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Join the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Water for Colorado for an E&R scoping workshop for the Colorado Water Plan Update.
About this Event
Join us for a collaborative workshop to discuss how local and statewide Environmental and Recreational interests might be incorporated in the Colorado Water Plan update.
This workshop will cover:
Focus Area mapping and work on Basin Implementation Plans to date Other tools to analyze stream health and prioritize actions Stream Management Plans and Fluvial Hazard Zone Mapping Watershed health Recreational interests Breakout Sessions for each Basin to review updated draft focus area maps, identify what else should be included, and a discussion of how a future decision support tool could be helpful.
From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):
The directors of 13 state recreation offices are asking the federal government to adjust requirements that states and local communities must provide matching funds to secure Land and Water Conservation Fund money
The diverse Confluence of States — which champions outdoor recreation as a driver for economic growth and conservation, as well as public health — is asking federal lawmakers to help unlock the gates guarding the $900 million-a-year Land and Water Conservation Fund…
The outdoor recreation state directors are asking for relief from federal rules requiring the dollar-for-dollar match. When the economy is strong, that matching amplifies the impact of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. When communities are crawling out of a pandemic, federal support could be left untapped.
The Confluence of States this week sent letters to the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who is chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and Interior Sec. Deb Haaland. The group says waivers, loans that can be converted to grants or a reduction of the one-to-one match could help support hundreds of projects and jobs across the country…
[Nathan] Fey and his fellow outdoor recreation office directors have been working with federal and state land managers to identify the bottlenecks that are hindering the flow of support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which this year is set to be fully funded for only the second time since its inception in 1964…
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office is compiling a list of shovel-ready projects across the state that could connect communities with trails and improve recreational infrastructure in rural communities, like a new river park on the Yampa River in Craig.
The projects are not just about supporting outdoor recreation and tourism economies, Fey said. Improvements to recreational access and trails can help Colorado’s rural communities appeal to businesses looking to relocate from urban settings…
While the now 13 members of the Confluence of States have worked to support a recreation economy in their own states — Colorado, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming — the letter urging a relaxation of the match requirement for LWCF support is the first time the group has taken collective action…
But the money has been slow to arrive. Earlier this month, the Forest Service released its 2021 land acquisitions project list, with nearly $124 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for 35 parcels. The list included Garfield County’s Sweetwater Lake, a 488-acre property adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness that has long been eyed for development.
The Conservation Fund acquired the property last July for $7.1 million and plans to transfer the parcel to the Whtie River National Forest. The project ranked No. 8 on the Forest Service’s priority list with a request for $8.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Late last week the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region announced $1.3 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to help support the purchases of “critical inholding areas, recreational access projects and core acquisition projects” that include Sweetwater Lake.
The Sweetwater Lake project is on track “and moving along well,” said Justin Springs with The Conservation Fund.
PRESS RELEASE FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE March 30, 2021 Appreciation Week Recognizes Essential Services of Arizona Water Professionals PHOENIX – Every variety of event from music festivals to awards ceremonies has gone “virtual” in the era of the COVID-19 virus. The now-annual event to honor Arizona’s water professionals is following suit. The “Virtual Kick-Off” […]Appreciation Week Recognizes Essential Services of Arizona Water Professionals — Arizona Water News
From Water & Wastes Digest (Cristina Tuser):
The EPA Office of Water published an advance notice of a proposed rule-making (ANPRM) under the Clean Water Act (CWA) that could lead to development of effluent limitations guidelines, pretreatment standards, and new source performance standards for PFAS manufacturers, formulators, and other industries being studied by EPA.
In its recent ELG program planning document, EPA described its ongoing Multi-Industry Detailed Study of industrial PFAS use, which focuses on: PFAS manufacturers, pulp and paper manufacturers, textile and carpet manufacturers, metal finishing companies, and commercial airports as industries of interest for potential PFAS discharges, reported The National Law Review.
The ANPRM is open for public comment through May 17, 2021.
There is no approved method for analysis of PFAS compounds in wastewater and EPA is requesting monitoring data that identifies the analytical methods used.
EPA is specifically requesting data about: PFAS in process wastewater, cooling water, contaminated storm water, wastewater from aqueous scrubbers or air pollution control equipment, off-specification products, equipment cleaning wastewater, and spills and leaks from manufacturing or formulating entities.
In addition to wastewater characterization data, EPA will also seek information and data for potential treatment technologies, reported The National Law Review.
From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):
Last summer, the Aspen Global Change Institute’s first subalpine soil-moisture and snowpack-monitoring station began transmitting live data to researchers, stakeholders and the Aspen water department.
The station, which sits at 11,500 feet on Cooper Basin Road near the edge of the Castle Creek watershed, tracks soil moisture at multiple depths; soil temperature; snow depth; wind speed and direction; air temperature; humidity; and radiative balance. That data is made available online in real time.
“The new station fills a gap in that there wasn’t information being measured at that elevation,” AGCI research director Julie Vano said recently.
AGCI now has 10 stations covering the major elevation zones and ecosystems present in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The stations, known as the Interactive Roaring Fork Observation Network (iRON), gather data on soil-moisture levels, which are key but understudied variables in streamflow forecasting. In the 2020 Western Water Assessment report for the Colorado River upper and lower basins, scientists emphasized that surface soil-moisture data — critical for streamflow forecasting and for monitoring the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle — was sparse.
Gathering data at all elevations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley provides scientists with a localized, clearer picture of how climate change is impacting the hydrologic cycle at the Colorado basin’s headwaters. The study of headwater areas is important because 15% of the upper and lower basins’ surface area — primarily the high mountains of the Western Slope, but also spanning mountainous areas in Utah and Wyoming — provides 85% of total annual runoff into the Colorado River.
A storehouse of data
The AGCI network gives scientists the opportunity to study how elevation and varying ecosystems shape soil-moisture retention.
“People who live in the mountains know that everything varies a lot in a pretty small geographic distance,” said AGCI community science manager Elise Osenga. “You’ll have changes in soil type, changes in plants, even changes in rainfall from one mile to the next mile over.”
As the network continues to accumulate data, it will create a local picture of climate change’s impacts on the water cycle. Throughout the upper basin, scientists have shown that snowmelt and runoff are occurring earlier than they did between 1950 and 2000. Every degree Fahrenheit of warming is expected to reduce upper-basin runoff by between 2-6%. Having a data record for a specific basin will give these impacts a local focus, Vano said.
Since 2015, AGCI staffers have been submitting their data to international hydrologic and soil-moisture databases.
“Since we started sharing, over 1,800 requests for our data have been made,” Osenga said.
The AGCI is working to create partnerships with other soil-moisture monitoring basins and research institutions across the West to share data, allowing for future hydrologic studies involving intrabasin comparisons.
“Nothing is fully underway just yet,” Osenga said.
Determining climate-change trends via iRON data will take time to develop. The first iRON station was created in 2012. Of the 10, six have been installed since 2015. As the length of the record grows, it will become increasingly easier to detect climate change trends, Vano said.
Adding to the uncertainty, the Colorado River basin has been in an extended dry period marked by frequent droughts since 2000, marking “the driest 21-year period in the Colorado River basin in more than 100 years of record keeping and one of the driest in the past 1,200,” according to a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report on water-supply security.
“We have really short data records, and those data records exist within an already really dry period,” Osenga said of iRON.
So, in order to gain an understanding of soil moisture in the Roaring Fork Valley, data from future potentially droughtless years is needed, Osenga said.
While drought is predicted to become more frequent and intense in the future, it is less clear how precipitation trends — which are the greatest drivers of soil moisture — will take shape. Some models indicate that precipitation could increase in the upper basin in the coming decade, which would reshape iRON’s soil-moisture data, Osenga said.
Don’t be so predictable
While long-term trends from the Roaring Fork data remain ambiguous, yearly data provides useful insights for the Aspen water department in predicting spring- and summer-streamflow conditions.
“When I’m not in meetings and other obligations, I’m constantly looking at data,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the city of Aspen.
To better predict spring streamflow, Hunter checks weather and snowpack data from national organizations such as the U.S. Geological Service and the National Resource Conservation Service. Hunter frequently checks data from the NRCS Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites in the Roaring Fork watershed. The SNOTEL site at Independence Pass is closest to Castle Creek, which provides the majority of Aspen’s water, Hunter said. On Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent measured at Independence Pass was at 13.8 inches, which is 91% of average, calculated from data from 1981 to 2010. Snow depth, which is different from SWE, at Independence Pass was at 52 inches. At the Castle Creek iRON station, snow depth was at 53 inches.
Hunter also tracks the information coming from iRON. Soil-moisture data ends in the fall, when frozen water begins accumulating on the soil as snow. In the fall of 2020, seven of nine stations had the lowest levels of soil moisture on iRON station record, said Osenga. (The Castle Creek iRON station was not included in analysis.) Of the two with higher water levels than prior years, one station is in an irrigated area, providing an artificial boost to moisture levels, Osenga said.
Dry fall soil conditions mean that as snow begins to melt this spring, more water will soak in — and be absorbed by plants and the atmosphere — before running into local creeks and rivers, Osenga said.
Hunter is holding out hope that more stormy weather could give the snowpack the boost it needs for adequate streamflow this spring and summer.
“We’re just hoping we get a lot of snow and then liquid precipitation in the spring,” said Hunter.
Deciding what’s important
While the AGCI plans on expanding its reach through collaborations, the organization does not plan to add more iRON sites in the near future. Each site has been funded by a combination of partners, including private organizations, government entities and educational interests.
“It’s supported by the community, which is really amazing,” Vano said of iRON. “You don’t see that often in the world of science. So, the community is really deciding that understanding these changes is really important.”
This story ran in the March 26 edition of The Aspen Times.
From Denver Water (Todd Hartman):
They snowshoed through a campground hidden under soft drifts, stepped carefully to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Williams Fork River, then broke the ice to find free-flowing water.
Nick Riney and Tyler Torelli worked efficiently, dipping a long-poled scoop into the waterway and filling several pint-sized plastic bottles with samples of the cold, clear stream.
Sturdy even in finger-pinching cold, the two set up a make-shift lab on the back end of the Sno-Cat, pulled equipment out of chubby metal suitcases and ran field tests right on the spot. Twenty degrees and snowfall aren’t the ideal working conditions for most, but these guys consider it a “pretty good office” all the same.
And their work on a mid-February day in Grand County gave Denver Water’s Water Quality Operations team an early look at how last summer’s Williams Fork Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres northeast of Silverthorne, might have affected the water flowing through the area.
See and hear what’s required to do this work:
By sampling water as it pours through the mountains, long before it reaches any reservoirs or treatment plants, Denver Water can understand what’s happening on the landscape. Samples that veer from typical readings could indicate unexpected pollution, echoes of old mining activity or, increasingly, the impacts of forest fires.
Understanding those impacts helps prepare water quality experts for potential impacts to reservoirs or treatment processes.
The field test results came back in a healthy range, with no indication yet that a significant amount of sediment left by the summer of record fires in Colorado had ended up in the water.
“That’ll change,” Riney said, as the winter turns to spring and melting snow and monsoons more readily pull soil and ash from the scorched hillsides to the east of the tributary.
“But right now, this water is clean. Turbidity is low. We like to see that,” he said. “We’ll keep tracking these spots every month and try to understand just how much damage this fire did to the landscape.”
To be sure, the burned lands around the Williams Fork River don’t present a risk to Denver’s drinking water, primarily because this water travels to an “exchange” reservoir, where it will be sent down the Colorado River to make up for other West Slope water that is diverted to the Front Range.
Even so, understanding the impacts of the fire on water quality is important, allowing Denver Water and its partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to take steps to prepare for, and reduce, those effects.
Denver Water recently began making monthly treks to this high-country stream to monitor a wetland protection project nearby. The utility has long made quarterly trips to the area as part of its broader field-testing program to track water quality across its mountain watershed.
As part of that work, Water Quality Operations crews visit eight counties and collect samples from 77 locations. It’s work that’s distinct from the testing that goes on at reservoirs, water treatment plants and within the distribution system that bring water to household taps.
To collect samples from the Middle Fork stream, Riney and Torelli towed a Sno-Cat up and over Ute Pass Road off Highway 9, turned south in County Road 30 and went to work near Sugarloaf Campground.
