Even before the substantial torrents of summer rains over the past week or so finally paused, water and weather experts were acting to contain the public’s excitement about the impact of the monsoon on the Southwest’s long-running drought.
The rainfall is great, they noted. Rainfall in an arid place is almost always a welcome event. But truth be told, summer storms just aren’t drought-killers. Fending off drought – especially the kind of long-running drought the Southwest has experienced — takes deep winter snowpack in the region’s mountainous watersheds. After more than two decades of dry conditions, it would take several consecutive years of deep snowpack to release from drought’s grip.
“It’s helpful, but it also doesn’t solve the problem,” observed ADWR’s Chief Hydrologist Jeff Inwood earlier this week.
So, are we to conclude that summer rainstorms have no meaningful effect on drought conditions? Absolutely not!
The near historic lack of monsoon moisture in 2020 contributed substantially to the extraordinarily low rate of runoff into the Colorado River system this spring. A lack of spring rain helped dry out soils to such an extent that those thirsty soils soaked up far more watershed runoff than normal this spring.
As a result, Rocky Mountain region snowpack from the 2020-2021 snow-season peaked at 89 percent of seasonal median. Contrary to the expectation that relatively higher precipitation would result in a larger runoff volume, unregulated inflow into Lake Powell gauged at an utterly abysmal 54 percent of average. The 30-year (1981-2010) average for unregulated inflow into Lake Powell is 10.83 million acre-feet. The forecasted unregulated inflow for Water Year 2021 (Oct. 1, 2020 – Sept. 30, 2021), as of July, according to data from the Bureau of Reclamation, stands at just 3.248 million acre-feet, which is 30 percent of the normal.
A healthy summer rainy season helps mitigate that soil absorption.
Monsoon rain can help rehydrate our soils, which helps get snowmelt runoff into the reservoirs. Also, some portion infiltrates into the ground and replenishes the aquifers. Not a lot, to be sure, but some.
“By soaking the soils with these monsoon rains, it will help additional moisture and rains runoff into streams and ultimately into reservoirs,” added Inwood.
In the meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to revel in the healthy moisture delivery dropped off in recent days by Mother Nature.
Monsoon 2021 rainfall measured at Tucson International Airport set one of several records set this season with 5.88 inches of rain through July 25.
At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, meanwhile, National Weather Service officials reported 1.67 inches for the month as of July 25, making 2021 the wettest July since 2013 and the 17th wettest on record. Overall the Phoenix Rainfall Index for July 2021 (that is, the average of all the official rain gauges throughout the Valley), stood at 2.66 inches, making July 2021 the wettest month overall in the Valley since October 2018.
Want more Happy Weather Talk? Through July 26, total monsoon rainfall at Sky Harbor was 1.84 inches, which exceeds the combined total rainfall for the 2019 and 2020 monsoon seasons (1.66 inches).
Carbon emissions, ocean acidification, Amazon clearing all hurtling toward new records
A new study tracking the planet’s vital signs has found that many of the key indicators of the global climate crisis are getting worse and either approaching, or exceeding, key tipping points as the earth heats up.
Overall, the study found some 16 out of 31 tracked planetary vital signs, including greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content and ice mass, set worrying new records.
“There is growing evidence we are getting close to or have already gone beyond tipping points associated with important parts of the Earth system,” said William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University who co-authored the new research, in a statement.
“The updated planetary vital signs we present largely reflect the consequences of unrelenting business as usual,” said Ripple, adding that “a major lesson from Covid-19 is that even colossally decreased transportation and consumption are not nearly enough and that, instead, transformational system changes are required.”
While the pandemic shut down economies and shifted the way people think about work, school and travel, it did little to reduce the overall global carbon emissions. Fossil fuel use dipped slightly in 2020, but the authors of a report published in the journal BioScience say that carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide “have all set new year-to-date records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021”.
In April 2021, carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million, the highest monthly global average concentration ever recorded. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015, and 2020 was the second hottest year in history.
The study also found that ruminant livestock, a significant source of planet-warming gases, now number more than 4 billion, and their total mass is more than that of all humans and wild animals combined. The rate of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon increased in both 2019 and 2020, reaching a 12-year high of 1.11 million hectares deforested in 2020.
Ocean acidification is near an all-time record, and when combined with warmer ocean temperatures, it threatens the coral reefs that more than half a billion people depend on for food, tourism dollars and storm surge protection.
However, there were a few bright spots in the study, including fossil fuel subsidies reaching a record low and fossil fuel divestment reaching a record high.
In order to change the course of the climate emergency, the authors write that profound alterations need to happen. They say the world needs to develop a global price for carbon that is linked to a socially just fund to finance climate mitigation and adaptation policies in the developing world.
The authors also highlight the need for a phase-out and eventual ban of fossil fuels, and the development of global strategic climate reserves to protect and restore natural carbon sinks and biodiversity. Climate education should also be part of school curricula around the globe, they say.
Downstream call placed on the reservoir for irrigation water rights
Green Mountain Reservoir, one of the biggest reservoirs in Summit County, located in Summit County, is low this summer, but it’s not as low as in previous drought years.
The reservoir is currently storing about 101,000 acre-feet of water — 32.9 billion gallons — James Heath, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said in an email. He noted that the reservoir is typically nearly full around this time of year. A full Green Mountain Reservoir is about 154,000 acre-feet of water, or approximately 50 billion gallons.
However, Heath said in previous drought years like 2002 and 2012, there was less water stored in the reservoir than there is this year.
Heath explained that the runoff from the Blue River this year was not enough to fill both Dillon Reservoir, which is upstream, and Green Mountain Reservoir, which is downstream…
Releases from Green Mountain Reservoir make their way to the Colorado River to appease those downstream with senior water rights. Heath said these releases replace upstream depletions from West Slope diversions and the Colorado Big Thompson project, which delivers the approximate volume of Dillon Reservoir to the South Platte Basin.
Heath noted that there has been a call for irrigation water rights downstream in the Grand Valley, which means senior water users have requested to restrict the use of water among junior water users because there is not enough water in the system to allow all water diversions. This requires Green Mountain Reservoir to stop storing, pass inflows and make releases.
While calls on Green Mountain Reservoir can restrict use for junior water users, there is a group of western Colorado water users that have historically benefited from releases out of Green Mountain Reservoir, called historic user pool beneficiaries, that are allowed to continue to divert after a call is placed on the river.
Since July 10, the reservoir water level has dropped about 7,000 acre-feet, or 2.2 billion gallons, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources website. For most of July, Green Mountain Reservoir’s discharge to the Blue River was below the historic average.
With a limited budget, growing needs, drought and an ever-present demand for water, the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services is taking steps to reduce its “water footprint.”
In recent years, the department has replaced some Kentucky bluegrass with native grasses in parks and on medians; native grasses are more drought-resistant and need less water.
Replacing grass with artificial turf on heavily-used athletic fields is another strategy being used, as well as xeriscaping (natural landscaping) and other landscaping to replace grass in some areas.
Parks & Rec also is investing more in technology to water grass more efficiently by monitoring water usage and reducing waste.
The department spent $515,000 in 2019 and 2020 on replacing irrigation systems, and expects to spend $150,000 this year; but nearly two-thirds of its present systems are 30 years old or more and replacing those outdated systems will cost an estimated $6.7 million — a process that will take 60 years with current funding levels.
That situation is partly why the department will ask voters in November to approve a slight sales tax increase to pay for a backlog of maintenance and other needs.
Parks & Rec also plans to build or upgrade parks that incorporate some or all of these amenities. Examples are the newer Venezia Park on the city’s northeast side, and the current renovation of Panorama Park on the southeast side.
The city budgeted around $4.7 million for parks watering in 2020 and used 98% of that amount, although some areas needed more than the amount of water allocated; this year’s usage is expected to fall below the budgeted amount of $4.4 million because of wetter weather…
In 2020, Colorado battled the four largest wildfires in its history, leaving residents anxious for another intense wildfire season this year.
But last week, fires weren’t the issue—it was their aftermath. When heavy rains fell over the burn scar from the 2020 Cameron Peak fire, they triggered flash flooding and mudslides northwest of Fort Collins which destroyed homes, killed at least three people and damaged major roads. Flooding along the 2020 Grizzly Creek and East Troublesome burn scars also unleashed mudslides across Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon and in Grand County just west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
These tragic events make it clear that the effects of wildfire don’t end when the flames go out. There can be environmental consequences for years to come—and keeping an eye on water is key.
CU Boulder Today spoke with Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an environmental chemistry expert who studies how wildfires impact water quality; and Assistant Professor and CIRES Fellow Ben Livneh, a hydrologist who studies how climate change affects water supplies and how fires and rain influence landslide risk, about how fire may shape the future of water in the West.
What happens to water in lakes, rivers and streams after a nearby wildfire?
Rosario-Ortiz: When you have open flames, a lot of gaseous reactions and solid phase reactions, it results in the transformation of chemicals and alterations to the soil, and we observe the effects once we look at the water quality. For example, we observe the enhancement in the concentration of nutrients in water, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can cause subsequent issues in the reservoirs like algae blooms. There can also be a mobilization of metals and enhanced concentration and activity of what we call organic carbon as well as turbidity, which can then impact water treatment production and formation of disinfection byproducts.
How do city water suppliers and treatment plants deal with these impacts?
Rosario-Ortiz: Ideally, you want to have a secondary water source. In Fort Collins, back in 2012 after the High Park fire, the river was impacted but the reservoir was not impacted. So they could draw from the reservoir and wait for the worst to pass.
If you don’t have that option, some of the challenges after wildfire and rain events include increased sediment mobilization, which is very challenging for water treatment operations. Those are short-term effects that might give you a headache, but they can also become long-term challenges. Never mind the fact that you may have issues with infrastructure.
How can wildfire affect water quantity and timing in a landscape?
Livneh: In the western U.S. we really rely on water that flows in rivers and streams, and that fills the reservoirs for our supply. So when we think about even small changes to the amount of water that comes off of the hill slope, or across the landscape, that can have a big impact on the total availability of water.
One of the most notable things that happens in a fire is that the texture of the soil changes. Initially, less rain will soak into the soil, and more rain will become surface runoff. There’s a lot of reason to think that you will get more total water—but it’ll be much more “flashy” when it comes.
On one hand, that can be good if you have a reservoir to collect it. But we’ve heard of water utilities actually turning off their intakes after a fire if the quality of the water is too low. And that’s tricky, because often drought is involved in some fashion. So there’s often this competing need for more water, and yet the quality is low.
What are the factors that affect the likelihood of floods or mudslides after wildfire?
Livneh: When water carries enough stuff with it, we call it a debris flow, which is a type of landslide. The bigger and bigger it gets, the more impactful it is. We have research funded by NASA where we looked at 5,000 landslide sites around the world. We found that sites that had a fire in the past three years required less precipitation to cause a landslide.
But there’s also a lot of local variability that really matters. Moderately steep, heavily vegetated areas, types of soils—especially sandier soils—increase risk. Also we now have a lot of people who have built structures on steep slopes in these areas, so there’s a human element there, too. And the time of the year that it happens can matter. A fire right before your rainy season is an important factor.
What does this all mean for the future of Colorado and the western U.S.?
Rosario-Ortiz: When homes burn, you’re not just combusting houses, you’re combusting everything inside those homes. You might now be combusting electric vehicles, for example, with a large battery.
Then what are some of the other potential concerns with exposure to air? Water? That’s going to be something that we will need to explore further over the next few years.
Livneh: Some estimates say the amount of forest area being burned each year in the western U.S. has doubled in the last 25 years. And it really poses risks to communities, especially in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Managing it is largely a kind of a policy problem, but in the next 10 years or so we’re going to continue to have these big fires.
First and foremost, people need to be paying attention to these flood watches and to local guidance on evacuation. The most important thing is saving lives.
What can we do to prepare for the future?
Rosario-Ortiz: Utilities might have to be thinking about potential upgrades in facilities. That means we may have to also consider financing of these projects and how to improve overall resiliency.
Livneh: One of the most robust features of climate change is warming, right? As rain becomes more prevalent, we’re just going to have to continue expanding our portfolio of things we do to keep up. The more open-minded we can be about managing for these things is important. I’m kind of an optimist. As humans, we’ve overcome so many technical challenges; it’s not going to be something we can’t solve our way out of.
As Lake Powell dropped to its lowest-ever level [July 23, 2021] — a decline that has forced dam tenders to unexpectedly release 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir — Wyoming stood behind five projects that could divert tens of thousands more acre-feet from waterways in the troubled Colorado River Basin.
Powell’s surface elevation dipped to 3,555.09, lower by 12 hundredths of an inch than the previous post-completion nadir of April 8, 2005. The new benchmark is “probably worth noting,” Wayne Pullan, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Region 7 director, said in a press call [July 27, 2021].
“The fact that we’ve reached this new record underscores the difficult situation that we’re in,” he said…
Friday’s mark amounts to a 150-foot drop in the storied Utah-Arizona reservoir over 24 years, a decline that’s spurred action to preserve irrigation flows, millions of dollars in hydropower revenue and myriad necessities for 40 million people in the West.
As the BOR began its “emergency” release of 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on July 15, a coalition of downstream water users called for a moratorium on new dams and pipelines…
In an era of drought, aridification and climate change, new water projects will be closely scrutinized, Pullan said…
Meantime Gov. Mark Gordon announced he will appoint a drought working group to ensure “local perspectives on issues that impact our water users and the State” are heard when planning for a crisis that “may last for years.”
Wyoming will not be deterred from its water development goals that would store, divert or otherwise use another 115,000 acre-feet in the upper reaches of the 246,000-square-mile Colorado River system, top officials told WyoFile.
“A pure, strict moratorium flies in the face of rights held by all seven [Colorado River Compact] states,” said Pat Tyrrell, Wyoming’s member on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I would have a hard time recommending that Wyoming get itself in that position.”
The Bureau of Reclamation has a limited say in what Wyoming can do with its water and development, state Senior Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown said.
