Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map December 7, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map December 7, 2021.
Western U.S. Drought Monitor map December 7, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map December 7, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week saw continued deterioration in conditions across areas of the Mid-Atlantic (Virginia, North Carolina) and the Southeast (South Carolina, Georgia) in response to below-normal precipitation (past 30- to 90-day period), declining soil moisture and streamflow levels. Likewise, drought-affected areas expanded and intensified on the map in areas of the South including Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas as well as in the Southern Plains of Oklahoma, where overall warm and dry conditions have prevailed during the past 30- to 120-day period. Across areas of the Northern Plains, Upper Midwest, and the Northeast, light-to-heavy snowfall accumulations were observed during the past week. The heaviest accumulations (8-18 inches) were centered on northern portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, while lake-effect snowfall (2 to 8 inches) impacted areas downwind of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in New York, according to snowfall analysis from the National Weather Service (NWS) National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC). Out West, some areas including the North Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and the Northern and Central Rockies, received much-needed snowfall this past week. However, basin-level snowpack conditions remained below normal across the entire western United States. In Hawaii, a Kona Low delivered very heavy rainfall accumulations (highest totals exceeding 16+ inches) leading to widespread flooding, power outages, and damage to infrastructure in areas across the Hawaiian Island this week. Impacts from the multi-day event led Hawaii Governor Ige to declare a state of emergency on December 6. With the meteorological autumn (September-November) coming to a close, the Lower 48 experienced its third warmest fall on record with the largest mean temperature departures from average observed across areas of the Northern and Central Plains, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). In terms of fall precipitation, the driest conditions were observed across parts of the Southwest, Texas, Montana, Wisconsin, and the Carolinas…
On this week’s map, areas of the region—including the eastern plains of Colorado—saw widespread degradation in response to anomalously warm temperatures, short-term precipitation deficits, declining soil moisture levels, and elevated evaporative demand across the region. Moreover, impact reports from eastern Colorado are yielding concerns by producers about winter wheat stands as well as declining pasture and range conditions. According to the latest USDA Colorado Crop Progress report, the percentage of topsoil rated short to very short was 84%, while pasture and range conditions were rated 40% very poor to poor. For the week, most of the region was unseasonably warm and dry with average temperatures ranging from 2 to 12 degrees above normal with the greatest departures observed in eastern portions of Colorado and Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska. In eastern Colorado, average maximum temperatures for the week ranged from 60 to 70 degrees.
In the West, the big story continues to be the poor snowpack conditions across the region and growing concern about water supplies after back-to-back dry winter seasons in California as well as in other basins including the Colorado River Basin. In California, the Department of Water Resources announced (December 1) that the State Water Project’s initial water allocation for 2022 will be at 0% in an unprecedented step to address the state’s water supply in anticipation of another dry winter season. Other impacts of concern across the region include the delayed opening of ski areas across the region which is impacting local economies in mountain communities across the West. However, some positive signs have emerged over the past week and looking ahead in the short-term with a change to a more active weather pattern for the region with heavy mountain snowfall expected in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Great Basin, and the Rockies. On the map this week, recent precipitation in the Pacific Northwest led to improvements in drought-affected areas of Washington as well as in northeastern Oregon, and west-central Idaho. Conversely, an area of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded in southwestern Montana due to poor snowpack conditions in the higher elevations…
For the week, the region was mainly dry with average temperatures that were well above normal (6 to 15 deg F). Some light precipitation (1 to 2 inches) was observed in areas of central Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Tennessee. On the map, conditions degraded across much of the region including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas where areas of Moderate Drought (D1) and Severe Drought (D2) expanded in response to persistent warm and dry conditions. In the western portions of Oklahoma and Texas, the NASA Crop-CASMA application is showing significant negative soil moisture anomalies this month. In the Rolling Plains of Texas, some drought-related impacts have been reported, including reports of winter wheat crops continuing to struggle due to the lack of moisture…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy precipitation accumulations ranging from 2 to 7 inches (liquid) in much of the Far West including the coastal ranges of California and Oregon as well as coastal areas of western Washington. Similar accumulations are forecasted in the Sierra Nevada Range and Cascades of Oregon and Washington. In the Great Basin and Intermountain West, accumulations of 1-to-3-inches (liquid) are expected across the Rockies with the heaviest accumulations forecasted for the mountain ranges of southwestern Utah and western Colorado. In the Central Plains and Upper Midwest, liquid accumulations of generally < 1 inch are expected. In the Eastern Tier, light-to-moderate accumulations of 1 to 2 inches are expected in northern portions of Alabama and Georgia and eastern Tennessee. In the Northeast, light precipitation accumulations of < 1 inch are expected, while much of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast are forecasted to have generally dry conditions. The CPC 6-10-day Outlooks calls for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures across most of the conterminous United States except for areas of the Great Basin and Far West where below normal to near-normal temperatures are expected. In terms of precipitation, there is a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal precipitation across most of the western U.S. as well as portions of the Midwest and eastern portions of the Southern Plains. The Eastern Tier of the U.S. is expected to be drier-than-normal.
