#Drought news (March 11, 2021): One class improvement in a sliver of Costilla County otherwise no change in depiction for #Colorado

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

During the current period, most of the country was dry. There was some precipitation along the Gulf Coast and into the Southeast, with the greatest amounts over southern Georgia. Some storms impacted the Pacific Northwest as well, with coastal areas recording the most precipitation, especially on the coastal regions of far northwest California, southwest Oregon, and northwest Washington. Some scattered showers were recorded over the central Plains and New England, but generally these were not associated with significant precipitation. Temperatures were warmer than normal over much of the northern Plains and into the central Plains and Midwest with temperatures greater than 15 degrees above normal in the Dakotas. This took care of any remaining snows through the region and started the spring thaw on soils. Cooler than normal temperatures were recorded over much of the East and into the South where temperatures were 3-6 degrees below normal for the week. Cooler than normal conditions dominated much of New England with temperatures 9-12 degrees below normal…

High Plains

Dry conditions dominated the region, outside of some showers that impacted eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Warmer than normal conditions were widespread, with the Dakotas into Nebraska recording temperatures that were 15-20 degrees above normal for the week. The Army Corps of Engineers are considering conservation measures on the Missouri River basin if dry conditions continue. The 2021 calendar year runoff in the basin is anticipated at 21.8 MAF, or 84% of average. This eliminated most remaining snow in the region and began the spring thaw of soils. Due to ongoing dryness in the Dakotas, severe drought was pushed eastward this week and moderate drought was expanded to the east as well into western Minnesota. Livestock producers in the Dakotas are already separating out their animals in anticipation of needing to sell some off due to drought in the region. Another aspect of a winter with very little snow is that fire danger has rapidly increased in North Dakota. The local National Weather Service offices have started making their fire weather products more than a month early in response to the drought conditions. So far, 33 fires have burned more than 20,000 acres in North Dakota. In Kansas, abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions were pushed to the east in response to the most recent dryness in the region and above-normal temperatures…


Much of the region was dry this week with only areas of western Montana, northern California, southwest Oregon, and northwest Washington recording above-normal precipitation. Coastal areas were generally below normal for temperatures and most of the rest of the West was 3-6 degrees above normal. Water conservation measures are already beginning, with the Klamath County commissioners declaring a drought on the Klamath Basin as inflows into Upper Klamath Lake were some of the lowest in decades. As current snow data came in for December through February, some improvements were made in those areas with good seasonal snow accumulations and where the other indicators supported it. In Montana, moderate drought was improved in the southwest and south central portions of the state while severe drought was pushed farther to the west in the eastern portion of the state. Wyoming had improvements to moderate, severe, and extreme drought over the northern portions of the state. The Taos region of New Mexico also had improvements to the extreme and exceptional drought based upon the good snows in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Severe drought was pushed farther west along the California and Nevada border. North central Nevada also had some improvement to the extreme drought over the region based on the current water year data while portions of the severe drought in northeast Oregon also were improved based upon the current water year…


Temperatures were mixed in the region. Most of Texas and Oklahoma saw temperatures up to 3-6 degrees above normal while most of east Texas, southern Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi were 3-6 degrees below normal. Dry conditions dominated the region with only portions of northern Oklahoma seeing any above-normal precipitation. Hay prices remained firm in the region with low hay stocks, due to drought, and producers needing to feed more during the recent cold snap in February. During this period, drought expanded and intensified over most of Texas and western Oklahoma where a mix of both short- and long-term issues are still embedded. A new area of exceptional drought was introduced over south Texas. In Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, abnormally dry conditions were expanded based on the short-term dryness in portions of those states missing out on recent rains. Abnormally dry conditions were also expanded over much of eastern Oklahoma and east Texas as the area continues to dry out…

Looking Ahead

Over the next 5-7 days, it is anticipated that precipitation totals will be greatest over the central Plains and Midwest, with the most precipitation expected over portions of Kansas and Missouri. An active pattern is anticipated, with the Southwest and California expected to see some good precipitation over the next several days. The Southeast is expected to stay dry again.

The 6-10 day outlooks show the greatest chances of below-normal temperature are for almost all areas west of the Mississippi River, with the highest probabilities over the High Plains. The best chances for above-normal temperatures are along the eastern seaboard and in the upper Midwest, Florida and northern Alaska. A change in patterns may be underway, with the best chances of above-normal precipitation over the Southeast and eastern United States. There is an above-normal chance of below-normal precipitation over the Southwest and northern Plains.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending March 9, 2021.

