#Drought-stricken #West holds out for more than just dry snow — The Associated Press #snowpack #runoff

West Drought Monitor February 16, 2021.

From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan):

It’s a picture-perfect scene — the snow-dusted Sandia Mountains providing a backdrop to the dormant willow and cottonwood trees lining the Rio Grande.

While the recent snow has provided a psychological salve to the pains of a persistent drought, it won’t go far in easing the exceptional conditions that have taken hold of New Mexico over the past year.

Every square mile of the arid state is dealing with some level of dryness, with more than half locked in the worst category — exceptional drought. And much of the West is no better off, with parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada among the hardest hit.

DROP IN THE BUCKET

The problem is the recent storms were accompanied by frigid temperatures and wind, making for a double whammy of sorts. Forecasters explained that snow tends to be drier when temperatures are that cold, so there’s less water content in the snow. The wind then blows it away, leaving patches of bare ground.

Typically, about 12 inches (30.48 centimeters) of snow make for an inch (2.54 centimeters) of water when it melts, said Kerry Jones, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. With colder air, those ratios climb and nearly triple the amount of snow is needed to produce that same inch of water.

That means less water to recharge the soil and less that will find its way into rivers and reservoirs this spring…

A good example can be found on Sierra Blanca, a mountain peak in southern New Mexico. The snow-water equivalent measured there is less than an inch, or about 10% of normal, even after the storms.

Heron Lake, part of the San Juan-Chama Project, in northern New Mexico, looking east from the Rio Chama. In the far distance is Brazos Peak (left) and the Brazos Cliffs (right), while at the bottom is the north wall of the Rio Chama Gorge. By G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1598784

The Rio Chama basin in northern New Mexico has fared better, but even after the storms it lagged at about 86% of normal. Meanwhile, the headwaters of the Pecos River in the Sangre de Cristo range dropped to just 44% of normal…

DEEPER IN THE HOLE

Many places already were dealing with deficits as winter snowpack and spring runoff have become less reliable in recent years. Add to that a contracting monsoon season.

Summer rains were spotty at best across New Mexico, while the mountain city of Flagstaff, Arizona, marked its second consecutive driest monsoon season on record in 2020.

That means whatever water can be squeezed out of the recent snowfall is likely to be soaked up by the dry soil before it can feed any rivers or reservoirs.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 23, 2021 via the NRCS.

The Rio Grande — one of the longest rivers in North America — has been reduced to a trickle as it flows through the town of Bernalillo. Its meager flows follow a year in which municipal, state and federal water managers had to ink sharing agreements to keep it from drying up through the Albuquerque stretch.

HARSH REALITIES

Cities across the West have made exponential progress with conservation efforts over the years, while farmers have been installing drip systems, pipelines and high-tech monitors to eliminate evaporation and waste. Still, farmers and ranchers are preparing for what they call harsh realities as long-term forecasts call for more dry, warm weather.

Along the Pecos River, which supplies farms in New Mexico and Texas, irrigation managers in Carlsbad recently set the allotment for this growing season at one-quarter of an acre-foot of water based on snowpack and expected runoff.

According to district records that go back to 1908, never has the allotment been that low. It came close in 1953 with just over one-third of an acre-foot. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and is enough to serve one to two average households a year.

Phil King, engineering consultant for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District on the lower Rio Grande, said the northern mountain ranges are feeling the effects of La Nina, a weather pattern that results in drier conditions…

HANGING IN THERE

Rough. That’s how ranchers have described current conditions to Megan Boatright, a rangeland ecologist with the State Land Office.

Like ranchers always do, they found a silver lining with the recent storms. While the snow might be too dry to put a dent in the drought, they say at least it has a better chance of soaking in rather than causing runoff and erosion. Boatright said that bit of soil moisture could have a positive effect on cool season grasses sprouting in the spring.

Continued drought has forced many ranchers to sell cattle and reduce their herds as they deal with the cost of supplemental feeding and water tanks and wells going dry.

The State Land Office this week acknowledged the added pressures and low beef prices when it set the 2021 grazing fee. It marks the fourth decrease in as many years.

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

Interior Department Welcomes Newest Members of Leadership Team — @Interior

Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Interior:

The Department of the Interior today announced additional members of the agency leadership team working to steward America’s natural, cultural and historic resources, and honor our nation-to-nation relationship with Tribes.

“As we work to advance President Biden’s vision for a clean energy future that creates good-paying jobs, protects the environment, and powers our nation, we are thrilled to welcome our newest teammates. The diverse experiences of our staff will help us address the four intersecting challenges that the president has made a priority for his administration: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change — all of which disproportionately impact Tribal communities with whom we have a critical trust responsibility,” said Jennifer Van der Heide, Chief of Staff.

Previous leadership announcements can be found here and here. Interior’s political team proudly reflects the diversity of America, with more than 50% identifying as BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) and 80% as women.

