#Coal’s big breakdown — @HighCountry News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Image credit: Dan Winters

From The High Country News [February 1, 2021] (Jonathan Thompson):

A half-century ago, the ‘Big Buildup’ transformed the West; now, it’s all coming to an end.

For nearly five decades, the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks towered over the sandstone and scrub of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, churning out greenhouse gases and other pollutants and serving as symbols of coal’s unquestioned dominance of the nation’s energy mix. But the plant shut down in December 2019, and the towers were demolished a year later. Now they symbolize something else entirely: The Big Breakdown of coal power and the ongoing transformation of the West’s economic and energy landscape.

In the late 1950s, several utilities across the Southwest teamed up to create a cabal called WEST, or Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates, to construct six massive coal-fired power plants and their accompanying mines across the Colorado Plateau. The plants would then ship power hundreds of miles across high-voltage lines to the region’s burgeoning cities. It was the first and most ambitious phase of what scholar and author Charles Wilkinson would later dub “The Big Buildup.”


Four of the six proposed plants — Four Corners, Mojave, San Juan and Navajo — sprouted on or near the Navajo Nation in the 1960s and early ’70s. Huntington was built in central Utah, but the sixth plant never made it past the drawing board.

The Buildup’s real beneficiaries lay west and south of the Colorado Plateau, in the cities, where an abundance of cheap power lit the neon of Las Vegas and ran air conditioners in LA. The Navajo Generating Station powered the pumps that pushed Colorado River water into central Arizona, sending Phoenix’s suburbs sprawling into the desert and enriching the Southwest’s growth machine — all those real estate developers, mass-production homebuilders, the automotive industry, the corporate shareholders, the ratepayers and the executives.

For a half-century, the coal plants churned, pumping electricity onto the grid, cash into state and tribal coffers, and pollution into the water, land and air, unruffled by recessions or environmental protests and lawsuits, impervious to the booms and busts that plagued oil, gas and hardrock mining. Just as the coal leviathan maintained a steady stream of “baseload” power to the grid, so too did it provide an economic foundation for coal-dependent communities, together with a baseload level of smog.

Now that foundation is crumbling.

Coal as a power-generating fuel reached its apex in 2007. Soon thereafter, the price of natural gas came crashing down and that, along with renewable-energy tax credits and the decreasing price of solar and wind energy, wiped away coal’s cost advantage. States mandated that at least some of the electricity they consumed had to come from clean sources, California ordered the state’s utilities to break their coal habit for good, and the Obama administration implemented a variety of regulations that increased the cost of operating coal plants.

$54 million
Total annual royalties, bonus payments and water-use fees paid to the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation by the owners of both the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Coal Mine, which were lost when the plant and mine shut down.

$20.6 million
Compensation paid to Peabody CEO Glen Kellow in 2017 as the company exited bankruptcy. Peabody owns the now-closed Kayenta Coal Mine.

Number of coal-mining fatalities in the U.S. in 1913.12
Fatalities in 2019.

Fatalities in 2020.

20 million
Metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases emitted by the Navajo Generating Station (CO2) and the Kayenta Mine (methane) annually while they were in operation.

472; 4,370; 259
Pounds of mercury, arsenic and selenium, respectively, emitted by the Navajo Generating Station annually when it was still operating.

1.3 million
Tons of coal combustion waste produced by the plant each year.

9 billion gallons
Amount of water drawn from Lake Powell each year for steam generation and cooling at the plant. This was all consumptive use, meaning none of this water was returned to the source.

3 million
Megawatt-hours of electricity the Central Arizona Project uses to lift, transport and deliver 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson annually — enough to power about 240,000 Arizona homes for one year. Most of that power previously came from the Navajo Generating Station.

Approximate number of households on the Navajo Nation that lack electricity.

Today, the products of the Big Buildup are coming down as surely as the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks. Mojave shut down in 2005; Reid-Gardner in southern Nevada went dark in 2019, as did the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine that fed it. San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico will close next year, and the nearby Four Corners Power Plant is unlikely to run beyond 2031. Domestic coal consumption is down 65% since its 2007 peak, and some 45,000 coal miners have lost their jobs during the last decade. The Big Breakdown is reverberating across the West despite President Donald Trump’s market-meddling and regulation-eviscerating efforts to save the coal industry.