“They certainly don’t get to say ‘no,’” he said. “They certainly don’t have that authority in Wyoming to decide how Wyoming wants to develop its water.”
Here’s the release from the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (Elysia Bunten):
The New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (ONRT) is in the preliminary stages of soliciting ideas for projects that will restore natural resources in New Mexico injured by the 2015 Gold King Mine release.
We welcome stakeholder engagement in our process and invite you, as a stakeholder who was affected by the contamination, to participate in this process. Please see the attached letter containing details about ONRT’s funding, process, upcoming information session, and timetable.
As a result of Audubon’s engagement, leveraged with our partners, Big Beaver Creek and White River will quickly receive needed water and all of Colorado’s rivers will retain their water quality protections. All thanks to you! In this drought-stricken year, these victories are true causes for celebration. Read on to learn what your actions accomplished for rivers and the birds and communities that depend upon them.
Water Quality Antidegradation
Birds and people rely on clean water from healthy rivers. High-quality water in our rivers, streams, and wetlands is critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems, wildlife, communities, and economies across Colorado, from urban neighborhoods to headwater streams.
In late spring of 2021, we called upon our Colorado network to sign a petition to stop a proposed rule change by the Water Quality Control Commission (Commission) that would have allowed more pollution in Colorado’s rivers and streams. Because of the impact this potential rule change would have had on rivers, birds, and disadvantaged communities, we needed your engagement like never before. And you responded.
Audubon Rockies broke all our previous engagement records by collecting 2,735 unique signatures and combined with our coalition to total more than 4,700 signatures! During the June hearing, the Commission received unprecedented levels of public comments. Sixty people signed up to speak. Many impassioned public speakers showed up to oppose the proposed rule changes and to support their “home waters.” All but one of the comments opposed rule changes due to potential impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; recreation in urban streams; and the right to clean water.
The Commission listened to you and delayed making any decision to amend the antidegradation rule until 2031. Current water quality protections will stay in place for at least the next 10 years!
We still have work to do with the Commission to ensure our rivers and streams are protected from harmful rule changes that could increase pollution. We must also resist industry’s pressure to establish a stakeholder process in which only their high-paid lawyers and consultants have the means to participate.
With advocates like you, we know we can continue to make progress. Healthy flowing rivers support our environment and all water uses and users.
Instream Flows on Big Beaver Creek and White River
After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157) was signed into law by Colorado Governor Polis in March of 2020. Audubon’s network submitted 1,463 action alerts to state legislators to support this bill, which ultimately benefits our environment, wildlife, and local economies.
HB20-1157 expanded the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s short-term water loan program to benefit the environment. The bill provides a 100 percent voluntary, flexible, and expedited or longer-term option for water users to divert less or no water during dry years, allowing for more water to stay in a river. The statute’s “emergency” or expedited option is in motion for the first time!
On July 21, 2021, the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously to approve an expedited temporary instream flow lease to support 43 stream miles of benefits to Big Beaver Creek and White River in Rio Blanco County. In this extreme drought year, water is needed in these waterways quickly. Due to your engagement and support, a quick and responsive option to support environmental stream flows is a reality.
Colorado thrives when our rivers do. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike. Audubon’s legacy is built on science, education, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation. We bring all of this together through you: our network. This combination of expertise and engagement makes Audubon an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation. Thank you for standing with us.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map July 27, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map July 27, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map July 27, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map July 27, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A robust Southwestern monsoon circulation delivered drought-easing rainfall but sparked localized flash flooding across large sections of the Four Corners States, as well as the southern Great Basin, but critically dry conditions persisted across northern California and the Northwest. In the driest areas, wildfires—some sparked by lightning—dotted the landscape, with containment of some blazes hampered by high temperatures, low humidity levels, erratic winds, and abundant fuels. Farther east, another round of blistering heat across the northern Plains further stressed rangeland, pastures, and a variety of summer crops. The central and southern Plains also experienced some hot weather, although agricultural impacts were tempered by mostly adequate soil moisture reserves. Meanwhile, mostly dry weather covered the Midwest, continuing a trend that had developed in mid-July. Short-term dryness was not yet a concern in the previously well-watered lower Midwest. However, reproductive corn and soybeans in drier areas of the upper Midwest were subjected to increasing levels of stress, especially as temperatures began to rise. Elsewhere, Southeastern rain—which maintained abundant moisture reserves for pastures and summer crops—primarily fell from the Mississippi Delta to the southern Atlantic Coast…
Drought’s footprint remained rather limited across Kansas, eastern Colorado, and southern Nebraska. Farther north and west, however, worsening drought impacts were observed across much of Wyoming and the Dakotas. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, topsoil moisture on July 25 was rated 87% very short to short in North Dakota, along with 82% in South Dakota and 79% in Wyoming. Rangeland and pastures were rated at least 60% very poor to poor in Wyoming and the Dakotas, led by North Dakota at 85%. On July 25, North Dakota was the national leader in oats rated very poor to poor (56%), along with soybeans (41%) and corn (39%). South Dakota led the nation, among major production states, in sorghum rated very poor to poor (31%). Nationally, the U.S. spring wheat crop was rated just 9% good to excellent and 66% very poor to poor on July 25, the lowest overall condition at this time of year since July 25, 1988, when the crop was categorized as 4% good to excellent and 72% very poor to poor. Harvest was underway for drought-ravaged crops on the High Plains; 3% of the spring wheat had been cut by July 25. Periodic extreme heat on the northern Plains has greatly aggravated drought impacts. During the most recent heat wave, high temperatures in South Dakota on July 27 soared to 108°F in Pierre and 107°F in Rapid City. In the latter location, that represented the highest temperature since August 29, 2012…
Further expansion of moderate to exceptional drought (D1 to D4) was introduced in parts of California and the Northwest, as agricultural, wildfire, and water-supply impacts continued to mount. Oregon’s third-largest wildfire in modern history, the Bootleg Fire, has burned more than 410,000 acres of timber and brush, but was more than 50% contained. California’s largest active blaze, the Dixie Fire, has scorched nearly 220,000 acres only about 15 miles northeast of the town of Paradise, which was devastated by the Camp Fire in 2018. Washington continued to lead the country in several drought-related agricultural categories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including topsoil moisture rated very short to short (99% on July 25), as well as very poor to poor ratings for rangeland and pastures (97%) and spring wheat (88%). In addition to Washington, at least two-thirds of the rangeland and pastures were rated very poor to poor on July 25 in Montana (91%), Arizona (82%), Oregon (80%), and Utah (69%). Montana rivaled Washington for agricultural drought severity, with topsoil moisture rated 97% very short to short and a nation-leading 70% of its barley rated very poor to poor. Farther south, however, an active monsoon circulation delivered drought relief in the form of diurnal showers and thunderstorms, some heavy. Up to one category of improvement was introduced in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, and southern sections of Utah and Nevada. In Arizona, Tucson received more rain in 6 days (4.20 inches fell from July 20-25) than during all of 2020, when annual precipitation of 4.17 inches was the lowest on record. Despite the positive effect of monsoonal showers on surface conditions (e.g. improved vegetation health, topsoil moisture, and streamflow), serious long-term, underlying drought persisted, with obvious impacts on groundwater and reservoirs. The surface elevation of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, fell to a new record low—1,067.59 feet above sea level—on July 23. In Utah, the surface elevation of the Great Salt Lake fell below 4,191.4 feet in late July, breaking the previous record low set in 1963…
Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi remained free of dryness and drought, while only small patches of abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) were noted in Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee. Most Southern crops continued to fare well amid plentiful rainfall and relatively mild temperatures. On July 25, three-quarters (75%) of the nation’s peanuts were rated in good to excellent condition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with 73% of the rice and 61% of the cotton…
Cooler air will overspread the northern Plains and upper Midwest, though many drought-affected areas will remain in need of moisture. Large sections of the central and southern Plains will also remain mostly dry, accompanied by some of the hottest weather of the summer. Farther east, periodic showers and thunderstorms will affect the Great Lakes and Northeastern States. Meanwhile, hot, humid weather will linger into the weekend across the South, where an approaching cold front will generate showers and thunderstorms. Elsewhere, the Southwestern monsoon circulation will remain active, with beneficial showers dampening interior sections of the western United States as far north as Wyoming and southern Idaho.
The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for August 3 – 7 calls for the likelihood of above-normal temperatures in Alaska, southern Florida and from the Pacific Coast to the northern Plains and upper Midwest, while cooler-than-normal conditions will cover much of the southeastern half of the country. Meanwhile, near- or below-normal rainfall across most of the United States should contrast with wetter-than-normal weather in a few areas, including western Alaska, the southern Atlantic region, the southern Plains, and the Northwest.
Wellington faces a Catch-22, caught between its desire for growth and the water issues that threaten to slow it to a crawl.
The town of about 12,000 has plenty of water — the lifeblood of any community — to serve thousands of new homes. But the cost of water is rising rapidly and the town currently lacks the capacity to store it, treat it or flush it. Both its water and wastewater treatment plants are overextended.
Expansions are underway but still three years away from completion.
It’s not a new problem for Wellington, which earlier this year raised water rates to pay for an expansion of its water and wastewater treatment plants, imposed water restrictions and limited new residential building permits to about 100 per year until the expansions are complete.
The very measures it’s taking to create that infrastructure have raised water rates to the highest in Northern Colorado, which could, in turn, adversely affect growth as builders consider their options.
It’s a fragile balance that’s frustrating residents who are now paying about double what they were two years ago and has the town asking for patience.
Residential water and sewer taps, the largest slice of new development impact fees collected when a building permit is issued, went from $5,500 to $7,500 for a typical home tap and sewer taps increased from $7,500 to $9,700.
Those fees, which also pay for things like parks, streets, water and sewer lines, are typically passed on to the homebuyer or business, which is one reason the cost of homes is going up in Wellington…
Continuing to increase impact fees while at the same time limiting the number of residential permits to stay within treatment capacities “could reach a point where developers or buildings are unwilling to build in Wellington,” the town wrote on its website, “and could result in a slowdown or stop to new development, shifting the cost of paying for improvements onto existing residents…
When treatment plant expansions are done in 2024, they will be able to support Wellington’s expected growth for about 20 years, when the population is expected to double to about 24,000, Town Administrator Patti Garcia said.
Plant expansions won’t bring rate relief, however, she said. Base water rates were raised $31 — to $66 a month — in January to pay the debt service on the water treatment plant. To get the loan, the town had to prove it could pay it back, Garcia said…
For comparison, Fort Collins’ base water rate is $18.30 with a charge of $2.83 per 1,000 gallons of water up to 7,000 gallons. Like Wellington, it has tiered rates that go up the more water used. The charge for water over 13,000 gallons is $3.75 per 1,000 gallons.
That means a Wellington resident using the average 7,000 gallons per month would pay $97.92 per month compared to $38.11 for the same amount of water through Fort Collins Utilities…
It won’t help rates, but finishing the treatment plant expansions should ease water restrictions and lift the moratorium on building permits…
Wellington is served by the North Poudre Irrigation Co., whose share costs have risen 40% since 2018, when the town wrote in its resolution to increase rates. That resolution passed in August 2020. NPIC water currently sells for $200,000 or more per share.
In response to past increases and hedging its bets against future increases, Wellington increased its raw water rates from $19,285.50 to $67,586 for 0.58 acre feet of water — the amount of water it requires for every developed dwelling unit.
“Once we have capacity in the water treatment plant we will be fine,” Garcia said. “We have plenty of water, the issue is having the capacity to provide it, store it, use it and flush it. We’re looking forward to what 2024 can bring.”
Dusty Hill, the quiet, bearded bass player who made up one third of ZZ Top, among the best-selling rock bands of the 1980s, has died at his home in Houston. He was 72.
His bandmates Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons announced the death on Wednesday through Facebook and Instagram. They did not provide a cause or say when he died.
Starting in the early 1970s, ZZ Top racked up dozens of hit records and packed hundreds of arenas a year with their powerful blend of boogie, Southern rock and blues. But the band really took off in the 1980s, when Mr. Gibbons, the lead singer and guitarist, and Mr. Hill grew their signature 20-inch beards and the band released a series of albums that added New Wave synthesizers — often played by Mr. Hill — to their hard-driving guitars, producing MTV-friendly hits like “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man.”
The band paired their grungy sound and innuendo-filled lyrics with a knowing, sometimes comic stage act — Mr. Hill and Mr. Gibbons, in matching sunglasses and Stetson hats, would swing their hips in unison, spinning their instruments on mounts attached to their belts. (Despite his name, Mr. Beard, the drummer, sports just a mustache.) Their stage sets might include crushed cars and even livestock.
Though in public Mr. Hill and Mr. Gibbons were often mistaken as twins, their musical styles differed — Mr. Gibbons a showy virtuoso, Mr. Hill a grinding, precise musical mechanic.
Mr. Hill rarely gave interviews, preferring to let Mr. Gibbons speak for the band. And he gladly accepted his supporting role for his bandmate’s masterful lead guitar playing.
“Sometimes you don’t even notice the bass,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I hate that in a way, but I love that in a way. That’s a compliment. That means you’ve filled in everything and it’s right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”
Joseph Michael Hill was born in Dallas on May 19, 1949. He started his musical career singing and playing cello, but he switched instruments at 13, when his brother, Rocky, who played guitar, said his band needed a bassist. One day Dusty came home to find a bass on his bed; that night, he joined Rocky onstage at a Dallas beer joint.
“I started playing that night by putting my finger on the fret, and when the time came to change, my brother would hit me on the shoulder,” he said in a 2012 interview.
In 1969, Dusty was living in Houston and working with the blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins when Mr. Beard, a friend from high school, suggested that he audition for an open spot in a trio, called ZZ Top, recently founded by Mr. Gibbons. They played their first show together in February 1970.
The band’s humor was evident from the start: They named their first album “ZZ Top’s First Album.” Real success came in 1973 with their third release, “Tres Hombres,” which cracked the Billboard top 10. That same year they opened for the Rolling Stones in Hawaii.
