#Drought news (March 4, 2021): Portions of the High Plains in eastern #Colorado and central #Wyoming recorded above-normal precipitation over the past week

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

The current U.S. Drought Monitor period was highlighted by a large swath of heavy rain that started in northeast Texas and progressed northeast into the Mid-Atlantic. In this area, widespread reports of 200-400% of normal precipitation took place, with some areas of Kentucky having widespread 6-8 inch amounts. Dry conditions dominated much of the West and especially the Southwest and into the Plains. Some active weather in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains brought with it rain and snow, helping to boost seasonal snow totals. Temperatures during the week were cooler than normal over the West with departures of 6-9 degrees below normal widespread, while temperatures were above normal from the Plains eastward with departures of 9-12 degrees above normal over much of Alabama…

High Plains

Dry conditions dominated the region, with only portions of central South Dakota, central and eastern North Dakota, portions of the High Plains in eastern Colorado and central Wyoming recording above-normal precipitation. Temperatures were above normal over most of the area, with below-normal temperatures farther west into Wyoming and Colorado. The greatest departures were in eastern South Dakota where temperatures were 6-9 degrees above normal and northwest Wyoming where temperatures were 12-15 degrees below normal for the week. Improvements were made in north central Wyoming, where areas of extreme and severe drought were showing a good snow season to allow for a reduction in drought intensity. Severe drought was expanded in far northeast North Dakota and into far northwest Minnesota…

West

Dry conditions dominated areas from California to New Mexico with just a few pockets of above-normal precipitation over central Colorado, central Wyoming, the Pacific Northwest, and northern Montana. Temperatures were cooler than normal over much of the region with much of the Great Basin and into Wyoming recording temperatures 9-12 degrees below normal. After a good month of precipitation along with the most recent precipitation in the area, many areas of Oregon saw improvements to the drought status, with long-term issues still being monitored. Much of California is enduring its second consecutive dry winter, with most areas below 75% of normal snowpack for this time of year. Many water agencies were discussing water conservation measures, with the North Marin Water District considering both voluntary and mandatory water conservation orders. Moderate drought was expanded over areas of southern California where drought is beginning to develop again after a fairly dry winter. Improvements to abnormally dry, moderate and severe drought conditions were made in Idaho while abnormally dry conditions were improved over western Montana. Eastern Montana conditions continued to deteriorate with an expansion of moderate and severe drought this week. A recent winter storm in and around the Denver metro area and areas to the west allowed for improvements to the extreme drought conditions there as snow totals for the current water year were up over 100%…

South

There was a contrast in temperatures over the region; west Texas and Oklahoma were below normal while areas of southern Mississippi were greater than 10 degrees above normal for the week. Heavy rains fell from northeast Texas through much of southern Arkansas, northern Mississippi, and all of Tennessee this week, with areas from southern Arkansas to western Tennessee recording 400% of normal precipitation. Dry conditions dominate most of Oklahoma and the central, southern, and western portions of Texas. Improvements were made to the moderate drought over northeast Texas and southeast Oklahoma this week. A reassessment was done over southwest Oklahoma, removing the lingering extreme drought there. Exceptional drought was removed over far west Texas as the El Paso area had recorded enough precipitation recently to allow for improvement in intensity. Much of Texas saw degradations with dryness, especially over the last 4 months, dominating the indicators. Coupled with the dryness, the recent cold snap also has impacted winter wheat, with the regional agronomist stating that the drought has probably caused more loss to winter wheat across the region than the recent weather events. Early estimated losses from the recent winter storm are at least $600 million, with $230 million in damages to citrus, $228 million to livestock, and $150 million to vegetable crops in Texas. An area of extreme drought was added in the far western panhandle of Oklahoma, bridging a gap where extreme drought was being depicted in both New Mexico and Colorado…

Looking Ahead

Over the next 5-7 days, it is anticipated that precipitation totals will be greatest along the West Coast from central California into the Pacific Northwest. The Plains and Midwest as well as the Rocky Mountains may see a more active pattern, with the greatest amounts of precipitation expected over the northern Plains and Upper Midwest and portions of the central Plains. Dry conditions will dominate the Mid-Atlantic and into the Tennessee River Valley while the Florida peninsula may have several opportunities for precipitation.