“This sampling work keeps us well attuned to what’s happening in our watershed and can at times serve as an early warning for issues we may need to be watching out for further downstream,” said James Berrier, water quality monitoring supervisor at Denver Water. “We want to understand, is this just a temporary issue or something that could have a longer-term impact?”
Sampling teams measure for an array on indicators. In the field, they look at temperature, pH (which measures acidity), conductivity (which helps determine salt levels), turbidity and dissolved oxygen, which is an important factor for aquatic life.
Other water samples are transported back to Denver Water’s laboratory at the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver (which will be moving in the future to its new home at Denver’s emerging National Western Center). Tests there include measuring for fluoride, chloride, nitrates, E. coli, nutrients and dissolved metal.
Samples collected a few months from now may shed light on how much damage the Williams Fork fire did to the land.
Burned Area Emergency Response teams with the U.S. Forest Service have initially concluded that the fire did varying levels of damage. Their assessments found 23% of the area suffered high-intensity burn, while 40% was unburned or experienced low-intensity fire.
Burn levels also can show up in water quality, through indicators such as ash, sediment, metals and other signatures.
“Soil erosion modelling predicts that post-fire erosion rates are generally very low (close to pre-fire conditions) in areas with minimal fire impacts on ground cover and soils. However, rates of erosion increase dramatically … in moderate and high soil burn severity areas, especially on steeper slopes,” according to the response team’s December 2020 assessment.
Denver Water has already accumulated significant expertise and partnerships related to wildfire impacts. Collaborative efforts include From Forests to Faucets, a team approach from Denver Water, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado State Forest Service.
These agencies, together with local groups, address overgrown forests on the front end with tree-thinning projects and repairing landscapes damaged by the kind of intense fires that dramatically slow the recovery of soils and vegetation.
“We have experience, unfortunately, with the havoc that wildfires and their aftermath can wreak on our water quality,” Berrier said, referencing major fires in the late 1990s and early 2000s that put enormous strain on reservoirs and treatment on the south end of Denver Water’s collection system, challenges that the utility is still working to overcome today.
“Tracking impacts to the water once the fires are out is a key step in getting our arms around what might be in store in the years to come.”
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Alex Zorn):
More than 20,000 pounds of fresh seed airdropped over the area of the Pine Gulch Fire [the week of February 21, 2021] is intended to help regrow the sagebrush, pinyon, juniper and other timber and brush that were lost to the record-setting blaze.
By the time the last ember went out, the fire burned more than 139,000 acres — the largest in Colorado history before being overtaken by fires later in the season. Rehabilitation efforts are planned over the next year, including these seed drops…
The BLM will receive $3.5 million in funding from the Department of Interior for rehabilitation efforts.
“The majority of it will recover naturally. It’s a part of the ecosystem and (fire) stimulates new growth. We’re only seeding 22,000 of the 138,000-acre fire in areas where the fire burned hottest,” Coulter explained. “Sometimes, in those areas, the soil won’t absorb water and support regrowth.”
With a smaller fire, BLM may have used a team of volunteers to seed the burned areas but, on Colorado’s third largest fire in history, aerial drops were necessary…
Seed was also dropped on other nearby burn scars in partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife…
Seed was purchased mostly from producers, though some volunteers were used to collect seeds from the land.
The best time to seed is when there is still a fresh layer of snow on the ground.“It’s a tremendous conditions. It’s all snow-covered, the timing is optimal” Sullivan said.
Here’s a guest column from Don Coram that’s running in The Montrose Daily Press:
While the cat is away, the mice will play. That is exactly what is going on in the Colorado General Assembly. With all the COVID-19 issues from the last session, the executive branch and regulatory agencies had full control of Government. It appears the regulatory agencies are still trying to flex their muscles.
It has been that agencies used fiscal notes to gain favor or opposition using this analysis of the cost of enacting a bill. Last week I had SB 21-034 in the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee. This bill was to have the conversation of funding for Colorado’s water future. To bring a little history to the subject, Gov. Hickenlooper directed in the spring of 2013 for the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create a plan for Colorado’s water future. When asked where, does the legislature and general public fit? The director of the Department of Natural Resources told us we did not. Under the leadership of former Sen. Ellen Roberts, she and I drafted legislation to bring the conversation to the designated river basins. Ironically, our largest meeting was in Durango. From those meetings, the Colorado Water Plan was written.
With all the information, the Colorado Water Plan has never been really implemented, because of no stable funding source. So, to start the conversation I drafted and introduced SB-034; it also sat on the shelf for two years prior to introduction. The measure would send to the voters in November of 2022 the question of creating a new enterprise to fund Colorado’s water future. The enterprise would combine the CWCB and the Water and Power Authority to provide grants to water issues, such as treated domestic water, gray water, infrastructure and projects among others.
Now to the source of my frustration. The fiscal note states that CWCB who already has a grant program for funds that are expended from dollars generated by severance tax would require 7.6 new employees and over $1.25 million to implement the first year and more than $1 million annually to continue. The entire ag committee was frustrated by the department’s position on the projected costs. Estimated cost to the average household was $1.59 per month, and annual revenue was in excess of $38.2 million. The bill failed on party line vote, but the message was sent.
SB 21-105 is another example of fiscal note jeopardy. With the passage of Amendment 114, reintroduction of the gray wolf, it stated that a plan for reintroduction shall be completed by Dec. 31, 2023. In addressing the Colorado Wildlife Commission, Gov. Polis seemed to give a strong desire to have wolves on the ground in early 2022. Let me make it perfectly clear, I am not challenging the vote of the people. I just want to ensure CPW does it as prescribed in Amendment 114. Side by side comparisons were shown except for the addition on chickens and alternative livestock. The Blue Book projected first year costs at $344,000 and second year costs at $467,000 Those must be some expensive chickens, because the fiscal note asks for $841,414 in the first year and one FTE and $1,003,945 and three FTE in the second year; $300,000 a year for a meeting facilitator; $600,000.00 to host meetings for two years. That seems to be better and less time consuming than this legislator gig. Once again committee members rail on such asinine projections. Final vote, it failed on a party line vote. There is no funding for the wolf reintroduction. So, tell me whose ox gets gored? Education, transportation, health and environment, department of corrections, governor’s office, or what?
On Saturday, March 20, 2021 Colorado may have had an air quality alert from all the meat that was grilled or served in restaurants throughout Colorado. The Governor’s meatless proclamation certainly had a ripple effect in perhaps setting the record for the most meat consumed in one day in Colorado. I don’t think that was the plan, but my gratitude for all those who stood with Colorado ranchers and farmers.
FYI, the “Cat” is in the building.
From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):
One of the wetter spots in Colorado, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is east over the mountains from Steamboat Springs in Larimer County.
Much of that county is in the lowest level of drought, called “abnormally dry,” thanks in part to historic snowfalls on the Front Range earlier this month. If Larimer County is dry, the trek west to Routt County — through part of the state that saw several record wildfires in 2020 — might test which drought-related adjectives apply.
The drought monitor goes with “extreme” and “exceptional” to describe drought conditions in Routt County. Most of the Western Slope is looking at a similar situation, with the western third of Colorado being shades of ruby red and maroon on the latest map released by drought officials last Thursday.
After having a call put on it for the second time in three years in 2020, state water officials are now considering whether the Yampa River has enough water to fulfill rights held by people downstream of Steamboat Springs. What is most concerning to officials isn’t just the low amount of snow seen this winter, but also how dry the ground was before it started falling.
In the Yampa and White River Basins in Northwest Colorado, the snowpack is about 87% of average in terms of snow water equivalent, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but there isn’t much snow forecasted for the next few weeks, and the average peak in the snowpack generally comes around April 10…
Rain is key at maintaining soil moisture, Romero-Heaney said. Because the soil was so dry last fall, she anticipates a lot of the melting snow will be soaked up and water runoff will be lower than normal.
This means stream flows will be lower, likely requiring release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to support the health of the Yampa River later in the season. Romero-Heaney said more often then not, since 2013, they have needed to release water into the Yampa.
If enough of that spring and summer rain does not come, Romero-Heaney said the valley could see a summer much like the last, and “we start to run out of water for all the uses in the basin.”
Municipal customers running out of water is not a concern at this point. Whether there will be enough water for all the agricultural uses in the basin while also keeping the river healthy is in question though, Romero-Heaney said…
Despite lower snow totals, Andy Rossi, general manager at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he anticipates they will be able to fill Stagecoach Reservoir this year. That said, Rossi is not expecting to be able to fill Yamcolo Reservoir, which is primarily used for agriculture…
In repeated dry years, it can be increasingly hard to fully recover a reservoir until that streak ends, and there is a wetter year. In these dry years, potentially this summer, it can become difficult to meet the need of all the agricultural water diversions, Rossi said.
From The Revelator (Tara Lohan):
New legislation could help states and tribes clean up decades-old mining liabilities and restore the environment while creating needed jobs.
Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region’s toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven’t been properly cleaned up.
The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.
Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry’s environmental degradation.
Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that’s plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.
Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.
What are abandoned mine lands?
Technically an abandoned mine land is land where no reclamation was done after mining. Prior to the passage of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, coal-mining companies weren’t required to reclaim — or clean up — the land they mined.
What SMCRA did, in addition to creating requirements for companies to do reclamation into the future, was create an abandoned mine land fund to distribute money to states and tribes with historic mining so that they could clean up those old sites. The revenue for that fund comes from a small tax on current coal production.
The program has accomplished a lot. It has closed 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed more than 1,000 miles of high walls, stabilized slopes, and restored a lot of water supplies.
t’s been a successful program, but the work is far from done. A conservative estimate is that there’s still more than $11 billion needed to clean up existing identified liability across the U.S. [for sites mined before 1977].
What are the risks if we don’t do this?
There are safety, health and environmental issues.
Just this spring we’ve already gotten calls from folks living adjacent to abandoned mine lands that are experiencing slides [from wet weather causing slopes destabilized by mining to give way]. People’s homes can be completely destabilized, and if they don’t get out in time, it can be really dangerous.
There’s also a lot of existing acid mine drainage across coal-mining communities, which is water that’s leaking iron oxides and other heavy metals from these abandoned mine lands. This is bad for the ecology of the streams, but heavy metals are also not safe for humans to be exposed to.
There’s legislation in Congress now that could help deal with this issue. What are those bills?
One bill is the reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fund. That bill is absolutely critical because the fee on coal production, which is the only source of revenue for the fund, will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn’t take action.
If Congress fails to extend that, we may not see any more funding for the $11 billion needed to clean up abandoned mine lands. If passed, the bill would reauthorize the fee at its current level for 15 more years.
The challenge is that even if the fee is reauthorized, it’ll likely generate only around $1.6 billion — based on current coal-production projections — and that’s vastly inadequate to cover all of the liabilities that exist.
Also, when the abandoned mine land fund was first started, there were some funds that were not redistributed to states and tribes and have just remained in the fund — [about] $2.5 billion that’s not being dispersed on an annual basis.
So another bill, the RECLAIM Act, would authorize [an initial] $1 billion to be dispersed out of that fund that would go to approximately 20 states and tribes over the next five years. This money would be distributed differently than the regular funds in that any kind of project would have to have a plan in place for community and economic development.
So though the funds can only be used for reclamation, they need to be reclamation with a plan. There are so many high-priority and dangerous abandoned mine land sites that exist, and the RECLAIM Act funds would prioritize supporting community and economic development for communities adjacent to these lands.
How much support are you seeing for these bills?
We see momentum in this Congress, and there’s a lot of conversation around investing in our nation’s infrastructure. We see abandoned mine lands and their remediation as natural infrastructure that we need to invest in to keep our communities safe and prepare them for the future.
But we also see these bills as important pieces of an economic recovery package. COVID-19 has really exacerbated so many of the existing health and economic crises already in coal communities.
When we talk about economic stimulus and job creation, we also see reauthorizing the abandoned mine land fund as contributing to that because it takes a lot of work and creates a lot of jobs to do land reclamation.
We’ve talked about the legacy issues from lands mined before 1977, but what concerns are there from current or recent mining? Is that reclamation being done adequately?
That’s an area that also needs a closer look.