The transition won’t be easy: Coal-dependent economies are suffering mightily, from the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation to towns like Farmington, New Mexico, and Gillette, Wyoming. Yet the Big Breakdown also opens up space for hope and opportunity, for a rethinking and refashioning of energy systems and economies. And already the air over the Southwest is a little bit cleaner than it’s been since the 1960s.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Energy Information Administration, Navajo Generating Station-Kayenta Mine Complex Draft Environmental Impact Statement (2016), St. Louis Dispatch.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org.

The Western United States Is a Hotspot for Snow Droughts — The Revelator #snowpack #drought

Minimal snow was found at the Phillips Station meadow before the start of the first snow survey of 2018, conducted by the Calif. Department of Water Resources. Photo: Kelly M. Grow/ Calif. Department of Water Resources

From The Revelator (Tara Lohan):

A new study compares snowpack across the world and offers a tool to help scientists pinpoint where this critical resource is waning — and what that means for ecosystems and economies.

Most of us know a bad drought when we see one: Lakes and rivers recede from their normal water lines, crops wither in fields, and lawns turn brown. Usually we think of these droughts as being triggered by a lack of rain, but scientists also track drought in other ways.

“The common ways to measure droughts are through precipitation, soil moisture and runoff,” says Laurie S. Huning, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Irvine. Her most recent work adds another dimension to that by looking at water stored in snowpack.

Huning is the co-author of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with U.C. Irvine colleague Amir AghaKouchak, which developed a new framework for characterizing “snow droughts.” These can occur when there’s an abnormally low snowpack, which may be triggered by low precipitation, warm temperatures or both.

Their research is timely. This winter, southwestern states have received just a quarter to half of the average snow-water equivalent —the amount of water held in the snowpack — the key metric for determining a snow drought.

And that can have sweeping impacts. The water content of a snowpack can change the amount and timing of when runoff occurs, and that has implications for wildlife, ecosystems, water resources, flood control, hydropower and drought mitigation.

Snow droughts can also have far-reaching effects on agriculture — and economies. California’s Central Valley, the heart of its agriculture industry, relies on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada. The state saw $2.7 billion in losses in the sector following low precipitation and warm temperatures during 2014-2015.

Frank Gehrke (DWR Chief of Snow Surveys) addresses the media during a snow survey at Phillips Station on April 1, 2015. The black tag on the pole is where the snow was in the drought year of 1977, the yellow tag is where the snow was last year, and the green tag is where the snow is on an average year. Measurements in Phillips began in 1942, and today is the first time there is zero snow for an April 1 measurement. Below-normal precipitation, combined with unusually warm weather, has produced meager snowfall during the traditional wet season.
Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

Snow droughts can also make conditions dire in regions that are already stressed by conflict and resource shortages. A snow drought in Afghanistan in 2017-2018 triggered crop failures and livestock loses that left 10 million people food insecure.

The concept of a “snow drought” has been around for several years, and it’s been studied in certain key locations, but until now scientists and water managers lacked a worldwide method to assess them.

The study aims to solve that. Huning and AghaKouchak have developed a standardized snow-water equivalent index in an effort better characterize and compare the duration and intensity of snow droughts around the world.

The results already reveal some areas of concern. Looking at data from 1980 to 2018, the researchers found a few hotspots where snow-droughts became longer and more intense during the 21st century.

The most notable area was the western United States, which saw a 28% increase in the length of periods of snow drought. Eastern Russia and Europe also saw increases, though less severe.

And on the flip side, some areas saw a decrease in snow drought duration, including the Hindu Kush, Central Asia, greater Himalayas, extratropical Andes and Patagonia.

“It’s important to remember that not only does the snowpack vary but the impact that it has differs across the world,” says Huning.

Huning hopes the framework developed for the study can help water managers better understand the amount and timing of snowmelt, and to integrate that with drought monitoring systems to recreate better resiliency and management of resources.

“We know that the snowpack is highly variable,” she says. “Further development of this framework can improve our near real-time monitoring of drought.”

The study didn’t delve into the specifics of why snow droughts may be becoming more severe in certain places, but other studies have found that climate change is playing, and will play, a role in reducing snowpack in some areas — including western U.S. states.

A study by UCLA climate scientists published on Aug. 10 found that in California warmer temperatures will cause more rainfall and less snow during the winter in coming decades. This will likely increase flood risks and reduce the snowpack that usually melts slowly over the spring months.

Earlier research found that a decrease in Arctic sea ice leads to changes in atmospheric circulation that creates a high-pressure system, known as an atmospheric ridge, off the Pacific coast. These ridges deflect storms, pushing them northward and leaving the region high and dry. A particularly stubborn system that developed in 2013, nicknamed the “ridiculously resilient ridge,” had a big hand in California’s five-year drought, which extended until 2017.

