Senators seek to designate #GilaRiver as ‘wild and scenic’ — the Associated Press

Gila River. Photo credit: Dennis O’Keefe via American Rivers

From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan):

Portions of the Gila River would be designated as “wild and scenic” under legislation unveiled [May 12, 2020] by New Mexico’s two U.S. senators…

The measure would cover more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) of the Gila River, San Francisco River and numerous creeks. It also calls for expanding the boundaries of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument by transferring management of less than a square mile (1.8 square kilometers) from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service.

The legislation comes as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission gather comments on an environmental review of a proposal to divert and store some of the water.

Environmentalists have been pushing for years to stop any kind of diversion along the Gila, suggesting that siphoning water from the river would end up being a costly boondoggle. Supporters say the project is vital to supplying communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water as drought persists.

The legislation unveiled by Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich aims to protect the area’s beauty and wildlife by maintaining the river’s “free-flowing nature.” The Democrats say the measure would preserve private property and water rights as well as irrigation and water delivery obligations, grazing permits and public access.

The senators first floated a draft in February, saying they wanted to hear from landowners, outdoor enthusiasts, local officials and others. Changes include protecting existing uses and language to ensure planned projects like broadband infrastructure development can continue.

Additional protections were included for property owners to prohibit non-voluntary condemnation of land, and a section was added to allow restoration projects even if river values are affected, as long as water quality, habitats and species are protected.

Udall called the Gila an irreplaceable treasure…

Heinrich said protection under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would be fitting as the landscapes and ecosystems shaped by the Gila and its tributaries inspired the establishment of the nation’s first wilderness area nearly a century ago.

There are nearly 125 miles (200 kilometers) of river segments in New Mexico already designated under the act. Those include parts of the Rio Grande, Rio Chama, Pecos River and the Jemez River.

The fight over the Gila has been percolating for years.

Under the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, New Mexico is entitled to 14,000 acre-feet of water a year, or about 4.5 billion gallons. State officials opted to build a diversion system, as that alternative opened the door to more federal funding.

However, state water officials missed a deadline in December to have an environmental review completed and approved by the federal government in order to free up additional funding.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

Forest Service plans for fire season, tourist season amid #COVID19 concerns — @AspenJournalism #coronavirus

A firefighter walks through the burn area of the Parsnip Fire, which ignited near Carbondale on May 4. Crews took extra precautions in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo credit: USFA via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

Through stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the White River National Forest has remained, mostly, open and popular. Now, Forest Service officials are working out details for housing summer staff and opening campgrounds and recreation areas amid concerns about COVID-19.

Every summer, the White River National Forest brings on more than 100 seasonal employees. Many of them live in tight quarters and bunkhouses, but not this year.

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service is working with limited housing — and seasonal firefighters get first dibs.

“Across the nation, that was the highest priority — making sure we have adequate firefighters, on staff, trained up, ready to go for the fire season, which we really never know when it’s going to be upon us,” Fitzwilliams said.

Fire restrictions are in place across the region to protect the safety of emergency responders during the COVID-19 crisis. Still, an abandoned campfire ignited a small wildfire near Carbondale on May 4. Fitzwilliams said the 15 firefighters and one helicopter that responded to the fire took extra precautions.

“We feel pretty good about where we’re at,” he said. “I think all of us worry about a large incident that requires a team and fire camps and big meetings and briefings.”

As other forests start to deal with larger fires, Fitzwilliams said agency staffers from across the country are sharing information and lessons they’re learning about fighting fires during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fitzwilliams is considering how to use other resources to protect crews.

“Potentially, with things going the way they are, we could use more aircraft,” he said. “Even on smaller fires that maybe we’d send a hand crew out to, we’d just order an aircraft to put it out.”

Seasonal firefighters have arrived and are in training, but many other seasonal workers are delayed until the end of the month or might not arrive at all.

“We’re not going to have as many people, that’s for sure. So we’re just going to have to adjust. Some things that we planned to get done just won’t,” Fitzwilliams said. “Maybe there’s going to be a few less miles of trail cleared by the end of the year, but in the scope of things, that’s not the end of the world.”

