The Senate confirmed Ms. Haaland to lead the Interior Department. She’ll be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s course over the past four years.
Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history on Monday when the Senate confirmed her as President Biden’s secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency.
Ms. Haaland in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to the House. But her new position is particularly redolent of history because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people.
Beyond the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, it oversees about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters off the United States coastline, a huge system of dams and reservoirs across the Western United States and the protection of thousands of endangered species.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she wrote on Twitter before the vote. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Republican opposition to her confirmation centered on Ms. Haaland’s history of fighting against oil and gas exploration, and the deliberations around her nomination highlighted her emerging role in the public debates on climate change, energy policy and racial equity. She was confirmed on a 51-40 vote. Only four Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — voted for Ms. Haaland’s confirmation…
The new interior secretary will be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s mission over the past four years. The Interior Department, led by David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, played a central role in the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of environmental regulations and the opening up of the nation’s lands and waters to drilling and mining.
Ms. Haaland is expected to quickly halt new drilling, reinstate wildlife conservation rules, rapidly expand wind and solar power on public lands and waters, and place the Interior Department at the center of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.
At the same time, Ms. Haaland will quite likely assume a central role in realizing Mr. Biden’s promise to make racial equity a theme in his administration. Ms. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who identifies herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican, will assume control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, where she can address the needs of a population that has suffered from abuse and dislocation at the hands of the United States government for generations, and that has been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus…
As the agency takes on a newly muscular role in addressing climate change, she added, the department “will have to deal with new strategies for managing more intense wildfires on public land and chronic drought in the West. It’s hard to overstate the challenges with water.”
Among the first and most contentious items on Ms. Haaland’s to-do list will be enacting Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to ban new permits for oil and gas projects on public lands…
Ms. Haaland’s ability to implement that ban successfully could have major consequences both for the climate and for the Biden administration. According to one study by Interior Department scientists, the emissions associated with fossil fuel drilling on public lands account for about a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gases. But the policy will most likely be enacted at a time when gasoline prices are projected to soar — spurring almost-certain political blowback from Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
For the drilling ban to survive legal challenges, experts say, Ms. Haaland will have to move with care.
“They may attempt a total ban, but that would be more vulnerable to a court challenge,” said Marcella Burke, an energy policy lawyer and former Interior Department official. “Or there’s the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.”
That approach would make oil drilling less feasible by creating such stringent regulations and cleanup rules that exploration would not be worth the cost…
Ms. Haaland is also expected to revisit the Trump administration’s rollback of habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act. Under the Trump rules, it became easier to remove a species from the endangered list, and for the first time, regulators were allowed to conduct economic assessments — for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection.
Such rules led to an exodus of staff, particularly from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Clement said…
The Interior Department also must submit a detailed new plan by June 2022 that lays out how the federal government will manage the vast outer continental shelf off the American coastline, an area rich in marine wilderness and undersea oil and gas resources.
Given Mr. Biden’s pledge to ban new drilling, the new offshore management plan will quite likely reimpose Obama-era policies that barred oil exploration on the entire East and West Coasts of the United States — while possibly going further, by limiting drilling off the coasts of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. But writing the legal, economic and scientific justifications will be difficult…
As the department moves against offshore drilling, it is expected to help ramp up offshore wind farms. Last week, the agency took a major step toward approving the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, near Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a project that had been in the works for years.
The massive storm that hit Colorado’s Front Range over the weekend didn’t do much to aid the local snowpack. And that snowpack continues to lag behind the 30-year median.
According to the latest numbers from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites at Vail, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass, the snowpack, as measured in “snow water equivalent,” is 90% or less of the 30-year median. Copper Mountain is the closest measurement site to Vail Pass, and Fremont Pass is the closest measurement site to the headwaters of the Eagle River. Vail Mountain’s measurement is the lowest of the three, at 76% of the 30-year median…
This season’s accumulation at Vail has already passed the peak snowpack recorded in 2011-2012, the lowest year on record. Snowpack is near or past the peaks recorded in the lowest years on record at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass…
More heat, more evaporation
Hannah Holm of the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University said early snowmelt also exposes bare ground, which heats up more easily than snow. More heat means more evaporation, which also means less water flowing into streams.
