Colorado and the West face unprecedented drought conditions, impacts from wildfires, and water scarcity driven by climate change. These changes threaten our local and regional water supplies, our food supply, bird habitat, economies, and our quality of life. Beavers can help mitigate these impacts. Beavers re-shape the landscapes where they live, creating wet meadow complexes in an otherwise dry area. These diverse wetlands provide important habitat for birds and other wildlife. Beaver wetlands even survived Colorado’s largest wildfire, the Cameron Peak Fire, and continue to provide critical water quality and wildlife habitat functions, a weighty win-win.
To learn more, Audubon Rockies staff went into the Poudre Canyon to capture images of the stark, burnt landscape surrounding vibrant green vegetation and clear flowing water at the Cameron Peak burn scar. We also caught up with an ecohydrologist and researcher who specializes in beavers, Dr. Emily Fairfax, to ask questions about the resilience and benefits of beaver complexes. Here’s what we learned.
Watersheds are our primary water infrastructure. How do beaver wetlands help watersheds and water supplies be more resilient to and recover from wildfire?
Beaver wetlands can store an enormous amount of water on the landscape—both in the surface water ponds and canals as well as underground in the soil that surrounds them. These wetlands accumulate water during wetter periods when there is a lot of precipitation or runoff. Then when it’s dry and the incoming water supply is “cut off”, the water stored in beaver complexes is still accessible to nearby plant roots, keeping them green and lush. Plants become particularly dangerous fire fuels when they’re dry, but the plants in beaver complexes are well-watered so they’re much less flammable than the surrounding areas. It’s like trying to start a campfire: you want to gather the driest materials possible; you don’t go and gather a bunch of wet leaves.
How do beaver wetlands support ecological services directly related to rivers and water supply downstream?
Beavers have three main impacts on river water: they slow it, spread it, and store it. Importantly, they do not stop water altogether. Historically there were a lot more wetlands throughout the American West than what we see today, including many more beaver wetlands. So when we think about beavers changing how and when water is delivered downstream, it’s important to remember that we’re currently in the altered flow regime and adding wetlands nudges the riverscapes back towards a more natural and resilient state.
One or two beaver wetlands might not make a big difference in how and when a river flows. Yet there are many examples—especially in the Rocky Mountains—of 10’s to 100’s of beaver complexes, one after another, fundamentally changing the flow regime of a river or stream. The more beaver complexes you have, the larger their effect will be. In many places, snow has the primary job of slowing and storing water. But as the climate continues to change and precipitation shifts from snow-dominant to rain-dominant in parts of the West, something else is going to need to start slowing and storing water so that it’s available in the summer when plants need it. Beaver wetlands are one thing that can help do that.
As climate change reshapes our water supply availability through deep periods of drought and intense localized storms, how are beaver wetlands able to help?
Beaver wetlands are very complex, broad landscape features. Their resilience to droughts and floods and fires all go hand-in-hand. When a flood wave travels down a narrow, confined stream channel, it has a lot of power, moves quickly, and can be really destructive. But when it hits a beaver wetland, the flood wave is routed in the broad pond and along the canals. This causes it to physically spread out over the entire floodplain and gives water time to sink into the soil. The volume of water is the same in both situations, but when it’s spread out by the beaver wetland it loses power and some of it is stored locally instead of all the water just ripping downstream. Then when you do have a deep, prolonged drought, enough water has been stored in the beaver wetland and surrounding soil to sustain the ecosystem and keep habitat intact.
Can you describe how beaver wetlands sustain key habitat for birds and other wildlife?
Beavers do an outstanding job of both creating and maintaining stable, highly biodiverse habitat. They are incredibly resistant to disturbance, and that makes them an attractive place to call home for many different animal species. If you live in or around the beaver wetland, your home is less likely to wash away, dry out, or burn. And if you’re a species that needs reliable water, that is getting increasingly rare in the West. But it’s abundant in beaver wetlands. Beavers also create a mosaic of water temperatures, water depths, shading, and land covers by simply going about their daily lives chewing trees, digging canals, and building dams. They can transform even heavily degraded, simple streams into complex, heterogeneous wetlands capable of supporting a vast array of plants and animals with differing ecological needs. The beavers are doing it to ensure their own survival, but the secondary benefits for other species cannot be overstated.
Is there anything else you would like to add on the importance of beavers and their wetlands now and into the future?
Beavers and humans coexisted for thousands and thousands of years prior to the European-North American fur trade. Many Indigenous people on this continent know how important beavers are for creating and maintaining wetland habitat. I’m optimistic for beavers and their wetlands in the future; more and more people are getting interested and involved in beaver-based restoration and conservation every day. I just want people to remember that listening—not just to statistics and model outputs, but also to people and stories—is probably the fastest and most successful path forward.
All of us depend on natural systems for clean and reliable water. Beavers and the diverse habitat they support can be a key Western water security strategy—for people, birds, and other wildlife. Models show that climate change and historic drought will continue to affect the Colorado River Basin and further increase the severity and frequency of wildfires. These fires are devastating to communities, wildlife, and Colorado’s rivers and waterways. In the wake of Colorado’s three historic wildfires in 2020 and future wildfires, beaver activity and wetlands, and beaver mimicry low-tech process-based restoration techniques can help reduce the impacts of wildfires on water supplies and assist in wildfire recovery by sustaining wet-meadow and riverscape plant communities.
Boulder County and Denver Water could be nearing a settlement to resolve a simmering dispute over plans to expand the Gross Reservoir.
Denver Water in July sued Boulder County in federal court, claiming commissioners were taking too long to consider the utility’s request to expand the reservoir.
“The proposed settlement would require Denver Water to pay more than $10 million to mitigate the impacts of the project in Boulder County,” Boulder officials said in a Friday news release. “In exchange, Boulder County would not dispute Denver Water’s claim that the project is exempt from review.”
Boulder County’s Board of Commissioners will meet Tuesday to discuss the proposed settlement, while Denver Water’s board will meet the following day. A federal judge had set oral arguments in the lawsuit for Nov. 4, but those would be canceled if the agency and county government approve the settlement…
The proposed expansion would raise the existing Gross Dam by 131 feet and widen it by 800 feet, increasing the reservoir’s capacity from nearly 42,000 acre-feet to nearly 120,000 acre-feet.
But Denver Water can’t just do it on its own — it needs a permit from Boulder County, which will receive none of the water security and all of the construction, traffic and ecosystem effects. Those who live near the reservoir complain that the five years of construction would bring pollution, lights and noise, while environmental advocates say tens of thousands of trees would have to be cut down to complete the project…
Some of the money ($2.5 million) would be allocated to assist Boulder County residents directly impacted by the project, while $5.1 million would go to open space funding to replace land consumed by the larger reservoir, Boulder officials said. Other funds would address greenhouse gas emissions from the project and restoration efforts of the South Saint Vrain Creek.
Denver Water would also agree under the proposed settlement to transfer 70 acres of land near Walker Ranch Open Space to Boulder County, which would be added to the recreational land…
In its lawsuit this summer, Denver Water alleged that Boulder County was overstepping its authority and jeopardizing the water project.
A federal judge dismissed a separate lawsuit in March from a coalition of environmental organizations, which sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2018 to block the project.
During the development of the Colorado Water Plan six years ago, Water for Colorado came together to help ensure Coloradans’ voices were heard in the creation of the plan. In the end, 30,000 public comments were submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, making it one of the largest and most celebrated examples of civic engagement in state history.
It’s time to once again ensure Coloradans’ voices are heard as the Colorado Water Plan undergoes an update. As you may have read about in last week’s blog post, the state’s nine Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) that inform the Water Plan are in the process of being updated, and it’s time for us all to get involved to ensure the long term health of our water and rivers. The month-long public comment period on BIP drafts has opened and runs through November 13, allowing residents to provide input on what they want to see in their community’s plan.
Basin Implementation Plans aren’t just important to the local basins and watersheds; they help build the scaffolding of the Colorado Water Plan overall. Crucially, the BIP public comment period is the first opportunity to engage community members, decision-makers, and all water stakeholders (that means you!) – especially those who may have been left out in years past – to ensure their voices are being heard.
Meaningfully commenting on your local plan can be as simple as asking your Basin Roundtable representatives to prioritize and protect local river flows and ensure opportunities for river enjoyment and recreation by all. To help you do this, Water for Colorado is collecting comments, which will then be submitted on your behalf to your local Basin Roundtable once the public comment period ends on Nov. 13.
If you want to get involved but are unsure of what to say or how to comment, we’ve used the expertise of our nine organizations to compile a few key recommendations that encompass what we believe is necessary for ensuring healthy and thriving rivers and watersheds as we face unprecedented climate change.
WATER FOR COLORADO’S KEY RECOMMENDATIONS:
HEALTHY FLOWING RIVERS:
Manage rivers to benefit healthy flows for all communities, recreation, and fish and wildlife across the state by encouraging flexible, collaborative water-sharing and conservation programs to enhance environmental and recreational flows.
Actively manage our watersheds‘ forests, streams, and wetlands, the source of our clean drinking water, to improve their resilience to drought and fires by incorporating nature-based solutions that protect, sustainably manage and restore headwater streams, riparian corridors, and wetlands. This includes scaling up projects that utilize natural process based restoration methods (e.g. beaver mimicry structures and other natural approaches) that result in beneficial ecological and hydrological processes to ensure communities and habitats are more resilient to a changing climate.
Water is one of the few things that truly connects us all, so we must support clean water and healthy river access for everyone by ensuring ongoing opportunities for public outreach and engagement to ensure diverse, inclusive, and equitable engagement on basin-level water planning efforts.
SUPPORT IRRIGATED AGRICULTURE:
Support our local food, local families, and wildlife through water-smart agriculture practices such as upgrading agricultural infrastructure to provide multiple environmental and recreational benefits, promoting soil health, and developing markets for lower water use crops.
WATER CONSERVATION AND EFFICIENCY:
Support water-smart planning for our new growth (including limits to areas of non-essential turf grass) and increase water reuse and recycling. Reduce current legal and financial barriers to the adoption of water conservation and efficiency programs and practices.
Encourage basin funding prioritization of multi-benefit projects enhancing river and watershed health, which includes support for the development of regional funding programming (ex: 2020 7A ballot measures) and the efficient implementation of all state and federal funds.
Colorado lawmakers are advancing a bill aimed at outlawing water investment speculation, even as they acknowledged their attempt to address the complex problem is an imperfect one.
On Wednesday, members of Colorado’s Water Resources Review Committee voted to put forth a bill in the 2022 legislative session that aims to prohibit a buyer of agricultural water rights from profiting on the increased value of the water in a future sale. The measure is an attempt to prevent out-of-state investors from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.
The draft bill gives the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and fine a purchaser up to $10,000 if they determine speculation is occurring. Those making a complaint could also be fined up to $1,000 if state officials deem a complaint frivolous. A second section of the bill also directs the board of directors of mutual ditch companies to set a minimum percent of agricultural water rights for one purchaser to hold that would trigger the presumption that they are engaging in investment water speculation.
Western Slope state Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Eagle County, and Don Coram, R-Montrose County, and Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Boulder County, are sponsoring the bill.
At the beginning of Wednesday’s discussion, Donovan vented her frustration with what she called mixed messages from water managers. Most seem to agree that stopping investment water speculation is important, but no one can agree on the best way to do that.
“There was a general agreement that investment water speculation was an important issue to work on, so much so… that we invested taxpayer dollars in order to turn out a report,” she said. “We have put resources into addressing this issue and now the feedback is ‘don’t do anything, slow down.’”
Donovan was referring to a report released in August by a work group, which was tasked with exploring ways to strengthen the state’s current anti-speculation laws. The group, made up of water managers and policy experts from across water sectors, came up with a list of concepts on how to prevent water investment speculation. But they did not give clear recommendations to legislators because they could not come to a consensus on which concepts to implement.
Wolf Creek Ski Area got another round of snow, with 6 inches falling throughout the day on Tuesday, Oct. 26, according to its snow report.
The ski area has received 28 inches so far this season.
According to the U.S. Depart- ment of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snow pack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 3 inches of snow water equivalent as of 10 a.m. on Oct. 27.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins were at 431 percent of the Oct. 27 median in terms of snow pack.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 80.4 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27.
Based on 86 years of water records at this site, the lowest recorded flow rate for this date is 29 cfs, recorded in 1967.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1942 at 870 cfs.
The average flow rate for this date is 133 cfs.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 66.2 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 645 cfs in 1999.
A new lowest recorded rate was recorded this year for this date, earlier in the day, at 40.4 cfs.
Based on 59 years of water re- cords at this site, the average flow rate for that date is 158 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 4,140 cfs in 1973.
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) was last updated on Oct. 19.
The NIDIS website indicates 100 percent of Archuleta County is ab- normally dry.
The percentage of the county in a moderate drought is listed at 69.81 percent.
The NIDIS website also notes that 47.66 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage, which is up slightly from last week’s report of 42.68 percent.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 9.12 percent of the county, mostly the southwestern portion of the county, remains in an extreme drought, consistent with the previous report.
The NIDIS website notes that under an extreme drought stage, large fires may develop and pasture conditions worsen.
No portion of the county is in an exceptional drought.
Four years ago, I traveled around America, visiting historical archives. I was looking for documents that might reveal the hidden history of climate change – and in particular, when the major coal, oil and gas companies became aware of the problem, and what they knew about it.
I pored over boxes of papers, thousands of pages. I began to recognize typewriter fonts from the 1960s and ‘70s and marveled at the legibility of past penmanship, and got used to squinting when it wasn’t so clear.
What those papers revealed is now changing our understanding of how climate change became a crisis. The industry’s own words, as my research found, show companies knew about the risk long before most of the rest of the world.
On Oct. 28, 2021, a Congressional subcommittee questioned executives from Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute about industry efforts to downplay the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Exxon CEO Darren Woods told lawmakers that his company’s public statements “are and have always been truthful” and that the company “does not spread disinformation regarding climate change.”
Here’s what corporate documents from the past six decades show.
At an old gunpowder factory in Delaware – now a museum and archive – I found a transcript of a petroleum conference from 1959 called the “Energy and Man” symposium, held at Columbia University in New York. As I flipped through, I saw a speech from a famous scientist, Edward Teller (who helped invent the hydrogen bomb), warning the industry executives and others assembled of global warming.
“Whenever you burn conventional fuel,” Teller explained, “you create carbon dioxide. … Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.” If the world kept using fossil fuels, the ice caps would begin to melt, raising sea levels. Eventually, “all the coastal cities would be covered,” he warned.
1959 was before the moon landing, before the Beatles’ first single, before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the first modern aluminum can was ever made. It was decades before I was born. What else was out there?
In Wyoming, I found another speech at the university archives in Laramie – this one from 1965, and from an oil executive himself. That year, at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, the main organization for the U.S. oil industry, the group’s president, Frank Ikard, mentioning a report called “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” that had been published just a few days before by President Lyndon Johnson’s team of scientific advisers.
“The substance of the report,” Ikard told the industry audience, “is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out.” He continued that “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate.”
Ikard noted that the report had found that a “nonpolluting means of powering automobiles, buses, and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.”
As I reviewed my findings back in California, I realized that before San Francisco’s Summer of Love, before Woodstock, the peak of the ’60s counterculture and all that stuff that seemed ancient history to me, the heads of the oil industry had been privately informed by their own leaders that their products would eventually alter the climate of the entire planet, with dangerous consequences.
Secret research revealed the risks ahead
While I traveled the country, other researchers were hard at work too. And the documents they found were in some ways even more shocking.
By the late 1970s, the American Petroleum Institute had formed a secret committee called the “CO2 and Climate Task Force,” which included representatives of many of the major oil companies, to privately monitor and discuss the latest developments in climate science.
In 1980, the task force invited a scientist from Stanford University, John Laurmann, to brief them on the state of climate science. Today, we have a copy of Laurmann’s presentation, which warned that if fossil fuels continued to be used, global warming would be “barely noticeable” by 2005, but by the 2060s would have “globally catastrophic effects.” That same year, the American Petroleum Institute called on governments to triple coal production worldwide, insisting there would be no negative consequences despite what it knew internally.