As the industry declines, we’ve seen coal companies file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy or reorganization. And when they do this, oftentimes they’re granted permission to get rid of liabilities that would affect their solvency. Sometimes those liabilities are reclamation obligations, pension funds or black lung disability funds.
And then what you see is smaller companies taking on these permits that the reorganizing company no longer wants. But many are under-capitalized and they sometimes don’t have the ability to even produce coal, or if they do they can’t keep up with the reclamation. And it’s dangerous for communities if there’s environmental violations that aren’t getting addressed.
I’ll give you a recent example. Blackjewel [the sixth-largest U.S. coal producer] went bankrupt in the summer of 2019. Since then there’s been very little done to address any kind of environmental violations existing on their permits.
Because of SMCRA, companies are required to have bonds in order to obtain their mining permits, but these bonds are not always adequate. The Kentucky Energy and Environment cabinet made a statement in the Blackjewel bankruptcy proceedings that it estimated that reclamation obligations on these permits were going to fall short $20 to $50 million.
What else is needed to help coal communities transition to a low-carbon economy?
That’s a big question. We have to address these legacy issues in order to help transition these communities into the future. And we have to address the problems right now of folks who are losing their jobs and need to be supported through training programs or through education credits.
But we also need to be thinking about the future more broadly. What will be in place 20 years from now for the younger generation?
There’s going to be a lot of gaps in local tax revenues because so much of the tax base has been reliant on the coal industry, which makes it really difficult for communities to continue to provide public services and keep up infrastructure as that industry declines. It’s going to be critical to think about that and invest in that.
I think the best approach is to find solutions that work for [specific] places. And to do that we need to listen to community leaders and folks in these communities that have already been working to build something new for many years. There are solutions that I think can apply to all places, but there also needs to be a targeted intention to create opportunities where communities can develop their own paths forward.
Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for March 26, 2021 via the NRCS.
From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
In 2018, Erin Light did something that had never before been done on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. She placed a call.
As district water engineer, Light was responsible for administering Colorado’s complex matrix of water rights. Rights are ranked by date and volume, from earliest decreed and hence most senior to most recent and hence junior. A senior water-rights holder on the Yampa River at Lily Park, near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, had called to say he was not getting the water decreed to that property for irrigation of the hay meadows.
The call she placed that summer lasted 21 days, causing the most junior of users upstream to cease diversions until that senior right was met. Then came another hot and dry summer in 2020, and she placed another call, this one lasting 9 days. It was a paradigm shift for the Yampa, a river that through the 20th century always had had enough water for anybody who wanted to dip a straw into it.
If foreign to the Yampa River, such calls have long been commonplace on Colorado rivers. The premise is water scarcity, the idea that there just isn’t enough water for all who want it, at least all the time.
Colorado’s hierarchy of seniors and juniors, older and younger, is commonly traced to the development of irrigation agriculture in the Poudre Valley between Fort Collins and Greeley. The Greeley irrigators were first, but then came new irrigators upstream near Fort Collins. In a drought year, their new diversions had an effect on what was available downstream. Within a decade, soon after Colorado became a state, the first calls were placed on that river.
It took little time for scarcity to be understood on all of Colorado’s rivers east of the Continental Divide. Scarcity was slower to be understood on the Western Slope, where there was more water and, even in the days of feverish gold- and silver-mining, fewer people. Yet over the decades, the Colorado and other rivers came to be fully appropriated.
The Yampa, though, stood alone among major rivers in Colorado in its relative plentitude. It routinely delivered water to all who wanted it. Even its reservoirs, modest in size, came relatively late in the 20th century, to help moderate flows.
The Yampa’s relative isolation played a role in this. It’s two mountain ranges distant from the Front Range, two significant fences to hop for Front Range cities and Great Plains farmers.
Climate also played a role. You can’t grow corn in the Yampa Valley with any reliability. You can grow hay, but the geography makes even that problematic.
Now that climate is shifting. Not enough to grow corn but enough to cause the Yampa to be marginally less robust and, as the 21st century has shown in 2018 and 2020, but also in other years before that, unable to deliver.
This has led to Light recommending that the Yampa be designated as “over-appropriated.” It’s a legal phrase that suggests something more odious than is actually the case. It sounds like the theater has been oversold and some people will be escorted from their seats to stand outside.
Over-appropriated doesn’t mean that. It does have implications for those wanting to drill large-capacity wells along the river. They must show the ability to deliver augmentation water, which is commonly purchased from an upstream reservoir. Most of Colorado’s rivers long ago were designated as over-appropriated.
In my reporting for a story commissioned by Aspen Journalism, which can be seen here and has more of the detail of interest to a local audience, I talked several times with Light. She chose her words carefully. She didn’t talk about climate change, only the direct evidence, the water years of 2018 and 2020. But there were other bad years, too, including 2012 and also 2002.
Light wasn’t the district engineer in 2002, and only recently did the downstream irrigator near Dinosaur explain why he hadn’t demanded his water that summer and fall. He just didn’t have the heart to cause so much pain upstream in that year of scorching temperatures, forest fires, and meager winter snows eviscerated by spring winds.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Light were these statistics, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey gaging station at Maybell, located along the Yampa River (and Highway 40), between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. A century ago, the gauging station recorded an average annual 1.5 million acre-feet. That has declined to 1.1 million in the 21st century. And, of course, some years are worse, including one year in the last decade of 500,000 acre-feet.
At a recent meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, a representative of Boulder County mentioned drought caused by climate change in support of regulations to control methane emissions. One of the AQCC commissioners, Randy Ahrens, of Broomfield, wanted to know why, if the ski areas could talk about what wonderful record-breaking snows we had, we could still be in drought.
In that question I think I heard some skepticism, perhaps a wondering whether enviros were just a little too chicken-littlish. It was a legitimate question, though.
I saw the answer during my three trips to the Yampa Valley in 2020. In early March I visited Steamboat and then Craig, seeing evidence of a big snow year, reminiscent of the winter and spring I had spent there in 1979. I got skilled that winter at chaining up my Ford Pinto in the dark during a snowstorm while crossing Rabbit Ears Pass.
But those heavy snows I saw in March 2020 soon disappeared in a warm, dry spring.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resources manager for Steamboat Springs, laid it out for me. The snow-water equivalent—a measure of the snowpack—showed 116% of median on March 1. It was down to 69% by June 1.
Then came summer, hot and dry, a record in both categories during August against 130 years of measurements.
That heat and lack of precipitation, Romero-Heaney told me, drove a measure called the SPEI, or Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index. “The combination
of heat and lack of precipitation drove an SPEI figure that far exceeded drought years, such as 2002, 2012, and 2018,” she said.
Last August, when I returned again to explore the Little Snake River, it felt like an oven. Stopping for a sandwich in Steamboat on the return to the Front Range, it felt Denver hot. That afternoon I continued eastward across Cameron Pass then drove past Long Draw Reservoir and toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. A week later, it was afire.
That Cameron Peak Fire was still in advancing in early October when we returned to Craig a third time. It was a smoky time there—and everywhere.
On that October trip I drove up the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs to see Jay Fetcher. His ranch a few miles from Steamboat Lake had been his parents’ ranch when they arrived from Philadelphia in 1949 and he was a toddler. His parents had kept a record through their years of when the last snow disappeared from the meadow. His father died just a few years ago, a legend in Steamboat and beyond, partly because he was a co-founder of the ski area, but also because of his work in water.
Jay has continued the work of his parents, charting the withering of the winter snowpack. And the chart he gave me showed a clear progression toward earlier springs, particularly during the 21st century. There’ still great variability, but now more so. The “snow off meadow” date arrives an average one day earlier every five years. That means longer summers.
The story here is that last year was emblematic of what has been happening in the Yampa River. There’s no longer enough water for everybody who wants it all the time. It’s not because of additional new diversions, although there are some. But that does not tell the story. The longer, hotter summers may cause ranchers to divert more water to irrigate. That could be part of the story.
The largest story is of the warming weather, the shifting climate.
Light has submitted her proposal for over-appropriation to her boss, Kevin Rein, the state water engineer. In an interview, he had also chosen his words about climate change carefully. Approving this, he said, would not be a prediction of a climate to come, only a recognition that the hydrological balance has shifted.
Fair enough. But there’s the weight of evidence, almost crushing, that climate change has started playing a heavy hand in the Colorado River. There are the studies by Udall, et al, that point to the “hot drought” as the story, with roughly half the recorded declines due to temperature and not precipitation. There are, of course, the enduring images of the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. And there are the models that predict much more warmth is yet to come.
Climate change is not just the future. It’s here, it’s now. And from all available evidence, the climate scientists were too conservative in their predictions.
This was published in the March 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com.
From the St. George Spectrum & Daily News (Joan Meiners):
Last week, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order declaring a statewide drought emergency. In the press release that followed, he urged Utahns to “evaluate their water use and find ways to save not only because of current drought conditions but also because we live in one of the driest states in the nation.”
These measures are needed because, according to the Governor’s March 17 release, “following a record dry summer and fall, this winter’s snowpack is about 70% of average for the year. For snowpack to reach average, Utah’s mountains would need to receive the remaining 30% before it starts to melt significantly, typically the first week in April. There is around a 10% chance of this occurring.”
In the very first edition of The Water Tap, The Spectrum & Daily News surveyed locals about their water use and found that, on average, we are using twice as much water at home as we think we are using (local estimated their home use at 127 gallons per day compared to the USGS-calculated 248). This is despite the fact that a majority of survey respondents reported being aware that water scarcity is an issue in southern Utah and said that they already make an effort to conserve water at home…
To be fair, some of our higher local water use is simply due to the realities of our environment here in the northern range of the Mojave Desert. Being one of the driest states — as Governor Cox pointed out — our outdoor landscapes will require more water to achieve the same result compared to lawns growing in Missouri or Virginia, due to drier soils and higher evaporative loss.
But that’s exactly why several other southwestern states sponsor programs to encourage people to replace their lawns with desert-friendly landscaping, or xeriscaping. Southern Utah does not currently offer any such turf removal incentives and, in past interviews, local water managers have been loathe to condemn the abundance of residential lawns, parks and golf courses throughout the region.
The initial The Water Tap also noted that domestic water use from the public supply makes up just 15% of total water use in Utah, while irrigation accounts for 72% of use, mostly to support local water-intensive crops like alfalfa. The fourth week of The Water Tap covered recent research findings that up to 55% of water throughout the Colorado River basin is spent irrigating cattle-feed crops.
From The Kiowa County Press (Chris Sorensen):
Additional moisture following a major snowstorm two weeks ago has provided additional drought relief to portions of Colorado’s eastern plains and mountain areas according to the latest update from the National Drought Mitigation Center.
The most notable change appeared in southwest El Paso County, where extreme drought decreased two categories to moderate conditions. Southern Teller and a small portion of northern Pueblo counties experienced a similar two category improvement.
Elsewhere in El Paso, Elbert, Lincoln, Pueblo, Prowers and Crowley counties, extreme drought moved into the severe category. Extreme conditions also decreased in Baca and Las Animas counties.
Central Kiowa County remained in extreme drought, while a small area of extreme conditions in the northwest of the county moved to severe.
Areas of abnormally dry conditions expanded to replace moderate drought in the San Luis Valley and northern Colorado. Abnormally dry conditions also appeared in southern Yuma and eastern Kit Carson counties.
No improvement was noted in western Colorado, which has been dominated by extreme and exceptional drought for months.
Recent heavy snowfall brought snow water content close to average for mid-March across most of Colorado despite the ongoing areas of significant drought.
Overall, 15 percent of the state is in exceptional drought, unchanged from the prior week. Extreme drought fell from 24 percent to 17, while severe conditions dropped to 30 percent from 33. Moderate drought increased from 24 to 30 percent, while abnormally dry conditions increased from four to seven percent, offsetting areas of more significant drought. None of Colorado is free from drought. Percentages do not total 100 due to rounding.
Here’s the release from Tufts University (Mike Silver):
Computer model shows human economic activity can transmit and magnify climate change impact
Water scarcity is often understood as a problem for regions experiencing drought, but a new study led by Tufts University researchers finds that not only can localized water shortages impact the global economy, but changes in global demand can have positive and negative ripple effects in river basins across the globe.
In addition to Tufts engineers, the team included experts from the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Cornell University.
