#Drought news: A large area of extreme drought (D3) now covers central and western #Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic below 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

on in most of the central Great Plains and from the High Plains to the Pacific Coast. Conditions took a dramatic turn across the Rockies and Plains as the valid period ended, with hot and dry conditions suddenly replaced by much colder weather, and snow in some areas. A number of sites from the central Rockies into the northern Plains saw temperatures drop from around 90 degrees F Labor Day to near freezing with light snow the next morning. Denver, CO went from temperatures averaging 15 degrees above normal on September 6 to 30 degrees below normal for September 8, with an inch of snowfall reported. East Rapid City, SD appears to have set a national all-time record by going from over 100 degrees F (102) to reporting measurable snow in a span of 2 days. The colder and wetter weather that developed just as the period ended had little impact on drought conditions in most areas, given the hot, dry, and windy conditions that preceded it. Wildfires continued to scorch and spread rapidly across parts of California, with some quickly breaking out and expanding in part of the Rockies as well. Denver, CO went from reporting reduced visibility due to wildfire smoke on Labor Day, to reduced visibility from falling snow the next morning. Elsewhere, several inches of precipitation across interior northeastern Texas, in a swath from eastern Iowa to central Illinois, across Ohio, and in parts of Arkansas brought significant drought relief, and lesser amounts in adjacent areas brought more limited improvement, as did moderate precipitation in parts of the northern Rockies and adjacent Plains…

High Plains

The dramatic change to cold and wet (often snowy) conditions late in the period only brought notable improvement to southwestern North Dakota and part of interior southeast Colorado. Elsewhere, a few tenths of an inch of precipitation fell on the central Dakotas, scattered parts of Nebraska, and much of Wyoming, but given the hot and dry weather that prevailed until the end of the period, no areas experienced notable improvement. In fact, sizeable parts of northern North Dakota, the southern half of Wyoming, central and western Colorado, and Nebraska deteriorated. As a result, a large area of extreme drought (D3) now covers central and western Colorado and the central tier of Wyoming. Smaller areas of D3 are in north-central Wyoming and part of the Colorado Plains, with a small area of exceptional D4 drought persisting in the latter area. Conditions generally improve moving north and east of the D2 to D3 regions in the central Rockies and west-central Plains, though some severe to extreme drought expanded across central Nebraska while D2 to D3 persisted adjacent to Iowa…

West

Another dry and, until the end of the period, hot week led to broad areas of drought intensification. The most widespread deteriorations were noted across Utah, Arizona, and to a lesser extent New Mexico. Exceptional D4 drought was introduced in central Utah, and a large area of extreme drought now envelops most of Utah, Arizona, northern and eastern New Mexico, and farther northwest through much of Oregon and adjacent California. Only parts of southwestern California, western Washington, central and southern Idaho, and adjacent areas remain free of abnormal dryness and drought. Fires continued to rage in portions of California, now having scorched over 2,000,000 acres in the state. Less than 30,000 acres were consumed by fire in 2019 through early September…

South

Heavy rain soaked a large area across northeastern Texas, dramatically easing or ending drought and abnormal dryness. Some 2-category improvements were noted in the wettest areas. Heavy precipitation was less widespread in Arkansas and some adjacent areas, reducing the extent of abnormal dryness there. Across western Texas and farther east in Mississippi, dryness and drought expanded and intensified. Much of western Texas is now in extreme drought, with a small area of exceptional D4 drought in the interior Big Bend area. Parts of this region have received only a few tenths of an inch of precipitation since early August. Farther east, moderate drought was introduced in part of interior northeastern Mississippi where less than half of normal rainfall was recorded during the last 60 days…

Looking Ahead

During the next 5 days (September 10-14), WPC’s QPF forecasts little or no precipitation (and thus persisting or intensifying drought) across the northern Plains and most areas from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, save higher elevations in New Mexico and southern Colorado (0.5 to 1.5 inch). Similarly, light precipitation at best is expected across southern half of the Mississippi Valley and the western Ohio Valley. The heaviest precipitation (2 to 4 inches) is expected in a broad swath from southwestern Oklahoma through much of the Rio Grande Valley. Farther north, between 1.5 and 2.5 inches are expected from northern Missouri northeastward into western Wisconsin – part of a broader area expecting over 0.5 inch through much of central and western Texas, the central Great Plains, the Upper Mississippi Valley, and most of the Great Lakes region. Moderate precipitation, from 0.5 to 1.5 inches, should cover most of New England, New York, and the dry portions of Pennsylvania. Similar amounts are expected in the Southeast from Alabama eastward, with heavier amounts (1.0 to locally 2.5 inches) forecast in the Carolinas. From the central Gulf Coast through most of the eastern U.S., near-normal daytime temperatures should average a few degrees above normal at night. Temperatures should average a few degrees below normal from the southeastern Rockies through most of the central and southern Plains and the Great Lakes region, but near- to somewhat above-normal across most of the northwestern quarter of the country.