Cyclists pause to throw a frisbee at the winter closure gate on Maroon Creek Road in early May. Officials with the U.S. Forest Service are working on plans for a reservation system for people to drive to the Maroon Bells instead of running shuttles because of COVID-19-related restrictions. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Car reservations to replace shuttles

The agency is working on plans to open campgrounds by June 1. That will require clear guidelines for cleaning facilities and might mean closing some spots to ensure ample distance among campers.

Fitzwilliams said the agency is also working on plans to open some of the most popular spots in the White River National Forest, including the Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake, with some changes.

“At least for the foreseeable future, there will be a lot less people up there,” he said.

The Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake both rely on shuttle services, which will probably not run this summer because of social distancing guidelines that limit the number of passengers. If buses can’t run at capacity, it’s not economically feasible to run them, Fitzwilliams said.

“So what we’re looking at — both for Hanging Lake and Maroon Bells — is some sort of reservation program where people can drive their own car there, but obviously it’s limited by the amount of parking for both places,” he said. “We won’t have the numbers, but people will be able to have the experience.”

The Forest Service recently implemented a reservation and shuttle service at Hanging Lake, and Fitzwilliams said the agency is taking care now to avoid the kind of overcrowding that led to that program.

“At Hanging Lake, it was a free-for-all — whoever got to the parking lot first won,” Fitzwilliams said. “And we’re not going to resort back to that.”

Details on reservation systems for visiting the Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake are expected in the upcoming weeks.

Editor’s Note: At a meeting on May 12, Pitkin County officials said bus service was likely to run to the Maroon Bells beginning in early June. The Aspen Times reports here.

Aspen Journalism, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders, partners with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of environmental issues. This story aired on Aspen Public Radio on May 12.

The May 2020 Climate Briefing is hot off the presses from Western Water Assessment

Click here to read the briefing and view the links to the various graphics:

Latest Briefing – May 11, 2020 (UT, WY, CO)

The May climate briefing was posted today on the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard. The May climate briefing, excerpted below, summarizes recent temperatures and precipitation, snowpack and drought conditions, forecasted spring-summer streamflows, ENSO and climate outlooks and significant monthly climate events. Highlights from the briefing include:

