#Drought news (December 29, 2020): No change in depiction for #Colorado and the #ColoradoRiver Basin

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

Precipitation fell across much of the United States this week, with widespread moderate amounts (1-2 inches) falling on the eastern third of the CONUS, as a strong storm system moved eastward and exited the Northeast early in the week (Dec. 24-25). Ahead of the frontal boundary associated with this system, strong southerly flow resulted in a rapid warm up and heavy rainfall (2-3 inches, with locally heavier totals), leading to increased snowmelt throughout the Northeast. Behind this system, and in the following days due to lake effect, new snow blanketed many of the same locations that experienced the rapid snowmelt. Toward the end of the week, moderating temperatures led to additional snowmelt across the region. As a result, much of the Northeast saw 1-category improvements (D1 to D0, and D0 to removal). The Southeast also saw improvements in D0 coverage as the frontal boundary from this system extended all the way to the Gulf Coast as it tracked eastward. In the western CONUS, only minor improvements were made in Oregon as long-term indicators (going back to last year’s below normal rainy season) have improved enough to warrant some reduction in extreme drought (D3) coverage. Late in the week (Dec. 28-29), a storm system finally tracked southward this season, bringing above-normal weekly precipitation to coastal southern California. Unfortunately, long-term deficits (beyond 60 days) remained, foregoing D1 improvement. Status-quo was warranted from the Great Basin eastward to the Great Plains as the energy from this system propagated eastward, building upon snow water equivalent (SWE) values and preventing further deterioration; however, the precipitation that did fall was not enough to improve conditions either. In the Northern Plains, snowpack remains well below-normal, leading to some minor degradation in areas where temperatures averaged above freezing and winds were gusty. Elsewhere, the time of year has minimized degradation of drought in many locations, with low temperatures, little or no evapotranspiration, and frozen ground (upper Midwest and Great Plains).

Much of Alaska has received near to above-normal precipitation during the first half of Fall, with some sporadic stations depicting some minor dryness in the last month. However, snowpack is above-normal everywhere south of the Brooks Range for the season as a whole. Hawaii has experienced a dry December and this has led to some D0 degradation to D1 on the Big Island, as pasture conditions have begun to worsen. Puerto Rico observed below-normal precipitation in areas already experiencing abnormal dryness and moderate drought (D0 and D1, respectively), but USGS 7-day average stream flows remain steady from last week…

High Plains

A low pressure system developed over the Central Plains on Monday, associated with energy exiting the eastern Rockies Monday into Tuesday (Dec. 28-29). This provided above-normal precipitation, mostly in the form of snow, across the central and eastern High Plains Region (liquid water equivalent precipitation greater than 200 percent of normal). Despite below-normal precipitation southward, it was enough to stave off degradation across Kansas and Colorado. Further north, however, in northwestern South Dakota and southwestern North Dakota, average maximum temperatures remained above freezing, aided by reduced seasonal snowpack. Additionally, high winds, mainly early in the period, and 1 to 2-month SPEIs ranging from D1 to D4, led to degradation to D1, extending westward into southeastern Montana. SWE percent of normal values have continued to improve; however, most basins in the High Plains Region remained below-normal for the season. The exception was in southern Colorado (near to above-normal SWE) where near to above-normal weekly precipitation added to the snowpack…


Despite near to below-normal precipitation across the Pacific Northwest this week, precipitation for the season as a whole has finally improved long-term SPIs and SPEIs below D3 status, warranting some minor reduction in D3 (extreme drought) coverage. Ground water has been slower to recover, but given the continued region-wide improvements to SWE, the various indicators supported the improvement this week. Further south, coastal areas of southern California saw above-normal weekly rains late in the period, from San Luis Obispo County southward to the Mexico border. The heaviest rainfall was observed in Santa Barbara County, with some southeastern locations receiving more than 4 inches. However, this was not enough rainfall to overcome long-term deficits (2 to 4 inch deficits going back 60 days). Elsewhere in the Western Region, much-needed precipitation fell across the Great Basin and the Four Corners Region, adding some additional snowpack and preventing further degradation this week. Basin SWE values remain below 75 percent of normal for the southern Great Basin and the Four Corners, but some gains were made in northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado…


