#Snowpack news: Where’s Ullr?

Westwide SNOTEL November 21, 2021 via the NRCS.
Colorado snowpack November 29, 2021 via the NRCS.
Illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript shows Ullr on his skis and with his bow. Credit: Wikimedia

Some Coloradans’ drinking water still has highest radium levels in the nation — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Evan Wyloge):

Some of the highest concentrations of radium-contaminated drinking water in the nation are clustered in rural southeast Colorado, according to a recent compilation of data.

The problem is hardly new. The presence of radium in the area’s groundwater, which is linked to an increased cancer risk particularly for children, has been known for decades. The newly compiled data shows that out of the 50,000 water systems included in the research, six of the ten worst radium levels in the nation are in Colorado.

The water providers are required to inform their customers of the contamination, and they say they’d like to fix the problem, but providing clean, radium-free tap water in the most remote areas comes with an untenable price tag.

A massive infrastructure project that promises to largely resolve the problem, the Arkansas Valley Conduit, broke ground this year, but its completion is years away and the bulk of its funding hasn’t materialized yet.

For now, most are hopeful that the conduit will be fully funded and fully built, but until then, the faucets in the area will still provide water with as much as four times the legal radium limit…

Radium poses a unique risk to children, because it is treated by the human body like calcium and deposited into developing bones, where it remains radioactive and can kill and mutate cells.

Although the area’s groundwater was known to have contaminants, high levels of radium in Colorado’s groundwater became a regulatory problem around 20 years ago, when the Environmental Protection Agency promulgated new radionuclide standards. Federal law allows up to 5 picocuries of radium-226 or radium-228, the most common versions of the element, per liter of water…

Rocky Ford Melon Day 1893 via the Colorado Historical Society

According to the Environmental Working Group’s new drinking water contamination data compilation, the worst radium content in the nation is found in Rocky Ford, where there was an average of 23 picocuries of radium per liter of water.

Eighteen other water systems in Colorado contain more than the legal limit. Most are clustered around the small rural towns of Rocky Ford, Swink and La Junta, about an hour’s drive east from Pueblo. The new data show one in every six Otero County resident has tap water above the federal limit.

After years of testing, studies and planning, the solution that‘s emerged is one proposed sixty years ago: The Arkansas Valley Conduit, the massive clean water delivery system proposal that stalled for decades over the project’s equally massive price tag.

Elsewhere in the state the Peak View Park mobile home park, situated on a wooded hillside along U.S. Route 24 in Woodland Park, registered more than twice the legal limit of radium for years, as the owners struggled to get the problem fixed…

But a key feature of the system Peak View Park installed is the access to Woodland Park’s sewer system. LaBarre said he had to make arrangements with the city’s wastewater treatment officials about the timing of their extraction system’s wastewater disposal, so that they can send the radium-saturated byproduct of the extraction process into the sewer when the system can adequately handle it…

The lack of a sewer system is what cripples any similar efforts in the more rural areas around La Junta. There, where many of the residents use septic tanks, storing an extraction byproduct would be prohibitively expensive…

Bill Long, the president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the towns along the first 12 miles of the [Arkansas Valley Conduit], Boone and Avondale, should be getting clean water from the conduit by 2024.

More funding will be needed to finish the project, and Long said he believes there will be money allocated from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill, and that the funds could help get the conduit finished, but that the details aren’t yet clear.

Arkansas River Basin alluvial aquifers via the Colorado Geological Survey

#Drought, land development take their toll on the San Luis Valley’s natural habitats — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

From The Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):

THROUGH their research on the San Luis Valley wetlands and bird migration patterns, Cary Aloiaand Jenny Nehring can tell you ducks that are divers are arriving on average 1.24 days earlier in the Valley, and ducks that are dabblers 1.7 days earlier.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

“Means that every year the peak migration is occurring 1.5 days earlier,” said Aloia. “If we look at historic records, peak migration was end of March-ish and now we’re looking at getting close to the beginning of March. What’s significant to that is that the irrigation season starts April 1. That means that farmers aren’t putting water out on their properties, they aren’t flood irrigating when the peak number of birds are there.