“We’re finding that water scarcity dynamics are more complicated than traditionally acknowledged,” said Flannery Dolan, a graduate student at Tufts University and lead author of the study. “Changing water supply due to climate change is only part of the story. Regional water scarcity is also driven by changes in global water demands that are often hard to anticipate.”
The study, “Evaluating the economic impact of water scarcity in a changing world,” was published March 26 in Nature Communications, and uniquely captures the interdependent effects of global trade, population and technological growth, climate change, and land management decisions on regional river basins’ water scarcity and economic capacity to adapt to that scarcity.
The researchers used a computer model to simulate thousands of scenarios that reflect a broad array of potential climate, socioeconomic, and hydrologic (earth water cycles and management) conditions in 235 major river basins to better understand how regional water scarcity can have far-ranging impacts on the global economy. Those effects can include altering global trade and consumption patterns in industries such as agriculture, energy, transportation, and manufacturing.
“We are looking at water scarcity as a globally connected and multi-sector phenomenon,” said Jonathan Lamontagne, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University and corresponding author of the study. “As a result, the study reveals some interesting and sometimes unexpected insights into how local conditions can have reverberations across the globe.”
The research found that global trade dynamics and market adaptations to regional water scarcity can result in positive or negative economic outcomes in every regional river basin considered in the study, depending on both water supply (rainfall, snowmelt, and ground water), and demand-side factors like agricultural production, power generation, and municipal use.
For instance, in the lower Colorado River basin, the worst economic outcomes arise from limited groundwater availability and high population growth, but that high population growth can also prove beneficial under some hydrologic conditions. In contrast, the future economic outcomes in the Indus Basin depend largely on global land-use policies that discourage carbon emissions that can, in turn, encourage overuse of groundwater supplies.
“What is happening elsewhere in the world through differences in regional choices related to energy transitions, how land is being managed, as well as different regional water demands and adaptive choices, can shape relative advantages and disadvantages of a region’s water intensive economic activities,” said Patrick Reed, the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell.
Restrictions in water availability usually lead to a negative regional economic impact, but the research revealed that some regions can experience a positive economic impact if they hold an advantage over other water basins and become a virtual exporter of water. The Orinoco basin in Venezuela, for example, usually has a reliable supply of water and is often in a relative position that can benefit when other regions are under stress, according to the researchers.
The study also found that small differences in projections for future climate conditions can yield very large differences in the economic outcomes for water scarcity.
“Human activities and market responses can strongly amplify the economic effects of water scarcity, but the conditions that lead to this amplification vary widely from one basin to the next,” said Lamontagne.
A river basin can be considered economically robust if it is able to adapt to drought with alternative sources of water or adjust economic activity to limit usage. If a basin is unable to adapt its supply options and if prolonged water scarcity leads to persistent economic decline, then the researchers describe the loss in water basin adaptive capacity as having reached an ‘economic tipping point.’
For example, in the Indus region in South Asia, the water supply is under stress due to heavy agricultural use and irrigation leading to unsustainable consumption of groundwater, which places it close to the tipping point.
The conditions that lead to these tipping points are highly variable from basin to basin, depending on a combination of local factors and global conditions. In the Arabian Peninsula, low groundwater availability and pricing of carbon emissions are key factors. In the lower Colorado River basin, a mixture of low groundwater availability, low agricultural productivity, and strong economic demands from the U.S. and Europe lead to tipping points.
“It is noteworthy that the lower Colorado River basin has some of the most uncertain and widely divergent economic outcomes of water scarcity of the basins analyzed in this study,” said Reed. “This implies that assumed differences in regional, national and global human activities as well as the intensity of climate change can dramatically amplify the uncertainty in the basin’s outcomes.”
As climate change makes the physical and economic effects of water scarcity more challenging for policy makers to understand, the researchers hope their work will provide the basis for similar analyses and draw attention to the importance of expanded data collection to improve modeling and decision making.
Click here to read the update (Tracy Kosloff and Megan Holcomb):
A cold February came to a close as the first below average temperature month since October 2019 and the 25th coldest month on record in 127 years. The eastern side of the continental divide benefited more than the rest of Colorado from recent March snowstorms. The last 11 months (Apr 2020 to Feb 2021) are the driest on record for Colorado as a whole (when compared to the same 11 months for the period of record). The dryness will reduce springtime runoff, especially in western Colorado. While a warm and dry pattern has continued this winter, conditions are not as severe as they were in the fall with localized drought monitor improvements due to recent precipitation.
The U.S. Drought Monitor from March 23rd recorded recent improvements. Notably, a 2-category change in a one week period was observed in north and central areas of eastern Colorado between March 9-16th. The last 2-category improvement was recorded during the September 2013 floods. Exceptional (D4) drought currently covers 15% of the state; extreme (D3) drought covers 17%; severe (D2) drought covers 30%; moderate (D1) drought covers 30%; and recent precipitation created patches of abnormally dry (D0) areas in 7% of the state.
The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) values from Dec. 14 to Mar. 15 highlight continued dry conditions on the western slope. Eastern Colorado’s SPI data points reflect areas of above average precipitation after January and March snowstorms. The 12-month SPI map depicts the long-term drought conditions due to precipitation deficits of 2020 across the state.
The NOAA Climate Prediction Center three month outlook indicates the current La Niña pattern may weaken by the spring and revert to neutral conditions in the summer. Above normal temperatures and below average precipitation are anticipated in the upcoming months. In contrast, March was expected to bring below average precipitation, which was not the case.
As of March 17th, statewide snowpack is 83% of normal. Statewide reservoir storage is currently at 85% of average. Extreme soil moisture deficits and below normal precipitation means all basins should prepare for a low runoff year. The continuance of drought is expected through 2021 and the State Drought Plan remains in Phase 3 activation.
Water providers across the state report average to slightly below average storage levels and near normal winter demands. Drought management planning and potential restrictions are being discussed through multiple coordination groups. Stakeholders can follow along with state drought response actions and activities through public engagement pages for the Municipal Water Task Force and Agricultural Impact Task Force.
From The High Country News [March 18, 2021] (Anna V. Smith):
Four important decisions will impact the forests, lands and waters of tribal nations.
Tribal leaders see President Joe Biden’s administration as an opportunity to increase tribal consultation regarding issues like water management, oil and gas leasing, and land conservation. Here, we look at four major projects — all of them years in the making — that the new administration is tasked with advancing in the next four years. Most fall under the Department of the Interior, now headed by its first Indigenous secretary, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST MANAGEMENT
On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order to revisit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Trump-era decision to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a federal rule protecting 9.3 million acres of it from logging, mining and roadways. The Trump administration raced through the process despite the pandemic. The Tongass — the largest national forest in the U.S. — serves as a massive carbon sink and is of national importance. It also supports the old-growth red cedar, Sitka black-tailed deer and salmon that the Alaska Native tribes of the region rely on. None of the Southeast Alaska Native tribes who participated in the consultation process supported the exemption, and all withdrew in protest.
In addition to reviewing the Tongass protections, the Biden administration also has to decide on a rule proposed by 11 Southeast Alaska Native tribes in July 2020. The Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule would increase the role of Alaska Native tribes in the management of the forest’s trees, wildlife and waters. The tribes proposed the rule after decades of inadequate tribal consultation on the Tongass, their ancestral and current homeland.
COLORADO RIVER BASIN GUIDELINES BY 2026
Negotiations among federal, tribal and state governments on water flows and allocations in the Colorado River Basin began last year and are set to conclude by 2026. At stake is the water supply for 40 million people.
The current set of interim guidelines was created in 2007 by the seven basin states — Colorado, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico — and the federal government. None of the 29 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin were consulted, despite having senior water rights that account for 20% of the river’s water.
The negotiations are happening amid some of the most serious drought predictions the region has seen; in January, the river’s drought contingency plan was triggered for the first time. Climate change has brought extreme drought conditions to about 75% of the river’s Upper Basin, and that will no doubt influence the tenor of the negotiations.
KLAMATH RIVER DAM REMOVAL IN 2023
After years of political, social and regulatory barriers, the undamming of the Klamath River is within sight. When — or if — it’s completed, it will be the largest dam removal effort in U.S. history, bringing down four out of six dams on the river in southern Oregon and Northern California , including one that’s 103 years old. For now, the project is on track to begin in 2023, and by 2024 there could be free-flowing water in the river, opening up some 400 miles of habitat in California for salmon, lamprey and trout. The nonprofit charged with the dam removals, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, still needs the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, which is headed by political appointees, to approve its current plan.
Last year’s drought created more conflict over water allocations on the Klamath. In, August, the Bureau of Reclamation cancelled promised water flows for the Yurok Tribe’s Ceremonial Boat Dance. In response, the Yurok Tribe sued the agency. The federal government will need to bring stakeholders together for a large-scale agreement to end this cycle of seasonal litigation, something the Obama administration attempted unsuccessfully to do.
OIL AND GAS LEASING PERMIT PAUSE ON FEDERAL LANDS
In late January, when Joe Biden signed multiple executive orders to address the “climate crisis,” he ordered Interior to put a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters. The administration called for a review of the leasing and royalties process, citing climate impacts and their growing cost, and specifically requested a review of leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration had opened ANWR for sale just weeks before Biden took office.
Biden’s executive orders don’t impact existing leases, or oil and gas on tribal lands. But much of the tribal opposition involves activities on ancestral territory that is currently public land, sometimes carried out without adequate tribal consultation. The Arctic Refuge and places like New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon have been flashpoints of conflict over leasing, and many advocates want Biden to extend the pause as a permanent ban. This was a key sticking point for many Republican senators during Haaland’s confirmation hearings, which Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described as a “proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels.”
Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Jason Clay):
Colorado Parks and Wildlife monitoring efforts of the fish ladder installed on the Cache la Poudre River at the Watson Lake State Wildlife Area two years ago shows it has been a success across several fronts.
The fishway was designed to allow passage around a diversion structure in the river for multiple species of fish. This project is a realization of a partnership formed between private and public entities.
“Overall, we are happy with the project and have documented fish moving upstream and downstream in the structure,” said CPW Aquatic Biologist Kyle Battige. “The fish ladder has improved conditions on the river and reconnected over two miles of river habitat by providing upstream movement opportunities for fish that had not existed at the Watson Lake Diversion Structure location since it was built in the 1960s.”
Watch trout swim in the fish ladder and hear more from aquatic biologist Kyle Battige
Two separate Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tagging efforts helped CPW in monitoring fish movement up and down the river after the ladder was installed. CPW tagged 71 fish on April 26, 2019 that were released in the downstream half of the fishway for initial evaluation. Researchers with Colorado State University also tagged fish downstream of the fishway as a part of a larger movement study on April 4, 2019.
Data from the PIT tags documented successful upstream and downstream movement with 41 of the 71 CPW tagged fish utilizing the ladder and 36 of those fish successfully ascending the entire structure. The other five fish were recorded on one of the other two operational antennas within the structure, but not at the top antenna. Our detection data indicates that 51 percent of fish tagged by CPW successfully ascended the entire structure.
Additionally, eight brown trout tagged by CSU and released 50 meters or further downstream have been documented using the fishway.
“Documenting 51 percent of the CPW-tagged fish along with CSU- tagged fish utilizing the structure over the course of several months is exciting,” Battige said. “The fish ladder is performing as designed and is allowing fish to move freely up and downstream through the reach as they want. Further evaluation is warranted to investigate movement success across a broader size range within each fish species, but to date we have documented adult fish successfully navigating the fishway”
Of the three species of fish tagged – longnose sucker, brown trout and rainbow trout – at least one individual across all tagged species has successfully navigated the fishway.
Other areas monitored that indicate a successful project are measured water velocities in the fishway, discharge measurements in the fishway and water delivery to the hatchery. In addition, the cone screen constructed above the fish ladder where water gets delivered to the hatchery prevented fish entrainment by screening water delivered to the hatchery and that has not clogged during the fall leaf seasons, decreasing CPW staff time spent cleaning old inlet infrastructure. The cone screen is powered by a solar panel and has been an overall benefit to hatchery operations while not impacting water delivery.
