FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Sorry skiers, ranchers and kayakers: Weather observers see no relief in sight for a persistent drought that has gripped the Four Corners.
A strong La Niña weather pattern has helped shift the jet stream farther north, which keeps storms from reaching the Four Corners, officials said.
“It’s the strongest La Niña in 10 years,” said Jim Andrus, a weather observer for the National Weather Service. “Even when we do get storms that dip down our way, they are weak at most.”
The long-term forecast for the Four Corners is below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures, said Norv Larson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
High pressure and a dry air mass are generally blocking storms from reaching and forming in the area, he said…
Snowpack is well below average in Southwest Colorado.
Snotel stations in the mountains that measure snowfall, show the Dolores and San Miguel river basins are 48% of normal as of Dec. 7.
The Animas River Basin is at 38% of normal, and the Gunnison River Basin is at 53% of normal.
The Telluride Ski Resort reports a 21-inch base, and Purgatory Resort has a 16-inch base.
As of Dec. 3, Southwest Colorado and most of the Western Slope were in “exceptional” drought, the worst level out of five, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of Utah and Arizona also were in exceptional drought.
Contrary to the common phrase, fire and water actually do mix – and there’s often a direct connection between the two.
This year in particular, wildfires have gripped Colorado with historic magnitude. And while we often think of property damage and air quality as the most immediate consequences of severe wildfire, rivers and drinking water supplies are often wildfire casualties as well.
2020 was Colorado’s third-driest water year on record and one of our warmest, with the hottest August since record-keeping began in 1895. Models show that climate change and historic drought will continue to affect the Colorado River Basin and increase the severity and frequency of wildfires.
To combat this, we must strive to bolster the resiliency of both land and water, including our rivers and streams, to support our communities that rely upon them.
The good news is that Coloradans across the state recognize the need to invest in our rivers.
Voters this year approved two ballot measures that will generate additional funding to support the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District as well as the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The measures will generate a combined $8 million per year to support healthy rivers, local agriculture, watershed health and water quality across both districts.
That local funding will support the types of solutions and water-management projects outlined in Colorado’s Water Plan. The plan, finalized in 2015, provides a blueprint to address the gap between water supply and demand across the state.
And now we have a critical opportunity to build on that work – and voters’ recent mandates – by making updates to the Water Plan. These updates will provide a chance to identify and recommend a path towards a healthy, secure water future.
“From extreme drought to extreme fires, 2020 highlights the need for us to build our climate resilience and protect the watersheds that sustain our streams, farms and cities. Finding these opportunities and identifying the state of the science is at the heart of the Colorado Water Plan Update,” says Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell.
Wildfire-related impacts on river health are significant, including post-fire floods, debris flows, erosion, and the threat of toxic debris flowing into our rivers and water supply. Laurie Rink of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council says that key stakeholders have expressed the need for coordinated planning and response to Colorado’s wildfires.
“Immediate focus will be on post-fire recovery and rehabilitation to reduce post-fire hazards, such as flooding and erosion. Longer-term efforts can turn towards planning for and implementing future fire risk mitigation throughout the watershed,” Rink says.
Healthy rivers flow from healthy watersheds. We must broaden the river health conversation beyond the river channel itself, to include the entire “riverscape,” comprised of the streams, floodplain, and vegetation surrounding them.
Riverscapes support bird and wildlife habitat, as well as ecological services that directly influence water quality and quantity. Nearly 80% of Colorado’s clean, reliable drinking water comes from these forested watersheds. But significant data gaps exist around watershed health, and without current science, the effort to create projects and management plans to protect Colorado’s rivers is daunting.
Ensuring that Colorado’s riverscapes and forests can recover from future wildfires at a landscape scale is crucial. Implementing proven wildfire mitigation strategies such as forest treatments and prescribed fires, as well as investing in the health of our rivers and streams, will promote increased resilience to climate change and mitigate the effects of wildfires on water supplies and communities.
Colorado’s Water Plan strives to develop stream management plans for at least 80% of rivers and streams across the state, as well as 80% of critical watersheds with watershed protection plans, all by 2030.
Current, accurate, scientific data is crucial for the development of these stream management and watershed plans. Fortunately, river health assessments can inform locally driven projects to protect or improve conditions and empower communities to develop tailored resilience strategies and track river health over time.