For November, the contiguous U.S. average temperature was 45.2°F, 3.5°F above the 20th-century average, ranking seventh warmest in the November record. During meteorological autumn (September-November), the average temperature for the Lower 48 was 56.7°F, 3.1°F above average, ranking third warmest in the historical record. For the year to date, the contiguous U.S. temperature was 55.9°F, 2.1°F above the 20th-century average. This ranked seventh warmest in the January-November record.
The November precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 1.28 inches, 0.95 inch below average, ranking eighth driest in the 127-year period of record. The autumn precipitation total across the Lower 48 was 6.81 inches, 0.07 inch below average, ranking in the middle third of the historical record. The year-to-date precipitation total across the contiguous U.S. was 28.06 inches, 0.47 inch above the long-term average, also ranking in the middle third of the January-November record.
Above-average tropical activity across the Atlantic Basin occurred for the sixth year in a row. By the official end of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season (November 30), 21 named storms formed. It was the third most-active Atlantic hurricane season on record. Category 4 Hurricane Ida was the strongest landfalling and most destructive hurricane of the season with cost estimates currently at $64.5 billion and associated fatalities at 95.
This monthly summary from NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia, and the public to support informed decision-making.
November temperatures were above average from the West Coast to the Great Lakes and into New England as well as across portions of the Deep South. California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico each had their second-warmest November on record with three additional states in the West and High Plains ranking among their warmest five Novembers. Temperatures were near to below average across much of the eastern third of the contiguous U.S.
The Alaska average November temperature was 4.1°F, 7.6°F below the long-term mean, tying for eighth-coldest November in the 97-year period of record for the state. Temperatures were record cold across southwestern Alaska with monthly average temperatures 15°F to 20°F below average. Long-term climate sites in Iliamna, King Salmon and Cold Bay each reported their coldest November on record.
Precipitation was above average across portions of the Northwest, northern Plains, Florida and south Texas while below-average precipitation dominated much of the contiguous United States. Alabama and North Carolina both ranked fifth driest for the month while 11 additional states ranked among their driest 10 Novembers.
In Alaska, statewide precipitation ranked in the driest third of the historical record. Precipitation was below average across much of the state with the driest conditions present across the western and southwestern portions of the state. This resulted in
below-average snowpack across much of the region. Snowfall was above average across parts of south-central Alaska and the Panhandle due to a larger percentage of the precipitation falling as snow as compared to average.
According to the November 30U.S. Drought Monitor report, approximately 53.4 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up 5.6 percent from the beginning of November. Drought conditions expanded or intensified across portions of the Carolinas and Virginia, the southern Plains, along the front range of the Rockies and across portions of Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Drought severity and/or extent lessened across parts of the West and Upper Mississippi River Valley.
2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season Summary
Twenty-one named storms formed in the Atlantic during 2021, which ranks as the third most-active season on record (average is 14). In all, there were 7 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes in 2021 (average is 7 and 3, respectively). The record of 30 named storms occurred last year during 2020. Twenty-seven named storms formed in 2005.