Exxon had a secretive research program too. In 1981, one of its managers, Roger Cohen, sent an internal memo observing that the company’s long-term business plans could “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
The next year, Exxon completed a comprehensive, 40-page internal report on climate change, which predicted almost exactly the amount of global warming we’ve seen, as well as sea level rise, drought and more. According to the front page of the report, it was “given wide circulation to Exxon management” but was “not to be distributed externally.”
Other oil companies knew the effects their products were having on the planet too. In 1986, the Dutch oil company Shell finished an internal report nearly 100 pages long, predicting that global warming from fossil fuels would cause changes that would be “the greatest in recorded history,” including “destructive floods,” abandonment of entire countries and even forced migration around the world. That report was stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” and only brought to light in 2018 by Jelmer Mommers, a Dutch journalist.
In October 2021, I and two French colleagues published another study showing through company documents and interviews how the Paris-based oil major Total was also aware of global warming’s catastrophic potential as early as the 1970s. Despite this awareness, we found that Total then worked with Exxon to spread doubt about climate change.
Big Oil’s PR pivot
These companies had a choice.
Back in 1979, Exxon had privately studied options for avoiding global warming. It found that with immediate action, if the industry moved away from fossil fuels and instead focused on renewable energy, fossil fuel pollution could start to decline in the 1990s and a major climate crisis could be avoided.
But the industry didn’t pursue that path. Instead, colleagues and I recently found that in the late 1980s, Exxon and other oil companies coordinated a global effort to dispute climate science, block fossil fuel controls and keep their products flowing.
We know about it through internal documents and the words of industry insiders, who are now beginning to share what they saw with the public. We also know that in 1989, the fossil fuel industry created something called the Global Climate Coalition – but it wasn’t an environmental group like the name suggests; instead, it worked to sow doubt about climate change and lobbied lawmakers to block clean energy legislation and climate treaties throughout the 1990s.
For example, in 1997, the Global Climate Coalition’s chairman, William O’Keefe, who was also an executive vice president for the American Petroleum Institute, wrote in the Washington Post that “Climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, gas and coal is steadily warming the earth,” contradicting what the industry had known for decades. The fossil fuel industry also funded think tanks and biased studies that helped slow progress to a crawl.
Coal, oil, and natural gas received $5.9 trillion in subsidies in 2020 — or roughly $11 million every minute — according to a new analysis from the International Monetary Fund.
Explicit subsidies accounted for only 8 percent of the total. The remaining 92 percent were implicit subsidies, which took the form of tax breaks or, to a much larger degree, health and environmental damages that were not priced into the cost of fossil fuels, according to the analysis.
“Underpricing leads to overconsumption of fossil fuels, which accelerates global warming and exacerbates domestic environmental problems including losses to human life from local air pollution and excessive and road congestion and accidents,” authors wrote. “This has long been recognized, but globally countries are still a long way from getting energy prices right.”
The report found that 47 percent of natural gas and 99 percent of coal is priced at less than half its true cost, and that just five countries — China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan — account for two-thirds of subsidies globally. All five countries belong to the G20, which in 2009 agreed to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies “over the medium term.”
Setting the price of coal, oil, gas to reflect their true cost — say, with a carbon tax — would cut carbon dioxide emissions by around a third, helping to put the world on a path to keeping warming below 1.5 degrees C. Such policies would also raise revenues equal to 3.8 percent of global GDP and prevent close to 1 million deaths from local air pollution yearly.
“There would be enormous benefits from reform, so there’s an enormous amount at stake,” Ian Parry, an environmental policy expert and lead author of the report, told the Guardian. “Some countries are reluctant to raise energy prices because they think it will harm the poor. But holding down fossil fuel prices is a highly inefficient way to help the poor, because most of the benefits accrue to wealthier households. It would be better to target resources towards helping poor and vulnerable people directly.”
FromThe Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley and Marianne Goodland):
The Colorado Water Trust is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with two decades of efforts to restore flows in Colorado rivers. But the trust’s next 20 years will likely face greater challenges of climate change and population growth that are already taking a toll on the state’s waterways.
The trust’s main focus is to improve instream flows, the flows and water levels in a stream or river.
Back in 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need for a statewide instream flow program. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was given the authority to acquire water rights, or lease them, for instream flow purposes. Instream flow water rights, one of the beneficial uses under Colorado’s water rights law, are the exclusive authority of the CWCB.
While the original purpose of the legislation was to “protect the natural environment,” the instream flow program has expanded to address “water requirements for declining, sensitive, and threatened and endangered species, and protection of macroinvertebrate populations and rare riparian vegetation assemblages,” according to the CWCB.
Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream flow rights for 1,700 stream segments covering more than 9,700 miles of stream.
But the instream flow program got off to a slow start, and drought was becoming an increasing problem in Colorado. One of the first big droughts was in the winter of 1976-77, which “sent shock waves through Colorado’s economy and state government.”
There was a gap. The CWCB had the authority over junior water rights for instream flows, but nothing in place to acquire senior water rights.
Those junior rights are useful very high up in the mountains where there aren’t a lot of other rights, said Andy Schultheiss, the trust’s executive director. Senior water rights, on the other hand, are more secure, but the state needed an outside group to scout opportunities for the state to buy or lease those senior water rights.
In 2000, water engineers, water lawyers and conservationists began discussions on how to bolster the instream flow program, and that led to the formation of the trust in 2001.
Like most new water programs in Colorado, the trust faced suspicion from water rights holders early on, especially farmers and ranchers. According to the Colorado Water Exchange, 80% of the state’s water goes toward irrigation, and that’s mostly for agriculture.
“It took us eight or nine years to develop our first project,” Schultheiss said. “There’s a lot of reluctance to try anything new.”
That first major project came in 2009, when Pitkin County and the CWCB signed an agreement, brokered by the trust, to allow the county to lend water for the instream flow program.
Since then, the trust has directed 13.5 million gallons of water through 588 miles of Colorado waterways.
The approach today works like this: The Trust goes to a rancher and says, “How about you stop irrigating, say Aug. 1, and we compensate you for the days you’re missing, and we give the rest of your water to the state to lease it to use in an instream flow reach?” That’s a classic kind of trust project, Schultheiss said.
In an apparently groundbreaking permanent water sharing agreement in 2014, said to be the first in the West, the trust purchased a portion of the water rights on the McKinley Ditch to restore flows to a three-mile segment of the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. In spring and summer, the water is available for agricultural irrigation. Late summer and fall, the water heads down the Little Cimarron…
The trust has been trying to improve instream flows on the Yampa since the 2012 drought, according to Schultheiss. In some years, the water they buy from Stagecoach Reservoir represents a third or more of the water in the river, he said.
Back in 2012, the trust recognized that there was water sitting in Stagecoach with very few customers.
“And we said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we just buy water and release water from Stagecoach? There’s an in-stream flow reach just below the dam, and then there’s the city farther down.’”
By 2021, the releases from Stagecoach have been institutionalized, according to Schultheiss. Thanks to the Yampa River Fund, a collaboration between the Steamboat Springs and the Nature Conservancy, and with a $4.5 million endowment to pay for it, the river got a record-breaking 2,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach. In a year with severe drought in northwestern Colorado, it was enough to keep the water temperatures down and avoid fish kills and other environmental damage…
“We are a market-based organization. … Our whole reason for being is that we participate in the market on behalf of the environment, and we need money to be able to do that.” — Andy Schultheiss
FromThe Associated Press (Khadija Kothia and Pan Pylas) via The Pueblo Chieftain
Protesters took to the streets Friday in London’s historic financial district to lobby against the use of fossil fuels ahead of the start of the U.N. climate summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow.
The protests in London, which were joined by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, as well as many other young campaigners from around the world, are part of a global day of action before leaders head to Glasgow for the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. Many environmentalists are calling the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 gathering the world’s last best chance to turn the tide in the fight against climate change.
The protesters included Friday for Future activists from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, who called out the banks for financing activities such as deforestation, mining and polluting industries, which they blame for the destruction of their homes and their futures. “As much as we are passionate to be here, we shouldn’t have to be here,” said Brianna Fruean from Samoa. “Our pain, our suffering, our tears and our sorrows shouldn’t be what it takes to take action. We already know what we need to do: we need to phase out of the fossil fuel era, we need to divest from these industries that are causing this harm and despair.” The mood music ahead of the climate talks appears fairly downbeat, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit’s host, saying it’s “touch and go” whether there will be a positive outcome. On Friday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned at the Group of 20 summit of leading industrial and developing nations that “there is a serious risk that Glasgow will not deliver.” He said that despite updated climate targets by many countries, the world is “still careening towards climate catastrophe.” The protest in London began at the Climate Justice Memorial outside the insurance marketplace of Lloyd’s of London, where red flowers spelling out “Rise Remember Resist” were laid.
The focus later centered on the headquarters of international bank Standard Chartered, where the few dozen protesters, including Thunberg, chanted “Keep it, Keep it, Keep it in the ground!” and “Ensure our future, not pollution!”
Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Nearly one year since voters approved ballot measure 7A, the subsequent Community Funding Partnership has awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to 23 multi-benefit West Slope water projects. The Colorado River District Board of Directors greenlighted $780,000 for four larger applications at the recent Fourth Quarterly Board Meeting in addition to two smaller grants approved by River District staff. Additionally, the District Board of Directors approved a new policy statement prioritizing multi-purpose, multi-benefit water projects.
“These six projects represent collaboration between stakeholders across multiple user groups,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Colorado River District. “When agricultural producers, environmental non-profits, recreationalists, and local communities join together, the outcome is beneficial for everyone in the watershed.”
The Community Funding Partnership supports multi-benefit projects, Moyer stated, with a goal of geographical equity within the District’s fifteen-county region.
“Our first year of grant funding represents communities across the West Slope. The Colorado River District is proud to provide integral support for projects in every river basin and nearly every county we serve.”
Steward Mesa Ditch Diversion Improvement Project $200,000 awarded, Delta County
The Stewart Mesa Ditch is the second largest agricultural water provider in the North Fork Valley, serving 243 users and supplying water to farms, ranches, and orchards on the South side of the valley. Identified as a priority project via the recent Stream Management Plan, this project will modify and improve the diversion structure and headgate of the ditch. The existing diversion is antiquated and problematic for water users served by the ditch, for recreational users of the river, and for fish, including native fish species. Through this upgrade, the project will protect the ditch from flooding, improve controls, reduce erosion, eliminate safety hazards for boaters, and improve the habitat and population resiliency for fish populations.
Yampa River Forest Restoration Project $150,000 awarded, Routt County
Over a three-year period, the Yampa River Forest Restoration Project aims to restore mid and upper canopy tree cover to reaches of the Upper Yampa River to help reduce summer water temperatures. As identified in the 2018 Stream Management plan, the project offers an innovative, natural infrastructure approach to protecting West Slope water supplies in the face of rising temperatures. The expected outcomes from the project are six acres of new riparian plantings, and 1.5 miles of river with increased shading in reaches where summer temperatures exceed state standards.
Crystal River Restoration at Riverfront Park $100,000 awarded, Garfield County
The Crystal River Restoration Project will restore and enhance a one-half mile, 18-acre reach of the Crystal River as it flows through the Town of Carbondale and improve the efficiency of the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion. The project will implement river restoration improvements and water diversion modifications that will result in long term, self-sustaining river channel stability, fish habitat and spawning areas, low flow connectivity, enhanced species diversity and ecosystem resiliency, and create opportunities for recreation including angler access points.
Wolf Creek Reservoir Project Permitting $330,000 awarded, Rio Blanco and Moffat Counties
Since 2013, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has conducted planning work to design a water storage project within the White River basin. A 2014 conditional water right for a 66,720 acre-foot reservoir was awarded to the project in January 2021 for the following beneficial uses: municipal, augmentation, mitigation of environmental impacts, hydroelectric power generation, recreation, piscatorial, and wildlife habitat. River District funding is intended to support an inclusive, collaborative permitting process supported by data and responsive to public feedback.
Lower Yampa Augmentation Needs Study $30,350 awarded, Moffat County
The project will fund a Lower Yampa Augmentation Study to investigate anticipated needs for an augmentation plan in parts of the Lower Yampa Basin. This study seeks to quantify augmentation needs, divide the study area into regions that have a common downstream call and potential augmentation source, evaluate the ability to provide augmentation water from Elkhead Reservoir, and, if necessary, present high-level information regarding augmentation sources, outside of Elkhead Reservoir.
Canyon Creek Fish Passage Project $44,114 awarded, Garfield County
This project improves fish passage and productive fish habitat in Canyon Creek by installing concrete baffles and hemispheres within a previously impassable set of concrete box culverts under Interstate 70. This project supports healthy spawning habitat in area affected by recent wildfires and supports new fish passage research to encourage future, nearby projects.
When the climate doesn’t behave like we expect, whether it’s for an individual season or for several decades, we often hear scientists blaming internal variability. Scientists use this term a lot (even on Twitter) and I’ve noticed that I usually obtain a few blank faces depending on the audience. I also remember being a junior scientist in this field and wondering why everyone was going on about internal, or its counterpart, external variability. Internal/External what? And who cares? Me! And you should, too!
In our climate and weather there are:
(1) The things that are pushed around by other (external) things
(2) The things that would change or move (internally) without any push
Lions and tigers and variability
You, yourself, have your own internal variability when it comes to your behavior! But, at times, there may also be an external forcing that causes you to deviate from what you’d otherwise do. For example, I really enjoy taking walks in the woods and try to do so whenever I can. Because there are lots of trail options where I’m walking, my path will change from day to day based on pure randomness or a need for variety. But I also really don’t like running into bears (especially fat bears). As much as I’d like to pretend they don’t exist, if I see a bear, I will strongly deviate from my intended path and choose one that gives the bear a wide berth. So bears are an external forcing on my walking path.
Bears aside, why would we care whether variability is internal or external? Well, in the climate system, we might care a lot if we want to answer questions like “Is this rainstorm caused by El Niño?” Or “Did human-caused climate change cause the polar vortex to break down?”
In order to figure out the answers, we first have to examine the likelihood that the impact would have occurred without any push from an external force. To phrase it another way, we need to determine whether the rainstorm may have occurred without any influence from El Niño. Or whether that change in the polar vortex would have occurred without increasing greenhouse gases. Internal variability are changes that would have happened anyways, regardless of the presence of something else (footnote #1). There will always be some day-to-day variations in my walks even if every bear instantly disappeared.
For a scientist, it can be difficult to prove whether a weather or climate event occurred due to some external influence, like increasing greenhouse gases. This is because the observed weather—our reality—only occurs once! We can’t run an alternate reality where we remove the external influence because our observations are already history.
This is where a reliable climate model that simulates realistic weather and climate comes in handy. In model world, we can run an experiment that does not have the external forcing—for example, an atmosphere with no increases in greenhouse gases—and a second experiment that DOES have the external influence of greenhouse gases. The difference between the results is considered the part that is externally influenced by greenhouse gases. Going back to my walks, we can compare my path through the woods in a world with bears to my path in a world without bears.
Of bears and butterflies
But there’s a catch (there’s always a catch, darn it): the butterfly effect. Just like my different paths through the woods on different days, climate model simulations will evolve differently from each other based on small differences in their starting state. This is true in a world with bears (excess greenhouse gases) and without them. That’s why scientists prefer model studies that run “large ensembles.” These generate dozens—sometimes hundreds—of my simulated walks in the woods with bears versus dozens of simulated walks without bears.
Running a bunch of simulations results in a range of possible outcomes with bears (my random variability plus external forcing) and a range of outcomes without bears (only my random variability; no external forcing). We can compare these two ranges to get an idea of how much the odds of my following a given path (climate outcome) have changed. To build even more confidence, it is ideal to compare large ensembles among several different models.
Dr. Clara Deser, a senior scientist at NCAR, has been at the forefront of large ensemble studies, and she recently wrote a commentary on internal climate variability, which you should check out. In that piece, she provided an example of how external and internal variability can influence the trends in winter precipitation across the U.S. that we may experience over the next 50 years.
The top panel here shows what we’d expect if we averaged together the results of this particular climate model in order to identify the influence of human-caused climate change (an external forcing). It projects a much wetter future over the U.S. in response to climate change, especially over the eastern and western U.S. But the bottom panel shows two equally plausible outcomes drawn from the model ensemble with the exact same external forcing (footnote # 2).
