Forest fires increasingly affecting rivers and streams – for better and worse — UCLA

A forest fire next to the Bitterroot River in Montana. UCLA-led research revealed that larger fires tend to be followed by larger increases in streamflow. | Photo by John MacColgan/Creative Commons

Click the link to read the release from UCLA (Anna Novoselov):

Forest fires can have a significant effect on the amount of water flowing in nearby rivers and streams, and the impact can continue even years after the smoke clears.

Now, with the number of forest fires on the rise in the western U.S., that phenomenon is increasingly influencing the region’s water supply — and has increased the risk for flooding and landslides — according to a UCLA-led study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers examined streamflow — a measure of water volume over time in rivers and streams — and climate data for 179 river basins. (Basins are areas of land where precipitation collects and drains into a common outlet.) All of the areas were located in the western U.S., and all had been affected by forest fires between 1984 and 2020.

Using a mathematical model they developed, the scientists discovered that streamflow in the years after a fire tended to be higher than scientists would expect based solely on climate conditions, and that larger fires tended to be followed by larger increases in streamflow.

In basins where over 20% of the forest had burned, streamflow was 30% greater than expected based on climate conditions, on average, for an average of six years.

Park Williams, a UCLA associate professor of geography and the study’s lead author, said forest fires enhance streamflow because they burn away vegetation that would otherwise draw water from soil and block precipitation before it ever reached the soil. Intense forest fires can also “cook” soils, making them temporarily water repellent.

From 1984 through 2020, the amount of forested area burned each year in the West increased elevenfold, and that trend is expected to continue or even accelerate due to climate change.

“As a result, we’re starting to see sequences of years when large portions of forest are burned across some very important hydrological basins such as those in California’s Sierra Nevada,” Williams said.

The study’s findings suggest that wildfires will soon become yet another important consideration for those in charge of the supply and distribution of water resources. Each year, the region’s water managers must carefully calculate how much water will be available and determine how to conserve and allocate it.

In one sense, the increase in streamflow from forest fires may be beneficial, Williams said.

“This could come as good news to dry cities like Los Angeles, because it could actually enhance water availability,” Williams said.

But other outcomes could be troubling. For example, in the coming decades, too much water could overwhelm reservoirs and other infrastructure, and could increase the risk for catastrophic flooding and landslides in and around burn areas.

To adapt to increasing flood risks, Williams said, water managers in California may have to lower the water levels in reservoirs in the fall and winter to make room for excess water from major rainfall and snowstorms. Such a strategy could avoid disastrous flooding in some cases, but it could also put communities at risk for having too little water during the state’s increasingly hot, dry summers.

Water after a forest fire also tends to be heavily polluted, carrying mud, debris and large sediment loads. So even if the quantity of available water increases after a large fire, it’s likely that water quality will worsen.

Williams said he hopes the findings help water managers and climate scientists make better predictions about water availability and flood risk.

“Water is a really heavy and destructive thing,” Williams said. “It’s great when it comes to us in the expected amount. It is catastrophic when it shows up unexpectedly.”

Winter storm hits Southwest #Colorado, dumps a foot of snow in mountains — The #Cortez Journal #snowpack

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map February 22, 2022 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read the article on The Cortez Journal:

Winter storms on Tuesday blanketed Southwest Colorado, dropping 6 inches of snow in Dolores and Mancos, and more than a foot on mountain passes. A winter storm that began Monday afternoon and evening stretched into Tuesday largely followed predictions from the National Weather Service. A second storm Tuesday evening is expected to more than double snow totals and leave travelers facing blizzard conditions in places…Dolores received about 6 inches of snow, and Mancos, 5 to 7 inches, depending on elevation. Durango received 2 to 4 inches of snow, and Pagosa Springs, 1 to 3 inches…[Jim] Andrus reported that snowfall for Cortez was 67% of normal, with 16.7 inches by Feb. 22. Cortez received 10.6 inches in January. Andrus measured Tuesday morning’s snow water equivalent to be 0.27 inch of precipitation, and predicted that it would rise to 0.5 to 0.6 inch of precipitation by the end of the storm. He described the storm as a strong jet stream parked over the Four Corners…Telluride received 11 inches of new snow from the storm, and Purgatory received 14 inches.