The 6-10 day outlooks show the greatest chances of above-normal precipitation centered on the Midwest, with much of the country showing above-normal chances of above-normal precipitation. Coastal areas of the Southeast and into the peninsula of Florida are showing the greatest chances of below-normal precipitation. There are above-normal chances of above-normal temperatures for most areas east of the Rocky Mountains, with the greatest chances in the Midwest. Above-normal chances of below-normal temperatures are expected over much of the West, with coastal areas having the greatest chances.

Here’s the one week change map ending March 2, 2021.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending March 2, 2021.

Just for grins here are the US Drought Monitor maps for early March for the last few years.

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#Drought news (March 4, 2021): Historic drought deepens in the West as window for rain, snow closes — The Washington Post #runoff

From The Washington Post (Becky Bollinger and Andrew Freedman):

Water supply and wildfire concerns grow for the dry season

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which has published weekly maps since 2000, the 2020 drought is the worst, in terms of its geographical scope, in more than 20 years.

Almost 80 percent of the Western U.S. is in drought, with nearly 42 percent of the region in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

Much of the region experienced developing drought in the summer, following a warm and dry spring. Since then, conditions have deteriorated, and the precipitation deficits continue to build. At its maximum extent in January 2021, 47 percent of the West was in extreme drought or worse. Nearly a quarter of the area was in the worst drought category, an event with a probability frequency of once every 50 to 100 years.

February did bring an active weather pattern with it. The Pacific Northwest received more than 10 inches of precipitation last month. Much of the interior Rockies through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado received between 1 and 5 inches of moisture for the month. The Sierra Nevada in California received between 2 and 6 inches, much of that in the form of snow.

West Drought Monitor March 2, 2021.

However, despite the precipitation, some areas are still struggling. Blue outlines in the map below show where snowpack increased last month. The Southwest was much drier in February.

Where the purple outlines overlap on this map, these areas are above average for snowpack now. Outside of the purple outlines, snowpack is still largely below average. Areas outlined in orange experienced a decline in the percentage of average snowpack since the beginning of February.

February precipitation in the West. (National Weather Service) via The Washington Post

And red outlines show the areas where snowpack is extremely low compared to normal. The evidence is clear — February was beneficial for many, but it was not a drought buster, and drought continues to maintain its stranglehold on the West…

Across the interior Rockies, snowpack usually reaches its peak in late March/early April and begins its slow melt — adding water to the rivers and eventually filling the reservoirs. While 2020 snowpack peaked around the time we’d expect, it melted out too fast, thanks to anomalously warm temperatures and no new snowstorms.

Does how it melts make a difference? You bet! Check out this water supply forecast for Lake Powell from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

Water supply forecast for Lake Powell. (Colorado Basin River Forecast Center) via The Washington Post

Forecasts in the blue shading started out a bit below average (the green line is the average supply into Lake Powell). With each passing month, that forecast got a bit lower. And what actually happened was at the very low end of what was forecast (the orange line is the observed supply into Lake Powell for 2020). The actual inflow into Lake Powell was 3.4 million acre feet below average…

Fast forward to a hot and dry summer. With the exception of a couple of isolated locations in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana, most of the West experienced much above average temperatures and below average to record low precipitation for June-September last year.

In the Southwest, July-September typically ranks as the wettest time of year, which is largely a result of the North American Monsoon. Monsoon moisture in the late summer is key for replenishing soil moisture. Without an active monsoon, soils dry out just before the beginning of snow season. And unfortunately, that happened in the fall of 2020.

Soil moisture as of Sept. 2020. (NASA) via The Washington Post

Modeled soil moisture at the end of September shows the extremely dry soils in the West. As we entered the cold season, this soil moisture was “locked in.”