“What that also means is because peak numbers are March, the beginning of March, the birds start coming in the end of January now and February, and so we’ve got this period of time where we’re really limited because of an irrigation system.”

It’s complicated, but then it isn’t. Simply, climate change – where we experience extreme weather events hot and cold, and experience an overall warming to the seasons – is having a damaging effect on the natural wildlife of the Valley, the natural lands of the Valley, and how we all use it.

Photo: Ryan Michelle Scavo

The complication enters with solutions put forth to address the changing climate and how far the Valley is willing to go to address it. Spending time with Aloia and Nehring helps in understanding the circumstances and conditions.

The Alamosa Citizen visited recently over a Zoom call with Aloia and Nehring to talk about their research and ongoing work to address the Valley’s changing environment. Aloia and Nehring are biologists who work together as Wetland Dynamics and consult with companies and governmental agencies to preserve and conserve wetlands, riparian areas, and ecosystems like the San Luis Valley.

Their study, “San Luis Valley Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment” published in 2019 and updated in 2020, is in the category of must reading if you care an iota about the San Luis Valley and how it’s faring in the first decades of the 21st century as climate change makes its presence more acutely felt.

“I would say we’ve got the climate change aspect, but we’ve also got sort of this urban push into wildlife habitat and the change in not only conversion of different types of wetlands, but the complete loss of wetlands,” said Aloia. “As the assessment pointed out, we have about a third of the wetlands that we had historically, and we continue to keep pushing that envelope, converting wetlands, and part of that conversion is, of course, the drought that we’re going through. We’ve lost a lot of wetlands because the water doesn’t get where it was historically.

Now we’re getting into climate change, human migration patterns as people seek out lesser-known and less-crowded spaces, land development, and intersecting it with the natural habitats that are being impacted by it all.

Here’s how Nehring follows up her partner Aloia’s comment when she said, “‘We have an exponential number of people coming here.”’

“I was reading a book on migration this last year,” Nehring said, “and they were talking about how if you watch a warbler foraging through just trees on the bank of a river, and it’s a bird that’s migrating. Neotropical songbirds migrate at night and they land in the morning, and they’ll feed and rest through the day, and then they’ll take off and fly another stretch that night. Or maybe they’ll stay two days. And it’s very weather dependent, and they follow rivers. Rivers are huge landmarks for migrating birds, and so if you watch a warbler foraging during migration, about once every three seconds, it’ll glean a little bug off a leaf and it’s eating.

Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo
Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

“And if an area is cleared of that vegetation, and maybe the bird has to fly a bigger distance between clumps, and maybe their foraging goes from once every three seconds to once every four seconds, seemingly minuscule, but that means it’s a 25 percent increase in its energy expenditure to just eat.

“So if you think of the development Cari has referenced, people have moved to the Valley and there are a lot of rural areas across Colorado and the U.S. that have seen this shift because of COVID. If you just drive from South Fork to Creede, or anywhere along our river ways, you can see where a new house is, and you can see that people clear vegetation to the water because it gives them a better view, better access or whatever. But if you imagine, if you add all that cleared vegetation up, you’re having a huge impact in foraging areas for neotropical migrants and other wildlife.”

“And the same goes for grassland species,” Aloia adds, bringing more context and perspective to the conversation. “Nationally, continentally, we’ve seen a huge decline in grassland species. They took it really hard with that September snow that we had a year ago, and if you drive down the (county road) 8 South between Monte Vista and Alamosa, if you drive that road, the amount of clearing that has gone on just with greasewood, rabbit brush, sort of the more upland species that you don’t usually equate with wetlands, and having those sort of temporarily flooded areas that we identified in the assessment as being something that we’ve lost significantly, those areas are being cleared, and what we have is exposed ground now and weeds, and all kinds of things.

Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

“If you drive that in the spring and the fall, or if you’ve ever walked through a greasewood area, the amount of birds that are utilizing those types of areas is astounding. And we’re losing that habitat. As we know, at least 82 percent of all wildlife species use riparian areas or wetlands in some capacity during their life history. So even though we may look at those as really upland species, there is a lot of crossover between different habitat ecosystem types. So then we can’t just focus on a specific riparian or wetland area, we have to look at the system as a whole and see how we’ve really fragmented everything.