And those dry years have become more and more frequent. Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, noted that three of the four lowest snow years on record have come in the past decade.
“We’re not just responding to a one-year drought,” Johnson said, adding that people in the water supply business are calling this 20-year drought cycle a “millennium drought.”
Johnson added that simple snowpack measurements are only part of a fairly complex equation for water supplies.
As Holm noted, it’s important how quickly snow melts in the spring. Johnson said that one of the lowest snow years on record, 2001-2002, had the benefit of a cool spring to keep the limited snowpack on hillsides.
Weekend blizzard a bounty for Denver, farmers and foothills, but not a drought-buster.
The weekend storm that brought heaps of badly needed wet snow to Denver, the foothills and the plains is an important boost to water supplies, but doesn’t appear to be a full-fledged “drought-buster.”
To put it in terms of a much-anticipated upcoming college basketball tournament: The weekend’s water results were like winning the first-round of March Madness. A nice thrill, but still a few wins short of a title.
But let’s stay optimistic for a moment. The storm was a big victory, and here are a few reasons why:
It’s a big recharge for soil moisture across the Denver region, and will mean a big boost for lawns and landscapes in the metro area. Overall, the storm was officially the fourth-largest ever for Denver, with an official snow depth of 27.1 inches as recorded at Denver International Airport. That’s not too far behind the 30.4 inches that fell in November 1946, which sits in third place, and the memorable pileup of March 2003, at 31.8 inches.
For Denver Water, the storm was especially helpful to Gross Reservoir in its North System, where surrounding areas clocked in at 20 to 30 inches. Some of Denver Water’s lower reservoirs, including Marston, Chatfield and Ralston also will reap rewards.
The moisture content of the snow was unusually high, giving everyone more bang for the buck. In short, a single storm brought the same level of water some places would typically get in a month or even two months. One Denver-based meteorologist said Monday that, with this storm, Denver has recorded 4.24 inches of liquid this year, the wettest start to a calendar year on record.
Farms and water users in northeast Colorado will benefit, and that’s a benefit to Denver Water. That’s because with downstream reservoirs on the South Platte filling, it will allow Denver Water to access its water rights sooner, without having to pass as much water down the river right away.
“All in all, this was an extremely helpful storm,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water.
“We see benefits all around. While it wasn’t a drought-busting storm — it didn’t hit the West Slope hard and didn’t get into the upper South Platte region — it’s a great recharge for Denver and the foothills and puts us in a much better place than we were a week ago.”
Even so, caveats remain.
Despite the windfall, Denver Water’s collection system remains below average for snowpack, at 94% in the Colorado River Basin and 97% in the South Platte.
And Colorado is coming off a very dry year, with a dry spring and a monsoon-less summer compounding an ongoing deficit in soil moisture.
That matters because thirsty soil gets first dibs on melting snow. Water must replenish the ground before it slides down the hills and winds up in streams, rivers and reservoirs.
That means Denver Water, along with water utilities across Colorado, will keep watching the skies for more storms to keep us wet through the rest of March and April, a period that is generally a good bet for snow and rain. Areas along the Continental Divide and upper reaches of the West Slope — the headwaters — sorely need a wet spring.
The message to customers: Enjoy the bounty, but don’t let down your vigilance. Residents will need to continue being smart about irrigation. Denver Water’s standard summer watering rules take effect May 1, with watering limited to three days a week, and no watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
And it’s still possible further watering limits could be in play, depending on how the next several weeks play out.
A spike in temperatures that rapidly depletes the snowpack, for example, could have an impact on how we use water this summer.
For now, it’s certainly a storm worth enjoying and appreciating, while keeping it in a healthy context.
As a March Madness coach might say, “We’re excited as heck to make the tournament … but we’re still facing an uphill climb.”
This weekend’s snowstorm will likely translate to significant drought relief for portions of Colorado, while others remain mired in drier than average conditions.