The Climate Prediction Center’s 6-10 day outlook (September 15-19) favors above-normal rainfall from the Ohio Valley, Middle Mississippi Valley, and central Texas eastward to the Atlantic Coast. Wet weather is also expected in the Northwest while odds again favor subnormal precipitation in much of the Great Basin, Four Corners States, and northern half of the Plains. In addition, surplus moisture is expected along the southern tier of Alaska, but subnormal precipitation is anticipated in the northern reaches of the state. Portions of central and southwestern Texas, plus eastern Alaska, should record below-normal temperatures while the near- to above-normal readings prevail elsewhere.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending September 8, 2020.

Nestlé seeks more time in Chaffee County as locals ask to be “unbottled” — @WaterEdCO

Arkansas River in Chaffee County. Nestlé is asking to continue exporting water from Chaffee County as locals ask to be “unbottled.” Credit: Wikipedia via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Bottled water company Nestlé is seeking permission to extend its operations in Colorado’s Chaffee County, a move that is generating significant community opposition.

Nestlé Waters North America first won permission to export spring water from Chaffee County in 2009, building a pipeline and trucking the water to Denver where it is packaged.

Location map for Nestlé operations near Nathrop via The Denver Post.

The company hopes to renew its original 10-year permit to tap Ruby Mountain Springs near Buena Vista, which expired last fall. The water is sold under the Arrowhead brand.

Chaffee County Commissioners are expected to take up the matter at an Oct. 20 hearing.

Nestlé Natural Resources Manager Larry Lawrence declined an interview request, but in an email said the company strives to maintain environmentally sensitive operations and that extending the permit would create no new stress on the springs.

Separately company officials have said repeatedly that preserving water resources is key to their ability to continue selling water. The beverage maker has 25 plants in the United States, including the one in Colorado.

In the meantime, local activists have collected more than 1,200 signatures on Change.org opposing the permit extension.

Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water, with 300-plus members, said the permit renewal poses an ongoing threat to local water supplies due to chronic drought and climate change. Activists also say that Nestlé donations of bottled water to local nonprofits increases the county’s recycling costs, and that Nestlé has not followed through on some of the commitments it made to the county, including taking steps to preserve important property along the Arkansas River near the springs.

“We believe we are an environmentally sensitive county,” said Francie Bomer, one of the activists leading the effort to cancel the permit.

“We don’t like plastic and we don’t believe the benefit to the county is equal to the value of the water Nestlé is taking out,” Bomer said.

The conflict comes as bottled water manufacturers across the U.S and Canada face mounting criticism over their use of groundwater. Five states, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, are moving to ban or sharply limit the industry.

Earlier this year Nestlé opted to sell its Canadian operations, exiting a country in which local opposition had grown strong, according to published reports.

Under its Chaffee County permit, Nestlé is required to monitor water levels in the Ruby Mountain Springs and to replace any water it takes under a replacement plan overseen by the Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.

Such plans are often required under state law, and are designed to ensure water users downstream of diversion sites with more senior water rights aren’t harmed by upstream diversions.

Manager of the Upper Arkansas Water District, Terry Scanga, said the replacement plan relies on water from Turquoise Lake in Leadville, which fully covers any water removed from Chaffee County by Nestlé. Scanga said the district has no plans to contest the permit renewal.

Nestlé is required to monitor water levels and habitat conditions as part of its agreement with the county. In its 2019 annual report, the company said it extracted 89 acre-feet of spring water, 5.6 percent of the 1,573 acre-feet of overall flow measured. An acre-foot is equal to nearly 326,000 gallons.

If its permit is renewed, the company estimates annual production would grow at 2 percent annually, but would still be well below the amount to which it is legally entitled.

In addition, ongoing monitoring by the company shows that the spring recovers quickly as water is extracted and that no harm to habitat has been noted since 2010.

“To date, spring water production has been well below the permit limitations and at no time over the last decade of monitoring has stress to the spring system resulted in conditions where pumping was required to be reduced, either to meet criteria under the permit or due to observations that indicated operations were negatively impacting upstream or downstream users or the ecological and biological systems,” the report states.

Bomer is skeptical of those reports because they have not been independently verified by outside experts.

Earlier this year, in advance of the permit renewal effort, the county hired experts to evaluate Nestlé monitoring data, according to Chaffee County Attorney Jennifer Davis.

Whether Chaffee County will become another bottled water hot spot in the international battle isn’t clear yet.

“We are a tiny county. Are we part of that bigger effort? No. We’re just trying to protect our resources so they will be here when we need them,” Bomer said. “But if we contribute to to that effort, that would be okay.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

A Siege of 80 Large, Uncontained Wildfires Sweeps the Hot, Dry West — Inside #Climate News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

From Inside Climate News (Michael Kodas):

As fires spread into Washington, Oregon and Montana, the arrival of the Santa Ana winds means more conflagrations for California.