  • A very dry April in Utah and southern Colorado caused an acceleration of snowmelt, a decrease in forecasted seasonal streamflow volumes and a major expansion of drought in southern and eastern Colorado. While Utah and southern Colorado precipitation was much below average, near-average precipitation and near- to below-average temperatures prevailed in northern Colorado and Wyoming. Snowpack conditions are generally below to much below average in Utah and southern Colorado, but near average in northern Colorado and Wyoming. Regional May 1 seasonal streamflow forecasts are generally below average, with a few basins forecasted to have near-average or much-below-average seasonal streamflow.
  • April temperatures were generally below average in northern and eastern portions of the region and slightly above average in southern and western portions of the region Western US Seasonal Precipitation. Temperatures in much of Utah during April were slightly above average, while temperatures in Wyoming were below average. Slightly above-average April temperatures in Utah were driven by much-above-average temperatures (10-20°F) during the last week of the month; the first three weeks of April were slightly cooler than average. April temperatures in Colorado were a mix of above average in the southwestern portion of the state and slightly below average in northern and eastern Colorado.
  • Snowpack conditions across the Intermountain West as of May 4th mainly fall into the below-normal and near-normal categories Western US Snowpack Anomaly. Warm temperatures and below-average precipitation caused snowmelt to accelerate during April in much of Utah and southern Colorado. Snowpack in much of Utah and southern Colorado is 50–70% of normal. Northern Colorado and much of Wyoming have near-normal snowpack. The increase in melt of Intermountain snowpack over the last month was driven largely by below normal regional precipitation and exacerbated by very warm temperatures in Utah and southern Colorado during the last week of April.
  • The NOAA CBRFC May 1st seasonal runoff forecasts for the Upper Colorado River Basin and the Great Basin are generally below average; near-average and much-below-average conditions are forecasted for a few sub-basins Western US Seasonal Precipitation. Near-average seasonal runoffs (90-110%) are forecasted for the Upper Colorado, Upper Green, Virgin and Lower Bear River basins. Below-average seasonal runoff (70-90%) is forecasted for the mainstem of the Colorado, Lower Green and Upper Bear River basins and the Six Creeks basin. Much below-average season runoff (<70%) is forecasted for the Gunnison, San Juan, Sevier and Weber River basins. In general, forecasted runoff volumes have decreased by 10-25% in the Great Basin, largely due to very low April precipitation. The inflow to Lake Powell on the Colorado River is forecasted to be 4.65 million acre-feet (65% average), which is a significant decrease from the April 1st forecast of 5.6 million acre-feet. The NRCS May 1st seasonal runoff forecasts are generally similar to NOAA CBRFC forecasts in the Upper Colorado and Great Basins SWcast. East of the Continental Divide, seasonal streamflow forecasts are near average for the South Platte River basin and below average for Arkansas River basin.
  • A significant worsening of drought conditions in Colorado was driven by extremely low April precipitation and slightly above-normal temperatures. Total coverage of drought (D0 – D2) in Colorado expanded slightly in April, from 68% to 76% WY Drought Monitor. In southern and eastern Colorado, precipitation was only 25% of average with isolated areas receiving less than 5% of normal precipitation. D3 drought emerged in portions of southern and eastern Coorado during April. D2 drought in this region of Colorado also significantly expanded. Coverage of D2 and D3 drought in Colorado was only 3% of the state on March 28th, but expanded to over 40% of the state by May 5th. Total coverage of drought in Utah remained mostly unchanged during April despite low precipitation and warm temperatures. A small area of D2 drought emerged in central Utah during April. D0 drought in Wyoming expanded significantly in the north-central portion of the state and covers 17% of the state.
  • Ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean were approximately 0.5°C above normal and ENSO phase was neutral during April ENSO Nino Regions Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies . Tropical Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures continue to trend towards average ENSO Prediction Plume. During late spring and summer, ENSO is most likely to remain neutral, but by fall there are equal chances of each ENSO phase ENSO Prediction Plume. NOAA one-month precipitation and temperature outlooks show a tilt in the odds towards below-average precipitation 3-mo temp forecast, 0.5-mo lead and above-average temperatures 3-mo temp forecast, 0.5-mo lead for much of the region. The three-month outlook shows no tilt for precipitation and a strong tilt towards warmer-than-normal temperatures for the entire region 3-mo temp forecast, 0.5-mo lead.
  • Significant weather event for April. Record cold temperatures and snow impacted the Front Range and elsewhere in Colorado from April 11-16. Temperatures on April 13th in Denver dropped to 15°F, breaking the 1933 record of 17°F. On the same morning, temperatures in Grand Junction fell to 19°F, also breaking a 1933 record for that date. The peach crop in western Colorado sustained severe damage from the deep freeze. Light snow fell throughout the Front Range during the cold wave, but heavy snow developed near the foothills in Boulder County where over 30” fell over the five-day period. By the end of the storm cycle, the 2019-2020 winter season had set the record for the snowiest winter in Boulder, CO, with 151.2”, eclipsing the record set in 1908-1909.
  • Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map May 17, 2020 via the NRCS.

    The latest #ENSO Diagnostic Discussion is hot off the presses from the Climate Predication Center

    Click here to read the discussion:

    ENSO Alert System Status: Not Active

    Synopsis: There is a ~65% chance of ENSO-neutral during Northern Hemisphere summer 2020, with chances decreasing through the autumn (to 45-50%).

    During April 2020, positive sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies weakened and were near zero by the end of the month. All of the Niño indices decreased during the month, with the latest weekly Niño index values near +0.2°C. Equatorial subsurface temperatures (averaged across 180°-100°W) declined further and were below average, due to the eastward expansion of below-average subsurface temperatures into the eastern Pacific. Also during the month, low-level wind anomalies were easterly across the central and east-central Pacific, while upper-level wind anomalies were westerly over the central and eastern portions of the basin. Tropical convection was near average around Indonesia and suppressed over the Date Line. Overall, the combined oceanic and atmospheric system remained consistent with ENSO-neutral.