In order to satisfy measurement of Northern Water’s potential future augmentation flows from Glade Reservoir, the fishway was designed to carry up to 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) before spilling over the dam. Based on CPW measurements since construction was completed in the spring of 2019, the fishway more than meets that criteria, with its overall capacity being closer to 50 cfs.
Morning Fresh Dairy, one of the project partners, is also utilizing the structure to measure future water flows.
There was a seamless collaboration between public and private entities who came together on the project to improve the river and its habitat. Along with CPW and Morning Fresh Dairy, noosa yoghurt, Northern Water and Poudre Heritage Alliance all were key partners in the project.
Learning lessons gleaned from this project that can be applied to help future ladder designs include careful consideration of tradeoffs between flow measurement and fish passage along with minor design tweaks to optimize water velocities in fish ladders.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Sara Leonard):
On March 17, amended rules governing the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program became effective.
The amended rules create additional tools and expand CWCB’s authority regarding temporary loans of water rights to the agency for instream flow use, including the ability to improve the natural environment, and allowing loans to be renewed for two additional 10-year periods, among other features.
The rule revisions implement Colorado House Bill 20-1157, sponsored by Senator Kerry Donovan and Representatives Dylan Roberts and Perry Will. On January 26, 2021, CWCB held a rulemaking hearing at which public comments were heard and the CWCB ultimately adopted the amendments to its existing rules.
“The CWCB staff is looking forward to working with the water community on both expedited and renewable loans, and appreciates having additional tools for protecting flows in Colorado’s streams,” said Linda Bassi, CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief.
Click here to register.
From email from Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):
Colorado Water Legislator Webinar, March 30, 2021, Zoom, 8 – 8:45 am, Mountain Time, Free
This event will be tailored for Colorado legislators, but all members of the public are welcome to join.
Clean and reliable water supplies are essential to our ways of life in Colorado. All of us depend on healthy flowing rivers: agricultural producers, cities and towns, businesses, recreation, and the environment. 2021 is a key year for Colorado water. Up ahead are the update of the Colorado Water Plan, the beginning of the renegotiation around the Colorado River, deepening drought, wildfire impacts, and performance of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans, a temporary yet broad agreement to reduce water use and ensure that Lakes Powell and Mead continue to provide a reliable water supply. One thing is clear. We all play a role in sustaining Colorado’s water future. Join us in discussing its course.
Click here to read the drought update from NIDIS:
Drought emergency declared for Utah while Northeast Colorado sees drought conditions improve.
A heavy winter storm from March 12–14 eased drought conditions for eastern Colorado. Despite recent precipitation, exceptional drought conditions persist over areas of the Intermountain West (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah). Snowpack so far this season has been low, but improved from last month. Dry conditions are expected to continue for the Southwest.
From WyoFile.com (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):
Wyoming’s efforts to build a 280-foot-high dam above the Little Snake River near the border of Colorado are “picking … back up,” after backers received a $1.2 million federal grant, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission said last week.
The funds, to be matched by Wyoming, will help consultants prepare federal environmental reviews. Planned for the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County, the estimated $82 million dam and 10,000-acre-foot reservoir would be constructed in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
The dam on the tributary of the Little Snake River would serve 67 to 100 irrigators by providing late-season water. Irrigators are unable to finance the project, so 91% of the costs would be borne by Wyoming, a formula backers say is justified because the structure would produce $73.7 million in public benefits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service in 2019 approved a $1.25 million grant to the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District and the neighboring Colorado Pothook Water Conservancy District to boost the project, according to federal records. The grant requires a matching contribution.
“It became a little bit dormant for a while,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told members of the state water commission Thursday as he described the project. The grant will help consultants decide whether to pursue a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service or try to construct and operate the facility through permits.
The project faced scrutiny and criticism in the Legislature in 2018 when backers sought $40 million in construction funds. Lawmakers appropriated only $4.7 million, requiring none of the money be spent until two conditions were met.
One was securing “additional funding commitments from project beneficiaries in both Wyoming and Colorado on a pro-rata basis.” The second string the legislature attached required legislative approval before any of the 2018 appropriation be spent…
In addition to the $4.7 million 2018 appropriation, the West Fork account had some $6 million already appropriated in 2013, for a total of $10.9 million. The earlier appropriation did not include requirements for cost sharing with Colorado or for further legislative approval…
Lawmakers became wary of the dam project because of its cost, its location and the small number of Wyoming irrigators it would serve. Critics said it would only irrigate an additional 2,000 acres or so…
A Feb. 24 memo to commission members described Wyoming’s historic engagement with Colorado officials but with a contemporary revision. “All entities expressed support for additional storage in the Little Snake/Yampa River drainages and support for the West Fork project,” the memo reads.
But that statement mischaracterizes Colorado’s position, said Cody Perry, vice president of Friends of the Yampa. The Little Snake River flows along the Wyoming/Colorado border and into the Yampa, a tributary of the Green River.
Wyoming tried to get the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to endorse the project in 2018. But that group would not sign a proposed letter backing the dam and reservoir.
Instead, the Roundtable said it would need to see the dam proposal “in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”
“The [Roundtable] membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration…” the Colorado group’s letter stated.
Three members of the Colorado roundtable said the group’s position has not changed since 2018…
The Water Development Commission last week extended a planning contract for the project through the end of 2022. It had been set to expire June 30, 2021.
Here’s the release from Aurora Water:
Aurora Water is seeking volunteers for the 2021 High Line Canal Cleanup, slated from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, April 24, 2021. The event involves removing trash and debris from the 12-mile stretch of the canal that runs through Aurora to reduce the amount of pollution entering Sand and Toll Gate creeks. The High Line Canal Conservancy, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving the future of the canal, is co-hosting the 2021 event. Denver Water is providing support.
Volunteers will be assigned to one of 15 segments along the route, which runs from the intersections of Havana Street and Alameda Avenue to Colfax Avenue and Tower Road. Trash bags and gloves will be provided. Segment leaders from Aurora Water and the High Line Canal Conservancy will be on hand to answer questions and assist throughout the morning.
The cleanup is a great way for youth, scouting or religious groups to make a difference to this popular recreational amenity. Volunteers must be 8 years old or older for most segments and minors must be accompanied by an adult. COVID-19 restrictions require participants to wear masks and practice social distancing. There will be a limit of 10 volunteers per team. Prior registration and a signed waiver of liability is required. In the event of inclement weather, the reschedule date is Saturday, May 1, 2021.
For more information or to volunteer, visit http://AuroraWater.org, https://highlinecanal.org/cleanup-list/annual-aurora-cleanup/ or email email@example.com.
From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):
Despite the recent history-making blizzard on Colorado’s Front Range, statewide snowpack sits at 92 percent of average as of March 19, down from 105 percent of average at the end of February, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Just two river basins, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, are registering above average at 101 percent and 106 percent respectively. Among the driest are the Gunnison Basin, at 86 percent of average, and the San Juan/Dolores, at 83 percent, both in the southwestern part of the state.
“The snowpack numbers are still below normal though they don’t look that bad,” said Peter Goble, a specialist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “But based on how dry soils were to start this accumulation season, we’re still pretty nervous about what water availability is going to look like.”
Those numbers are hard to believe for some, given that nearly 30 inches of snow fell in and around Denver the weekend of March 13, with some portions of the foothills and higher receiving more than three feet of snow. It is considered the fourth-largest storm in Denver’s history.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state remains mired in drought, with nearly half classified as being extremely or exceptionally dry, the most dangerous categories.
Mountain snowpack is watched closely in Colorado and other Western states because as it melts, it fills rivers and reservoirs to supply the state’s cities, farms and industries with water for the coming year.
Thanks to 2020’s severe drought, in November, for only the second time in its history, the Colorado Water Conservation Board activated its municipal emergency drought response plan in an effort to help cities cope with the dry conditions.
As part of that effort some 14 metro area cities have agreed to coordinate how they inform community members of potential drought restrictions.
“The biggest thing is we don’t want to be counter-messaging anybody,” said Greg Baker, spokesperson for Aurora Water. Aurora is one of the members of the new drought coordination group. “Towns that have robust storage like Denver and Aurora may not need restrictions. But there are about 50 water utilities across the Front Range.”
Those that don’t have hefty storage systems might have to declare drought emergencies, as many did in 2012 and 2013, Baker said.
And when, for instance, major TV stations broadcast that there are no restrictions in Denver or Aurora, it makes it difficult for communities that have to impose limits to help customers understand the vast differences in drought response, he said.
How this year will play out isn’t clear yet, Baker said. Aurora’s reservoirs are at 63 percent of capacity, the low end of normal. Aurora draws its water from the mountains in the Arkansas, Colorado and South Platte river basins.
“A lot of customers forget that we may have had some good snow down here but that is not where we collect our water. It happens up in the mountains,” Baker said.
Even as mountain snows approach the average mark, soils remain dry and therefore capable of absorbing much of the snow that will melt in the spring.
“We’re getting reports that soil moisture is 10 inches below normal,” Baker said. “Will runoff be sucked up? We don’t know.”
Of particular concern to hydrologists and water watchers across Colorado is the forecast for the seven-state Colorado River Basin. The river begins high in Rocky Mountain National Park and, together with tributaries in Colorado like the Gunnison, Yampa, and Dolores rivers, it supplies all of the state’s Western Slope’s water as well as roughly half of the water for Front Range cities and tens of thousands of acres of farms in the Eastern Plains.
As it flows south and west, the river supplies not only Colorado but also Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, a region known as the Upper Basin, and Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin. It also supplies Mexico.
The basin has two major storage reservoirs in the U.S. and they are filled almost entirely from the mountain snows generated in the Upper Basin. The forecast for the basin remains grim, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimating that Lake Powell will see inflows of just 47 percent of average as of March 3, the most recent data available.
According to Reclamation, the last half of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in the Colorado River Basin, and closely resembles the deep droughts of 2002, 2012, 2013 and early 2018. These are, according to the March 3 report, four out of the five driest years on record.
Levels in Powell and Mead are likely to drop low enough this year to trigger additional cuts in water deliveries to Lower Basin states. The recent blizzard in Colorado, because it did not benefit Colorado’s Western Slope and the headwaters of the river as much as it did the Eastern Slope, aren’t likely to change that, according to Reclamation.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (John Stroud):
Unfortunately, recent snowstorms did very little to improve the mountain snowpack. And the near-term prediction for measurable precipitation isn’t promising.
That’s according to several sources of data and predictive models tracked by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey Program.
NRCS Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted in his monthly snowpack report issued March 5 that, “While February snow accumulations did improve the snowpack in many parts of the state, snowpack still remains below normal levels in all major basins except the Rio Grande.”
At that time, the Colorado River Basin was at 84% of median snowpack, and just 71% of last year’s snowpack. Statewide, the median snowpack at that time was 85%, and only 77% of last year.
Then came the big one — sort of.
A major snowstorm the weekend of March 13 that mostly blanketed the the foothills and eastern Colorado with up to 2 feet of snow in places did have some impact on the high country snowpack. When it comes to Western Slope water, that’s where it mostly matters.
Just before that storm hit, on March 10, the Colorado River Basin was at 88% of median snowpack.
Likewise, one of the Colorado’s major drainages, the Roaring Fork River, with its headwaters on Independence Pass east of Aspen, was at 84% of median.
Afterwards, the area basin snowpack had improved to 91% and 90%, respectively.
As of Tuesday, with more localized snowfall in recent days, the Roaring Fork drainage had improved to 94% of median.
The summer and fall of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in Colorado.
“This led to dry soil moisture conditions and the expectation is that snowmelt runoff will produce lower volumes than would commonly be observed with a similar snowpack,” Wetlaufer observed in his March 5 report.
Before winter even started, snow forecasters were saying Colorado would need multiple years of 150% to 200% of normal snowpack to improve the drought situation…
“There is currently a significant soil moisture drought that will consume a greater-than-average amount of snowmelt runoff, and leave less to streamflow runoff,” [Brian Domonkos] said. “To add to the complexity, low soil moisture means lower base flows in rivers and streams, which means more precipitation is needed to bring stream flows back to normal levels.”