Most of the precipitation fell on the eastern third of the Southern Region associated with a frontal boundary during Wednesday and Thursday (Dec. 23-24). This led to some minor trimming of D0 in south-central Tennessee and extreme northwestern Alabama which received 1.5 to 2 inches of rain. However, locations along and west of the Mississippi River observed below-normal weekly totals, warranting further expansion of D0 in eastern and northern Arkansas. Some slight improvement (D1 to D0) and removal (D0) north of Houston was also justified in localized areas that received more than 1.5 inches of rainfall. Light precipitation fell over parts of Oklahoma and Texas Monday into Tuesday (Dec. 28-29) as energy exiting the southern Rockies and intensified across the Central and Southern Plains. Despite the late arrival of the system in the Plains this week, the previous week’s release of the Drought Monitor remained representative of conditions across Oklahoma and most of Texas. However, southern Texas saw some slight degradation along the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with D3 expanded northward from Starr County to Webb County, and D2 expansion southward into southeastern Hidalgo and western Cameron Counties. This region has experienced low relative humidity and topsoil moisture. NASA SPoRT soil moisture data depicts the top 10 cm of soil below the 2nd percentile in areas where D3 was expanded, and between the 5th and 10th percentiles where D2 was expanded. NASA GRACE ground water data and the National Land Data Assimilation System (NLDAS) also support this deterioration…

Looking Ahead

The 5-day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) from the NWS Weather Prediction Center (December 31, 2020 – January 4, 2021) depicted heavy precipitation along the West Coast, from northern California northward to Vancouver Island, associated with a series of potent storm systems. Across the eastern CONUS, an active storm track favors widespread precipitation totals exceeding an inch from the Southern Great Plains eastward and northeastward to the Atlantic Coast, excluding the Florida Peninsula. This is in addition to precipitation falling in the first 2 days of the period across many of these same areas. Heavier precipitation (more than 3 inches) is likely from eastern Texas to the Tennessee Valley over the next 5 days, and west of the Big Bend area in Florida. Little to no precipitation is expected from the Four Corners Region to the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest. A southern shift in the western storm track is expected to occur toward day 5, leading to below-normal temperatures across the southwestern CONUS. The lack of seasonal snowpack is expected to remain intact across the Northern Plains, contributing to large positive temperature anomalies. In the eastern CONUS, mean southerly flow is expected to dominate, keeping temperatures anywhere from 5°F to 10°F above-normal.

The 6-10 day CPC extended range outlook (January 5-9, 2021) favored amplified mean troughing from Alaska southeastward to the southwestern CONUS, indicating a southward shift in the storm track along the West Coast. Ridging is favored to dominate much of the eastern CONUS, with the highest mean mid-level positive geopotential height anomalies over the Great Lakes and Northeast. Below-normal temperatures and precipitation are favored over western and northern Mainland Alaska, respectively, while odds tilt toward above-normal precipitation along the southern Alaska coast. Increased odds of below-normal temperatures in the southwest CONUS are associated with below-normal mid-level heights. Ahead of the mean trough over the West, above-normal precipitation is favored over the Central Plains and western Corn Belt. Additionally, southerly to southwesterly mean flow enhances odds of above-normal temperatures across much of the eastern two-thirds of the CONUS. With the amplified troughing across the western CONUS, enhanced odds of above-normal precipitation extend along the entire West Coast and into the Great Basin and Four Corners region. Probabilities of below-normal precipitation are increased for the Northeast, underneath positive mean mid-level height anomalies, and in Florida and southeastern Georgia, as any passing frontal boundaries are expected to remain farther north.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending December 29, 2020.

Here’s the calendar year US Drought Monitor animation.

US Drought Monitor animation of calendar year 2020.

Tinkering with a pollutant, Colorado ranch seeks to improve fish habitat — @AspenJournalism

A fly fisherman on the Blue River in Silverthorne on Nov. 28, 2020, which is designated a “gold medal” status based on the size and abundance of trout. A downstream ranch is proposing adding phosphorus to the river in an effort to improve fish habitat. Photo credit: John Herrick/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (John Herrick):

A private ranch is seeking Colorado environmental regulators’ permission to inject the Blue River with phosphorus — a chemical regulated as a pollutant — as part of an experiment that could help improve trout habitat at a popular high-country fishing destination.

