A forest burns during the High Park Fire West of Fort Collins in 2012. Photo credit: University of Colorado
A burnt sign on Larimer County Road 103 near Chambers Lake. The fire started in the area near Cameron Peak, which it is named after. The fire burned over 200,000 acres during its three-month run. Photo courtesy of Kate Stahla via the University of Northern Colorado
The East Troublesome Fire burns in Grand County in October 2020. Credit: Northern Water
FromThe Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):
Mesmerized by miles of mountainsides of blackened trees and seared soil that hugs the banks of the upper Poudre River, it’s difficult not to reflect on the 2012 High Park Fire and 2013 flood.
You can’t help but wonder, given the steepness of the slopes and the severity of the riverside scar left by the Cameron Peak Fire, if Northern Colorado is poised for a repeat of history regarding the Poudre River.
Come spring, snowmelt, rainfall and potential flash floods are almost certain to wash large amounts of ash from Colorado’s largest wildfire, soil and even entire trees into the river that serves as a source of drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in Fort Collins and the surrounding area…
A recent Burned Area Emergency Response assessment for the Cameron Peak Fire indicated a 90% to 100% chance that water quality would be impacted by ash- and sediment-laden runoff, nutrient loading and potential debris flows within the first few years following the fire.
And that’s only the half of it.
Fort Collins receives half of its water from the Poudre River and the other half from Horsetooth Reservoir, whose water quality could be impacted by the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County.
An assessment for the East Troublesome Fire estimated 53% of the burn area suffered moderate (48%) or high (5%) soil burn severity compared to 36% — 30% moderate and 6% high — for the Cameron Peak Fire. The Cameron Peak Fire assessment also showed more than half the soil tested to be repellent to water absorption…
By the time the 112-day Cameron Peak Fire’s flames were finally extinguished on Dec. 2, a watershed recovery collaboration of area municipalities, Larimer County, federal and state agencies, water providers and organizations such as the coalition, was already meeting to start planning efforts to address the fire’s impact.
This isn’t the first fire for many of those stakeholders, and lessons learned from the High Park Fire are helping the group quickly prepare for this spring’s impacts.
That being said, the Cameron Peak Fire was more than twice the size of the High Park Fire and paired with the 193,812-acre East Troublesome Fire — the second-largest wildfire in state history — delivered a massive one-two punch to several watersheds, making recovery even more daunting…
Mark Kempton, the city of Fort Collins’ interim deputy director of Water Resources and Treatment, said the city has implemented steps since the High Park Fire to better equip it to handle the after-effects of a major fire.
He said the city has installed warning systems along the Poudre River that alert it several hours ahead of water turbidity issues so workers can turn off the water supply. When the city turns off the Poudre River supply, it can draw on Horsetooth Reservoir water. That was the case for 100 days during the High Park Fire.
The High Park Fire taught recovery leaders to include the use of shredded tree mulch instead of straw mulch to better prevent the mulch from blowing away for soil and slope stabilization. Strategically increasing culvert size also reduced damage to roads.
Kempton said another key component will be workers removing sediment by flushing the water treatment system more often and removing sediment from the river intake system and catch basins.
The sweeping criminal cases announced Thursday include Rick Snyder, the former Republican governor; Snyder’s top aide and his chief of staff; as well as both the state’s top doctor and health official during the crisis, who face the most severe charges: nine counts of involuntary manslaughter each, as well as official misconduct and neglect of duty for “grossly negligent performance.”
“The impact of the Flint water crisis cases and what happened in Flint will span generations and probably well beyond,” said Kym Worthy, one of the special prosecutors appointed to investigate the crisis. “This case has nothing whatsoever to do with partisanship. It has to do with human decency … and finally, finally holding people accountable for their alleged, unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Flint all these years ago. Pure and simple, this case is about justice, truth, accountability, poisoned children, lost lives, shattered families that are still not whole and simply giving a damn about all of humanity.”
Snyder, whose term as governor ended in 2018, had apologized to residents for letting them down. He was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty and entered a not guilty plea…
The former governor’s closest aide, Rich Baird, was charged with four felonies: misconduct in office, perjury, obstruction of justice for attempting to influence the legal proceedings around the crisis, and extortion for “threatening” a state-appointed research team investigating the Flint water crisis — an incident that was first documented by FRONTLINE in Flint’s Deadly Water.
Baird also pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Randall Levine, told the Detroit Free Press that Baird is “innocent of any wrongdoing and is being unfairly prosecuted by the state’s Democratic attorney general.”
Overall, the indictments paint a grim portrait of a cast of officials not only failing to act to protect people’s health but concealing information, lying about the extent of the problems and threatening those trying to get the word out.