The appointees are listed below in alphabetical order along with their new role:

  • Shakiyya Bland, Ed.D. – Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, Office of the Secretary
  • Daniel Cordalis – Deputy Solicitor, Water
  • Nada Culver – Deputy Director, Policy and Programs, Bureau of Land Management
  • Bryan Newland – Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs
  • Biographies are listed below:

    Shakiyya Bland, Ed.D. – Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow, Office of the Secretary
    Shakiyya Bland is an educator, mathematics curriculum designer, and equity leader with more than 10 years of experience. Shakiyya produces culturally responsive instructional strategies to support scholars’ racial and cultural identities as contributors to STEM education. Shakiyya is an educational consultant, Institute for Teachers of Color femtor, BetterLesson, Inc. Master Teacher, KSDE Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Consultant, and Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. She has served as a Congressional Policy Fellow for the past seven months in Representative Deb Haaland’s office managing priority issues, conducting research, developing legislation and strategies for legislative priorities, and managing and responding to constituent correspondence.

    Daniel Cordalis – Deputy Solicitor, Water
    Daniel Cordalis has more than a decade of experience working on natural resource and complex water and land management issues on behalf of Tribal governments and conservation groups. Daniel most recently worked in private practice. He previously was an attorney with Earthjustice, the Yurok Tribe, and clerked for the Colorado Supreme Court and the Native American Rights Fund. After graduating from Rice University, Daniel received a M.A. focused on hydrology and a J.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Raised in southwest Colorado, Daniel is a Navajo Tribal member and lives with his family outside Arcata, California.

    Nada Culver – Deputy Director, Policy and Programs, Bureau of Land Management
    Nada Wolff Culver most recently served as the Vice President, Public Lands and Senior Policy Counsel at the National Audubon Society. Prior to joining Audubon, Nada was the Senior Counsel and Senior Director for Policy and Planning at The Wilderness Society. Nada began her career in the private sector, working on a variety of environmental issues including energy development and environmental remediation, and was a partner with the law firm of Patton Boggs. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

    Bryan Newland – Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs
    Bryan Newland is a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), where he recently completed his tenure as Tribal President. Prior to that, Bryan served as Chief Judge of the Bay Mills Tribal Court. From 2009 to 2012, he served as a Counselor and Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior – Indian Affairs. He is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Michigan State University College of Law. Bryan enjoys hiking and kayaking the shores of Lake Superior, and is a nature photography enthusiast.

    A member of the Yurok Tribe pulls salmon from his gill net on the Klamath River on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Northern California, July 2015. This April, a district court judge ruled that endangered salmon on the Klamath are entitled to prioritized protection. Photo credit: Terray Sylvester via High Country News

    #Climate expert discusses impacts, February 23, 2021 (“The solution is to stop setting carbon on fire” — Scott Denning) — The #Pueblo Chieftain

    This graph shows the range of average maximum temperature increases projected for Carbondale under both and high and low emissions scenario. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Zach Hillstrom):

    A Colorado expert on climate science will lead a virtual presentation Tuesday evening to discuss the science behind, impacts of, and solutions to address climate change.

    Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who has authored more than 100 papers on the subject, will deliver remarks over Zoom as the keynote speaker for a virtual event celebrating the third anniversary of the Renewable Energy Owners Coalition of America.

    REOCA, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, formed in Pueblo in February 2018. Its mission is to “protect and promote distributed renewable energy resources for the economy, the environment and a sustainable future,” according to its website.

    Denning’s Tuesday presentation will look at what he calls the, “Three S’s of climate change: simple, serious and solvable.”

    “Simple is, ‘How does it work?’ Serious is, ‘Why is it bad?’ And solvable is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Denning said.

    Although there are complex factors that contribute to an increasingly hotter climate, Denning said the phenomenon itself is simple.

    “When you add heat to things, they change their temperature,” Denning said.

    “This is pretty fundamental … You put a pot of water on the stove, you put heat into the bottom of the pot of water and lo and behold, it warms up. The Earth works exactly that same way. If more sun comes into the earth than heat radiation going out, then it warms up.”

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) slows down outgoing heat from the earth. So the more CO2 there is on Earth, Denning said, the warmer it gets. And this poses a serious problem.

    “Unless we stop burning coal, oil and gas, we’ll warm up the world 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the time our children today are old,” Denning said.

    “And 10 degrees Fahrenheit is a lot. That’s like the difference between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, or the difference between Pueblo and somewhere down in southern New Mexico — it’s the kind of difference that you would absolutely notice.”

    Denning said in the future, temperatures at the tops of mountains might be similar to current temperatures on the Colorado plains, which has drastic implications for farmers and ranchers.

    In Colorado, some of the most serious impacts will affect the state’s water supply.

    “Depending on where you are in the world, there are different kinds of climate problems. Our problem here is that we don’t have water to spare,” Denning said.

    “In the Mountain West, we support our entire culture here on mountain runoff — on the snowmelt that comes down out of the mountains every spring and fills our reservoirs, and that’s where our cities get water and where our farmers get water,” Denning said.

    “If we swap out the climate of Albuquerque or El Paso (Texas) for the climate of Pueblo, what’s the biggest thing people in Pueblo would notice? Well, besides the fact that it would be hot, you wouldn’t have enough water.”

    Denning said the problem is not so much about water supply, but rather demand.

    “When it’s hot in the summer, our lawns need more water, our crops need more water, our livestock need more water, our forests need more water,” Denning said.

