It’s February — the month we celebrate the achievements and history of Black Americans. You can be sure we’ll hear about the brave souls that risked or even gave their lives to achieve rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.
We’ll hear about great Black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and about barrier-breaking athletes like Jackie Robinson. Most have become household names. There will be quotes galore from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But there are forgotten and fascinating people we also ought to learn about, such as Bass Reeves, one of the first U.S. marshals appointed to the Indian Territories. He served for 32 years in that capacity, making over 3,000 felony arrests and killing 14 men in the process.
Upon his death in 1910, he received a backhanded tribute in the Muskogee Phoenix: “And it is lamentable that we as white people must go to this poor, simple old negro to learn a lesson in courage, honesty and faithfulness to official duty.”
Another person to learn about is Matthew Henson, a courageous Black American who dragged an ailing Robert Peary across the finish line on a sled, making Henson technically the first human ever to reach the North Pole. Yet it was Peary who was lauded and promoted to rear admiral, while Henson was given an honorary burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Then there’s Mary Eliza Mahoney, who, in 1879, became the first Black American to earn a professional nursing license. Unable to get a job in public nursing because of discrimination, she worked as a private nurse, and in 1908, co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
You will find Black people threaded throughout our complex history, and that is what bothers me about Black History Month: Why does America need a special month to acknowledge that Black Americans are truly a part of our story? Why, in many colleges and high schools, might Black history be taught as its own course, yet when it comes to courses in “American history,” Black involvement is mostly confined to the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement? Don’t we belong here?
Maybe Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was just confused recently when, after Senate Democrats failed to pass a voting rights act, he said, “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” McConnell said he made an inadvertent mistake.
I look forward to a time that we celebrate Black Americans’ full inclusion in the American Dream of democracy and nation building, even if that history includes painful episodes that make us cringe today.
We have had a long fight for rights that we still do not enjoy, like full, unrestricted voting privileges. The recent move of some states to decrease access to the polls seems a throwback to the Jim Crow wave of discrimination that followed the Civil War.
If I seem grouchy, I plead guilty. But what I reckon when I read about the past is that it’s been 157 years since the end of the war that freed Black slaves, 68 years after Brown vs. Board of Education mandated equal education for Blacks, 58 years after the Civil Rights Act assured all people equal rights under the law, and 57 years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which assured everyone the right to vote. Yet here we are, still on the margins of acceptance.
I want us to acknowledge that Black Americans are a part of the American story, along with its villains and heroes, its quirky individuals, and its ordinary and often conflicted citizens. Black Americans should be woven into the narrative because, in fact, Black Americans helped shape the American story, fighting in world wars, pressing for basic rights and working every job they could get in the face of discrimination.
When that’s finally accepted, we can let February find something else to tell stories about.
Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org. He is a retired backcountry ranger, current wildland fire manager, journalist, and founding director of the http://civilconversationsproject.org.
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The project by Renewable Water Resources, a water developer, proposes to tap 25 new groundwater wells in a “confined” aquifer in the valley. That would bring 22,000 acre feet of water to the South Platte River and eventually to a yet-to-be unidentified water provider in Douglas County.
The Renewable Water Resources proposal, which has been underway since 2017, claims a billion acre-feet of water exists in the larger of two San Luis Valley aquifers, a figure disputed by San Luis Valley water experts…
Renewable Water Resources’ project wants to tap the confined aquifer, which is larger both by geographic footprint and by water volume. The company argued the project is needed to ensure water reliability for Douglas County, and maintained that the plan is sustainable — both for residents of the county and the valley.
Under the proposal, the wells would be situated on land either owned or controlled by RWR, which currently owns approximately 9,800 acres and has options to acquire approximately 8,000 additional acres.
The 22,000 acre-feet of water represents 2.5% of the aquifer’s annual recharge, defined as water pumped back into the aquifer through precipitation, and a volume that RWR claims would not affect diminish the base.
The proposal noted that Colorado’s water law mandates that, in order to develop water, it must be “retired at the same rate,” a doctrine informally known as the “one-for-one” law in the water community. That means every drop of water removed must be replaced by the same amount.
As it turns out, Division 3 Water Court in in Alamosa, where RWR plans to submit its proposal, is the only water court that uses that law…
Under the plan, Douglas County would kick in $20 million from American Rescue Plan federal money, which is already raising questions about whether that’s a legitimate use of the federal relief funds, and whether years of legal battles would run out the clock for using those dollars, which, under federal guidelines, must be spent by December 2024…
Bruce Lytle of Lytle Water Resources, who is working with RWR, told commissioners the aquifer has the water needed for the project. That’s in stark contrast to what they heard from State Deputy Engineer Mike Sullivan, who told the commissioners the aquifer’s water is over-appropriated, meaning there’s nothing left for Douglas County…
Colorado Politics asked most of the 47 water districts, including the dozen largest ones, whether they intend to participate in the project, either as the end user, or, in the case of Denver, allow the reservoirs the county manages to hold that water.
The answer was “no” from all but one potential end-user. Denver Water, which manages the reservoirs, also shot down the idea…
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora water, answered similarly: RWR has not engaged in discussions with Aurora Water regarding storage or conveyance and does not plan to participate in the RWR acquisition…
That Dominion and Sterling Ranch could be the end users — both entities vigorously deny any interest in San Luis Valley water and maintain their supply is sufficient to meet needs — is bolstered by RWR’s proposal, which says the project “will maximize use of existing infrastructures, ultimately supporting the county’s goals of enhancing solutions along the I-85 corridor.”
Teal said it could be Sterling Ranch, Castle Rock or Parker Water. Regarding Castle Rock, Teal explained that the town provides water to customers outside of its boundaries, part of an I-85 partnership between Castle Rock and Dominion.
The Smethills, in a Jan. 24 letter to Colorado Politics, disputed the story, saying any depiction of Sterling Ranch as a recipient of water from the RWR project or that it is short on water is factually inaccurate…
Castle Rock Water spokeswoman Mary Jo Woodrick said in an email that “at this time, we do not intend to acquire water from RWR’s San Luis Valley project.”
The state engineer
Among RWR’s claims in its proposal is that State Engineer Kevin Rein “recently urged Denver Metro water providers, including those located in Douglas County, to seek renewable sources of water other than the Denver Aquifer.”
That comes as news to Rein. He told Colorado Politics there have been no new rulings that apply to what RWR describes.
“We are a regulatory agency but we have made no ruling relevant to what the report describes,” Rein said in an email.
The advice to limit the use of the Denver aquifer, he pointed out, came out in 1996, although a memo in 2020 provided guidance to the staff of the engineer’s office that is “a recitation” of the 1996 memo…
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
RWR has promised valley residents $50 million for economic development, which the company claims is far more than farmers and ranchers would ever get from agriculture. That “community fund” would assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training, the company said, adding a separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”
In addition, Weiser and Simpson wrote, the proposal will not comply with rules from the State Engineer or the state Supreme Court. The RWR proposal seeks to change the rules, which would undermine Colorado’s compliance with the Rio Grande compact, they said.
Less than 3 percent of Earth is covered in freshwater. And while that percentage has remained pretty constant, population growth has not. Only 1 percent of freshwater is accessible to the 7.7 billion people and counting.
As concerns over water scarcity grow, research published in Nature recently documents how freshwater availability has changed over the years, helping water specialists and managers pinpoint how this essential resource’s flows have been changing. Xander Huggins, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria and Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, and his fellow researchers decided to explore what exactly these changes would mean for life here on Earth.
The team examined 1,024 basins across the world to understand how water availability couples with social processes to create vulnerability in communities. The main factor they studied were freshwater stress, which is the amount of H2O that naturally leaves the watershed or basin per year; the higher the stress, the less water there is available for ecosystems and for people’s demands, according to Huggins. Following this, he and his colleagues coupled the findings with data on how freshwater storage in underground aquifers and glaciers, for example, is changing.
Huggins learned that 42 percent of the 478 most stressed basins around the planet are also the ones disproportionately losing storage. These basins, including ones in the American South and Southwest, central Argentina, and throughout the Middle East, are the ones where people and living things are already under pressure. By his team’s calculations, around 2.2 billion people and 27 percent of all global food crop production is located near drying-out freshwater basins.
Identifying vulnerable water sources
After mapping the most high-risk areas, Huggins created a vulnerability analysis by combining the relationship between stress and storage with data on how prepared and economically sufficient a government might be to respond. He hopes that by creating a framework to understand vulnerability and identifying these “hotspot” basins, the water scarcity in these regions can be prioritized by policymakers.
Huggins notes that the metric is simplified enough to use it on a global scale. Out of the 168 “very high” and “high” vulnerability scoring areas, not all faced the same threats. The authors of the paper found that the most vulnerable basins predictably had the worst water resource management, and that basins that spanned countries were even worse off. According to the scale, nations like Algeria, India, and Kazakhstan were found to have high vulnerabilities according to the scale, as well as low levels of water management.
While the US scores highly in terms of social adaptiveness in Huggins’s study, it has multitude freshwater issues that go beyond stress and storage. Equitable access to freshwater sources looks different in communities across the states. According to Jill Ryan, the executive director of Freshwater Future, an advocacy group working on protecting drinking reservoirs in the Great Lakes region, two of the biggest issues are that of water contamination and cost. Illinois and Ohio are the states with the highest levels of lead in their pipes. Rising costs are also making water too expensive for a growing number of families––one of the reasons being new infrastructure to get rid of the lead pipes. This cost is now increasingly being pushed onto the consumers, Ryan says.
Natural gas a decade ago was being called the bridge fuel. Burning it produces half the emissions of coal, yet it can be tapped to ensure reliable delivery of electricity. It was the bridge to a low-emissions future.
Today, natural gas is where coal was 10 or 15 years ago. We still need it for electrical generation, but the bridge no longer seems endless. But will new natural gas plants end up being like many coal plants, assets stranded long before the debt is paid?
The role of natural gas in Colorado’s energy future is being sorted out in proposals submitted to state regulators by Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities: Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Together, they deliver 71% of electricity.
These utilities expect to achieve 80% and even higher reductions in emissions associated with electrical generation by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Both the technology and economics of renewables and now storage align with these goals.
The preferred plan by Tri-State, the wholesaler for 17 of Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives, takes a wait-and-see position about new natural gas-fired generation during the next few years.
In a September filing, Lisa Tiffin, the senior manager for analytics and forecasting, explained that this will “allow emerging technologies to become more competitive in the interim and potentially displace the need” for new natural gas generation.
Most people, when buying a house, take on a 30-year mortgage. An agreement filed with state regulators last week by Tri-State, along with environmental groups, state agencies and others, calls for a shorter depreciation of just 20 years when evaluating the cost of any potential new natural gas plant.
This makes new natural gas much more difficult to justify. This shorter timeline also accords with Colorado’s statutory timeline for achieving a 100% near carbon-free electrical generation by 2050.
But what will be needed to meet demand if, for example, Colorado has a heat dome type of event in 2030 similar to that which baked people to death in Portland last June? Air conditioners would be blasting — and the wind turbines may be motionless.
That’s a central question in the plans for Xcel Energy. In addition to its own customers, the utility delivers wholesale power to utilities that serve Aspen, Vail, plus Steamboat Springs and Craig.
Xcel wants to install natural gas generation at an existing coal plant in Pawnee, which is in northeastern Colorado, beginning Jan. 1, 2026. Environmental groups are on board with this, although some want an even earlier switch.
Western Resource Advocates and other environmental groups, however, are not on board with Xcel building other new gas plants. Xcel estimates it will invest $1 billion in natural gas capacity. Those gas plants, it says, will be used rarely but necessarily to ensure reliability.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association supports Xcel’s plans and wants to see no time wasted. Natural gas, it said in a filing last week, will “play this critical reliability and resilience role that makes renewable energy possible.”
The industry group also supports Xcel’s argument that the natural gas infrastructure can later be adapted to use green hydrogen, if and when that technology becomes affordable. Renewable energy and water are used to create green hydrogen, which can be stored. COGA and Xcel say another potential path is to use natural gas plants retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology. That technology also cannot yet compete in cost or scale.
Environmental groups argue instead for battery storage, already part of Xcel’s plans, playing an even larger role. Interwest Energy Alliance, representing primarily wind developers, accused Xcel last week of old-school thinking: “The technological changes that are coming to the entire utility industry are unfathomable to those stuck in the central station combustion thought paradigm.” Batteries, though, remain an imperfect solution.
The Colorado Energy Office wants Xcel to be required to invest in demand-response programs, shifting demand and suppressing it through energy efficiency. This, it points out, will be less expensive than Xcel investing in up to 300 megawatts of additional gas generation.
