Urban-rural divide is alive and well — Writers on the Range

From Writers on the Range (Allen Best):

Pushback against a “meatless day” proclaimed by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last month was predictably vigorous. It was part of the “war on rural Colorado,” said a state senator who runs a cattle-feeding operation. Twenty-six of Colorado’s 64 counties adopted “meat-in” proclamations. Governors from the adjoining states of Wyoming and Nebraska even gleefully designated an “eat-meat” day.

Afterward, Polis’s press aides pointed to the hundreds of do-good proclamations the governor issues each year, and the governor quickly declared his beef brisket the rival of any in Colorado.

But this proclamation differed from those affirming truck drivers, bat awareness and breakfast burritos. It called for broad change. Using the language of a “MeatOut” Day proclamation written by an animal rights group, his statement cited the benefits of a plant-based diet in reducing our carbon footprint, preserving ecosystems and preventing animal cruelty. It also noted the growing alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs.

In the 1880s, when my great-grandparents homesteaded in eastern Colorado, they grazed cattle on the short-grass prairie. Ranchers still do. Once off the range, though, our beef production is best understood as an industrial process. The foundation is grain.

In his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates explains the modern pyramid of protein: A chicken eats two calories’ worth of grain to give us one calorie of poultry. For cattle, it’s six calories of feed to produce one calorie of beef. I’ve stood in rows of corn tassels 12 feet high at maturity, the growth boosted by luxuriant applications of fertilizer. I’ve pinched my nose while driving past feedlots large enough for 80,000 or more head. I’ve heard the bellow of cows minutes away from the knife at slaughterhouses.

Denver no longer has slaughterhouses but still prides itself on its livestock heritage. The annual Western Stock Show puts cowboy hats in high-end restaurants and strip joints alike. Cattle represent 50% of Colorado’s $7 billion agriculture economy, and livestock altogether 70%. After Polis’s proclamation, livestock producers debated boycotting Denver’s Stock Show for other venues — perhaps Oklahoma.

Even a legislator from one of metro Denver’s poorer neighborhoods objected to Polis’s proclamation, pointing out that nutritious vegetarian options aren’t available to many of her constituents.

But it’s not just low-income areas that lack meal choices. Fast-food franchises in big cities and small towns all cater to the lowest-common denominator, their high-volume enterprises predicated on cheap meat, especially beef. The consequences are that we now have bulbous bellies and too many heart attacks. We struggle to live with restraint.

The meaty issue here is not about meat vs. no-meat. Rather, it’s about scale and processes. What have we sacrificed in pursuit of volume?

Credit the ranchers who graze cattle holistically in an attempt to replicate the once-vast herds of bison. But also note that grass-fed beef needs buyers. Most holistically raised cows get further fattened on grain. That’s where the market is.

There’s also the looming issue of cows contributing to climate change, as highly polluting methane comes out of both ends of cattle. Gates, always the technologist, insists that innovation can reduce the carbon output of agriculture by reducing our yen for real beef. He put his money where my mouth is by investing in a vegetarian product called the Impossible Burger. Last week I had one. It fooled me. I thought it was beef.

Meanwhile, the urban-rural divide remains starkly real and evident in voting and development patterns. While cities struggle to contain their growth, many small towns struggle to hang on. Ironically, the economies of most of these at-risk rural towns are premised on industrial-scale agriculture.

Rural Colorado never has liked Polis, a savvy businessman from the exurbs of Boulder who favors market solutions. He had barely warmed his gubernatorial seat when handmade signs began showing up on rural country roads asking “Why does Polis hate…” You fill in the blank.

This meatless proclamation was tone-deaf. It could have narrowly affirmed meatless alternatives rather than decried meat. Denial and anger will not prevail, though. I’m reminded of when coal producers, 10 and 15 years ago, were fighting the future of renewables instead of figuring out their place in the world to come.

Though most of us may continue to eat beef, some of us have already begun to shift away. Polis was perhaps the unwitting messenger of that truth — that cows in the West are no longer sacred.

Allen Best contributes to Writers on the Range, http://writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He writes about energy and water in http://BigPivots.com, his e-magazine.

#RioGrande Compact Commission Annual Meeting, April 8, 2021

Click here to register.

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

Increased winter snowmelt threatens western water resources — University of #Colorado #snowpack #runoff #aridification

The Fortress. By Thank you for visiting my page from Canada – A visit to Wedge pond Kananaskis Alberta Canada, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66198104

Here’s the release from the University of Colorado (Kelsey Simpkins):

More snow is melting during winter across the West, a concerning trend that could impact everything from ski conditions to fire danger and agriculture, according to a new CU Boulder analysis of 40 years of data.

Researchers found that since the late 1970s, winter’s boundary with spring has been slowly disappearing, with one-third of 1,065 snow measurement stations from the Mexican border to the Alaskan Arctic recording increasing winter snowmelt. While stations with significant melt increases have recorded them mostly in November and March, the researchers found that melt is increasing in all cold season months—from October to March.

Their new findings, published [April 5, 2021] in Nature Climate Change, have important implications for water resource planning and may indicate fewer pristine powder days and crustier snow for skiers.

“Particularly in cold mountain environments, snow accumulates over the winter—it grows and grows—and gets to a point where it reaches a maximum depth, before melt starts in the spring,” said Keith Musselman, lead author on the study and research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU Boulder.