It’s essential that an updated Water Plan provide funding and guidance for addressing river health information gaps.
While rivers connect all Coloradans, so does drought and wildfire in 2020. When we invest in the health of our rivers, we are also investing in future resilience to climate change and associated disruptions to our rural heritage and Colorado lifestyle.
Abby Burk is the Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies.
From the University of Colorado (Kelsey Simpkins):
A long-term trend of ecological improvement is appearing in the mountains west of Boulder. Researchers from CU Boulder have found that Niwot Ridge—a high alpine area of the Rocky Mountains, east of the Continental Divide—is slowly recovering from increased acidity caused by vehicle emissions in Colorado’s Front Range.
Their results show that nitric and sulfuric acid levels in the Green Lakes Valley region of Niwot Ridge have generally decreased over the past 30 years, especially since the mid-2000s. The findings, which suggest that alpine regions across the Mountain West may be recovering, are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.
This is good news for the wildlife and wildflowers of Rocky Mountain National Park to the north of Niwot Ridge, which depend on limited levels of acidity in the water and soil to thrive. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are also the source of a lot of water for people living in the Mountain West, and the integrity of these ecosystems influences both the quantity and the quality of this water.
“It looks like we’re doing the right thing. By controlling vehicle emissions, some of these really special places that make Colorado unique are going back to what they used to be,” said Jason Neff, co-author on the paper and director of the Sustainability Innovation Lab at Colorado (SILC).
Almost every area in the world, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, has been affected in the past 200 years by increased acidic nutrients, like nitrogen, contained in rain and snow. Nitrogen oxides, like nitrate, are produced primarily from vehicles and energy production. Ammonium is a main ingredient in common agricultural fertilizers.
Nitrogen is a fundamental nutrient required in ecosystems. But when nitrogen levels increase too much, this changed soil and water chemistry can make it difficult for native plants to thrive or even survive—leading to a cascade of negative consequences.
In the summer, the sun heats up the Eastern flanks of the Front Range, causing the warmer air to rise—bringing nitrogen from cars, industry and agriculture with it. As this air cools, it forms clouds over the Rocky Mountains and falls back down as afternoon thunderstorms—depositing contaminants, explained Neff.
In the 1970s, so-called “acid rain” hit East Coast ecosystems much harder than the Mountain West, famously wiping out fish populations and killing trees across large swaths of upstate New York. But scientists are still working to understand how increased levels of acidic nutrients affect the alpine region and how long these ecosystems take to recover.
To fill this gap of knowledge, the researchers analyzed data from 1984 to 2017 on atmospheric deposition and stream water chemistry from the Mountain Research Station, a research facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder located on Niwot Ridge. They found that around the early 2000s, levels of nitric and sulfuric acid stopped increasing in the Green Lakes Valley. In the mid-2000s they started decreasing.
Their findings were not all good news, however. Levels of ammonium from fertilizer have more than doubled in rainfall in this area between 1984 and 2017, indicating a need to continue monitoring this agricultural chemical and its effects on the mountain ecosystem.
From field work to statistics
This work builds on decades of field work by Colorado researchers at CU Boulder and beyond.
Niwot Ridge is one of 28 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network sites in the U.S., funded by the National Science Foundation. Its 4 square miles stretch from the Continental Divide down to the subalpine forest, 25 miles northwest of Boulder. Researchers at CU Boulder, as well as Colorado State University and the United States Geological Survey, have been collecting data here since the mid-1970s, hiking through snow, sleet and rain to get it.
In the 80s, 90s and 2000s they worked to bring attention to increasing acidification in Colorado mountain ecosystems as a need for pollution regulation in the Front Range.
This new research was made possible by these dedicated scientists, stresses Neff.
“We used water quality modeling and statistical approaches to analyze the long-term datasets that Niwot researchers have been collecting for decades,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, a co-author on the paper and fellow of INSTAAR. “The data are available for anyone to download. Our modeling approaches allowed us to evaluate the patterns they hold in a rigorous way.”
Since 1990, Bill Bowman, director of the Mountain Research Station and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been looking into how nutrients like nitrogen affect plants in mountain ecosystems. He’s found that alpine environments are unique in how they respond to these nutrients.