This year Nehring and Aloia noticed what they characterized as a “huge change in the bird migration for water fowls coming to the San Luis Valley.”

“We saw a three week shift in when the geese were breeding and bringing off their broods,” said Aloia. “We didn’t see the water fowl coming into the Valley as early as they usually do in the fall. It’s much later, and honestly I don’t even know that we’ve really seen it yet.

Sandhill Cranes West of Dunes by NPS/Patrick Myers

“We obviously have the cranes coming through and they sort of straggle in, in the fall. But in terms of water fowl they know that our water resources this year were low, they have a sense for that, and can just pass us by. Because they have wings, they are able to shift and go where resources are and I think we’re going to see that more and more.”

Nehring referenced a widely publicized study first reported in the journal Science that documented the loss of 3 billion birds, or one in every four birds, since 1970. “I’m thinking now, 3 billion birds in 30 years, that’s really dramatic but I think we’re entering into a new time period where we’ll have equally dramatic losses in a shorter period of time,” she said.

“And I think it’ll not only be birds,” said Aloia, “but it’s going to be other bigger wildlife species that may garner more attention because they’re more identifiable, more people know about them. We as biologists have definitely seen how the birds have changed in their movements and numbers, but I think that it’s definitely going to become more apparent to a bigger part of the population.”

Their important work continues.

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During An Historic #Drought, Higher Temperatures Helped a Beetle Kill More #California Pine Trees — North Carolina State University

Dead ponderosa pine trees in California. Credit: Charles Koven, University of California, Berkeley.

Here’s the release from North Carolina State University (Laura Oleniacz):

A new study shows climate change can have cascading effects on forests. Using computer modeling, researchers from North Carolina State University, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other institutions found increased temperatures during an historic drought in California contributed to the death of large numbers of giant pine trees by speeding up the life cycle of a tree-killing beetle.

Published in the journal Global Change Biology, the study found a nearly 30% increase in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) tree death during California’s 2012-2015 drought due to attacks from the western bark beetle. Researchers said the findings highlight how climate change can compound threats forests face, and raise questions about their ability to act as reservoirs for greenhouse gases.

“This has huge implications for how we manage forests – not just in California, but everywhere,” said study co-author Robert Scheller, professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University. “With climate change, it’s not just wildfires and weather events, but also how changing climate conditions can impact insects, fungi and other biological agents of tree mortality.”

Pinus ponderosa subsp. ponderosa. Photo credit Wikimedia.

During the drought, researchers documented widespread tree death throughout the central and southern Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. The ponderosa pine, a large tree that lives at higher elevations, suffered the most, as it’s the only host for the western pine beetle in the region. In some areas, nearly 90% of large ponderosa pine trees died, U.S. Forest Service researchers found.

“There are dead trees snaking across the landscape – dead, giant trees,” said Zachary Robbins, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at NC State. “We estimated that this mortality event would have occurred during the drought, but it would have been less severe under historic temperatures.”

To understand how temperature influenced the beetles’ attacks on the trees, researchers created a computer simulation of the beetles’ life cycle, their attack behavior, the number and size of trees, tree defenses and likelihood of death during certain stages of the drought. Then they combined all of those variables to model the beetles’ attack behavior and tree defenses under contemporary (2001-2018) compared with historical (1895-1945) temperatures. They compared and tested their model using data gathered in the field.

While the trees can defend themselves against attacks by the beetle, their defenses were down during drought, researchers said. To save water, the trees put the brakes on photosynthesis, which could affect their ability to expel the beetles as they try to chew through bark. The beetles kill the trees when they dig intricate tunnel systems to lay their eggs into the trees’ circulatory system, preventing nutrients from flowing through the tree.

“These beetles primarily live in trees that are weakened or dying, but when weather events occur, they start spreading across the landscape, and multiplying rapidly,” Robbins said. “The beetles can develop more quickly when it’s warmer. Also, lower temperatures in winter keep the populations in check. They die when winters are cold, but as temperatures warm, that may occur less often.”