Over Labor Day weekend, the fire storms that plagued California and Colorado in August blew up into an unprecedented siege of wildfires across half a dozen western states. Fire scientists and incident commanders warn that a series of almost unheard of events over the weekend—mass evacuations with military aircraft, entire towns torched, megafires blazing in multiple states at the same time—may become commonplace as the West warms.

“The incidence of these extreme events, which are basically outliers, will become more common,” said Robert Gray, a forest fire ecologist in British Columbia.

When September arrived, the eyes of most fire watchers were on California, which was beginning to make progress against its second, third and fourth largest fires on record, all of which ignited in rare August lightning storms that unleashed hundreds of fires across the state. Then the holiday weekend kicked off with a new blaze, the Creek Fire, igniting on Friday night. Over the following four days, the new fire exploded to 144,000 acres to become California’s latest megafire.

In a days-long series of airlifts, National Guard helicopters rescued nearly 400 campers and hikers surrounded by the fire at Mammoth Pool Reservoir Area, China Peak and Lake Edison in the Sierra National Forest, about 170 miles east of San Jose. At one point pilots resorted to using night vision goggles to try and see through the thick smoke that was thwarting their attempts to land. Combat veterans piloting the choppers said the missions were the most difficult they had ever flown.

By Tuesday morning, the new fire had prompted the evacuation of thousands of people in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.

The Creek Fire helped California break its annual record for the amount of land burning in one year of wildfires, with 2.2 million acres scorched by Labor Day. But the state’s most deadly and destructive months for wildfires are still to come. That peak fire season got a head start on Tuesday when the Santa Ana winds that have driven most of the state’s most infamous conflagrations arrived weeks earlier than usual.

“This is crazy. We haven’t even got into the October and November fire season and we’ve broken the all-time record,” Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova told CNN. “It concerns us because we need to get these firefighters off these lines and get them breaks from battling these wildfires.”

California fire crews are catching anything but a break, as more than two dozen major fires burn across the state, including one that forced 15 firefighters attempting to save a ranger station in the Los Padres National Forest just north of Santa Barbara to deploy their fire shelters—small, silver tents that are a wildland firefighter’s last chance to survive a fire burning them over. The blaze, the Dolan Fire, left one firefighter critically burned, two others in serious condition and the ranger station in cinders.

Fires Spread Across the West to Washington, Oregon and Montana

But California isn’t the only state where the explosion of wildfires threatened firefighters or communities over the holiday weekend. In Montana, three other firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters while battling the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman over the weekend. Those firefighters escaped the flames with smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, but extreme fire behavior had destroyed at least 28 homes in Bridger Canyon.

Farther west, a fast-moving firestorm on Monday destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Malden, a farming town with about 300 residents in eastern Washington about 30 miles from Spokane. The fire station, post office, library and town hall all burned along with most of the town’s houses.

“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” said Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers in a statement Tuesday. “The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime. I just hope we don’t find the fire took more than homes and buildings. I pray everyone got out in time.”

When the smoke from the latest conflagrations finally clears, Malden will not be the only community facing such devastation.

The town of Blue River (Oregon) has sustained catastrophic damage,” said Lane County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky at an emergency session of the Lane County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday morning. “According to one fire responder, it appears that at least 80 to 100 houses in Blue River were lost.

“We expect that other homes and businesses within the fire area have burned. And we should expect loss of life from this fire.”

Mill City, a tourist destination in Santiam Canyon that was filled with visitors over the weekend, was overrun by the firestorm Monday night and nearby communities including Detroit, Lyons, Mehama, Gates and Idanha were evacuated as multiple wildfires ignited in the canyon.

Then, on Tuesday evening, the Glendower Fire, a brush fire that ignited that morning outside Ashland, Oregon, burned up the Interstate 5 corridor into the towns of Talent and Phoenix, where the wildfire turned into an urban firestorm that ripped into Medford, a city of nearly 85,000 residents.

A scorching heat wave drove much of the West into extreme fire danger. Over the weekend, Los Angeles County reached 121 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever recorded there. And in Washington’s Okanogan and Douglas counties on Monday, high temperatures and strong winds helped the Cold Spring Fire run more than 20 miles and jump the Columbia River.

In a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington reported that 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday alone—more than in any of the previous 12 fire seasons.

Colliding Fire Cycles Max Out the West’s Firefighting Resources

For incident commanders and fire scientists, the vast portion of the country in which large fires are burning simultaneously is just as unusual and troubling as the size, speed and severity of the conflagrations.