Clearly, the two maps are very different—the bottom right panel showing a considerably drier winter over the U.S. and the one on the bottom left indicating a wetter winter. How can that be? Even though the human influence on the climate is exactly the same in all simulations within the model ensemble, internal variability is large enough to create a range of outcomes that can be rather distinct (footnote #3). The internal part is largely unpredictable—there is a certain amount of variability that is baked into the cake and will occur regardless of global warming.
When El Niño is the bear
Another reason internal versus external variability matters is because it helps us understand what we can or cannot predict (footnote #4). From day to day, the exact path I take for my walk in the woods is mostly unpredictable—there’s randomness to it. As much as a bear is scary to see, it imparts some predictability on the walk because I will go well out of my way, around the bear, to avoid it. The predictable part is looping around the bear, not walking right up to the bear and asking to be eaten. So, it helps to have external variability in the weather and climate system—without it, it would be difficult to predict at all. Maybe we should be thankful for some fat bears after all.
Side note: Clara and I were chatting about internal variability and how it may be time to come up with a less obscure term. She came up with inherent variability, which seems to better convey variability that is inherent to the climate system. So, blog readers, what do you think? Is it time to phase out “internal variability?” What do you think of “inherent variability” instead? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Personal Note: Geert Jan van Oldenborgh died earlier this month and with that climate science, and even more than that, climate services, has lost a great scientist, a pioneer, and a truly good person. He openly struggled with cancer even while pushing us forward. While I did not know him well, I was lucky enough to have been touched by his insights and passion in our collaboration on a relative SST index for ENSO monitoring. I think the best way we can uphold his legacy is to apply his level of enthusiasm to our work, be curious, be humble, and remember that science is ultimately about serving others so that we can be our best selves on this fragile planet. RIP Geert Jan.
(1) Instead of “internal variability” you may sometimes hear “natural variability,” but this term might be a little confusing b/c, depending on context, both internal and external fluctuations could have some “natural origins.” For example, a volcanic eruption is a natural occurrence, but the emissions from the eruption are an external forcing on the climate system, with possible effects on ENSO.
(2) Primarily increasing greenhouse gases plus some other factors included in the RCP8.5 scenario of projected radiative changes.
(3) Model ensembles aren’t the only way to estimate internal variability. The two references below show that you can “scramble” the observed precipitation data to mimic a large ensemble, and obtain a similar spread of 50-year trends as those in the CESM1 model.
McKinnon, K. A and C. Deser, 2018: Internal variability and regional climate trends in an Observational Large Ensemble. J. Climate, 31, 6783–6802, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0901.1.
McKinnon, K. A. and C. Deser, 2021: The inherent uncertainty of precipitation variability, trends, and extremes due to internal variability, with implications for Western US water resources. J. Climate.
(4) As you can imagine, what is considered internal or external will change depending on the context and the particular question asked. For example, El Niño can be the “external thing” that is pushing rainfall around— how much of this storm due to El Niño? But different questions can be asked, like whether El Niño events are getting stronger due to increasing greenhouse gases. In this second example, greenhouse gases are now in the external forcing role and El Niño is the internal variability. As Tom pointed out, in the latest IPCC report scientists noted that El Niño has tremendous swings and variations even without changes in the amount of greenhouse gases. El Niño’s large internal variability and consequent lack of consistent changes in various model projections are one of the main challenges in determining whether greenhouse gas increases are changing its amplitude or frequency.
From The Nature Conservancy (Ciaran Clayton and Tom Jennings):
With just days to go until the start of UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, UK, much uncertainty remains about the outcomes of this crucial summit.
The Paris Agreement, brokered at COP21 in 2015, urges countries to strengthen their national climate commitments every five years. Delayed for a year by the pandemic, COP26 represents the first of these key milestones when negotiators are expected to come to the table with enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that detail their domestic pathways towards fulfilling the Paris goals.
It is a chance for the world to take stock of where we are, and to raise our ambition at a pace that will effect real change.
Commenting on her hopes and expectations for COP26, The Nature Conservancy’s CEO Jennifer Morris said:
“Our planet faces the dual and interconnected crises of rapid climate change and biodiversity loss. We have years, not decades, to address these existential threats. It’s easy to look at the environment headlines that have dominated news cycles over this past year and conclude that hope is lost – but there’s still time for decisive action.
“This emergency requires myriad solutions, and science shows us that many of these are available here and now. To succeed, we will need to radically transform global economies in ways that reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors – particularly energy, transportation, manufacturing, construction and buildings, and land use. The U.S. alone, for example, is committed to cutting its domestic greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 by boosting vehicle efficiency, expanding renewable energy, and investing in nature-based solutions, among others.”
“Decisive political commitments are key – I want to see a COP where global leaders embrace the science and deliver implementation plans that will ensure Paris goals aren’t missed. But this is also a COP where corporations and financiers must show how they are helping to align the world economy with climate targets, and in doing so hastening a global transition towards a nature-positive, climate-neutral, and equitable future… Where Indigenous Peoples’ voices are prominent and afforded the platform they deserve as custodians of the Earth’s most climate-critical and biodiversity-rich ecosystems… Where nature’s solutions are given equal billing to technological ones… And where we can confidently say we stepped up for a brighter future.”
“Without action at scale, delivered in a transparent and equitable way, the world will not have the tools needed to effect change that helps, not harms, people and nature. For Glasgow to secure its place in the history books as the next great milestone in our climate turnaround, COP26 must deliver on the ambitions of those initial negotiations and ensure that, through radical collaboration, we turn promises into action.”
ON A DUSTY hilltop in San Diego, the drinking water of the future courses through a wildly complicated and very loud jumble of tanks, pipes, and cylinders. Here at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, very not-drinkable wastewater is turned into a liquid so pure it would actually wreak havoc on your body if you imbibed it without further treatment.
First the system hits the wastewater with ozone, which destroys bacteria and viruses. Then it pumps the water through filters packed with coal granules that trap organic solids. Next, the water passes through fine membranes that snag any remaining solids and microbes. “The pores are so small, you can’t see them except with a really powerful microscope,” says Amy Dorman, deputy director of Pure Water San Diego, the city’s initiative to reduce its reliance on water imported from afar. “Basically, they only allow the water molecules to get through.”
But to be extra sure, the next step blasts the water with UV light, to obliterate any microbes and other trace contaminants. The end result is water in its purest form—too pure, in fact. The last phase is “conditioning” the liquid by adding minerals back to it. Without that, the water would leach the copper out of pipes. If you drank it, it’d soak up your electrolytes like a sponge.
If that all sounds like a rather convoluted way to get drinking water, that’s because the American West is facing a rather convoluted climate crisis. San Diego—and the rest of Southern California—have historically relied on water from Northern California and the Colorado River. But they’ve always been at the end of the line. The river hydrates 40 million other people in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, and it is withering under a historic drought, a harbinger of even worse water scarcity to come as the climate warms.
So San Diego has to figure out how to do more with less water. The Pure Water program aims to provide more than 40 percent of the city’s water from local sources by the year 2035 by reusing water recycled from homes and businesses. (That means water that has flowed through sinks, showers, toilets, and washing machines.) “We’re diversifying the portfolio,” says Todd Gloria, San Diego’s mayor. “We’re heavily dependent upon water that comes from very far away, and that’s a problem that we have to address.”
The water-recycling revolution is just getting going in San Diego, but its proponents hope it will ripple across the American West. In June, legislators in the US House of Representatives introduced a bill that would funnel $750 million into water recycling projects in 17 western states through 2027. (The bill hasn’t made it past committee.) “This is beginning to be our new normal—88 percent of the West is under some degree of drought,” Representative Susie Lee (D-Nevada) told WIRED in July. “Lake Mead is at the lowest level it has been at since the Hoover Dam was constructed. And the Colorado River has been in a drought for more than two decades.”
The technology to recycle water on a large scale already exists—it’s been around for half a century, in fact. But the problem is that it can cost billions to build a recycling facility, and you can’t just copy-paste a particular plan from one municipality to the next. The North City Water Reclamation Plant has been experimenting with different kinds of filtering membranes because not all water is the same. For example, the mineral content of the water flowing into the San Diego facility is distinct from what operators might be working with in New York. Recycling plants also cost a pretty penny to run, since pumping lots of water through fine membranes requires significant pressure. But then again, it also takes a lot of energy to pump water from northern areas to Southern California.
How Climate Change is Affecting the Hydrology of the River Joint presentation with the Colorado River Districts | GWC 41st Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources
Equity in the Colorado River Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource
Part Three: CRB Hydrology & the Future of Management Guidelines
Brad Udall Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist/Scholar Colorado State University
Gigi Richard (Remote Presentation from the Colorado River District Seminar) Director, Four Corners Water Center Instructor of Geosciences Fort Lewis College
University of Colorado Law School
October 1, 2021
Glasgow sits proudly on the banks of the river Clyde, once the heart of Scotland’s industrial glory and now a launchpad for its green energy transition. It’s a fitting host for the United Nations’ climate conference, COP26, where world leaders will be discussing how their countries will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
I’ve been involved in climate negotiations for several years as a former senior U.N. official and will be in Glasgow for the talks starting Oct. 31, 2021. As negotiations get underway, here’s what to watch for.
At the Paris climate conference in 2015, countries agreed to work to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), aiming for 1.5 C (2.7 F). If COP21 in Paris was the agreement on a destination, COP26 is the review of itineraries and course adjustments.
The bad news is that countries aren’t on track. They were required this year to submit new action plans – known as national determined contributions, or NDCs. The U.N.’s latest tally of all the revised plans submitted in advance of the Glasgow summit puts the world on a trajectory to warm 2.7 C (4.86 F), well into dangerous levels of climate change, by the end of this century.
Some key G-20 countries have not submitted their updated plans yet, including India. Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Russia have filed plans that are not in line with the Paris Agreement.
Details of how China will achieve its climate goals are now emerging, and the world is poring over them to see how China will strengthen its 2030 emissions reduction target, which currently involves cutting emissions 65% per unit of gross domestic product, moving up the date when the country’s emissions growth will peak, and setting industrial production targets for other greenhouse gases, such as methane.
A delicate dance between the United States and China, and deft diplomacy by France, was critical to reaching the Paris climate agreement in 2015. Six years later, a growing rivalry threatens to spiral down what had been a race to the top.
Meanwhile the world’s eyes are on the United States. Opposition from two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, appears likely to force the Biden administration to scrap a plan that would have incentivized utilities to switch to cleaner power sources faster. If their planetary brinksmanship guts that key part of President Joe Biden’s Plan A for how the U.S. will reach its 2030 emissions targets, the world will want to see details of Plans B, C or D in Glasgow.
One leftover task from the Paris conference is to set rules for carbon markets, particularly how countries can trade carbon credits with each other, or between a country and a private company.
Regulated carbon markets exist from the European Union to China, and voluntary markets are spurring both optimism and concern. Rules are needed to ensure that carbon markets actually drive down emissions and provide revenue for developing countries to protect their resources. Get it right and carbon markets can speed the transition to net zero. Done badly, greenwashing will undermine confidence in pledges made by governments and companies alike.
Another task is determining how countries measure and report their emissions reductions and how transparent they are with one another. This too is fundamental to beating back greenwashing.
Also, expect to see pressure for countries to come back in a year or two with better plans for reducing emissions and reports of concrete progress.
Underpinning progress on all issues is the question of finance.
With one week to go, the U.K. revealed a climate finance plan, brokered by Germany and Canada, that would establish a process for counting and agreeing on what counts in the $100 billion, but it will take until 2023 to reach that figure.
On the one hand it is progress, but it will feel begrudging to developing countries whose costs of adaptation now must be met as the global costs of climate impacts rise, including from heat waves, wildfires, floods and intensifying hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons. Just as with the global vaccine rollout, the developing world may wonder whether they are being slow-walked into a new economic divergence, where the rich will get richer and the poor poorer.
Beyond the costs of mitigation and adaptation is the question of loss and damage – the innocuous term for the harm experienced by countries that did little to contribute to climate change in the past and the responsibility of countries that brought on the climate emergency with their historic emissions. These difficult negotiations will move closer to center stage as the losses increase.
Public climate finance provided by countries can also play another role through its potential to leverage the trillions of dollars needed to invest in transitions to clean energy and greener growth. Expect big pledges from private sources of finance – pension funds, insurance companies, banks and philanthropies – with their own net zero plans, including ending financeand investments in fossil fuel projects, and financing critical efforts to speed progress.
It’s raining pledges
A cross section of the world will be in Glasgow for the conference, and they will be talking about pathways for reducing global carbon emissions to net zero and building greater resilience.
Keeping track and verifying achievements toward these pledges will be critical coming away from COP26. Without that, climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “blah blah blah” speech thrown at delegates to a pre-COP meeting in Milan a few weeks ago will continue to echo around the world.
[Over 110,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world.Sign up today.]
This article was updated Oct. 26 with the release of the UNEP Emissions Gap report and trajectories chart.
Here’s the release from the USGS (Camille Collett):
A new study projects that a hot and dry future climate may lead to a 29% decline in Upper Colorado River Basin “baseflow” at the basin outlet by the 2050s, affecting both people and ecosystems.
Baseflow is the movement of groundwater into streams and, on average, accounts for more than 50% of annual streamflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin. It is vital for sustaining flows in the Colorado River during dry periods. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation modeled temperature, precipitation and runoff data to understand more about how baseflow may change under three future climate scenarios.
“Many studies project streamflow and runoff response to climate change in the Upper Colorado River Basin, but this is the first to look at the baseflow component of total streamflow,” said USGS hydrologist Olivia Miller, lead author of the paper. “Understanding how baseflow may respond to climate change is particularly important for water managers when it comes to ensuring sufficient water supply outside the spring runoff period and has critical implications for ecosystem health.”
The Upper Colorado River Basin has a drainage area of about 114,000 square miles, covering portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The Continental Divide marks the eastern boundary of the basin whereas the western boundary is defined by the Wasatch Mountains. The Wind River and Wyoming Ranges form the northern border and the southern portion includes the San Juan Basin. From 1984 to 2012, total streamflow deliveries from the upper basin’s outlet at Lees Ferry, Arizona, to the Lower Colorado River Basin averaged 10.3 million acre feet/year (maf/yr). Baseflow accounted for nearly a third of this (2.8 maf/yr).
The study predicts that baseflow deliveries to the Lower Colorado River Basin may decline overall by the end of the 21st century despite potential increases in precipitation and baseflow in some areas. Three climate scenarios were modeled: under a warm, wet scenario, total baseflow at Lees Ferry is projected to initially increase by up to 6% (0.162 maf/yr) in the 2030s but then level out in the 2050s and ultimately decline by 3% from today’s levels (0.089 maf/yr) by the 2080s. Under a hot, dry climate scenario, baseflow is predicted to decline by up to 23% (0.657 maf/yr) in the 2030s and continue to worsen over time, reaching 29% (0.835 maf/yr) in the 2050s and 33% (0.940 maf/yr) in the 2080s. An intermediate climate scenario also showed a steady decline over time.
The study authors hypothesize that baseflow declines would occur due to increases in stream water loss from processes such as evapotranspiration. The largest declines in the model occur in the Rocky Mountains and in the headwaters of the Green River.
Declines in baseflow have major downstream and basin-wide effects in an area where water demand often exceeds supply. In addition to the 40 million people that rely on the Colorado River for recreational, agricultural, municipal, spiritual and hydropower uses, baseflow decline has major impacts on riverbank, water and land ecosystems.
“This region is experiencing exceptional drought conditions and record-low reservoir levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” said Katharine Dahm, USGS Rocky Mountain Region Senior Scientist. “Information from this study can be used by resource managers to understand impacts of water shortages and develop mitigation plans for both people and ecosystems.”
To learn more about drought in the Colorado River basin visit:
Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, talks with Yale Environment 360 about how climate change is hitting Native Americans especially hard and why protecting tribal sovereignty is critical for tackling the climate crisis.