    “And this is a permanent change. If we turn up the thermostat to El Paso levels … people will have to live differently, very differently, than they do today in Colorado.”

    But the positive news, and the third topic of Denning’s discussion, is that climate change is solvable.

    “The solution is to stop setting carbon on fire,” Denning said.

    “That means learning to live well with less energy and learning to make energy that doesn’t involve setting stuff on fire.

    “That means (more energy efficient) houses and lights and cars and all that stuff, it also means using solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, whatever other kinds of energy that don’t involve burning things.”

    Denning said people in 2021 are “very lucky” because sustainable sources of energy are “actually cheaper than the old-fashioned” energy sources.

    “It’s hard to switch off fossil fuels, like it was hard to switch off of land lines. It’s hard to switch to clean energy, like it was hard to build the internet,” Denning said.

    “It’ll cost us money. But just like mobile phones and the internet, switching our energy system will create jobs and prosperity for the next generation.

    “This is basically just what we’ve been doing as a civilization since the end of the middle ages. We swap out old ways of doing things with new ways of doing things, and that’s why we have jobs.”

    “So our kids’ generation will have jobs rolling out new infrastructure for generating energy that doesn’t cook the world.”

    Denning’s presentation, as well as the rest of the REOCA anniversary celebration, can be viewed at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening by visiting http://reoca.org/event/celebrate-reocas-3rd-anniversary/.

    The West badly needs a restoration economy — Writers on the Range

    Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Writers on the Range (Jonathan Thompson):

    Farmington, a city of 45,000 in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, has run on a fossil fuel economy for a century. It is one of the only places on the planet where a 26-kiloton nuclear device was detonated underground to free up natural gas from the rock.

    The city’s baseball team was called the Frackers, and a home run hit out of their practice park was likely to land next to a pack of gas wells. The community’s economy and identity are so tied up with fossil fuels that the place should probably try a new name like Carbonton, Methanedale or Drillsville.

    Over the last decade, however, the oil and gas rollercoaster here has shuddered nearly to a halt, and one of two giant coal-fired power plants is about to shut down. The carbon corporations that have been exploiting the local labor and landscape for decades are fleeing, taking thousands of jobs with them. Left behind are gaping coal-mine wounds, rotting infrastructure and well-pad scars oozing methane.

    The pattern of abandonment is mirrored in communities from Wyoming to Utah to Western Colorado to the Navajo Nation. Community leaders scramble to find solutions. Some cling to what they know, throwing their weight behind schemes to keep coal viable, such as carbon capture, while others bank on outdoor recreation, tourism and cottage industries.

    Yet one solution to the woes rarely comes up in these conversations: Restoration as economic development.

    Why not put unemployed miners and drillers back to work reclaiming closed coal mines and plugging up idled or low-producing oil and gas wells?

    The EPA estimates that there are some 2 million unplugged abandoned wells nationwide, many of them leaking methane, the greenhouse gas with 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, along with health-harming volatile organic compounds and even deadly hydrogen sulfide.

    Hundreds of thousands of additional wells are still active, yet have been idled or are marginal producers, and they will also need plugging and reclaiming.

    Oilfield service companies and their employees have the skills and equipment needed and could go back to work immediately. A 2020 report from the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy found that a nationwide well-plugging program could employ more than 100,000 high-wage workers.

    Massive coal mines are also shutting down and will need to be reclaimed. Northern Arizona’s Kayenta Mine, owned by coal-giant Peabody, shut down in late 2019, along with the Navajo Generating Station, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 jobs. The Western Organization of Resource Councils estimated that proper reclamation of the mine could keep most of those miners employed for an additional two to three years.

    Peabody, however, still has not begun to meet its reclamation obligations. This is a failure not only on Peabody’s part but also of the federal mining regulators who should be holding the company’s feet to the fire.

    Who will pay for all of this? Mining and drilling companies are required to put up financial bonds in order to get development permits, and they’re forfeited if the companies fail to properly reclaim the well or mine. Unfortunately, these bonds are almost always inadequate.

    A Government Accountability Office report found that the Bureau of Land Management held about $2,000 in bonds, on average, for each well on federal land. Yet the cost to plug and reclaim each well ranges from $20,000 to $145,000. An example: In New Mexico, a company can put up as little as $2,500 per well that costs at least $35,000 to plug.

    Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet tried to remedy this last year by crafting a bill that would increase bonds and create a fund for plugging abandoned wells. Republicans kept the bill from progressing, but with an administration that touted reclamation of mines and abandoned wells in a climate-related executive order, and a new Senate in place, the bill stands a good chance of going forward.

    Economic development focusing on restoring the land once miners leave is a natural fit for beleaguered towns suffering the latest bust. Plus, by patching up the torn landscape these communities will help clear the path for other types of economic development, such as tourism or recreation.

    “Restoration work is not fixing beautiful machinery … It is accepting an abandoned responsibility,” wrote Barry Lopez, the renowned nature writer who died recently. “It is a humble and often joyful mending of biological ties, with a hope clearly recognized that working from this foundation we might, too, begin to mend human society.”