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A couple of low pressure systems resulted in widespread precipitation (0.5 to 3 inches, locally more) across the central and southern Plains, Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic from March 16 to 22. However, mostly dry weather persisted across southern Texas, the Florida Peninsula, northern New England, the Great Lakes, and northern Plains. Periods of rain and high-elevation snow occurred across the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and the central Rockies, but the Southwest remained mostly dry. As of March 23, 7-day maximum temperatures averaged above normal across the northern Plains and Upper Mississippi Valley…
Frequent precipitation during the past two weeks continues to result in additional improvements to parts of the central Plains and central Rockies. 7-day total amounts (March 16-22) ranged from 1 to 3 inches, locally more, across a broad region including south-central Nebraska and much of Kansas. As of March 22, Grand Island Nebraska has received 6.95” so far this month which makes it the wettest March on record. The drought amelioration extends west to the central Rockies where numerous improvements were made including a two-category change from D3 to D1 in southwest El Paso County and southeast Teller County as SPIs are now D1 at all timescales. The removal of D3 in southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas was based on: SPIs are either neutral or positive dating back to 6 months and improving soil moisture conditions. In contrast to the major improvements across the central Rockies and central Plains during the past two weeks, persistent dryness continues to support additional expansion of D2 (severe) and D3 (extreme) drought across parts of North Dakota…
A slight expansion of severe drought (D2) was made to northeast Montana, based on 90-day SPI and soil moisture below the 10th percentile. These low soil moisture conditions are related to the lack of snowfall this winter. In contrast to the northern high Plains, snow water content is running close to average for late March and led to the elimination of abnormal dryness (D0) across south-central Montana. Since parts of western Arizona and southeast California have received little to no precipitation during the past two month, D3 (extreme) and D4 (exceptional) drought were slightly increased. This expansion of D3-D4 was supported by 9-month SPI values which covers the failed 2020 monsoon and this past winter. An expansion of D2 (severe) and extreme (D3) drought across parts of southern California was based on large water year to date precipitation deficits and 6-month SPI values. No other changes were made at this time to the remainder of California as 6 to 12 month SPIs generally support the current depiction and snow water content is running near two-thirds of average for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. During subsequent weeks, the drought depiction will be reassessed across California. Although much of the precipitation this past week fell along the coast or over the Cascades, a reassessment of longer term SPIs dating back 6 to 12 months supported removal of the D2 (severe) drought in southwest Oregon. Due in part to recent high-elevation snow and rainfall during the past two weeks, a slight decrease in D3 (extreme) and D4 (exceptional) drought was made to northern and northeast New Mexico. However, widespread D4 persists across southeast New Mexico where dust storms have been quite frequent this month and soil moisture remains in the lowest one percentile…
The severe weather outbreak that affected the Southeast Region began across the Lower Mississippi Valley on March 17 and local rainfall amounts exceeded 2 inches across parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi where 1-category improvements were made. More widespread rainfall amounts of more than 1.5 inches increased soil moisture throughout nearly all of Tennessee. Based on this past week’s rainfall of 1 to 3 inches and improving soil moisture conditions, improvements were made to much of Oklahoma and parts of northern to central Texas. Small 2-category improvements were justified for the northeast Texas Panhandle and northwest Oklahoma where the heaviest rainfall occurred. Periods of above normal temperatures, enhanced surface winds, and below normal precipitation this month supported a continued worsening of drought conditions throughout southern Texas. Soil moisture declines rapidly from central to west Texas where indicators support D3 (extreme) to D4 (exceptional) drought categories…
During the next 5 days (March 25 to 29), a pair of low pressure systems are forecast to bring widespread precipitation (0.5 to 2 inches, locally more) to the Lower and Middle Mississippi Valley, Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, and Northeast. Farther to the south across the Florida Peninsula and southern Texas, dry weather is likely to persist. Little to no precipitation is also forecast for the northern Great Plains. Additional snow is expected throughout the Rockies, Intermountain West, and Cascades.
The CPC 6-10 day extended range outlook (valid from March 30 to April 3) favors near normal temperatures for much of the lower 48 in a variable pattern. Probabilities of above normal temperatures are elevated for the northern Plains, Florida, and California. Below normal temperatures are most likely across Alaska. Above normal precipitation is favored for the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, western Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Valley, and Alaska. Increased chances of below normal precipitation are forecast across the Upper Mississippi Valley, much of the Plains, and throughout the West.
Here’s a guest column from Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M that’s running in No-Till Farmer:
The Ogallala Aquifer’s future requires not just adapting to declining water levels, but the involvement of a wide range of participants comfortable with innovation who will help manage the situation and drive future changes.
That was the message heard by more than 200 participants from across eight states who listened in and identified key steps in working together during the recent two-day Virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit. The event was led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, CAP, which includes Texas A&M AgriLife.
The group partners with the Kansas Water Office and USDA’s Agriculture Research Service-supported Ogallala Aquifer Program to coordinate this event with additional support from other individuals from all eight states overlying the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Technological innovation, financial and economic conditions, infrastructure changes, social values – all these factors drive change,” said John Tracy, Ph.D., director of the Texas Water Resources Institute, which is a partnering agency in the Ogallala Aquifer Program.
Often people feel the need to solve the issue of declining groundwater across many parts of the aquifer, when in fact, what is needed is to look at how we manage change, Tracy said. Adaptive management is about driving the change — realizing it is coming and trying to affect what is happening rather than just responding.
“So, large regions of the Ogallala are going to run out of water, particularly in the Southern High Plains – how are we going to embrace that and not just respond to the change?” he said. “Two important factors: first, this summit; have productive and transparent dialogue to move forward.
“The second thing we need to embrace is rethinking how we approach the changes happening in the Ogallala — this is not a problem to be solved; this is a situation to be managed. We must move into the mindset of changing programs in order to get out in front of the situation. One of the most important activities is looking forward to how we drive this conversation and turn talk into action through consensus building that is the product of shared dialogue amongst all of us.”
Meeting of the Minds
An inaugural eight-state summit, led by the Ogallala Water CAP and Kansas Water Office in 2018 focused on what actions were happening or could happen in terms of field management, science and, to some extent, policy.
After the 2018 summit, participants across the eight states helped lead the integration and merging of technology, the expansion of the Master Irrigator program into more states, as well as the development of new policies and incentives to support more conservation and other collaborative efforts. These efforts are helping develop a broader understanding of actions needed to address the region’s critical water issues.
The 2021 summit was intentionally framed to engage a broader community of actors.
Joining the conversation were representatives of energy co-ops, lenders, producers, federal agencies in each state, youth, non-profits, policymakers, commodity groups, tech and irrigation equipment dealers and multinational companies. Participants identified other groups, including absentee landowners and tribal representatives, that should be invited and engaged as a focus area of the conversation at a future summit event.
Key messages that surfaced from the two days of conversations were:
– Change is imperative to be sustainable. You must be adaptive, not reactive. Transition takes time.
– Learn from each other using inter-regional, interstate and peer-to-peer planning.
– Be willing to experiment with new ideas.
– The power of data drives good policy and real-time decision making for producers and helps break down silos.
– Water is a basic critical infrastructure; we need enough water to support our rural economy, but all industries are dependent on water and it affects the overall economy.
– Producers carry the brunt of what we talk about financially, and keeping them profitable as long as possible must be a priority.
– Engage and invest in youth. Invite them to join and foster conversations that instill a conservation mindset not just among their peers but with a wide range of stakeholders.
Changing the Mindset
The path forward begins with creating interest and providing education to the next generation of both producers and water conservation leaders. Fostering the transfer of knowledge between generations and developing leadership skills to position youth to step into groundwater district and other community leadership roles will be key.
David Smith, 4-H2O program coordinator with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Bryan-College Station, described how the Texas 4-H Water Ambassadors program is creating water stewardship leaders.
The program provides an opportunity for youth to gain insight into water law, policy, planning and management, and potential career paths as they interact with representatives from state water agencies, educators, researchers, policymakers and water resource managers.
But education must also take place in the fields. It must provide an organized pathway where producers can find actions and dedicate the time needed to make a difference. Producer-to-producer learning approaches in partnership with university and industry, such as the Nebraska and Oklahoma Testing Ag Performance Solutions program, have been particularly effective.
Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., summit program chair and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director, Amarillo, said the adoption of technology can’t be taken for granted. Looking ahead, tech development and research must grapple with the human dimension of technology adoption.
“Technology will race ahead, but it will stay on the shelf until and unless we devise new ways to foster its adoption,” Auvermann said. “Using even a little bit more water than needed is a form of crop insurance and asking producers to rely on new technology to cut back on that water use increases the risk that they, their insurers and their lenders perceive.”
C.E. Williams, Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District general manager, White Deer, said when producers think about growing a crop, their concern shouldn’t be about bushels per acre — water is the limiting factor. They need to understand and invest in the technology that will ensure they are putting every drop in the right place.
“All the inputs you put in are important, but the bottom line is water,” Williams said. “Why did we use it? It is like money. You spend it; it is gone. What was your bottom line per water use? Rather than thinking of production in terms of bushels per acre, we should be thinking in terms of how many bushels per acre-inch or acre-foot of water used.”
Every drop saved adds up
We need to find a way to provide access to broad audience about the actions of many successful innovators who are having success with different precision management technologies and strategies, said Chuck West, Thornton Distinguished Chair in the Texas Tech University Department of Plant and Soil Science, Lubbock.
“There are a lot of little decisions that people can make all along the way that add up to considerable water savings,” West said.
Katie Ingels, director of communications with the Kansas Water Office, said several some of their Water Tech Farm producers are seeing the advantages of tech adoption, where a combination of slight adjustments in practice or integrating a new tool or strategy and related decisions each contribute some savings of money, time or water.
“There’s a mindset out there among some growers that they can’t make a tremendous difference because they are a smaller operation with only a few wells,” said panelist Cory Gilbert, founder of On Target Ag Solutions. “Every single system that adds to the acre-foot savings turns into a very big number very quickly in terms of conservation.”
Panelist Matt Long, producer and seed supplier, Leoti, Kansas, said water conservation is a quality of life issue.
“If you look at the communities you can see which ones are vibrant and they are the ones with a stable water supply that can support industry beyond cropping,” Long said. “Conserving water isn’t just about there being water for the future; it’s about having a community for the future. We have to have enough water to keep the people to keep the community.”
But at the same time, Auvermann said, communities need to be mindful of their water use.
“We city folks need to look no further than our front lawns to see why we’re in the pickle we’re in,” Auvermann said. “We run water down the curb to make sure our home’s appearance doesn’t suffer. Water is insurance for all of us.”
Building a Path Forward
Amy Kremen, Ogallala Water CAP project manager, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University, said a continuing theme throughout the meeting was, “With limited water in the High Plains, the question is less about production that needs to feed the world’s population of 8 billion, it’s about keeping rural communities vital. We need to give people more flexible options that allow them to make decisions related to water use that are to their economic best advantage.”
Quality of life in these smaller communities, whether they are in Kansas or Texas or any of the states the Ogallala Aquifer supports, is what is important.
“We don’t want to dry up that life,” Kremen said. “We are all in this together. And together, we will come up with solutions better than any of us individually.”
Decisions must center on making conservation economical for agriculture producers, both short-term and with long-term sustainability, providing not only for the next generations on the farm, but for the sustainability of the local communities they support.
“We need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations,” Auvermann said. “We need to talk candidly and be willing to entertain new, unfamiliar ideas. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, but it’s not as though we’ve not been making them up to this point. Fear of making mistakes keeps us from innovating. Our dialogue has to be generous, congenial and optimistic to overcome that. We have to be trustworthy ourselves, and we have to be willing to trust.”
People are hungry to have these conversations, said Meagan Schipanski, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University and Ogallala Water CAP codirector.
“We need to have them happen in public, mini-summits or regional conversations,” Schipanski said. “We need to take on a stewardship that meets producer and community needs.”
From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Max Levy):
Skeptics and public health officials dueled over the issue of water fluoridation during Wednesday’s meeting of the Loveland Utility Commission, which last heard similar concerns in 2014.
The skeptics failed to sway the commission, however, which voted at the suggestion of Loveland Water and Power director Joe Bernosky to recommend the city continue its practice of water fluoridation.
An anti-fluoridation panel spoke first, led by Traudl Renner, whose comments before the City Council in October prompted the meeting. She argued that emerging science has called into question the safety of fluoridation, which Loveland has undertaken since 1954.