Many of their early songs leaned heavily on sexual innuendo, though sometimes they set the innuendo aside completely. “La Grange,” their big hit on “Tres Hombres,” was about a bordello.
In 1976, after a string of hit albums and nearly seven years of constant touring, the band took a three-year hiatus. Mr. Hill returned to Dallas, where he worked at the airport and tried to avoid being identified by fans.
“I had a short beard, regular length, and if you take off the hat and shades and wear work clothes and put ‘Joe’ on my work shirt, people are not expecting to see you,” he said in a 2019 interview. “Now, a couple of times, a couple of people did ask me, and I just lied, and I said: ‘No! Do you think I’d be sitting here?’”
The band reunited in 1979 to release “Degüello,” their first album to go platinum, and the first time Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Hill grew out their beards. It was also the first sign that they were going beyond their Texas roots by adding a New Wave flavor to their sound, with Mr. Hill also playing keyboard.
They achieved superstar status in 1983 with “Eliminator,” which included hit singles like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Give Me All Your Lovin.’” It sold 10 million copies and stayed on the Billboard charts for 183 weeks…
The band’s success continued through the 1980s, and while later albums — in which they returned to their Texan blues roots — didn’t climb the charts, the trio still packed stadiums. And despite their raunchy stylings, they began to draw grudging respect from critics, who often singled out Mr. Hill’s subtly masterful bass playing.
“My sound is big, heavy and a bit distorted because it has to overlap the guitar,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Someone once asked me to describe my tone, and I said it was like farting in a trash can. What I meant is it’s raw, but you’ve got to have the tone in there.”
Mr. Hill married his longtime girlfriend, Charleen McCrory, an actress, in 2002. He also had a daughter. Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Of course, a dry winter will result in meager flows in spring and summer. But there are other reasons snow from the mountains won’t reach a river below. One growing area of research is exploring how droughts can lead to chronically dry soil that sucks up more water than normal. This water also refills the groundwater below.
There are two ways moisture can be lost to the atmosphere before it reaches a creek or river.
The first is through evaporation. When water absorbs enough energy from the Sun, the water molecules will change into a gas called water vapor. This floating water vapor is then stored in the air. Most of this evaporation happens from the surface of lakes, from water in the soil or as snow melts and the water flows over rocks or other surfaces.
Another way moisture can be lost to the atmosphere is one you might be less familiar with: sublimation. Sublimation is when a solid turns directly into a gas – think of dry ice. The same can happen to water when snow or ice turns directly into water vapor. When the air is colder than freezing, sublimation happens when molecules of ice and snow absorb so much energy that they skip the liquid form and jump straight to a gas.
It is relatively easy to measure how much water is flowing through a river or in a lake. And using satellites and snow surveys, hydrologists can get decent estimates of how much snow is on a mountain range. Measuring evaporation, and especially sublimation, is much harder to do.
When moisture is lost into the atmosphere, it will fall to the surface as rain or snow eventually. But that could be on the other side of the Earth and is not helpful to drought-stricken areas.
It is hard to say how important loss of moisture to the atmosphere is to the total water cycle in any given mountain range. Automated snow monitoring systems – especially at high elevations above the treeline – can help researchers better understand what is happening to the snow and the conditions that cause losses to the atmosphere.
The amount of water in rivers – and when that water appears – influences agriculture, ecosystems and how people live. When there is a water shortage, problems occur. With climate change leading to more droughts and variable weather, filling a knowledge gap of the water cycle like the one around sublimation is important.
Since that time, CPP requested additional information from Denver Water. On June 29, 2021, the CPP Director acknowledged Denver Water’s intent to not provide additional requested information, and determined the 1041 review will move to public hearings.
Denver Water filed a lawsuit against the county in July 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the county does not have the authority to regulate the project because the project requires a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Because of the lawsuit, on July 26, Denver Water’s attorney requested that the CPP Director place the 1041 application on hold, and CPP Director Dale Case granted the request the next day, July 27.
Consequently, public hearings that were set for August and September have been canceled.
“It makes sense to have the court resolve the legal issues about whether Boulder County can proceed before conducting hearings on the 1041 review,” said Case. “We have already devoted significant time and resources to processing Denver Water’s application, and it would take even more county resources to proceed with public hearings.”
The Areas and Activities of State Interest (1041) application for the expansion of Gross Reservoir is a request to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet total of water, which includes increasing the dam height by approximately 131 feet, the dam length by approximately 790 feet, and the spillway elevation by approximately 126 feet; quarry operations to obtain aggregate needed for construction; construction of a temporary concrete batch/production plant and an aggregate processing plant; permanent road improvements to Gross Dam Road from State Highway 72 to Gross Reservoir; temporary road improvements to FS359 (Winiger Ridge Road) and FS97 (Lazy Z Road); and the relocation of the Miramonte Multi-Use Trail.
At Hays Market, gallon jugs of drinking water have been flying off the shelves for the better part of two weeks. According to grocery manager Daniel Gehring, the store has gone from ordering several cases of water to palates of it, and not because of the hot weather.
“The town’s water is smelly, funny and has a dirt taste to it, so people are buying the heck out of the gallon water,” Gehring said.
For the grocery store, the business is a plus, but around town, folks like David Salls are concerned. He’s recently turned to filtering all of the water anyone in the family drinks, including his dogs…
Town manager Matt LeCerf says the odor is harmless, and the result of chemical compounds created by algae blooms in the Lone Tree Reservoir, the city’s main water source.
Normally, the water travels into town via a pipeline and drainage ditch, but this year the drainage ditch is not being used because of the nearby Cameron Peak and East Troublesome Fire burn scars…
According to LeCerf, the ditch into town naturally aerates and filters the water more than the pipeline.
“We’re basically in a position where we have to run our water through the reservoirs where we do have that standing water that’s causing some of the taste and odor issues,” LeCerf said.
After hearing similar concerns in the past, the town approved a new $2 million granular activated carbon system earlier this year, which LeCerf said is 90% effective in removing the taste and odor. Construction has been underway for more than two months, and the system is expected to be online Wednesday…
The carbon filtration system isn’t the only improvement in the works for Johnstown. According to LeCerf, the town is also upgrading its water treatment plant and putting special buoys in the reservoir that use ultrasonic wavelengths to help mitigate algae growth.
At the moment, Frank Alfone, manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, thinks he supplies Steamboat Springs with some of the best water in Colorado.
The popular ski town relies on Fish Creek for about 93 percent of its normal supply. The postcard Rocky Mountain stream starts as snowmelt before collecting into a narrow canyon, where hikers flock to watch it roar over a 280-foot waterfall.
The water is placid and clear by the time it arrives at the district’s main treatment plant above the city, but Alfone expects that will change sometime soon. After months of drought, Colorado’s two largest active wildfires are burning near Steamboat Springs.
If a future blaze hits the Fish Creek watershed, the charred landscape could erode anytime it rains, possibly turning the city’s primary water source into a turbid soup of ash and debris. The sediment could fill reservoirs, trigger algal blooms or poison water quality with heavy metals…
The Mount Werner Water District and the City of Steamboat Springs are trying to get ahead of similar challenges. Their joint wildfire protection plan, published in 2019, details projects to guard against wildfire in Fish Creek and protect water resources if necessary. It’s the sort of effort experts say other communities should undertake, especially since forests supply 80 percent of U.S. water resources…
Preventing a fire until you can’t
A map helped kickstart Steamboat Springs’ planning effort.
The Colorado State Forest Service updates a detailed look at fire risk across the state every five years. Kelly Romero-Heaney, who managed water resources for Steamboat Springs until earlier this year before leaving for the state, said it was impossible to miss Fish Creek as an area of concern.
“It lit up bright red on the map,” Romero-Heaney said.
The 26-square-mile drainage basin looks like a misshapen funnel from above. Two high-elevation reservoirs collect snowmelt and channel water into tributaries that feed Fish Creek. A narrow canyon carries the water until it reaches Steamboat Springs and meets the Yampa River.
The protection plan, funded with a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, modeled the most likely ignition sources for a fire within the watershed. It quickly zeroed in on the Sanctuary Neighborhood, a high-end development north of downtown Steamboat. If a fire started there, it could quickly rocket up the canyon and affect larger parts of the watershed.
The finding helped spur residents to take action…
Carolina Manriquez, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service in Steamboat Springs who advised the fire protection plan, said those preventative efforts only go so far in areas strained by drought and growing numbers of residents.
“The bottom line is there’s not a lot we can do to minimize the fire risk,” Manriquez said…
Always have a backup
Alfone said fire risk is one reason the Mount Werner Water District developed a backup supply.
In 2018, Mount Werner expanded a second water treatment plant fed by wells along the Yampa River. If the district ever lost access to Fish Creek, he said it would likely have to restrict outdoor water use but could continue to supply indoor water from the auxiliary plant.
The City of Steamboat Springs also owns additional water rights along the Elk River. In the long-term, he said the city could develop the resource into an additional backup…
Over the next two decades, Alfone said the water district also hopes to upgrade its primary treatment plant along Fish Creek to handle water tainted by wildfire runoff. A new intake could help filter out ash and debris and a redesigned filtration system might also improve taste and toxin issues after the smoke clears from the water basin. Each project is outlined in the fire protection plan.
Alfone said the district would likely pay for the improvements through loans, water customer rate hikes or trying to win federal grants.
He is optimistic about the last option. President Biden recently doubled the size of a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to help communities prepare for extreme weather events. The water district likely qualifies after Routt County included the project in its overall disaster-planning efforts.
While Douglas County remains under a drought watch, water officials in Parker and Castle Rock are optimistic about water supplies as the state heads into the hottest part of summer.
Castle Rock Water Director Mark Marlowe said this is the first summer the town is using the reusable water supply. In 2006, the town invested $208 million to build the reusable water facility. Water started pumping into residents’ homes early this year.
Because of the renewable water source, Marlowe said as the high-use water months continue, Plum Creek resources are “holding up well.”
“We have been able to utilize renewable water because the creek is running well,” he said. “Reusable water tends to be more drought resistant, and it does not depend on rainfall. It is water we have already used that will be put back into the system. It is a reliable source, especially during a drought.”
Ron Redd, district manager for Parker Water & Sanitation District, said water supplies are holding up well, and residents have not even met peak demand as expected this year.
Thanks to a wet spring, Redd said, customers in Parker and Castle Pines have used a lot less water in June and early July this year compared to the same time last year.
With 2020 being so dry, Redd said residents were using about 28 million gallons of water per day. This year, the average use is half that at 14 million gallons.
Even in the absence of bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire, trees in Colorado subalpine forests are dying at increasing rates from warmer and drier summer conditions, found recent CU Boulder research.
The study, published in February in the Journal of Ecology, also found that this trend is increasing. In fact, tree mortality in subalpine Colorado forests not affected by fire or bark beetle outbreaks in the last decade has more than tripled since the 1980s.
“We have bark beetle outbreaks and wildfires that cause very obvious mortality of trees in Colorado. But we’re showing that even in the areas that people go hiking in and where the forest looks healthy, mortality is increasing due to heat and dry conditions alone,” said Robert Andrus, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at Washington State University. “It’s an early warning sign of climate change.”
These deaths are not only affecting larger trees, thus reducing forests’ carbon storage, but hotter and drier conditions are making it difficult for new trees to take root across the southern Rockies in Colorado, southern Wyoming and northern parts of New Mexico.
It’s well known that rising temperatures and increasing drought are causing tree deaths in forests around the globe. But here in Colorado, researchers found that heat and drought alone are responsible for over 70% of tree deaths in the 13 areas of subalpine forest they measured over the past 37 years. That’s compared with about 23% of tree deaths due to bark beetles and about 5% due to wind damage.
“It was really surprising to see how strong the relationship is between climate and tree mortality, to see that there was a very obvious effect of recent warmer and drier conditions on our subalpine forests,” said Andrus, who conducted this research while completing his graduate degree in physical geography at CU Boulder. “The rate of increasing mortality is alarming.”
With temperatures in Colorado having risen by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s and increasing more quickly at higher elevations, estimates of another possible 2.5 or more degrees of warming in the next few decades due to climate change indicate that the rate of tree deaths will only increase.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Subalpine forests cover over 10,000 square miles in Colorado and are best known by those who ski or recreate in the mountains. Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dominate the area above the Peak to Peak Highway in the Front Range, and if you go over any mountain pass in Colorado, you’re going into the subalpine zone, according to Andrus.
Previous research at CU Boulder has shown how wildfire, beetle kill and the two combined can affect the mortality and health of Rocky Mountain subalpine forests. This new research isolated the effects of those two common stressors from those of heat and moisture to find out how much of an effect climate change is having on these tree populations.
“As trees die in increasing numbers due to fire, bark beetles and drought, the warmer and drier climate is making it much less likely that new tree seedlings can establish and replace the dead adult trees,” said Tom Veblen, co-author of the study and professor emeritus of geography.
Launched by Veblen when he arrived on campus in 1982, this is the longest running study of tree mortality in Colorado with measurements made frequently enough to identify the factors causing tree death. Every three years since, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and undergraduate field assistants have diligently returned to the more than 5,000 marked trees on Niwot Ridge just west of Boulder. In these 13 subalpine forest plots, they recorded that more trees died during summers with higher maximum temperatures and greater moisture deficits.
They found that tree mortality increased from .26% per year during 1982 to 1993, to .82% per year during 2008 to 2019—more than tripling within 40 years.
“It is really challenging because it’s not very visually obvious to the casual observer,” said Andrus. “But the thing to keep in mind is that while warmer, drier conditions are also causing more fire and bark beetle outbreaks, these slow and gradual changes are also important.”
Additional authors on this publication include Rachel Chai of the Veblen Lab at CU Boulder; Brian Harvey, previously a postdoctoral researcher in geography at CU Boulder and now an assistant professor at the University of Washington; and Kyle Rodman, previously a graduate student in the Veblen Lab at CU Boulder and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Today is a big day! As of July 26th, 2021 our partners at Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment will be mobilizing crews and setting the stage for channel construction and Rock Island Road bridge installation. The pull off at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road will be used by crews to stage equipment and will be closed to overflow parking from the Tiger Trailhead through the end of the construction season. Rock Island Road will remain open to the public throughout the construction phase, including during bridge installation.