Eight named-storm-continental U.S. landfalls occurred during 2021 (Claudette, Danny, Elsa, Fred, Henri, Ida, Mindy and Nicholas) with Ida being the most destructive. Damage associated with Ida was reported from the Louisiana coast to the Northeast.
Category 4 Ida was among the most-intense hurricanes on record to make landfall in Louisiana (Katrina in 2005 was more intense), with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph and minimum central pressure of 930 mb.
2021 was the sixth consecutive above-normal Atlantic hurricane season and the seventh consecutive year with a named storm forming prior to the official start of the season on June 1.
Autumn temperatures were above average across most of the contiguous U.S. Montana, Wyoming and Colorado ranked second warmest for this three-month period with 14 additional states ranking among their five warmest autumns.
The Alaska statewide average temperature for autumn was 23.8°F, 2.2°F below average, ranking in the coldest third of the historical record. Temperatures were below average across much of the West Coast, western Interior, south-central and southeastern portions of the state. Record cold temperatures occurred across portions of
Bristol Bay, Northwest Gulf and the Aleutians. Pockets of above-average temperatures were observed across parts of the North Slope and Northeast Interior regions.
Precipitation was above average across parts of the West, northern Plains, Ohio Valley, Northeast and Southeast. Washington state ranked sixth wettest for this three-month period. Precipitation was below average across portions of the Southwest, northern Rockies, central to southern Rockies, southern Plains, Lower Mississippi River Valley, western Great Lakes and the Carolinas and Virginia.
Autumn statewide precipitation ranked in the driest third of the historical record in Alaska.
Year-to-date temperatures were above average across the western U.S., central and northern Plains, Great Lakes and East Coast with Maine ranking second warmest and 11 additional states across the Northeast, Great Lakes, northern Plains and West ranking among their five warmest such periods. Temperatures were near average across portions of the southern Plains, central Gulf Coast and Tennessee Valley with pockets of below-average temperatures embedded across the South.
Year-to-date statewide temperatures ranked near average in Alaska with above-average temperatures observed across northeastern portions of the state. Below-average temperatures were present across portions of the southwestern and southeastern Alaska mainland.
January-November precipitation was above average from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and into portions of the Northeast. Mississippi ranked eighth wettest on record. Precipitation was below average across much of the West, northern Plains and portions of New England and the Carolinas. Montana ranked fourth driest on record for this January-November period.
January-November precipitation in Alaska was above average across much of the West Coast, North Slope, Central Interior, Northeastern Interior and Panhandle regions. Drier-than-average conditions were present across Cook Inlet.
Water supply experts are looking longer and things look troubling in some ways.
“All of our water supply planning factors in climate change,” said Greeley Water and Sewer’s Director of Water Resources, Adam Jokerst. “It’s such a driver of the water supply that we’re going to get in any given year into the future.”
That means planning to deal with the variability as much as anything…
Colorado’s warming climate, two degrees over the past 30 years, means more variability.
“The predictability. The year-to-year kind of traditional patterns that I think we saw for a lot of the 20th century are changing and every year is a little less predictable,” said [Todd] Hartman…
“We plan 50 years into the future. So climate change has become a big part of our thought process and our planning process,” said Hartman. “It’s true that we’re probably going to experience longer and more intensive droughts. So we need to be more prepared for that. One key to prepare for that is to build storage.”
Part of that plan is the expansion of Gross Reservoir, which has been opposed by some in the area of southern Boulder County, concerned among other things about years of construction. Water systems all along the Front Range know there is increasing population to deal with along with changing climate and potentially fewer opportunities to gather and hold water they will need.
“Spring runoff is coming sooner. So we have to be prepared to capture that water sooner,” said Hartman.
As J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, strolls through the Hutchison Ranch, a legacy cattle farm in Salida, Colorado, it’s what he doesn’t see that excites him most.
Last year, the trees here were so dense you couldn’t see more than 20 feet away. The 11,713-foot peak of Methodist Mountain was obscured by piñon-juniper trees. Now, the trunks are pleasantly spaced out, letting in beams of sunlight. The ground is scattered with wood chips and stumps, feeding a healthy new bed of grasses.