She cited a study that indicated fluoride could damage the immune system (a panelist supporting fluoridation qualified this by saying the quoted section considered very high doses of the element)…
She also questioned the effectiveness of ingested fluoride in preventing tooth decay, which is the reason why communities such as Loveland introduce fluoride compounds into their water.
Renner and fellow anti-fluoride panelist Kathryn Jordan also brought up how accidents at water treatment facilities occasionally cause dangerous amounts of fluoride to be introduced into drinking water.
Joe Bernosky, director of Loveland Water and Power, later said he and water utilities manager Roger Berg were not aware of any such accidents having ever occurred in the city.
Jordan questioned the expense of programs such as Loveland’s, and asked why the city wouldn’t receive the chemical, which she said is the byproduct of certain industrial processes, for free…
Chris Neurath, research director for the American Environmental Health Studies Project, said studies also suggest the element is neurotoxic and notably dangerous for pregnant women and young children…
Neurath’s characterization of multiple studies was challenged by fluoridation advocates, particularly pediatrician Patricia Braun and dentist William Bailey of the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. The latter called water fluoridation an “ideal public health measure.”
“There’s nothing that you have to remember to do,” he said. “You don’t have to make an appointment. You don’t have to stand in line. You don’t have to go to the doctor. All you have to do is drink and use the water. It’s inexpensive. It helps tremendously with dental disease.”
“Community fluoridation is the most cost-effective and far-reaching strategy we have to prevent cavities,” Braun said, adding that tooth decay was the number one reason she saw children going into surgery.
Braun and Katya Mauritson, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s dental director, also spoke about the savings in medical expenses seen by communities that fluoridate their water, with Mauritson estimating that Loveland’s program saves residents more than $2 million in medical bills every year.
Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the city keep up its water fluoridation program.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for March 24, 2021 via the NRCS.
From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):
OK is first step toward dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek
The U.S. Forest Service on Monday approved an application from the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs for geotechnical drilling in the Homestake Valley, one of the first steps toward building a new dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek.
The approval allows the cities, operating together as Homestake Partners, to drill 10 bore samples up to 150 feet deep and for crews on the ground to collect geophysical data. The goal of the work, which is expected to begin in late summer and last 50 to 60 days, is a “fatal flaw” feasibility study to determine whether the soil and bedrock could support a dam and reservoir.
The project, known as Whitney Reservoir, would be located near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles south of Red Cliff. Various configurations of the project show it holding between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of water. The area is home to a rare kind of groundwater-fed wetland with peat soils known as a fen.
Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the project despite receiving a total of 775 comments on the drilling proposal during the scoping period. According to the public scoping comment summary, the most common topics commenters had concerns about included the potential loss of wilderness, the destruction of fens and wetlands, impacts to water quality and disturbance to wildlife.
But just 80 letters — about 10% — were individual comments that the Forest Service considered substantive and specific to the geotechnical investigation. Most comments were form-letter templates from organizations such as Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop or pertained to concerns about the Whitney Reservoir project as a whole, not the geotechnical drilling.
“A lot of the public comments were pertaining to a reservoir, and the proposal is not for a reservoir; it’s for just those 10 geotechnical bore holes,” Veldhuis said.
Many commenters also said the level of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act wasn’t appropriate and questioned why the proposal was granted a categorical exclusion, rather than undergoing the more rigorous Environmental Analysis typical of big projects on Forest Service land. Veldhuis said the geotechnical investigation, a common occurrence on public lands, didn’t rise to the level of an EA; that could come later with any reservoir proposal.
“If the future holds any additional sort of proposal, then that would trigger a brand-new analysis with additional rounds of public comments,” she said. “Any future proposals for anything more would undergo an even bigger environmental analysis than this underwent.”
The proposed Whitney Reservoir would pump water from lower Homestake Creek back to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. The idea of expanding the intrastate plumbing system to take more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River over to thirsty and growing Front Range cities doesn’t sit well with many people and organizations.
Wilderness Workshop issued a news release saying it would oppose the reservoir project every step of the way. The organization also launched an online petition Monday to rally opposers, which had already garnered more than 200 signatures as of Monday evening.
“We would like to see the Forest Service change course,” said Juli Slivka, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director. The decision was discouraging, she said, but Wilderness Workshop will continue pressuring the federal agency. “The idea of moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range is not very appreciated out here.”
Eagle River MOU
But Front Range municipalities are not the only ones set to benefit from a new water-storage project. The Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding lays out a plan for both Front Range and Western Slope entities to develop water in the upper Eagle River basin. The agreement, signed in 1998, provides 20,000 acre-feet of water a year to Homestake Partners and 10,000 acre-feet a year to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts, known collectively in the MOU as the “Reservoir Company.”
The Reservoir Company is not an applicant in the drilling proposal and none of the Western Slope entities that are parties to the MOU submitted comments on the drilling proposal.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, said the water provider supports Homestake Partners’ right to pursue an application for their water.
“We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total,” Johnson said in an email.
The Forest Service also determined that impacts to wetlands from the drilling are negligible. Homestake Partners plans to place temporary mats across wetland areas to protect vegetation and soils from the people and machinery crossing Homestake Creek. In a June letter, a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the work did not require a permit from that agency.
The Forest Service also conducted a biological assessment and found that the drilling would not impact endangered Canada lynx.
This story ran in the March 23 edition of The Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced the commencement of a public comment process today on a proposed plan to designate the main stem of the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado as “over-appropriated.” An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system.
Colorado water law is driven by a system of “prior-appropriation” or a first in time, first in right water right system. The system is designed for Colorado’s semi-arid climate to fairly and efficiently distribute the state’s limited water supply for the beneficial use of Coloradans. If a river system, such as the Yampa River, at times has insufficient supply to provide water to all decreed uses, then additional measures to protect those decree uses are necessary.
“The Yampa River is an incredibly important resource for Northwest Coloradans. It sustains our communities, farms, ranches, wildlife, outdoor recreation and power supplies,” said Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, Colorado Division of Water Resources. “However, the combination of continued diversions by senior water rights and recent appropriations, along with recent climatic conditions, such as sustained drought, indicates a strong potential that the mainstem of the Yampa River meets the criteria of being “over-appropriated” and requires more careful administration to ensure senior water right holders are able to properly use their legal water rights. We want to make sure our water users and community are knowledgeable on this change in the river and are educated on the potential changes that may occur as water is developed in the Yampa River valley.”
The effect of this designation is the requirement that new well permits in the affected area will require an evaluation of their potential to cause injury to surface water rights and in many cases will need to secure a replacement supply of water to mitigate the impacts of their pumping through an “augmentation plan” before being issued a well permit by the Division of Water Resources.
“We understand this new well permitting process will be a change for water users and those looking to develop water in Yampa Valley,” Light added. “I want to assure community members that my office and our Division is here to assist you in these new measures as we all work towards equitably managing our scarce but critical water resources.”
Following the formal notice of this recommendation, which involves notifying members of the Division 6 Substitute Water Supply Plans (SWSP) Notification List and additional community input, the State Engineer and Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, will work with Erin Light to determine next steps, which may include additional public outreach. Rein will not make a final determination on the proposed “over-appropriated” designation until he is satisfied that the water users fully understand the effect of the designation.
Having a river system designated as “over-appropriated” is not a new concept in Colorado. In fact, only a small minority of river systems in Colorado are not considered to be over-appropriated. The South Platte, Rio Grande, and Arkansas River systems with their heavy agricultural and municipal and industrial water users have long been considered “over-appropriated.”
To submit comments on or any questions about the proposed plan please contact Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, at email@example.com or 970-879-0272 Ext. 3.
From Water For Colorado:
Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, a trickle begins. Humble, quiet, fragile, this small trickle winds and grows — fed by snowpack — into the mighty Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon. This river and its canyons have been sacred to Indigenous communities for millennia, inspired generations of explorers, and form the lifeblood of the American West.
This water — that flows from the Colorado Rockies and into the dry, red canyons of Western Colorado and Utah, across tribal lands, through Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Arizona, and reaches toward the Colorado River Delta in the Sea of Cortez — is endangered. Like many of the world’s waterways, it faces the growing challenges of climate change and population growth.
But the river has endured. Today, on World Water Day, we take the opportunity to remember that no matter where we live, water is a vital resource to our environment, communities, businesses, families, and everyday lives — and as such, we must work together to protect it.
Water in Colorado impacts people everywhere.
The Colorado River, our state’s namesake river, originates in our high country but it, and its tributaries, directly support the people and wildlife of seven U.S. states, 29 tribal nations and Mexico, with $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million U.S. jobs. Not only that, but over 40 million people depend on the Colorado River system for clean, safe, and reliable drinking water. River-related recreation — which contributes $19 billion annually to Colorado’s economy alone — feeds our souls, our lifestyle, and our identity in the American West. If you’ve ever eaten lettuce in the winter, carved down the ski slopes, or cracked open a local beer, you’ve interacted with the Colorado River. Can you imagine living in the West without this hardworking waterway?
Without our rivers, everything changes.
Right now, the future of the Colorado River is precarious. Water is under extreme threat from a growing population, increasing demands of agriculture and industry, and the worsening impacts of climate change. Today, we both celebrate what water provides us and reflect on what we must do to protect it — here in Colorado, and around the world.
In households, schools, and workplaces water can mean health, hygiene, dignity, and productivity. In cultural, religious, and spiritual places water can mean a connection with nature, community, and oneself. In natural spaces, water can mean peace, rejuvenation, and preservation.
By celebrating all the different ways water benefits our lives, we value water in Colorado and beyond.
Coloradans are taking strides to protect our water.
The Colorado Water Plan recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and has seen huge successes in protecting our waters. The plan has set the first-ever statewide urban water conservation target to be achieved by cities and towns, prioritizing water conservation as never before. Annual funding for healthy rivers and watershed restoration is increasing — but more is needed to ensure that the environmental and recreational priorities in the plan are implemented. And Coloradans have, for two years in a row, voted to fund the conservation of our water through the ballot at both the local and state levels; these are first steps toward meeting a large funding shortfall.
If anything is clear: Coloradans understand the importance of water in our state — more so now than ever before, as the impacts of COVID-19 highlight hardships facing our communities and our water. If we don’t protect flows, the simple and essential act of washing our hands could become costly and uncertain. If we don’t proactively manage resource distribution, the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic could affect farmers, ranchers, and recreation guides long after life returns to normal.
The work is never done, and the future of the Colorado River is far from certain. It is not the responsibility of one person, one government, or even one state to prioritize water and ensure lasting flow. We each need to take responsibility, and by working together, we can protect not only running taps and irrigated fields but our rivers and the Colorado way of life.
What’s your Colorado Water story?
On World Water Day this year, take a minute to think about your relationship with water in Colorado. On what stretches of riverbanks have you gathered, watched the sun come up, fished in cold eddies, or paddled through aspen groves? How do you honor and protect water in your home and community? Has a project funded by Colorado’s Water Plan come to your area and restored a place you love? Whether it’s for recreation, community gathering, business, or one of the hundreds of other reasons we love water, we hope you can honor and celebrate water in our state today and every day.
Head over to Water for Colorado’s Instagram page and tag us — alongside the hashtag #Water2Me — to share your water story.
From The Aurora Sentinel (Grand Stringer):
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the cities’ plan Monday to drill into the high-alpine Homestake Valley and test whether the underlying geology could support a reservoir diverting water from the Colorado River to the growing municipalities.
It’s an early, key step in the effort to build the new reservoir, which would be called the Whitney Reservoir, in the National Forest about six miles southwest of the town of Red Cliff.
The cities have long held the water rights to build the new reservoir and divert the water, usually destined for the beleaguered Colorado River, to thirsty residents in Aurora and Colorado Springs.
With approval in tow, Aurora and Colorado Springs have the green light to test for several possible reservoir sites in the Homestake Valley.
Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, told the Sentinel last year the reservoir could be built in about 25 years if the complicated approval process pans out. The new reservoir in the Homestake Valley could hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Forest Service…
Notably, the project requires environmental impact studies and possibly an act of Congress, according to Baker, to shave up to 500 acres from the popular Holy Cross Wilderness. However, he added that the plan is far from set in stone.
The plan has drawn scrutiny from conservation groups concerned about devastating the ancient wetland habitant that retains water — an increasingly scare commodity in the West. Various endangered fish species would be downriver from the dam.
