Water year 2022 #Snowpack down after dry January — The Rio Blanco Herald-Times

Click the link to read the article on The Rio Blanco Herald-Times (Lucas Turner):

As a result of continued dry conditions year-over-year, hydrologists have noted that above-average snowpack is now necessary in order to see stream flows closer to “normal,” since increased temperatures and less moisture overall means dryer soil, which means less runoff making its way into the surface water. “Dry soil conditions going into winter can reduce the observed streamflow relative to what the observed peak snowpack ends up being,” said NRCS Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer.

Though December’s “exceptional precipitation” may have offered a glimpse into a pre-megadrought water year, dry conditions in January brought snowpack and water supply projections back to normal for most of the state. NRCS February 1 report notes “A ridge of high pressure in January left much of Colorado drier than normal for the month.” The Colorado Headwaters and combined Yampa-White-Little Snake river basins received 76 and 72% of normal precipitation, respectively. Some of the effects of these facts are:

• snowpack dropped from 126% to 105% of median

• water year-to-date precipitation dropped from 120% to 106% of median

• streamflow forecasts dropped from 115% to 93% of median

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map February 19, 2022 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 20, 2022 via the NRCS.

Groups try again to secure water for recreation: Proposed legislation would create ‘recreation in-channel values reach’ — @AspenJournalism

A kayaker runs the 6-foot drop of Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River in June 2021. River recreation and conservation groups are pushing a bill that aims to establish a recreational in-channel values reach designation, which would create a legal mechanism to lease water for river recreation. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

By giving up the push for a legal mechanism to secure a water right, some in Colorado’s recreation community are hoping proposed legislation will result in more water in streams for the benefit of boaters.

A new bill would allow certain public entities to create a “recreation in-channel values reach” (RIVR), a stretch of river up to 400 yards long, which is important to boaters, anglers and waders. Holders of this RIVR segment could then lease water, which would be sent downstream to boost flows in the segment.

“We are seeing it as a tool to move water to a place where it’s going to benefit the community and it provides the tool to be able to legally do that,” said Hattie Johnson, the southern Rockies stewardship director at American Whitewater.

The proposal is an attempt to carve out a spot for — and recognize the importance of — Colorado’s outdoor-recreation economy in the hierarchy of water uses, which prioritizes the oldest water rights, usually belonging to agriculture and cities.

Coyote Gulch along the Yampa River Core Trail July 21, 2021.

The new bill would allow a municipality — for example, Steamboat Springs, where officials have in recent years closed a stretch of the Yampa River through town when summer temperatures are too high and flows too low — to buy and release upstream water to boost the troubled reach. It could allow communities to avoid fishing closures during late summer or to make sure flows are adequate for a boating festival.

As #Warming and #Drought Increase, A New Case for Ending Big Dams: “Climate change is, first of all, a story about water” — Yale Environment 360 #ActOnClimate

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Click on the link to read the article on Yale Environment 360 (Jacques Leslie):

The argument against major hydropower projects — ravaged ecosystems and large-scale displacement of people — is well known. But dam critics now say that climate change, bringing dried-up reservoirs and increased methane releases, should spell the end of big hydropower.

As the hydroelectric dam industry tries to reposition itself as a climate change solution, more and more evidence shows that climate change actually undermines the case for hydro dams.

Gone are the days when hydropower was considered the predominant engine of the world economy, leading a tenfold increase⁠ in global energy production over the twentieth century. Now its advocates portray it as a complement to wind and solar energy, a necessary source of steady output to balance wind and solar’s intermittent generation — and therefore a key component in the battle to limit climate change.

Hydroelectric Dam

One reason for the industry’s shift in strategy is that newly installed global capacity in hydropower lags far behind new wind and solar capacity, and declined each year from 2013 to 2019⁠, with only a slight uptick in 2020. Another reason is that if hydropower is accepted as a tool for combating climate change, hydro developers would have a better chance of qualifying for financial support from governments and international institutions — all possessing funds they need for their pricey projects. With the ongoing United Nations conference on climate change in Glasgow in mind, Eddie Rich, chief executive officer of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), said recently that because of hydropower’s purported climate change-fighting attributes, his group seeks “appropriate support in the form of tax relief or concessional loans to ensure projects are bankable, as well as streamlining the approval process.”