The high elevation ground freezes, and that is the state the soil moisture will be at when the thaw begins in the spring. Start the season with dry soils, and that is the first “bucket” that needs to be filled when the snow starts melting.

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center estimates that much of the Colorado River Basin needs 10 inches or more of precipitation for soil saturation. Averaged over watershed basins, normal snowpack peaks around at around 20-25 inches.

But to get the snowpack needed and cover the soil moisture deficits, these basins would potentially need 120-150 percent of average snowfall for the season. Can we expect that much snowpack this season? Unfortunately, no.

Climate change is playing a significant role in influencing water supplies in the West, with early spring snowmelt, hotter and drier summers and warming winters all acting to exacerbate drought conditions…

This map shows all the stations in the west that measure snowpack. As of Feb. 28, stations colored orange and red have below average snowpack for this time of year. The Sierra Nevadas in California are well below average for snowpack. With a typical peak date of April 1, there is only one month left to add to that snow cover. And considering they receive almost no moisture during the warm season, this month is extra critical.

Snow water equivalents compared to average. (USDA)

For the mountain ranges throughout Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, snowpack is also below average. For the Colorado Headwaters region, there are roughly 45 days until normal peak snowpack, but the likelihood of a normal snowpack is decreasing by the day…

Becky Bolinger is the assistant state climatologist for Colorado and a research scientist at Colorado State University.

2021 #COleg: On tap at capitol: wildfire restoration, underground water storage, new #water funding authority — @WaterEdCO

Colorado state capitol building. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From Water Education Colorado (Larry Morandi):

Colorado lawmakers are considering three major water bills that would help finance wildfire mitigation and forest health projects, study underground water storage for future beneficial use, and create a state enterprise to fund drinking and wastewater projects through fees paid by water utility customers.

A burnt sign on Larimer County Road 103 near Chambers Lake. The fire started in the area near Cameron Peak, which it is named after. The fire burned over 200,000 acres during its three-month run. Photo courtesy of Kate Stahla via the University of Northern Colorado

Wildfire mitigation and forest health

Last year was Colorado’s worst wildfire season ever. The three largest fires on record burned over 600,000 acres. Water providers fear that spring runoff will clog streams and reservoirs with ash and sediment, damaging clean water supplies.

House Bill 1008 is sponsored by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. (Editor’s note: Rep. Arndt is a board member of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News). HB21-1008 (Forest Health Project Financing) aims to help fund local wildfire mitigation and forest health efforts to protect watersheds. It would allow counties, municipalities and special districts to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes to fund wildfire mitigation and forest health projects. It would also make those improvement districts eligible for $50 million from a Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA) bond program, and expand the program’s life by 10 years to last through 2033.

Arndt said districts would be formed voluntarily and noted that any property tax assessments would require voter approval. “The Colorado way,” she said, “opt in.” Catlin, the bill’s co-sponsor, agreed. “This is an opportunity for communities to take some preemptive steps and, if needed, be able to bond through the state to get help and make the payments to take care of the problem.” Keith McLaughlin, CWRPDA executive director, emphasized that “every $1 in fire mitigation efforts saves between $3 and $6 in fire suppression costs.”

The House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee passed the bill unanimously to the House Finance Committee Feb. 22. It will be heard there on March 4.

Water treatment process in Greeley. Graphic via Greeley Water

Underground water storage

Concern with declining water tables and the volume of water leaving the state in excess of compact requirements led Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, a rancher and dryland farmer, to introduce HB21-1043 Study Underground Water Storage Maximum Beneficial Use. The bill would require the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to contract with a state university to study ways to maximize beneficial use of water by storing excess surface flows in aquifers for future use. The study would identify aquifers with storage capacity, funds to pay for storage, specific storage projects, and proposed legislation to implement its recommendations. It would be due to the interim Water Resources Review Committee by Aug. 1, 2022.