“This looks completely different than this time last year,” Shaver says. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”
The landscape’s evolution was the result of a weeks-long treatment organized by Shaver’s office to help this 5,800-person town prepare for wildfire. By thinning the dense thickets of trees, any fire that does reach the ranch shouldn’t burn hot and fast in the crown of the trees. Instead, it should run along the ground with less intensity, burning more naturally. “We’re mimicking the behavior of a wildfire that would have occurred prior to European settlement,” Shaver’s colleague, Josh Kuehn, explains.
Over the past decade, Chaffee County’s once sleepy population has steadily grown as people seek refuge from the busier Interstate 70 corridor. In 2017, county leaders convened a master planning process but were surprised to learn that residents’ No. 1 concern wasn’t small business sustainability or housing prices or even traffic. It was wildfire.
“We knew about the beetle kill epidemic and saw that our forests were in poor health,” says Kim Marquis, project and outreach coordinator for Envision Chaffee County. “The first step to growth planning was taking on our wildfire risk.”
At that point, Chaffee County had been spared from the intense fires ravaging the state in recent decades, although the 2019 Decker Fire would soon burn just two miles south of Salida. But residents had embraced the frightening reality that few places in Colorado are safe from fires. Climate change and the decades-long drought have been fueling bigger and more dangerous fires, leaving devastation up and down watersheds.
The county assembled stakeholders, including state foresters, federal officials, local landowners and farmers, to work proactively to improve forest health. Aurora Water also joined the talks, since a fire near Salida could potentially pollute the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of Aurora’s primary water sources. The partners thoroughly mapped the area, highlighting the properties and forests most at risk if a fire did come through the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.
While local landowners could take their own preventative measures like shoring up buildings and removing dead trees, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) also received funding for a more holistic treatment. The Methodist Front Wildland Urban Interface Forest and Watershed Health Restoration Project, funded through a RESTORE Colorado Program grant, along with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Salida and Poncha Springs, and a county fund, will treat 478 acres of public and private land, masticating trees to thin out the crowns and encourage healthier vegetation. Eventually, with the participation of enough landowners, the fuel break will stretch five miles, creating a buffer between the forest and the ranches, townhomes and small farms in Salida.
From the top of a hill on the Hutchinson Ranch, it’s easy to see why the treatment is essential. There are visible gaps between the trees on the ranch land, even though the trees don’t look overly manicured. Meanwhile, the untreated land just south is dense and wild, a potential path of destruction to a new condo development. In the distance, the Arkansas River that feeds Front Range communities is visible.
And to the west, just above the newly thinned forest, is a barren, charred burn scar from the 2019 Decker Fire, a chilling reminder to Shaver of how close Salida came to devastation and why it’s more essential than ever that the town prepare for the new era of fires.
How Fires Went From Healthy To Hazardous
The Decker Fire, which burned nearly 9,000 acres, came in an unusually calm year in the midst of a decade that has reshaped how Coloradans see fire. Since 2012, six megafires, defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as fires larger than 100,000 acres, have burned in Colorado. 2020 saw the state’s three largest recorded fires to date—Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch—and some 700,000 acres burned, more than 540,000 of which burned in those three fires alone. And the CSFS’s 2020 Forest Action Plan projects a 50% to 200% increase in the annual area burned in the state by 2050.
There’s no single factor making Rocky Mountain fires more intense. Bark beetle infestations swept through tens of millions of acres of forest in the West over the past two decades, leaving large stands of dead trees. A century of federal policy that squelched out all fires rather than letting them burn naturally led to a buildup of fuel stores in forests. Climate change is creating warmer and drier conditions, and an earlier snowmelt has extended the fire season.
Chuck Rhoades, a research biogeochemist at the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, says those “compound disturbances” have created a pattern of fires that are burning more intensely and in places and seasons that experts wouldn’t predict. Fires that once would have been a natural tool to clear dead fuel and encourage seeds to sprout are now a major threat to communities. Some, including Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, have ravaged high-elevation forests where fires used to be rare. A 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain region are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.
That, Rhoades says, means land managers and cities are seeing impacts outside the scope of anything they’ve prepared for—with ripple effects throughout the environment.