Better understanding of how to measure and track snow droughts can give water managers another tool to help plan for similar droughts and to better manage this changing resource.

“Snow is a natural resource and, given the warming temperatures that some parts of the world will see, the amount of snow is changing,” says Huning. “We need to recognize that there are so many different ways the environment and humans will be affected.”

New report confronts tough choices for the future of the #ColoradoRiver: “Dire situations require solutions far from historic norms” — @AmericanRivers #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon in 1873, near the confluence of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. By Timothy H. O'Sullivan – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17428088

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle & Page Buono):

It’s time for hard conversations about what kind of future we want for the Colorado River and all who depend upon it.

The Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University recently published a preprint edition of their new white paper titled, “Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers.” The authors of the paper include Kevin Wheeler, Jack Schmidt, Brad Udall, and former Colorado River District General Manager, Eric Kuhn, among a few notable others in the climate modeling and Colorado River management space (Disclosure: Jack Schmidt and Eric Kuhn both serve voluntarily on American Rivers’ Science and Technical Advisory Committee.) The new publication builds upon a 2020 white paper, “Strategies for Managing the Colorado River in an Uncertain Future.” Wheeler et. al ran scenarios for various planning strategies on one of the most managed rivers in the world, the Colorado, to better understand the implications of those decisions in a hotter and drier future. Using the same computer modeling tools used by basin managers (the Bureau of Reclamation CRSS model), they integrated new climate and river flow data and looked out decades into the future to explore and predict water supply conditions under various scenarios.

The outcome of the study, in short: we’ve got to be more creative, and we need to have some hard conversations about what kind of future we want for the Colorado River and all who depend upon it. American Rivers has been engaged with the authors of the study, and we’re coming up to speed with its prescient findings. But even more important than that, our desire is to spark a conversation with you about what kind of future lies before us, what this new science tell us about various realities on the river, and how can we design solutions for the river, together.

John Fleck, author of a pair of recent books on western water, recently posted his take on the study, including some of the key highlights. He underscored that “Under a relatively optimistic scenario (things don’t get any drier than they’ve been in the first two decades of the 21st century), stabilizing the system would require:

  • The Upper Basin to not increase its uses beyond its current ~4-million-acre feet per year of water use.
  • The Lower Basin to adjust to routinely only getting ~6-million-acre feet of water.
  • Basically, that means adapting to living in a 10-12 million-acre-foot (MAF) river, rather than a 17 MAF river as the Colorado River Compact assumes. Obviously, this stuck out to us too. While the Law of the River (the Colorado River Compact) essentially promised 7.5 MAF for the Upper Basin and 8.5 MAF for the Lower Basin (then added in Mexico’s allocation later), the Alternative Management Paradigms study makes clear that this is now an unattainable, and unwise, ambition.

    Fleck points out that “Upper Basin water users have averaged about 4-million-acre feet/year since the 1980’s, but with plans to use more. The Lower Basin has reduced their use from the allowable 7.5 MAF to 6.9 MAF on average over the last five years. So to balance things out, Upper Basin use can’t grow, and Lower Basin use needs to shrink. More than it already has.”

    The authors write that “the primary purpose of this White Paper is to provide provocative new ideas,” and they warn that “the current management approach that allows only incremental changes to the Law of the River may be insufficient to adapt to the future conditions of the basin.”

    With both the warning and the desire for new ideas and thoughtful conversation in mind, we wanted to share some of the top conclusions from the study as an invitation for further conversation:

  • The Colorado River has been profoundly altered from its highest reaches to its delta. In the highly constructed and managed basin—complete with numerous transbasin diversions and large dams—the native river ecosystem has been profoundly altered, the Upper Basin less so than the Lower, but still to significant degree.
  • Unrealistic future depletion projections for the Upper Basin confound planning. There simply isn’t enough water to meet the aspirations for growth of the Upper Basin. “Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations…are inevitable. Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”
  • Climate change is causing flow declines and additional declines are likely to occur. 2000-2018 flows in the Colorado River are nearly 20% less than during the 20th century. Even accounting for this decline is not sufficient for future planning—increased temperatures and the resulting aridity will likely precipitate further decline.
  • The Colorado River exists in a tenuous balance between supplies, demands and storage. Unplanned changes in this balance are likely to lead to highly undesirable outcomes. The Colorado River is already stretched. Any actions that decrease the inflows or increase demand are untenable. “If the Millennium Drought conditions continue and the 2007 UCRC future depletion projections materialize, the Colorado River’s water supply cannot be sustainably managed.”
  • Likely lower inflows and/or any increases to Upper Basin consumptive uses will result in a difficult basin-wide reckoning. Future reductions in water supply are likely, due to the effects of climate change, exacerbating tensions between the Upper and Lower Basin, especially if the Upper Basin increases its demand. Negotiations are already massively difficult. Planning for a supply that science suggests will not be realized makes difficult processes profoundly more difficult.
  • Lake Mead in 2017. Photo: Karen, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    In addition to those “difficult reckonings” it is clear that unless something is done, the environment—the river itself—has the most to lose. But in addition to those, the study outlined these additional takeaways that are key to understanding the expansive challenge facing the Colorado River:

  • Lower Basin shortage triggers based on combined Lakes Powell and Mead storage are more logical and clearer than existing triggers (and different from simply looking at the individual lake levels on their own)
  • Neither a Fill Mead First nor Fill Powell First scheme promotes or improves Lower Basin water security
  • Flaming Gorge Reservoir releases provide little Upper and Lower Basin Risk Protection
  • Humans have significant control over demands but little control over inflows
  • Dire situations require solutions far from historic norms
  • As Kuhn, Fleck and others have stated for years, the study demands a reimagining of what we want versus what we need when it comes to water, and it grounds us in future-looking predictions of what we’re likely to have, which isn’t more and will likely be less. This is, perhaps, the epitome of inconvenient science, but it’s important science nonetheless, and if history has taught us anything, it is science that we can’t ignore. Doing so will cost us greatly.

    You can read the study HERE, and you can learn more by staying engaged with us as we continue the work of distilling and contextualizing this research through additional blog posts, and other outreach, in the near future. We hope to catalyze a dialogue here—dare we say, a movement—and we look forward to your reactions, comments and ideas.

    #GlenwoodSprings council reviewing #water, sewer rate increases to meet infrastructure needs — The Glenwood Springs Post Independent

    New plating at the Glenwood Springs water intake on Grizzly Creek was installed by the city to protect the system’s valve controls and screen before next spring’s snowmelt scours the Grizzly Creek burn zone and potentially clogs the creek with debris. (Provided by the City of Glenwood Springs)

    From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Stroud):

    Some of the work related to Grizzly Creek Fire impacts

    Infrastructure improvements associated with Glenwood Springs waterworks system brought on in part by last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire will likely mean multiple years of increasing water and sewer rates for customers.

    In 2020, the city conducted a water and wastewater rate study, which identified several “critical infrastructure needs” over the next 10 years totaling about $36 million.

    City council has been reviewing and will decide on a recommended tiered water and wastewater rate increase over those 10 years. It expects to make a decision this spring.

    Glenwood Springs Public Works Director Matthew Langhorst presented two rate increase options at a Jan. 21 City Council work session.

    Option 1 would increase rates 26.2% this year, followed by 8% for three years, then 7% in 2025 and 5% from 2026 to 2030.

    The second option has a higher initial rate increase for this year at 36.8%, followed by 5% for years 2022 through 2030…

    Both options also include standard Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustments annually after 2030. Historically, the CPI has ranged between 1% and 4%.

    Langhorst also presented a comparison of what an average user’s monthly bill would look like under both options in year one, assuming different gallon usage.

    The average user consuming 5,000 gallons of water currently has an estimated bill of $92. Under Option 1, that would increase to $113. Option 2 would be slightly higher at $122.

    Langhorst said that 5,000 gallons of water is equivalent to what a medium-sized home with some landscaping would consume. “Compared regionally, the increased rates are in line with other jurisdictions,” he said.

    Some of the identified capital projects are related to the Grizzly Creek Fire, which severely impacted the city’s main No Name and Grizzly Creek water supplies. Others are due to routine replacement of aging infrastructure…

    Other capital needs include replacement or rehabilitation of equipment and additional storage capacity for firefighting capabilities, city officials said.

    Glenwood Springs operates a municipal water supply system that supplies drinking water to more than 10,000 residents. The city obtains its drinking water from three surface water intakes in the Colorado River watershed…

    The work session provided a preliminary overview of funding options. Council is tentatively set to review and make a decision about rates sometime this spring, and will also discuss a possible low-income assistance program, according to the city’s release.