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled — National Public Radio

Top 10 sources of plastic pollution in our oceans.

From National Public Radio (Laura Sullivan):

Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, is standing on the end of its landfill watching an avalanche of plastic trash pour out of a semitrailer: containers, bags, packaging, strawberry containers, yogurt cups.

None of this plastic will be turned into new plastic things. All of it is buried.

“To me that felt like it was a betrayal of the public trust,” she said. “I had been lying to people … unwittingly.”

Rogue, like most recycling companies, had been sending plastic trash to China, but when China shut its doors two years ago, Leebrick scoured the U.S. for buyers. She could find only someone who wanted white milk jugs. She sends the soda bottles to the state.

But when Leebrick tried to tell people the truth about burying all the other plastic, she says people didn’t want to hear it.

“I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage,” she says, “and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You’re lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It’s gold. This is valuable.”

But it’s not valuable, and it never has been. And what’s more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.

NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true…

Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.

All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.

It could be because that’s not what they were told.

Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic…

These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it…

It may have sounded like an environmentalist’s message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.

Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean.

Documents show industry officials knew this reality about recycling plastic as far back as the 1970s.

Many of the industry’s old documents are housed in libraries, such as the one on the grounds of the first DuPont family home in Delaware. Others are with universities, where former industry leaders sent their records.

At Syracuse University, there are boxes of files from a former industry consultant. And inside one of them is a report written in April 1973 by scientists tasked with forecasting possible issues for top industry executives.

Recycling plastic, it told the executives, was unlikely to happen on a broad scale…

And there are more documents, echoing decades of this knowledge, including one analysis from a top official at the industry’s most powerful trade group. “The costs of separating plastics … are high,” he tells colleagues, before noting that the cost of using oil to make plastic is so low that recycling plastic waste “can’t yet be justified economically.”

Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, worked side by side with top oil and plastics executives.

He’s retired now, on the coast of Florida where he likes to bike, and feels conflicted about the time he worked with the plastics industry…

Thomas took over back in the late 1980s, and back then, plastic was in a crisis. There was too much plastic trash. The public was getting upset…

So began the plastics industry’s $50 million-a-year ad campaign promoting the benefits of plastic.

“Presenting the possibilities of plastic!” one iconic ad blared, showing kids in bike helmets and plastic bags floating in the air.

“This advertising was motivated first and foremost by legislation and other initiatives that were being introduced in state legislatures and sometimes in Congress,” Freeman says, “to ban or curb the use of plastics because of its performance in the waste stream.”

At the same time, the industry launched a number of feel-good projects, telling the public to recycle plastic. It funded sorting machines, recycling centers, nonprofits, even expensive benches outside grocery stores made out of plastic bags.

Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things.

NPR tracked down almost a dozen projects the industry publicized starting in 1989. All of them shuttered or failed by the mid-1990s. Mobil’s Massachusetts recycling facility lasted three years, for example. Amoco’s project to recycle plastic in New York schools lasted two. Dow and Huntsman’s highly publicized plan to recycle plastic in national parks made it to seven out of 419 parks before the companies cut funding.

None of them was able to get past the economics: Making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash.

Both Freeman and Thomas, the head of the lobbying group, say the executives all knew that…

The industry created a special group called the Council for Solid Waste Solutions and brought a man from DuPont, Ron Liesemer, over to run it.

Liesemer’s job was to at least try to make recycling work — because there was some hope, he said, however unlikely, that maybe if they could get recycling started, somehow the economics of it all would work itself out.

“I had no staff, but I had money,” Liesemer says. “Millions of dollars.”

Liesemer took those millions out to Minnesota and other places to start local plastic recycling programs.

But then he ran into the same problem all the industry documents found. Recycling plastic wasn’t making economic sense: There were too many different kinds of plastic, hundreds of them, and they can’t be melted down together. They have to be sorted out…

Industry documents from this time show that just a couple of years earlier, starting in 1989, oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the symbol appear on all plastic — even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic.

Smith said what it did was make all plastic look recyclable.

“The consumers were confused,” Smith says. “It totally undermined our credibility, undermined what we knew was the truth in our community, not the truth from a lobbying group out of D.C.”

But the lobbying group in D.C. knew the truth in Smith’s community too. A report given to top officials at the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1993 told them about the problems.