    The majority of models in the IRI/CPC plume favor ENSO-neutral (Niño-3.4 index between -0.5°C and +0.5°C) through the Northern Hemisphere autumn, though considerable spread is evident at longer lead times. Niño 3.4 index values are expected to decrease through the remainder of the Northern Hemisphere spring and into the summer; with the possibility of below-average temperatures becoming more established toward the latter half of the year. The consensus of forecasters favors ENSO- neutral conditions through the summer and fall, and slightly tilts toward La Niña at the end of the year (~45% chance). There is a ~10% chance of El Niño from the summer through the end the year. In summary, there is a ~65% chance of ENSO-neutral during Northern Hemisphere summer 2020, with chances decreasing through the autumn (45-50%; click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chance of each outcome for each 3-month period).

    Ground-breaking #ClimateChange Mitigation Tool Allows Communities to Assess Risks — @CWCB_DNR

    Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

    A new state study and web-based visualization tool called Future Avoided Cost Explorer (FACE:Hazards), led by the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is now available to help communities examine the economic risks of climate change.

    FACE:Hazards empowers communities to justify mitigation and adaptation investments using climate and risk-informed decisions.

    The FACE:Hazards explorer displays study results as an interactive dashboard to help inform preparedness and resilience policies, support recovery and adaptation investments, and provide decision-makers with tools to quantify the growing cost of inaction.

    “This pilot study provides decision-makers with a greater understanding of future economic risks compared to today’s baseline. At its foundation, the Future Avoided Cost Explorer opens new doors for inquiry and examination of how adaptation actions can offset future damages,” said CWCB Senior Climate Specialist Megan Holcomb.

    FACE:Hazards measures the current and future impacts from flood, drought and wildfire across multiple sectors of Colorado’s economy. County-level damages are analyzed under current and 2050 climate and population conditions to explore the effects of unmitigated development and increased hazard intensity on certain economies.

    The FACE:Hazards tool is important to Colorado because, until now, the State of Colorado did not have a tool to quantify future risk to climate hazards or the potential savings from strategic resilience. By creating this web-based, climate data-informed explorer, local governments can inquire, evaluate, and prioritize investments today to reduce economic vulnerabilities over the next three decades.

    After the 2013 Floods, DHSEM received a post-disaster mitigation grant from FEMA to complete a required three-phased update to the State’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan.

    “The success of this three-phased project was due in part to the dedication of all state agencies involved and our partnership with FEMA Region VIII. This is a testament to promoting a holistic, comprehensive and integrated approach to emergency management and subsequent enhanced mitigation efforts in order to serve all of Colorado,” said Patricia Gavelda, DHSEM Mitigation Planning Team Supervisor and project manager for all three phases.

    @COParksWildlife announces the state’s acquisition of the Fishers Peak property in celebration of Colorado Public Lands Day

    The 9,633-foot summit of Fishers Peak looms over Trinidad. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife / Bill Vogrin

    From email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Bill Vogrin):

    More than a year after entering a partnership to acquire a 19,200-acre ranch that includes the towering landmark known as Fishers Peak, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has completed the purchase, clearing the way for creation of the state’s 42nd state park.

    The acquisition is especially significant as Coloradans prepare to celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day on Saturday, May 16.

    “The state’s acquisition of Fishers Peak is an exciting milestone for Colorado outdoor recreationists, wildlife watchers, hunters and residents and businesses of Southern Colorado,” Governor Jared Polis said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that Coloradans highly value their open spaces and outdoor recreation opportunities. Colorado was one of the few states to keep our state parks open during this entire crisis because recreating at a safe space outdoors is a healthy part of our lifestyles. Adding Fishers Peak as our next state park will increase opportunities to explore a unique and stunning part of Colorado.”

    “I look forward to celebrating Colorado Public Lands Day this weekend and, in the months to come, opening Fishers Peak to the public with our important partners and local elected officials.”

    In February 2019, CPW partnered with the City of Trinidad, The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) to purchase the mostly undeveloped property, prized for its variety of habitat, wildlife and the linkage it provides between grasslands to the east with foothills and mountains to the west.

    The property includes the 9,633-foot summit of Fishers Peak, an iconic outcropping of ancient horizontal lava flows atop Raton Mesa, which has served as a landmark for Native Americans, a beacon for pioneers moving west and a waypoint along the historic Santa Fe Trail connecting the Eastern U.S. to New Mexico and the Southwest.