“We often think that where we were before will help us predict where we’re going,” he says. “But there are a lot of question marks out there. It forces a little humility in that we can’t understand what we’re going to get next.”
One known, however, is that the higher-intensity wildfires are putting more Coloradans at risk as the state’s population booms. In 2020, the CSFS estimated that half of the state’s population lived in Colorado’s 3.2 million-acre wildland-urban interface area, known as the WUI, where human development intermingles with fire-prone vegetation. By 2050, CSFS says that area could triple in size to encompass more than 9 million acres, or more than 13% of the state.
The risks are especially profound for watersheds. As more intense fires clear out thick older trees, shrubs and grasses grow back in their place. Without dense roots and pine needle cover, the forest floor that typically acts as a sponge for snowmelt and precipitation is turning fragile and rocky. Those are prime conditions for erosion and flooding, with streams and rivers accumulating water faster and earlier than usual. According to USFS research, the risk of flooding and debris flow is higher for at least 3-5 years post-fire, often longer, and those floods can be as much as three times more severe than they would be otherwise.
Runoff from burn scars can run black, laden with ash, debris, nutrients and heavy metals from burned soil and biomass. If those contaminants reach utilities’ water infrastructure, they can clog water filters or settle in reservoirs, possibly fostering algal blooms and taking up valuable reservoir space.
The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history until 2020, each burned along the Upper South Platte River, immediately upstream of Strontia Springs Reservoir, which accommodates about 80% of Denver Water’s raw water supply and 90% of Aurora’s supply. The fires exacerbated erosion in the watershed, leading to sediment-laden flows that dumped debris and contaminants in the reservoir. More than a decade later, the reservoir’s capacity to store water remains reduced, and water quality is still impacted from sediment flows, even after $27.7 million worth of dredging, removal and recovery work. Last year’s fires caused water utilities across the state to shift their operations to protect their source water.
It’s clear, then, that the risks of fires no longer stay in the forest. Partnerships have sprung up from Boulder to Durango to protect valuable watersheds and water infrastructure, forcing water district managers to become just as interested in what happens to the forest around headwaters as what goes into their customers’ pipes.
“We all share a mutual natural resource interest, whether it’s the forest or the fish of the water,” says Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District in Cortez. “As a water provider, we want to keep offering the same quality water we’ve had for 100 years down here. Now instead of thinking as a water protector, we’ve become part of the watershed protection.”
All Hands on Deck
In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service released its updated Forest Action Plan, identifying some 2.5 million acres—roughly 10% of the state’s forests—as being “in urgent need of treatment.” The highest priority forests were in the Front Range’s Arapaho-Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel forests and in the San Juan Forest around Durango. “We have to prioritize those areas where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” says Weston Toll, watershed program specialist for the CSFS. Still, he says, with so much of the state at risk, “we’re paddling against the current.”
The Forest Action Plan’s priority map reflected a range of factors, including where fuel had built up, how close fires could get to human development, and the impact on wildlife and water. But those areas didn’t all line up with valuable headwaters, despite some water managers’ arguments that any waterways must be protected. Nor does the map give much direction on how to square the widespread needs with limited resources.
Wildfire mitigation used to be defined by what some experts call “random acts of restoration,” individual projects on small plots of land depending on the owner’s interest and availability. A National Forest might have dead trees removed and fuel treated for insect infestation, but neighboring land might be left untreated, doing little for the overall region’s safety.
Now, the USFS and others are promoting a philosophy of shared stewardship, bringing together a variety of partners ranging from federal land managers, local water districts, utilities, logging companies, recreationists and private landowners to collaborate on responsible forest management.
Toll says the state may still be paddling against the current, but “it helps to have everyone paddling in the same direction, which wasn’t happening until five or 10 years ago.”
Take the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI), a partnership co-convened by the USFS and the National Wild Turkey Federation that has brought together federal, state, local, private and nonprofit partners across Colorado for three targeted restoration projects. Tara Umphries, shared stewardship and RMRI project manager for USFS, says that leads to projects that focus on “consecutiveness,” crossing both physical boundaries and different partners’ priorities.