Snow that blanketed the northern Front Range and northeastern plains will provide two to three inches of liquid water when it melts. Some localized areas are seeing even higher amounts ranging from four to five inches of water held in the snow, said Colorado’s assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger…
The city of Burlington, for example, recorded nearly three inches of precipitation in 72 hours over the weekend. In a normal year, Burlington averages a total of 2.78 inches for the period of November through March…
Much of Colorado’s Front Range has been locked in severe drought since August 2020. Bolinger expects the next U.S. Drought Monitor, released weekly on Thursdays, to show a contraction of severe drought on the Front Range and northeastern plains.
The Western Slope, the part of the state in the most need of added moisture, is unlikely to see any drought relief from this storm, Bolinger said.
As Colorado digs out from the recent blizzard, each heavy shovel full of snow proves the storm brought plenty of moisture. But is it enough to free the state from its drought conditions?
Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, said the answer largely depends on location. The brunt of the storm hit east of the Continental Divide, dumping around two feet of snow in the Foothills and Eastern Plains. Meanwhile, preliminary snowfall reports show only a few inches accumulated on the Western Slope.
Colorado’s drought conditions had improved ahead of the storm. After record dry weather over the summer and fall, snowpack levels had inched toward normal throughout the winter, but western Colorado continued to miss out on the snowfall. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 16 percent of the state faced the most extreme category of “exceptional drought” as of last week. The entirety of the area was west of the Continental Divide.
Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said the weekend storm brought the entire state to 91 percent of its median snowpack for mid-March.
Wetlaufer said soil conditions could also affect Colorado’s downstream water users. Last year’s dry weather left the ground so parched it could absorb large amounts of snowmelt. Wetlaufer said that could decrease runoff levels by as much as 20 percent, meaning the recent snow could stay in Colorado rather than flowing down the Colorado River to Las Vegas or Los Angeles.
The recent snowstorm also likely won’t change a longer trend toward drier weather in the Southwestern U.S. A 2020 study in Science suggests the region is experiencing its worst “megadrought” since the 1500s due to global climate change. Any shift against the pattern would require a series of far wetter winters across the region…
Nevertheless, Schumacher said it’s hard to see the recent storm as anything other than good news.
“It may not be enough to get us out of the drought completely, but it’s going to be a big help,” Schumcher said.
Any snow is welcome snow in moisture-starved Colorado, but even two feet is too little to bring us out of the drought. Almost the entire state is in some stage of drought and more than half the state is in a severe or exceptional drought.
“What we’re going to see from this week is a possible incremental improvement from those really bad drought categories to not-as-bad drought categories,” said Assistant State Climatologist Beck Bolinger.
The biggest beneficiaries, she says, will be crops on the eastern plains and lawns in the Denver metro area. Denver is now 20 inches of snow above normal for this date and the city has already received four and a quarter inches of liquid.
That is well above the average. The snow could also help delay wildfires on the Front Range.
However, Bolinger says, it still may not stop cities from imposing watering restrictions, and more than a dozen are considering doing so. She says it’s not only about how much snow falls, but where it falls.
“Our water municipalities are closely focused on what’s happening west of the divide in terms of replenishing water supplies that we rely on,” she said.
The problem, she says, is the Western Slope didn’t get as much snow. Western basin averages, she says, are still 10-20% below normal.
Even an average snowpack in the mountains may not be enough says Ben Livneh with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“The landscape is dry. When the snow melts, the first thing it has to do, it has to recharge some of that dryness, some of that deficit before it can runoff and become part of the water supply.”
Winter Storm Xylia accomplished, for the most part, what all the talk was about, becoming the largest two-day storm on record for Denver and the fourth-biggest snowstorm since 1881. Dumping heavy, wet accumulations up and down the Front Range over the weekend, the blizzard halted traffic on the interstates, knocked out power to thousands, and hit a few places especially hard – including 27.1 inches at Denver International Airport, 40 inches near Red Feather Lakes, and 30.8 inches for Cheyenne, Wyo.
Here in Chaffee County, it was a stout storm, but as of Monday morning it was sunny, the lower areas were melting down significantly and Highway 285 was mostly dry through the mid-county after plowing efforts.
The great news was that, according to Open Snow, Monarch Ski Area received a beastly 24 inches (11 on Saturday and 13 Sunday) – the same total as Wolf Creek. Further west, Telluride took bragging rights from the storm with 27 inches. Elsewhere it was hit or miss: Mid-Vail reported a scant 6.