What all agree is that Xcel’s filing constitutes a landmark. Perhaps never before has the state’s Public Utilities Commission seen a proposal for so much rapid change. One example: the social cost of carbon is being used for the first time to evaluate proposals. Xcel, in a related proposal, wants to spend $2 billion alone on new transmission. The energy landscape has changed — and likely will change just as dramatically in the next decade.
The state’s three PUC commissioners are expected to issue a decision sometime in March about both the Tri-State and Xcel pivots. Part of those big decisions will be about the role of natural gas.
Click here to read the article (John. B. Bradford, Robert K. Shriver, Marcos D. Robles, Lisa A. McCauley, Travis J. Woolley, Caitlin A. Andrews, Michael Crimmins, David M. Bell). Here’s the abstract:
The future of dry forests around the world is uncertain given predictions that rising temperatures and enhanced aridity will increase drought-induced tree mortality. Using forest management and ecological restoration to reduce density and competition for water offers one of the few pathways that forests managers can potentially minimize drought-induced tree mortality. Competition for water during drought leads to elevated tree mortality in dense stands, although the influence of density on heat-induced stress and the durations of hot or dry conditions that most impact mortality remain unclear.
Understanding how competition interacts with hot-drought stress is essential to recognize how, where and how much reducing density can help sustain dry forests in a rapidly changing world. Here, we integrated repeat measurements of 28,881 ponderosa pine trees across the western US (2000–2017) with soil moisture estimates from a water balance model to examine how annual mortality responds to competition, temperature and soil moisture conditions.
Tree mortality responded most strongly to basal area, and was elevated in places with high mean temperatures, unusually hot 7-year high temperature anomalies, and unusually dry 8-year low soil moisture anomalies. Mortality was also lower in places that experienced unusually wet 3-year soil moisture anomalies between measurements. Importantly, we found that basal area interacts with temperature and soil moisture, exacerbating mortality during times of stress imposed by high temperature or low moisture.
Synthesis and applications. Our results imply that a 50% reduction in forest basal area could reduce drought-driven tree mortality by 20%–80%. The largest impacts of density reduction are seen in areas with high current basal area and places that experience high temperatures and/or severe multiyear droughts. These interactions between competition and drought are critical to understand past and future patterns of tree mortality in the context of climate change, and provide information for resource managers seeking to enhance dry forest drought resistance.
As the population grows along the Front Range, many water utilities in El Paso County are seeing declines in the productivity of wells that draw from the Denver Basin, a geological formation that stretches north into Weld County and across much of the Front Range.
Some water managers are looking at a potential $134 million project that could help them, now and in the future…
The Cherokee Metropolitan District is among the handful of water utilities looking at ways to work together to circulate water between the farthest northern and southern reaches of the county.
The idea is to use new and existing infrastructure — like the big blue pipeline — to create a giant loop system that could take water flowing south in Monument and Fountain creeks and pump it north again through ditches and pipelines.
Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District is another primary collaborator in the project. The utility supplies water to residents in the northern part of the county, but has water assets in the southern part, including a quiet 80-acre lake called the Callahan Reservoir. It could become part of the Loop system too…
Manager Jessie Shaffer says because of declines in their Denver Basin wells, the utility purchased surface water rights from Fountain Creek.
“But the problem is those renewable water rights are located just south of the city of Fountain,” Shaffer said. “We need a way to transport those water supplies.”
The proposed Loop would allow Woodmoor and other districts to get to water they own the rights to but haven’t been able to access. It would also allow them to more easily recycle indoor wastewater that comes from Denver Basin wells and now drains into the sewer…
“Water is absolute. It is game, set, match,” she said. “If you don’t have water, your highways don’t matter. Your human services don’t matter. All of those issues don’t matter if there’s not water. So we have to get the water equation finished, we have to find the long-term answer.”
Capability and feasibility are a few of the bigger questions from some water experts, such as Joel Schkneekloth, a water specialist at Colorado State University.
“It was something I had never heard of. A few people here have in Colorado. They know of it. They hear it once in awhile get popped back up,” Schneekloth said…
Burrowing through sandy southwestern Nebraska soil, the canal may need to be lined, which makes for a costly water project.
“Through talking and discussing with other people… they were going to have to cross a fairly sandy stretch to get out of the South Platte River. Sand and water would make for very low conveyance,” Schneekloth said…
Brenda Styskal is well-versed in Perkins County History. She oversees historical artifacts at the Perkins County Historical Society in Grant, Nebraska.
Styskal said the same questions that are surfacing today aren’t new.
“From the geography and topography of the ground, it’s doable but, you know, the costs that would be involved and the resources that it would take to achieve this, is that doable?” Styskal questioned.
Back in the 1890s, many felt in Perkins County that they needed to take that gamble…
Almost 100 years later, Nebraska believes it can finally complete this Hail Mary pass, despite the financial, construction, and legal issues that, once again, remain.
The state’s attorney general believes the state makes a good case for why it can construct the canal. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Tom Riley, the director of Natural Resources, believe it will be beneficial for keeping more water in the state, instead of funneling money to other water conservation projects.
The plan remains only a proposal in Ricketts’ budget. State senators may weigh the decision after legislative hearings, one of which will take place Monday.
Little to no water flows from the Republican River’s South Fork in southeast Yuma and northern Kit Carson counties into Kansas and Nebraska, where it merges with the main river. Officials have a plan that could cost about $40 million to save the fork.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the South Fork sent 10 and 5-year averages of over 30,000 acre-feet of water across the border with Kansas and then to Nebraska. In the last 20 years, it’s only hit 5,000 acre-feet or more a few times.
There’s more to the issue than just numbers. At one point, the South Fork and the attached, now practically empty Bonny Reservoir made a very popular recreational state park. People in the surrounding communities still mourn losing that…
Silt and trees, like the invasive, water-sucking Russian olive, worsened an already bad situation for this channel. They cover the river bed in southeast Yuma County, stopping what little water flow remains after years of overuse, drought and little rainfall…
A mostly local coalition, including the Kit Carson and Yuma County governments, Three Rivers Alliance, Nature Conservancy, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Republican River Water Conservation District, aim to turn things around for this part of the river.
They want to boost flows by digging up all of the silt, Russian olives and other trees and plants that have grown into this riverbed.
Officials hope doing this will restore the river and help the flora and fauna that rely on it.
FromThe Lincoln Journal-Star (Don Walton) via The Scottsbluff Star-Herald:
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, spoke in support of a comprehensive pandemic recovery bill (LB1014) that would begin to funnel $500 million of federal pandemic funding into construction of a canal and reservoir system to secure Nebraska’s share of the water.
Colorado is “spending 20 times what we’re asking” on water projects and may “look to be potentially accelerating construction now” in reaction to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to build a Perkins County canal along with reservoirs, Riley said.
As Colorado and other interested parties wait for details, at least one expert questioned the very feasibility of Nebraska’s proposal. Jim Yahn is the former Colorado Water Conservation Board director for the South Platte basin, and currently manages the North Sterling and Pruitt reservoirs in northeastern Colorado.
“It felt more like a shot across the bow,” Yahn said. “But I was trying to understand why they would do a shot across the bow. (Ricketts) made a couple of comments in his announcement, that I was wondering whether he fully understood the river in our area.”
Yahn took issue with the claim that Colorado could take 90% of the water headed for Nebraska.
“We can’t capture that,” he said. “There’s just no way.”
Yahn, who has managed water in the area for more than three decades, said diverting the proposed amount of water could present a formidable set of logistical hurdles, and Nebraska might find that “even though they have the right to 500 cubic feet per second from October 15th to April 1st, that water is not there under the 1921 water right that they had.”
New building permits are on hold in the fast-growing town of Severance, after the North Weld County Water District imposed a moratorium on new water taps. The district, which is the only provider of treated water for Severance, cited uncertainties over construction delays for a small pipeline project. The moratorium is also affecting other nearby communities in Northern Colorado, including Eaton.
Severance — with a population approaching 8,000 and representing the fastest-growing community in Northern Colorado — includes two water service areas, one administered by the town and the other by North Weld. Wharton said that when the town had to impose its moratorium, 37 building permits that were in process had to be halted, with another 110 permits in the town’s service area subsequently affected.
But that’s only the beginning of the impact on the town’s building activity. Wharton said that in North Weld’s service area within the town, “There are hundreds of additional permits that need to be pulled that they’re holding up because they won’t give their water.”
The moratorium has affected both national and local home builders, Wharton said, including D.R. Horton, Richmond American Homes, Richfield Homes and Horizon View Homes…
1041 regulations blamed
The North Weld County Water District serves Ault, Eaton, Galeton, Gill, Lucerne, Nunn and Pierce, along with portions of Fort Collins, Greeley, Timnath and Windsor.
At issue — at least in part — for the district are so-called 1041 regulations — named for Colorado House Bill 1041, passed in 1974 — which allow local governments to exercise greater control over certain land-use projects, such as water pipelines.
Fort Collins initiated a process to write 1041 regulations, in part to exercise greater control over Northern Water’s planned $1.1 billion Northern Integrated Supply Project, known as NISP, and the city late last fall considered a moratorium on new projects while the new 1041 regulations are written.
But city staff found that another, smaller pipeline project also would be affected, a water-transmission pipeline — known as the NEWT 3 Pipeline — being constructed by the North Weld County Water District and the East Larimer County Water District.
The pipeline would run 5.3 miles from North Timberline Road in Fort Collins east into Larimer County.
District representatives and Fries spoke at an Oct. 19, 2021, Fort Collins City Council meeting, requesting that NEWT 3 be exempted from the moratorium, and the Fort Collins council agreed.
But North Weld subsequently announced that it would extend its tap moratorium until Dec. 13, 2021, citing continued uncertainty surrounding the 1041 process in Larimer County, which imposed a nine-month moratorium on all 1041 permit applications while it worked to update those regulations.
Larimer County’s moratorium was extended until Feb. 15, and North Weld in December extended its moratorium on new taps until May 31.
Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art drinking water facility is rapidly taking shape on a 183-acre site next to Ralston Reservoir north of Golden in Jefferson County.
Watch this video to catch up on the progress of one of Denver Water’s largest construction projects.
When complete and operational in 2024, the new Northwater Treatment Plant will be capable of cleaning up to 75 million gallons of water a day. Construction of the plant remains on time and on budget.
The new plant is part of Denver Water’s North System Renewal effort, which includes the construction of a new pipeline (completed in September 2021) to carry water from the new plant and upgrades at the old Moffat Treatment Plant built in Lakewood in the 1930s.
Learn about new case studies in water utility greenhouse gas mitigation from the Water Utility Climate Alliance, including Denver Water’s sustainable Northwater Treatment Plant. Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a priority for Denver Water, and projects like these help get us to our goal of reducing emissions 50% from a 2015 baseline by 2025.
The North System Renewal work brings critical updates to an aging 80-year-old system that was reaching the end of its lifespan.
The advanced new technology that is part of new Northwater Treatment Plant will provide:
Sustainability: Hydropower generation equipment at site of the Northwater plant will produce enough energy to operate the treatment plant, significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Reliability: Advanced treatment processes will improve resiliency in times of potentially challenging treatment issues, such as those created by drought or wildfires.
Flexibility: The Northwater plant was designed to be expanded if needed to meet future water demands and changing regulatory standards.
When Denver Water is finished building the new water treatment plant, redeveloping the Moffat Treatment Plant, and installing a new pipeline, the utility’s northern system will be more resilient and adaptable to changing demands for water now and into the future.
This is a guest blog by Tim Woollings , a professor of climate science in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford in the UK. Tim recently won the Louis J. Battan Award from the American Meteorological Society for his book “ Jet Stream : A Journey Through our Changing Climate.”
The term jet stream is used increasingly in both weather forecasts and news reports of extreme events, from cold spells and flooding to heatwaves and droughts. But what is the jet stream, and why do we care about it so much?
The jet stream is a fast, narrow current of air flowing from west to east that encircles the globe (not to be confused with the Gulf Stream which is instead an ocean current of drifting seawater). It was first documented by Wasaburo Oishi, whose regular weather balloon launches from Japan in the 1920s invariably ended up flying out over the Pacific Ocean at a considerable rate (footnote #1).
As revealed in Oishi’s measurements, the jet is strongest in the upper troposphere, around 6-8 miles up. This is roughly the level at which airplanes fly, and indeed they often pay careful attention to the jet stream: fuel is saved by staying in the jet if you’re heading east, and by avoiding it if you’re going west. While we describe the jet as narrow, this is somewhat subjective—it’s typically a couple hundred miles across, which gives a wide enough corridor for flight planning.
If the jet stream is so high up, why do we care about it?
It turns out that the jet, on a number of counts, directly impacts surface weather patterns.
Firstly , the jet acts to steer mid-latitude weather systems, so it can control which regions are storm-bound and, in the extreme, which can become dangerously dry.
Secondly , while the fastest winds of the jet core are far above the surface, weaker winds often extend all the way down to the surface. Many of us who live in the midlatitudes are acclimatized to prevailing westerly winds (i.e. winds that blow from west to east), and these winds are the very underbelly of the jet stream dragging along Earth’s surface.
Thirdly , the jet stream also acts as a sharp boundary between contrasting air masses, with relatively warm, tropical air to the south and much colder air on the northern, poleward side. The location of the jet, and hence also the boundary, has a strong influence on temperatures down at ground level.
Why do jet streams exist?
Because of two crucial ingredients: rotation and heating.
The planet is unevenly heated due to the disproportionate concentration of solar heating in the tropics and lack of heating in the poles. This forces the atmosphere into motion, as some bits of air become warmer and more buoyant than others. But the planet also rotates, and this imposes constraints on the resulting fluid flow, particularly in the north-south direction (footnote #2). These two ingredients mean that the resulting flow stretches out in the west-east direction and jet streams are formed.
Striking lab experiments to show that these two ingredients result in jet streams were first performed by Dave Fultz , who had witnessed the power of the jet stream first-hand as a meteorologist at the US air base on Guam during World War II. Returning to Chicago after the war, he set out to reproduce such a flow by building a spherical water tank with a heating element underneath. Then, to simulate the Earth’s rotation, he spun the tank and saw the flow break down into chaotic waves and, perhaps more excitingly, several west-to-east jet streams.
Not just one jet stream
So far we have somewhat loosely referred to the jet stream, while in fact there are several in both Northern and Southern hemispheres. One type, termed a subtropical jet, is predominantly a high-altitude feature invariably found at the edge of the tropical Hadley Cells . In contrast, eddy-driven jets (footnote #3) are deeper, and it is these specifically, which reach all the way down to the surface. They are often called sub-polar jets, even though they can be found over a wide range of latitudes. The two jets are sometimes separated in latitude (often this is the case over the Atlantic Ocean), but sometimes merged together (as is more common over the Pacific Ocean) forming a broader region of midlatitude west-to-east winds.
In much the same way that the ocean surface is never completely flat everywhere, the jet streams are generally always in motion, sometimes shifting north or south across huge regions, sometimes meandering like a lazy river. Hence their importance for forecasting; the jets can change from one week or month to the next and regional patterns of heat and cold, wet and dry will shift along with them (footnote #4).
For much of the midlatitudes, the local jet stream is typically the single most important factor in regional weather variations on these timescales, so that if you only had one piece of information about the atmosphere, you would want to know about the jet. Commonly used circulation indices such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) or Arctic Oscillation (AO) are dominated by jet variations as a result. A positive NAO index, for example, is a sign that the eddy-driven jet over the Atlantic is stronger than usual and shifted to the north.
Given this is the ENSO Blog…
Climate forecasters are largely concerned with trying to predict how the jets may behave over the coming months or seasons. While still very challenging, this task is made possible because the jets don’t just vary chaotically as the butterflies flap (although they certainly do lots of that). Particularly on seasonal timescales the jets can be nudged, or influenced, by other factors in the climate system, and ENSO is the prime example of this.
An El Niño event can affect the jets in a couple of ways: firstly, by warming the tropics and amplifying that crucial temperature contrast between latitudes, and secondly by triggering regional patterns associated with Rossby waves . The atmospheric circulation over the North Pacific this winter provides a good example of this latter effect.
In an average year, the jet extends across the Pacific towards North America, although it’s strongest over Japan. The jet first became widely known when American forces were caught off-guard during World War II, with their high-altitude bombers often stranded over Japan by raging headwinds. Meanwhile, the Japanese Fu-Go campaign used the jet to carry balloon-bombs downwind across the Pacific to America, albeit with little success because most of the bombs dropped too early, landing in the ocean.
But December 2021 was no average year; instead the classic La Niña signal, often referred to as the negative phase of the Pacific-North America pattern , was evident. Instead of the jet stream flowing due east from Japan and over the North Pacific Ocean, it snaked northward to Alaska before returning southward over the contiguous United States. This is indicative of a wave of influence originating in the tropical Pacific and curving across the North Pacific Ocean to North America.
So the art of subseasonal-to-seasonal forecasting for the midlatitudes is largely concerned with predicting the state of the jet streams. Cases such as this with a regional Pacific response to ENSO are often well predicted, and December 2021 was no exception. Other features such as the Atlantic jet are harder to predict, yet modern models often have useful skill here too (footnote #5). And hardest of all to predict is the longer-term trend: as the climate warms further, how will the all-important jet streams be affected? Clever ideas on this abound in the literature, but overall our confidence in what will happen unfortunately remains low.
Lead Editor: Michelle L’Heureux (NOAA CPC)
(1) In an attempt to reach the widest possible audience, Oishi published his results in Esperanto—an experimental “international” language invented in the late 1800s—and as a result the jet stream remained little known outside of Japan.
(2) These constraints are essentially due to conservation of angular momentum, as an air parcel moving north or south is changing its distance from Earth’s axis.
(3) ‘Eddy’ is used to describe a swirl in the atmosphere, just like a swirl of water in a river. Weather systems such as cyclones and anticyclones are examples of atmospheric eddies, so a hidden complexity here is that these weather systems actually help to ‘drive’ the eddy-driven jets.
(4) This reveals a complex two-way coupling between the jets and the temperatures. While the jets are formed in response to the same heating which gives us warm tropical and cold polar regions, the dynamics of the jet cause it to move around and the sharp boundary between the air masses is constrained to follow suit.
(5) It has been shown the jet over the Atlantic can be partially predicted for the coming season (i.e. a forecast made in November for December-January), and even beyond. However, it has less accuracy than ENSO, which can be used many months in advance (e.g. when predicting the Pacific jet).
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:
The Bureau of Reclamation will host a webinar Friday, Jan. 28, to present the Draft Drought Response Operations Plan Framework. This will be an opportunity for Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Region, staff from the Upper Colorado River Commission, and Upper Division State advisers to share information about the Upper Colorado River Basin’s Draft Drought Response Operations Plan, answer questions, and provide an opportunity for comment. This will start a 20-day public review and comment period ending on Thursday, Feb. 17.
Reclamation, the Upper Division States, and UCRC staff are developing the draft framework in accordance with the scope and purposes described in the Drought Response Operations Agreement. DROA is part of the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan in the Upper Colorado River Basin and aims to minimize the risk of Lake Powell declining below a target elevation of 3,525 feet.
This meeting will not discuss specific hydrology and/or operational plans under DROA for 2022. Operational plans for 2022 will be developed later this spring and will be based on the finalized framework document and the best available hydrologic information available.
WHAT: Webinar for the Draft Drought Response Operations Plan Framework, via Microsoft Teams.
WHO: The public and media are welcome to attend this stakeholder webinar. A brief question and answer period will be held for 15 minutes immediately following the conclusion of the presentation for members of the public.
MORE INFO: Additional information can be found at https://www.usbr.gov/dcp/droa.html. This link will be live just prior to the webinar and will contain a link to the draft plan framework and attachments documents. The comment and review period for the draft framework closes on Thursday, Feb. 17. Comments can be submitted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The draft framework does not currently contain specific hydrologic information or operational plans for 2022. Operational plans for 2022 will be developed later this winter and will be based on the finalized framework document and the best available hydrologic information available.
Here’s the release from the Department of Interior:
The U.S. Department of the Interior today announced the White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA) will convene an engagement session on January 31 with Tribal leaders focused on the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and public safety resources across Indian Country. The session will be led by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who serves as co-chair of the WHCNAA.
During the virtual session, Tribal leaders will share their guidance, recommendations and perspectives on the WHCNAA Committees’ all-of-government efforts. The meeting will follow nation-to-nation consultations on the Infrastructure Law to be held earlier that same week.
“The White House Council on Native American Affairs is an important tool in the Biden-Harris administration’s all-of-government approach to strengthening Indian Country,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “As we work to tackle public safety and criminal justice issues impacting Indigenous people or the implementation of the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I’m proud to bring Tribal leaders and government officials together to further invest in our trust relationship.”
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invests more than $13 billion directly in Tribal communities across the country to bolster community resilience, replace aging infrastructure, expand access to clean drinking water and help ensure everyone has access to high-speed internet.
The session will also focus on President Biden’s Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Within the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration, Secretary Haaland created a new Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to pursue justice for missing or murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. Interior is committed to working with Tribal governments, law enforcement agencies, survivors, families of the missing, and all communities impacted to coordinate interagency collaboration to address this crisis.
During the November 2021 White House Tribal Nations Summit, Secretary Haaland committed to convening her Cabinet colleagues three times a year to meet with Tribal leaders to share the work of the WHCNAA and listen to feedback, questions and concerns from Tribal communities. January’s session will be the first of these meetings.
On Monday night, the Pueblo West Metro District Board of Directors voted to freeze applications for any new building or water tap permits, until a meeting on March 14. Board President Doug Proal says the pause will give the Water Team time to assess drought conditions and a potential new water source in Chaffee County…
At a public hearing in November, Pueblo West residents packed the room with concerns over a potential rise in costs in order to provide more water to the Metro District…
However, some developers and builders tell News 5 the several-week pause will cause major setbacks for them, especially while they continue dealing with the effect of the pandemic. Pueblo West will reevaluate how many permits are available after March 14.
Aside from the northeast portion of the state, snowpack levels shrank for every other area in Colorado between Jan. 5 and Wednesday, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In the southwest corner of the state, that lead shrunk by as much as 28%. Most of the state’s snowpack remains above normal levels for this time of the year but Schumacher and Climatologist Becky Bolinger of Colorado State University said more is needed in the coming weeks and months.
Snowpack data shows that levels around Gunnison and Ouray sit at 123% of normal levels, down from 148% earlier this month. Snowpack around Durango sits at 109% of normal, down from 137%. Levels around Aspen and Glenwood Springs are 117% of normal, down from 124% and the area around Steamboat Springs sits at 107%, down from 115%. Snowpack around Denver rose over the month from 110% of normal to 114%.
Even if most of the state’s snowpack isn’t as high as it was at the turn of the year neither Schumacher nor Bolinger said they’re panicking. But both will be watching for more snow in February and March to help refill low water levels on the Colorado River and to improve drought conditions across the state.
People living in the western U.S. have been concerned about wildfires for a long time, but the past two years have left many of them fearful and questioning whether any solutions to the fire crisis truly exist.
The Dixie Fire in the Sierra Nevada burned nearly 1 million acres in 2021, including almost the entire community of Greenville, California. Then strong winds near Lake Tahoe sent the Caldor Fire racing toward homes, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people – including one of us. They followed destructive wildfires in 2020 in California, and Colorado and Oregon also saw devastating fires in the past two years.
A new 10-year plan announced by the U.S. Forest Service in early 2022 aims to change that. It outlines an ambitious strategy, but Congress will now have to follow through with enough funding to carry it out.
The fires spread quickly over vast areas, but both burned less severely in areas with proactive forest restoration and fuels management projects, including near South Lake Tahoe and near Quincy.
Fuels reduction projects include thinning out trees, burning off woody debris and reducing “ladder fuels” like small trees and brush that can allow fire to reach the tree canopy. Forest restoration projects focus on forest structure, density and composition as well as reducing fuels.
The Forest Service’s new 10-year plan sets a goal to treat as much as 50 million additional acres across the West over 10 years, just under 80,000 square miles. For comparison, the Forest Service treats around 2 million to 3 million acres a year now.
The first priorities in the plan are high-risk areas where communities have been threatened by out-of-control fires, including in the Sierra Nevada in California, the eastern side of the Rockies in Colorado and parts of the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.
The Forest Service already has a “shared stewardship” agreement with California, reached in 2020, aiming to treat 1 million acres annually by 2025. Though, research indicates that current levels of treatment are closer to 30% of that million-acre goal. Remember that 1 million acres is about how much the Dixie Fire burned.
A lingering question is how the 10-year plan will be paid for, considering that it will require a workforce larger than the U.S. has seen in decades.
So far, Congress has approved additional funding through the 2021 infrastructure bill, which included about $655 million a year for fire management for five years. That’s in addition to the Forest Service’s annual funding for this work, which was about $260 million this fiscal year.
But in California alone, a group of scientists, land managers and former government leaders has recommended spending $5 billion a year on proactive management, roughly equivalent to what was spent to suppress fires in the state in 2020. Known as “The Venado Declaration,” this proposal, championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and former Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, calls for addressing forest resiliency on every acre and acknowledges that more than just funding is needed. It also discusses building infrastructure and a workforce and reevaluating regulatory barriers.
Four key steps
To manage fires in an era of climate change, when drier, hotter weather creates ideal conditions for burning, experts estimate that the area treated for fuels reduction needs to increase by at least an order of magnitude. We believe government needs to accomplish these four things to succeed:
1) Drastically increase funding and staff for agencies’ fuels reduction projects, as well as outreach, cost-sharing and technical assistance for private forestland owners. The new plan is a good start. Funding more federal and state agency positions would add forest restoration capacity for the long term. The Biden administration’s proposal for a Civilian Climate Corps could also bring in more young workers.
2) Reduce regulations on forest and fuels management efforts for both public and private land. While California and the federal government have made recent strides to streamline regulations, land management agencies need to acknowledge the biggest risk is doing nothing. Agencies need to plan larger restoration projects and drastically cut the time needed to implement them.
3) Invest in communities’ capacity to carry out local forest restoration work by providing long-term support to local organizations that provide outreach, technical assistance and project coordination services. Funding restoration through competitive grants makes development of long-term community capacity challenging at best. The new plan’s inclusion of state, tribal and private lands is an opportunity for partnerships.
Amid a changing climate, we will have to learn to coexist with wildfires in the U.S. West. This will require concerted action and a cultural shift in how we view and manage our forests and communities to be resilient.
This is an updated version of an article first published on Oct. 13, 2021.
FromBoise Public Radio (Madelyn Beck) via Wyoming Public Radio:
The U.S. Forest Service plans a dramatic increase in forest thinning and prescribed burns across the West.
Its recently released 10-year plan includes treating 20 million acres of Forest Service land, and 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, and private lands. The agency says it has seen such proactive treatments dampen the effects of massive blazes, like in Arizona’s largest blaze, the Wallow Fire, in 2011…
The agency aims to treat forests at up to four times the current rate…
Since the late 20th century, there’s been less land management and far more spent on fighting big blazes, [Ryan] Tompkins said, “and we need to flip that investment.” He points to all the resources – more than $600 million – used to fight Northern California’s Dixie Fire for months as it burned nearly a million acres last summer…
The Forest Service also picked out areas it wants to treat first. That includes large sections of Colorado and Idaho. But Wyoming doesn’t have a single area identified.
Tompkins says there can be equity issues when you have to prioritize burns, and he’d like there to be plans for forest resiliency on every acre, but “there are so few resources available that we continue to try to address this problem through prioritization. And over decades of prioritization, we’ve ended up in a situation where we’re really in triage.”
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map January 25, 2022.
High Plains Drought Monitor map January 25, 2022.
West Drought Monitor map January 25, 2022.
Drought monitor Colorado Drought Monitor map January 25, 2022.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
As the drought-monitoring period began on January 18, a moisture-laden storm had just cleared the Atlantic Coast States. A few days later, another system delivered a variety of weather, including rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow, across parts of the South. The latter storm produced significant snow on January 21-22 near the middle Atlantic Coast, including eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Most of the remainder of the country experienced a dry week, aside from periods of mostly light precipitation from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes States. However, completely dry weather prevailed through January 24 in several areas, including California and the parched southern Plains, where 71 percent of Texas’ winter wheat was rated in very poor to poor condition. As the drought-monitoring period ended early January 25, some snow developed on the northern and central High Plains, while rain returned along and near the Gulf Coast. Elsewhere, frigid conditions from the Midwest into the Northeast and generally chilly conditions across the eastern half of the country contrasted with near- or above-normal temperatures farther west…
Despite some snow on the High Plains late in the drought-monitoring period, the general theme was toward gradually worsening drought conditions, especially in Kansas and Nebraska. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from January 23 reflected some of the issues being faced by farmers, with topsoil moisture rated at least one-half very short to short in Colorado (82%), Kansas (77%), Nebraska (73%), and Wyoming (60%). In addition, at least one-quarter of the winter wheat was rated very poor to poor on that date in Kansas (31%), Wyoming (33%), Colorado (40%). Even in the Dakotas, where some drought recovery has occurred in recent months, topsoil moisture was greater than 40% very short to short. In addition, stock water supplies in North Dakota were reported to be 50% very short to short…
Much of the region has experienced alternating periods of wet and dry weather since the Water Year began on October 1, 2021. For example, a wet October was followed by a warm, dry November; an exceptionally stormy December; and a mild, dry January. As the West moves into the second half of its winter wet season, a return to stormy weather will be needed to sustain the drought improvement that occurred during October and December. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the water equivalency of the Sierra Nevada snowpack increased less than an inch (from 15.4 to 16.0 inches) between December 30 and January 26, with the corresponding percent of average for the date falling from 160 to 103%. Compared to normal values, snow-water equivalency was appreciably lower (less than two-thirds of average in several river basins) across the eastern slopes of the Rockies, especially in eastern Wyoming and much of New Mexico, resulting is some drought deterioration. In New Mexico, topsoil moisture was rated 87% very short to short on January 23, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while stock water supplies were 49% very short to short. With the recent dryness, compounded by long-term drought issues and warm, windy weather, a rare January wildfire—the 700-acre Colorado Fire—erupted near Big Sur, California, on January 21…
Locally heavy rain delivered some drought relief from southeastern Texas to central Mississippi, but largely bypassed other areas of the South. In fact, worsening drought conditions were noted across the southern Great Plains, including large sections of Oklahoma and Texas. Some of the most significant Southern rain fell on January 19-20, when totals approached, reached, or exceeded 2 inches in locations such as Houston, Texas (1.98 inches), and Vicksburg, Mississippi (2.06 inches). Additional rain fell across the Deep South on January 24-25. Farther north and west, however, drought broadly worsened, with exceptional drought (D4) expanding slightly in western Oklahoma. On January 23, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, topsoil moisture was rated 81% very short to short in Oklahoma and 64% very short to short in Texas. On the same date, winter wheat was rated 71% very poor to poor in Texas, along with 43% in Oklahoma. Just 3 months ago, in late-November 2021, those numbers stood at 45 and 16% very poor to poor, respectively. Worsening drought on the Plains has also contributed to several mid-winter wildfires; a few, including the Mill Creek Fire in Shackleford County, Texas—which was ignited on January 15—torched more than 1,000 acres of brush and grass. Burn bans were in effect for dozens of counties in Oklahoma and Texas…
During the next 5 days, the only major storm system to affect the country will develop near the southern Atlantic Coast and move northward. The potential exists for significant accumulations of wind-driven snow, starting Friday night and continuing into the weekend, from the middle Atlantic Coast into New England. Most of the remainder of the country will receive little or no precipitation, although exceptions during the next couple of days will include rain from southern Texas to Florida’s peninsula and snow squalls downwind of the Great Lakes. In addition, precipitation should begin to overspread the Northwest during the weekend. Elsewhere, frigid conditions will linger during the next several days from the Midwest into the Northeast, while areas as far south as Florida’s peninsula may experience sub-freezing temperatures as January draws to a close. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for February 1 – 5 calls for the likelihood of above-normal temperatures in the eastern U.S., while colder-than-normal conditions will prevail along and west of a line from central Texas to Lake Michigan. Meanwhile, below-normal precipitation in the Far West, including northern and central California and the Great Basin, should contrast with wetter-than-normal weather in most areas from the central and southern Rockies to the Atlantic Coast.
Last week’s $90 million settlement relating to the 2015 Gold King Mine Blowout that turned the Animas and San Juan Rivers TANG-orange for over 100 miles downstream did not bring an end to the legal saga that has dragged on for more than six years (lawsuits against the federal government are still pending). But when the agreement is finalized, Sunnyside Gold Corp—the owner of the nearby, now-shuttered Sunnyside Mine—will finally be free of the mess. Extricating themselves from any further liabilities has cost them about $67.6 million: $40.5 million to the feds; $6.1 million to the State of Colorado; $11 million to the State of New Mexico; and $10 million to the Navajo Nation, not to mention the tens of millions they’d already spent cleaning up a century’s worth of mining mess.
In agreeing to the payments, Sunnyside and its parent company, Canada-based global mining giant Kinross, have made it clear that they are not admitting wrongdoing or liability. They don’t own the Gold King Mine and never did. So why did the company fork out so much money?
The simple answer is that the bulkheads Sunnyside installed in the American Tunnel in the 1990s and early 2000s caused water to back up inside Bonita Peak and make its way into the Gold King Mine, resulting in the 3 million-gallon blowout. The truth is a bit more complicated.
The real question is not whether Sunnyside’s bulkheads backed up water into the Gold King Mine. That’s pretty much a given. More important is exactly where the water came from in the first place. And to get at that answer, we need to go back in time a century and some to the days when the Gold King Mine was one of the most profitable operations in Colorado.
1887 Olaf Arvid Nelson, while working at the nearby Sampson Mine, surreptitiously locates the original Gold King claim on the slopes of Bonita Peak, and goes to work on it immediately. He eventually digs a 50-foot shaft and a 50-foot drift, but never makes money from it.
1891 Nelson dies, perhaps from pneumonia, silicosis or just overwork. A year later his widow, Louisa, patents the Gold King claim, taking title to it. And in 1894 Louisa sells the Gold King claim to Northeastern capitalists Cyrus W. Davis and Henry Soule, for a mere $15,000. They hire local Willis Z. Kinney to run the mine.
1897 About 40 employees pull ore from the Gold King mine’s 2,000 feet or so of underground workings and ships it down a 5,600-foot long tramway from the mine opening’s lofty perch on Bonita Peak’s slope to a new mill at Gladstone for processing.
1898 The Gold King owners form the American Mining and Tunnel Co. and begin construction on a lower-elevation, safer access to the Gold King Mine several hundred feet below the current access adit (Gold King Level #1). They originally name the lower access point the American Tunnel, but after it is completed in 1903 and becomes the mine’s primary portal, it will be renamed the #7 Level of the Gold King Mine. This is level that will blowout in 2015 and is not the same American Tunnel in which Sunnyside placed its bulkheads many years later.
1900 USGS geologist Frederick Ransome visits the Gold King Mine, noticing that the main adit—or opening to the mine—is not draining any water, which is highly unusual for the area. He hypothesizes that the American Tunnel #1 (aka Gold King Level #7)—which at the time was under construction—is “deep draining” the water from the Gold King’s upper operations.
1900 The Gold King Mine owners begin construction on another American Tunnel (still known by that name today) at Gladstone. They plan to burrow into Bonita Peak until they are directly below the Gold King workings, then connect the two via a 1,000+ foot shaft. This will enable them to bring ore directly to the Gladstone mill, obviating the need to move it by tram across avalanche-prone terrain. But the project is abandoned after only 700 feet of tunneling (they need to go more than a mile underground before they will be in position to link with the Gold King).
1906 (or thereabouts) A photo of the Gold King Mine #7 Level appears to show about 200 to 300 gallons of water draining from the mine adit.
1908 The structures at the mouth of the Gold King #7 Level catch fire, destroying the tram terminal, boardinghouse, compressor house, carpenter shop, and stables, killing six. The mine rebuilds, but it will never be the same. In 1909 the new boardinghouse burns, killing a waiter, and in 1911 an avalanche hits the boardinghouse, killing four people. After that operations are on-again, off-again and profits hard to come by.
1921 The Gold King miners are working again to open the Gladstone tunnel, aka. the American Tunnel, that goes from the Gold King mill at Gladstone into Bonita Peak and under the Gold King Mine, about 860 feet below the Gold King #7 Level. The intent is to provide a long haulage tunnel for Gold King ore, thereby rendering the treacherous trams obsolete, but the connection to the upper mine is never made. A later report indicates that the American Tunnel is 6,233 feet deep when work is finally halted. The tunnel “deep drains” the groundwater of Bonita Peak, leaving the Gold King mine virtually dry.
1922 The Gold King Mine’s parent company goes bankrupt, leaving the Sunnyside Mine, on the opposite side of Bonita Peak, as one of the region’s biggest mines. But it struggles because the mine opening is above the workings, meaning water and ore must be pulled up and out of the mine, against gravity, which increases operational expenses.
1960 Standard Metals takes over the dormant Sunnyside Mine and plans to revive it by extending the unused, partially complete American Tunnel to access it. The tunnel will provide gravity-assisted ore-haulage and water drainage for the Sunnyside by way of Gladstone. When it’s finished, the tunnel is 11,000 feet long, and brings mining, and prosperity, back to Silverton.
1978 On a Sunday, when no miners are working, the floor of Lake Emma collapses into the Sunnyside Mine, sending tens of millions of gallons of water shooting out the American Tunnel at Gladstone and shutting the mine down for months. To this day some folks remain suspicious of the collapse, theorizing that it was planned by a beleaguered company looking for an insurance payout: Miners had warned management about increasing amounts of water pouring into the mine and worried that they were getting too close to the lake’s floor. Ultimately, Standard Metals received $9 million, but they had to drag the insurance company to court to get it. The company will go bankrupt in the early 1980s and sell the Sunnyside Mine to Echo Bay, a Canadian company, doing business as Sunnyside Gold Corp.