“Everyone brings their own expertise and their perspective to the table and has their own ideas on how to get this landscape work done,” Umphries says. “A watershed doesn’t just reside on Forest Service land and it doesn’t just provide benefits for one entity or user. To look at a discrete piece of land or a single agency for a solution, historically, has not yielded the results we need.”
RMRI was founded in 2019 as an evolution of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Shared Stewardship Strategy, which works across public and private lands on landscape protection. RMRI touts the four values shared by its partners: restore forests and habitat, protect communities, support recreation and tourism, and ensure clean and secure water.
In the first showcase project in Southwest Colorado, RMRI partners have done a variety of projects in and around the San Juan National Forest, including treating the forest land for dead trees, creating fuel breaks, clearing trails for recreation users, and conducting prescribed burns. At the end of 2020, RMRI partners had worked on more than 26,000 acres of forest, including high-priority areas around the Dolores River and the 381,000 acre-foot McPhee Reservoir.
“If we don’t have clean and secure water for people and our natural resources, you can’t get through much else,” says Jason Lawhon, southwest project manager for RMRI. “That’s often the place we start. Here in Southwest Colorado, water is the most important value.”
Lawhon says that bringing in those partners who can focus on the watershed impacts, whether they’re irrigators or district managers, has helped expand the scale of what the USFS could do alone through additional funding and strategy. “A lot of what we do is identify a project that’s already moving in the right direction, then we help it take the next step,” he says.
Curtis, who manages McPhee Reservoir, says the water managers’ role in Western communities makes it easy for them to act as “conveners,” bringing together federal, industrial and municipal partners. The reservoir, which provides irrigation water for 75,000 acres of land and supplies several towns and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, sits on the edge of the San Juan National Forest and would be at severe risk should a fire occur. Curtis says the reservoir has so far avoided serious sediment loading and flooding, and he wants to do as much as possible to keep it that way.
“Everybody out here has forest management plans and they all have implications for us as a water district,” Curtis says. While the Dolores Water Conservancy District can do tree thinning and other protection immediately around the reservoir, it takes more partners to fund and execute the work needed to keep the full headwaters area safe.
Besides RMRI, the Dolores Water Conservancy District is part of the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest (DWRF) Collaborative in Southwest Colorado, which includes the San Juan National Forest, five local water districts, conservationists and timber companies. The collective came out of a collaboration between Montezuma County and local timber companies to work on forest health. Organizers say the involvement of private companies is key to its success—not only does it bring their financial power to bear, but the timber industry can also use trees that are felled, providing additional financial incentive to doing the work.
Holistic forest management also requires the help of private landowners whose property borders or includes the most at-risk forests. Blake Osborn of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University says there’s no “established protocol” for how to take care of private lands like there is for public areas, leaving many landowners frustrated and clueless. In 2017, Osborn started the Watershed Assessment and Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) to help landowners get technical assistance and craft recovery plans, leaning on the USFS’s Good Neighbor Authority, which allows state forestry agencies to partner with the USFS to tackle projects on federal land.
The key, Osborn says, is that the plans can be tailored to the specific lands and owners’ priorities, whether that be heavy tree cover for privacy or a clean waterway stocked with fish. WAVE can also help connect private partners with the bigger public partners to ensure a truly holistic approach. Although no two landowners have ever shared identical goals, he says, the takeaway message is always the same.
“Something we’re always trying to communicate is that the risks cascade down the watershed, and issues up high may not materialize until you’re down at the city level,” Osborn says. “But everyone has their priorities at every point on the watershed. With such an interconnected system, putting some money on a project up here may help protect people miles away.”
After the runoff from the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires poured sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, officials at Denver Water realized they could be spending less money and having a bigger impact by focusing on preventing fires and flooding before the effects reached their infrastructure. The utility formed the From Forests to Faucets partnership with USFS, a multi-year effort to fund forest health projects to boost resilience in priority areas within Denver Water’s collection system. In 2017, the program was expanded to include state and local authorities to stretch Denver Water’s forest health work to non-federal lands.
Fuel breaks around the Dillon Reservoir watershed funded by the program are credited with protecting nearly 1,400 homes near Silverthorne during the 2018 Buffalo Fire, despite red-flag drought conditions.