“The code is being misused,” it says bluntly. “Companies are using it as a ‘green’ marketing tool.”

The code is creating “unrealistic expectations” about how much plastic can actually be recycled, it told them.

Smith and his colleagues launched a national protest, started a working group and fought the industry for years to get the symbol removed or changed. They lost…

In response, industry officials told NPR that the code was only ever meant to help recycling facilities sort plastic and was not intended to create any confusion.

Without question, plastic has been critical to the country’s success. It’s cheap and durable, and it’s a chemical marvel.

It’s also hugely profitable. The oil industry makes more than $400 billion a year making plastic, and as demand for oil for cars and trucks declines, the industry is telling shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from plastic.

And if there was a sign of this future, it’s a brand-new chemical plant that rises from the flat skyline outside Sweeny, Texas. It’s so new that it’s still shiny, and inside the facility, the concrete is free from stains…

Larry Thomas, Lew Freeman and Ron Liesemer, former industry executives, helped oil companies out of the first plastic crisis by getting people to believe something the industry knew then wasn’t true: That most plastic could be and would be recycled.

Russell says this time will be different.

“It didn’t get recycled because the system wasn’t up to par,” he says. “We hadn’t invested in the ability to sort it and there hadn’t been market signals that companies were willing to buy it, and both of those things exist today.”

But plastic today is harder to sort than ever: There are more kinds of plastic, it’s cheaper to make plastic out of oil than plastic trash and there is exponentially more of it than 30 years ago.

And during those 30 years, oil and plastic companies made billions of dollars in profit as the public consumed ever more quantities of plastic.

Russell doesn’t dispute that.

“And during that time, our members have invested in developing the technologies that have brought us where we are today,” he says. “We are going to be able to make all of our new plastic out of existing municipal solid waste in plastic.”


Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.

#Colorado lawmakers, governor unveil $700M state economic stimulus plan. Here’s where the money will go — The Colorado Sun

Rich Meisinger Jr., business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, explains an aspect of the coal economy to Gov. Jared Polis in March 2020. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Colorado Sun (Jesse Paul):

Top Democratic and Republican state lawmakers on Wednesday joined Gov. Jared Polis to unveil the broad strokes of a roughly $700 million state economic stimulus plan, most of which is set to go to “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, including repairs to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels and Interstate 70 bridges

The shovel-ready projects will total $170 million, or about a quarter of all the spending. Hundreds of millions more is set to be spent on other, longer term infrastructure projects, like expanding broadband access and revitalizing main streets in Colorado cities and towns.

The remainder of the spending includes initiatives to invest in rural Colorado, support the recovery of small businesses, workforce training and development, affordable housing development and mental health. There’s also money for child care and support for schools and students…

The announcement comes as President Joe Biden is expected to sign a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus plan, which Congress approved Wednesday. State leaders were awaiting the details of that aid package — which includes billions of dollars for child care, education, unemployment and other needs in Colorado — before finalizing their own spending plan…

The money Colorado lawmakers are using to pay for the state stimulus plan comes from unexpected tax revenue.

The legislature slashed the state’s budget last year by about $3.5 billion in anticipation of an economic downtown because of the coronavirus pandemic. While there was a downturn, the economy has fared better than expected, leaving the General Assembly with more than $1 billion to allocate…

In areas that experience low-severity burns, fire events can serve to eliminate vegetative competition, rejuvenate its growth and improve watershed conditions. But, in landscapes subjected to high or even moderate burn severity, the post-fire threats to public safety and natural resources can be extreme. Photo credit: Colorado State Forest Service

Under the stimulus plan, up to $131 million would go toward boosting agriculture and rural communities, including $20 million to $35 million in competitive grants for rural agriculture infrastructure investments and millions toward forest and watershed restoration projects to protect communities against wildfire.