Two centuries of forced removal and relocation onto often-marginalized lands have left Native Americans uniquely vulnerable to climate change. From northern Arizona, where the Hopi are facing a megadrought that is withering crops and killing livestock, to southern Louisiana, where the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are seeing their ancestral lands succumb to rising seas, Native American tribes are at the forefront of the climate crisis.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, discusses how Indigenous people in the United States are imperiled by the impacts of climate change – including megafires, floods, heat waves, and drought – and where they are making progress. Sharp’s own Quinault Indian Nation in Washington, where she serves as vice president, is planning to relocate two seaside villages to higher ground to escape worsening floods — a move funded by revenue from a statewide carbon tax that the Quinault and other tribes negotiated for.
Sharp is seeking greater support to help tribes across the U.S. cope with climate change. She is also pushing federal and state officials to seek the consent of tribes when building new mines, pipelines, highways, and other infrastructure that will impact tribal lands, sacred sites, and burial grounds, which she says is key to empowering tribes to tackle climate change.
With President Biden restarting the White House Council on Native American Affairs and appointing Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the first Native American to do so, Sharp is optimistic that “we’re going to be able to ensure that tribal sovereignty is not only respected, but implemented in a way that will allow us to effectively adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.”
Yale Environment 360: Research shows that tribal nations are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Where are you seeing that play out?
Fawn Sharp: I’ve certainly seen it play out in my homeland. I was initially elected as a tribal president for the Quinault Nation back in 2006. And at that time, I convened a gathering of our tribal citizens to try to identify the top priorities within our nation, including the survival of our sockeye salmon. We call it a “blueback” salmon, which is unique to the Quinault River and its tributaries, and it was in sharp decline.
I gathered our [tribal] scientists and our staff to try to determine what was causing the decline. And I learned about ocean acidification and about warming ocean temperatures. Our scientists did an overlay of the different spikes in the ocean temperature, and it perfectly aligned with the sharp declines in salmon that we were witnessing.
The University of Washington had been monitoring the Anderson Glacier, which feeds the Quinault River. And I saw pictures showing — just over the course of about a 60-year period — a visual stark contrast in how rapidly this glacier was receding and disappearing. I took a helicopter flight, probably in my second term of office, and as we came over the ridge in the helicopter, the Anderson Glacier was completely gone. I had seen visuals of a glacial sheen, and I was expecting to see a glacier, or a remnant of a glacier. But when we came over the ridge, there was just a large pool of murky water and not a shred of a glacial sheen. And I cannot explain what that felt like to come face-to-face with a mountain, expecting to see a glacier, and there was nothing but murky water.
This summer, we had extreme heat. Temperatures here, at Lake Quinault, were as high as 109 degrees. And I saw reports that in the same window of four days of that heat wave, Mount Rainier lost three feet of snowpack. I dread to think what some of the heat waves that we’ve had to undergo here in the Pacific Northwest are doing to the remaining glaciers.
There was another instance when I stood on our shores and saw two and a half miles, as far as the eye could see, of dead marine life along our coastline, due to the oxygen depletion and The Blob [a mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean from 2013 to 2016], as they called it.
In just my 15 years as president of the Quinault Nation, I’ve had to declare multiple states of emergency due to just about every climate-related event one can imagine [including coastal floods, severe rainfall, and landslides]. And we’re just one tribal nation.
e360: And other tribes in the U.S. are facing similar threats?
Sharp: I’ve made several trips to Alaska, and I’ve met with Alaska tribal leaders. They’ve done an excellent job of providing very comprehensive and detailed reports that address all the various impacts of climate change on Alaska natives — whether it’s their food security, their [traditional] medicines, the plants that they gather, the animals that they hunt, their life ways, their villages that are needing to relocate.
The tribes in Louisiana have had to confront the severe impacts of hurricanes and, of course, tornadoes and rising seas. Tribes in California are confronting megafires. I remember explaining it to my kids when we experienced one of the first megafires here in the Northwest, and now it seems there’s no end to fire season, and a megafire isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s an every-year occurrence.
And this is happening all across Indian country. At the National Congress of American Indians, we have regular board meetings where our regional vice presidents report on the issues affecting their people. And at our last annual convention, every region raised issues of climate change.
The tribes in the Great Lakes area, for example, are seeing impacts to their rice fields [from rising temperatures and extreme rainfall]. Tribes in the Northeast are confronting the impacts of climate change to their traditional foods and medicines. So, it’s widespread. It’s all across Indian country, and it’s becoming our top priority.
e360: You’ve said that tribal sovereignty is critically important to tackling climate change. Can you explain why that is?
Sharp: It’s important for people to understand that one of the attributes of our inherent sovereignty is our ability to have a decisive say when it comes to our land, territory, resources, and people. But there’s still a level of paternalism and a level of political inequality. When it comes to protecting our resources, the United States still will take unilateral action affecting our land, territories, and sacred sites.
The classic example of that is the conflict at Standing Rock [Indian Reservation in South and North Dakota]. There, a tribal nation was attempting to protect their water source, their sacred sites, and they objected, along with tribes all across the country and allies globally, [to the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline]. Over those objections, over that science, over the legal objections, over the policy objections, the United States unilaterally permitted that activity.
When we get to the point where there’s not only an embracing of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but we implement them in a way that respects tribal sovereignty, then tribes will be fully armed and able to adopt both adaptation and mitigation strategies to defend their people, their homelands, and their traditional ways of life against the imminent threat of climate change.
The White House Council on Native American Affairs has restarted under the Biden administration. They added an international committee. We’ve also had direct engagement with the United States State Department. And we think, with this administration, with this Secretary of the Interior [a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico], we’re going to be able to ensure that tribal sovereignty is not only respected, but exercised in a way that will allow us to effectively adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
e360: The federal government currently has a responsibility to consult with tribes in making decisions that affect their lands, but you’re pushing for the government to have to seek tribal nations’ consent. Can you explain the distinction, and why you think it’s important?
Sharp: Consultation is the mechanism by which the United States has related to tribal nations up to this point. And that’s just a matter of checking an administrative box that says, “Yes, we did consult with a tribal nation.” But over our objections, agencies will then take unilateral action and say, “We consulted, but this is our decision,” as they did with Standing Rock. And oftentimes it appears to be a predetermined course of action. We come to the table in good faith. We consult. We put our best science forward, our best legal arguments, but oftentimes we will walk away with a sense that we don’t have political equality. We have faith and we have hope, but time and time again, we get disappointed that, even over our objections, agencies will take unilateral action.
The idea of consent, in contrast, is one in which we would have a level of political equality. And just as the United States would never engage with the government of Canada or Mexico, sit down, and talk, and then proceed with unilateral action, we hope that at some point the United States will begin to implement the idea of having consent with us.
e360: Besides Standing Rock, where else do you see consent as being a tool for protecting tribal lands and sacred sites?
Sharp: Oak Flat [where a copper mine is being proposed on land sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona] is another area that highlights the level of objection to development activities directly on sacred sites. And if a tribe does not have decisive say over something as central and as sacred and as important as these places where our ancestors have engaged in cultural and religious activities from time immemorial, under what circumstances will we?
[The San Carlos Apache people] have absolutely no say, and they’ve had to litigate and go to court and try to defend those rights that were gifted to their ancestors when time began. Those rights are inherent. Those are rights that nearly every other country around the world, in signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have recognized. So, we’re left asking ourselves, if we cannot have a decisive say over something as sacred as Oak Flat, under what circumstances can we?
e360: You’ve argued that the funds that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FEMA currently provide for tribal climate resilience and to protect communities from disasters are insufficient. Why is that?
Sharp: The scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury. When you consider all of the dollars that are spent in dealing with megafires, hurricanes, flooding — those are mere symptoms of climate change. And as apocalyptic as they may seem, we aren’t even getting to the actions that are minimally necessary to contend with the impacts of climate change: restoring our salmon habitat, restoring balance to our ecosystems.
In the beginning of August, President Biden announced a deployment of $3.4 billion through FEMA to address climate change. And as those dollars are being implemented at an agency level, at FEMA, 50 states will be eligible for funding, six territories, and only three tribal nations. Which means 99 percent of Indian country is excluded from that significant deployment of those new dollars.
Because the scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury, we’ve been aggressively going after those who are directly responsible. In Washington state, the policy points that we tribal nations negotiated in [the state’s recent climate bill] were ultimately legislated into law with the passage of the Climate Commitment Act this year through the Washington State Legislature and, of those statewide dollars that will now result from pricing carbon, 10 percent are going to go to tribal nations.
We secured $50 million to relocate our villages to higher ground. We secured dollars for tribal nations to address megafires and forest fires. So, we did not wait for the state or the United States Congress to hold industry accountable. We’re well aware that the scale of the crisis is exceeding the public treasury, and the only way we are going to secure the necessary resources to defend our lands, our territory, and people is by holding those who are directly responsible accountable.
In the absence of leadership and against an overwhelming lobby from the fossil fuel industry, tribal nations have been able to succeed. And we’re going to continue on that course.
e360: Why do you think that Indigenous people are well positioned to tackle climate change?
Sharp: We stand on the shoulders of so many of our ancestors and generations that have gone before us. And while we have multi-generational trauma, multi-generational poverty, multi-generational political, economic, and social marginalization, we also have multi-generational strength and resilience, and wisdom, and teachings.
Our ancestors have foretold of a time where there will be a day of reckoning. Humanity cannot continue to live the way it’s been living and survive. And we’ve known that when that day of reckoning comes, tribal nations will be positioned to share with the world, as full participants, our knowledge and our standing and moral authority to bring life back into balance. And not just for humanity, but for all things living and the spiritual connection that we have.
Our ancestors have taught us the salmon cannot get out of the rivers and march to the halls of Congress and lobby for legislation. So, we are the champions, and have been the champions, for the natural world when others have been so willing and so arrogantly able to exploit the natural world for shortsighted, short-term, very narrow interest, profits, and gain. While we’ve relinquished millions of acres of land across the United States, we’ve never relinquished our spiritual connection. And this new generation, this generation of young people, are being born into that.
I’m witnessing not only native youth, but youth across the planet rise to the level of being that generation of leaders that is going to take decisive action. They are going to respect inclusivity. They are very active in wanting to ensure that any climate strategy that this generation will undertake will be aggressive. It will be inclusive. It will respect the rights of all.
I recognize that as a tribal leader, as do many tribal leaders across the country. And we facilitate that. While our generation may develop the strategies to address climate change, it’s going to be that next generation and those that follow that will implement and execute much of the work that we are doing today.
FromAvaaz.org (Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and Dominika Lasota):
To world leaders:
That’s how young people around the world are describing our governments’ failure to cut carbon emissions. And it’s no surprise.
We are catastrophically far from the crucial goal of 1.5°C, and yet governments everywhere are still accelerating the crisis, spending billions on fossil fuels.
This is not a drill. It’s code red for the Earth. Millions will die as our planet is devastated — a terrifying future that will be created, or avoided, by the decisions you make. You have the power to decide.
As citizens across the planet, we urge you to face up to the climate emergency. Not next year. Not next month. Now:
Keep the precious goal of 1.5°C alive with immediate, drastic, annual emission reductions unlike anything the world has ever seen.
End all fossil fuel investments, subsidies, and new projects immediately, and stop new exploration and extraction.
End creative carbon accounting by publishing total emissions for all consumption indices, supply chains, international aviation and shipping.
Deliver the $100bn promised to the most vulnerable countries, with additional funds for climate disasters.
Enact climate policies that protect workers and the most vulnerable, and reduce all forms of inequality.
It only takes one inspiring leader to make the difference. Climate change is a golden opportunity to radically transform our societies for good. It’s also an opportunity for determined, visionary leadership. It will take immense courage — but know that when you rise, billions will be right behind you.
Greta from Sweden, Vanessa from Uganda and Dominika from Poland
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map October 26, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map October 26, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map October 26, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map October 26, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A series of strong Pacific weather systems moved across the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week. The first system early in the week spread precipitation across Wyoming to the Upper Mississippi Valley, then left scattered showers over the Northeast before moving off into the Atlantic. The second brought precipitation to northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Its surface low weakened as it crossed the Rockies, but it was re-energized over the Plains and generated precipitation across the central Plains, Great Lakes, and Northeast. The third system slammed into the West Coast near the end of the week. Fed by an atmospheric river of Pacific moisture, its surface low and front left heavy precipitation across California with widespread rain and some high elevation snow from California and the Pacific Northwest to the Great Basin. According to the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center, as the third low pressure system approached the Pacific Northwest coast, it set a pressure record, testifying to the strength of the system. The October 24th pressure was 942.5 mb, which is a record low pressure for the Pacific Northwest. The end result of these weather systems was above-normal precipitation for the week across much of the West, including the Pacific Northwest, California, Nevada, and the central to northern Rocky Mountains; across eastern portions of the northern and central Plains, the southern Great Lakes, and western and southern portions of the Northeast; and a band of precipitation from southeast Kansas to eastern Kentucky. The precipitation improved short-term conditions, especially in the West, with soil moisture, streamflow, and 1-month to 6-month Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) indicators sliding into the wet categories. Other drought indicators, such as vegetation-based VHI and VegDRI, were slower to respond. Groundwater, reservoir levels, and longer-term (9-month to 72-month) SPI indicators still indicated very dry long-term drought conditions in the West and northern Plains. The rest of the CONUS was drier than normal, with little to no precipitation falling across much of the Southwest, central and southern Plains, Lower Mississippi Valley to Southeast, northern reaches of the Upper Mississippi Valley, and northern Maine. Weekly temperatures were warmer than normal in the Pacific Northwest to northern and central Rockies, the southern Plains to Gulf of Mexico coast, and along the eastern seaboard. Temperatures averaged cooler than normal in California and the northern Plains to Upper Mississippi Valley. Drought contracted or was reduced in intensity in parts of the West and Midwest, but expanded or intensified in the southern Plains, central High Plains, and Southeast…
Half an inch to an inch of rain was widespread across Wyoming and South Dakota to eastern Nebraska, with up to 2 inches falling across southeast Kansas. Otherwise, little to no precipitation occurred elsewhere in the High Plains region. D0 was trimmed in eastern Nebraska and D0-D1 trimmed in southeast Kansas. D1 and D3 (extreme drought) were reduced in Wyoming, and D2 and D3 contracted in western Colorado, but D0-D2 expanded in eastern, central, and southern Colorado. According to USDA statistics, 73% of the pasture and rangeland in North Dakota was in poor to very poor condition, with the statistics 78% in South Dakota, 55% in Wyoming, 49% in Colorado, 31% in Nebraska, and 26% in Kansas…
Two inches to over 10 inches of precipitation fell across the West from the coast to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, over 2 inches was widespread across central Idaho and in parts of Nevada and Utah, with over half an inch over the rest of the Pacific Northwest into southern California, most of Nevada, and western and northern sections of Utah. Less than half an inch to no precipitation fell over the deserts of southern California and southern Nevada, over southeast Utah, and most of Arizona. New Mexico and parts of Montana were dry this week. A volunteer observer west of Reno, Nevada, recorded 6.83 inches of precipitation from the storm, while South Lake Tahoe measured 7.07 inches for the USDM week. Some all-time daily precipitation records were broken October 24 in northern California. These include 5.44 inches at Sacramento City (breaks the previous record of 5.28 inches from April 20, 1880), 5.41 inches at Sacramento Exec Airport (previous record was 3.77 inches on October 13, 1962), and 10.40 inches at Blue Canyon (exceeded the previous record of 9.33 inches from December 22, 1964). The heavy rains which fell over a short period of time resulted in transient rises on local creeks, ponding of water, mud and rock slides, and some debris flows over recent burn areas. So much rain falling so quickly likely mostly ran off and had little chance to soak into the soil. But the rain wetted the soils prior to the building of the winter snowpack which will help in the future. While beneficial, the precipitation improved hydrological conditions only marginally. In the Sacramento area, there were limited inflows into the major flood control and water storage reservoirs, which remain well below normal storages. The water level at Lake Tahoe rose only about 7 inches. In southern California, Big Bear Lake was two feet away from the record level of 18 feet below, and avocado production was reduced roughly 22% in the southern California growing belt.