While acknowledging the value of underground water storage, some House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee members questioned the need for the study since several similar studies had already been done and at least two large water providers—Denver and Greeley—are already storing water underground. There were also concerns about who would have rights to excess surface flows. Rep. Arndt, committee chair, asked, “Who would get those rights…you can’t just capture excess water?” Rep. Holtorf replied that whoever’s next in line when it reenters the river would gain use to the water; nothing changes the prior appropriation doctrine.

Rep. Holtorf concluded, “I’m not going to say it’s not complicated, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do something to get maximum beneficial use of water that we give away and try to keep it in our state for the beneficial use of everyone.” He had the backing of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Water Congress and Colorado Groundwater Association. The committee passed the bill 9-1 to the House Finance Committee.

A screenshot from the website for Colorado’s Water Plan.

Financing water projects

The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, projects a need to spend an additional $100 million a year for 30 years in state money to fully fund water projects and activities to meet its objectives. Funding to date has come nowhere near that figure, but a bill introduced this session will try to put a dent in it.

SB21-034 (Water Resource Financing Enterprise), sponsored by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, would create the Water Resources Financing Enterprise made up of both the CWRPDA and CWCB board of directors. The new enterprise would provide grants and loans for drinking water, wastewater treatment, and raw water delivery projects. The enterprise could issue revenue bonds to be repaid from fees assessed on drinking water customers of 25 cents per 1,000 gallons of water delivered each month in excess of the first 4,000 gallons. SB21-034 would generate roughly $37 million annually. If passed, it would go on the November 2022 ballot as a legislatively referred measure for approval by voters statewide.

The bill is similar to legislation Sen. Coram introduced last year. That bill was defeated in committee with assurances that it would be studied in greater detail by the interim Water Resources Review Committee. The pandemic, however, wiped out all interim studies. SB21-034 has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and is scheduled to be heard on March 4.

Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at larrymorandi@comcast.net.

In Rapidly #Warming #ColoradoRiver Basin, The Negotiating Table Is Being Set — KUNC #COriver #aridification #DCP

The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Graphic credit: USGS

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The decision of who gets to sit at that table, whose interests are represented, and what’s on the menu is still very much in flux. But the uncertainty isn’t stopping would-be participants from voicing concerns they feel leaders in the southwestern watershed can no longer ignore.

And when it comes to the water supply for 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, the stakes are much higher than a one-night feast.

“Who’s at the existing table?”

Late last year, the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona — made clear that after a federal government-induced year-long pause to negotiations, they were ready to start negotiating future policies.

In a letter dated Dec. 17 to then-Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, water officials gave notice they were “initiating preliminary conversations with one another,” to figure out how to operate the river’s biggest reservoirs.

The talks are focused on creating policy past 2026, when a current set of guidelines established in 2007 expires. The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for the first time addressed the issue of looming water shortages in the basin, and linked the operations of Lakes Powell and Mead. While those who negotiated the agreement slapped each other on the back in Las Vegas, plenty of others in the basin said it failed to truly address the wide range of problems that have plagued the watershed for decades.

When water managers negotiated that major policy overhaul in 2007, the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the watershed were left out.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Daryl Vigil of the Jicarilla-Apache Nation says that’s also true for a landmark 2012 study that calculated water supplies and demands in the basin. According to a letter sent by 17 tribal leaders to the federal government about the 2007 guidelines, it’s only been in the last five years that tribes have seen the federal government meaningfully engage with them on Colorado River issues. Even now, as basin leaders commit to more tribal inclusivity this time around, the mechanism to do so doesn’t currently exist.

“There’s no process at all in the current structure to have inclusivity of tribes,” Vigil said.

Vigil is a co-leader of the Water & Tribes Initiative. The initiative receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage. The project’s main goal is to build capacity of tribes to participate in the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines, Vigil said.

For all the talk of consensus-building in the watershed, up until now it’s only been among a narrow group of players, Vigil said. Many other perspectives, like the river’s cultural and spiritual value or its ecological role in some of the driest reaches of the country, are ignored or rejected.