This seasons work will include final grading, channel construction, bank stabilization, bridge installation, and initial revegetation of the site. When completed, 4,800′ of new channel, 13 acres of riparian habitat, and 5 acres of upland habitat will be created on Reach B. The new channel will include 20 riffle-glide-pool sequences that mimic the natural morphology of reference streams in similar elevations and habitats. These sequences will provide natural aquatic habitat and will be paired with large woody debris and boulder installation to further diversify the available habitat along this stretch of stream. New bank stabilization techniques that utilize logs and root wads will also be installed on this stretch to serve as fish refuges. By taking into consideration lessons learned on Reach A, we have made these improvements to the Reach B design and will continue to utilize the most current restoration techniques.
Last week, Summit TV was on site to shoot some aerial photography prior to the beginning of construction (see the photos below). Colorado Parks and Wildlife also toured the Reach A site recently to see an example of successful stream restoration and the following establishment of brook trout and sculpin populations. We hope that this project can continue to serve as a model for stream restoration, both here in Colorado and around the country.
Keep following the blog to see progress photos throughout the construction season and the transformation of the site.
The water level in Lake Powell has dropped to the lowest level since the U.S. government started filling the enormous reservoir on the Colorado River in the 1960s — another sign of the ravages of the Western drought.
On Monday, the pool elevation in Lake Powell, which stretches from Utah into Arizona, had dropped to 3,554 feet. (On Tuesday, it stood at 3,555 feet.) The water level has plunged as the American West experiences what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”
Too little water is coming into the lake, and too much is being sent downriver to maintain levels in Lake Mead, which is also at historically low levels…
The dams that hold back the water on the lakes produce hydropower for many Western states, and electric production from the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead has dropped by about 25 percent during the drought…
Last month, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a 24-month study showing that the amount of water flowing into Lake Powell had dropped sharply in the previous six months, and issued a prediction of a 79 percent chance that Lake Powell would fall below 3,525 feet “sometime in the next year,” which could lead to stricter water restrictions…
Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University, was more blunt: “I’m struggling to come up with words to describe what we’re seeing here,” he said.
The effects of climate change and water use management have led to “off the charts” water depletion, he said, comparing the water restriction measures that are currently in place to a parachute. “I worry that the parachute is not big enough,” he said, “and that we didn’t deploy it soon enough.”
Here’s the release from the USGS (Jennifer LaVista):
The southern portion of the Great Salt Lake is at a new historic low, with average daily water levels dropping about an inch below the previous record set in 1963, according to U.S. Geological Survey information collected at the SaltAir gauge location.
“Based on current trends and historical data, the USGS anticipates water levels may decline an additional foot over the next several months,” said USGS Utah Water Science Center data chief Ryan Rowland. “This information is critical in helping resource managers make informed decisions on Great Salt Lake resources. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Wind events can cause temporary changes in lake levels. Therefore, the USGS emphasizes that average daily values provide the most representative measurement. The USGS maintains a record of Great Salt Lake elevations dating back to 1847.
“While the Great Salt Lake has been gradually declining for some time, current drought conditions have accelerated its fall to this new historic low,” said Utah Department of Natural Resources executive director Brian Steed. “We must find ways to balance Utah’s growth with maintaining a healthy lake. Ecological, environmental and economical balance can be found by working together as elected leaders, agencies, industry, stakeholders and citizens working together.”
Streamflow levels across the state are also being impacted by extreme drought conditions. Currently, 63% (77/122) of streamgages with at least 20 years of record are reporting below-normal flows.
Current extreme drought conditions, water levels, weather and flood forecasts are available via the USGS National Water Dashboard on your computer, smartphone or other mobile device. This tool provides critical information to decision-makers, emergency managers and the public during flood and drought events, informing decisions that can help protect lives and property.
The nation’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, is now at its lowest point since it filled in the 1960s.
The massive reservoir on the Colorado River hit a new historic low on July 24, dropping below 3,555.1 feet in elevation. The previous low was set in 2005. The last time the reservoir was this low was in 1969, when it first filled. It’s currently at 33% of its capacity.
The popular southwestern recreation hotspot on the Arizona-Utah border, which plays host to houseboats, kayaks and speedboats, has fluctuated over the past 21 years due to low river flows exacerbated by warming temperatures. About 4.4 million people visited Lake Powell in 2019, and spent $427 million in nearby communities, according to the National Park Service.
Demand across the seven U.S. states and two Mexican states that rely on the river hasn’t declined fast enough to match the reduced supply, said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University…
Forecasts for Lake Powell’s inflows from the Colorado River grew increasingly pessimistic during spring and early summer this year. Flows from April to July are projected to be 25% of the long term average, placing 2021 into the top three driest on record for the watershed.
“The hard lesson we’re learning about climate change is that it’s not a gradual, slow descent to a new state of affairs,” Udall said…
Emergency water releases from smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell will take place over the next six months. They’re meant to maintain hydropower production at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“I’m very alarmed,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department. “It’s not only focused on hydropower concerns, we’re concerned operationally in general. We’re acting in coordination with the states about these decisions.”
Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, also on the Colorado River, is at a record low. Both Powell and Mead are projected to decline further this year…
The river’s current managing guidelines are set to expire in 2026. An update to those guidelines passed in 2019 included a potential demand management program in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In its conceptual form, the program would pay water users to voluntarily forgo water deliveries in exchange for payment. The saved water could be banked in Lake Powell to buffer against a potential Colorado River Compact call from downstream states.
None of the Upper Basin states has committed to fully implementing a plan to rein in demands on the river’s water in order to fill Lake Powell with conserved water. The plan remains in an investigatory phase.
Leaders of the Colorado mountain town Nederland just gave their surrounding 448-square-mile watershed “fundamental and inalienable rights,” like those conferred on people and corporations — bolstering a movement that has gained traction amid concerns nature is suffering.
The Nederland resolution, which passed 5-1 on July 6, also directs town trustees to appoint guardians who can speak for nature in local decision-making the way court-appointed guardians speak for children, dementia-stricken elders and pop star Britney Spears.
Under current U.S. law, forests, mountains and rivers lack legal rights, let alone standing to be represented in court.
Proponents contend subjugating nature as a commodity, used to satisfy human demands, is leading to disaster as the climate warms and they’re pressing for a new paradigm. But federal and state law can preempt local measures, and property rights groups are girding against what they see as an environmentalist grab for moral high ground.
For now, the focus of the nonbinding resolution in Nederland (population 1,600) is simply to spur deeper conversations about effects of population growth and development — and avoid litigation. Upcoming tests include new construction in the Caribou Ridge subdivision on moose and elk habitat, and a proposed new reservoir along Boulder Creek.
“This may become a national movement. We’re at a very early stage, just getting off the ground with this,” said Nederland trustee Alan Apt, a retired publisher and former Fort Collins councilman who led the local effort. “Human needs are important, and we want to make sure we meet the needs of our human population. But we also need to think about the air, water, wildlife, trees – everything that constitutes nature. It’s a survival issue.”
At a time when studies warn of open space disappearing across the United States at the rate of a football field every 30 seconds, elected leaders in recent years have passed rights of nature ordinances in Santa Monica, Calif.; Toledo, Ohio; Grant Township and Tamaqua, Pa.; Mora County, New Mexico; and Orange County, Fla.
The concept has been circulating for decades after emerging a half-century ago in a law professor’s article. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 recognized possible rights of nature in a case addressing a proposed ski resort development in a federal forest, with Justice William Douglas declaring in a dissent that “public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium … should lead to the conferring of standing upon environment objects to sue for their own preservation.”
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty, urges leaders worldwide “to consider and recognize when appropriate the rights of nature.” The Yurok tribe in California in 2019 gave rights to the Klamath River, and the Nez Perce did so with the Snake River last year. Nature’s rights are enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution, and Bangladesh in 2019 gave rivers the same legal rights as humans.
Crestone in 2018 became Colorado’s first town to pass general rights of nature legislation, part of a push for official certification as a dark skies community that controls light pollution.
Nederland is the first municipality in the Rocky Mountain West to pass a measure specifically designating a watershed, reflecting water’s essential ecological role and recent river-protection court wins in Colombia and New Zealand based on inherent rights of nature.
Organizations leading the movement — the nonprofit Save the Colorado River in Colorado and California-based Earth Law — say legal rights for nature to exist, flourish and be restored will guide local government decisions, from proposals to build new houses and roads to routing of new pipelines to siphoning of water that humans demand…
Colorado voters’ track record on environment-oriented ballot measures, most recently ordering state officials to reintroduce wolves, has opened this as a possibility for establishing legal rights of nature.
“Young people here in Denver and across the state are talking about it,” GreenLatinos and Sunrise Movement leader Ean Tafoya said. “If corporations have personhood rights, why shouldn’t the natural world?”
Here’s a guest column from Bruce Babbit that’s running on AZCentral.com:
It’s too soon to tinker with key parts of the Colorado River Compact. For now, our best bet may be to temporarily extend the Drought Contingency Plan.
Lake Mead is disappearing. It has already fallen more than 146 feet since 2000.
Last week the Bureau of Reclamation forecast that it will likely drop another 42 feet in the next five years, drawing the lake surface down to a level barely sufficient to generate power and release water for downstream water users in California and Arizona.
To manage this decline and stabilize the lake is not rocket science. Cities and farms are simply taking more water out of Lake Mead than is coming in from the Colorado River. The lake is like a bank account: on average, you can only take out as much as is being deposited by the Colorado River.
We’ll need all of DCP’s cuts to stabilize Lake Mead
When the current drought began in 2000, the three Lower Basin states that take water from the lake (Arizona, California and Nevada) suddenly awakened to the problem. After several years of difficult negotiations, they agreed on a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) that, with previously agreed cuts, would bring the lake into balance.
Hoping the drought would lift before too long, the DCP negotiators agreed to spread the cuts over coming years in response to changing lake levels. However, as the drought continues and intensifies, the Drought Contingency Plan is looking more like a Drought Certainty Plan.
It now appears that the full schedule of DCP reductions will be needed to bring the lake into balance at approximately 1,025 feet of elevation. The next reduction begins in 2022, a further cut is likely in 2023 with even deeper remaining cuts likely to occur by 2026, the year in which the current DCP will expire.
By that time the states that share the Colorado River must reach a new agreement. Their first task will be to decide whether still more reductions beyond the present DCP will be necessary in a new “DCP Plus.” It will be a close call, for the existing DCP schedule may be enough to bring the lake into balance, albeit at a very low level.
The negotiators will then face a newly emerging problem – the threat that the Colorado River might run so low, there will not be enough inflow to stabilize the lake, even with the full agenda of DCP reductions.
It works if we keep getting the minimum flow
So far Arizona and the Lower Basin states have managed through the drought by counting on a steady average minimum of at least 7.5 million acre feet of new water released annually from upstream reservoirs into Lake Mead. This minimum flow “guarantee” is contained in Article III(d) of the Colorado River Compact, the basic law governing the river.
This combination of a guaranteed minimum inflow from upstream reservoirs, paired with scheduled DCP reductions, makes it possible to plan with some confidence for Central Arizona Project (CAP) deliveries.
The Central Arizona Project aqueduct will not run dry and disappear alongside the ancient Hohokam canals. It will continue to deliver water up from the river to the Phoenix and Tucson areas.x
As long as the scheduled DCP cuts are carried out, and as long as the minimum anticipated inflow guaranteed by Article III(d) remains in place, the CAP should deliver into the future an average of about 40% less than the delivery forecast in 2020.
As its shoreline shrinks, Lake Mead will be a smaller lake, but it should hold steady at a level sufficient to generate power and deliver water through its outlets. And it will remain a beautiful and inviting National Recreation Area.
A warming climate could upend the law of the river
However, there is an elephant in the room. It is called human caused global warming.
As the climate continues to warm, rising temperatures cause more of the runoff from rain and melting snow to both evaporate and soak into drying soils before reaching the Colorado River.
If these predictions hold, there will come a point at which the guaranteed Article III(d) flows into Lake Mead could so severely limit water use in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming that the entire law of the river, including the Colorado River Compact, will be up for discussion and reconsideration.
We have not reached that point.
More studies are necessary and the predictive power of science is still evolving. The natural drought cycle that exists apart from global warming may lift. The Upper Basin states have yet to curtail any of their water uses in order to send flows to the Lower Basin.
For now, it might be smart to extend DCP
It is, therefore, too soon to be tinkering with Article III(d) or other provisions of the Colorado River Compact.
From the vantage point of today, the best alternative for a new agreement in 2026 will be to extend the existing DCP for another 10 years.
The negotiators will surely need to make adjustments to the amount and timing of DCP reductions. And there is certainly some flexibility to simultaneously adjust the amount and timing of the Upper Basin’s releases to the Lower Basin.
The Colorado River is a magnificent and wildly unpredictable resource. Managing it will always require our ongoing vigilance and commitment to working together to create fair and equitable outcomes.
Bruce Babbitt is is a former Arizona governor and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a special meeting on Monday, July 19, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to enter into Stage 1 drought restrictions in compliance with its 2020 Drought Management Plan.
At the special meeting, District Manager Justin Ramsey explained that the primary factor behind deciding when to enter into the restrictions is the San Juan River flow rate.
“We’re not seeing an average flow anywhere near median, so that’s where we’re at,” Ramsey stated.
He explained that it is not likely that the river will rise enough in the next month or two to where it would no longer meet the Stage 1 restriction requirement.
Ramsey explained that with en- tering into the Stage 1 restrictions, there is still no requirement as to which days residents are allowed to water lawns.
However, he mentioned that PAWSD is still asking people to voluntarily irrigate on an odd/even schedule where those with even-numbered addresses irrigating only on even-numbered days and odd-numbered addresses irrigating only on odd-numbered days.