As of Tuesday, combined totals for five SNOTELS that measure snowpack in the Dolores River Basin showed 90% of normal, up from 89% on Monday. The Animas River Basin snowpack is at 87% of normal. The SNOTEL stations for the Dolores Basin are located at El Diente Peak, Lizard Head Pass, Lone Cone, Scotch Creek, and Sharkstooth. Winter season snowpack statewide was 90% of normal as of Feb. 22, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 22, 2022 via the NRCS.

RE: Potential environmental impacts of #groundwater export proposal to #GreatSandDunes National Park — @SenatorHick and @SenatorBennet

Sandhill Cranes West of Dunes by NPS/Patrick Myers

Click the link to read the letter to Interior from senators Hickenlooper and Bennet (February 19, 2022):

Dear Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack:

We write today to bring to your attention a matter in Colorado’s San Luis Valley where your agencies play an important and unique oversight role under Public Law 102-575. Through the attached letter from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (the District), we have been alerted to a proposal called Renewable Water Resources which would transfer groundwater out of the basin from the confined aquifer beneath the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and Closed Basin Project. After hearing concerns from our San Luis Valley constituents about this proposal for months, the District’s letter from yesterday, and considering Colorado’s current exceptional drought, we both oppose this proposal. Further, we ask for your attention under the Wirth Amendment, if an opportunity for review comes before your agencies.

The San Luis Valley is experiencing unprecedented drought that has placed a severe demand on local water resources. Valley residents, including farmers, ranchers, and business owners, rely heavily on groundwater aquifers to support their economy and way of life. Since 2005, in response to this drought, local farmers have undertaken an ambitious, collaborative effort to reduce their own pumping with the goal of achieving sustainability. This export proposal continues to seek funding to move forward despite the fact it would exacerbate local water challenges, even with conservation efforts. In addition to concerns from the District, five San Luis Valley counties are opposed to this proposal.

Public Law 102-575, also called the “Wirth Amendment”, was passed in 1992 and provides a legal framework and elevated standard of environmental review for any transfer of groundwater out of the basin that may adversely affect these public resources. We highlight this law because of its relevance to the San Luis Valley and an elevated standard of review for any project that might adversely affect Great Sand Dunes National Park, Closed Basin Project, Baca National Wildlife Refuge. For your convenience, we have pulled out the relevant language on page 64 of P.L. 102-575 (Title XV, Section 1501-1504):

(a) No agency or instrument of the United States shall issue any permit, license, right-of way, grant, loan or other authorization or assistance for any project or feature of any project to withdraw water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or export to any portion of another State, unless the Secretary of the Interior determines, after due consideration of all findings provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, that the project will not:
(1) increase the costs or negatively affect operation of the Closed Basin Project;
(2) adversely affect the purposes of any national wildlife refuge or Federal wildlife habitat area withdrawal located in the San Luis Valley, Colorado; or
(3) adversely affect the purposes of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado.
(b) Nothing in this title shall be construed to alter, amend, or limit any provision of Federal or State law that applies to any project or feature of a project to withdraw water from the San Luis Valley, Colorado, for export to another basin in Colorado or another State. Nothing in this title shall be construed to limit any agency’s authority or responsibility to reject, limit, or condition any such project on any basis independent of the requirements of this title.

The Colorado delegation previously raised similar concerns with your agencies. In 2014, Senator Bennet led a letter with Senator Udall, Congressmen Tipton and Gardner elevating these same responsibilities to your attention in the face of a similar groundwater export proposal.

On behalf of our San Luis Valley constituents and the water resources so critical to their economic future, we must oppose the Renewable Water Resources proposal. We thank you for your assistance when your agencies are presented with the opportunity to review this matter.

