U.S. Forest Service approves protection of Colorado’s Sweetwater Lake, but big questions remain

Sweetwater Lake, Garfield County, Colorado. Photo credit: Todd Winslow Pierce with permission

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

Interior Sec. David Bernhardt’s order on Friday requires new provisions for Land and Water Conservation Fund allocations, further clouding the Great American Outdoors Act.

The White River National Forest’s request for Land and Water Conservation Fund money to permanently protect Garfield County’s Sweetwater Lake — a pristine oasis surrounded by public lands — has been granted.

But the agency did not say how much of the requested $8.5 million from the fund will be distributed. That’s just one of several recent examples of foot dragging by Trump Administration land managers who have missed critical deadlines imposed by the Great American Outdoors Act, a sweeping public lands bill that President Donald Trump promoted to help buoy Republican senators facing tough re-election bids in the West.

The Forest Service on Friday released its 2021 list of Land and Water Conservation Fund projects for state grants under the Forest Legacy Program and for land acquisition. The list was due Nov. 2 as part of the passage this summer of the Great American Outdoors Act, which promised to whittle down an estimated $20 billion in deferred maintenance on public lands and directed $900 million a year into the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (The fund is supported by oil and gas royalties paid by energy companies exploring and drilling on federal land and water.)

The Great American Outdoors Act requires the Forest Service and the Department of Interior to submit “a detailed description of each project, including the estimated expenditures from the fund for the project for applicable fiscal years,” by Nov. 2. Both agencies missed that deadline. The list released Friday by the Forest Service also lacked the dollar figures required by the legislation.

As an added twist, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Friday issued an order that added new provisions to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, including severe limitations on the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to add new acreage. Bernhardt’s Secretarial Order 3388 prioritized land acquisitions by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the BLM.

A vague list he scripted last week distributing $900 million worth of Land and Water Conservation Fund money sent just $2.5 million to the BLM for land acquisition, and dismissed six projects that had been previously trumpeted by the Trump Administration during the summer’s cheerleading for the Great American Outdoors Act.

“That is consistent with the disdain Bernhardt has had for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “He tried to defund it for three years and now he’s throwing sand in the gears before he leaves. Really, these guys are just making it up as they go along right now because they know it doesn’t matter. They are going to be gone soon.”

Bernhardt’s order also requires both the approval of state governors and local county leaders for all federal land acquisition. The Garfield County Commissioners have long opposed adding federal land in their county but they do support the protection of Sweetwater Lake…

In the final line of Friday’s order, Bernhardt added a legally questionable clause.

“The termination of this order will not nullify the implementation of the requirement and responsibilities effected herein,” he wrote.

A workaround emerges

But there is another option for seeing the Great American Outdoors Act fully deployed. Congress could force Bernhardt and the Forest Service to fund all the projects that were part of the promotions for the legislation. And lawmakers appear to be preparing to do just that.

The U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday released funding recommendations for the Interior Department and Forest Service with specific projects and dollar amounts. The committee plan directs $54.1 million to the BLM — a $51.6 million increase over Bernhardt’s plan — and $120 million to the Forest Service for land acquisition. The committee’s list for LWCF acquisition projects includes $8.5 million for the Forest Service for Sweetwater Lake.

Sweetwater Lake and the surrounding 488 acres has been owned for decades by private developers who pondered a luxury retreat, a golf course and even a water-bottling facility. The White River National Forest’s request for Land and Water Conservation Fund support was among the agency’s Top 10 priority projects for 2021.

Officials with the White River National Forest directed all calls about plans for Sweetwater Lake to the agency’s national press office, where spokeswoman Babete Anderson said there was no more information to share…

When, or if, the land becomes part of the National Forest System, the White River has a long list of priorities for Sweetwater Lake, including improvements to the water supply on the property and upgrades to a campground and boat launch.

The agency is in talks with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about a shared management plan at Sweetwater Lake that could lead to the property becoming a new state park.

“Sweetwater checks some important boxes for CPW and what we want stuff to look like. There is obviously water recreation and we also like the location as close as it is to I-70,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “Then there’s the access it provides to federal land, just a massive amount of land. So yes, there are many reasons we want to be part of that conversation with the Forest Service. We are in a mode right now where we are looking at other parcels. The governor has let his intention be known that he wants more state parks.”

The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake and more than 400 acres surrounding it could be open to the public if a conservation plan shifts the property into the White River National Forest. (Provided by The Conservation Fund via The Colorado Sun)

More fires, bigger fires trend likely to continue in #Colorado — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

The East Troublesome fire as seen from Cottonwood Pass looking north on the evening of Wednesday, Oct 21, 2020. (Andrew Lussie via InciWeb via The Colorado Sun)

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Evan Wyloge):

Over the past two decades, fire seasons in Colorado have consistently grown larger and more destructive. The three largest wildfires in tracked history ignited within 10 weeks of one another this year, putting the year’s total wildfire-burned acreage above the past six years combined.

It’s a trend caused by several factors, experts and researchers say, and it’s likely to continue.

large fires that characterized this year, said Camille Stevens-Rumann, a Colorado State University professor whose research focuses on fire ecology.