“There was this exciting realization that there were a lot of mutual benefits in funding these projects,” says Madelene McDonald, watershed planner at Denver Water. “Forest restoration projects not only bolster source water protection, but also improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation access, and can protect communities in the wildland urban interface.”
Northern Water also has a forest health program, the Colorado-Big Thompson Headwaters Partnership, working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, USFS, CSFS, the National Park Service, and the Western Area Power Administration to protect headwaters areas. It’s the kind of work that, two or three decades ago, might have seemed outside the scope of a water provider focused on bringing clean, safe water to its ratepayers, but has now become an accepted cost of doing business.
Even though the nature of fire has changed, the prevention strategies look similar to what foresters have done for more than a century. Clearing out dead fuel—either by cutting trees or prescribed burns—cuts off the material that would burn in a fire and keeps blazes from becoming as severe. Rather than suppressing all fire, under the right conditions, officials can manage fires in secluded locations that have started from natural means, like lightning strikes, and, during wetter years when winds are low, let them burn naturally.
Another key prevention strategy is the use of prescribed burns, where foresters deliberately set and manage a fire under specific weather and forest conditions. Considered one of the most effective mitigation strategies, prescribed burns can efficiently clear out fuel, mimicking a natural, healthy fire. However, Toll notes, those burns do come with risks, like the potential to get out of control and negative air quality impacts from added wildfire smoke.
“The risk is always going to be there no matter what, so the question is whether it’s worth taking that risk under the conditions that have a high likelihood of success,” Toll says. “[Prescribed burns] also have an educational component by showing that not all fire is bad.”
But it is also incumbent on communities to do their own preparation. That can include building codes that require fire-resistant building material or defensible space requirements to clear fuel from some established perimeter around buildings. Colorado does not have a state wildfire code or model ordinance, despite recommendations from a 2014 task force, but communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs have regulations governing new homes in at-risk areas.
Counties have developed their own mitigation and evacuation plans for areas in the WUI. Others are adapting their own emergency plans to account for the widespread effects of fires, including the greater risks of mudslides and sediment deposits. Chaffee County, for example, updated its wildfire community plan to account for community expansion into the WUI and the greater threat of fires to produce a document that didn’t just guide county-level mitigation work, but also individual landowners’ preparations.
“There’s a big educational component, but seeing a disaster happening right in our faces prepares people,” says Marquis of Envision Chaffee County. “We’re asking people to join this honestly heroic story to protect the community.”
Addressing all of the CSFS’ Forest Action Plan’s priority areas is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, money that state agencies and local partnerships just don’t have. USFS spent $1.8 billion in fire suppression, fighting and responding to wildfires nationally in fiscal year 2020, but just $431 million on treatments to reduce fuel buildup through its Hazardous Fuels program, according to national spokesperson Babete Anderson. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, other federal government programs spent $510 million on fire suppression in 2020. According to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report, Colorado’s 2020 fire season cost the state an estimated $38 million in suppression costs and required another $248 million in federal funds. Those state figures don’t include suppression costs footed by local agencies or the costs of property loss, infrastructure damage, watershed impacts, or economic losses. Nor do they account for other private, local, county or federal wildfire expenses.
As of press time, Congress was still negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill. If passed, the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes about $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration, including $90 million a year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Landscape Restoration Partnership Initiative to support forest and grassland restoration secured by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. The bill also spends $600 million to raise federal firefighter wages.
Fire departments and forest managers can also cobble together money from grants from a variety of federal sources. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed SB21-258, which authorized $25 million for wildfire mitigation, recovery and workforce development. In a statement, Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said the bill would “quickly move resources to on-the-ground projects and mitigation teams,” a step up from previous efforts that “have lacked the coordination, landscape-scale focus and robust state investment required to properly address the size and behavior of catastrophic wildfires.”
Even with those funding sources, it can be a challenge to prioritize spending in areas with the biggest benefit, or even address the widespread impacts of fires. Studies have shown that up-front mitigation saves costs on fire suppression, but even that is daunting when the needs are so vast.