Topsoil moisture improved considerably from the rains this week, according to USDA statistics. California went from 75% of the topsoil moisture short or very short last week to 40% this week, Oregon improved 16% to 53% short or very short this week, Washington improved 9% to 78%, and Idaho improved 17% to 45%. But Montana still had 96% of the topsoil moisture short or very short. The rain was not enough to replenish significantly low reservoirs. From October 21 to 26, reservoirs rose very little. Some examples for larger reservoirs: in Idaho, American Falls reservoir went from 15% full to 17% full, while Palisades stayed at 6% full; in California, Shasta rose from 21% of total capacity to 22%, Lake Oroville from 22% to 27%, Trinity Lake from 26% to 27%, and Folsom rose from 22% to 31%; in Oregon, Wickiup went from 4% full to 7%, while Owyhee stayed at 11%; and in Washington, Cle Elum went from 21% full to 22%.
D3 and D4 (exceptional drought) were pulled back in northern California, northwest Nevada, and parts of Idaho where the heaviest rains fell; D0, D3, and D4 contracted in Washington; and D3 and D4 contracted in Montana. The contraction of D3-D4 in eastern Montana reflected cumulative effects of above-normal precipitation over the last 2 to 4 weeks. However, D4 expanded along the east slopes in western Montana and D3 expanded in north central Montana to reflect intensifying dry conditions over the last 2 months…
Temperatures were hot this week in the South, with some record high temperatures recorded in Louisiana. Parts of northern Tennessee received an inch or more of precipitation, and patches of half an inch occurred over parts of central Arkansas, southern Mississippi, and coastal southeast Texas. Otherwise, most of the South received no precipitation this week. Drying soils and vegetation prompted expansion of D0 and D1 from the ArkLaTex region to west-central Mississippi. D0, D1, and D2 (severe drought) expanded in parts of eastern, northern, and southern Texas…
A frontal low pressure system will complete its trek across the central to eastern CONUS during the next USDM week. For October 26-November 2, up to 3 inches of precipitation is expected from the eastern edge of the Plains to the Mississippi Valley, in parts of the Mid-Atlantic region, and along coastal New England, with 1 to 2 inches widespread in the South, Southeast, and Ohio Valley. Coastal Washington and northwest Oregon could receive 1 to over 5 inches, while the northern Rockies may receive a couple inches of precipitation. Much of the West outside of the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, western parts of the Great Plains, and the northern Great Lakes should receive little to no precipitation. Temperatures are expected to average near to above normal. The outlook for November 2-6 shows drier-than-normal weather favored over the Southwest and Upper Mississippi Valley, with wetter-than-normal weather favored from the Pacific Northwest to southern Plains and eastward to the East Coast (except New England). Odds favor colder-than-normal weather for most of the CONUS east of the Rockies. The outlook shows drier-than-normal weather in northeast Alaska and wetter than normal in the south, with warmer-than-normal temperatures for most of the state.
Intense rainfall, raging wildfires and deadly heat waves. The effects of climate change are no longer an abstraction. They are happening now, and with greater frequency.
At least 85 percent of the world’s population has felt its effects, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The devastations from the past 10 months alone have stunned climate experts.
“This was a really extreme year,” said Radley Horton, a research professor focused on climate extremes at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Right now we’re seeing the climate extremes changing so fast that that alone is demonstrating that going past 1.5 Celsius will be something we won’t adapt to.”
Despite the 2015 Paris climate conference promise to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, country commitments have not come close to that goal. The United Nations says the world is on pace to experience an average temperature rise of 2.7 Celsius by the end of the century.
As leaders descend on Glasgow, Scotland, for this year’s climate conference, most of the world is already feeling the repercussions of their inaction.
From China to Germany, California to Siberia, the extreme weather events of 2021 have broken records and destroyed lives.
“It’s way beyond what our aging infrastructure was designed for.” — Radley Horton, research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Parts of the world were inundated with deadly, record-breaking precipitation. Infrastructure buckled under torrential downpours. Hundreds of people died in the ensuing floods.
In July, Germany’s heaviest rainfall in a century left over 150 people dead.
“We have never experienced something like this,” said Franz-Josef Molé, head of the German Weather Service’s Forecast and Advisory Center. “It’s beyond comprehension.”
Scientists linked the heavy rainfall to climate change, since a warmer atmosphere retains more water…
In South Sudan, October flooding from torrential rain affected more than 700,000 people, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The organization described people “marooned on islands on islands surrounded by water, sheltering under trees and unable to cross to safety.” There were also fears that waterborne diseases would spread.
UNHCR stressed that the impacts of climate change are “profoundly felt in East Africa,” where communities “are facing unprecedented floods and storms, unreliable rainfall, and distress under hotter and drier conditions as their basic needs and rights to water, food, livelihoods, land, and a healthy environment are hit hard.”
China and New York City also saw extreme rainfall this year. In July, a deadly downpour fell on the city of Zhengzhou, the heaviest rains ever recorded in the country with nearly 8 inches of rain falling in one hour. More than 300 people died in the floods and landslides. Rain cascaded down on the city, turning Metro stations into to swamps and highways into rivers.
In New York City, Central Park experienced record rainfall on Sept. 1, with 3.15 inches coming down in just one hour. The deluge filled up basements and tunnels within minutes. More than 40 people were killed.
In October, more than 29 inches of rain fell in northwestern Italy in just 12 hours setting a record for all of Europe.
The extreme flooding proved the effects of climate change were taking hold “faster than our climate models predicted,” with effects “way beyond what any of our aging infrastructure was designed for,” Horton said.
“Human bodies are really resilient. But there are thresholds for what we can withstand.” — Kristie Ebi, epidemiologist at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington
Other places saw unexpected heat waves that left many dead and showed that even regions accustomed to cooler weather are not immune from the effects of a warming world.
Brutal temperature spikes swept through the Pacific Northwest this summer, killing hundreds of people in the United States and Canada. Streetcar cables in Portland melted. Pavements in Washington cracked from the pressure…
The waves pushed many into cooling centers for shelter and emergency rooms for care. They also drew lines between the privileged and the vulnerable: Access to air conditioning and proper health care were, for some, the difference between life and death.
While heat is not officially deemed a disaster like fire or flooding, it can be even more deadly. Sixty-four percent of Americans lived in places that saw multiday heat waves this summer, according to a Post analysis.
July was the earth’s hottest month on record for the planet. The United States and Europe recorded their hottest summers ever in 2021.
The temperature swelled to nearly 120 degrees in Sicily which, if confirmed, would be the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe.
“It’s a global year of fire.” — Merritt Turetsky, professor of ecology at University of Colorado Boulder
Heat waves left landscapes dry and brittle, paving the way for an apocalyptic fire season in the northern hemisphere as well.
“We knew this was coming,” said Merritt Turetsky, professor of ecology at University of Colorado Boulder. “Fire was going to follow those heat waves.”
Wildfires in North America, Siberia and the Mediterranean contributed to record-high carbon emissions in the months of July and August, according to Copernicus, the European Union’s atmospheric monitoring service.
The Dixie Fire became the second-largest in California history, destroying almost 1 million acres of land. More than three months later that fire is still burning.
In September, evacuations were ordered in Old Station, as strong winds in the area created a “fire whirl,” a tornado-like phenomenon that can fling flaming embers miles ahead of its wake.
In northeast Siberia, blazes swelled to become larger than all of the world’s active fires combined in August. The cloud of smoke it created traveled over the north pole. It consumed more than 40 million acres of land, according to Greenpeace Russia, and resulted in the worst fire season ever recorded in the country.
Wildfires also broke out in densely populated tourist destinations along the Mediterranean Sea, prompting evacuations of thousands of people. Blazes raged in Greece, Italy and Turkey, after prolonged heat waves in southeast Europe.
The year of extreme weather presented a devastating new reality as leaders meet in Glasgow.
“The climate system is going to keep shocking us,” Turetsky said. It’s going to happen again.”
If Jim Howell, a fourth-generation rancher in Western Colorado, has a guru, he’s Allan Savory, the champion of intensive cattle grazing even on semi-arid land.
Howell, 52, says Savory’s methods, which require moving cattle quickly from pasture to pasture, enable him to keep adding thousands more animals as the ground recovers. He says the method is so efficient he can even foresee leasing out irrigation water that he doesn’t need.
If all this sounds unbelievable, Howell, who is ranch manager for Eli Feldman in Ridgway, Colorado, understands the skepticism. But he says the ranch speaks for itself.
Western States Ranches is huge, a 213,000-acre spread that’s a mix of 3,000 acres of irrigated bottom land in Delta and Montrose counties, plus 210,000 acres of mostly leased federal rangeland that sprawls from western Colorado to eastern Utah. There’s forested, high elevation range, but half of the ranch is semi-arid. Rainfall can be a scant 10 inches per year.
The herd is also large at 3,300 head, with 1,800 pregnant cows. What makes Savory’s approach effective, Howell says, is speed: In a day or two, cows eat fresh grass and weeds, then move on to new pasture before an enclosed pasture is damaged. Ten cowhands make the process work by moving miles of electric fencing, even though they’re traditionally loath to get off their horses. Feldman found Howell by consulting the Savory Institute, where Howell’s wife, Daniella Ibarra-Howell, is director.
The man and the money behind this enterprise is Eli Feldman, whose Conscience Bay Company is mostly staked by lifelong friends, the Laufer family of Stony Brook, New York.
East Coast money and Western know-how might seem an odd combo, but Howell studies the land with total concentration. He says his rule of thumb is to make a grazing plan and then rip it up as changing conditions dictate.
Howell has made dry, overgrazed range bloom before. Using Savory methods, he boosted the number of cattle on his former family ranch on Blue Mesa in Western Colorado. He went from 150 cows to 450, while also attracting herds of elk.
But if demand management gets going — the controversial plan of leasing water temporarily and voluntarily to fulfill downstream obligations – Feldman and Howell are on board. Feldman asked Trout Unlimited to administer a demand management study on part of his ranch that lies in Eckert, Colorado, where ground is irrigated only until July 1.
Howell derides programs that encourage leasing water for full seasons. “It’s going to be seen as socially untenable for ranchers in the upper basin to be over-irrigating hay fields when downstream users are running out of water.”
Because Feldman is an outsider with a formidable operation, he says he’s been a target since the ranch got going in 2018. Shortly afterward, he recalls, a Delta County commissioner poked him in the chest with a finger, saying, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
Feldman figures he’s been cast as a water speculator. “But when a ranch was auctioned off recently,” he says, “we passed on the irrigated land (with senior water rights) and purchased the herd and grazing permits only.”
For both Feldman and Howell, one of their goals is to restore grass on ground that’s been ranched “old-school.” By that they mean trampled creek beds where cows for generations wallowed away the summers.
Howell says he has all sorts of tricks to get lazy cows moving. Artificial watering holes are scattered across dry range, while gullied creeks are fenced off and left to recover. The payoff is growing grass-fed, certified organic beef, and Howell says it commands a 15-20% premium over cattle grown for the commodity market.
Despite the ranch’s sprawl, it seems a lean operation. Howell manages it halftime from a small tent, which also doubles as his sleeping quarters. His cowhands are equipped with little besides horses, trailers and portable electric fence. Still, Howell has his share of environmental critics. The Center for Biological Diversity charges that grazing any cattle on marginal land leads to degraded water and spurs desertification.
Howell shrugs off the charge. “These native rangelands evolved with hooved animals,” he says. “To say they are not meant to be grazed is total BS. They were meant to be grazed — but as nature intended.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, http://writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $21 million as part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) collaboration with the Department of Interior’s (DOI) WaterSMART Initiative to help farmers and ranchers conserve water and build drought resilience in their communities. These investments complement projects by irrigation districts, water suppliers and other organizations receiving WaterSMART Program funds from the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. NRCS works with Reclamation to coordinate investments in the same community for accelerating water conservation and drought resilience and making a bigger impact where it is most needed.
“The consequences of drought have continued to impact farms, ranches and communities across much of the West and other parts of the country,” NRCS Chief Terry Cosby said. “Drought is a complex challenge, and our collaboration on WaterSMART is part of our strategic approach to help producers conserve water and build resilience while also bringing important partners to the table. Bringing as many like-minded individuals and groups as possible to innovate together is our best solution for water management in the West.”
“Reclamation’s collaboration with NRCS maximizes each agency’s investment in tackling conservation and building drought resiliency in the West,” said DOI Bureau of Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Earlier this year, Reclamation awarded $42.4 million to 55 WaterSMART Water and Energy Efficiency Projects to support on-the-ground improvements to conserve water and build resilience to drought. Many of the projects announced by NRCS today will complement existing WaterSMART projects, maximizing the benefits of each agency’s conservation programs.”
In fiscal year 2022, NRCS will invest in 15 new priority areas and 25 existing priority areas with continued need, assisting producers and communities in 13 states across the West. NRCS is providing the funding through Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
In total, there are 46 active projects for delivering WaterSMART assistance. Visit the WaterSMART webpage to learn more.
How WaterSMART Works
Private land managers such as farmers and ranchers can leverage money and resources of irrigation districts, water districts, and other organizations with water delivery authority in their community by coordinating their efforts to conserve and use water more efficiently; increasing the production of renewable energy; mitigating future water conflict in areas at a high risk; and other activities that contribute to water supply sustainability in the Western United States.
Through the WaterSMART Initiative, funds are allocated to targeted areas for eligible participants to enter contracts. Each WaterSMART Initiative project area is carrying out different phases of program delivery at the same time— funding, implementation and evaluation.
NRCS and Reclamation, the nation’s largest wholesale water supplier and second largest producer of hydroelectric power, have been coordinating EQIP and WaterSMART investments since 2011, the effort began as a pilot in California .
This federal collaboration works to provide states, Tribes, local water management entities, and water users alike with coordinated resources to plan and implement actions which balance water supply and demand through modernizing existing infrastructure, improving agricultural landscapes to conserve water resources and bringing attention to local water conflicts.
In addition to helping producers build resilience, USDA is also helping drought-impacted producers recover. Other recent actions include:
USDA is coordinating with federal agencies, state governments, Tribes, and others to address the impacts of drought. This includes a new interagency working group created in April by the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Climate Task Force to address the worsening drought conditions in the West and support farmers. USDA co-chairs the task force with the Department of Interior.
The Denver Board of Water Commissioners agreed on Wednesday to raise water rates and fixed monthly charges, which will all go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.
For typical single-family residences using the same amount of water each year, this would shake out to an increase of 47 cents to $1.34 per month, or about $5.64 to $16.08 per year. However, these rates are also dependent on where in the Denver metro a customer lives, since rates are higher in the suburbs due to the rules of the Denver City Charter.
There are also multiple charging tiers at Denver Water, beginning with the lowest rates for water used for essential things like bathing and cooking, calculated by assessing water consumption during the winter. Other water usage, mainly for outdoor watering in the summer, is charged at higher tiers.
Denver Water is funding upgrades through these extra charges. These projects include expanding the Gross Reservoir near Boulder to increase storage capacity during wet years and boosting the entire system’s resilience as climate change leads to more unpredictable weather patterns. Other projects include the city’s efforts to replace old lead-containing pipes… as well as the city’s creation of new water quality laboratories and treatment centers.
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District continues to change, grow and adapt its public outreach efforts, directing the public to the main focus of their mission — managing the basin’s limited water supply.
Upper Gunnison is an active leader in all issues affecting the water resources of the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Their role in the valley has grown in importance as the basin continues to experience worsening drought conditions. In response, the district has continued to try and raise awareness of the community’s water use.
Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chavez said that, after the drought year the basin experienced, it’s about getting a message out to the community.
“Water is a finite resource,” Chavez said. “I think most people don’t realize or understand that the whole Colorado River Basin is over allocated, we’re using more water than we actually have. As temperatures increase and stream flows decrease, it’s just going to become a greater challenge.”
The district’s education and outreach budget increased from $34,000 in 2021 to almost $42,000 for 2022. Although part of it is driven by the rising cost of promotional products and an increased sponsorship to the Gunnison River Festival, Chavez said overall, public outreach is “central and important” to the district’s mission…
Within their education action plan, staff began to break the public down into age groups, from elementary through high school as well as growing their relationship with Western Colorado University. The district’s goal was to try and be intentional about where they put the funding, who they reach out to and making sure it’s age appropriate.
Historically the Upper Gunnison helped fund the Water Workshop, which was renamed and reorganized into the Western Water Future Games. The Water Workshop, based at Western, has a 45-year history.