1986 Meanwhile, a company called Gerber Minerals takes over the Gold King and sets about to re-open it. They apply for a mining permit for the Gold King, but not a discharge permit, because: “No drainage occurs from any of the portals—the district is deep-drained by the American Tunnel located at Gladstone.” As a result, the American Tunnel flows with about 1,600 gallons per minute of acidic, heavy-metal laden water draining into Cement Creek and, ultimately, the Animas River. Note: The first mile and some of the American Tunnel runs through Gold King Mine patented claims, meaning it belongs to the owners of the Gold King.
1987 Donald “Donnie” Goode killed when a 100-pound rock falls from the ceiling of Gold King #7 Level, about 2,500 feet underground, striking him in the head.
1988 Sunnyside overhauls the old American Tunnel water treatment plant. It uses one ton of lime per day to raise pH levels, causing toxic metals to precipitate out of solution and settle into ponds, cleaning the 1,600 gallons per minute of discharge to a level that can support sensitive fathead minnows. The process costs approximately $500,000 per year, and results in 365 tons per year of metal-laden sludge.
1991 The Sunnyside Mine closes for good. A year later the re-born Gold King suspends operations, as well, but holds onto its permits. In preparation for plugging, or bulkheading, the American Tunnel, Sunnyside Gold and Washington Mining Co. commission an exhaustive hydrological study of the Sunnyside, which concludes that bulkheads in the American Tunnel should not cause flooding of the Gold King, and that it would take 150 years for mine pool water to reach Cement Creek.
1994 Animas River Stakeholders Group is formed as a citizen-led effort to study and address mining pollution in the watershed and propose realistic water quality standards. It’s seen as a collaborative alternative to Superfund. Bill Simon is chosen as coordinator. Other notable members include Peter Butler, who had just received his Ph.D. in natural resource management, Larry Perino of Sunnyside Gold, and Steve Fearn.
1996 Sunnyside enters into a consent decree with the state, a sort of pollution trading scheme. Sunnyside will install three bulkheads in the American Tunnel, one on its property to back up water into the Sunnyside’s workings, and two more on Gold King property nearer to the surface. They will also clean up a list of abandoned mines in the watershed in order to offset the increased heavy metal loading that will result when Sunnyside turns off its American Tunnel water treatment plant. At about the same time, the state division of minerals and geology inspects the Gold King and finds that it’s draining just one to two gallons of acidic, metal-laden water per minute, a mere trickle.
1996 The valve is shut on the first bulkhead over 6,000 feet into the American Tunnel, beyond the Gold King property line. Water backed up behind this will inundate the Sunnyside Mine workings and create what’s known as the Sunnyside mine pool. By robbing the system of oxygen, it should slow acid mine drainage reactions. Sunnyside also dumped 625 tons of lime in from the top of the mine to raise pH levels.
1991 The Sunnyside Mine closes for good. A year later the re-born Gold King suspends operations, as well, but holds onto its permits. In preparation for plugging, or bulkheading, the American Tunnel, Sunnyside Gold and Washington Mining Co. commission an exhaustive hydrological study of the Sunnyside, which concludes that bulkheads in the American Tunnel should not cause flooding of the Gold King, and that it would take 150 years for mine pool water to reach Cement Creek.
1997 A Gold King Mines environmental protection plan notes that the mine is discharging between 4 gpm and 30 gpm, with a pH as low as 2.25. However, the authors of the report theorize that it’s groundwater, not Sunnyside mine pool water, based on the 1992 hydrology report. A 1998 inspection finds that the Gold King #7 level portal had collapsed, just inside the portal, and is impassible. It does not say how much water is draining from the mine.
1999 A water analysis report of the Gold King Mine finds that the mine is discharging between 11 gpm and 30 gpm with a very low pH and very high concentrations of dissolved metals. The following year Steve Fearn buys the Gold King mine from CCTC, trustee for Pitchfork “M” Corp. The state inspection later that year notes: “Though this year has been abnormally dry, the No. 7 level discharge appears to have increased significantly … from around 30 gpm to around 45 gpm.”
2001 The Sunnyside Mine Pool is thought to have reached equilibrium, based on the findings of the 1992 hydrological study. The mine pool, some 1,200 feet deep, exerts nearly 500 psi on bulkhead #1. Sunnyside then installs bulkhead #2, which is closer to the surface and, in 2002, bulkhead #3, which is right at the surface, in preparation for its exit from the area. By now Sunnyside Gold has spent upwards of $25 million on cleanup and reclamation. Discharges from both the Gold King and the nearby Mogul Mine—which was also mostly dry prior to the first bulkhead installation—continue to increase.
2003 A byzantine agreement transfers ownership of the Sunnyside water treatment plant to Gold King owner Fearn, allowing Fearn to treat Gold King water, and allowing Sunnyside to leave—in theory. Also involved in the deal is Todd Hennis, owner of the Mogul Mine in the Cement Creek drainage, who acquires most of the Gladstone townsite. The deal will go bad a year later when Hennis evicts Fearn, and thus the water treatment plant, from his property at Gladstone, shutting down water treatment for good (proving detrimental to downstream fish populations). Meanwhile, Fearn’s mining ventures have gone broke. Hennis will acquire the Gold King and in coming years set about to mine it, first with a new company called Colorado Goldfields, and then on his own.
2005 Gold King mine discharges have increased to 200 gallons per minute or more. Animas River Stakeholders Group calls in the Environmental Protection Agency to help figure out the cause and potentially fund a solution. In its annual report to the Security Exchange Commission, Colorado Goldfields says it intends to re-open Gold King #7 Level, and that it hopes to enter into an agreement with the EPA allowing it to deal with increasing flows of acid mine drainage, which the company believes are coming from the “2150 vein workings of the Sunnyside Mine.” The report also notes the danger for a “blow out of potentially impounded mine waters.”
2009 The State Division of Mining Reclamation and Safety calls the Gold King, now dumping nearly 200,000 pounds of metals into the watershed per year, “one of the worst high quantity, poor water quality draining mines in the State of Colorado.” It backfills the mine portal, or opening, because it had collapsed, and installs drainage pipe.
2014 Sunnyside Gold Corp. offers $10 million towards water treatment and other upper Cement Creek cleanup—as long as Superfund isn’t declared.
2015 EPA contractors begin excavating dirt piled up at the opening of Gold King Mine #7 Level until the operator notices a “spring” spurting from the dirt. Within minutes, the tiny fountain has grown to a 3-million gallon torrent of electric-orange, acidic, heavy metal-laden water pouring into the North Fork of Cement Creek far below.
So, yeah, I know: That made it about as clear as the Animas River was in the days following the blowout. This puzzle will never be solved definitively. Bonita Peak’s hydrology is all a tangled maze of fractures and faults and veins, a sort of lithic Swiss cheese comprised of hundreds of miles of drifts, shafts, crosscuts, and tunnels, creating innumerable potential paths the water could follow.
But from what we can glean from the history we can conclude:
• The Gold King Mine had water flowing through it early on. When the first American Tunnel, aka #7 Level, was dug, it deep drained the upper levels, making them appear to be dry.
• About 200 to 300 gallons of water per minute flowed out of the #7 Level adit until the new American Tunnel was drilled under the Gold King in the 1920s, deep draining the entirety of Bonita Peak.
• It wasn’t until after Sunnyside installed bulkheads in the American Tunnel that drainage returned to the Gold King #7 level (as well as to the Mogul Mine). It’s safe to conclude in this case that correlation is causation: The installation of the bulkheads caused drainage to return to the Gold King.
Not clear, though, is precisely where the water was coming from: Did the Sunnyside mine pool water back up, then find a pathway through to the Gold King Mine? If so, then it would seem that Sunnyside is at least partially responsible for the resulting 2015 blowout, since that nasty orange water originated on its subterranean property. Or did the lower two bulkheads—which are on Gold King property—simply return Bonita Peak’s hydrology to a pre-American Tunnel state of affairs, or a “natural flow regime,” as one Sunnyside employee put it in the early 2000s? In that case it is not Sunnyside Gold’s water, it’s the Gold King’s, which would absolve Sunnyside of responsibility.
While conclusive answers to those questions aren’t exactly forthcoming, a look at the timeline suggests that the water that spewed from Gold King #7 Level on Aug. 5, 2015, may have come from both sources. Drainage from the Gold King first started increasing—albeit only marginally—in 1997, after bulkhead #1 had been installed but before the next two were sealed. But flows remained pretty low until after the valves on bulkheads #2 and #3 were closed. It was only then that the Gold King became a major source of acid mine drainage and conditions established that would lead to the blowout.
But at this point maybe it doesn’t matter: Even if Sunnyside could prove that it’s not liable for what happened in 2015, it still would have been the last and only viable mining concern in the vicinity when it happened. Whether it’s culpable or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is probably irrelevant. In either case, the company would have had to take responsibility or else risk damaging its corporate image. That’s the price one pays for playing the mining game.
From email from the High Line Canal Conservancy (Suzanna Fry Jones):
The Canal Collaborative officially launches to formalize the new governance model, making permanent the powerful public-private partnership between 13 regional partners, including the High Line Canal Conservancy and Denver Water
Denver, CO (January 26, 2022) – The High Line Canal Conservancy today announces the public-private partnership known as the Canal Collaborative that formalizes a new partnership between 13 regional entities to preserve, protect and enhance the 71-mile High Line Canal. This powerful collaborative brings partners together in a collective impact model – working together to support the Canal’s transition from a part of Denver Water’s historic irrigation system to its new role as a 71-mile linear park and emerging stormwater management system. The newly formed Canal Collaborative formalizes roles and responsibilities for the long-term management, funding and governance of the Canal
“This Partnership was built on the premise that together we can do more for the Canal than any one entity can do alone. The deep respect for varied local perspectives, combined with the power of the community’s vision and commitment has been a winning strategy that has resulted in a common vision and new governance structure to ensure the Canal is cared for as a vital backbone of our region’s open space system for generations to come,” said Harriet Crittenden LaMair, High Line Canal Conservancy Executive Director.
To formalize the launch of the Canal Collaborative, key leaders from across the region, joined together to witness Jim Lochhead, CEO and Manager of Denver Water, owner of the Canal, sign the long-awaited Memorandum of Understanding at the first annual State of the Canal. To a virtual audience of nearly 100, key leaders presented on Canal preservation and enhancement progress achieved to date and what’s to come in the next phase of improvements and implementation of The Plan for the High Line Canal (The Plan), including $130M dedicated for improvements over the next 15 years.
“Denver Water had a century old canal that had outlived its usefulness” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO. “We wanted to transform the canal into a recreational and environmental crown jewel for the region. And with the help of a dozen partners who shared the vision, we have come together to realize that vision through the Canal Collaborative.”
This model of regional collaboration started to take shape in 2010 when, for the first time in the 140-year history of the Canal, governments, agencies and a nonprofit partner from across the region stepped forward, committing to deep collaboration that resulted in a powerful regional community driven vision plan, a framework plan and new governance structure to guide the future of our regional legacy. These successful collaborations culminated in agreements to create the Canal Collaborative, memorializing collaboration in a collective impact model for long-term sustainability ensuring The Plan becomes a reality for the people of the region to enjoy for generations to come.
“Arapahoe County has committed tremendous resources to the Canal since 2010. We’re thrilled that this new entity will bring together the various jurisdictions so we can hear from each partner and the public about the best ways to preserve and protect the High Line Canal for the future,” said Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Sharpe.
Over the next 15 years, the collaborative will work together to implement over $130 million of trail improvements, including improved access and safety, enhanced environmental health for the region and improved quality of experience.
LINCOLN – People lined up at the State Capitol Tuesday to support proposals by Gov. Pete Ricketts to spend the state’s allocation of $1.04 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
Mental health providers praised his idea of setting aside $40 million for new treatment facilities. Sports and arts groups supported the $100 million set aside for COVID-19 impacted, “shovel ready” projects. And a rural firefighter thanked Ricketts for earmarking $35 million to replace aging ambulances across the state.
In addition, representatives of the state’s community colleges lauded the idea of getting $90 million to enhance training in trades that have shortages right now, including truck drivers and nursing aides.
But several questions were raised about the governor’s most expensive proposal — setting aside $500 million to build a long-forgotten irrigation canal on the South Platte River.
Ricketts has proposed utilizing $100 million in AARP funds and $400 million in state cash reserve monies to resurrect the Perkins County Canal project, which would divert waters of the South Platte near Ovid, Colorado, and deliver it to Nebraska, likely for irrigation.
Canal proposed in 1890s
The canal was first proposed in the 1890s, but construction was halted in 1894, due to a lack of funds, after only a couple miles were dug.
But the Perkins County Canal was included in a 1923 water compact reached between Nebraska and Colorado over each state’s rights to the flows of the South Platte. And now Ricketts has dusted off the old canal project in an effort to capture the water guaranteed under the compact.
Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said that construction of the canal is the only way Nebraska can “preserve and protect” its water allocation.
But two senators on the Appropriations Committee, Steve Erdman of Bayard and Mark Kolterman of Seward, questioned how such a pricey, long-forgotten project suddenly became a big priority.
And what about the half-billion-dollar pricetag, Kolterman asked. “That is a lot of money,” he said.
“Projects of this nature are expensive,” Riley said, adding that the cost estimate was based on projections made in the 1980s.
The State of Colorado, he said, is spending “20 times that amount” on its water projects impacting the South Platte, which flows through fast-growing Denver.
‘Colorado is concerned’
He said Nebraska needs to start the canal project now, to preserve its water allocation before Colorado snaps it all up.
“Colorado is concerned and is looking to accelerate their projects,” Riley told the Appropriations Committee.
But Laurel Sariscsany of the Open Sky Policy Institute, a Lincoln-based think tank, said the canal could end up bogged down in lengthy litigation with Colorado. That raises concerns that the ARPA funds would not be spent by the 2026 deadline, she said, resulting in the federal government taking back those funds.
Overall, Sariscsany questioned why about 25% of the governor’s ARPA proposals dealt with sewer and water infrastructure projects when the state expects to get $358 million for such projects from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.
Better uses for funds
Former State Sen. Al Davis, now a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, asked whether there were higher priorities than the Perkins County Canal on which to spend $500 million, such as improving the state’s existing parks.
In a recent interview with the Nebraska Examiner, Dave Aiken, a water law authority with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the influx of federal funds has made the Perkins County Canal suddenly feasible.
Clearly, Aiken said, Colorado is ahead of Nebraska in planning projects that utilize the South Platte’s flows, but the Perkins Canal idea has certainly grabbed their attention. Whether or not state lawmakers agree to set aside a half-billion dollars is a big question, he added.
“I can’t believe that all $500 million is going to end up in the Perkins County Canal project, but we’ll see,” Aiken said.
Gering Sen. John Stinner, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said the committee might want an additional briefing about the canal project. “These are big-time dollars,” he said of the project’s cost.
The Appropriations Committee took no action on the governor’s ARPA proposals after a public hearing that extended into the evening. The committee will make budgetary decisions later, which will be debated by the full Legislature.
Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: email@example.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.
Colorado securities regulators have filed a $19 million fraud suit against a troubled Colorado water company, charging that it misled investors and sold shares in subsidiaries illegally.
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 10 in Denver District Court, alleges that Denver-based Two Rivers Water & Farming LLC, failed to properly register its stock sales as required by law and misappropriated money.
The Two Rivers subsidiaries, including GrowCO, Inc. and TR Capital Partners, among others, were described to investors as cannabis businesses that planned to build high-tech greenhouses for growing hemp.
In court filings, however, the state securities commission alleges that only one $5 million greenhouse in southern Colorado was ever built, and that other funds raised were misappropriated.
In a Jan. 18 response to the state’s suit, former Two Rivers officers denied the state’s allegations, saying that in several instances cited by the state, the securities weren’t required to be registered and that during certain periods between 2014 and 2019, the defendants weren’t responsible for Two Rivers’ actions because they were not officers at the time.
The defendants, including John McKowen, Jan McCaffrey, George McCafffrey, Wayne Harding, Edward Wallick, Richard WiWi and Kirsty Cameron, asked that the state’s suit be dismissed.
Neither Colorado Securities Commissioner Tung Chan, or Martin Berliner, the attorney representing the Two Rivers’ defendants, responded to requests for comment.
A message left at Two River’s Denver office for current CEO Greg Harrington was not returned.
Two Rivers Farming and Water is listed under the symbol TURV on the Over The Counter (OTC) index. Unlike major stock exchanges, such as the New York Stock Exchange, OTC stocks aren’t closely regulated, nor are they required to provide as much financial information to investors.
TURV stock is listed as an OTC security on the website OTC Markets, but is flagged with warnings, in part because it has failed to file the required financial reports for several years.
In 2020, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), moved to foreclose on land and water rights in the Arkansas Valley owned by Two Rivers, to satisfy $1.4 million in delinquent loan payments and dam repair bills.
Last August, however, Two Rivers paid the state $161,000 to cover the late payments, causing the state to stop foreclosure proceedings, according to Kirk Russell, who oversees the CWCB’s loan program.
“When they came to us (in 2012) and desired to get ag land back into production, we thought it was a great idea,” Russell said. “But the organization was just a bad one to start with.”
How many people still own shares in the company isn’t clear. Its stock has traded for as little as 12 cents a share to more than 70 cents a share. In various debt offerings since 2012, the company has issued millions of shares of stock, often using them as collateral for loans from investors.
Chris Scott is a tax attorney and a Two Rivers shareholder. He, along with 55 other investors, is suing Two Rivers in a separate suit. He said it’s not clear what will happen as a result of the Colorado Securities Commission’s action. But he said he would like to see a new management team installed at the company.
“The only reason I invested was because people I formerly trusted told me what a great deal this was going to be,” he said.
Two Rivers’ next payment to the state is due March 1, Russell said. If that payment is missed, the CWCB has said it will resume legal proceedings against the company.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
On December 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire ripped through suburban neighborhoods on the west side of the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area. Spread by high winds and fueled by dry conditions, the wildfire left two people presumed dead, burned more than 6,000 acres, and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, according to news reports.
High winds, even with occasional hurricane-force gusts, are not unusual in this “foothills” region, where the eastern prairies meet the Rockies. The day of the windstorm, atmospheric pressure dropped sharply east of the Rockies, and strong downslope winds followed. At the base of the foothills west of Denver, wind gusts reached 100 miles per hour.
But winds alone didn’t account for the destruction. In the months leading up to this wildfire, climate conditions set the stage for a disaster. The spring of 2021 brought unusually wet conditions, encouraging vigorous plant growth. Starting in June, though, precipitation levels fell below average, and remained well below average for the rest of the year.
Although snow fell in the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Denver-Boulder area remained dry. Denver recorded its first measurable snow of the season—just 0.3 inches—on December 10, 2021. It was the latest first-snowfall date on record, and after that light snowstorm, dry conditions resumed.
As moisture remained elusive, temperatures remained unusually warm, soaring more than 20 degrees F above average early in December 2021 and hitting 10 or more degrees above average many days throughout the month.
Where the wildfire struck—in the southeastern corner of Boulder County, Colorado—unusually dry conditions took hold in September. By early October, dry conditions had worsened into drought. By late December, drought conditions were extreme.
As of January 4, 2022, the cause of the fire was still under investigation, but its origin had been pinpointed to an area west of Marshall Lake. Once ignited, the fire spread with ferocious speed, charging toward the north and east. The warm, dry conditions in the months before the Marshall Fire broke out supplied the fire with plentiful fuel. Winds carried embers across paved areas, dropping those embers on parched vegetation that was ready to burn, along with buildings and vehicles.
Unable to fight the flames amid hurricane-force gusts, first responders focused on evacuation. Residents, diners, and shoppers were caught off guard, some forced to flee at a moment’s notice. Besides seeing and smelling smoke and flames, area residents heard multiple booms—potentially resulting from the fire reaching propane tanks. Only when the winds slowed late in the evening of December 30 could firefighters begin extinguishing the flames.
Days after the fire, two people remained missing and were presumed deceased. The tally of homes damaged stood at 149. The tally of homes burned to the ground stood at 1,084. Dozens of businesses had also been damaged or destroyed.
In terms of acreage burned, the Marshall Fire was dwarfed by many other blazes, including the state’s three largest wildfires, which all struck within weeks of each other in 2020: Cameron Peak, East Troublesome, and Pine Gulch. But in terms of residences lost, the Marshall Fire was the most destructive in Colorado history. The Marshall Fire did not strike in a sparsely populated, mountainous region. The fire burned a densely populated suburban area where most residents had not previously considered wildfire a threat.
Starting on the afternoon of December 31—one day after the fire—significant snow finally fell in the Denver-Boulder metro area.
9NEWS. (2021, December 30). Costco evacuation due to Marshall Fire. Accessed January 4, 2021.
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Historical wildfire information. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Denver7 News. (2021, December 30). Better weather conditions are expected Friday. [December 31, 2021]. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Denver7 News. (2021, December 10). Denver celebrates 0.3 inches of snow — its first measurable snowfall of the season. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Fish, S., Paul, J. (2022, January 1). MAP: These are the 991 structures destroyed and 127 damaged in the Marshall fire. The Colorado Sun. Accessed January 4, 2022.
Flynn, C. (2022, January 6). Nearly 1,100 homes destroyed in Marshall Fire, valued at over $500 million. KDVR. Accessed January 6, 2022.
Heberton, B. (2022, January 1). Colorado’s most destructive fire a result of extreme winds, expanding wildland-urban interface, and a stressed climate. Weather5280. Accessed January 4, 2022.
National Interagency Fire Center. Map of the Marshall Fire burn area. Accessed January 4, 2022.
National Weather Service. High Winds and Marshall Fire on December 30, 2021. Accessed January 4, 2022.
U.S. Drought Monitor. Accessed January 4, 2022.
WXChasing. (2021, December 31). Louisville, Colo: First light shows destruction from Marshall Fire- Drone 4k. Accessed January 4, 2022.
La Niña, climate change, and bad luck: the climate context of Colorado’s Marshall Fire
As we wrote last week, the Marshall Fire in northern Colorado on December 30, 2021, was a devastating finale to a record-warm, record-dry fall in the state’s eastern plains and foothills. Several experts interviewed for this story, including Deputy Colorado State Climatologist Becky Bolinger, said that, because the risk of drought and warm extremes are increasing as a result of human-caused global warming, it’s reasonable to think that global warming contributed in some way to the devastation caused by the Marshall Fire.
But they also said that as a winter grass fire, the Marshall Fire is different from the warm-season forest fires in the West, which scientists have strongly linked to global warming. Namely, winter fires are much more wind-driven than summer fires, and there’s no evidence that the fierce winds that drove the fire that day were anything other than natural, if extreme, variability. Likewise, there’s no strong evidence to link the excessively wet spring (which built up the vegetation) to climate change.
The lack of snow is a final complicated piece. “December is one of the months that has warmed the most in this area,” said Bolinger, “but there has been no long-term decline in total December snowfall.” That makes it hard to know what to make of the record-low snowfall in the area through December, which intensified the drought.
“This was a complex event,” said Bolinger. “Some factors probably are connected to climate change and others probably aren’t.”
This is not a final answer
All extreme events have more than one cause. So Did global warming cause that event? isn’t a yes or no question. The best scientists can do is figure out whether human-caused global warming played a role, and if so, how big a role. Scientists have a name for the process of figuring that out: extreme event attribution.
Attribution research generally has two parts: analysis of historical data and climate model experiments. Experts check to see if there have been changes over time in the extreme events themselves or in the weather patterns that produce them. They also identify climate models that are capable of simulating that type of event, and use them to create two virtual worlds: one with and one without increased greenhouse gases. They compare the frequency and intensity of extreme events between the two simulated worlds to estimate the influence of global warming.
That kind of thing takes time, of course. The more unusual or complex the event, the more difficult an attribution analysis is to conduct. That’s likely to be the case with the Marshall Fire, which arose from a rare mash-up of extreme weather and climate factors that each were capable of raising the fire risk individually. Until a formal attribution study is completed, any explanations of the event should be thought of as these experts’ educated guesses, not a final answer.
What we know about fires in the West
According to the fourth National Climate Assessment, “Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires” in the U.S. Southwest, defined in the report as the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. A recent analysis funded by NOAA’s Climate Program Office concluded that human-caused global warming was the leading cause of the rapid increase in Western wildfires between the end of the 20th century (1984-2000) and the beginning of the 21st (2000-2018). A NOAA Drought Task Force report also concluded that global warming played a role in the severity of the ongoing 2020-21 Southwest drought.
Modeling experiments have found that warming due to increasing greenhouse gases is going to dramatically increase the risk of very large fires in parts of the West over the next 50 years. Fire seasons are getting longer, a trend that is likely to continue, turning fire-fighting into more of a year-round activity in places.
Colorado’s record-setting Cameron Peak Fire, which ignited in mid-August 2020, may be a preview of that. In early September 2020, 8-14 inches of snow fell on the ~100,000-acre fire without extinguishing it. The blaze went on to double in size—setting a new record for the state’s largest fire—by the end of October. Despite a second significant snow event in late October, the fire was not fully contained until early December.
What’s different about the Marshall Fire
The main reason experts gave for being somewhat cautious about using all that research to unequivocally link the Marshall Fire to global warming was that most of it has focused on warm-season forest fires. And while all fires have some ingredients in common, winter grass fires like the Marshall are different in ways that complicate the connection.