Among the others indicted on Thursday were Snyder’s chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, for perjury; Nancy Peeler, a state children’s health official accused of concealing, and later misrepresenting, data on blood-lead levels in Flint’s children; Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, both state-appointed emergency managers in Flint charged with misconduct in office; and Howard Croft, Flint’s director of public works at the time, who faces misdemeanors for failing to protect the safety and quality of the water supply. He was the lone city official indicted in the case.
All nine officials indicted on Thursday entered not guilty pleas.
The two officials at the center of the prosecution, Nick Lyon, the former head of the state health department, and Dr. Eden Wells, the former state chief medical executive, could face 15-year prison sentences for each of nine counts of involuntary manslaughter. Both were also charged with willful neglect of duty. Wells faces an additional felony count of misconduct in office for attempting to prevent the distribution of information about Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County…
While much of the focus on Flint centered around lead contamination, many of the charges stemmed from a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ that occurred during the crisis. Officially, 90 people were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, and 12 died, according to state data. But a FRONTLINE investigation strongly suggests the actual death toll was much higher, as doctors unaware of the threat failed to properly diagnose and treat sickened patients. FRONTLINE also found many victims who succumbed to Legionnaires’ in the months and years following the outbreak, long after the state stopped counting the dead…
As Legionnaires’ cases began ticking upward in 2014, state officials, including Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, exchanged emails speculating that Flint’s new water supply might be to blame. Some worried that word might get out. By the end of 2014, there were 40 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’, and three people had died.
By March 2015, emails show that at least three of Snyder’s aides and two cabinet members had been told about the outbreak, including Lyon.
At a press conference in January 2016, Snyder finally announced the Legionnaires’ outbreak — 18 months after it began. He was joined by Wells and by Lyon, who made a point of noting the outbreak couldn’t be linked to the water switch.
The governor also hastily convened a task force of prominent scientists to investigate the source of the outbreak. The scientists got to work but quickly began clashing with the administration over their findings, when they identified the presence of Legionella, the bacteria that causes the deadly disease, in the water filters of people’s homes.
FromThe Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW, said the Durango Fish Hatchery, along the banks of the Animas River near Main Avenue and 16th Street, receives its water from three natural springs near the Durango High School.
Typically, at this time of year, about 1,000 gallons of water per minute flows into the hatchery. Currently, however, because of a long-term drought that has gripped the region, only 700 gallons of water per minute is flowing…
Winter is the time when the hatchery holds the most fish in anticipation of stocking in spring and summer. Currently, there are about one million fish on site, mostly fingerlings two to three inches in size…
But because there is less water coming into the hatchery, CPW was forced last week to stock an estimated 28,000 mature rainbow trout throughout Southwest Colorado to make room at the hatchery.
For example, CPW went through the ice to stock nearly 5,000 9-inch rainbow trout into Summit Reservoir and another 1,400 or so into Joe Moore Reservoir, both north of Mancos.
In 2021, CPW expects to stock an estimated 100,000 catchable rainbow trout throughout Southwest Colorado…
As a result of the risks posed to the hatchery because of drought conditions, CPW intends to drill a test well to determine if another water source in the area is available.
“The test-drilling will be done this year,” Lewandowski said.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
Colorado snowpack basin-filled map January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Statewide River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Arkansas River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Upper Colorado River River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Gunnison River River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Laramie and North Platte River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Upper Rio Grande River River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
South Platte River River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
Yampa and White River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Statewide snowpack was at 74% of median Thursday, with percentages even lower in area basins, at 68% for the Gunnison River Basin and 70% for the Upper Colorado River Basin, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data.
Local conditions are worse, with measurements ranging from 46 to 57% at NRCS Grand Mesa snowpack-measuring sites, and at 66% for the Plateau Creek drainage.
While conditions can change, the NRCS said in a Jan. 1 water supply outlook report for Colorado that current streamflow forecasts during the snowpack runoff season “for April through July range from a high of 98% of average for the Cucharas River near La Veta, to a low of 42% of average for Surface Creek at Cedaredge.”
It said streamflow volumes for the combined Yampa, White, the Upper Colorado, the Gunnison, and the combined San Migue, Dolores, Animas, San Juan river basins “are all forecasted to be within 64 to 68% of average, with some variability within each basin.”
The lagging snowpack accumulations so far in Colorado come as the entire state currently is in a drought. Most of western Colorado is in either exceptional drought, the worst category, or extreme drought, the second-worst category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Much of Mesa County is in exceptional drought, with the northwest part of the county in extreme drought.
According to an NRCS news release, Colorado precipitation in August and September combined totaled the lowest in a 36-year period of record at its measurement sites, and October precipitation was less than half of average.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week reported that combined average annual precipitation last year in Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico was the second-lowest on record and the lowest since 1956. It said dry conditions are expected to continue for the Southwest…
NRCS said in its news release that near-normal snowpack and reservoir storage leading into last spring helped Colorado stave off significant runoff shortages last year. But current reservoir storage is below normal for this time of year across the state, at 82% of average as of the start of the new year…
Reservoir storage in the Gunnison River Basin is currently at 77% of average, compared to 104% average for Jan. 1 at the same time last year. Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest reservoir, is currently less than half full.
Storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin is much higher than the statewide average, at 102% of normal for this time of year. Currently the Rio Grande Basin, which in recent years has been quite dry, is doing the best across the state in terms of snowpack, at 95% of median. The Arkansas River Basin ranks second-highest, at 93%.
There’s a 95% chance that La Niña will continue through the winter and a 55% chance the tropical Pacific will transition to neutral conditions by the spring. After that, the picture is less clear. Certainly less clear than the waters of the tropical Pacific…
Speaking of, let’s take the temperature of the tropical Pacific Ocean. The December 2020 average sea surface temperature in our primary monitoring region, Niño 3.4, was 1.2° Celsius (2.16˚ Fahrenheit) cooler than the long-term (1986-2015) average, according to the ERSSTv5 dataset. This is comfortably within the La Niña boundary of more than 0.5°C cooler than average.
The cooler-than-average wedge of La Niña is clear in the tropical Pacific, amidst the sea of warmer-than-average we’ve come to expect as the globe warms. However, this La Niña is a bit asymmetric, with more blue to the south of the equator and less to the north than other La Niña events of similar magnitude, such as 2007 or 2010.
Also according to ERSSTv5, the three-month average anomaly (the Oceanic Niño Index) was -1.3°C in October–December. Most computer models predict that the Niño 3.4 sea surface temperature anomaly has reached its lowest value in our current La Niña event and will move back toward neutral from here. Forecasters estimate the most likely scenario for the end of this La Niña is a transition to neutral—a Niño 3.4 anomaly between -0.5° and 0.5°C—during the April–June period.
Our frequent readers will be familiar with the idea that atmosphere-ocean coupling is the hallmark of El Niño and La Niña. The atmosphere over the tropical Pacific responds to the changes in ocean surface temperature, creating a critical feedback that reinforces the oceanic changes…
In a nutshell, during La Niña we expect a stronger Walker circulation. That is, the cooler-than-average east-central tropical Pacific leads to reduced convection (rising air and cloud formation) in that region, while convection over Indonesia becomes even stronger than average. The trade winds, which blow east to west at the surface, become stronger than average, allowing cooler deep water to upwell to the surface.
This winter, both the convection pattern and the near-surface winds have been performing as expected. We can definitely place a stamp on the “strengthened Walker circulation” page of our ENSO passport.
Speaking of expectations, what about La Niña impacts on global temperature and precipitation patterns? It’s mostly still too early to tell, as the dominant impacts occur during northern hemisphere winter, December–March, and we only have one month on record so far. However, we can take a peek at December’s averages to see how things are shaping up.
The global precipitation map from December shows that the tropical Pacific was indeed drier than average, with more rain over much of Indonesia. These direct impacts from the stronger Walker circulation are very reliable during La Niña. Remote impacts, or teleconnections, via La Niña’s effects on global atmospheric circulation, are more variable. (Revisit the second half of this post for details on the probability of rain and snow impacts.) So far, southeastern Africa has had more rain than average, and the southern tier of the United States has been a bit drier. Also consistent with La Niña is the pattern of below-average precipitation over eastern Brazil and northern Argentina.
December’s surface temperature map reveals the northern half of North America was warmer than average during December, with Florida the only cooler-than-average region in North America. This is opposite of the expected pattern during La Niña. The temperature map also indicates a large swath of the planet was above average, which is a telltale sign of climate change. However, winter is yet young, and we will see if La Niña may have more of an imprint later on. Revisit Mike Halpert’s recent post on the 2020–21 winter outlook to read more about expectations, and see maps of the U.S. winter temperature and precipitation during the strongest 20 La Niña events since 1950.
One expected La Niña impact—an active Atlantic hurricane season—certainly happened in 2020. As no one is eager for a repeat of that particular teleconnection, many are asking if we could have a second-year La Niña, neutral conditions, or even an El Niño in the fall of 2021. Overall, the answer is “it’s too soon to tell.” ENSO usually changes phase in the spring, as it’s predicted to do this spring, going from La Niña to neutral. This seasonal phase-change contributes to the spring predictability barrier, a time of year when climate models have a particularly difficult time making successful forecasts many seasons in advance.
That said, currently forecasters estimate similar probabilities of either La Niña or neutral for late summer and fall (around 40-45% chance) and much lower odds of El Niño. These lower odds are consistent with history. If we look at a graph of the eventual fate of every first-year La Niña (meaning, the previous winter did not feature La Niña), we see how rare El Niño is the next winter.