Ramsey explained that one requirement with the Stage 1 restrictions is that residents must irrigate after 6 p.m. and before 9 a.m.
Board member Glenn Walsh noted that this is the first time the district has been through this process under the 2020 Drought Management Plan…
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) was updated on July 13, showing that 100 percent of Archuleta County is in a moderate drought and more than half of the county is in severe drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, rangeland growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county…
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 81.7 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 263 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1941 at 1,470 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 15.4 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 66.2 cfs. This is an increase from a July 14 reading of 62.3 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 232 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,350 cfs in 1986. The lowest recorded rate was 10.3 cfs in 2002.
In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Tuesday, July 27th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
A couple of things are important to understand about climate change’s role in extreme weather like this.
First, humans have pumped so much carbon dioxide and other planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that what’s “normal” has shifted. A new study, published July 26, 2021, for example, shows how record-shattering, long-lasting heat waves – those that break records by a wide margin – are growing increasingly likely, and that the rate of global warming is connected with the increasing chances of these heat extremes.
Second, not every extreme weather event is connected to global warming.
Shifting the bell curve
Like so many things, temperature statistics follow a bell curve – mathematicians call these “normal distributions.” The most frequent and likely temperatures are near the average, and values farther from the average quickly become much less likely.
The stream of broken temperature records in the North American West lately is a great example. Portland hit 116 degrees – 9 degrees above its record before the heat wave. That would be an extreme at the end of the tail. One study determined the heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. Extreme heat waves that were once ridiculously improbable are on their way to becoming more commonplace, and unimaginable events are becoming possible.
The width of the bell curve is measured by its standard deviation. About two-thirds of all values fall within one standard deviation of the average. Based on historical temperature records, the heat wave in 2003 that killed more than 70,000 people in Europe was five standard deviations above the mean, so it was a 1 in 1 million event.
There’s a basic hierarchy of the extreme events that scientific research so far has shown are most affected by human-caused climate change.
At the top of the list are extreme events like heat waves that are certain to be influenced by global warming. In these, three lines of evidence converge: observations, physics and computer model simulations that predict and explain the changes. At the bottom of the list are things that might plausibly be caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases but for which the evidence is not yet convincing. Here’s a partial list.
5) Reduced spring snowpack: Snow starts accumulating later in the fall as temperatures rise, more water is lost from the snowpack during winter, and the snow melts earlier in the spring, reducing the flush of water into reservoirs that supports the economies of semiarid regions.
7) Hurricanes and tropical storms: These derive their energy from evaporation from the warm sea surface. As oceans warm, larger regions can spawn these storms and provide more energy. But changes in winds aloft are expected to reduce hurricane intensification, so it’s not clear that global warming will increase damage from tropical storms.
8) Extreme cold weather: Some research has attributed cold weather that dips south with the meandering of the jet stream – sometimes referred to as “polar vortex” outbreaks – to warming in the Arctic. Other studies strongly dispute that Arctic warming is likely to affect winter weather farther south, and this idea remains controversial.
9) Severe thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes: These storms are triggered by strong surface heating, so it’s plausible that they could increase in a warming world. But their development depends on the circumstances of each storm. There is not yet evidence that the frequency of tornadoes is increasing.
When extreme heat shatters records
In the new heat wave study, Erich Fischer and colleagues at the Swiss Institute for Atmosphere and Climate Science looked at the frequency of weeklong heat waves that don’t just push the envelope of previous climate, they shatter records by huge margins. The scientists analyzed thousands of years of climate simulations to identify unprecedented heat events and found that global warming caused by coal, oil and gas was commonly associated with such events. In models, these record-shattering weeklong heat waves don’t just gradually increase with global warming but instead strike without warning.
The researchers showed that record-shattering heat is much more likely than it was a generation ago, and that these devastating events will occur much more often over the next few decades. Critically, they found that the likelihood of these unprecedented heat waves is associated with the rate of warming – and that their likelihood decreases markedly when fossil fuel emissions fall.
A warning that can’t be ignored
The catastrophic impacts of extreme weather depend at least as much on people as on climate.
The evidence is clear that the more coal, oil and gas are burned, the more the world will warm, and the more likely it will be for any given location to experience heat waves that are far outside anything they’ve experienced.
Disaster preparedness can quickly fail when extreme events blow past all previous experience. Portland’s melting streetcar power cables are a good example. How communities develop infrastructure, social and economic systems, planning and preparedness can make them more resilient – or more vulnerable – to extreme events.
This article was updated July 26, 2021, with the heat study.
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Susan Dunlap):
Climate change isn’t in the future for New Mexico—it’s already here and impacting families of color, according to climate change experts.
From Navajo leaving their land due to dwindling resources, hotter wildfires altering landscapes, an increase of climate change refugees crossing outside ports of entry and wells running dry in rural areas, families of color in New Mexico are already feeling the heat from climate change, various sources told NM Political Report.
Joan Brown, executive director of climate justice organization New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, said it’s hard to not feel “immobilized” by the immensity of the problem…
According to a Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication report, communities of color are likely to disproportionately feel climate change more than white communities due to socioeconomic inequities. Communities of color are likely to be more vulnerable to heat waves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and the resulting job opportunity dislocations, the report said.
Brown said she believes the first aspect of climate change to have the greatest impact on families of color in New Mexico will be the intensity of forest fires in the state.
This week forest fire smoke from western states has affected skies and air pollution in the eastern part of the U.S. and the Bootleg Fire in Oregon is so intense it is causing its own weather…
Families of color who live in Albuquerque are also feeling the effects of climate change and the ensuing severe drought, Brown said. Her organization has been involved in tree plantings, as part of the City of Albuquerque’s initiative to plant thousands of trees in city neighborhoods. Brown said New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light has focused its efforts in the International District in Albuquerque because the area acts as a “heat sink” due to a lack of vegetation and too much concrete, she said.
Heat sinks, which occur in urban settings, are more likely to affect low income and diverse communities such as the International District, Brown said…
Brown said there are places around New Mexico where wells are running dry. She said the state needs to allocate money and put more effort toward water preservation, adaptation and mitigation…
In southeast New Mexico, where significant oil and gas extraction takes place in the Permian Basin, Brown said the “folks suffering the most” are those who have less access to income. She said families of color who are low-income suffer from pollution-related health issues such as asthma.
With the anticipated increased heat from climate change, she said, low income families of color will suffer the most because they often don’t have evaporative coolers, insulated houses or air conditioning.
In another corner of the state, local organizer Nena Benavidez works with the social justice organization New Mexico CAFé in the Silver City area, the home of the Santa Rita Copper Mine. As the state plans to transition to meet legislation enacted to plan for a 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030, Benavidez is focused on the transitioning economy for rural locales, such as Silver City, which has been dependent on the metal mining industry since the late 1800s.
The Energy Transition Act is about phasing out the state’s reliance on coal, not copper, but New Mexico CAFé is concerned about what happens to jobs in rural communities, such as Silver City as the planet heats up. Johanna Bencomo, executive director for New Mexico CAFé, said immigrants and people of color in rural areas frequently work outside in the extractive industries or agriculture…
Bencomo said this summer, which has been one of the hottest and driest on record, impacted people of color picking green chile, as well as people of color working in the copper mine and in dairies.
New Mexico CAFé is pushing for a “just transition” to a green economy especially for the state’s rural communities. Not everyone wants to leave their small towns for a bigger city, Bencomo said…
The Navajo Nation
Mario Atencio, who is Diné [Navajo] and a board member of Diné C.A.R.E. (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), said the Navajo, who are still living on their traditional land, are already being dispersed from their homeland due to climate change.
“Even now, people are selling their cows. It’s kind of happening. There are no jobs, you can’t raise and sustain a herd of cows, what else are you going to do? You’ve got to go work. It’s not going to be a mass migration. It’s happening very slowly, a climate change diaspora,” he said…
He said some Indigenous people who rely on medicinal plants are not finding those plants due to climate change and worsening drought, which he said is a matter of food security and food sovereignty…
But, the biggest climate change challenge facing the Navajo will be sustainable water resources, Atencio said. Robyn Jackson, Diné [Navajo] and climate and energy outreach coordinator for Diné C.A.R.E., said a number of Navajo farmers did not plant this year because of the significant decrease in water due to the severe drought…
Not being able to plant, as Navajo people have done for generations, affects mental health because many dry land farmers received their seeds from their grandparents. She said maintaining the generational traditions are a reminder of the Navajo way of life.
Navajo and other Indigenous people have had to suffer the effects of environmental racism for generations. Jackson said that during the 1970s, the U.S. government named areas of the Navajo Nation a national sacrifice zone to meet the energy needs for large cities in the southwest region…
Oil and gas wells have been in operation on Navajo land since the 1920s, Jackson said. The extractive industries have brought “huge environmental impacts” with air and water quality issues and now that some, such as the coal industry, are in decline and closing, this brings additional economic impacts as well, Jackson said.
In a land where water is scarce and a third of Navajo families lack electricity and running water at home, the Navajo’s water issues have been exacerbated by different types of mining that American industry has extracted on Navajo land, including uranium mining and strip coal mining, Jackson said. This has left the Navajo with some contaminated water sources. She said there are over 1,000 abandoned mines on Navajo land.
As the drought worsens across the West and ushers in an early fire season, cattle ranchers are among those feeling the pain. Their hay yields are down, leading some to make the hard decision to sell off animals. To avoid the high cost of feed, many ranchers grow hay to nourish their herds through the winter when snow blankets the grass they normally graze…
At the Loma Livestock auction in western Colorado, sales were bustling earlier this month even though its peak season isn’t usually until the fall when most calves are ready to be sold. Fueling the action are ranchers eager to unload cattle while prices are still strong…
Weather has long factored into how ranchers manage their livestock and land, but those choices have increasingly centered around how herds can sustain drought conditions, said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association…
Culling herds can be an operational blow for cattle ranchers. It often means parting with cows selected for genetic traits that are optimal for breeding and are seen as long-term investments that pay dividends.
Last year’s historic wildfire season increased the area that’s prone to flooding, causing “an abnormal year of flooding events” this year, climate researcher says.
Areas scorched during last year’s historic wildfire season could pose flash flooding risks through the summer as rain picks up speed along steep terrain in the burn scars, sweeping debris onto major roads.
While heavy rain is typical of the summer monsoon season, Colorado is seeing “an abnormal year of flooding events,” partly because of last year’s historic wildfire season and the increased area of scorched land, Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said.
So far this year, mudslides along burn scars have caused dozens of road shutdowns, including along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, resulting in severe delays in traffic or significant detours. And that’s likely to continue through the end of monsoon season due to the altered composition of the soil along burn scars, Bolinger said.
Instead of the rain soaking into the soil, Bolinger compared the rainfall along burn scars to rain hitting a car and immediately running off.
“Particularly in areas that have suffered from wildfires, specifically last year, what happens to the soils is that they almost repel that water,” she said. “Basically, the fire changes the composition of the soil so that water cannot get into the soil as it would in a normal situation.”
The flooding becomes more dangerous along steep terrain as rain slides runs the slope and picks up speed as it goes, Bolinger said. If the slope is next to a road, there’s exponentially more danger.
“With that slope, that is what gets your flash flooding as opposed to a regular flooding event,” she said.
Rain can erode steep terrain between 24 to 40 tons per acre each year during the first few years after a wildfire, according to the U.S. Forest Service…
In the past month, vehicle and recreational traffic through Glenwood Canyon has been shut down several times after mud washed from the Grizzly Creek burn scar onto roads and when the risk of flash flooding was high. Lanes in both directions closed again Thursday night, with no estimated time of reopening, after more rain swept massive debris piles debris along the road, the Colorado Department of Transportation said in a tweet.
“Part of it is is just luck — or bad luck — of where these fires happened, particularly the Grizzly Creek fire, which wasn’t a really huge fire, but its placement next to I-70 and in that steep terrain has really led to that one being one of the highest impact areas this summer for flooding,” Bolinger said…
One person died and several people were reported missing as of [July 23, 2021] after flash floods sent debris flowing into Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins. Several homes were destroyed and buildings were damaged as trees, mud, rocks and structures washed into the river, causing debris to pile up six feet high in some places.
Parts of Colorado 125 and U.S. 40 in Grand County were closed for several hours after a mudslide fell along the East Troublesome burn scar Thursday.
But sometimes, there doesn’t need to be much rain for flooding to become a disaster.
“There’s not a perfect relationship between how much rain you get and the level of flooding. Even if we are not expecting a ton of rain, it could just be enough,” Bolinger said. “You want to make sure what you’re going into because even a little bit of rain can quickly change the situation where you are.”
Rain-flushed mudslides are not just in burn zones either. Heavy rains in Telluride and Avon this week buried roads and pedestrian trails in debris.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to help small forest owners become a more significant part of the carbon markets, earn an income on their land, and help with carbon sequestration.
The Biden administration has set its climate change policy agenda, with a broad call to engage rural America. But one approach lacking a laser focus is on incentivizing rural forest owners to use their land for capturing and storing carbon.
America’s forests and forest products already capture and store more than 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of nearly 15 percent of annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. With the right policies that enable voluntary action, the nation’s forests can do even more, with some estimates saying the U.S. could double this important contribution to climate mitigation.
“With the right tools and partnerships, American agriculture and forestry can lead the world in solutions that will increase climate resilience, sequester carbon, enhance agricultural productivity, and maintain critical environmental benefits,” the U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a new progress report on using forests and agriculture to mitigate the impact of climate change.
One of those “right tools” must be action by the government to jumpstart carbon markets for small forest owners.
Families and individuals own the largest portion of forests – 36% – across the U.S. Research from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the U.S. Forest Service has found that these owners want to improve forest health, but the vast majority are not employing best practices due to the high costs associated with forest management.
Helping small forest owners access carbon markets would allow them to generate income from their land that can then be poured back into the trees for increased conservation and carbon capture. And generating income from carbon markets would provide a much-needed financial boost for forest owners, as many lack resources to sufficiently maintain their forests. One in three family forest owners has an annual income of less than $50,000.