Since the late 1980’s, this waterfall formed from interactions among Lake Powell reservoir levels and sedimentation that redirected the San Juan River over a 20-foot high sandstone ledge. Until recently, little was known about its effect on two endangered fishes. Between 2015-2017, more than 1,000 razorback sucker and dozens of Colorado pikeminnow were detected downstream of the waterfall. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

But the IHA faces an uphill battle in overcoming dams’ well-established liabilities — including ravaging the ecosystems of at least two-thirds of the world’s major rivers and upending the lives of hundreds of millions of people living both upstream and downstream from dams. Climate change further weakens the case for hydroelectric dams by intensifying droughts that increasingly hamper electricity production and by boosting evaporation from reservoirs as temperatures rise. In the pre-climate change era, plentiful methane emissions from some reservoirs might have been considered inconsequential, but now they are a major source of concern.

The just-completed 2021 World Hydropower Congress — whose theme was “Renewables Working Together” ⁠— ended with the announcement of the “San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower,” a document that affirms the industry’s commitment to best practices, including careful consultation with communities threatened by dam construction, responsible management of biodiversity impacts, and a long-overdue ban on projects in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The document has been endorsed by at least 40 governments and such luminaries as Tony Blair, former British prime minister, and Malcolm Turnbull, former Australian prime minister.

But there is ample evidence that the IHA’s efforts amount chiefly to greenwashing, portraying the industry as socially and environmentally sensitive while carrying out business as usual. For all its gaudy rhetoric, the San José Declaration contains vague and untested enforcement mechanisms⁠, and it remains unlikely that IHA member companies would be disciplined for violating its provisions.

The 510-MW Teesta-V hydropower station, in Sikkim in northern India, has been rated as an example of international good practice in hydropower sustainability, according to an independent report. Photo credit: Hydropower Review

A case in point is the Teesta-V hydroelectric dam in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim, constructed on a Brahmaputra River tributary and completed in 2008. In September the IHA awarded the project its “Blue Planet” Prize for “excellence in sustainable hydropower development⁠,” noting that Teesta-V “met or exceeded international good practice” across 20 performance standards — ranging from cultural heritage to erosion to sedimentation — embraced by the IHA. Yet according to International Rivers⁠, a nonprofit that advocates for people imperiled by dams, there was minimal consultation with local and Indigenous residents during the dam’s planning and construction, and blasting and tunneling caused landslides, sinkholes, drying up of residents’ water sources, and cracked walls and foundations in local houses that sometimes led to collapses, leaving some residents homeless. Last year, what India Today called a “massive” landslide beginning at the dam’s abutment⁠ left large boulders on top of the dam, damag⁠ing it and cutting off electricity generation for nine hours. It’s far from reassuring that the IHA chose Teesta-V as the best of dozens⁠ of projects evaluated for the prize.

This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. California, Nevada and Arizona recently penned a deal to keep 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead to boost the declining reservoir levels.

The hydro industry portrays itself as the perfect antidote for wind and solar’s intermittency, but climate change has underlined the industry’s own reliability problem, which plays out in years instead of hours. In recent years, drought intensified by climate change has caused reservoirs on all five continents⁠ to drop below levels needed to maintain hydroelectric production, and the problem is bound to worsen as climate change deepens. Because of the U.S. West’s current megadrought, California’s huge State Water Project is generating electricity at just 35 percent of its 10-year average⁠. At Oroville, California, site of the United States’ tallest dam, the power plant stopped working on August 5 and has not operated since⁠. Hydropower capacity at Hoover Dam, which holds back the U.S.’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, has dropped by 25 percent⁠, and Glen Canyon Dam, site of the nation’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, may be unable to generate any electricity⁠ as soon as next year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Because of the drought, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated in September that national hydropower production would drop by 14 percent from 2020 to 2021.

