to COVID-19 as well as the routine ongoing functions of governance,” the organizations wrote.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit that provides education and research for citizens in acquiring government information, organized the statement. I serve as the coalition’s president, have testified before Congress several times regarding the Freedom of Information Act, teach classes on accessing information and publish research on the state of access in the United States.
Some of the recommendations included:
Postpone nonessential government business decisions until after the pandemic has subsided, when the public can once again fully engage.
Move necessary decisions online in live-streamed meetings accessible to all, including opportunities for public input and questions. Record the streams and post the recordings so people can view it later.
Do not conduct the public’s business via private channels, such as social media, texting and phone calls. (This holds true all the time, but especially now.) All official communications should be preserved and made accessible to the public online.
Post documents and data online as a matter of course so people don’t have to request it and government workers don’t have to take the time to retrieve and disseminate them.
Officials can provide journalists greater access to hospitals and other health installations, applying safety precautions and protecting the privacy of victims.
Efforts to make government more accessible now can result in permanent improvements in the future, to better serve citizens who are homebound or too busy with work and child-rearing to attend a local government meeting.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to pull together and move forward, as citizens and government working together, fully engaged and well-informed.
Editor’s note: The University of Florida is a funder of The Conversation US.
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From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):
The Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon has been down since at least Feb. 14 and could be down until June, but a 2016 safety-net agreement has kept water flowing down the Colorado River.
The Shoshone Generating Station, owned by Xcel Energy, is the keeper of one of the largest water rights on the main stem of the Colorado River. In February, ice jams on the spillway caused water to flood the plant and damaged equipment inside, according to Xcel media-relations representative Michelle Aguayo.
Xcel said the COVID-19 crisis is complicating repair plans.
“Given the current circumstances, it’s more challenging to get contractors to repair equipment, but even so, we expect to be back in June,” Aguayo said in a prepared statement.
Xcel said service to electric customers will not be impacted by the outage.
The inoperable plant would be a major concern to water users on the Western Slope, except for the 2016 Shoshone Outage Protocol, which mimics conditions as if the plant were still operating and using its full amount of water.
When the plant is operating, a senior water right from 1902 draws 1,250 cubic feet per second of water downstream to meet the plant’s needs. That means that upstream junior water-right holders must leave enough water in the river for Shoshone to receive its full amount. It also means that the 1,250 cfs is available for other downstream users on the Western Slope.
The water used by the Shoshone plant is diverted at a low riverwide dam about two miles above the plant near the Hanging Lake exit on Interstate 70. The water is then sent through pipes along the cliffs to penstocks that send it down to the plant, where it spins turbines. All of the water is then released back into the river via a spillway at the top of what’s called the “Shoshone” section of the Colorado River, which is about five miles east of Glenwood Springs and is popular with kayakers and rafters.
This water is crucial for endangered fish in the often-dry, 15-mile reach near Grand Junction; for boaters and rafters near Glenwood; and for Grand Valley irrigators, who have begun filling their canals for the start of irrigation season, which began Wednesday.
In the past, if the hydropower plant was not operating, the water right tied to it is not being put to beneficial use and cannot be used. The 1,250 cfs could have been lost — either diverted to the Front Range or kept locked in reservoirs. But the Shoshone Outage Protocol took effect March 1 to keep water flowing in the river.
“We are very happy that the outage protocol exists,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s to make sure the water keeps flowing this way. It’s really about the fish as well as bringing the water to the Grand Valley.”
Formalized in 2016, the agreement is signed by many Colorado River water users, water providers and government agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Denver Water, the River District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
Between Feb. 14 and March 1, flows were kept up by a winter maintenance outage agreement, according to Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Lee said that about 1,400 acre-feet of water from Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County has been released so far to meet the Shoshone Outage Protocol requirements. He said the protocol will probably be relaxed in the next week or two because spring runoff will begin to naturally boost river flows.
The Shoshone plant and its big water right have long been a concern for the River District, especially since outages have increased in recent years, including a penstock rupture in 2007. Since about 2018, River District officials have been in talks with Xcel about ways to preserve the Shoshone water right for the Western Slope.
“Those efforts are ongoing,” Mueller said. “We still view that as a significant priority for western Colorado.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers.
From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
It’s a good thing I got over my claustrophobia. I was in the bowels of Hoover Dam, the giant plug of the Colorado River, trying not to think about the mass of concrete around me or the volume of water behind me.
The concrete poured during the 1930s into that narrow chasm of Black Canyon 24 miles from Las Vegas was enough to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York City. The dam is 660 feet thick at the bottom, wider than two football fields narrowing to 45 feet at the top. It is shaped like a huge curved axe-head.
Our guide on a special tour for reporters shared a subterranean wormhole in the concrete. Hunched down, I made my way toward the glint of sunshine. There, I laid my hands on the face of the great 776 feet-tall dam.
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik several years ago captured the magnificence of the human endeavor with the title of his book: “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.”
In the early 20th century, the river was a beast, its spring floods of water from the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah predictably unruly, its water an anomaly in the arid American Southwest. In the baking but fertile sands of the Mojave Desert, agriculturalists saw great potential. Los Angeles saw water but also the hydroelectric power needed to create a great city.