If 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for shining a light on the realities of our connected world, then the summer of 2021 will be remembered for the mirror it held up to the realities of a warming and drying future for water in the Colorado River Basin.
We’re on the brink of the federal government declaring a water shortage, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have plummeted, and any sign of replenishing flows is precarious at best. But unlike COVID-19, this shortage has been on the horizon for decades. Water managers, scientists, and non-profits like American Rivers are sounding the alarm (and have been), about the realities of a simultaneously drying and ever-more-demanding West.
Concerns about drought and impacts to everything from fish to farmers are not political statements—they’re true ones, backed now by a bounty of science. The harsh reality of these truths is that the scale and pace of climate-related changes in the Colorado River Basin pose a gargantuan challenge, unprecedented in the history of water management.
It’s not that we haven’t made attempts to respond. Certainly, we have. Conservation efforts have long centered on balancing supply and demand, but these are in-the-moment and short-term responses to a very long-term challenge. What we need now is forward thinking strategies to adapt, respond to, and mitigate the steady, compounding, and extreme risks of climate change to economies, communities, wildlife, landscapes, and at the root of all of it—the rivers we rely on.
At this precipice, our future demands that we invest our time, energy, and financial resources boldly and immediately in strategies that will work—that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.
A recent report to which American Rivers contributed entitled “Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience in the Colorado Basin,” authored by Martin & McCoy and Culp & Kelly, LLP, outlines those strategies (see below). To arrive at this list of top ten, report authors asked:
Could the investment help the Basin adapt to ongoing climate shifts?
To what extent would the investment reduce pressure on existing water supplies?
Would the investment help mitigate climate change?
Could the investments strengthen economic resilience in communities?
The resulting top 10 investment strategies for a more resilient future are:
Forest Management & Restoration – Prioritizing forest management and restoration to maintain system functionality and biodiversity
Natural Distributed Storage – Restoring highly degraded natural meadow systems to improve local aquifer recharge, water retention, reconnect historic floodplains, and support productive meadows and riparian ecosystems
Regenerative Agriculture – Promoting voluntary farming and ranching principles and practices that enrich soils, enhance biodiversity, restore watershed health, and improve overall ecosystem function and community health
Upgrading Agricultural Infrastructure & Operations – Upgrading diversion, delivery and on-farm infrastructure and operations, including irrigation systems
Cropping Alternatives & New Market Pathways – Developing on-farm operational shifts and market and supply chain interventions to incentivize water conservation, e.g. shifting to lower water-use crops
Urban Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing conservation technologies, indoor and outdoor conservation programs, and direct and indirect potable reuse
Industrial Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing modifications and upgrades to reduce water use and increase energy efficiencies
Coal Plant Retirement Water – Purchasing or reallocating water rights from closed or retiring coal plants to be used for system or environmental benefits, or other uses
Reducing Dust on Snow – Improving land management practices to reduce the dust on snow effect — which controls the pace of spring snowmelt that feeds the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Covering Reservoirs & Canals – Implementing solutions to reduce evaporation from reservoirs and conveyance systems
The full report outlines, in detail, not just the near-term next steps for moving these strategies forward but includes demonstration projects, investments and action-oriented research.
But it’s important to emphasize that these strategies can’t be implemented in a silo. “I” doesn’t work in these conditions. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our ability to count on them well into the future will be dependent upon our willingness to develop cross-sector partnerships and basin-wide funding for these investments that can be cohesively implemented at a scale commensurate to the challenge. Local, state, and tribal governments must be on board. Our private land partners need voluntary measures and incentives, not mandates.
And we can’t wait for calls on the river, fallowed fields, and dry stretches to act. These investments in climate resilience for the Colorado River are needed now.
FromBizWest Media/Boulder Daily Camera (Lukas High) via The Sterling Journal-Advocate:
Predictability is critical for Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, who are grappling with increasing volatility related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Extreme weather is not new,” Colorado State University professor Becca Jablonski said during Colorado Proud’s “Growing, Evolving and Thriving Colorado Agriculture: Farmers and Ranchers” roundtable held [July 21, 2021]. “But it’s arguably getting worse.”
Wildfires and droughts have become annual features of the summer growing season and unexpected freezes during the spring and fall are becoming increasingly common.
“We’re really concerned about climate change and variability,” said Steve Ela, owner of ELA Family Farms. “We farm in small microclimates here in Colorado, and those microclimates are shrinking.”
Ela’s operation lost half its peach crop during a freeze last October…
Adoption of low water-use practices and crops could “help keep agriculture alive and keep farmers and ranchers on the land,” Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said.
To complicate matters further, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on supply chains, making it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to source supplies and get their products to market.
Community-level networks “were really critical for learning to adapt” during the pandemic, Jablonski said…
Making quick pivots in response to unanticipated challenges requires a willingness to assume quite a bit of risk, she said, but farmers who are barely scraping by often cannot afford to take big chances.
Using controlled environment agricultural practices or shifting to heartier crops could help mitigate some risk, Jablonski said.
The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.
That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.
James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.
“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”
In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.
The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.
In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.
“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”
Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”
“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”
The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.
“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”
Drought Contingency Plan
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.
Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.
In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.
Decision making roadmap
Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.
Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.
“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.
River District’s interests
Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.
The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.
“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.
Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.
“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”
CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.
Ranchers like Washburn are trying to adapt. That might mean having to give up ranching altogether.
Washburn is raising the sixth generation of kids on the ranch, which has operated in Crested Butte for more than 130 years. He said that just in the last 20 years, there’s been a noticeable difference in the amount of available water.
Washburn grows hay on his private acreage while his cows graze on federal land. Some of the smaller creeks and ponds that irrigate the government rangeland are drying up.
“Year-after-year of this continued drought, we’re seeing places that we didn’t think would ever go dry,” Washburn said.
One creek dried up three years ago. Washburn said his father-in-law had never seen that creek go dry in his life.
Without enough water on their federal pasture, Spann Ranch is bringing its cattle back to the private ranch weeks earlier than they’re supposed to. That’s a costly snag. Without open grazing, ranchers are forced to use their winter hay supplies early to feed their hungry cattle during the summer. When the hay runs out, they have to buy more…
Most of the farmland in this county is irrigated, meaning farmers and ranchers flood their crops and pastures with river water.
Farmers and ranchers started digging this system of trenches and ditches more than 100 years ago, transforming the landscape. What was once sagebrush and rocks are now meadows of hay and grass. Colorado’s agricultural industry depends on this water, but more than 20 years of deep drought has depleted this critical resource.
Washburn believes that the lack of water on the Western Slope will mean the end of his family’s ranching operation within his childrens’ lifetime…
[Andy] Spann believes his family can stay in agriculture, but the operation will need to change. Right now, their business is raising and selling calves. That requires a lot of hay to feed mother cows during the winter.
Instead, Spann said they might move to raising cattle during the warmer months and selling off any hay they are able to grow.
More drastic options include transitioning from cattle ranching to growing hay full-time — or even turning the livestock operation into a horse ranch, Spann said…
Bill Parker, another Gunnison County rancher, said his operation is already successfully adapting to climate change.
Parker learned hard lessons from previous droughts, including the historic drought of 2012 that forced him to sell off half his animals for close to a loss…
If a bad drought year is forecasted, ranchers like Parker won’t raise as many animals. That usually means less potential profits, but Parker raises grass-finished beef and lamb that fetch a premium when he sells the meat directly to wholesalers locally and online.
Parker said his family uses direct marketing to pocket as much of the retail dollar as possible. Without a middleman, Parker can make more money by raising fewer animals instead of feeding and caring for a large herd when it’s abnormally dry.
Parker also moves his livestock to warmer places in the winter so they can continue grazing on grass, which means his operation isn’t dependent on a good hay crop.
He’s also adopted other climate-friendly ranching techniques. Instead of letting his sheep or cattle overgraze one spot, he moves them around using a portable electric fence. Parker said this allows him to control the health of his soil.
The technique, called rotational grazing, keeps the animals from eating all the plants before they can grow the deep roots that help hold moisture in the soil. Healthy soil and plants also absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which can help fight climate change.
Parker could get federal drought insurance and get compensated during dry years, but he doesn’t. He said he wants to take responsibility for ranching in the arid West, a burden that’s growing heavier as the climate warms.
Here’s a guest column from Phil Weiser and Bob Rankin that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
From the very founding of our state, our predecessors recognized that, in Colorado, life is inscribed in water. This truth is even written on our Capitol walls beneath the gold dome. As we continue to grapple with the implications of a changing climate and an ever-growing population, one thing is clear — the water management challenges we face require collaboration, innovation, planning, and major funding.
From the San Luis Valley to the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains, our communities depend on water for our agriculture, our outdoor recreation economy, and our lives. But we cannot simply stand pat and continue a status quo in the face of a growing population and decreasing water supplies on account of reduced snowpack.
We must invest in water infrastructure with a sense of urgency — so we can deliver win-win solutions. And we need to do this now as we have unprecedented opportunity to utilize federal and state funds. Our forecast for state revenues for the next few years rebounded dramatically from the initial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the American Rescue Plan Act provides Colorado $3.8 billion to recover from the pandemic and invest in our future. Water projects are one such investment in which these funds can and should be invested. Furthermore, Congress may very well send additional funds to Colorado this summer through a bipartisan infrastructure package. To be sure, there are competing demands for these funds, such as investing in broadband infrastructure for unserved areas. At the top of the list, however, we should prioritize water infrastructure.
We believe investment from these combined sources will dramatically strengthen Colorado’s water security and enable us to implement water management projects called for by the Colorado Water Plan. These funds will not address every need, or even every high-priority project, but they will drastically accelerate construction and maintenance work, such as repairing pipes and water leaks, on the systems we rely upon to deliver safe and clean water to our communities.
Colorado has both a vision and a strategy — as well as priorities — for how to allocate funding for water projects. The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, represents a visionary promise for how Colorado will manage its water resources. For starters, we are committed to protecting all of Colorado and not allowing wholesale “buy and dry” situations. When “buy and dry” plans are implemented, which has already happened in some rural counties, those plans spur the decline of rural communities’ infrastructure, undermine their agriculture, damage the economy, and hurt the local population. There are many cautionary tales in rural Colorado warning us that this is not how to manage water.
The Water Plan also calls for significant investments in water infrastructure, storage, and conservation efforts to meet tomorrow’s water needs. In particular, the plan identified billions of dollars in needs across water supply, infrastructure, recreation, and the environment over the next 30 years. Currently, as noted by the water plan, a fraction of the state budget goes toward water projects. We need to prioritize such investments.
In the Colorado Water Plan, we have a broad roadmap to invest in Colorado’s water future. But right now our biggest challenge is funding. With continued growth on the horizon, planning for the future of water management will become even more important. And to fulfill the plan’s vision, it will take billions of dollars. To be sure, the General Assembly has commendably found both some one-time funding and dedicated funding streams to fund the water plan in recent years. But to properly fund Colorado’s water will take billions more.
Colorado can have a bright future that enables our entire state to thrive. Ensuring that future, however, is going to require smart and innovative investments in how we manage our water. By investing a meaningful portion of the billions provided to Colorado under the American Rescue Plan Act, we can shore up critical water infrastructure that will enhance our resilience going forward, and deliver dividends by strengthening rural communities, creating jobs for agricultural and outdoor recreation centers, and ensuring water resources are protected for the next generation. We have the available resources now to do it and should come together to make the investments called for by the Colorado Water Plan. We both stand ready to work and support the effort to do just that.
Phil Weiser is the attorney general of Colorado. Bob Rankin is a state senator and represents Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.
Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.
More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.
After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.
Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.
Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…
Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…
Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
Diane Carman’s opinion column this morning touches on the cost of moving sustainability and resilience forward in Denver Suburb:
For decades, we’ve heard that a reckoning was coming.
Climate change would threaten our fundamental way of life in the West. After years of neglect, essential parts of our infrastructure would fail. The bills for the costs of maintaining our essential services — kicked willy-nilly down the road to a murky unidentified date in the future — would come due.
We ignored it all, blithely turning up the air conditioning, watering our lawns and tuning out the scientists, the engineers, the city managers.
Now that reckoning has arrived.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Westminster. They can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money.
Officials from Westminster’s water and sewer departments began warning that the 50-year-old facilities were worn out.
The storage tanks for the city’s water, the pipes and pumps delivering it, and the sewage treatment systems were shot. Concrete was flaking away, pipes deteriorating, pumps becoming unreliable.
The city council looked at the mountain of evidence and made the only responsible choice: it voted to upgrade the system.
To pay for it, the council also voted to raise the rates for water and sewer customers and, since the cost of the projects was estimated in the tens of millions, the increased fees were significant, especially for high users.
When the summer of 2020 came and the thermometer hit 90 or above for a record-setting 75 days, the good folks of Westminster sprinkled their lawns like they always had (maybe not blithely but still …) and the resulting water bills blew their minds.
Still in deep denial of reality, a group of Westminster activists mobilized as Water Warriors to recall several city council members for their failure to kick the problems down the road once more.
The effort was an expensive bust, with the recall of only one council member, Jon Voelz, making it onto the ballot, only to fail spectacularly in the special election last week.
But this war is far from over.
Several Westminster council members will face re-election in November and surely water rates will be an issue. Those who routinely flood their lawns with 20,000 gallons or more each month and pay the highest rates are not about to give up the fight for their right to Kentucky Bluegrass — drought and system failures be damned.
But Westminster is hardly unique. In fact, it’s really Everytown, USA. Its water war is a mere skirmish in the seething national debate about how to face the reckoning now upon us.
The facts are indisputable.
After years of drought in the West, reservoirs, water tables and rivers are at historic lows.
California is forced to forced to choose between leaving enough water in the streams so that salmon can survive and drawing enough to grow crops. Ranchers across the West are reducing their stocks as it becomes more apparent that they won’t be able to feed them. Customers who rely on hydroelectric power face shortages as water levels drop and heat waves stretch even into Canada. Fishermen have been asked to abide by a voluntary ban on angling in the mighty Colorado River.