    The Fishers Peak property also is valued for the wildlife it shelters, including native species like elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain lion and black bear. And it preserves important migration corridors between their populations in the mountains and those on the prairies.

    On April 2, the partners signed over ownership of the property to CPW. With the deed in hand, CPW leadership and the partners immediately ramped up master-planning efforts to create a new state park that will protect the natural treasures and wildlife found there while welcoming visitors, including hunters, campers, hikers, mountain bikers, wildlife watchers, rock climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

    “We are grateful to our partners for all their work securing the property for future generations of Coloradans and visitors,” said Brett Ackerman, CPW Southeast Region Manager. “Great teamwork has gotten us to this point. We at CPW look forward to completing the master-planning process and meeting the governor’s goal of opening Colorado’s next state park.”

    “We are pleased to finalize this sale of the property to CPW in these trying times,” said Carlos Fernandez, Colorado State Director for The Nature Conservancy. “Over the past weeks, it’s become even more clear how important access to nature is to all people, providing solace, hope and community. I’m proud of the Conservancy’s efforts with partners to steward this project from the beginning to where we are now, one step closer to Colorado’s next state park.”

    “It’s become more evident than ever that access to the outdoors is an important part of everyone’s physical and mental well-being,” said Jim Petterson, The Trust for Public Land’s Colorado state director. “This new state park will give the people of Colorado an exceptional place to get outside to heal and connect with nature, their community and each other.”

    “GOCO is a proud partner in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said GOCO Executive Director Chris Castilian, whose agency provided the bulk of the funding, $17.25 million, toward the acquisition. “It’s been our honor to be a proponent and primary funder of this amazing project to date, and we look forward to supporting our partners at CPW to bring a vision for this state park to fruition.”

    “The City of Trinidad strongly supports Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s acquisition of the Fishers Peak property and the partnership that made this new state park a reality for our city and Las Animas County,” said Trindad Mayor Phil Rico.

    For now, the property remains closed to public access. But CPW intends a phased approach to opening that will allow limited public access to the property while the master-planning process proceeds and a full state park is developed.

    The public can follow the park’s progress and get updates on participating in the planning process at cpw.state.co.us.

    In 2016, Colorado became the first state to establish a holiday for our public lands. Colorado Public Lands Day focuses on how our public lands are central to the state’s economy and our quality of life.

    The COVID-19 crisis has impacted Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy and we all must adapt and celebrate public lands while remaining socially distant. As a result, Colorado Public Lands Day activities this year will highlight art, film, educational webinars and community conversations to offer a variety of ways that Coloradans can meaningfully connect with one another as well as our precious lands and waters. Learn more about Colorado Public Lands Day here: https://copubliclandsday.com.

    #Drought news: Extreme drought expands in southern #Colorado — The Kiowa County Press

    From The Kiowa County Press (Chris Sorensen):

    Just one week after extreme drought returned to Colorado, the impacted area has expanded in the southern portion of the state according to the United States Drought Monitor. The second worst category of drought had left the state in March 2019 before making its return this month.

    In the southeast, extreme drought expanded into Crowley, Lincoln and Cheyenne counties, and increased its presence in Baca, Prowers and Kiowa counties.

    For the southern Colorado mountain area, extreme conditions expanded in Saguache, Custer, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

    Severe drought expanded north in central and eastern Colorado, replacing moderate conditions. Moderate drought also gave way to abnormally dry conditions in parts of Pitkin, Chaffee and Gunnison counties.

    Colorado Drought Monitor May 12, 2020.

    Portions of eastern Colorado received an inch or more of rain early Saturday morning, potentially minimizing further expansion in the coming week.

    Sixty-three percent of the state is in moderate, severe or extreme drought, up two percent from the previous week. The worst drought category, exceptional, was most recently recorded in Colorado in February 2019.

    Currently, 15 percent of the state is in extreme drought, up four percent from the prior week. Severe drought increased two percent to 31, while moderate drought dropped four percent to 17. Abnormally dry conditions increased from 14 to 17 percent of the state. Just 21 percent of Colorado is drought-free.

    One year ago, 11 percent of Colorado was abnormally dry, while the remaining 89 percent was drought-free.

    West Drought Monitor May 12, 2020.