LA could not do it on its own. An agreement among the seven states of the Colorado River Basin to apportion the waters was needed. That compact forged in 1922 delivered the political foundation for federal sponsorship of the dam’s construction, which began in 1930.
The December day we visited was coolish. The canyon can become an oven, though. During construction, 112 deaths were reported. But that does not include 42 people who died from pneumonia, many from tunnels bored into the canyon with equipment that produced thick plumes of exhaust gases and helped produce heat of up to 60 degrees C ( 140 degrees F).
Still, the dam’s construction represented triumph during a time of despair. The United States and much of the world was in depression. In the American heartland, giant clouds of dust caused misery and literally suffocated fowl and beast, but humans, too. Hoover Dam—at first called Boulder Canyon Dam—represented a story of human success. Look at what we’re capable of doing, it said, when we set our minds to it!
Water from the dam has been filled to overflowing just twice. One of those times was in 1983. I remember it very well. I was working at the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Colorado resort town of Winter Park. We had an average winter. Spring was anything but. It started snowing in March and didn’t quit until mid-June. The water that gushed downstream took dam operators by surprise.
Since 2002, the principal problem has been too little water. Droughts, as severe as any before recorded, have repeatedly left Colorado’s slopes snowless when normally they would be thick with snow. New evidence also comes of rising temperatures, which rob streams and meadows of water through increased evaporation and transpiration.
Then there was the faulty promise of that compact struck in 1922, an assumption of far more water than the river has routinely delivered. That, however, did not stop the cities and farmers from inserting their straws into the river and its reservoirs. When I visited in December, the reservoir was 40% full—or, if you prefer, was 60% empty.
Energy, not water, powered my desire to see Hoover. When completed, the 13 hydroelectric generators provided a large amount of electricity in the Southwest. Now, the output is dwarfed by other sources, increasingly renewables. Increasingly, our guide said, the water is released to generate electricity in ways that shore-up the intermittent renewables.
Hoover Dam may also play a role in our future of renewable energy. Los Angeles Water and Power has been investigating whether the dam’s generators and Lake Mead can be used to create what constitutes a giant battery. The water would be released again and again, when power is needed most to fill the gaps between renewable energy, then pumped back into the reservoir when renewable power is plentiful, such as during sunny afternoons.
The answer is of interest far beyond Los Angeles. In places like Denver, utilities say they can now see the way to 80% emission-free power generation by 2030. But to 100%? Lithium-ion batteries may be part of that answer, but they can store energy for just four hours. Maybe another, partial solution can be found at Hoover and other dams. We do need the answers soon, as the need to reduce our emissions has become pressing.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Though it’s looking like it won’t be needed, officials have been standing by with 6,500 acre-feet of water set aside in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. They’re ready to release it if needed in order to avoid what’s referred to as an “April hole” in rivers flows in the Colorado River between Palisade and the river’s confluence with the Gunnison River.
That stretch is known as the 15-Mile Reach, a focal point for protecting flows for the sake of endangered fish in the Colorado River. If flows fall too low between where irrigation water is diverted and the Gunnison flows boost water volume, endangered fish can be left more vulnerable to predators, reduced habitat and potentially less food availability.
Four endangered fish — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — are the focus of recovery efforts in the Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
A court case and operating policy at Green Mountain, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, have resulted in establishment of a 66,000-acre-foot historic users pool there that is available to irrigators, municipal and other water users to replace water that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them due to calls by holders of senior water rights.
Victor Lee, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, said that as part of another court case, it was decided that when the pool isn’t needed for those other uses, it could be used to augment flow in the 15-Mile Reach, for the sake of the fish. The pool is the largest single source of water for boosting flows in that reach, with 40,000 or 50,000 acre feet sometimes available for that purpose, he said.
Typically that water has helped boost flows in late summer and early fall, but over the last few years its use has been expanded to include the startup of the irrigation season when needed.
Lee said usually that startup can occur without excessively drawing down flows in the 15-Mile Reach. But the “April hole” can develop in circumstances such as when there’s little rain and a cold snap halts the beginning of spring runoff flows.
In recent years user pool managers including the Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators and state started considering how they might use, in April, water they didn’t deliver the prior fall. Last year they went a step further, decided to intentionally hold over some of the water that normally would have been released in the fall and keep it available for use this spring if need be…
The goal is to keep flows in the 15 miles at 810 cubic feet per second or more. On Monday the stretch had flows of about 1,440 cfs, but the Grand Valley Irrigation Co. was expected to begin diverting the same day, and the Grand Valley Water Users Association had begun increasing diversion. Lee has been consulting regularly with irrigation entities, weather and runoff forecasters and reservoir managers. While he thinks the flows in the crucial stretch will fall to 850 cfs, it looks like they will increase from there as temperatures warm and more moist weather arrives, likely making it unnecessary to augment flows to bridge the gap before spring runoff season begins in earnest.
Big storms in February played a key role in boosting water supply. The post Mountain snowpack ‘looking good’ heading into spring appeared first on News on TAP.