“There’s just a disconnect between what we spend money on and the protection of watersheds and communities,” says Carol Ekarius of Coalitions & Collaboratives (COCO), a group that has been leading the way to foster collaborative conservation and restoration in Colorado headwaters and nationally. Ekarius’ work began more than two decades ago, as coordinator for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), after the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire. When other regions also experienced burns in the 2000s, they reached out to CUSP for advice—COCO formed to mentor those organizations. “A fire could burn on federal land but the post-fire impacts are on the downstream communities,” says Ekarius.
Combining efforts through partnerships like RMRI can make every mitigation dollar go further, as can matching grant programs from the state and federal government. Summit County voters in 2018 passed a $1 million annual fund for wildfire mitigation backed by a mill levy rate adjustment. The timber industry has played an increasing role, with the state offering loans to encourage loggers to produce wood products—everything from lumber to pellet fuel—from forests that need thinning or dead trees that can be cleaned up and put to use.
In a 2019 issue paper, the International Association of Wildland Fire said that it is important to “frame a narrative” around fire that “looks to longer-term landscape outcomes.” That argument, the group wrote, “will eventually have to be won based on economics, as the suppression and recovery costs will by far exceed costs required to educate communities, undertake mitigation works and improve land use planning controls.”
Shaver, the Salida forester, says his community seems to understand that narrative and is on board with the cost of mitigation, knowing that the worst risk could be coming during any upcoming fire season.
“Sometimes there’s a feeling that you wish a fire would come through to validate the work,” Shaver says. “But a lot of people say they feel safer, and that in and of itself makes the work successful. Feeling safe is a win whether or not anything ever burns.”
Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.
Ecuador’s constitutional court has blocked plans to mine copper and gold in Los Cedros, a protected cloud forest, ruling that the plans violate the rights of nature.
“This is a historic victory in favor of nature,” Natalia Greene of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature said in a statement. “This sets a great juridical precedent to continue with other threatened protected forests.”
Ecuador’s national mining company, Enami EP, holds mining rights in two-thirds of the reserve, which is home to 178 threatened or near-threatened species, including the the vulnerable white-headed capuchin, the endangered mantled howler monkey, and the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey.
“If mining started in Los Cedros, species would go extinct, without a doubt,” said Roo Vandegrift, a biologist at the University of Oregon, told Mongabay.
In 2018, the government of Cotacachi, an Ecuadorian canton that is home to 43 Indigenous communities, challenged the project, winning in a provincial court. Enami appealed to Ecuador’s highest court, which upheld the ruling Monday.
In its decision, the high court said that the government did not provide the “scientific evidence necessary to avoid and mitigate serious and irreversible damage to species and ecosystems, and therefore, to the rights of nature, to the water and a healthy and balanced environment.” The ruling effectively cancels all mining concessions and environmental and water permits.
“Policy frameworks that place humans in context as a part of nature … rather than placing humans as above, or apart from, nature, will be a necessary part of addressing the serious environmental issues that our planet is facing,” Mika Peck, a senior lecturer in biology at the University of Sussex, told The Guardian. “This ruling is as important to nature as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were to our own species.”
A study found crops that survive drought conditions in the early growing season end up stronger if there is also drought in the late season.
Drought can take its toll on crops in two ways: with a lack of precipitation and with increased transpiration, which steals away any moisture stored in the plants…
In a new study, [Peng Fu] found that crops that survive drought conditions in the early growing season end up stronger if there is also drought in the late season.
“So this drought actually gave the crops an opportunity to learn,” he said. “There’s a drought and there’s a stress on us. We need to adapt ourselves.”
He calls it drought memory.
The study showed that if there is a late summer drought, corn and soybean crops that also experienced the difficulty of drought in the spring were able to mitigate losses up to 7% compared to crops that had not yet experienced drought.
He said it’s not actual memories like humans have, but it’s memory on the molecular and cellular level…
He said information gets stored in the plant cells that protects them from future drought.
The importance of this research is being amplified by current climate trends, which show that springs have been getting wetter, while summers and falls have been getting drier.
Fu said the next step is to identify the cells that store that drought memory and give that information to breeders so they can develop more drought-resistant crops.