Other spending priorities include:


  • $30 million on projects to revitalize community main streets
  • $60 million to $80 million in matching funds for downtown revitalization efforts and to create more affordable housing options in urban areas
  • $50 million to $75 million to expand broadband internet access
  • $30 million to $40 million for existing clean energy programs
  • Small business support

  • $40 million to $50 million in sales tax relief for small restaurants and bars
  • $20 million to $30 million toward lending institutions that cater to “historically underserved” entrepreneurs
  • $10 million to $15 million in one-time grants to small businesses, with a priority for rural, women, minority and veteran-owned businesses
  • Community and school support

  • $10 million to $15 million to rent, lease or buy hotel rooms for unhoused individuals
  • $8 million to $10 million in seed funding for a program to incentivize local governments to adopt affordable housing development policies
  • $5 million to $10 million to support child care businesses
  • $8 million to $9 million for mental health screenings in schools
  • Rural investments

  • $10 million to $25 million for forest restoration and wildfire recovery projects and another $10 million to $25 million toward watershed restoration grants
  • $10 million to $15 million to create new job opportunities as part of the transition away from coal
  • Workforce development

  • $15 million to $25 million in grants to local workforce boards
  • $10 million to $15 million to help provide scholarships for people with some college but no degree
  • Each proposal will come in the form of an individual bill. That legislation has yet to be released, so the details remain unclear.

    Fenberg said he expects stimulus measures to start being introduced in a matter of weeks. Polis is pressuring the legislature to act quickly so that Colorado’s economic revival can begin as soon as possible. He wants the stimulus money to be spent in the next 18 months.

    #EagleRiver Watershed Council: Let’s take a serious look at water efficiency — The #Vail Daily

    Here’s a guest column from the Eagle River Watershed Council (James Dilzell) that’s running in The Vail Daily:

    In the final week of February, Eagle River Watershed Council had a snowshoe hike planned on a new trail at Brush Creek Valley Ranch & Open Space to teach residents about snow science basics. It’s a trail I came to love this fall and winter – a quick jaunt from town, plenty of parking and not busy with other visitors. It winds along a small creek, through fields of junipers and swaths of scrub oak. In the four times I had visited there since November, the creek had always been at least partially frozen, and the entire trail covered in a gorgeous layer of snow.

    The day of our event, I arrived first and quickly noticed that the layer of snow had disappeared and exposed a bare-soil parking area. I took a few steps up the trail for a better view, hoping the drainage would have been protected from our intense sun and still covered in at least a small bit of snow for our snow science hike. Alas, the snowshoes filling up my Subaru wagon were entirely unnecessary, and our group simply walked up the exposed trail.

    I may be repeating some things we already know as residents of the arid West, but our lack of consistent snowpack this year is truly concerning. Yes, February brought some good storms, and our water year precipitation to date is hovering around 84% — but what we aren’t getting are those daily refills that are critical to sustain healthy snowpack through the entire winter. When graphed, our snowpack data looks like a sin-wave, melting out before another refill, rather than a semi-consistent uptick.

    The effect of this drought goes beyond a sub-par ski season. Stephen Jaouen and Maggie Guinta – both Natural Resources Conservation Service staff who joined our event – shared with the group that 80% of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. This once-reliable reservoir of frozen matter melts out and sends water down the Eagle, into the Colorado River and on to 40 million users in seven states and Mexico. Reduced snowpack means reduced flows for recreation, drinking water and agriculture all the way down the line.

    Using data points like snow density and depth, along with snow-water equivalent calculations, which are gathered from automated Snow Telemetry sites and boots-on-the-ground snow surveys, the NRCS is able to share monthly forecasts for basins throughout the West. For us in Eagle County, the February forecast was bleak. Even if we were to see the best snowfall in 30 years over the next two months, the Eagle River still won’t hit average flows from April through July.

    There are other issues plaguing this water year, too. You might remember this fall, when the Eagle River flows were nearing 60% of average and almost our entire county was in D4 drought – the most severe. Our monsoon season was non-existent, and so we started off the snowy season with a deficit of soil moisture content.

    Reduced snowpack means reduced flows, and Mother Nature will snag some of that water to recharge groundwater and soil moisture before releasing water into our rivers and streams. To use a financial metaphor: some of our paycheck will be gone before it even hits the bank.

    While this seems like all doom and gloom, I’m not writing this article to be an alarmist. In fact, we’ve all heard these messages and warnings for years. Positive changes are being made, like new legislation allowing for the temporary donation of water rights and new water efficiency programs popping up around the state and in our community.

    I am instead writing this article to inspire our community to take action and take water efficiency seriously.

    We are not able to control the amount of water available in the mountains surrounding our towns, but we can choose to use our water wisely. In years like this, it’s up to all of us to prioritize those in-stream flows that fuel our recreation economy, keep fish and wildlife happy and allow us to thrive in this incredible place we call home.

    As we begin the transition to spring and summer, consider creating an at-home water efficiency plan with your family or roommates. Take your car to a commercial car wash instead of washing it at home. Or perhaps change up your landscaping by removing water-thirsty turf grass, replacing it with native and drought-tolerant tall grasses, flowers and shrubs.