Xylia delivered some good gains to the state’s snowpack. Portions of the Arkansas River Basin – which includes Chaffee County – saw some of the biggest action from the storm, putting the basin’s snowpack at 99 percent of average, compared to 90 percent recorded March 11.
According to the USDA’s SNOTEL water snow-equivalent reporting systems, the Upper Rio Grande basin is now at 104 percent compared to 98 percent. Percentages in Colorado’s other basins include: South Platte, 97 (was 87); North Platte, 96 (was 90); Yampa and White, 91 (was 88); Upper Colorado, 88 (was 84); Gunnison, 85 (was 81); and the southwest mountains including the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, 81 (were 78).
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2021 Ruth Wright Distinguished Lecture in Natural Resources
Are We Saved? Tempering Our Expectations for Natural Resources Management Under the Biden Administration
Marcilynn A. Burke
Dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law University of Oregon School of Law
Wednesday, April 7th
5:30 p.m. Mountain Time
Zoom Webinar Registration
Almost forty years ago, Dean Derrick Bell, published the book entitled, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. In his book, he tells a story of apparent triumphs, followed by continuing travails. He describes the United States as a place that seemingly has made great progress in its efforts to achieve racial justice, but how its facial progress actually masks and sustains systemic failures.
The challenges in the management of the nation’s natural resources, though very different (and yet not unrelated to racial justice), are nonetheless quite complex and woven into the very fabric of the nation. The country has many urgent needs with respect to energy development, preservation and conservation, climate change, and climate justice. This presentation will outline a few of the great hopes for natural resources management under the Biden Administration and this next cycle of “reform.” It will examine some of the factors that make it more likely for us to be saved or save ourselves, so that at the conclusion of the Biden Administration, we do not utter the words of the prophet Jeremiah. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Jeremiah 8:20
The Ruth Wright Distinguished Lecture is free and open to the public but registration is required to receive the Zoom link.
Colorado CLE Accreditation Pending.
Marcilynn A. Burke
Dean Marcilynn A. Burke studies leadership, property, environmental and natural resources law. At Oregon Law, she serves as the Dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law. Her scholarly works have included features in the Notre Dame Law Review, the Land Use and Environmental Law Review, the University of Cincinnati Law Review, and the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum.
From 2009-2013, Dean Burke served in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Initially she served as Deputy Director for Programs and Policy in the BLM, and then as the Acting Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior over the BLM following a 2011 appointment by President Barack Obama. In that role, she helped develop the land use, resource management, and regulatory oversight policies that are administered by the BLM, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, with a geographic scope that encompassed the continental U.S. and Alaska. Following her term at the BLM, she resumed her role as associate dean and associate professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, where she had served as a member of the faculty since 2002.
Dean Burke earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, having been named to Phi Beta Kappa. She then earned her law degree from Yale Law School, where she was an editor for both the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism and the Yale Journal of International Law. She clerked for the Honorable Raymond A. Jackson of the Eastern District of Virginia, and later joined the law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton where her practice focused on environmental law, antitrust, and civil and criminal litigation. Dean Burke had also served as a visiting professor of law at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, NJ in 2001.
A small crowd gathered to watch as Jim Dunlap pressed a control button. Moments later, the people inside the small building could hear the sound of water from Lake Nighthorse rushing through a pipe and out of the dam.
It was a simple move, but one that had been decades in the making for Dunlap. It was the first time water from the reservoir had been released into the Animas River at the request of the San Juan Water Commission.
While the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association has released water from the dam as part of maintenance operations and to ensure everything is properly functioning, this was the first time it had been released based on an official request.
Lake Nighthorse stores water for municipal use for the San Juan Water Commission as well as other water users, including Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Filling of the reservoir began in 2009, and there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018…
Drought management plans for the San Juan County Commission include using water stored in Lake Nighthorse, but little is known about what would happen to the water once it is released.
The commission hopes one day there will be a pipeline to transport the water from Colorado to New Mexico, but, until then, the water must be released into the Animas River. The March 15 release will help gather data that can be used in the future to predict how much water could be lost from the time it is released from Lake Nighthorse to the time it reaches pump stations for water users downstream.