Kremmling-based Blue Valley Ranch, owned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II, proposes beginning the project as soon as next summer on an 8-mile stretch of the river running through its 25,000-acre ranch, which is located on both sides of the river between Green Mountain Reservoir and Colorado River.

The ranch has not yet applied for a state discharge permit, which it will need before beginning the project. In September, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a 35-member group of water planners, voted to provide Blue Valley Ranch, which did not request a financial contribution, with a letter of support.

The ranch sits alongside the lower section of the river. Areas on this stretch that have public access are home to relatively large and abundant trout, earning a “gold medal” status from the state. The experiment may help explain why trout farther upstream above the Green Mountain Reservoir appear undernourished. The ranch expects that adding phosphorus to the river will grow more algae, a building block in the aquatic food-chain supporting fish.

Map of the Blue River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69327693

If the project helps the fish, water managers could use a similar one to restore the gold-medal status of a section of the Blue River upstream from the ranch’s property that the state delisted in 2016. The designation is based on the size and abundance of fish in rivers with public access. The rare delisting on the river section, north of Silverthorne, was a blow to residents who saw the designation as a way to attract outdoor tourism to the region.

Scientists warn that adding too much phosphorus could create problems downstream. Excess phosphorus [enables algae blooms including cyanobacteria], an algae that can be toxic to humans. Last summer, such algae blooms prompted the state to issue warnings and closures to lakes across the state, from Steamboat Lake, north of Steamboat Springs, to Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir.

This is one reason why the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working on new rules to limit phosphorus pollution based on the chemical’s ecological impacts. The state may soon require owners of large facilities, such as wastewater-treatment plants, to make costly upgrades to comply with new limits.

That same agency will have to decide whether to grant the ranch a discharge permit, weighing the possibility of improving trout habitat with the environmental risks. MaryAnn Nason, a spokeswoman for the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said in a statement that the state would evaluate whether the additional phosphorus protects aquatic life, drinking water and recreation, and complies with the state’s regulations on phosphorus.

The theory behind the project is that the river has too little phosphorus, a circumstance that may be preventing the growth of periphyton, an algae eaten by aquatic insects that state biologists say are “sparse” in the river. One of the reasons the river lacks nutrients is that the 231-foot dam in Silverthorne is causing it to back up. The dam was built in 1963 to create the Dillon Reservoir, which Denver Water uses to ship drinking water under the Continental Divide to residents on the Front Range. The dam traps nutrients such as phosphorus and prevents downstream flooding, a natural process that can pull phosphorus back into the river. In the 1980s, the state imposed strict limits on phosphorus pollution from wastewater-treatment plant operators in the basin, which has kept phosphorus concentrations to about 10 parts per billion in the reservoir to prevent algae blooms. That means the cold water flowing out of the bottom of the dam also is relatively low in phosphorus.

“This is a success story,” said William Lewis, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of its Center for Limnology and who has studied the reservoir’s chemistry for decades.

Whether the successes of curbing pollution are hurting fish habitat downstream is hard to say for sure, Lewis said. But supporters of the Blue Valley Ranch proposal say the experiment could test this one factor among the many affecting the river.

“We have to better understand those factors. And measure them. And then rate them,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that advocates for fish habitat and supports the ranch’s proposed experiment.

According to a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable by Blue Valley Ranch, the company proposes placing jugs of liquid fertilizer at six sites along the river bordering its property, injecting it with as much as nearly 2,000 gallons per year. In an emailed statement from the company, it said it plans to increase the phosphorus concentrations in the river by 3 parts per billion. It would then sample the growth of periphyton, aquatic insects and the fish population. The company cites a project on Idaho’s Kootenai River in which researchers increased phosphorus levels of as much as about 12.5 parts per billion. Bob Steed, the surface water manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the Kootenai River project has increased the size and number of fish without causing toxic algae blooms or other problems with water quality.

But scientists still have reservations. Lisa Kunza, a professor of chemistry biology and health sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who has studied the ecological impacts of the Kootenai River project, said she wondered whether Blue Valley Ranch plans to spend enough time studying baseline conditions before the experiment. And she wondered what’s motivating the company to do the project.