It was created to give more of a voice to the people of the Western Slope because at that time it was perceived that the Front Range was the dominant voice in water issues in the state, said Jeff Sellen, who oversees the program…
With a small staff of five, the Upper Gunnison has limited manpower. To make their outreach efforts more effective and far-reaching, their strategy has been “figuring out where they can add value” to existing events or programs, Chavez said.
Where there is an access to water the Upper Gunnison tries to build upon that opportunity for education. The Upper Gunnison has its hands in the River Festival, the 4-H Program and the Taylor Challenge. It also has an established mini-grant program designed to support educational projects intended to expand the awareness of water-related issues.
Name recognition is another important aspect of increasing the visibility and effectiveness of the Upper Gunnison’s water messaging in the valley. The district has used a newsletter, radio advertisements, yard signs and promotional items to spread the word that “water doesn’t grow on trees.”
Chavez said she thinks “a lot of people within the community don’t know exactly who we are or what we do.” But this is something that even larger districts still struggle with…
Upper Gunnison has started taking a harder look at its education and outreach in terms of who it’s reaching, and how successful it’s been, Chavez said. When people have an issue or question about water “I would want them to first think of the Upper Gunnison District.”
As the gap between water supplies and demands narrows in northwestern Colorado, state officials want to ensure that, as best as reasonably can be done, every last drop gets measured and recorded.
They made their case to about 60 ranchers in North Park’s Walden, Colo., on Friday in the fifth of six stakeholder meetings during October that will conclude tonight with a meeting in Craig.
The proposed rules governing the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins would require that headgates, which allow water diversions into ditches, be supplemented with measuring infrastructure, either flumes or weirs, to track the amount of water being diverted. The rules would also institute protocols for reporting the measurements, for collection in state databases. Authority to require the measuring and reporting is clearly defined by state law, but the law leaves room for discretion about the particulars, hence the stakeholder process.
In an already drought-stricken region likely to become hotter and drier yet in the 21st century, those measurements will become ever-more important in administering water rights. The Yampa River this century has carried on average 6% less water than it did during the 20th century. On the White River, flows have fallen 19%.
Already, there is concern that Colorado will be forced to curtail diversions of water rights dated later than the 1922 Colorado River Compact if the aridification of the Colorado River Basin continues, said Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, at the outset of the meeting in Walden.
The compact specifies that Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico “will not cause the flow of the river” at Lee Ferry, at the top of the Grand Canyon, “to be depleted below an aggregate” of 75 million-acre feet for an period of 10 consecutive years. Colorado and the three other upper basin states are in relatively good shape—for at least the next couple of years. In the last decade, 92 million acre-feet have flowed past Lee Ferry toward Arizona, Nevada, California and, eventually, Mexico.
But if below-average becomes the new normal, as climate scientists warn almost certainly will be the case, Colorado may be forced to defend its diversions in light of the compact. “When they come in and ask for water, we can’t refuse if we have no data,” said Mike Sullivan, the deputy state water engineer.
The state water officials pointed to the Aug. 2021 report Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration issued by the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and MacIlroy Research and Consulting. “Confronting the limits of a water supply is a painful experience,” the report said after studying the Republican, Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. “Across each of the basins, earlier action to address potential compact and supply issues has enhanced the control communities have to develop and choose their own, less painful, options.”
The North Platte River does not flow into the Colorado River. It’s east of the Continental Divide but separated from the Front Range by the Medicine Bow and other mountain ranges. So why the need to measure water in North Park the same as in the Yampa and White river valleys?
Because it’s good to have the data should it be necessary as required by other interstate agreements, in this case involving Wyoming and Nebraska, said Sullivan.
But there’s another reason for more rigorous accounting of diversions, said the state water officials. Owners of water rights can best look out after their own interests by documenting their water use. This guards against those rights being placed on lists of abandoned water rights that state law requires be issued every 10 years. The most recent list for all river basins, including North Park, was issued last year.
Measuring devices also give those with more senior water appropriations the right to divert their legal entitlements in water-scarce years. And in the case of land sales with connected water rights, it gives owners the proof of water use to demonstrate value to potential purchasers.
In several river basins in Colorado, notably those east of the Continental Divide, measurements became crucial as early as the 19th century. In those river basins where water users experienced an earlier squeeze between supplies and demands, those with senior water rights began placing calls that required those with newer—and hence more junior— rights upstream to cease or cut back diversions.
In Water Division 6, which includes the North Platte, Yampa and White river basins, 54% of headgates had appropriate measuring devices as of April. This compares with upwards of 90% in several other water divisions of Colorado.
Overlapping the new rules is a proposal being considered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated. Most rivers in the state are already considered over-appropriated, in some cases over a century ago. Segments of the Yampa—including the river upstream from Steamboat Springs and several tributaries—already have been so designated. This designation will require irrigators drilling wells to have water that they can use to augment streamflows if there is a call on the river by a senior user. Improved measuring will assist in administration. Meetings to gather input were scheduled for Monday night in Craig and Thursday night in Hayden.
State officials hope to get the measurement rulemaking as well as the Yampa designation completed by early next year. Rules will be unique to the needs of Northwest Colorado, just as rules governing the Republican and Arkansas River basins are unique to the interstate water agreements and other circumstances governing water use in those basins.
North Park was particularly warm and dry last winter. One rancher after the Walden meeting recalled that it was possible to drive across his hay meadows all of last winter whereas many years he has to plow the driveway almost daily.
“It was pathetic, really,” said Keith Holsinger, standing on a bridge over the Michigan River east of Walden where he grows hay on 800 acres. One of his neighbors, who usually gets 500 to 600 tons of hay, got only 90 tons this year, he reported.
Holsinger has lived on the ranch all of his 77 years. His water rights range from among the oldest in North Park, an 1885 decree with a priority number of 32, to more junior rights of 240th in priority.
He remembers putting in the first measuring device sometime after the drought of 1977. His last device, a weir, he had installed last year.
During the meeting, some skepticism was voiced about the coming measurement rules. State representatives characterized the relationship between water users and state authorities as one of cooperation and trust. But one audience member pushed back. Implementation seemed to be discretionary, he said. “It’s a trust issue, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a lot of faith.”
But as for the need for the rules, Holsinger is already persuaded. “If it’s free water in priority, if you want that water, you had better have a headgate and weir,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The most significant discontent voiced in the background of the meeting agenda was about the high turnover in water commissioners. It’s a common problem across Colorado, say state water officials, as the job is by nature semi-seasonal. But in conversations after the meeting, North Park residents suggested that if the state wants water users to be partners in administration, the state needs to allow proper resources. A water commissioner has between 350 and 500 headgates to check, and there’s a learning curve.
Some people wanted to know why the state wanted the ability to lock headgates. State representatives said they rely primarily on voluntary compliance with water allocations but need the ability to force compliance if diverters take more than they are entitled to.
“In 20-some years, I have probably ordered a half-dozen headgates locked,” said Sullivan. “If we can’t get someone to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, we lock the cookie jar.”
As for the specific type of weir or flume, there are several formal varieties as well as less formal ones. They can be expensive, but none of the irrigators in Walden indicated that cost alone is an issue. Erin Light, the Steamboat Springs-based water engineer for Division 6, said she had seen a flume made of a road sign. It worked, she reported. Sullivan reported seeing one made of rock that worked effectively.
Said Sullivan, speaking to people mostly old enough to remember a bestselling small-model car in 1979 and 1980, “We don’t want to require a gold-plated Cadillac headgate when a Chevette will do.”
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a major U.N. climate conference gets underway on Oct. 31, 2021, you’ll be hearing a lot of technical terms tossed around: mitigation, carbon neutral, sustainable development. The language can feel overwhelming.
Climate reports are often written at a scientific level. So we thought it would be helpful to clarify some of the most common terms.
To do that, we interviewed 20 people about common terms used by climate scientists and climate journalists. We then used their feedback to explain those terms in everyday language. With the help of the United Nations Foundation, we chose eight terms from reports written by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Here’s a guide that may help you to follow the news about climate change. The explanation of each term starts with the technical definition from the IPCC. The text that follows puts it into plain language.
IPCC definition: Mitigation (of climate change): a human intervention to reduce emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.
Translation: Stopping climate change from getting worse.
When people talk about “mitigation” they often focus on fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – used to make electricity and run cars, buses and planes. Fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. When these gases are released, they linger in the atmosphere. They then trap heat and warm the planet.
Some ways to mitigate climate change include using solar and wind power instead of coal-fired power plants; making buildings, appliances and vehicles more energy efficient so they use less electricity and fuel; and designing cities so people have to drive less. Protecting forests and planting trees also help because trees absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and lock them away.
IPCC definition: In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects.
Translation: Making changes to live with the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is already happening. Heat waves, wildfires and floods are getting worse. People will have to find ways to live with these threats. Los Angeles, for example, is planting trees to help people stay cooler. Coastal cities like Miami may need sea walls to protect against floods. More “adaptation” actions will be needed as climate change gets worse.
3. Carbon dioxide removal
IPCC definition: Carbon dioxide removal methods refer to processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere by either increasing biological sinks of CO2 or using chemical processes to directly bind CO2. CDR is classified as a special type of mitigation.
Translation: Taking carbon dioxide out of the air.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has been increasing for many years. In 2019, there was 50% more more of it than in the late 1700s. Planting trees and restoring grasslands can remove carbon dioxide from the air. There are also carbon dioxide removal technologies that store it underground or in concrete, but these are new and not widely used.
4. Carbon neutral
IPCC definition: Carbon neutrality is achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic carbon dioxide removals over a specified period. Carbon neutrality is also referred to as net-zero carbon dioxide emission.
Translation: Adding no net carbon dioxide into the air. This does not have to mean that you can’t add any carbon dioxide. It means that if you do add carbon dioxide into the air you take out the same amount.
The IPCC warns that the world needs to be carbon neutral by 2050 to avoid a serious climate crisis. This means using both “mitigation” to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide added to the air and “carbon dioxide removal” to take carbon dioxide out of the air.
5. Tipping point
IPCC definition: A level of change in system properties beyond which a system reorganizes, often abruptly, and does not return to the initial state even if the drivers of the change are abated. For the climate system, it refers to a critical threshold when global or regional climate changes from one stable state to another stable state.
Translation: When it is too late to stop effects of climate change.
One of the most talked-about tipping points involves the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Some research suggests it may have already started happening. West Antarctica alone holds enough ice to raise sea levels worldwide by about 11 feet (3.3 meters). If all glaciers and ice caps melt, sea levels will end up rising about 230 feet (70 meters).
6. Unprecedented transition
IPCC definition for “transition”: The process of changing from one state or condition to another in a given period of time. Transition can be in individuals, firms, cities, regions and nations and can be based on incremental or transformative change.
Translation: Making big changes together to stop climate change – in a way that has not been seen before.
In 2015, countries around the world agreed to try to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F). Among the biggest sources of global warming are coal-fired power plants. Quickly shifting the world to renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, would be an unprecedented transition. Without big changes, climate change could make the world unlivable.
7. Sustainable development
IPCC definition: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and balances social, economic and environmental concerns.
Translation: Living in a way that is good for people alive today and for people in the future.
The United Nations has shared “sustainable development goals.” These goals aim to help countries grow in ways that are healthy for both people and the environment. Producing more carbon dioxide than the planet can manage is an example of unsustainable development that’s causing climate change.
8. Abrupt change
IPCC definition: Abrupt climate change refers to a large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems.
Translation: A change in climate that happens much faster than it normally would.
Growers in the West have persisted through the ups and downs of dry years for a long time, but a two-decades-long trend of drought in the region is now entrenching itself with no clear end in sight.
This year is unlikely to bring any major relief.
Forecasters say this winter will be shaped by “La Niña,” a weather phenomenon during which cold water off the Pacific coast alters temperature and precipitation patterns over the Western U.S. Its effects are hardly guaranteed, but typically mean a colder, wetter winter for the northwestern portion of the country, and a warmer, drier winter in the Southwest. The dividing line often falls in the middle of Colorado.
“In general it means towards the northern mountains would be more likely to have a better winter season and the southern mountains — the San Juan Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos — might not be able to get as much,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University.
She cautioned that weather is hard to predict with a high degree of certainty, describing the area’s erratic patterns as “a crapshoot,” but historical records suggest it will likely leave the Colorado River basin warmer and drier than normal this coming winter.
“While we do depend on the (summer) monsoon season,” Bolinger said, “especially to help fill up those soils before we enter the cold season, we really need that snowpack to kind of really dig out like Arizona did with its monsoon season.”
Bolinger was alluding to this year’s historically wet summer in Arizona — where parts of a state with millions of Colorado River water users were drenched with record-setting rain totals. Tucson, for example, saw its wettest calendar year in recorded history. July was the state’s second-wettest month of all time…
And in the grand scheme of the Colorado River basin, wet seasons in Arizona are literally a drop in the bucket. Before going on to feed farms and taps all the way down to Mexico, the majority of the river’s water starts as rain and snow high in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. In the long term, Bolinger says climate change will bring shorter winters, warmer temperatures and drier soil…
Turning things around in the Colorado River basin and bringing more water to the people who depend on it will take years of above-average rain and snow where it matters most.
This is the preliminary notice for the upcoming Arkansas River Compact Administration Annual and Committee Meetings. Please note that the meeting dates and location were changed at the ARCA Annual Meeting held in December 2020. The meeting specifics and draft agendas will be provided at a later date.
The 2021 Annual Meeting of the Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) will be held on Thursday, December 9, 2021. The Engineering, Operations, and Administrative/Legal Committees of ARCA will meet on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. Tentatively, these meetings are to be held at the Clarion Inn in Garden City, Kansas. The meetings are intended to be in person, but it will depend on the circumstances. We are exploring the options to have a hybrid meeting that will allow remote access. If the circumstances warrant, the meeting will be held virtually. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Any final decision should be made prior to November 29th.
Meetings of ARCA are operated in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. If you need a special accommodation as a result of a disability please contact Stephanie Gonzales at (719) 688-0799 at least three days before the meeting.
From Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Julie Chao):
Mountain snowpacks around the world are on the decline, and if the planet continues to warm, climate models forecast that snowpacks could shrink dramatically and possibly even disappear altogether on certain mountains, including in the western United States, at some point in the next century. A new study led by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) analyzes the likely timing of a low-to-no-snow future, what it will mean for water management, and opportunities for investments now that could stave off catastrophic consequences.
Their review paper, “A low-to-no-snow future and its impacts on water resources in the western United States,” published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment, analyzes previous climate projections and finds that if greenhouse gas emissions continue along the high-emissions scenario, low-to-no-snow winters will become a regular occurrence in the western U.S. in 35 to 60 years. Further, the study re-evaluates longstanding assumptions in water management in the U.S. and stresses that scientists and water managers need to work together more closely to develop and implement climate adaptation strategies.
The Sierra Nevada, Rockies, Cascades, and other mountain ranges provide a tremendous service by capturing, storing, and releasing water for downstream use. Historically, snowmelt timing provides a critical delay in the delivery of water supply during the spring and into the summer, when precipitation is low and when water demands are at their highest due to agriculture. The factors causing shrinking snowpacks are predominantly tied to temperature increases and shifting precipitation characteristics. Warmer temperatures also imply that storms will produce more rainfall and less snowfall, limiting the amount of seasonal snowpack that can build through the winter.
The research, co-led by authors Erica Siirila-Woodburn and Alan Rhoades of Berkeley Lab’s Earth & Environmental Sciences Area, starts with a literature review which distills several hundred scientific studies on snow loss; of those, they identify and analyze 18 studies that had quantitative snowpack projections for the western U.S.
When will the low-to-no-snow future arrive?
“A recent study highlighted that there has been a 21% decline in the April 1 snowpack water storage in the western U.S. since the 1950s – that’s equivalent to Lake Mead’s storage capacity. In our review, we found that around mid-century we should expect a comparable decline in snowpack,” said Rhoades. “By the end of the century, the decline could reach more than 50%, but with a larger range of uncertainty.”
Many water managers use the somewhat arbitrary date of April 1 to make snowpack observations and planning decisions. Over the last several decades, there have been decreases in peak snowpack volume as well as earlier occurrences of the timing of peak snowpack, with the peak occurring approximately 8 days earlier in the year for every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming.