At the same time, critical infrastructure from bridges and highways to the antiquated electric grid have been left to degrade for most of a century, risking public health and safety for lack of political will.
The backlog of delayed infrastructure projects in Colorado alone is huge: $10 billion for safe drinking water, $9 billion for transportation, $4 billion for wastewater systems … the list goes on.
But while nobody would say the Westminster water wars have been easy (or cheap), the outcome so far is cause for mild optimism.
Mayor Anita Seitz has listened to constituents’ concerns both about the condition of the water system and the painful rate increases and has chosen not to duck the issue for mere political expedience. Instead, she and other council members are working to help the community understand the problem and what the future holds.
Acres of green lawns, long a symbol of abundance, now represent reckless profligacy. Failure to address the crumbling infrastructure can only bring more serious and expensive problems down the road. An unwillingness to fix the problems now will only cost the community more in the future.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility,” Seitz said. There’s not much “wiggle room.”
She’s right. Whatever wiggle room we had to address climate change and meet our infrastructure needs is long gone.
In this summer of heat domes, wildfires, droughts, floods and structural failures, that message should be loud, clear and irrefutable.
Take it from the folks in Westminster, it’s time for action.
Lake Powell will soon hit its lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam started trapping the Colorado River’s water in 1963 — even with emergency releases of water from reservoirs upstream.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced Thursday that the lake elevation will soon drop below 3,555.1 feet above sea level, the record set in 2005, back near the start of a 20-year dry cycle plaguing the Colorado River Basin.
“Lake Powell’s elevation is expected to drop another two feet by the end of July, and will likely continue to decline until next year’s spring runoff into the Colorado River begins,” the bureau said in a news release.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low…
Meanwhile, various projects remain on the drawing board in Utah and other Upper Colorado River Basin states that would divert even more water from the Colorado. Utah, for example, is fully committed to its $1.5 billion Lake Powell pipeline proposal, which would move 86,000 acre-feet a year to Washington and Kane counties, and has recently established the Colorado River Authority of Utah to advanced the Beehive State’s claims to the river.
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation authorized the release of 181,000 acre-feet over the next five months at three reservoirs, mostly from Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River. Conservationists like John Weisheit of Living Rivers say that move is merely buying time, forestalling the day when Lake Powell will no longer function as a reservoir.
“Emptying the upstream reservoirs is … like burning your furniture to stay warm,” said Weisheit, paraphrasing a famous quote from Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” “It’s an act of desperation. … Everything is breaking. We have exceeded the limits of nature.”
Originally an afterthought, recreation has become Lake Powell’s most important and visible role for many Westerners who explore the 185-mile lake by boat to play, camp and fish. Now most of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s boat ramps are either unusable or difficult to use, and the marinas could become inoperable.
On Monday, the National Park Service closed the lake’s Dangling Rope Marina, the only place to get fuel in the 100-miles stretch between Wahweap and Bullfrog, at least through the end of the year. Houseboats can no longer be launched at Wahweap, although they still can be retrieved for now.
Governor Mark Gordon is convening a Colorado River Working Group that will meet regularly to discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The action comes in response to drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins that have led the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to announce drawdowns from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in order to maintain minimum levels at Lake Powell. At this time no restrictions on Wyoming water users are proposed.
The group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors of the Green and Little Snake River Basins, including agricultural, municipal, industrial and environmental interests. It will discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. The Working Group is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019. More information about the Colorado River Working Group’s inaugural public meeting will become available soon.
“The West finds itself facing unprecedented drought conditions and Wyoming must be prepared to address the potential future impacts of water shortages,” Governor Gordon said. “It is important that local perspectives on issues that impact our water users and the State are heard and included in the process. I want to ensure that representatives of key water use sectors are able to provide input on this crisis, which is challenging us today and may last for years.”
In its 24-Month Study released [July 16, 2021], Reclamation confirms continual declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. The results show that drought response releases from key Reclamation reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin — including Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah — will be necessary starting this summer.
Based on Reclamation’s announcement, 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir will be released to protect storage elevations in Lake Powell. These releases will be staged July through October and will likely result in Flaming Gorge water elevation dropping an additional 3.5 feet by mid-autumn. No Wyoming water rights are tied to the water being released, so no Wyoming water right holders will be affected.
Today’s announcement from Reclamation underscores that water supply throughout the West is becoming less reliable, especially in the Colorado River Basin. The Governor is committed to ensuring that Wyoming’s water users are protected under the state’s apportionments provided for under the 1922 Colorado River and 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compacts. The Governor is also committed to continuing collaboration on water management and operation solutions which provide overall water supply reliability and certainty, as well as meeting Compact and Treaty obligations and maintaining environmental commitments, all of which make the system work for all who depend on the Colorado River.
Knowing the increasing risks, Wyoming has planned ahead. In 2019, Wyoming signed onto the Drought Contingency Plan alongside the other Colorado River Basin States and the Department of Interior. This plan helps protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, which is an important insurance policy for Wyoming to bolster the State’s ability to maintain and develop its water uses while also satisfying its compact obligations. The drought response releases are part of the plan’s overall strategy to help prevent curtailment triggers under the 1922 Compact.
“It has not taken a whole lot of rain to move what has moved so far so I anticipate there will be more movement in some of those same drainages but it’s hard to measure and know exactly so much,” said Elizabeth Roberts, an ecologist with the White River National Forest who has spent most of the past year planting grasses in the burn scar to stabilize soil and restore damaged terrain.
The seeds Roberts and her team sow will eventually become the rooted plants that keep soil from moving in the dozens of debris fields that funnel into Glenwood Canyon’s Colorado River. But since the Grizzly Fire burned into winter last year, she’s racing to get seeds into every path of scorched earth. Many of the Grizzly Creek Fire’s 32,631 acres are in steep, rocky chutes where seeds would not take anyway.Everyone knew the runoff and rains of 2021 would pose a threat to Glenwood Canyon. The City of Glenwood Springs spent more than $10 million on emergency watershed protection projects that included replacing and upgrading water intakes and filtering systems in the No Name and Grizzly Creek drainages where the city collects its water.
Swift protection for the highway from rain-loosened debris was much more difficult, if not impossible…
The U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map following the Grizzly Creek Fire that identified dozens of drainages where the likelihood of debris flows was increased if the area saw only 15 minutes of rain that fell at a rate of roughly an inch an hour. That map was spot on. Debris flows that shoved tons of mud onto the highway have come from three separate areas where the USGS estimated the chance of debris flows was between 40% and 100%.
Forest and transportation officials were working with models, so the actual amount of mud coming down and where it might end up was impossible to predict…
Roberts has been doing most of her seeding work on the rim above the canyon. She’s been surprised to see lots of natural vegetation coming back in the first year. The growth of herbaceous shrubbery — known as forbs, which are neither grassy nor woody, like snowberry, chokecherry and fireweed — has been “quite significant,” Roberts said.
That’s been helpful because forest botanists are generally speeding native grasses, which can take a couple years to firmly establish, depending on the health of the soil…
Mitigation in the narrow canyon is complicated. The stretch of interstate built between 1980 and 1992 is an engineering marvel, heralded not only for its ingenious efficiency but how its minimal footprint protected as much of the canyon as possible. When a fire hit perhaps the worst place on Interstate 70 for a burn scar, there just isn’t much room for barriers and other strategies for protecting roads from rain-riding debris. That isn’t stopping CDOT from trying to find ways to divert flows of mud and rock.
This report analyzes the energy, economic, environmental, and health outcomes of an illustrative clean energy standard (CES) design that reaches 80% clean electricity by 2030, and offers important information on the costs and benefits of such a policy.
The analysis is the first to map at a county scale the changes in air quality and related health benefits for the lower 48 states. It compares an 80×30 policy scenario to a range of alternative policies for reducing carbon from the energy sector and finds it is the top performer in terms of net climate benefits (climate benefits minus costs) and total health benefits. The analysis is also the first to look at the health impacts of projected air quality improvements by racial and ethnic groups.
The analyses in this brief were conducted over the last two years as part of the Clean Energy Futures project, an independent collaboration with researchers from Syracuse University; the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Georgia Institute of Technology; and Resources for the Future.
The 80×30 CES has the largest net benefits of the 8 policies examined: The illustrative 80×30 CES has the largest estimated total and climate-related net benefits of other policies analyzed in the Clean Energy Futures project
Nationally, the estimated climate benefits of an 80×30 CES are large and outweigh the costs: Estimated climate benefits are $637 billion; estimated costs are $342 billion and include the cost of fuel, building new capital projects and retrofitting existing facilities, and operating energy facilities.
The additional health benefits from cleaner air would be immediate, substantial, and widespread.
Estimated 317,500 lives saved from 2020-2050 from reduced exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone
9,200 premature deaths avoided in 2030 when the policy reaches 80% clean electricity
Estimated $1.13 trillion in health savings due to cleaner air between now and 2050
Air quality improvements occur in every state by 2030
Air quality improvements are projected to occur for all racial and ethnic groups. Nationally, non-Hispanic Black people are estimated to experience the largest reductions in average population-weighted pollution exposures.
Top Ten States for Premature Deaths Avoided in the Year 2030: Ohio (771), Texas (737), Pennsylvania (582), Illinois (529), Florida (463), North Carolina (453), Indiana (441), Tennessee (424), Michigan (396), Georgia (377)
Authors and Clean Energy Futures Team
Charles Driscoll*, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University
Kathy Fallon Lambert*, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Center for Climate Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE)
Peter Wilcoxen*, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Armistead (Ted) Russell, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Dallas Burtraw, Resources for the Future
Maya Domeshek, Resources for the Future
Qasim Mehdi, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Huizhong Shen, School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Southern University of Science and Technology
Petros Vasilakos, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
Active weather prevailed across much of the South, East, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Plains, into the middle of July, followed by a southward shift in widespread shower activity. Meanwhile, a robust monsoon circulation provided limited Southwestern drought relief, particularly in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Farther north and west, however, little or no rain fell in California, the Great Basin, and the Northwest, where dozens of wildfires were in various stages of containment. Smoke and other particulate matter from those fires carried downwind at various atmospheric levels, producing hazy skies and reducing air quality—in some cases thousands of miles from the points of origin. Dry weather extended eastward across the nation’s northern tier as far east as Lake Superior, while heavy rain eased or eradicated drought in the remainder of the Great Lakes region, along with the Northeast. In the driest areas of the northern and western United States, drought’s impact on water supplies, as well as rangeland, pastures, and a variety of crops, was further amplified by ongoing heat. Weekly temperatures averaged as much as 10°F above normal from the interior Northwest to the northern High Plains. On July 19, temperatures as high as 110°F were reported in eastern Montana. Another pocket of hot weather was centered over the middle Atlantic States. In contrast, near- or slightly below-normal temperatures dominated the Plains, Midwest, and South…
Scattered showers largely ended early in the drought-monitoring period. Meanwhile, extreme heat returned across northern portions of the region. Agricultural drought impacts across the northern High Plains remained widespread and severe, despite spotty showers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, topsoil moisture on July 18 was rated 86% very short to short in North Dakota, along with 84% in South Dakota and 74% in Wyoming. Rangeland and pastures were rated at least one-half very poor to poor in Wyoming and the Dakotas, led by South Dakota at 78%. On July 18, North Dakota was the national leader in oats rated very poor to poor (50%; tied with South Dakota), along with soybeans (41%) and corn (32%). South Dakota led the nation, among major production states, in sorghum rated very poor to poor (29%). Nationally, the U.S. spring wheat crop was rated just 11% good to excellent and 63% very poor to poor on July 18, the lowest overall condition at this time of year since July 18, 1988, when the crop was categorized as 7% good to excellent and 73% very poor to poor. Initial estimates released by USDA on July 12 indicated that the 2021 U.S. spring wheat production will be down 41% from last year, while yield will be down 37%. If realized, the 2021 U.S. spring wheat yield of 30.7 bushels per acre would be the lowest since 2002…
Showers associated with the Southwestern monsoon circulation provided limited drought relief in Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado, while drought generally worsened across the northern Rockies and interior Northwest. The Western drought continued to act on multiple time scales, ranging from a few weeks (mostly agricultural impacts) to two decades (ecological and hydrological effects). Dozens of wildfires, primarily across northern California and the Northwest, continued to burn through hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, brush, and grass, aided by hot, dry conditions, dry soils, and ample fuels. Wildfire smoke continued to degrade air quality in many areas of the country, well outside the West. In southern Oregon, the nation’s largest active wildfire—the lightning-sparked Bootleg Fire—has consumed more than 394,000 acres of vegetation and has destroyed at least 184 structures. Meanwhile, Washington led the country in several drought-related agricultural categories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On July 18, Washington’s topsoil moisture was rated 98% very short to short—highest on record since the beginning of the 21st century. Prior to this year, the Washington state record of 89% very short to short had been set on September 10, 2017. Washington also led the country on July 18 in very poor to poor ratings for rangeland and pastures (96%), spring wheat (88%), and barley (63%). In addition to Washington, at least one-half of the rangeland and pastures were rated very poor to poor on that date in Montana (89%), Arizona (88%), Oregon (74%), Utah (72%), Nevada (65%), and Wyoming (52%). Partly due to the stunning drought-related impacts on agriculture, extreme to exceptional drought (D3 to D4) was broadly expanded across eastern Washington and environs, as well as parts of Montana and neighboring states. Moving to longer-term impacts, some of the West’s largest reservoirs and lakes continued to exhibit startling declines. The surface elevation of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, fell 135 feet in the 21-year period from July 1, 2000, to July 1, 2021, from 1,204 to 1,069 feet above sea level. By July 20, Lake Mead’s elevation stood at 1067.79 feet. Prior to the 21st century, Lake Mead’s surface elevation briefly fell below 1,100 feet only during two drought periods: 1955-57 and 1964-65. Since March 2014, the lake’s end-of-month surface elevation has been continuously below 1,100 feet—and currently stands at a record low since impoundment occurred more than 80 years ago. Farther upstream, water is being released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah to boost the level of Lake Powell for the purpose of guarding hydropower generating capability. Elsewhere in Utah, the surface elevation of the Great Salt Lake fell to 4,191.4 feet on July 20, tying the previous record low set in 1963. In California, 154 primary intrastate reservoirs gained just 1.7 million acre-feet of water during the 2021 melt season, barely 20% of the historical recharge average of 7.9 million acre-feet. At the end of June, the 154 reservoirs held just 62% of their typical volume for this time of year—and had lost 16.6 million acre-feet of water (49% of the original volume) over the last 2 years. Current California storage (17.5 million acre-feet) is less than 5.8 million acre-feet above what those reservoirs held on June 30, 1977, which was the year when statewide storage ultimately fell to a record-low end-of-month volume of 7.5 million acre-feet at the end of October. Finally, the punishing Western drought has been accompanied by record-setting high temperatures. The most recent northward shift in heat occurred as monsoon-related showers intensified across the Southwest. By July 19, Glasgow, Montana, reported a maximum temperature of 110°F—the highest reading in that location since July 18, 1936. It was also Glasgow’s third-highest temperature (tied with June 17, 1933) on record, behind only 113°F on July 31, 1900, and 112°F on July 18, 1936…
Patches of dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) have been relegated to a few areas in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Broadly, there are few drought-related impacts in the South. Frequent summer rain events have maintained adequate to abundant soil moisture. On July 18, Mississippi led the region with topsoil moisture rated 33% surplus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
The interaction between the Southwestern monsoon circulation and a weak cold front will result in locally heavy rain in the Four Corners States but only light showers on the drought-stricken northern Plains. Five-day Southwestern rainfall totals could reach 1 to 3 inches or more, mainly in parts of Arizona, western New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Meanwhile, little or no rain will fall in the Pacific Coast States, northern Great Basin, northern Rockies, and central and southern Plains. Flash drought could become a concern across the central and southern Plains and upper Midwest, where building heat will accompany the dry weather. Meanwhile, significant rainfall (1 to 2 inches or more) should be limited to the Great Lakes and Northeastern States, as well as parts of the Southeast. Higher totals may occur in peninsular Florida. Elsewhere, a significant hot spell will persist into next week across an area centered over the northern Plains, with heat-related impacts reaching into the northern Rockies, Intermountain West, central Plains, and upper Midwest.
The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for July 27 – 31 calls for the likelihood of hotter-than-normal weather nationwide, except for near-normal temperatures in the Northeast, Desert Southwest, and southern and western Alaska. Meanwhile, near- or below-normal rainfall in much of the country should contrast with wetter-than-normal weather across the Intermountain West, northern Great Basin, and western Alaska.
Given the momentum behind carbon farming as a climate change mitigation strategy, we believe now is the time to establish clear standards that ensure that only real net changes in carbon receive financial rewards.
Carbon farming basics
As plants grow, they pull carbon from the atmosphere, and soil soaks it up and stores it. The amount of carbon stored varies significantly across soil type and climate.
Another climate-friendly strategy is raising livestock and crops together. Rotating cows among pastures allows grasses to recover from grazing, and the animals’ manure and the impacts of their grazing regenerate carbon in soils.
Carbon farming is also a potential revenue stream for farmers and ranchers, who can sell the credits they earn in carbon markets. Large-scale greenhouse gas emitters, such as manufacturers, purchase these credits to offset their own emissions.
Companies such as IndigoAg and Nori are already facilitating payments to farmers for carbon credits. And on June 24, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021 by a vote of 92-8. The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners participate in carbon markets.
So far, however, there are no universal standards for measuring, reporting or verifying agricultural carbon credits. Here are the questions we see as top priorities.
Assessing carbon storage
One major challenge is that soils absorb varying amounts of carbon depending on depth, texture and mineral content. While certain practices increase carbon storage, quantifying how much is stored and for how long is critical for assigning dollar values to them. The markets and practices that work in different locations also vary widely.
Another priority is developing national minimum standards to predict and properly value soil carbon capture. Carbon may reside in soil anywhere from days to millennia, so time scale is an important consideration for markets. In our view, credits should reflect the duration carbon resides in soil, with full offsets generated only for longer-lasting storage.
We also believe that these programs must consider an operation’s net greenhouse gas emissions. For example, practices may store more carbon in soil but also increase emissions of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas.
Benefits and challenges
Rebuilding carbon-rich soil supports farmers’ bottom lines by improving soil health and increasing crop yields. But federal incentives could preferentially provide resources to big operations that have greater ability to sequester carbon on their vast acreage.
Ultimately, the goals of climate policy include curbing greenhouse gas emissions and actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Before farmers receive soil carbon credits they can sell to offset other sources of emissions, we believe their value must be accurately assessed to ensure that society gets what it pays for.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that IndigoAg does not purchase carbon credits.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) recently shared alarming news about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River and I’ll attempt to explain their complicated projections. Reclamation, the agency that oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even to those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
Just last month, in June, Reclamation shared their new 5-year projections for the Colorado River Basin to further assist drought management within the Basin. They share these projections a few times every year. The big news is that the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise their projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for their Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in Tier 1 shortage. And they say there is a greater than 99% chance of this shortage in 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80% probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering emergency response (outlined in the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement as part of the DCP here on page 7) whereby Reclamation will release water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. The entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
Climate change is here. We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our way of life is at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult. Please join us in advocating for climate solutions that benefit the Colorado River and other important rivers in the West. Sign up for updates here.
Northern California has some of the strongest offshore winds in the U.S., with immense potential to produce clean energy. But it has a problem. Its continental shelf drops off quickly, making building traditional wind turbines directly on the seafloor costly if not impossible.
Once water gets more than about 200 feet deep – roughly the height of an 18-story building – these “monopile” structures are pretty much out of the question.
A solution has emerged that’s being tested in several locations around the world: making wind turbines that float. In fact, in California, where drought is putting pressure on the hydropower supply and fires have threatened electricity imports from the Pacific Northwest, the state is moving forward on plans to develop the nation’s first floating offshore wind farms as we speak.
So how do they work?
Three main ways to float a turbine
A floating wind turbine works just like other wind turbines – wind pushes on the blades, causing the rotor to turn, which drives a generator that creates electricity. But instead of having its tower embedded directly into the ground or the sea floor, a floating wind turbine sits on a platform with mooring lines, such as chains or ropes, that connect to anchors in the seabed below.
These mooring lines hold the turbine in place against the wind and keep it connected to the cable that sends its electricity back to shore.
Most of the stability is provided by the floating platform itself. The trick is to design the platform so the turbine doesn’t tip too far in strong winds or storms.
There are three main types of platforms:
A spar buoy platform is a long hollow cylinder that extends downwards from the turbine tower. It floats vertically in deep water, weighted with ballast in the bottom of the cylinder to lower its center of gravity. It’s then anchored in place, but with slack lines that allow it to move with the water to avoid damage. Spar buoys have been used by the oil and gas industry for years for offshore operations.
Semi-submersible platforms have large floating hulls that spread out from the tower, also anchored to prevent drifting. Designers have been experimenting with multiple turbines on some of these hulls.
Tension leg platforms have smaller platforms with taut lines running straight to the floor below. These are lighter but more vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis because they rely more on the mooring lines and anchors for stability.
Each platform must support the weight of the turbine and remain stable while the turbine operates. It can do this in part because the hollow platform, often made of large steel or concrete structures, provides buoyancy to support the turbine. Since some can be fully assembled in port and towed out for installation, they might be far cheaper than fixed-bottom structures, which requires specialty boats for installation on site.
Floating platforms can support wind turbines that can produce 10 megawatts or more of power – that’s similar in size to other offshore wind turbines and several times larger than the capacity of a typical onshore wind turbine you might see in a field.
Why do we need floating turbines?
Some of the strongest wind resources are away from shore in locations with hundreds of feet of water below, such as off the U.S. West Coast, the Great Lakes, the Mediterranean Sea, and the coast of Japan.
In May 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to open up parts of the West Coast, off central California’s Morro Bay and near the Oregon state line, for offshore wind power. The water there gets deep quickly, so any wind farm that is even a few miles from shore will require floating turbines. Newsom said the area could initially provide 4.6 gigawatts of clean energy, enough to power 1.6 million homes. That’s more than 100 times the total U.S. offshore wind power today.
Globally, several full-scale demonstration projects are already operating in Europe and Asia. The Hywind Scotland project became the first commercial-scale offshore floating wind farm in 2017, with five 6-megawatt turbines supported by spar buoys designed by the Norwegian energy company Equinor.
While floating offshore wind farms are becoming a commercial technology, there are still technical challenges that need to be solved. The platform motion may cause higher forces on the blades and tower, and more complicated and unsteady aerodynamics. Also, as water depths get very deep, the cost of the mooring lines, anchors, and electrical cabling may become very high, so cheaper but still reliable technologies will be needed.
Expect to see more offshore turbines supported by floating structures in the near future.
Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:
Pikeview Reservoir, a popular fishing spot in central Colorado Springs and part of our water system, has tested positive for blue-green algae. While the reservoir is still safe for fishing, humans and pets are prohibited from entering the water until further notice. Anglers are directed to thoroughly clean fish and discard guts.
Pikeview has been removed as a source for drinking water until the reservoir is determined to be clear of the algae. There are no concerns about this affecting water supply for the community.
“It’s our responsibility to provide safe, reliable drinking water to our community and to always consider public safety at our reservoirs. We will continue to closely monitor our reservoirs and take appropriate actions,” Earl Wilkinson, Chief Water, Compliance and Innovation Officer said.
We conduct more than 400 water quality tests a month and collect approximately 12,000 water samples throughout our water system annually. With the increased risk of the blue-green algae, we are increasing the frequency of testing reservoirs at lower elevations.
In the past several years, there’s been increasing occurrence of toxic blue-green algae in reservoirs across the United States, forcing limitation of recreational access to the bodies of water for public safety.
Sickness including nausea, vomiting, rash, irritated eyes, seizures and breathing problems could occur following exposure to the blue-green algae in the water. Anyone suspicious of exposure with onset of symptoms should contact their doctor or veterinarian.
There is one climate topic that you’re likely to hear a lot about this year: tipping points.
In the context of climate science, a tipping point can occur when a relatively small change can have a large and irreversible effect on some of the Earth’s largest systems, such as the Antarctic ice sheets or the Amazon rainforest.
In the first post in our series on tipping points, we looked at the definition of tipping points. In the second of our series we literally go from pole to pole to examine the potential for huge change in the oceans and the cryosphere – the Earth’s wealth of ice.
Professor Tim Lenton – from the University of Exeter – is a world-renowned expert on tipping points. One tipping element (bits of the climate system that could pass a tipping point) that stands out as high risk for Professor Tim Lenton, is West Antarctica. Here there is physical evidence consistent with possibly having passed the tipping point for irreversible retreat of part of the ice sheet. Destabilization of the West Antarctica ice sheet could lead to about a three-metre sea-level-rise on a timescale of centuries to millennia. In a wider study Tim suggests that part of the East Antarctic ice sheet might similarly be unstable, with the potential to add another 3-4 m to sea level on timescales beyond a century.
He said: “We might already have committed future generations to living with sea-level rises of around 10 m over thousands of years. But that timescale is still under our control. The rate of melting depends on the magnitude of warming above the tipping point. More observational data will establish whether ice sheets are reaching a tipping point, and better developed models are needed to resolve how soon and how fast the ice sheets could collapse.” Tim.
Dr Ed Blockley, who leads the Polar Climate Group of the Met Office Hadley Centre, paints a similarly bleak picture for retreating Arctic sea ice. He explains that one challenge to understanding sea ice decline, is measuring the large seasonal and year-to-year variability against sustained long-term decline. However, over the past four decades, Arctic sea ice cover has reduced, on average, by 87,000 square kilometres, an area of more than four times the size of Wales each year. The Arctic has an important role to play in regulating climate, such as the albedo effect – where the expanses of white ice reflect the sun’s energy back into space – and atmospheric circulation patterns, which can influence the weather at lower latitudes such as in Europe.
Dr Blockley said: “One potential tipping point of Arctic sea ice is the ocean halocline, whereby cold, fresh water at the surface is less dense than warm, salty water below and currently prevents the warm water from reaching the surface and melting the sea ice. If the halocline were to collapse, this warm water, which contains enough heat to melt all the sea ice many times over, could mean that the Arctic would remain ice-free even if global warming were to be reversed.”
Tim Lenton added: “The Arctic is the place where a sort of cascade of unwelcome tipping point changes may be starting because it’s clearly the place that’s warming up two to three times as fast as the global average. We are also accumulating more evidence of casual interactions here as well, such as the role of Arctic sea-ice retreat and resultant warming in permafrost thawing. We appear to be approaching several tipping points.”
Perhaps one tipping element more than any other attracts regular media headlines: the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). This huge conveyor belt brings warm salty water from the tropics into the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic. A weakening or collapse of this current could have devastating impacts on the climate of the northern Atlantic region, potentially switching off the transport of warm conditions to northern Europe.
Dr Richard Wood, head of cryosphere and oceans group at the Met Office Hadley Centre, explains: “If we were to add fresh water to the North Atlantic – such as from melting glaciers or increased precipitation run-off, for example – you would make the surface water fresher and less dense, weakening the ‘pump’ that drives the ocean circulation.”
Warming of the surface waters due to greenhouse gases has a similar effect of making the surface waters less dense and so weakening the ocean circulation pump. So there is a ‘double whammy’ of warming and freshening conspiring to weaken the circulation.
Dr Wood added: “Because the AMOC is a circulation that spans the whole globe, it’s a fundamental part of our climate system. We don’t think a collapse is imminent in the next decade or so, but climate models do suggest that over the 21st century, the AMOC will weaken, as greenhouse gases increase. We need to monitor for any early warning signals that the AMOC is getting near a tipping point.”
The Met Office’s second episode of our Mostly Climate podcast on Tipping Points can be found here.
Next time in the lasts of our tipping points series we’ll be travelling to the Amazon.
High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.