Combined photos of the Senator Beck basin in the Colorado San Juan mountains during increasingly warmer months. (Credit: Jeffrey Deems/CIRES and Matthew Kennedy/CU Boulder Extreme Ice Survey)

But the new research found that melt before April 1 has increased at almost half of more than 600 stations in western North America, by an average of 3.5% per decade.

“Historically, water managers use the date of April 1 to distinguish winter and spring, but this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred as melt increases during the winter,” said Noah Molotch, co-author on the study, associate professor of geography and fellow at INSTAAR.

Snow is the primary source of water and streamflow in western North America and provides water to 1 billion people globally. In the West, snowy mountains act like water towers, reserving water up high until it melts, making it available to lower elevations that need it during the summer, like a natural drip irrigation system.

“That slow trickle of meltwater that reliably occurs over the dry season is something that we have built our entire water infrastructure on in the West,” said Musselman. “We rely very heavily on that water that comes down our rivers and streams in the warm season of July and August.”

More winter snowmelt is effectively shifting the timing of water entering the system, turning that natural drip irrigation system on more frequently in the winter, shifting it away from the summer, he said.

This is a big concern for water resource management and drought prediction in the West, which depends heavily on late winter snowpack levels in March and April. This shift in water delivery timing could also affect wildfire seasons and agricultural irrigation needs.

Wetter soils in the winter also have ecological implications. One, the wet soils have no more capacity to soak up additional water during spring melt or rainstorms, which can increase flash flooding. Wetter winter soils also keep microbes awake and unfrozen during a time they might otherwise lay dormant. This affects the timing of nutrient availability, water quality and can increase carbon dioxide emissions.

SNOTEL Site via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

An underutilized data source

Across the western U.S., hundreds of thin, fluid-filled metal pillows are carefully tucked away on the ground and out of sight from outdoor enthusiasts. These sensors are part of an extensive network of long-running manual and automated snow observation stations, which you may have even used data from when looking up how much snow is on your favorite snowshoeing or Nordic skiing trail.

This new study is the first to compile data from all 1,065 automated stations in western North America, providing valuable statistical insight into how mountain snow is changing.

And by using automated, continuously recording snowpack stations instead of manual, monthly observations, the new research shows that winter melt trends are very widespread—at three-times the number of stations with snowpack declines, according to Musselman.

Snowpack is typically measured by calculating how much water will be produced when it melts, known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is affected by how much snow falls from the sky in a given season. But because winter snowpack melt is influenced more by temperature than by precipitation, it is a better indicator of climate warming over time.

“These automated stations can be really helpful to understand potential climate change impacts on our resources,” said Musselman. “Their observations are consistent with what our climate models are suggesting will continue to happen.”

Other authors on this publication include Nans Addor at the University of Exeter and Julie Vano at the Aspen Global Change Institute.

Droughts longer, rainfall more erratic over the last 50 years in most of the West — USDA #drought #snowpack #runoff

Storm clouds gather as cows graze at the USDA-ARS Central Plains Experimental Range near Nunn, Colo.
Photo by David Augustine/USDA-ARS via the Fence Post

Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Kim Kaplan):

Dry periods between rainstorms have become longer and annual rainfall has become more erratic across most of the western United States during the past 50 years, according to a study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Arizona.

Against the backdrop of steadily warming temperatures and decreasing total yearly rainfall, rain has been falling in fewer and sometimes larger storms, with longer dry intervals between. Total yearly rainfall has decreased by an average of four inches over the last half century, while the longest dry period in each year increased from 20 to 32 days across the West, explained co-senior author Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the ARS Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.

“The greatest changes in drought length have taken place in the desert Southwest. The average dry period between storms in the 1970s was about 30 days; now that has grown to 45 days,” Biederman said.

Extreme droughts are also occurring more often in the majority of the West according to historical weather data as there has been an increase in the year-to-year variation of both total rainfall amounts and the duration of dry periods.

Biederman emphasized the growing fluctuations in drought and rain patterns as the most significant change.

“Consistency of rainfall, or the lack of it, is often more important than the total amount of rain when it comes to forage continuing to grow for livestock and wildlife, for dryland farmers to produce crops, and for the mitigation of wildfire risks,” Biederman said.

The rate of increasing variability of rainfall within each year and between years also appears to be accelerating, with greater portions of the West showing longer drought intervals since 2000 compared to previous years.

Notable exceptions to these drought patterns were seen in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and the Northern Plains region of Montana, Wyoming, and the most western parts of North and South Dakota. In these regions, the researchers found some increases in total annual rainfall and decreases in drought intervals. Together, these changes support what models have predicted as a consequence of climate change: a northward shift in the mid-latitude jet stream, which brings moisture from the Pacific Ocean to the western United States, according to Biederman.

A critical aspect of this study is the use of actual rainfall data from 337 weather stations spread across the western United States. Biederman contrasted this with the more common use of “gridded” data, which relies on interpolations between reporting stations and tends to smooth out some of the variability revealed by this work.

“Fangyue Zhang, lead author of the manuscript and a post-doctoral researcher on our team, did the hard, painstaking work of compiling and analyzing data from more than 300 weather stations with complete daily records to reveal these changing drought and rainfall patterns,” Biederman said.

“We were surprised to find widespread changes in precipitation have already occurred across large regions of the West. For regions such as the desert Southwest, where changes clearly indicate a trend towards longer, more erratic droughts, research is urgently needed to help mitigate detrimental impacts on ecosystem carbon uptake, forage availability, wildfire activity, and water availability for people,” said co-senior author William K. Smith, assistant professor, University of Arizona.

This research was published in Geophysical Research Letters.