“It’s not just the size of the fires, but the distribution,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of California, Los Angeles. “There are big fires burning throughout the West at the same time. Right now the fire resources are completely maxed out.”

Typically, one western ecosystem’s peak fire season occurs at a different time of year than others. Arizona and New Mexico see the most wildfires in late spring and early summer, whereas California’s busiest fire season runs from late summer through the fall. Such staggering of regional fire activity also often occurs in longer time frames, with bad fire years in one area usually matched by slow years elsewhere.

When one area’s fire season ebbed as another picked up, firefighting resources could be redistributed accordingly. But with destructive conflagrations burning all along the Pacific coast, north to Montana and east across Utah and Colorado, federal firefighting resources are stretched thin.

The nation has been at its highest wildfire alert level for the last three weeks, and on Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center identified 15 new large fires. On Wednesday, NIFC listed 18 more large fires, for a total of 85 large, uncontained conflagrations across the West.

“Most aspects of what’s going on right now are not typical,” Swain said. “Anyone who works in fire is overwhelmed.”

Swain saw the fires that ignited throughout the Pacific Northwest over the holiday weekend as particularly troubling.

“The entire Cascade Range, they’re just on fire, north to south,” he said on Monday as he looked over maps and satellite imagery. “I count at least 14 new fires burning in timber in the last 12 hours. That’s just me eyeballing smoke plumes. Some of these look like they are tens of thousands of acres since last night.”

“I’m sick, the amount of new fires today is unreal,” Washington state fire meteorologist Josh Clark tweeted Monday night. “Early estimates figure 288K acres burned today across the state. Numerous homes and property destroyed, 30K+ without power. Every one of these was 100% human-caused and therefore 100% preventable.”

In Colorado, hot, dry, windy conditions led the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins to more than triple in size over the holiday weekend, to more than 102,596 acres. But, after much of the state endured weekend temperatures in the high 90s, and Denver reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, temperatures plummeted on Monday night and snow fell over much of the Colorado high country.

It was “the earliest accumulating snow ever observed in over 130 years of records!” tweeted assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger after the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins measured 0.3 inches of snow Tuesday morning. Although the snow staunched the growth of some fires in Colorado and Utah, such volatile weather swings, which are predicted to increase in many areas due to climate change, will often increase the incidence of wildfires as pulses of moisture lead to the rapid growth of grasses and other fine fuels that quickly dry to the point of combustion when hot, dry weather returns.

Five inches of heavy snow fell on the Cameron Peak fire, although incident commanders there and at fires in Utah that also received snow say that won’t slow the blazes for long if hot, dry conditions return.

As the Santa Anas Arrive, No Relief for California

California, as it moves into its peak fire season, is unlikely to see any of the kind of relief Colorado received over the weekend. Instead, the ongoing drought and relentless heatwave are compounding already primed fire conditions.

While most of the fires that plagued California in August were in lower elevation and coastal forests, the Creek Fire is pushing into mountain forests where 163 million trees have died since 2010 due to drought and insect infestation, providing ample fuel for the new fires.

“The fire is burning through areas of peak tree mortality,” Swain said. “It’s heavy fuel and currently it is probably drier than it has ever been.”

Many of those forests are far thicker than trees than they would have been historically, he added, as natural wildfires that would have thinned them out every decade or so have been extinguished for more than a century, leaving the woodlands filled with trees crowded closer together than they would normally grow.

“There’s just a lot of fuel in there and it’s explosively dry,” he said.

Summer holiday weekends usually see spikes of wildfire ignitions, as the public heads out to recreate around flammable landscapes. That’s particularly true of California, where well over 90 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans in one way or another.

One of the most dangerous fires to ignite in California over the Labor Day weekend—the El Dorado fire—grew to more than 10,000 acres in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles after the explosive device an expecting couple used to create blue smoke for their gender reveal party accidentally ignited the blaze.

Another compounding factor in the wildfires has been the cutoff of electricity. PG&E, the California utility whose power lines have caused numerous fires, including the deadliest in state history, announced Monday that it would cut power to about 172,000 customers in 22 California counties to avoid sparking more blazes. High winds and wildfires in Oregon left nearly 100,000 people there without electricity.

But the greatest wildfire threat in California arrived after the holiday, around noon on Tuesday, when the first of the annual Santa Ana winds arrived to push the record acreage burning in California into the vast forests of dead, dry timber. The winds have already led to new evacuations of towns west of the massive and rapidly spreading Creek Fire.

The Tuesday winds drove another California fire, the Bear Fire, to grow by some 250,000 acres in just 24 hours. By Wednesday morning it was threatening the town of Oroville, which just three years earlier was evacuated when too much rain nearly cause the Oroville dam to fail.

“The stage is set,” Swain said. “This autumn looks like it will be warmer than average and drier than average. I just don’t see any mitigating factors as far as fire in California until winter.”