They attributed a 29.9% increase in tree death to the beetles’ attacks – primarily from increases in development rates of the pine beetle, and to a lesser degree, to reductions in the beetles’ death over the winter.

They also reported that each degree increase in temperature may have increased the number of pine trees killed by more than 35 to 40% – if increased beetle populations and declines in host tree defenses act separately.

“Higher temperatures increased the number of beetles that existed on the landscape by speeding up their life cycle by about a half generation,” Robbins said. “It lowered the over-wintering mortality a little bit, but not in a very pronounced way. Overall, what this means is that the beetles were able to reproduce more efficiently because they had these quicker generation times, and killed trees more quickly during the drought period.”

The researchers are also concerned that small changes in the beetle population could have big effects.

“Even a slight increase in generations can increase tree mortality considerably,” Robbins said.

The researchers said the findings raise multiple questions about forests in the future. It creates a more nuanced picture of the role they could play in storing, or releasing, carbon. The ponderosa pineis thought of as a fire-resistant species that’s less likely to burn in wildfire events.

“These old trees are large stores of carbon that could be released back into the atmosphere either slowly as they decompose, or rapidly through wildfire,” Robbins said. “As you have new species replacing them that might be more fire prone, that can be a big deal in terms of how much carbon we’re storing in these forests versus what we’re releasing back into the atmosphere.”

Scheller said the death of the trees is likely to leave a lasting mark. It also raises questions about forests as long-term tools for controlling climate change.

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Mountain Pine Beetle kill via USGS.

“We’re talking about a mass mortality event of incredibly large and old conifers,” he said. “There will be new species to replace those, but the forest won’t recover right away. And those original tree species may not return for hundreds of years, if ever.”

The study, “Warming Increased Bark Beetle-Induced Tree Mortality by 30% During an Extreme Drought in California,” was published online in Global Change Biology. In addition to Robbins and Scheller, the other authors were Chonggang Xu, Brian H. Aukema, Polly C. Buotte, Rutuja Chitra-Tarak, Christopher J. Fettig, Michael L. Goulden, Devin W. Goodsman, Alexander D. Hall, Charles D. Koven, Lara M. Kueppers, Gavin D. Madakumbura, Leif A. Mortenson, James A. Powell. The study was supported by the UC National Laboratory Fees Research Program under grant No. LA-UR-20-30376, the McIntire-Stennis project MIN-17-095, grants from the Pacific Southwest Research Station Climate Change Competitive Grant Program, PSW–2016–03, PSW–2017–02), and the NC State Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program…

Abstract

DOI: 10.1111/gcb.15927

Abstract: Quantifying the responses of forest disturbances to climate warming is critical to our understanding of carbon cycles and energy balances of the Earth system. The impact of warming on bark beetle outbreaks is complex as multiple drivers of these events may respond differently to warming. Using a novel model of bark beetle biology and host tree interactions, we assessed how contemporary warming affected western pine beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis) populations and mortality of its host, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), during an extreme drought in the Sierra Nevada, California, and United States. When compared with the field data, our model captured the western pine beetle flight timing and rates of ponderosa pine mortality observed during the drought. In assessing the influence of temperature on western pine beetles, we found that contemporary warming increased the development rate of the western pine beetle and decreased the overwinter mortality rate of western pine beetle larvae leading to increased population growth during periods of lowered tree defense. We attribute a 29.9% (95% CI: 29.4%–30.2%) increase in ponderosa pine mortality during drought directly to increases in western pine beetle voltinism (i.e., associated with increased development rates of western pine beetle) and, to a much lesser extent, reductions in overwintering mortality. These findings, along with other studies, suggest each degree (°C) increase in temperature may have increased the number of ponderosa pine killed by upwards of 35%–40% °C−1 if the effects of compromised tree defenses (15%–20%) and increased western pine beetle populations (20%) are additive. Due to the warming ability to considerably increase mortality through the mechanism of bark beetle populations, models need to consider climate’s influence on both host tree stress and the bark beetle population dynamics when determining future levels of tree mortality.

Some of the threats climate change poses to Colorado: shorter winters, forests killed by invasive pine beetles, and habitat loss for the Pika, which thrives in cold, high-altitude environments. Photo credit Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates.