How Megafires are Reshaping Forests — @WaterEdCO

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

Pinon and juniper forests that burned in the early 2000s show little sign of regeneration. Pony Fire, Happy Camp, Siskiyou County, California. Photo credit

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

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.

No big deal; just a deer scoring a goal then celebrating — @SteveStuWill

Tribes take a greater role in managing the #ColoradoRiver, still seek #water rights — #Arizona Republic #COriver #aridification #crwua2021

Wheat fields along the Colorado River at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. Wheat, alfalfa and melons are among the most important crops here. By Maunus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

From The Arizona Republic (Debra Utacia Krol):

Tribes from across the Colorado River basin came to Las Vegas this week looking for a more significant role in managing water supplies amid an ongoing drought, while still fighting for rights to the water they need to sustain their communities.

Tribal leaders joined other water officials, experts and advocates at the annual gathering of the Colorado River Water Users Association. The tribes’ growing clout was evident in the latest plan to stretch the river’s flow in Arizona, Nevada and California, but leaders said they wanted to remain a vital voice on the 246,000 square-mile watershed.

This year’s conference included flags of the members of the Ten Tribes Partnership, a consortium of communities on the Colorado River, alongside federal and state flags. Tribal officials spoke on panels throughout the three days of meeting, a change from the past, when tribes appeared mostly in Native-focused panels.
Water officials recognized the need to include Indigenous leaders in future decisions.

“Absolutely, tribes will be at the table,” said Terry Goddard, president of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Tribal governments are currently working with state, federal and other water agencies to develop the new Colorado River management guidelines that are set to take effect Jan. 1, 2026. In contrast, tribes were left out of talks when developing the 2007 interim guidelines to address shortages…

Camille Calimlim Touton, the recently confirmed Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, said on Wednesday that the recent infrastructure bill enacted by Congress will provide $2.5 billion to settle Indian water rights settlements to help the Department of the Interior fulfill its obligations to Indian tribes…

She singled out [The Gila River Indian Community] and The Colorado River Indian Tribes for stepping up to help reduce the risk of Lake Mead falling to more precarious levels.

“The drought has very real implications on people and the environment,” Touton said, “including tribal communities who too often have seen their dreams denied and denied, who fear the loss of species of cultural significance.”

Maria Dadgar, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, offered a land acknowledgment — a statement that names the tribe or tribes whose ancestral lands the event or venue is located — believed to be the first-ever at the gathering.

“We can all agree whether we’re Indigenous or not that water is essential for life, and therefore water is life,” said Dadgar, a member of the Piscataway Tribe in southern Maryland. “We also believe that where there is a body of water, this is a sacred place.”

The importance of a river’s health

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona recently met with Maori tribal leaders from New Zealand and discovered that the far-flung Indigenous peoples shared that sentiment with Arizona tribes, she said.

“The Maori tribes said that the health of the people correlates with the health of the river,” Dadgar said. “When you understand that, you’ll begin to see the viewpoint that tribes have when they approach their work around negotiations for the Colorado River.”

But while Native nations hold the most senior of senior water rights, tribes historically have not been a part of the negotiations around the management of the Colorado River, she said. Dadgar said that should be considered history, because tribes are playing a critical role in the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plan…

Dadgar pointed to three different collaborations the Arizona-area tribes are engaging in to build water management capacity collectively as they grow into key stakeholders in the health of the Colorado River, which supplies water to some 40 million people in the Southwest.

A new agreement signed Wednesday at the conference affirmed the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ and Gila River Indian Community’s commitments to leave a combined 179,000 acre-feet of their water allocation in Lake Mead as part of a pledge by several states and water districts to conserve 500,000 acre-feet. The two tribes’ contributions made Arizona’s contribution to the effort possible…

The Colorado River Tribal Roundtable, an Inter Tribal Council initiative, signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation in March that created a platform for the council’s 21 tribal members to engage directly with the bureau on issues related to the management of the Colorado River.

Tribal rights predate states’ rights

While some tribes like the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes look forward to playing leading roles in river management, others still struggle simply to firm up their own water rights.

Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, led a delegation of tribal officials to advocate for those rights. The Upper Basin tribe, located in northeastern Utah, has been battling for its water since its 4.2-million-acre reservation, the second-largest in the U.S., was established in 1861…

But he and other tribal officials at the conference said both Utah and the U.S. governments have interfered with their ability to claim their water rights and use the water for the benefit of the tribe’s nearly 2,100 members for decades. Tribal officials cited several examples, including taking water from the tribe to help fill the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in the mid-20th century.

The tribe held a referendum in 2018 to codify its own water law only to have it rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Emmett Duncan, assistant director of the tribe’s administration…

Another tribe that has long sought to quantify its water is the Navajo Nation. The tribe with the largest land base in the U.S. has sought to claim its fair share of water for decades and is currently in litigation.

Stanley Pollack, a water law attorney who worked with the Navajo Nation before he retired in October, said the situation is dire in the nation.

“About 40% of Navajos have to haul their water,” he said.

The widespread lack of access to public water supplies hit hard when COVID-19 hit. People were unable to wash their hands properly, which facilitated the spread of the virus. And even though the nation sits almost entirely within both the upper and lower basin, he said the special master in the landmark case Arizona v. California that affirmed the current river allocations did not award mainstem rights to the more than 300,000-member nation.

That led to numerous and ongoing efforts to acquire water rights and to build the infrastructure to bring water to the scattered communities within the 17.5-million-acre reservation.

On the other side of Arizona, the Colorado River Indian Tribes will fallow enough of its farm fields to contribute 50,000 acre-feet to keep Lake Mead levels high enough to forestall more shortages. But tribal citizens still want to continue farming, said Vice Chairman Dwight Lomayesva.

“We’re doing our part to save the river,” said Lomayesva, “not just because it’s important but because the river is sacred to us.”

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District’s board of directors unenthusiastic about proposed water investment bill — The #Sterling Journal-Advocate #SouthPlatteRiver

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

“I get pulled in both directions in my mind; I don’t want water speculators coming in and buying up land,” said board Vice President Gene Manuello. “But at the end of the day, it is a private property right. I don’t see legislature stepping into that. I don’t think we need this bill.”


The bill comes with a long list of concerns and unintended consequences. Among those voiced most often by LSPWCD board members Tuesday was governmental interference in what has traditionally and legally been a private property transaction. A summary of the bill, prepared by attorneys associated with the Water Rights Association of the South Platte, says it would present an unreasonable restraint on the transfer of real property; require the director of the state’s Natural Resources Department to determine the intent of people buying land with attached water rights; and asks purchasers to hope the value of the water rights doesn’t increase.

LSPWCD Director Joe Frank served on the working group that reported back to the DNR in August and said a misunderstanding about water speculation may have driven the process.

“There’s this view out there that investment speculation is driving up the price of water, but I don’t think that the issue,” Frank said. “It’s basic supply and demand; we have an increasing population and a finite supply of water, and that’s what’s driving up the cost of water.”

Manuello pointed out that the real solution, in his mind, is increased storage, a concept that has been unpopular until recently.