Many regions have already experienced winters with very little snow in recent years, such as the Sierras in 2015 when the April 1 snowpack level was 5% of normal, which the authors call an “extreme” event. The paper defines two other types of low-to-no-snow conditions – “episodic low-to-no snow,” or when more than half of a mountain basin experiences low-to-no snow for five consecutive years, and “persistent low-to-no snow,” in which this happens for 10 consecutive years. “Low snow” is defined as when the snowpack (or more precisely, the snow water equivalent, a measure of how much water will be released when the snowpack melts) is in the 30th percentile or lower of the historical peak.
Using these definitions, California could experience episodic low-to-no snow as early as the late 2040s and persistent low-to-no snow in the 2060s according to one high-resolution climate projection. For other parts of the western U.S. persistent low-to-no snow emerges in the 2070s. The authors caution the need for more analyses with a broader set of climate projections to enhance confidence in the timeline for emergence of low-to-no-snow conditions.
The authors describe the climate projections in their study, writing: “Through the middle and end of the 21st century, an increasing fraction of the western U.S. is impacted by snow water equivalent deficits relative to the historical period. In particular, only 8 to 14% of years are classified as low-to-no snow over 1950-2000, compared to 78 to 94% over 2050-2099. In all regions, an abrupt transition occurs in the mid-to-late 21st century.”
Impacts on water resources
The impacts of a low-to-no-snow future extend beyond just decreased streamflow, although that is certainly a significant consequence. In the Sierra Nevada, for example, the amount of water in the snowpack on a typical April 1 is nearly double the surface reservoir storage in California.
“A low-to-no-snow future has massive implications for where and when water is stored in the western U.S.,” said Siirila-Woodburn. “In addition to the direct impacts on recreation and the like, there are a lot of secondary effects on natural and managed systems, from a hydrologic perspective. So that’s anything ranging from increased wildfire occurrence to changes in groundwater and surface water patterns and changes in vegetation type and density.”
With less snow and more rain, groundwater levels in mountainous systems may be impacted because snowmelt more effectively infiltrates into the subsurface than rainfall does. Further, less snow at lower elevations will decrease the overall surface area of snowpack stored in the mountains, potentially resulting in less available snowmelt that infiltrates into the ground.
Now for the good news …
The authors’ aim in doing this study was to spur thinking now about adaptation strategies. “We want society to be proactive about these changes in snowpack rather than reactive,” said Rhoades. “Our hope in presenting the literature synthesis of low-to-no snow is so that we can understand the problem in a ‘one-stop shop’ way. Additionally, we highlighted some novel climate adaptation strategies that are coming about through nontraditional academic and water agency partnerships, which will be key parts of a portfolio of adaptation approaches needed to overcome snow loss in a warmer world.”
One such partnership is a Department of Energy-supported project called HyperFACETS, which involves 11 research institutions, including Berkeley Lab, working with water utility managers in California, Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
The paper also discusses potential adaptation strategies, such as a technique known as managed aquifer recharge, in which excess surface water is stored underground as groundwater for later use. Another relatively new technique, forecast-informed reservoir operations, in which weather and hydrological forecasts are used to inform decisions about retaining or releasing water from reservoirs, was recently shown to increase water storage at Lake Mendocino in California by 33%.
These and other techniques show promise for increasing water supply, but the authors also recommend more cross-collaboration, both among scientists and within society as a whole, to expand the portfolio of climate adaptation strategies.
“We are advocating for the idea of engagement with best scientific practices and more collaboration or partnership between researchers and stakeholders. For example, city managers are concerned with flood control; farmers are concerned with water storage; everyone has their own objectives. Even within science, the disciplines are typically siloed,” said Siirila-Woodburn. “If everyone were working together to manage water rather than working independently for their own purpose, there would be more water to go around.”
The key to shifting away from fossil fuels is for consumers to begin replacing their home appliances, heating systems, and cars with electric versions powered by clean electricity. The challenges are daunting, but the politics will change when the economic benefits are widely felt.
For too long, the climate solutions conversation has been dominated by the supply-side view of the energy system: What will replace coal plants? Will natural gas be a bridge fuel? Can hydrogen power industry? These are all important questions, but, crucially, they miss half the equation. We must bring the demand side of our energy system to the heart of our climate debate.
The demand side is where humans, households, and voters live. It is where we use machines on a daily basis, and where the choices about what kind of machines we use — whether powered by fossil fuels or electricity — make our climate actions and climate solutions personal. We don’t have a lot of choice on the supply side, but we have all of the choice on the demand side. For the most part, we decide what we drive, how we heat our water, what heats our homes, what cooks our food, what dries our laundry, and even what cuts our grass. This constitutes our “personal infrastructure,” and it is swapping out that infrastructure that will be a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to green energy.
According to an analysis by Rewiring America, a nonprofit think tank I co-founded that focuses on electrifying our lives, if we redraw our emissions map around the activities of our households, we see that about 42 percent stem from the decisions we make around our kitchen tables. It gets close to 65 percent if we include the offices, buildings, and vehicles that are connected to the commercial sector and the decisions we make from our office desks.
The supply-side climate challenge is a question of a relatively small number of giant machines, including coal mines, LNG terminals, pipelines, refineries, and natural gas- and coal-fired power plants, all of which are owned by corporations. The demand-side climate challenge involves a very large number of relatively small machines. In the United States, it’s our 280 million cars and trucks, our 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves, ovens, and cooktops.
The traditional storyline for what we can do in our own lives has been an “efficiency-first” narrative that was born of the 1970s oil crisis. During that time, we needed to adjust to a reduction in foreign oil supplies, which led to more efficient cars with better gas mileage and more efficient appliances. That gave us efficiency as policy, such as federally mandated vehicle fuel standards, and led to Energy Star appliances.
But now we’re facing a completely different kind of energy crisis. To address global warming in time to keep the Earth livable, we need to get to zero emissions as soon as possible. It should be obvious that we can’t “efficiency” our way to zero and that we need to transform our way to no emissions. Starting on the demand side, this leads to a clear conclusion: We must electrify everything. And quickly. And we must supply all those new electric machines on the demand side with cleanly generated electricity on the supply side.
How quickly? At roughly the rate at which we replace these things. Cars often last around 20 years. Water heaters average 12 to 15 years; furnaces and home heating solutions, around 20; kitchen and laundry appliances, 10 to 15 years. The best climate outcome we can achieve is to upgrade all of these demand-side machines to higher performing electric machines at their next retirement. This needs to be in combination with increasing the electricity supply to power these machines, and to do so with clean renewables, while also retiring coal plants and other heavy emitters ahead of schedule.
I have been talking publicly about climate change and what solutions need to look like for nearly 20 years. It’s been a learning journey about how to tell a story that can motivate people in the face of what seems insurmountable. I worry that nihilism will soon grip us on this issue, unless we can paint a picture of what success looks like. And that picture needs to be simple, the actionable steps achievable. People want to see themselves in the solution, but not at the expense of sacrificing the things they love and the conveniences of modern life.
We still have a slim chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), without changing entirely the fabric of everyday living. It may not be everyone’s version of climate success, but it is possible to help avoid extreme warming with a substitution of the machines in our lives. To do so, we need to achieve a close to 100 percent adoption rate of the right technologies as we replace the fossil-fueled machines we use today.
Fortunately, technologies now exist for the majority of these things. Electric cars currently have sufficient range, and are close enough to cost-parity at the dealership, that we can imagine that transition. The cost per mile drops significantly, too. Air-source heat pumps have such high performance now that they beat traditional furnaces and boilers in many climates. The modern induction cooking experience is better than cooking with gas. It is not yet true in the U.S. that rooftop solar is the cheapest energy source, but it is true in Australia, and the difference has to do with regulations.
Solar modules themselves are incredibly cheap, around 30 cents a watt. Australia ran a certification and training program for building a workforce that also certified the installers as inspectors. This made the process of purchasing and installing solar in Australia simple and doable in a matter of days. The installed cost ends up being around $1 per watt. In the U.S., the process takes 60 days and includes complicated permitting and inspection requirements. The result is that the installed cost winds up being $3 per watt. We need to look around the world for the best practices and implement them everywhere; Norway’s rapid adoption of electric vehicles is another example.
If you could cover the average U.S. rooftop in solar at the Australian installed price, put two electric vehicles in your driveway as easily as you can in California or Norway, install the best Japanese heat pumps, and cook on the best German induction cooktops — and then back it all up with a household battery tied to a smart main panel connected to an enlightened grid that encourages consumers to self-generate power and to store and shift loads — we’d be a long way toward the success we need.
In the U.S., there are a billion of these machines that need to be replaced and installed across the nation’s 121 million households. This creates an enormous economic opportunity to manufacture all or most of these machines in America. And because the cost of all these things is falling further, and the performance is increasing with every passing year, by around 2025 people will be saving money by making these choices about the infrastructure of their daily lives.
It isn’t the entire solution to climate change, but it is the solution to much of it, and it is a solution we can start deploying everywhere today. Yes, for a few more years we’ll need government subsidies and incentives, like those proposed by Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in his Zero-Emission Homes Act that is currently included in President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan being debated in Washington — and that needs to be fully funded. Heinrich’s bill, and a House companion, would offer point-of-sale rebates for heat-pump hot water heaters, heat pump HVAC systems, electric cooking appliances, and electric clothes dryers. The goal is to remove the upfront barrier for homeowners to replace a fossil-fueled appliance with a cleaner alternative.
In the long run, electrifying our lives will save everyone a lot of money on energy bills — up to $2,500 per household, according to Rewiring America’s Household Savings Report. But these clean energy appliances come with higher up-front costs to deliver the savings over time. That means we will need low-cost financing.
Low-interest “climate loans” would allow everyone to afford the up-front costs of these clean technologies. Diverse households have different financing needs so we need to pull every policy lever at the federal and state levels, as well as engage in public-private partnerships to enable this. If banks step in, the role of governments will be to make sure that all families can afford it. For many families it will be simple enough to make these investments alongside their household mortgage. For other families, federal policies already exist that enable people to pay as they go as part of their utility bill and own the upgraded appliances in the long run. These incentives and mechanisms need to be available when people purchase new electric appliances and machines.
Critics will argue that this will hit political hurdles. And it will. But if we remain constrained by what we think is politically possible, then we’ll never have a sufficiently ambitious climate agenda. We must change the politics, and the politics will only change and become bipartisan when the economic benefits are felt in every household. Rooftop solar is no longer political in Australia because families of all political stripes have felt the positive effect on cash flow of having cheaper electricity. It can’t be understated how important it is that the Ford F-150, a cultural icon and the most produced vehicle ever, is going electric. Once households red, blue, and purple are enjoying the lower cost of ownership of an electric F-150, the politics of this whole issue will change. Norwegians of all stripes support the rapid adoption of electric vehicles in that country, and it is no-longer a political issue. Politicians are still able to sell a story of fear of change and loss around this transition in 2021. Increasingly, that won’t be possible because the economics will shift.
This needed electrification will halve the total amount of energy required in the economy, but triple the amount of electricity that needs to be delivered. It is critical, obviously, that this electricity be cleanly generated. Ten percent to 30 percent can be generated locally on rooftops and over commercial buildings and parking lots. The rest will need to be produced by wind farms, utility-scale solar farms, and geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear facilities. All of those facilities will need to be connected by long-distance transmission lines.
Of course, none of this is simple, nor politically easy, but with each passing year the inevitability of this solution becomes more so and the cost competitiveness higher, and our motivations to fight climate will increase with each season of climate disruption. The only question is if our sense of urgency will grow fast enough to mitigate the climate disaster before it is too late. My optimism stems from the fact that the scale of the transition lowers the cost enough to make the transition an economic slam dunk, which will change the politics markedly.
The long-term economic benefits of household electrification are not only in energy savings, but in creating jobs. Mass electrification in the U.S. would create up to 25 million new jobs — across every ZIP code — as the national energy infrastructure is modernized, according to a Rewiring America analysis. Most of these jobs — installing solar panels and wind turbines, upgrading the grid, and replacing dirty heaters with clean ones — would necessarily be local. You can’t outsource clean energy. You can’t offshore the installation of an induction stovetop. Those jobs would have a multiplying effect, as the woman who gets a good job as a solar installer is going to spend money in her local community.
Meantime, we should stop pretending there are going to be other miracle technologies that will change the game. Most of the solution will be electrification. Hydrogen and nuclear are both electric technologies at the end of the day, too.
The electrify everything drive will need the type of focus that the U.S. had in World War II when the wartime production board prioritized Liberty ships, Liberator bombers, Jeeps, and munitios. This time around it will be batteries instead of bullets, wind turbines instead of aircraft, and electric vehicles instead of tanks.
Once we make the trade to clean energy, we’ll find that we’ll be able to enjoy all the comforts of home we’re used to — warmth and cooling, zippy cars, hot water, radiant heat — but with lower costs and cleaner air.
This is a critical moment, but it can also be a great one for the economy, our families, and the environment if we take smart action. We have one last chance to address climate change: Electrify everything.
Saul Griffith is the author of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future. An inventor, engineer, and MacArthur fellow, he is founder and chief scientist of Rewiring America and Otherlab.
Economists have failed to take account of ‘immense risks and potential loss of life’, says author of landmark review
Many economic assessments of the climate crisis “grossly undervalue the lives of young people and future generations”, Prof Nicholas Stern warned on Tuesday, before the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.
Economists have failed to take account of the “immense risks and potential loss of life” that could occur as a result of the climate crisis, he said, as well as badly underestimating the speed at which the costs of clean technologies, such as solar and wind energy, have fallen.
Stern said the economics profession had also misunderstood the basics of “discounting”, the way in which economic models value future assets and lives compared with their value today. “It means economists have grossly undervalued the lives of young people and future generations who are most at threat from the devastating impacts of climate change,” he said. “Discounting has been applied in such a way that it is effectively discrimination by date of birth.”
Youth protests around the world, sparked by the school strike of Greta Thunberg, have been a key factor in increasing demands for action in recent years, along with rising extreme weather events. Recent research shows people born today will suffer many times more extreme heatwaves and other climate disasters over their lifetimes than their grandparents.
However, Stern said: “The move to net zero [emissions] can be the great driver of a new form of growth – the growth story of the 21st century. This growth will be more resource-efficient, more productive, and healthier, and will offer greater protection to our biodiversity.”
Renewable energy costs have fallen dramatically and electric cars are moving to scale, he said, while 75% of global emissions are now covered by national commitments to net zero emissions by the middle part of century, though “some of those commitments are more credible than others”.
Stern’s remarks are based on a paper to be published in the Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society and made to mark the 15th anniversary of the landmark Stern review on the economics of the climate crisis in 2006. It concluded that the costs of inaction on climate were far greater than the costs of action and that the climate crisis was the biggest market failure in history.
Since the publication of the report, carbon emissions have risen by 20% and Stern was scathing about much of the economic analysis that has informed policymakers. “Cavalier treatment of risk, and the missing of the very rapid technical progress, means the models have been profoundly misleading,” he said. The theory of discounting had not been related to its ethical foundations, he added, or allowed for the risk that global heating will make future generations poorer.
Political action has been slow since 2006, Stern said, because of the persistence of the “damaging” idea that climate action cuts economic growth and also because of the global financial crisis, which diverted attention and cut middle-class incomes, making politics more “fractious”.
“The economic question now is: how do we manage the radical transformation we have to make in the world economy in the next 20 or 30 years?” he said. “How do we promote the 2% or 3% extra investment we’ll need – which is a very valuable investment, not a cost.”
A whole range of policies are needed, Stern said, including carbon pricing, regulation, product standards, investment in research and reform of capital markets. A critical factor is the provision of large-scale, low-cost finance to fund the low-carbon transition, especially in developing countries…
The Stern review was criticised by some when published as exaggerating the risks of the climate crisis. “The idea that I was alarmist is just laughable in retrospect. We underestimated the dangers. The costs of inaction were very worrying 15 years ago – they are immensely worrying now.”
Denver School Strike for Climate, September 20, 2019.
Youth activists rally for climate justice in front of the US Capitol in Washington,DC (photo from earlier in the year). Image: Lorie Shaull,CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States attended the Ninth Circuit hearing in December. Photo credit: Robin Loznak
Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO Photograph by Devon G. Peña
In response to decreasing irrigation and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs for Tuesday, October 26th, 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). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.