In our 1950-present record, a La Niña winter is more often followed by either neutral or weak La Niña conditions during the summer, with a re-development of La Niña the subsequent winter.
Of the 12 first-year La Niña events, 8 were followed by La Niña the next winter, 2 by neutral, and 2 by El Niño. We’ll probably have to get through the spring predictability barrier before we can make a more confident prediction about next fall. In the meantime, you can be sure we’ll be closely monitoring the tropical Pacific, while dreaming about swimming in it.
Joe Biden is preparing to deal with climate change in a way no U.S. president has done before – by mobilizing his entire administration to take on the challenge from every angle in a strategic, integrated way.
The strategy is evident in the people Biden has chosen for his Cabinet and senior leadership roles: Most have track records for incorporating climate change concerns into a wide range of policies, and they have experience partnering across agencies and levels of government.
Those skills are crucial, because slowing climate change will require a comprehensive and coordinated “all hands on deck” approach.
We did that with energy when I was governor of Colorado, and I can tell you it isn’t simple. Energy policy isn’t just about electricity. It’s about how homes are built, how they generate power and feed it into the grid and how the transportation, industrial and agriculture sectors evolve. It’s about regulations, trade rules, government purchases and funding for research for innovation. Coordination and collaboration among agencies and different levels of government is crucial.
A coordinated approach also helps ensure that vulnerable populations aren’t overlooked. Biden has committed to help disadvantaged communities that have too often borne the brunt of fossil fuel industry pollution, as well as those that have been losing fossil fuel jobs.
Here are some of the biggest challenges ahead and what “all hands on deck” might mean.
Dealing with all those climate policy rollbacks
From its first days, the Trump administration began trying to nullify or weaken U.S. environmental regulations. It had rolled back 84 environmental rules by November 2020, including major climate policies, and more rollbacks were being pursued, according to a New York Times analysis of research from Harvard and Columbia law schools.
Some rollbacks have been challenged in court and the rules then reinstated. Others are still being litigated. Many will require going through government rule-making processes that take years to reverse.
Pressuring other countries to take action
Biden can quickly bring the U.S. back into the international Paris climate agreement, through which countries worldwide agreed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming. But reestablishing the nation’s leadership role with the international climate community is a much longer haul.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry will lead this effort as special envoy for climate change, a new Cabinet-level position with a seat on the National Security Council. Other parts of the government can also pressure countries to take action. International development funding can encourage climate-friendly actions, and trade agreements and tariffs can establish rules of conduct.
Cleaning up the power sector
The Biden-Harris climate plan aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector to net zero by 2035.
While 62 major utilities in the U.S. have set their own emission reduction goals, most leaders in that sector would argue that requiring net zero emissions by 2035 is too much too fast.
One problem is that states are often more involved in regulating the power sector than the federal government. And, when federal regulations are passed, they are often challenged in court, meaning they can take years to implement.
Reducing greenhouse gases also requires modernizing the electricity transmission grid. The federal government can streamline the permitting process to allow more clean energy, like wind and solar power, onto the grid. Without that intervention, it could take a decade or more to permit a single transmission line.
What to do about vehicles, buildings and ag
The power sector may be the easiest sector to “decarbonize.” The transportation sector is another story.
Transportation is now the nation’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide. Decarbonizing it will require a transition away from the internal combustion engine in a relatively short amount of time.
Again, this is a challenge that requires many parts and levels of government working toward the same goal. It will require expanding carbon-free transportation, including more electric vehicles, charging stations, better battery technology and clean energy. That involves regulations and funding for research and development from multiple departments, as well as trade agreements, tax incentives for electric vehicles and a shift in how government agencies buy vehicles. The EPA can facilitate these efforts or hamstring them, as happened when the Trump EPA revoked California’s ability to set higher emissions standards – something the Biden administration is likely to quickly restore.
The other “hard to decarbonize” sectors – buildings, industry and agriculture – will require sophistication and collaboration among all federal departments and agencies unlike any previous efforts across government.
A new comprehensive climate bill
The best way to tackle these sectors would be a comprehensive climate bill that uses some mechanism, like a clean energy standard, that sets a cap, or limit, on emissions and tightens it over time. Here, the problem lies more in the politics of the moment than anything else. Biden and his team will have to convince lawmakers from fossil fuel-producing states to work on these efforts.
Democratic control of the Senate raises the chances that Congress could pass comprehensive climate legislation, but that isn’t a given. Until that happens, Biden will have to rely on agencies issuing new rules, which are vulnerable to being revoked by future administrations. It’s a little like playing chess without a queen or rooks.
Years of delays have allowed global warming to progress so far that many of its impacts may soon become irreversible. To meet its ambitious goals, the administration will need everyone, progressives and conservatives, state and local leaders, and the private sector, to work with them.