“It’s a system that is adapted to low nutrients, as well as a harsh climate and a very short growing season—and frost in the middle of the season. These are very slow growing plants. And they just simply can’t respond to the addition of more nitrogen into the system,” said Bowman, also a fellow in INSTAAR.
He has also found that these ecosystems recover quite slowly, even after acidic elements like nitrogen are no longer being added. But like Neff, who completed his undergraduate honors thesis with Bowman in 1993 using Niwot Ridge data, he sees this research as encouraging.
Even if it’s slow going, they said, these results show that the ecosystem has a chance to recover.
“We still have air quality issues in the Front Range. But even with those air quality issues, this research shows that regulating vehicle and power plant emissions is having a big impact,” said Neff.
Additional authors on this paper include lead author John Crawford of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski and Lisa Schwantes):
Construction to begin next spring in southwest Colorado
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Transportation have partnered with the Southern Ute Indian tribe and several other organizations to construct a new wildlife mitigation project in southwest Colorado. The project, slated to begin this coming spring, will construct several features on U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Pagosa Springs that will promote safer travel for motorists, enhance safer movement of wildlife, and reduce animal-vehicle collisions along this section of highway.
The location of the project will bring a great improvement for that section of highway, explained Scott Wait, senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“This is a heavily used corridor by vehicles and an important area in the San Juan Basin for big game,” Wait said. “Deer and elk spend the warm months in the high country to the north; but most big game move to the important winter range areas south of the highway during the winter. So there is a huge number of deer and elk that cross the highway at that location.”
This is an extraordinary collaborative project, CDOT officials said.
“We are extremely grateful for the phenomenal partnerships that have made this project feasible,” said Tony Cady, CDOT Planning and Environmental Manager for southwest Colorado. “These partnerships greatly leverage the individual contributions made by these different entities and will increase the return on our investments.”
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is a critical partner and provided important biological information to help design the project.
“Hunting is an extremely important component to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and culture and it is considered vital to keep these traditions alive,” said Steve Whiteman, acting director of Natural Resources. “The Tribe has long maintained a positive working relationship with the state of Colorado, and looks forward to the collaboration with CPW and CDOT to bring this important project into reality.”
Organizations and agencies as well as their contributions toward the project include:
$8.6 million from CDOT
$1.3 million from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe
$750,000 from CPW
$317,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
$100,000 from Mule Deer Foundation (via a private donor)
$75,000 from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Cady added, “Not only have several agencies and organizations come forward with valuable funding commitments, some agencies have also contributed with studies, research and development plans to make the project possible.”
The Colorado Wildlife and Transportation Alliance, a consortium of federal and state agencies, academics, nonprofits, biologists, and engineers, played a significant role in developing the unique financial partnerships to advance the southwest Colorado project. Additionally, along with their financial backing, the Southern Ute Tribe provided support with critical Global Positioning System data which identified seasonal migration patterns and habitat in the area.
The project site is located on U.S. 160 in Archuleta County, centered at the CO Highway 151 intersection, near Lake Capote and Chimney Rock National Monument. The project will span for approximately two miles on U.S. 160, about 13 miles west of Pagosa Springs and 37 miles east of Durango, between mile points 126-128.
Work will include:
construction of a wildlife underpass structure just west of the U.S. 160 and CO 151 intersection at MP 126.8
construction of a wildlife overpass structure just east of the U.S. 160 and CO 151 intersection at MP 127.3
installation of an 8-foot-tall exclusion fence along both sides of U.S. 160 throughout the project limits, approximately a two-mile stretch from MP 126 – 128
construction of earthen escape ramps and deer guards along the length of fencing
installation of a large deer guard on CO 151 at the approach to U.S. 160, similar to a cattle guard but much wider to prevent deer from jumping across and into the highway corridor
extension of the existing westbound passing lane on U.S. 160 at the CO 151 intersection
extension of the westbound left-turn acceleration lane on U.S. 160 at the CO 151 intersection
The construction project, awarded to Ralph L. Wadsworth Construction Co. of Utah for $7.95 million, will be completed within one construction season, breaking ground next spring and wrapping up by the fall of 2021. The total cost of the project is approximately $11.3 million, including design and planning.
CDOT has built more than 60 wildlife mitigation structures crossing above or under highways throughout the state. Additionally, almost 400 miles of high big game fencing has been installed along state and U.S. highways or next to the interstates.