The Colorado River itself has seen reduced flows in recent decades, in part because of human-induced climate change. Many environmentalists argue that as much water as possible should be left in the river, which multiple states and Mexico rely on…
Baker said in an email that the drilling study is “routine.”
“We value the collaborative process involved in exploring alternatives that minimize environmental impacts, are cost effective, can be permitted by local, state, and federal agencies, and which will meet the water requirements of the project partners,” he said.
As reported by Colorado Public Radio, the project has also run into early opposition from central Colorado and Western Slope communities.
Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range,” according to CPR.
From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth and Jason Blevins):
The decision to let the Front Range water utilities move forward in taking more Western Slope water is only one of countless regulatory hurdles for a future Whitney Reservoir, but conservation groups say they are adamantly against any new water transfers to suburban water users across the Continental Divide and will oppose every approval step.
Colorado Headwaters, which opposes any new dams and water transfers, said it expected the approval but remains steadfast against any progress on the project. “We don’t think it will ever be built,” president Jerry Mallett said. “They haven’t done a transmountain diversion in 45 years. Water on the Colorado River is dropping from climate change. We don’t want to lose those natural resources.”
The decision from White River said the approval applies only to drilling 10 test bore holes the utilities applied for, and does not have bearing on any future decisions should the cities pursue the dam north of Camp Hale. The proposed reservoir would hold about 20,000 acre feet…
The cities partnered with Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation District, Vail Resorts and other Western Slope water users in 1998 in a deal that gave water rights to Eagle River communities and developed the 3,300 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir on the Climax Mine property.
The 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding included plans for possible reservoirs along Homestake Creek. The agreement — which brought together a diverse group of downstream users as “Homestake Partners” in the Eagle River Joint Use Water Project — also affirmed that no partner could object to a new reservoir plan if it met the memorandum’s agreement to “minimize environmental impacts” and could be permitted by local, state and federal agencies.
The proposed Whitney Reservoir project is not new and “represents our continued pursuit to develop water rights in existence for many years,” Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Kemp said.
Kemp said the cities have developed alternatives to building a new reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage but those other options have not been proposed or discussed publicly. The results of the test boring and geotechnical work will help the two cities vet possible alternatives…
Environmental groups oppose new dams on Homestake in part because they would take water out of tributaries that feed the already-depleted Colorado River. But they are also focused on preserving complex wetlands called “fens” that develop over the long term and support diverse wildlife. They say fens cannot easily be recreated in any mitigation work that utilities traditionally include in dam proposals.
The headwaters group also questions why the Forest Service would encourage any steps when completion of a dam appears impossible. The utility proposals include shrinking the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area to create dam access, “which Congress will never approve,” Mallett said.
From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Max Levy):
The city’s water utility introduces a fluoride compound into its drinking water to raise the concentration of the element to 0.7 milligrams per liter. About 0.2 milligrams of fluoride are naturally present in the water before it passes through the Loveland Water Treatment Plant.
Cities commonly add fluoride to their drinking water because of its effects on dental health. Loveland began fluoridating its water in 1954. Since then, the consensus among public health experts has been that fluoride is not harmful at the levels achieved by fluoridation.
The efficacy of water fluoridation is supported by the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Dental Association, American Water Works Association, U.S. Public Health Service and other agencies.
In October, Loveland resident Traudl Renner told the council that she and others believe water fluoridation causes various health problems and suppresses the immune system.
Council members ultimately agreed with a suggestion by City Manager Steve Adams that the topic be brought before the Loveland Utilities Commission, which advises the council on matters related to the city’s water and electric utilities.
The commission last addressed the fluoridation question in 2014 — after weighing presentations from health care professionals as well as citizens who voiced concerns similar to Renner’s, it voted to recommend the city continue adding fluoride to its water.
Wednesday’s meeting will be structured in a similar way, starting with presentations from a fluoride-skeptic panel, followed by a panel of doctors and representatives of agencies that support the practice.
Loveland Water and Power director Joe Bernosky said he expects the commission will vote to recommend whether the city should continue fluoridating its water, and he will write a memo summarizing the meeting to be reviewed by the council…
The Zoom webinar will be accessible at http://zoom.us/s/98404604379. To make a video comment, Zoom attendees should use the “raise your hand” feature and wait to be unmuted.
Tuesday’s agenda packet can be viewed and printed at http://cilovelandco.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Org=Cal&Id=339.
From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):
Diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will be ramping up for the irrigation season and releases from the Aspinall Unit will be adjusted to keep Gunnison River flows near the current level of 400 cfs. There could be fluctuations in the river throughout the day whenever Tunnel diversions increase.
On Wednesday, March 24th testing of the Crystal powerplant will result in a brief period of high flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge. Crystal releases will be increased up to 1700 cfs over a couple hours before decreasing back to the current release rate.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for March.
Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 400 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. As Tunnel diversions increase, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are expected to stay near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
From Vox (Lili Pike):
Rising temperatures and lack of rain threaten to decrease water supplies and bring more wildfires this summer and in the years to come.
The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records.
Western states are already facing water shortages, and with the National Weather Service projecting that the dry stretch will continue, the problems that accompany droughts are likely to pile up heading into this summer…
That last drought also led to other fallouts: billions of dollars in economic losses as farmers were forced to let fields lie fallow and a 50 percent drop in electricity production from dams. It also contributed to the death of over 100 million trees, which fuels bigger wildfires, like the ones that ripped through the West last summer. If the current drought continues, similarly stark consequences lie ahead.
Unfortunately, these droughts in rapid succession aren’t an aberration but rather a sign of what’s to come. Climate change is driving more severe droughts and spurring longer, more troubling “megadroughts” across the Western states. Here’s what you need to know about what the future holds for these states as temperatures rise.
The latest episode in a megadrought
This time last year, the West was relatively drought-free after a wet winter in 2019. But by now, the region has swung from 27 percent in drought to 77 percent, according to the latest data from the US Drought Monitor released March 11.
Over the past year, the drought has been building due to a lack of rain, a weak summer monsoon in the Southwest, and intense summer heat waves. “If I had to pinpoint one thing that really drove the drought to where we are right now, it was the heat of last summer,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center.
High summer temperatures sucked the moisture out of the soil and evaporated water resources.
The Four Corners, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet, has been the epicenter of this drought, Fuchs said. The dark splotch on the map below shows that those states as well as Nevada have been experiencing the most intense drought.
Now the West is in the winter wet season, but due, in part, to the La Niña weather pattern, too little rain and snow is falling to make up for the preceding dry months.
Some rain and snow may still fall, but the National Weather Service’s seasonal forecast projects that drought conditions will persist across the Western US through May, the end of the current forecast period. “We do have some time to maybe put a dent in some of these deficits that we’ve seen through the winter,” said Fuchs. “Now the idea that we are going to catch up completely — that’s going to be tough.”
The trajectory of this drought episode remains unclear, but scientists say that it is actually part of a bigger megadrought — a decades-long dry spell, punctuated by severe droughts. This megadrought began around 2000, and as the chart below shows, the majority of land in the West has been in some level of drought ever since.
To understand why the West is in a megadrought, the role of climate change, and what it means for the region’s future, we first need to look at some historical clues.
What’s behind longer and more intense droughts? Climate change.
Based on data from tree rings and other ecological records of weather and climate patterns of the last few thousand years, we know that the West is no stranger to drought. In an April 2020 tree ring study published in Science, researchers found that several megadroughts occurred between 850 and 1600 — before humans started pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These droughts were likely caused by cool temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that prevented rainfall from reaching the Southwest.
While natural variability has been a factor in recent droughts, the current megadrought is also being driven by climate change, according to the study. Higher temperatures, caused by greenhouse gases, have increased evaporation and decreased precipitation in the spring across the region. The researchers were able to identify that climate change accounted for 46 percent of the drought’s severity.
Without climate change, there still would have been a drought, but “anthropogenic warming was critical for placing 2000–2018 on a trajectory consistent with the most severe past megadroughts,” they wrote. The current megadrought, which they traced from 2000 through 2018, was the second driest 19-year episode in the 1,200-year record.
This finding is not just important for how we understand the current crisis, but also for the coming decades in the Western US as temperatures continue to climb.
The latest National Climate Assessment, authored by 13 US federal agencies in 2018, laid out a grim future for the Southwestern states: Rising temperatures will increase the likelihood of megadroughts in the region and make droughts more frequent and severe, according to the scientific literature cited.
While annual precipitation in the Southwest may not necessarily decrease, the hotter annual temperatures will burn off more moisture, contributing to droughts, the researchers explained in the Science tree ring study.
From The Kiowa County Press (Chris Sorensen):
Following last weekend’s storm system that brought wet snow or rain to much of eastern Colorado, the state’s drought map has shown some signs of improvement according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
The western half of the state saw little moisture and virtually no change in drought conditions. Much of the area is in extreme or exceptional drought, though parts of the southwest are experiencing severe conditions. Eastern portions of Jackson and Grand counties were on the edge of the storm system and move from extreme to severe drought.
The most notable improvements came in northeast Colorado, where areas of extreme drought received enough moisture to fall to severe or, in some locations, moderate conditions.
Central Larimer County moved from severe conditions to abnormally dry, along with portions of northern Weld and northwest Logan County. Severe drought remains in portions of Grand, Teller, El Paso, Pueblo, Crowley, Kiowa, Lincoln and Elbert counties.
In the southeast, severe conditions remain in Las Animas, Baca, and Prowers counties. Central Kiowa County, centered on Eads, had been the sole location on the Eastern Plains to remain in exceptional drought, however, after receiving an inch and a half or more of rain, the area moved into extreme drought. Most other portions of the County that had been in extreme conditions moved to severe drought.
[The National Drought Mitigation Center] reports that, across the region, the weekend’s strong and slow-moving low pressure system brought widespread heavy precipitation – more than two inches liquid equivalent – to northeast Colorado, southeast Wyoming, southwest South Dakota, northern Kansas, and much of Nebraska. Denver received 27.1 inches of snowfall March 13-14, making it the fourth largest snowfall on record.
The heavy snowfall brought snow water content close to average for mid-March across most of Colorado and Wyoming.
Overall, 15 percent of Colorado is in exceptional drought, while another 24 percent is experiencing exceptional conditions. Severe drought covers 33 percent of the state, with an addition 24 percent in moderate drought. Just four percent of the state is abnormally dry, and there are no drought-free areas.
From The Summit Daily (Taylor Sienkiewicz):
Following last weekend’s major snowstorm, Colorado’s snowpack has improved, but it still lags behind the 30-year median.
The percent of normal snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack — in all eight of the state’s major river basins has increased since early March, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, but five basins remain below normal levels for this time of year.
The Upper Colorado basin, which Summit County falls into, has increased its snow-water equivalent by 4 percentage points since March 5 and is currently at 89% of normal according to the Conservation Service. Breaking things down even further, the latest numbers show that the snow-water equivalent is 87% of the 30-year median at Copper Mountain and 94% at Hoosier Pass.
While the snowpack isn’t quite where it normally is this time of year, the snow has picked up recently. National Weather Service reports show that March snowfall is above average with 12.5 inches tallied so far at the Dillon weather station. Normal snowfall accumulation recorded at the station through March 18 is 9.5 inches. March’s above-average snowfall follows snowfall that was below normal levels in December, January and February…
“That Blue River above Dillon SnoTel group … as of yesterday is showing 88% of normal,” Huse said in reference to Summit County’s snowpack level. “It went up with this last storm, maybe by an inch of snow-water equivalent, just not as much as areas east of the divide. So it got a little boost from this storm, still below normal, but a little better than it was.”
Treste Huse explained that the snowpack in Summit County looks similar to 2018 levels, which had the lowest snowpack of the previous five years. Huse said that by mid-April, hydrologists will be able to better gauge what the snowpack level will mean for the rest of the year in terms of water supplies, drought and other environmental factors and added that Summit County’s 88% snowpack “isn’t bad” for now…
Huse added that the drought severity in Summit County has been improving over the past month and a half, but things didn’t change this week. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which uses a scale of drought intensity that ranges from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought, the southern half of Summit County is in a D2 severe drought and the northern half is in a D3 extreme drought.