The international picture is no better. Beginning in 2013, Southern Africa has experienced frequent droughts⁠ that caused the world’s largest manmade reservoir, at the Kariba Dam on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, to fall to 11 percent of capacity by 2019, frequently hampering electricity generation. This was a serious blow to the two countries’ economies, and millions of people⁠ experienced blackouts for extended periods. In South America, the worst drought in a century⁠ has caused huge drops in hydropower output, causing electricity shortages, price increases, and economic crises⁠ in Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay. Dams customarily deliver two-thirds of Brazil’s energy output, but reservoir levels have dropped to 24 percent of capacity⁠. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Trumpian president, is far from a conservationist, but in March he called on Brazilians⁠ to “turn off a light at home” a few days before the government increased electricity prices by 7 percent.

Climate change has made dams unreliable in another way — the hydrological record, already limited by the low number of years it covers, has lost what predictive power it possessed. This has introduced vast uncertainty into flow assumptions that engineers took as their starting point in dam design. Now “thousand-year floods” may happen every decade or more, and permanent rivers may dwindle to trickles. Since climate change will produce more and bigger floods, new reservoirs must be expanded to accommodate them — adding to dams’ costs and environmental destruction. But most of the time, that additional capacity will go unused, increasing the dams’ inefficiency.

All this casts further doubt on another IHA claim, of hydro dams’ “affordability.” A stud⁠y appearing this month in Global Environmental Change that assessed 351 proposed Amazon basin hydroelectric dam projects found that, because of climate-change-augmented drought, periods when the dams are incapable of producing electricity would increase, and periods when the plants operate at full capacity would decrease. As a result, many projects would have to more than double their planned electricity rates in order to break even — as the study put it, “rendering much of future Amazon hydropower less competitive than increasingly lower cost renewable sources such as wind and solar.”

Even disregarding climate change, the case for investing in dams has grown weaker in the last decade. A landmark 2014 Oxford University study in Energy Policy that evaluated 245 large dams found that they weren’t cost-effective and that their actual costs were nearly double their budgeted costs. Rich, the IHA chief executive, argued in an interview that the study was misleading because it omitted the bountiful indirect benefits of hydropower, in the form of economic stimulus. But the study also didn’t consider the indirect harm inflicted by dams — fish extinctions, ecosystem destruction, shattered Indigenous societies, the forced resettlement of at least 100 million people displaced by reservoirs, and life-changing disruptions to the lives of another half-billion downstream dwellers. The study asked one question — are dams profitable? — and answered it with a “no.” The indirect costs and benefits are much harder to calculate, but it’s difficult to imagine that their transient benefits would surpass their permanent environmental devastation.

A follow-up Oxford University study⁠ published last month identifies a consistent bias in cost-benefit analyses of public investments that leads to overestimates of project benefits and underestimates of costs — and of the eight investment types studied (including railroads, bridges, roads, etc.), dams’ cost overruns were by far the highest. In part, this is because large dams take so long to build — more than eight years on average, not counting a few years of studying, planning, and acquiring permits — which makes the likelihood of unanticipated setbacks and cost increases, so-called “black swans,” much higher. Dams’ long gestation periods diminish their usefulness in fighting climate change, since the accelerating nature of the climate crisis means that infrastructure operating in the next few years is far more valuable than infrastructure completed a decade from now.

Even the hydro industry’s claim that dams generate “clean” energy is only partially true, for a significant fraction of reservoirs emit copious amounts of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas that this August’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report singled out as requiring “strong, rapid, and sustained” ⁠emission reductions to ward off more catastrophic warming. A 2019 study⁠ of 509 existing and proposed Amazon basin dams found that over a 20-year period, emissions from 25 percent of proposed lowland dams would emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuel power plants. In the interview, Rich countered that other studies show that, over dams’ entire lifecycle⁠, their emissions would be no greater than “green” technologies such as wind and solar. But even if true, this assertion overlooks the fact that most methane emissions from reservoirs occur in the first decade after commissioning, at the very time when reductions in methane emissions are considered most urgent.

Climate change is, first of all, a story about water. Since climate change has upended the planet’s hydrology, countering it requires a capacity to deal with massive uncertainty. Technologies that can do that must be nimble, flexible, modular (not one-of-a-kind), quickly and cheaply built, easily moved and replaced — like recently developed mini-hydro units⁠ a fourth the size of a railroad car⁠ that can be sited along the sides of rivers and canals and generate up to a megawatt of electricity in concert with natural river functions and with negligible damage to fish and environment.

Glen Canyon Dam releases. Photo via Twitter and Reclamation

By contrast, big hydroelectric dams menace ecosystems even beyond their own watersheds, and require upfront expenditures into the billions of dollars that don’t generate electricity or revenue for years. Their monumentality was once considered a public relations asset, yielding images of massive walls and tumbling water that world leaders loved to brandish in seeming validation of their own grandeur. Now all that cement means that the dams are stolid, inflexible, hard to repair, impossible to relocate, and extremely costly to remove — the opposite of what the new era requires.

Despite uptick, record prices, #Wyoming #coal’s outlook still grim: One major Wyoming coal producer is using the temporary surge in coal production and pricing as an opportunity to pay for planned mine closures — WyoFile #ActOnClimate

A coal haul truck at the North Antelope Rochelle mine heads to the pit for another load in July 2019. (Alan Nash/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on WyoFile (Dustin Bleizeffer):

Wyoming coal mines boosted production by 9% and added more than 200 employees in 2021, taking advantage of a rebounding economy and a competitive edge against rising natural gas prices while securing future coal sales at record-high prices.

Arch Resources, for example, has booked all of its 2022 Wyoming and Colorado volumes at prices averaging $16.30 per ton, according to its 2021 fourth-quarter report. Powder River Basin coal has ranged from less than $4 per ton in the 1990s to about $10 a year ago.

“​​It’s an amazing position,” Arch Resources CEO and President Paul Lang said during a press call Tuesday. “What’s more amazing is these are prices that we’ve never seen, frankly, in 20-plus years. It’s an amazing position to be in, and it really took a lot of risk out of the thermal assets for us as we looked at our options down the road.”

Coal trains await loading in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best

Arch and Peabody Energy are the two largest Wyoming coal producers and the only publicly traded coal operators in the basin. Combined, they make up 53% of Wyoming Powder River Basin coal production and 51% of coal production statewide. Both saw their stocks rally after fourth-quarter 2021 reports to investors this month, based on strong earnings that mostly erased 2020 losses and painted a bright outlook for 2022.

A truck-and-shovel crew removes overburden at the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin in January 2020, as a coal shovel works below. (Alan Nash/WyoFile)

Navajo Transitional Energy Co., LLC and Eagle Specialty Materials, LLC also saw production gains and added employees in 2021, while results for Wyoming coal producers outside the Powder River Basin were mixed.

Yet even with a rosy outlook for the near term, the market conditions that lifted producers out of the pandemic doldrums are not expected to sustain under the larger market and policy trends that industry analysts say will dramatically shrink the state’s coal industry within the next decade.

“The projection, short term, it’s going to be pretty good for next year and going into 2023,” Wyoming Mining Association Executive Director Travis Deti said. “But the overall macro-trend is we’re [the U.S.] not building any more coal plants. We’re still dealing with the issue of premature [coal-fired power plant] retirements. So the larger issue remains.”

Too little, too late

Wyoming mines scooped 239.1 million tons of coal in 2021, according to WyoFile’s analysis of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. But the 9% year-over-year increase still falls far short of pre-pandemic production levels. The 239.1 million tons in 2021 represents just 86.5% of the 276.4 million tons produced in 2019.

Wyoming shipped 9% more coal in 2021 compared with 2020, but the gains were not nearly enough to make up for recent or long-term losses. (WyoFile/MSHA.gov)

The current surge in production is a relief to miners, operators and state coffers, but it’s a small reprieve from the even larger production decline that has reshaped the industry as well as Wyoming’s budget over the past 13 years. Wyoming shipped 465 million tons of coal at the industry’s peak in 2008. The 49% decline since then has wreaked havoc on county and state coffers; Wyoming relies on revenue from federal coal, oil and natural gas for more than half its annual budget, according to the Wyoming Taxpayers Association.