“A difference between warm and cold season for fire in places like California and Colorado is that the cold season generally is more windy, so fire behavior could be more complex,” wrote Yizhou Zhuang via email. Zhuang is a climate researcher at University of California – Los Angeles whose work connected global warming to the rapid increase in Western fires in recent decades. He and his colleagues found that the increase was due to increases in how “thirsty” the summer atmosphere is for soil and plant moisture —what experts call the vapor pressure deficit, or “VPD” for short. Rising temperatures are increasing those deficits.
But for the Marshall fire, Zhuang wrote, “preliminary data actually showed that the VPD condition on the day when the fire started (12/30/2021) was high, although not extreme (~75th percentile); the strong wind condition (~99th percentile) could be more important for the fire spread.”
Climate researcher Rong Fu, one of Zhuang’s collaborators, agreed that natural weather variability may play a bigger role in winter fires than it does in summer fires. Having said that, she wrote in an email, “I believe the vapor pressure deficits that would have occurred during the warm season and the 2020/21 drought contributed to the flammability and amount of dead and dry plants, which provided a perfect bio-fuel for the Marshall fire.”
In other words, the influence of human-caused global warming on the Marshall Fire could be less than it would be on a typical summer forest fire, but still play a role. That’s the perspective of Deputy State Climatologist for Colorado, Becky Bolinger.
“It’s true,” she said, “that the Marshall Fire is a bit different than the warm-season forest fires that are the basis for much of the research connecting Western fire activity and global warming. Still, big winter grassfires in the state have historically been connected to warmth and drought, just like mountain fires. We were having a record drought; global warming is increasing the frequency of droughts. We were having record warmth; global warming is increasing the frequency of heat extremes. It seems pretty safe to conclude that global warming trends played at least some role in setting this up.”
While agreeing that less is known about the connection between winter grassfires and global warming, western climate and hydrology expert John Abatzoglou, of University of California Merced, commented via email, “A warming climate may increase the likelihood of these events by keeping fuels dry later into the year.” Combined with a delayed onset of snowfall, as happened this year, the dry fuels “would prime the system to have fires that spread rapidly and resist control” during the winter downslope wind season.
Abatzoglou shared the results of modeling experiments his team has done that compare past, current, and future risk of very high fire danger days across the U.S. The map below is based on the impact of a high greenhouse gas emissions pathway on the moisture of 100-hour fuels—dead vegetation between 1 and 3 inches in diameter, which takes about 100 hours to respond to changes in weather conditions.
Between the 1971-2000 reference period and the present (2010-2039), the models projected a small increase—basically going from 2 days to 3 days—in the number of winter days with 100-hour fuel moisture in the bottom ten percent of the record. Aside from the human structures, most, though not all, of the places that burned in the Marshall fire were likely 1 and 10-hr fuels (grasses and other plants), which respond to weather changes more quickly, so the impacts could be a bit different. But a similar analysis of the impact of warming on 10-hour fuels around in the area around Boulder found a similar pattern. Models suggest human-caused climate change has increased the number of December days with high fire risk.
Abatzoglou concluded, “Drier fuels in the downslope wind season would up the odds of significant fire weather conditions.”
Bolinger made a similar point. “Historically, our warm, dry season and our windy season don’t overlap,” she said. “The fall warming trend may cause the two to seasons to overlap more often, which would make cold-season fires a more frequent threat.”
What about La Niña?
In terms of natural influences, Bolinger added that La Niña—the cool phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern in the tropical Pacific—may also have played a role. “The typical U.S. fall and winter climate signal for La Niña is wet in the Pacific Northwest and dry in the Southwest. Northern Colorado is right on the boundary between those two strong signals, which means a little shift either way can bring us opposite results. Overall, though, dry falls are slightly more common than wet,” Bolinger said, “which means the ongoing La Niña might also have played a role in the current drought.”
Strategies such as controlled or “prescribed” fire to reduce fire fuels, stringent building codes requiring fire-resistant materials, and vegetation-limited buffer-zones around homes and businesses can make communities more resilient to wildfire. Yet in many places, such fire-resilient adaptations are not adopted, even following a devastating fire. Meanwhile, the country is spending more than $2 billion a year to fight wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
To some experts, these trends are evidence that the West’s default fire strategy—a combination of fire suppression at the wildland-urban interface and fuels reduction in national forests and other public lands—is no match for the current and future fire risk. Instead, they say, we need “a new paradigm that hinges on the critical need to adapt to inevitably more fire in the West in the coming decades.”
Among their suggestions is greater use of prescribed (low-intensity) fire, targeting fuel reductions like tree thinning to areas near homes and communities, encouraging community-focused fire planning, and shifting more of the costs of fire-fighting from federal land agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to state, local, and private jurisdictions where the decisions about whether and how to build in fire-risk areas are being made.
Republican state lawmakers say they want to look at cleaner power generation, but not necessarily from wind and solar energy. They’re eyeing nuclear and hydroelectric power instead.
A proposed law spearheaded by Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, would require the state to study whether small modular nuclear reactors could be used as a carbon-free energy source in Colorado.
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Senate Bill 22-73 “puts Colorado at the forefront of renewable energy by investigating the possibility of bringing micro-nuclear technology to the state of Colorado,” Rep. Dan Woog, R-Erie, said during a Jan. 12 news conference where Republicans announced their policy priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
Such “micro-nuclear” technology uses compact nuclear reactors that are small enough to transport by truck, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Micro-reactor designs that are under development in the U.S. could be “ready to roll out within the next decade,” the department’s website says.
At least one Colorado community has already begun looking into the technology. With a likely early closure of Comanche 3, Pueblo County’s coal-fired power plant, county leaders want a power station that uses small modular reactors to replace the energy production and tax revenue from the coal plant. But some community organizers in Pueblo staunchly oppose that plan, citing health and safety concerns.
“This issue of renewable energy is not one that we reject,” Rankin said at Republicans’ Jan. 12 news conference. “We do not reject climate change. … We do take the position that our goals are perhaps not realistic, and our pace of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy has done damage to some communities and some individuals, and that may not have been necessary.”
SB-73, one of 44 bills that Republicans are pushing as part of their main policy agenda, would allocate $500,000 in the next fiscal year for the micro-nuclear feasibility study. The study would evaluate how current state laws would need to be changed to allow for the construction and operation of small modular nuclear reactors, as well as the economic feasibility of replacing carbon-based energy sources with micro-nuclear technology.
By July 1, 2024, the director of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade would need to provide a written report to state lawmakers based on the study’s findings.
SB-73 would also change the definition of “recycled energy” in state law to allow greater use of hydroelectric power.
“What we want to do is we want to emphasize that maybe it’s not all about wind and solar,” Rankin said. “Maybe there are other alternatives. If we’re going to be a part of this goal, and we are, to transition (to renewable energy), then we want to consider all resources.”
Since Democrats hold the majority in the state Senate and House of Representatives, SB-73 will need Democratic support to pass. The bill was introduced on Wednesday and assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. A hearing date had not been scheduled as of Friday.
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Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):
On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.
Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.
The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.
Evaluation of Well Permit Applications
For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.
To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.
For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.
Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.
The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…
Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.
The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.
Increasingly extreme wildfires are raging across the West – leaving behind barren, charred areas and threatening drinking water.
Jill Oropeza is director of sciences for water quality services for Fort Collins Utilities in Colorado.
She says in a healthy forest, trees and shrubs buffer the impact of rain on the ground. Pine needles and detritus on the forest floor help retain water.
“That is the sponge that soaks up and holds a lot of that moisture and allows the precipitation to percolate downwards,” she says.
If this vegetation burns up, melting snow and rain run across the land instead of seeping into the soil. And as the water flows, it picks up ash, sediment, and other debris.
“And those substances in the soil itself and the ash are dissolved and carried in the river and into reservoirs,” Oropeza says.
She says Fort Collins was forced to adjust its water treatment system to cope with influxes of contaminated water. And it’s using helicopters to spread mulch in burned areas to help plants start growing again.
Doing so is expensive but critical to providing people with clean water as the climate warms.
From the National Park Service via National Parks Traveller:
Continued declines in runoff into the Colorado River are forcing federal officials to alter releases from Glen Canyon Dam and leading to a year-long closure of the Dangling Rope Marina at Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
In a bid to keep the hydroelectric generating plant in the dam operational, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has adjusted the monthly releases from Lake Powell to hold back 350,000 acre-feet of water each month from January to April when inflows to the reservoir are low.
The same amount of water will be sent downstream to Lake Mead between June and September after spring runoff, the agency said.
“Under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, making these monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam is essential to protect Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevation levels in the weeks and months ahead,” said BuRec’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional director, Wayne Pullan. “Although the basin had substantial snowstorms in December, we don’t know what lies ahead and must do all we can now to protect Lake Powell’s elevation.”
The modified release pattern was put into action after BuRec staff met with basin partners including the basin states, tribes, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and water managers to discuss the purpose and need to shift the delivery schedule of water.
According to a BuRec release, the 2022 water year got off to a promising start in the Colorado River Basin with a wetter-than-normal October, but it was followed by the second-driest November on record that resulted in a loss of 1.5 million acre-feet of inflow for Lake Powell compared to the previous month’s projections. December projections showed the reservoir dropping below the target elevation of 3,525 feet as early as February 2022, the agency said. As defined in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the target elevation provides a sufficient buffer to allow for response actions to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, the lowest elevation that Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower.
Meanwhile, Glen Canyon NRA officials announced Monday that the Dangling Rope Marina in the southern end of Lake Powell will not open this year.
Due to dropping reservoir levels, park and concessioner staff are removing marina components from the Dangling Rope location to ensure they do not become beached and inaccessible.
The park, in partnership with concessioner Aramark, is continuing to look for a way to provide mid-lake fuel service during the 2022 season. Available options are complicated by lake levels that continue to decline, inherent challenges associated with the infrastructure needed to power and operate a fuel system, and operational considerations related to safety, staffing, and resources. We will continue to provide updates as they become available.
Restoring visitor services at the Dangling Rope Marina remains a high priority for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The importance of this visitor use area is identified in the park’s General Management Plan. The park will continue to seek long-term solutions that maintain a mid-lake marina presence at low and high lake levels…
Dangling Rope Marina has been the only place to obtain boat fuel between the Wahweap area in South Lake Powell and the Bullfrog area in North Lake Powell, a distance of approximately 100 miles. Boaters should plan ahead for their needs. For boaters averaging 20-25 mph, the trip to Bullfrog from Wahweap takes at least four to five hours. Fuel remains available at Wahweap, Antelope Point, and Bullfrog Marinas.
After a slow start to the snow accumulation season in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains the jet stream finally brought a favorable storm track to the state during the month of December. Many river basins were able to build up a higher-than-normal snowpack within just a matter of weeks.
Since the arrival of the new year it has been fairly quiet with just a couple of weak storm systems passing through, but despite that, the snowpack is still above normal in six of the eight major river basins. The Upper Rio Grande and Arkansas river basins are the only two lagging behind but its not by much.
A new storm expected on Tuesday will bring light accumulations to most of the state but we could see some modest amounts fall across the two basins in the most need.
ON Instagram Karen Lundquist asks, “Other than locally voting, what else can be done to oppose this horrible proposal?”
“What a crock,” writes Don Richmond on Facebook.
You can say the Valley is gearing up for another fight over its water.
“This fight has now come to the forefront in what would seem to be a David vs. Goliath scenario,” said Alamosa City Councilman Mike Carson, who used last week’s meeting to rally his fellow city council members to the urgent matter of the day – beating back the latest effort to move water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley. (Read his full statement HERE.)
“The current proposal ‘threat’ to the water security challenges in the San Luis Valley presented by Renewable Water Resources is once again a demonstration of self-serving financial speculation at the expense of others,” said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the San Luis Valley and counties east of the Valley.
This past week Renewable Water Resources engineer Bruce Lytle presented the RWR plan to Douglas County commissioners. They’re weighing whether to use $20 million of Douglas County’s federal COVID relief funding to invest in the RWR plan as a way to bring additional water to the growing Denver-metro county.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who holds what appears to be the deciding vote on the three-member county commission, emphasized Douglas County’s growth and the importance of positioning Douglas County for the future as a basis for any decision he makes on whether to support the RWR plan.
“I have not made any decision whatsoever, nor will I without the input of the community and water experts,” Laydon told AlamosaCitizen.com. “We still have a lot to learn but I hope everyone that is interested will join us in these public meetings and provide their input along the way.
“What I can assure you of is that I will not do anything that is not a clear win/win for both our citizens and the people of the San Luis Valley. That is my commitment, on the record, and I will not deviate from that.”