The Blue River in Silverthorne on Nov. 28, 2020. The state has designated this section of the river a “gold medal” status based on the size and abundance of trout. Photo credit: John Herrick/Aspen Journalism

According to the company’s website, the ranch seeks “to be a leader in conservation.” Its owner, Jones, is an investor whose philanthropy has earned him recognition as a “conservationist.” Jones spent $805,000 on Highway 9 wildlife crossings north of Silverthorne as well as other projects across the county, including setting up a foundation aimed at protecting the Florida Mangroves. The property is known for its intensive management, such as using a diesel-powered backhoe to make the river narrower and deeper, and locals call the stretch of river flowing through the ranch “Jurassic Park.”

Brien Rose, a biologist with Blue Valley Ranch who has worked as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, has been giving presentations on the project and speaking with the Department of Public Health and Environment. Rose did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Before the ranch stepped up with the idea, the concept of its experiment was already being discussed among the region’s water managers, some of whom are monitoring conditions upstream and perhaps laying the groundwork for a similar project. The Blue River Watershed Group, which helps manage the river, is backing the project. Supporters see it as a way to help restore the river to a more natural state before the dam trapped its nutrients.

“Studies of the lower Blue River have shown that it is deficient in some nutrients because of the two upstream impoundments on the river. A major goal of this research is to add to the base of knowledge that will ultimately benefit other impounded rivers in the Western United States,” said Brett Davidson, a manager with Blue Valley Ranch, in an emailed statement.

But what the river looked like before the dam is unclear, researchers say. Aside from the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, the Blue River has been impacted by hardrock mining and the growing mountain towns of Silverthorn, Frisco and Breckenridge. For decades, the state has been stocking the river with brown and rainbow trout, game fish that white settlers introduced to Colorado. One of the reasons the middle section of the Blue River lost its gold-medal status was because the state scaled back stocking.

Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, said she sees the value in Blue Valley Ranch’s experiment. She, too, wants to better understand the effects of phosphorus on a river’s ecology.

But Marshall said “further tinkering” with the river to restore it could have its risks. She added: “The proposed study sounds like a Band-Aid, rather than fixing the underlying causes of degraded stream habitat.”

This story ran in the Dec. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.

#Snowpack news (December 31, 2020): #ColoradoSprings December precipitation above average, #Pueblo below average

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

From KOAA.com (Alex O’Brien):


Colorado Springs wrapped up the month with a respectable 5.1″ of snow, just below the average of 5.7″. But, when melted down the snow totaled 0.52″ of liquid precipitation in 2020, which is above the average of 0.34″. This means that the water content of each inch of snow this month was higher than average.

Pueblo on the other hand had a rough month with only 1.4″ of snow, with the average being 5.5″.

This was common across the state this month, with some spots receiving lack-luster snow totals and others receiving just enough. For instance, the Denver Stapleton weather site saw 6.4″ this month, ending up below the average of 8.3″.

The slow season is beginning to leave its mark on the high country. The snowpack as of December 29th is at 85% of normal statewide. The Rio Grande Basin, fed from the San Juans, is the only zone above average at this time.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map December 31, 2020 via the NRCS.

Bill Trampe is retiring from the #ColoradoRiver District Board #COriver #GunnisonRiver

Bill Trampe via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

After 20 years as a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors, prominent local rancher Bill Trampe has announced he will retire from the position in 2021. The vacancy has drawn interest from three candidates within Gunnison County, one of whom will be appointed to the position on January 12 by the Gunnison County commissioners. Commissioners conducted interviews with the candidates on Tuesday, December 29, including an interview with county commissioner Jonathan Houck himself…

The vacancy drew interest from Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, serving all of Gunnison County and portions of Saguache and Hinsdale counties. It also drew the interest of Kathleen Curry, who serves as chairperson of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, runs an active cattle and hay operation in the Tomichi Creek drainage and works as a lobbyist on behalf of two major water providers in Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

The third candidate who applied is chairperson of the Gunnison County commissioners Jonathan Houck. Houck made his interest known publicly on the last day of the application process…

Before conducting interviews, county attorney David Baumgarten offered his professional opinion on how to conduct the appointment process, considering one of the commissioners was also an applicant. He reviewed the relevant state statute, CO 37-36-104, which identifies who may be on the River District board of directors. “There are 15. One should be from each of the respective counties, and shall be selected by the board of county commissioners,” he reviewed. “So the threshold question is, can you apply? Yes, you can. The statute is silent on how you make that decision,” said Baumgarten of Houck’s participation.