While the latest coal uptick contributed to Wyoming’s improved budget outlook, the rebound is mostly attributable to resurging oil and gas production and pricing. “Coal production is forecast to continue its overall downward trend, despite the current, temporary increase in production and pricing,” according to the Wyoming Consensus Revenue Estimating Group’s October report.

Wyoming’s 2021 coal production increase “can be misleading in the sense that it’s just a little blip-up on the long road down,” said Seth Feaster, an energy data analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. About half of the remaining coal-fired power capacity in the U.S. will be retired by 2030, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts. Wyoming coal is almost entirely dependent on that U.S. utility market.

“So even if you’ve got some resurgence in demand for coal now, the overall market is absolutely going to shrink,” Feaster said, adding that there are no plans to add new coal-fired power in the U.S. “Once plants are closed, there’s no more potential market there. It’s gone.”

The good and the bad

Compounding the grim forecast for Wyoming coal is the current surge in pricing, according to Feaster. The 50-70% bump — albeit temporary, according to industry forecasters — makes Wyoming coal an even less attractive fuel source as utilities consider whether to replace aging coal-fired power plants with cheaper renewable sources.

“So the coal companies are facing this real dilemma,” Feaster said. “If coal prices are down, they’re not in good financial health. But if coal prices go up, the way they have, [coal] becomes less competitive in the marketplace.”

A pair of coal trains idle at a switchyard near a coal loadout facility in northeast Wyoming. (Alan Nash/WyoFile)

Arch CEO Lang said his company is following markets to their logical conclusion. Arch remains “unwavering” in its pivot from thermal coal — its Wyoming mines — to “a pure-play coking coal producer as we harvest the remaining and still significant value of our legacy thermal assets, continue to shrink their operational footprint and drive forward with pre-funding of their final closure costs.”

In other words, Arch is using the current demand and pricing windfall to help pay down its reclamation liabilities and closing costs as it plans to exit Powder River Basin and western coal. Arch’s pivot focuses capital investments in its eastern metallurgical and coking coal operations to serve the steelmaking market, Lang said.

Arch reported that it paid down $40 million — or 20% — of its mine reclamation and retirement obligations in the Powder River Basin in recent months, to close its Coal Creek mine in the Powder River Basin by year’s end. The company also plans to close its flagship Black Thunder mine — the second largest surface coal mine in North America, although Arch has not set a target closing date. The current surge in Powder River Basin coal profitability will pay for closing both the Coal Creek and Black Thunder mines, or make them more attractive for a sale, Lang said.

Yet for now, coal mines in the Powder River Basin are still looking to add miners to their rosters to take advantage of current market conditions. Though they’ve added some 200 miners in the past year, the pandemic remains a limiting factor at mines and for the railroads that ship Wyoming coal, according to industry officials.

A coal train moves in front of the Black Thunder mine outside Wright in October, 2016. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“We could probably still use another 200 miners up there [in the Powder River Basin],” Deti of the Wyoming Mining Association said.

Arch’s Wyoming operations, which are non-union, are well-staffed to meet demand in the coming year, Lang said. But current labor market conditions require increasingly competitive compensation. “You know, I would hate to be in a position this year where I’m trying to go out and look for a couple hundred people,” he said

Current Powder River Basin dynamics exemplify the short window of opportunity for Wyoming coal communities to transition to an economy that’s no longer primarily reliant on coal, Feaster said.

“We’ve seen this in the past in places that didn’t want to believe that their local coal plant or local local mine is going to shut down, and they fought it,” Feaster said. “These regions have a window of opportunity to try and realign their economy a little bit so they’re not so dependent on one industry. Communities have an opportunity to really start realistically planning for where things are going, because that window is going to close and things are going to start going down again before too long.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.