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. Be advised, due to low storage and forecast levels in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.
Led by Berkeley, several dozen jurisdictions in California and other states have forbidden new natural gas connections to buildings. Colorado has embarked on a gentler, more complex but still firm approach to reducing emissions from buildings.
The state’s path is outlined in a 62-page decision issued by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Oct. 1. The decision explains why existing regulations governing Xcel Energy and the three other investor-owned utilities must be revised but also expanded. The utilities deliver natural gas to heat homes, warm water, and for cooking.
PUC commissioners and staff will be addressing “really big questions and really big challenges,” says Justin Brant, co-director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project’s utility program. He calls this effort “ground-breaking,” a description echoed by others.
Other states – particularly California, Massachusetts, and New York, but also Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington – have been having broad conversations about the future of natural gas utilities and decarbonization of buildings. And in Europe, some countries, particularly the Netherlands, have created a framework for decarbonizing gas networks across the country. But none have gotten very far yet. With the work now underway, Colorado ranks among the nation’s leaders, Brant and others say.
Utilities must reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels they provide 22% by 2030, which they can do by providing alternative fuels. Another strategy is to improve efficiency of buildings, so that they require less natural gas to warm.
Transportation and electrical generation are the top two sources of climate-warming pollution, according to the “Colorado Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap.” But “fuel use in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings is not far behind,” added the document.
A pie chart in the document suggests that buildings, both commercial and residential, cause about 10% of the state’s emissions.
Decarbonization of electricity is already well underway. Coal combustion as a source of Colorado’s electricity dropped from 68% to 36% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2030, utilities plan to close all but one coal-burning unit in Colorado. Xcel Energy wants to operate that final coal plant, Comanche 3, at only one-third of capacity.
Colorado also has 23 natural gas-fired plants that generate electricity, but they are expected to be used selectively as electric utilities expand their use of renewables to at least 75% and conceivably 100% in the coming decade.
Buildings, with their dependence on natural gas or, in rural areas, propane, pose arguably a far greater challenge. Unlike a handful of coal plants, there are perhaps a million buildings in Colorado. Nor is this as simple as trading in a car with an internal-combustion for one with an electric motor—not that that is particularly simple, at least not yet.
Technologies exist, among them air-source heat pumps, as an alternative to gas-burning furnaces ordinarily found in basements. The replacements will be costly, though.
Easier will be to cease installing natural gas pipelines, stoves, and hot-water heaters in new buildings. That has started to happen, but most of the 30,000 or more houses built each year are connected to natural gas pipelines. That compounds the problem, as depreciating the infrastructure can take decades.
“The issues are complex and they are new, as no one in the world has decarbonized a gas system, but that is what needs to happen one way or another,” says the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Mike Henchen, who specializes in building decarbonization.
“This is a big transition that nobody has done yet,” he says. The goal will be to create a transition that works for everyone. “We want the system to be decarbonized, but we don’t want to do it in a way that raises people’s bills. That might require some creative solutions that go beyond what we typically see.”
Colorado’s approach to decarbonizing buildings was defined by two laws adopted in June.
SB21-264, sometimes called the clean-heat law, requires the state’s four regulated gas utilities to submit clean heat plans that show how they will reduce emissions 22% by 2030 as compared to the 2015 baseline.
The law assigns responsibility to the PUC to oversee this process governing the private gas utilities with an Oct. 1 deadline for launching the rule-making process. Municipal utilities that provide gas will be governed by the state’s Air Quality Control Commission. The AQCC has until September 2022 to kick off its process. Yet another provision applies to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry.
A second law, HB21-1238, orders regulated gas utilities to institute demand-side management programs to reduce need for natural gas, such as by improved insulation in homes or other efficiency measures. In evaluating such programs, the PUC must use metrics that favor work that, if more expensive in the short term, provides long-term savings.
[Two] other bills also address building energy use. SB21-246, the beneficial electrification law, directs the PUC to oversee energy saving targets by regulated electric utilities that use efficient electric equipment in place of less efficient systems that burn fossil fuels. HB21-1286 addresses energy performance of buildings 50,000 square feet and larger.
Three of the five laws order that the social costs of carbon and methane be used in evaluations of programs by utilities.
PUC commissioners and staff will have to work through many issues while consulting with environmental groups, consumer advocates, and the utilities themselves.
One major issue will be that of stranded assets. If we’re going to abandon some of the existing natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure, who pays? Do natural gas customers pay for that infrastructure that is no longer needed but which hasn’t been fully depreciated? Or do the electricity customers pay for this transition through their rates?
This transition challenges the existing business model of gas utilities. Installation of pipelines to new housing developments and other buildings typically assume a payback of up to 50 years, explains RMI’s Henchen. Existing customers, through their rates, subsidize this extension of natural gas lines to new customers.
A closely related question is why do we add natural gas infrastructure, including the pipelines that underlie most residential streets, if we’re going to start abandoning them?
Colorado gas utilities during the last decade has added an average of 20,500 residential, 7,000 commercial, and 350 industrial customers of natural gas per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It now has 1.8 million residential gas customers.
Hydrogen will also be part of the discussion. Can green hydrogen, made from water and renewable energy, displace natural gas? Can it be blended with natural gas? Or can hydrogen made from natural gas and the carbon sequestered underground be used? A study, “Opportunities for Low-Carbon Hydrogen in Colorado: A Roadmap,” by the consulting firm E3 recommends developing a pilot project.
Costs will invariably be an issue. The clean heat bill, SB21-264, caps the increase on customer bills caused by this transition at 2.5%.
Among those already carefully monitoring the proceedings is the Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate. The state agency has the statutory responsibility to represent residential, small-business, and agriculture consumers in proceedings before the PUC.
“It’s huge,” Cindy Schonhaut, the director of the agency, says of this building decarbonization effort now underway. The challenge, she says, will be “how can we decarbonize our natural gas system in a way that is cost-effective and that minimizes imposing costs on consumers?”
Consumers will pay for this transition, says Schonhaut. “It’s a question of how much.”
Schonhaut also points to a dramatic shift in the business model of gas utilities. The utilities currently must deliver natural gas to new customers in their service territories. This conflicts with the goal of decarbonization.
Too, she sees a safety issue that differentiates this natural gas transition from electric resource planning. “For example, abandoning a pipeline isn’t a matter of simply turning off the valves, because gas will remain in the pipe,” she explains. If a contractor using a backhoe broke a pipe, there could be mayhem. Decommissioning pipelines will involve many questions.
Looming over this decarbonization are rising prices of natural gas. In September, prices surged above $5 per million Btu, about double the price of six months ago, and the highest September price since 2008, Inside Climate News reported.
Not least in the months and years ahead will be the question of what happens to the natural gas utilities themselves as they decarbonize. The journey will perhaps be most difficult for Atmos Energy and Colorado Natural Gas, the two investor-owned utilities in Colorado who do nothing but sell gas. Two others, Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, sell both gas and electricity, if not always in the same places.
“They have invested millions of dollars in the ground in Colorado, as has happened across the country,” explains SWEEP’s Brant. “If we are to meet the state’s roadmap decarbonization goals, there will be a need to change the business model of natural gas. Underlying a lot of these decisions will be how do you do that in an equitable manner?”
Both the gas utilities and the PUC commissioners have been preparing for this process even before the laws were adopted in 2021.
In September 2020, Black Hills Energy issued a 109-page analysis conducted by the Gas Technology Institute titled “Assessment of Natural Gas and Electric Decarbonization in State of Colorado Decarbonization Sector.”
That analysis argued for a core focus on energy efficiency, with a special emphasis on creating tight building envelopes, to help reduce energy use. But the analysis warned of rising overall energy costs by electrifying and warned of the intense energy use of space heating.
“There is no evidence wind or solar resources can address prospective seasonal energy-intensive space heating electricity peaks during Colorado winters,” the Black Hills study concluded.
Xcel Energy in November 2020 also issued a report, “Transitioning Natural Gas for a Low-Carbon Future.” That 27-page paper urged a go-slower approach, one devoid of mandates, because of the need for technological breakthroughs plus the need for time to create the electrical infrastructure needed to replace natural gas on a broad scale.
The paper was one for all eight states in which Xcel operates. In Colorado, it lost that argument about mandates. But perhaps it scored points in the pacing.
The PUC commissioners have also been prepping themselves. Beginning in November 2020, they heard from experts in such diverse topics as leak detection, coal-mine methane, and hydrogen pipeline gas in an effort to better get their minds wrapped around the challenge of methane, the primary constituent of natural gas.
Commissioners have been told that baseline information that will be needed for evaluating progress remains scarce. Even basic definitions have yet to be worked out.
Environmental groups are eager to begin wrestling with the challenge.
“As daunting as these issues appear, it’s really important to take them on now,” says RMI’s Henchen. “There are steps that make sense to get us started, like cutting back on spending on expanding the gas system, targeting funding to help the most vulnerable customers shift to cleaner and more stable alternatives than gas, and piloting new approaches to ‘non-pipe solutions’ instead of replacing old pipes with new pipes.”
Some mountain ranges have already received more than 2 feet of snow in the first three weeks of October…
So far, that snowpack measurement is way above the average for this early in the season.
Those early-season numbers look pretty dramatic, but that’s just because the averages are very low this early on. We usually don’t see too much snowpack in our mountains in October.
For example, the Grizzly Peak weather station on Loveland Pass has an average of just two-tenths of an inch of SWE for this day, which is about two inches of snow. But there are 1.1 inches of SWE currently being measured, which is about 11 inches of snow. That equals 550% of the average.
All the stations combined in the South Platte River headwaters are currently at [99%] of average.
These big early season numbers are not just fun to look at, but they also have importance. When Colorado has good early-season snowpack, it increases the chances of finishing the season in April at or above average.
When there is ground exposed with no snowpack, the darker mountainside can absorb more sunlight, and melt more snow. The earlier in the season that ground gets covered by snow, the more snow we’ll keep through the year, because the white snow can reflect more than 80% of sunlight.
Few in the American West have been spared the effects of the region’s long-standing drought, but on the frontlines of the sere conditions are those who work most closely with the land — farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers. San Miguel County created a program, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) that compensates landowners for implementing practices in “drought resilience and other soil health improvement projects,” according to the county’s Parks and Open Spaces page n the county website. The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) got an update from the department’s director, Janet Kask, and contractor Chris Hazen, on their efforts to enlist landowners in the forward-thinking program.
The county was awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to enhance the PES program, Kask explained…
The pilot program is seeking six partners and is currently in earnest talks with several interested landowners. Hazen, an independent contractor with The Terra Firm, is spearheading the administration of the CWCB grant in order to “continue with our soil health initiative,” Kask said…
While talks with landowners are ongoing, Kask and Hazen reported there have been delays.
“We’re disappointed that we haven’t had the landowner commitments that we initially set out to have,” Kask told the commissioners Wednesday. “We were looking at a total of six this year, but just based on active conversations Chris has had with certain landowners, some of them are on hold and hesitant to join and we do have somebody who’s almost ready to go, but waiting for their USDA number. There are some criteria that the landowners need to meet and adhere to on our end.”
Norwood farmers Tony and Barclay Daranyi of Indian Ridge Farm are closest to qualifying as of Wednesday. Other participants close to being green-lighted are the owners of Laid Back Ranch and of Lizard Head Wilderness Ranch, Hazen said…
Some of the practices the county is looking for in property being proposed for participation includes cover crops, intensive till to no-till or strip till, improved fertilizer management, conservation cover /cropland conversion, forage and biomass planting/convert cropland to grass/legume/biomass, convert cropland to permanent grass/legume cover, windbreaks, nutrient management, and other practices as called out by the Natural Resource Conservation Service…
Some hiccups in meeting the goal of six participants include delays in submitting a USDA number, mapping challenges, the pandemic and other delays.
The CWCB grant totals $34,646, with the county matching at $34,646 for a total of $69,293.
For more information, contact Hazen at The Terra Firm 970-708-1221, with questions or to schedule a meeting to identify partnership opportunities.
As the Colorado’s 2022 water forecast indicates, it appears there is more dry weather ahead, which does not bode well for Colorado’s water resources…
Weather forecasters are now predicting that another La Niña is likely to materialize, but barely. This means it is likely to deliver less moisture to the state than last year. According to a recent story in Fresh Water News, this means that just as occurred last year, the moisture we do get will simply sublimate, or soak into our ultra-dry soils, leaving little to run into our creeks and rivers. This is particularly worrying to water forecasters, as the west enters its 20th year of regional drought…
Water planners are worried…The current water year began Oct. 1; the fourth quarter time frame. This leads into the period of critical mountain snows and the spring runoff they generate, and estimations of what it will yield help farmers, cities, and others determine how much water they will have to work with.
“The seasonal outlook is not pointing in a favorable direction,” said Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center Specialist Peter Goble. But he reminds Coloradoans that last year’s devastating fires aren’t necessary something to measure against. “We’re a lot better off than we were a year ago. Having blue skies as opposed to smoke is a big improvement, but we are going into water year 2022 on shaky footing.”
[The] Colorado Water Availability Task Force, is now saying the state is likely to experience another La Niña this coming year. That weather pattern can often bring healthy moisture to the Northern Rockies, but this pattern has also been know to leave the southwestern portion of the state dry. This was our pattern last year, but since it’s year two, water experts say this often means less moisture.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced in a Sept. 22 report that storage levels are continuing to drop in the Colorado River Basin…
As AVV reported earlier this year, storage at lakes Powell and Mead is down to a combined 39 percent full. Last year at this time the two storage reservoirs were at a then-record low 49 percent full. Electric turbines generate power for a large swath of the Western U.S at those two reservoirs. Without a snowy winter and spring, hydropower generation at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam could come to a halt as early as July 2022, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
For the first time since the historic Cameron Peak Fire charred a record breaking 208,000 acres in 2020, and since the rain on the burn scar caused fatal flooding in the Poudre Canyon in July of 2021, wildlife officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife are seeing the detrimental impact the blaze had on the fish in the Cache la Poudre River. As feared, recent surveys of the river showed thousands of fish were killed as a result of the fire and its lasting impacts.
“The runoff events we saw this summer, post fire, have had a detrimental impact on the fishery,” said Kyle Battige, Aquatic Biologist with CPW…
CBS4’s Dillon Thomas was invited to join CPW staff as they conducted their first fish testing of the year along the Poudre River.
Battige and his team conducted Standardized Electrofishing Surveys along the Poudre River in mid-October, their first time surveying the region since the fatal flooding and Cameron Peak Fire…
The fatal landslide in July claimed the lives of four people near the Black Hollow Road area. CBS4 was invited to join CPW as they surveyed their two nearest stations, one upstream and one downstream from the slide.
Kelly Flats is a campground and recreation area just downstream from the landslide.
“Last year we caught approximately 200 fish,” Battige said of the roughly 40-yard stretch of the river they survey at Kelly Flats. “(This year) we caught zero trout.”
Not one single fish was found near Kelly Flats, just one year after hundreds were located there. Battige said he expected there to be fewer fish due to the impacts of the past year. However, he said he was shocked to not catch one single fish…
Though the results of the electrofishing were upsetting for the staff at Kelly Flats, greater signs of hope were unveiled a mile upstream from the landslide.
Within 30 seconds of entering the Poudre upstream from the slide and turning on their electrofishing system, multiple fish were being caught for counting…
At the survey station upstream more than 50 fish were caught during one pass. More were caught during a second pass. CPW staff were thrilled to see the fish were still in the region, even if not at the same population of previous years…
Battige said the Poudre River is typically not stocked with trout. The ecosystem has long thrived on its own even after natural disasters. The fish have historically repopulated and redistributed along the river without human intervention.
Battige said he was hopeful the fish would soon make their way toward the Kelly Flats area, repopulating that region…
The fish that are caught in the electrofishing process are weighed, measured, listed for species and then returned to the same waters.
Now, with stats in-hand, CPW will weigh their options for the future. Either let the river bounce back on its own, or try and shock the system by stocking the river with fish.
Natural resources experts who surveyed the fire’s impacts on the watershed, which [northern Colorado relies] on for drinking and irrigation water, believed the Cameron Peak Fire will have impacts on the Poudre River for at least 10 years.