“Who’s at the existing table? The existing table in terms of policy in the Colorado River truly is controlled by the basin states and the federal government,” Vigil said…

Collectively the tribes hold rights to about 20% of the river’s flow. Combine that with a dwindling supply due to rapidly warming temperatures at the river’s headwaters, and the alarm bells start ringing more loudly…

Tribal leaders aren’t the only people who’ve been summarily excluded in the past. Environmentalists, recreation advocates, scientists and water officials from Mexico have also been left out of various agreements in the past, depending on the issue at hand.

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

Xcel’s plan for $1.7 billion in transmission in eastern #Colorado — The Mountain Town News

Graphic credit: The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Xcel Energy-Colorado and other utilities propose to build 560 miles of additional 345-kilovolt transmission lines across eastern Colorado in the coming decade to get the wind and other resources they need as they close coal plants and meet expanding demand to displace fossil fuels in transportation and buildings.

The $1.7 billion investment would access 5,500 megawatts of new wind and solar power and energy storage for Xcel. Xcel is calling it Colorado’s Power Pathway.

Xcel hopes to get the first segment in service by 2025 and other segments complete in 2026 and 2027—a herculean task, given the slow pace customary to getting approval for transmission before construction actually begins.

Partnering with Xcel are Colorado’s other major electrical utilities: Tri-State Generation & Transmission, Colorado Springs Utilities, Platte River Power Authority, and Black Hills Energy. But Holy Cross Energy, another utility, will also be affected, as it relies upon Xcel’s transmission for delivery to the Aspen-Glenwood Springs-Vail areas.

“Investments in our transmission systems increase grid capacity, strengthen reliability, help us continue our clean energy transition and provide the best possible service for our customers and local communities,” said Alice Jackson, president, Xcel Energy-Colorado. “This new transmission line will support our vision to reduce carbon emissions and deliver 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 and will result in much-needed economic and generation development in the region.”

Tri-State’s participation is contingent on completion of an agreement being worked on. But the agreement in strong enough conceptually that Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive, offered a statement that echoed that of Jackson, but with one small difference. The project would drive investment “in rural communities we serve,” he said. Most of the area of eastern Colorado is served by cooperatives who are members of Tri-State.

Graphic via The Mountain Town News.

In his new book, “How to Avoid Climate Disaster,” Bill Gates likens transmission to freeways and distribution lines to local roads and streets.

The plan envisions five segments that collectively sort of create a box in eastern Colorado. One leg would connect from Fort St. Vain, the gas-powered plant near Greeley, eastward to a new substation near Fort Morgan. This would roughly parallel U.S. Highway 34.

From Fort Morgan and Brush and the Pawnee power plant, which Xcel wants to convert from coal generation to natural gas by 2028, another line would continue eastward to Yuma and then veer south to Burlington and Xcel’s new wind farm at Cheyenne Ridge.

A third segment would continue south along the Kansas border to the vicinity of Lamar. From the Lamar area a fourth leg would then continue north of U.S. Highway 50 and the Arkansas River to the Tundra switching station northeast of Pueblo. The final legal would link Tundra with the Harvest Mile Substation, located southeast of Aurora.

Xcel also identifies a potential transmission line from the Lamar area south to Walsh, which may have Colorado’s very best sustained wind resource. See story, “Windy enough in Dust Bowl land.”

This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com

The project would yield three new substations, expansion of four existing substations, including one previously planned but not yet in service.

Xcel has filed an application with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity. Local land-use approvals will also be required.

The release from Xcel made no mention of a major transmission bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature Sen. Chris Hansen and Rep. Alex Valdez, both Democrats from Denver.

SB21-72 seeks to enable Colorado to meet its clean energy goals by creating a new agency, the Colorado electric transmission authority, with the authority to issue revenues bonds and responsibility to identify and establish transmission corridors within Colorado and coordinate with other entities to establish transmission corridors that connected to out-of-state transmission. The bill would also allow additional classes of transmission utilities to obtain revenue through the colocation of broadband facilities within their existing rights-of-way.

It’s not clear how this bill, if made into law, will affect Xcel’s plans for transmission.