Laydon is in a position to decide whether the RWR plan moves forward to a formal state review after one his colleagues, Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, voiced opposition to taking water from the San Luis Valley and another, Commissioner George Teal, leaned to supporting it.
On Monday [January 24, 2022], the Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to meet with three attorneys who will talk to them about Colorado water law as it relates to the RWR plan. The attorneys are James Eklund of Eklund Hanlon LLC; John Lubitz, partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP; and Glen Porzak, managing partner with Porzak, Browning & Bushong LLP.
The backdrop for the RWR push to transfer 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is an over-appropriated, drought-stricken San Luis Valley that has fewer wetlands, lower stream flows, diminishing natural spring flows, and fewer irrigated acres as the result.
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council is raising concerns about damage to the Blanca Wildlife Habitat, among other environmental concerns. RWR’s proposal neighbors the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the northeastern end of the Valley, and RWR’s engineer Bruce Lytle emphasized in his presentation to Douglas County that the plan is “designed to take advantage of the rim recharge coming off the Sangre de Cristos.”
“It’s difficult to get your mind wrapped around the potential environmental impacts of the Renewable Water Resources proposal because effects are so numerous and far-reaching that to quantify on any practical level, we’d have to also keep in mind the exponential affects, because this RWR proposal is asking for perpetuity of ground water withdrawal, so the aquifers potentially won’t ever be able to recharge once the pumps are turned on,” said Chris Canaly, director of the SLV Ecosystem Council.
The San Luis Creek and Rio Alto Creek move through the preliminary wellfield of 22 to 25 groundwater wells that RWR showed to Douglas County.
“The environment in this area has already been changing over time,” said Canaly. “This area is now struggling, in terms of desertification, so RWR’s proposal is just adding fuel to an already burning fire.”
Just southwest of the RWR proposed wellfield is the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, where biologists for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been working to conserve two native Rio Grande fish, according to Canaly. The Baca refuge is also home to one of only two aboriginal populations of Rio Grande sucker and Rio Grande chub in the state. Important fish habitat also resides in Crestone Creek, which runs through the refuge, and work in 2017 replaced old culverts to restore fish passage and enhance connectivity in the stream.
“This is the type of restoration work that the RWR project would likely undermine and dismantle,” Canaly said. She said, “if you look at the ‘impact maps’ that RWR Engineer Bruce Lytle displayed, that entire area of the Sangre de Cristo foothills watershed/alluvial fan will be impacted.”
Whether or not RWR makes it to the phase of well drilling and exportation, what remains is the growth of Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north and concerns with the Denver Basin.
“Many conversations have and are taking place as to why Front Range cities and towns are going to need to depend less on the Denver Aquifer,” said Monica McCafferty with Renewable Water Resources. “And, why water providers in the Front Range are scrambling to find non-Denver aquifer sources.”
In a world where water is becoming an even more scarce and sought-after natural resource, water exportation proposals like RWR’s only need to win one time in court to sink wells in the ground and pump water north. The San Luis Valley, on the other hand, has to win each and every time to protect one of the most unique ecosystems in North America.
It seems to be a striking proposal: That Nebraska could use eminent domain in Colorado and build a canal that diverts water from the South Platte River for irrigation in Nebraska.
But the idea — floated earlier this month by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other Nebraska officials — is laid out in a compact agreed to by the two states and approved by Congress almost 100 years ago.
Nebraska officials want to invoke the 1923 South Platte River Compact to build that canal and a reservoir system, and ensure Nebraska continues receiving water that they say is at risk as the population on Colorado’s Front Range booms.
But with a $500 million estimated price tag, a history of failed attempts, confusion from Colorado, the potential for lawsuits and a stream of unknown details, one fundamental question hangs over the proposal: Would it be worth it?
Canal idea predates compact
Even in communications between Delph Carpenter, who negotiated the compact for Colorado, and then-Nebraska Gov. Samuel McKelvie, the canal project was referred to as “old.”
“The old Perkins County canal was projected in the early (1890s) with the object of diverting water from the South Platte some miles above Julesburg, within the State of Colorado, for the irrigation of lands in Nebraska lying south of the river and particularly of that beautiful area of land in Perkins County between Ogallala (sic) and Grant,” a 1921 letter from Carpenter reads.
Construction efforts had started in 1891, according to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. But it was abandoned due to financial troubles.
Remnants of the abandoned ditch are still visible near Julesburg.
Another effort to pursue the canal, this time by the North Platte-based Twin Platte Natural Resources District, was derailed in the 1980s because it didn’t comply with requirements of the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
The compact, borne out of a desire to resolve litigation, is more than the canal…
Current director Tom Riley told The World-Herald that flows drop below 120 cfs nearly every year at times during that time period. When it happens, Nebraska calls Colorado and it addresses the issue by limiting its users who are subject to the compact.
Another part of the compact would allow Nebraska to also claim water outside that growing season — provided there’s a canal.
The canal could run from near Ovid, Colorado, east near the route of the abandoned “Perkins County Canal,” it says. And Nebraska could buy land or even use eminent domain to make it happen.
With such a canal, the state would be entitled to divert 500 cfs for irrigation between Oct. 15 and April 1.
However, data from the Julesburg gage suggests Nebraska has been getting about that much from Colorado for the last 10 years of record during the non-irrigation season, Riley said. The goal of the project would be to keep it that way.
Asked how the state would avoid what happened in the ‘80s, Riley pointed out that was 40 years ago. And, as he understands it, those proponents chose not to try to comply with endangered species requirements…
Colorado disputes Nebraska’s rationale
In revealing his desire to resurrect the plan, Ricketts earlier this month sounded alarm bells that without the project, agriculture, drinking water across the state, power generation and the environment could be affected…
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s Department of Natural Resources said they learned of the situation the same day Ricketts announced it publicly…
Since then, officials haven’t shared a vision of an exact route for the newly proposed Perkins County Canal, nor details of the reservoir system it would feed into.
Despite its colloquial name, the canal wouldn’t be located in Perkins County, according to the Governor’s Office. It could be on or close to the county’s northern border, though.
The general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, Kent Miller, has been promoting the project for over 25 years…
Ninety-eight of the [Colorado Water Plan] projects are in process or complete, according to Sara Leonard, spokesperson for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But not all are construction projects. Some are water conservation projects, she said, and environment and recreation enhancements.
Joe Frank, a roundtable member and general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Colorado, said he hadn’t sorted through how many of the projects would even impact the flow of the river, but said that many of them would not…
As for Nebraska’s assessment that flows could be restricted by 90%, he can’t understand how that figures.
A Nebraska Department of Resources fact sheet features that projection. That sheet shows the 90% was inferred from a 2017 Colorado report on water storage options along the South Platte to capture flows that would usually leave Colorado “in excess of the minimum legally required amounts.”
But Frank said that level of restriction could never actually happen…
More important than the straight cost estimate, though, may be another question: Would the water Nebraska actually gets out of this be worth the cost?
Anthony Schutz, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dave Aiken, longtime water and agricultural law specialist at UNL, both pointed out it’s uncertain how much water Nebraska could get out of such a canal…
Colorado would have dibs on some water before Nebraska, even if it were to build the canal. Colorado has the right to divert the first 35,000 acre-feet of water for its own off-season storage, Aiken said, even if it cuts into what Nebraska wants to divert…
Schutz pointed out that there are other water users in line ahead of Nebraska’s canal in the compact, too — anything on the “upper” part of the river, and uses in place before Dec 17, 1921…
Could canal lead to a court battle?
There’s some ambiguity in the compact, Aiken said, and people have built projects and invested in them in the years since it was signed. The states could resolve any differences by negotiation, or by litigation…
Riley, with DNR, said that Nebraska’s approach will be to work collaboratively with Colorado, and that he expects Colorado to comply without a need for court action. If disagreements aren’t resolved, though, he said interstate compacts and conflicts like that are addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court…
The question still remains, though: How much water would Nebraska actually get out of this? Riley didn’t give an estimate, but said actual yield would vary year to year.
Beginning with about 30 hot-water heaters, La Plata Electric Association intends to begin exploring how to shave peak demand to reduce costs.
The Durango-based electrical cooperative plans to install 30 air-source heat pump water heaters in the Animas View Mobile Home Park. Also done at the same time will be installation of other energy and water-efficient measures, including LED lighting, low-flow faucets and window weather stripping.
The water heater project will allow La Plata to test the viability of grid-integration technology to manage the local power demand. In rare events, during time of peak demand, such as hot summer afternoons, La Plata will be able to remotely manage the water heaters.
Dan Harms, the vice president of grid solutions for La Plata, explains that La Plata will be able to interrupt electricity used by the air-source heat pumps to warm water. This will be temporary and resident will still have hot water in their tanks.
The air-source heat pumps will replace natural gas in warming water. That builds demand for electricity from renewable sources and reduces emissions from the manufactured housing units.
The principle is the same as when Xcel Energy offers discounts to those with air conditioning units in their houses for the ability to turn off the units for relatively brief periods during hot summer afternoons. It’s cheaper than buying power or building plants that will be used only a few hours a year.
La Plata has been busy on other fronts, too. In December, the electrical cooperative and the Durango School District launched Colorado’s first vehicle-to-grid-enabled school bus. The electric bus will travel about 75 miles per day but will have enough charge to travel 150 to 200 miles. When empty, the bus takes 3 to 4 hours to charge its 155-kWh battery.
La Plata will be able to draw on the battery of the bus when electricity prices are high. When fully charged, the bus stores enough electricity to power 30 average single-family homes, or 100 energy-efficient homes, for a few hours.
“V2G installations are the future because they enable our grid to operate with a higher degree of flexibility,” explains Jessica Matlock, the chief executive.
The bus was purchased with aid of a $328,803 grant through the ALT Fuels Colorado program augmented by $120,000 from La Plata for charging infrastructure.
The air-source hot water heater project was enabled by a $50,000 grant from Tri-State Generation and Transmission and the Beneficial League.
Another information source from Tri-State coop members
A group of rural electric cooperative members has relaunched website, Members4Reform.org, to provide information and tools to inform the discussion about Tri-State Generation & Transmission.
Originally created to bring together member-owners of coops in seven western Colorado counties, the creators of the website decided there was need to expand this to include all of Tri-State’s 18 member cooperatives in Colorado. Tri-State has 42 members, 18 in Colorado.
“We’ve felt for so long like we were operating in the dark and didn’t have a voice in decisions that affect a huge swath of Colorado, from the West Slope to the Eastern Plains,” said Mason Osgood, executive director of Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance and a member-owner of San Miguel Power Association.
“Tri-State is moving slowly in the right direction, but there are so many of us who want to see the transition to clean energy happen more quickly and to have the barriers Tri-State is putting up removed. This website is meant to give co-op members a new tool for creating change.”
While planning to close its coal-fired units in Colorado (as it already has in New Mexico), Tri-State plans to continue its operations at two other plants, one in Arizona and the other in Wyoming.
Many of the decisions that will dictate whether Tri-State can be pushed in a new direction are playing out now before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which oversees Tri-State’s electric resource planning, or ERP, process.
“Energy generation, transmission and distribution are complicated topics. It’s often difficult to follow along and participate in proceedings like the ERP,” said Becky Henderson, who lives in Pinewood Springs, a hamlet located in the foothills northwest of Longmont. It is served by Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association.
United Power collaborating with national group to deliver EV charging stations
United Power has joined the National Electric Highway Coalition in an effort to provide accessible electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Brighton-based United serves more than 10,000 members on the northern flanks of metro Denver, including areas with high adoption of EVs. Two interstate highways, I-25 and I-76, traverse the service territory.
Last year, United opened its second fast charger in Keenesburg, filling the gap for those driving EVS between Brighton and Fort Morgan.
The season’s latest snowpack numbers in the Western United States are a big improvement from where they were in early December. But there’s a lot of winter left, and long-term drought remains an ever-present hurdle. So where are we, and what’s to come?
Let’s start with the good news. Since early December, weather patterns have boosted snowpack across the West to above-normal levels for this time of the year.
On Dec. 1, snowpack across most of the basins in the West was less than 75 percent of historical norms; many were below 25 percent. Starting Dec. 10, a series of atmospheric rivers and snow events erased those deficits. By January, basin totals in California had increased to about 200 percent of normal. California ended the month much wetter than average, which was much needed, since seven of its last 10 winters have been drier than average.
In Colorado, all Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) stations showed that snowpack was below the 50th percentile in early December. In early January, nearly half of the stations reported in the 75th percentile. Wolf Creek Summit, one of Colorado’s highest-elevation observation sites, reported an impressive 18-inch increase in snowpack.
Current snow cover is holding steady across the mountain areas, with the highest elevations at around 50 inches or more of snow depth, and mid-elevations between 20 and 50 inches. In Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, the Paradise Ranger Station is reporting snow depth of 110 inches (after reporting 100 inches of snowfall over one month).