    It’s going to take a village to collectively reduce our water use, and it’s about time we take better care of our river so that it can take better care of us. For more resources and actions to take, visit erwc.org/drought.

    James Dilzell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://erwc.org.

    US House passes #stimulus bill, includes #water assistance — Water & Wastes Digest

    U.S. Capitol building. © Devan King/The Nature Conservancy

    From Water & Wastes Digest (Cristina Tuser):

    Clean water and drinking water assistance in the amount of $500 million is included in the latest COVID-19 stimulus package

    The House gave final passage to a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, The American Rescue Plan Act.

    Among the provision of the American Rescue Plan Act are additional COVID-19 relief amounting to $500 million in assistance for clean and drinking water customers. Additional support for critical water and sewer investments is also included in the measure, according to a joint press release by NAWCA and AWMA.

    White House press secretary Jen Psaki, said President Biden will sign the bill on Friday, in a report by NBC News.

    In a joint statement, Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies applauded the inclusion of funding for the water and wastewater industry.

    “The public water sector is grateful to the U.S. Senate for including $500 million in additional assistance to low-income water customers in the American Rescue Plan Act,” the statement read. “This makes clear that Congress recognizes the critical role of public drinking water and clean water services and the increased strain many households are facing in paying their water bills as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn.”

    Additionally, the relief package makes water and sewer infrastructure needs eligible to access $350 billion through the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. The funding for low-income water assistance comes in addition to the initial $638 million provided in the December 2020 FY21 Consolidated Appropriations Act, reported NBC.

    In addition to the funding for clean and drinking water assistance, the bill includes direct payments and child tax credits. It will also provide:

  • $14 billion for vaccine distribution;
  • $49 billion for Covid-19 testing, contact tracing and personal protective equipment; and
  • $30 billion for public transit.
  • Young scientists work on an inclusive soil moisture index — National Centers for Environmental Information

    Montana barn. Photo credit: Pixabay via NASA

    From NASA:

    NCEI continues its seven-year partnership with the NASA DEVELOP. This nationwide program utilizes NASA Earth science satellite data to address diverse environmental issues impacting communities Program working with early-career scientists and university students. This nationwide program utilizes NASA Earth science satellite data to address diverse environmental issues impacting communities. At the DEVELOP NCEI location, participants work on projects that focus primarily on climate applications and incorporate NCEI climate data.

    This spring, the NASA DEVELOP NCEI team is building upon the fall 2020 project by continuing research into water resource forecasting in the Upper Missouri River Basin. The fall 2020 team developed a framework for computing a Composite Moisture Index (CMI) to enhance forecasting of summer drought and flood conditions, and the spring team is focusing on refining this innovative tool. CMI leverages NASA Earth observations to derive soil moisture and snow cover data from the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), Snow Data Assimilation System (SNODAS), and the Terra Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). The team is also exploring the impacts of adding stream flow measurements to the index and will conduct a sensitivity analysis to understand the thresholds and timescales of the CMI outputs.

    The team has partnered with the Montana Climate Office, the NWS Missouri Basin River Forecast Center, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory, and the NOAA Regional Climate Services of the Central Region.

    #Colorado, #USDA double down on soil, #water conservation with $5M program — @WaterEdCO

    Center, Colorado, is surrounded by center-pivot-irrigated farms that draw water from shrinking aquifers below the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Google Earth

    From Water Education Colorado (Sarah Kuta):

    When he first started farming in 1987, Curtis Sayles went through a new pair of cowboy work boots every year.

    These days, he’s still wearing a pair he bought three years ago.

    The difference? Sayles stopped using harsh fertilizers on his fields that ate through the leather of his boots. Sayles, a fourth-generation farmer with 6,000 acres near Seibert in eastern Colorado, now practices regenerative agriculture, a multi-faceted style of farming that advocates say has a host of benefits, including improved water efficiency, water quality and profitability.

    Above all else, regenerative agriculture can help restore healthy, fertile soils — working with nature, instead of against it.

    “I’m really tired of fighting nature — because she always wins. That’s her ace in the hole,” said Sayles, 64.

    Farmers like Sayles — and those who want to get started with regenerative agricultural practices but could use some support — are getting a boost thanks to a renewed partnership between federal and state agencies.