Baumgarten suggested that Houck participate in the interviews, and that he recuse himself from voting initially on the appointee, unless there is a tie between candidates.

Houck proceeded according to Baumgarten’s direction, participating in each interview before being interviewed himself by the other two commissioners…

Commissioners Roland Mason and Liz Smith will make their decision on January 12 in advance of the next River District quarterly board meeting on January 19.

Listen up: How to prevent big water pipes from breaking – News on TAP

Technology that listens for potential problems in pipes is part of Denver Water’s proactive approach to inspection and maintenance.

Source: Listen up: How to prevent big water pipes from breaking – News on TAP

Coke, Coors Seltzer, water trust announce #ColoradoRiver initiative — @WaterEdCO #COriver

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

A coalition of high-profile businesses, including Coors Seltzer and Coca-Cola, as well as the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust have signed up to add additional water for fish, farmers and hydropower generation to a key segment of the drought-stressed Colorado River known as the 15-Mile Reach.

This stream segment begins just east of Grand Junction, Colo., and ends west of town where the Gunnison River merges with the Colorado River.

For decades this reach has been under intense scrutiny, in part because it is a key source of water for Western Colorado ranchers and fruit growers, and it is also considered critical habitat for four endangered fish species: the razorback sucker; the humpback chub, the bonytail and the Colorado pikeminnow.

Dec. 15, the Colorado Water Trust unveiled a 10-year funding commitment from Business for Water Stewardship that will help ensure that there is more water in the river during dry times to keep irrigators, a small federal hydro plant, and the fish healthy.

The Colorado Water Trust is a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to helping secure water rights through purchase, lease or donation to benefit the environment. Business for Water Stewardship is a program of the Portland, Ore.-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation that brings companies together to aid the environment.

Bringing in corporate funders, who have the resources to commit to a multi-year effort is key, according to Todd Reeve, the founder of Business for Water Stewardship. Danone and Intel Corp. are also funders.

“Companies are increasingly realizing the state of our water resources,” Reeve said. “And they are stepping up to support these environmental water solutions.

“This project stands up as an important example of all of these entities coming together. We’d like to see more of them,” Reeve said.

How much money and water will be provided under the agreement isn’t clear yet, according to the Colorado Water Trust, in part because it will depend on weather conditions and the condition of the river each year.

To date nearly $100,000 has been raised to buy water, according to the water trust.

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

Efforts to preserve Colorado’s 15-Mile Reach are coordinated by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative launched in 1988 that also includes Utah and Wyoming. But because the river has multiple users, from growers to rafters and anglers, to power generators, dozens of other agencies, water users and towns are also involved, according to Kate Ryan, an attorney for the water trust.

The hope, according to Ryan, is that this long-term commitment to the area will build on and add more durability to what others have begun.

Under the agreement, the Colorado Water Trust each year will buy water from upstream sources for delivery to the Grand Valley Power Plant near Palisade. The power plant produces electricity to pump irrigation water to members of the Grand Valley Water Users Association and is operated by the Orchard Mesa Irrigation Company (OMIC).

After the water moves through the plant, it will continue downstream to the 15-Mile Reach.

“The water that comes down through the hydropower plant makes my system work better,” said Max Schmidt, OMIC’s manager. “But it’s also good for the fish.”

As the Colorado River Basin continues to dry out, natural flows in the river will have to be supplemented by water that can be obtained from those who have water in storage that they don’t need and are willing to sell or lease on a temporary or permanent basis.

Ryan said she is pleased the water trust was able to secure the agreements and funding that will allow it to be a long-term contributor to the health of the 15-Mile Reach.

“What was amazing and sobering this year is that the dry-year targets for flow are 650 cubic feet per second (cfs). But most of the summer they were down at 300 cfs,” Ryan said.

Despite the dire water forecasts, the potential for more cooperative efforts on the river appears to be growing.

Schmidt can reel off a list of cities, irrigation districts and water agencies that have stepped up in recent years to help, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District, and the cities of Aspen, Snowmass, Palisade and Grand Junction.

That doesn’t count the cash and operating support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the recovery program, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or the new contributions from the Colorado Water Trust and Business for Water Stewardship.

“When everybody wins, everybody wins,” Schmidt said. “I don’t care if it’s power water, irrigation water or fish water, wet water in the river makes everybody’s lives better.”

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.