“If you think about other areas like California, or even other Rocky Mountain states, like Montana or Idaho,” she said, “they’ve had huge fires. We’ve not seen those. We had Hayman in 2002, then bad years in 2010 and 2011, but we haven’t had to face this reality until this year.”

Hotter, drier seasons, along with some misguided forest management practices, are to blame, she and other experts agree.

Fires in Colorado are a natural event, they stressed. The lodgepole pine is cited as an example of how the ecology has evolved to coexist with regular fires. The tree’s pine cone opens and releases the seeds when it raises to a certain temperature. And the natural cycle is for the adult lodgepole pines to be burned…

Higher temperatures — average global temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius since the middle of the 20th century — mean the mountain snowpack doesn’t last as long, Hurteau said. The same higher temperatures that shorten the winter then, in the summer, sap moisture from the ecosystem, priming Colorado’s forest vegetation for a fire.

Two key metrics quantify for researchers how much the higher temperatures cause the more rapid drying of the environment.

“Vapor pressure deficit and climatic water deficit: How much moisture does the atmosphere want to pull out of the soil, versus how much there is,” Stevens-Rumann said. “As temperatures increase, there’s more demand in those two metrics.”

The natural process plays out every summer, but with snowpack disappearing earlier in the year and not arriving until later, it happens more intensely and for a longer duration…

Bark beetle is another factor that stokes Colorado’s wildfires. If a patch of trees becomes infested, after time, the trees die, leaving dead, drying timber that’s primed to ignite because of the drying pattern, the experts said. And while pine needles, twigs, loose foliage or leaves on the forest floor can burn quickly without burning larger trees, standing dead trees burn hotter for longer, further contributing to more intense fires…

Forest management practices have contributed to the problem as well. The doctrine of extinguishing forest fires as quickly as possible, without regard to the natural cycle of burning and regeneration for forests, has led to more fire-prone wildland…

He said there are now efforts to bring a better approach to forest management, which lets some of the fuel burn, to better match the natural cycle.

Why understanding #snowpack could help the overworked #ColoradoRiver — The Deseret News #COriver #aridification

Horseshoe Bend.

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

The U.S. Geological Survey is in the beginning stages of learning more about this river via an expanded and more sophisticated monitoring system that aims to study details about the snowpack that feeds the river basin, droughts and flooding, and how streamflow supports groundwater, or vice versa.

Begun earlier this year, the probe is part of a larger effort by the federal agency to study 10 critical watersheds throughout the country by expanding its monitoring capabilities.

According to the research agency, it maintains real-time monitors that provide data on the nation’s water resources, including more than 11,300 stream gauges that measure surface-water flow and/or levels; 2,100 water-quality stations; 17,000 wells that monitor groundwater levels; and 1,000 precipitation stations.

While that may seem like a lot, the network falls short of meeting the demands of modern-day analysis. The monitors in place cover less than 1% of the nation’s streams and groundwater aquifers and were designed to meet the needs of the past, according to the agency.

The USGS will be installing new monitoring equipment and enhancing existing streamgages in the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin (Upper Colorado River Basin) beginning in 2020, subject to availability of funding. Credit: USGS

Because of this, the agency is investing in the Next Generation Water Observing System, which will tap sophisticated new monitoring capabilities resulting from recent advances in water science.

The effort will also bring together the knowledge and expertise of agency scientists, resource managers and other stakeholders to determine water information needs not only now, but into the future.

The system will use both fixed and mobile equipment — including drones — to collect data on streamflow, evapotranspiration, snowpack, soil moisture, water quality, groundwater/surface-water connections, stream velocity distribution, sediment transport and water use.

When it comes to the Colorado, understanding snowpack is critical because the Upper Colorado River Basin supplies about 90% of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin — with about 85% of the river flow originating as snowmelt from about 15% of the basin at the highest altitudes.

The lower basin is arid and depends upon that managed use of the Colorado River system to make the surrounding land habitable and productive.

“New monitoring technology is essential to addressing many issues associated with our annual water balance in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” said Dave “DK” Kanzer, who is deputy chief engineer at Colorado River Water Conservation District.

#Nebraska expects to meet #RepublicanRiver pact with #Kansas — #Kearney Star-Herald

From The Associated Press via The Kearney Star-Herald:

Todd Siel with the Lower Republican Natural Resources District said he expects the state will be able to meet the terms of the Republican River compact next year without putting additional restrictions on irrigation or pumping additional water into the basin.

Siel told the Kearney Hub that Harlan County Lake is still mostly full thanks to the extremely wet weather of 2019, and that is a major factor in helping Nebraska comply with the river pact next year.

The Republican River Compact allocates the waters of the basins between the states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado have fought for decades over water entitlements provided under the compact. The compact has resulted in lawsuits among the states, which regulate access to the water.

The compact signed in 1943 gives Nebraska the rights to 49 percent of the river’s water, while Kansas receives 40 percent and Colorado gets 11 percent. The Republican River originates in Colorado, crosses the northwestern tip of Kansas into Nebraska, then runs through Nebraska before re-entering Kansas through its northeastern corner.

More than 9,000 Landsat images provide vegetation health metrics for the Republican River Basin. Credit: David Hyndman

#Snowpack news: The #RioGrande leads in early snowpack totals = 154% of normal

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 November 16, 2020.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map November 16, 2020 via the NRCS.