    In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Colorado State Conservation Board entered a five-year, $5 million agreement to help support regenerative agriculture, soil health, water conservation and urban farms.

    The agreement itself is new, but is the result of a long-standing partnership between the two agencies, which have entered into similar agreements every five years for the last 15 or so years, according to Clint Evans, Colorado state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    The most recent agreement provides funding for 25 existing conservation positions across Colorado. More specifically, the agreement funds district conservation technicians in some of Colorado’s 76 conservation districts, which date back to 1937 and represent private landowners’ interests in conservation-related work such as water quality, energy efficiency and habitat improvement.

    District conservation technicians, which often work out of the USDA’s local service centers and collaborate with federal staffers, provide expertise to help farmers and ranchers address an array of questions or concerns ranging from water and wind erosion to irrigation distribution.

    Under the agreement, federal dollars provide 75 percent of funding for those positions, while the remaining 25 percent is split between the state and local conservation districts, Evans said.

    The agreement also provides funding for up to six new positions: five positions to support the state’s new effort to focus on soil health and one to support urban farmers with conservation practices.

    The Colorado Department of Agriculture launched its new Soil Health Initiative in 2020, with an overarching goal of helping farmers and ranchers boost their land’s productivity and drought resiliency by improving soil health. Other soil health initiatives are also underway in Colorado, led by groups like the Colorado Collaborative for Healthy Soils and Farmers Advancing Regenerative Management Systems (FARMS).

    Regenerative agriculture, which prioritizes soil health, has garnered renewed interest over the last 10 or so years as farmers and ranchers grapple with challenges like variable crop prices, climate change and increasing expenses, Evans said. Soil health also appeared throughout the 2018 farm bill, the federal legislation that encompasses a wide swath of agriculture-related issues and programs.

    “A lot of producers have started looking at soil health as a way that, over the long term, can help improve their overall sustainability and resources on their farm or ranch and help them become more profitable,” Evans said.

    Some of the most common tenets of improving soil health are minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing soil cover, biodiversity, and the presence of living roots. In practice, this means farmers stop tilling the land, or greatly reduce tilling, plant cover crops, grow a strategic rotation of diverse crops, add mulch, and introduce grazing livestock.

    Performed together over several years, these practices can lead to rich, productive soil that naturally retains moisture, produces nutrient-rich crops, and staves off weeds and pests without the need for as many added chemicals. By reducing the use of energy, resources and chemicals, these practices also save farmers and ranchers time and money in the long run, Evans said.

    According to the USDA, healthy soil practices can help reduce evaporation rates, while healthy soil itself can hold more available water, two outcomes that are especially helpful during drought. What’s more, reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides helps protect groundwater from chemical leaching. Healthy soil practices also reduce runoff and erosion, which keeps sediment out of lakes, rivers and streams.

    The soil’s health rebounded as it retained organic matter left on the land as crop residue. This reduced the need for fertilizer, and resulted in higher yields from their wheat, milo, corn and hay fields. Photo credit: Sand County Foundation

    Since they’re not tilling the land, farmers can make fewer trips using farm machinery, which leads to lower emissions and improved air quality. Healthy soil also sequesters carbon.

    “Soil health could be the baseline to healthy forests, healthy rangelands, healthy croplands,” Evans said. “All across agricultural lands, it could really be the foundation for drought resiliency and higher productivity even as climate and rainfall cycles change.”

    Many of these soil health benefits also help support the goals outlined in the Colorado Water Plan, a comprehensive vision for the state’s water future created in 2015, and the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, the state’s plan for reducing pollution and transitioning to clean energy.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which administers the water plan, worked with the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help develop the new soil health initiative to address water management issues across the state and help make progress on the water plan’s objectives, according to Sara Leonard, a spokesperson for the CWCB.

    Now, the CWCB is actively promoting soil health as a water conservation tool. For example, the board recently awarded a Colorado Water Plan grant to San Miguel County to study expanding its Payment for Ecosystem Services program, which gives landowners incentives for adopting practices that improve soil health, water conservation, and other ecological goals.

    “The water plan identifies soil health practices such as conservation tillage and mulching as promising practices to conserve water while providing other important co-benefits such as water quality enhancement, creating wildlife habitat and improving a producer’s bottom line,” Leonard said. “In particular, soil health practices show potential in enhancing resiliency to drought and reducing pressure on groundwater supplies by improving water-holding capacity and reducing evaporative losses.”

    Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.