Rio Grande River Basin Drought Monitor map February 15, 2022.

Tribes to Receive $1.7 Billion from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Fulfill Indian Waters Rights Settlements: Funding will help develop infrastructure projects that fulfill the terms of Tribal #water settlements — @Interior

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Click the link to read the release from the Department of Interior:

Following a trip to the Gila River Indian Community with members of the Arizona congressional delegation today, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Department’s plan to fulfill settlements of Indian water rights claims using historic funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Law invests more than $13 billion directly in Tribal communities across the country and makes Tribal communities eligible for billions more in much-needed investments. That includes $2.5 billion to implement the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund, which will help deliver long-promised water resources to Tribes, certainty to all their non-Indian neighbors, and a solid foundation for future economic development for entire communities dependent on common water resources.

Following feedback received from Tribal consultation, the Department will allocate $1.7 billion of Infrastructure Law funding this year to enacted settlements that have outstanding federal payments necessary to complete their terms.

“Water is a sacred resource, and water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of Tribal communities. With this crucial funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Interior Department will be able to uphold our trust responsibilities and ensure that Tribal communities receive the water resources they have long been promised,” said Secretary Haaland. “I am grateful that Tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed.”

Thanks to investments made by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund and funds available from the existing Reclamation Water Settlement Fund, the following Tribes and settlements will receive funding this year: Aamodt Litigation Settlement (Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque), Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement and Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, San Carlos Apache Nation, Tohono O’odham Nation, and White Mountain Apache Tribe.

The Reclamation Water Settlement Fund was created by Congress in 2009 and receives $120 million in mandatory funding annually from 2020 through 2029. Pending congressional action on the President’s FY 2022 budget, additional Tribes will also see investments to address ongoing federal obligations such as operation, maintenance and repair costs under existing settlements.

There are 34 congressionally enacted Indian Water Rights settlements as of November 15, 2021, when the Infrastructure Law was signed. Indian reserved water rights are vested property rights for which the United States has a trust responsibility. Federal policy supports the resolution of disputes regarding Indian water rights through negotiated settlements. Settlement of Indian water rights disputes breaks down barriers and helps create conditions that improve water resources management by providing certainty as to the rights of all water users who are parties to the disputes.

As part of the implementation strategy, an Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund Executive Committee has been established, comprised of the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Chairperson of the Working Group on Indian Water Settlements, Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Assistant Secretaries of Water and Science and Indian Affairs, and the Solicitor. The Executive Committee will recommend future allocations of the remainder of the Completion Fund to the Secretary based on current project needs.

#Megadrought in the west expected to continue through the summer — The Ark Valley Voice #drought #aridification #ArkansasRiver

West Drought Monitor map February 15, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on Ark Valley Voice (Jan Wondra):

A megadrought is defined as a drought lasting two decades or longer. According to Climate Scientist Jason Smerdon, co-author of a drought study by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, not only do they give us a 94 percent certainty that this mega-drought will continue, they say we could face years of continued drought.

Smerdon gives us a 75 percent chance that the megadrought will continue through 2029.

In fact, University of California Los Angeles geographer Park Williams, the study’s lead author, said with dry conditions likely to persist, it would take multiple wet years to remediate the effects. “It’s extremely unlikely that this drought can be ended in one wet year,” he said.

As we in Chaffee County and surrounding counties know from the past couple of years, as spring arrives, the snowpack is just soaking into the parched earth, rather than running off into streams and rivers. This doesn’t bode well for the four major rivers that originate in the Colorado Rockies; the Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas, and the Rio Grande, and the reservoir systems and hydroelectric plants they serve…

By analyzing tree rings, the scientists observed that periods of severe drought are marked by high degrees of soil moisture deficit; this is the moisture variance from normal saturation.

Jeremy Bloom, Olympic skier, highlights snow-water connection in Water ’22 campaign — @WaterEdCO #water22

Screenshot from the website.

#EagleRiver water providers purchase Bolts Lake site for new 1,200-acre-foot #water supply reservoir — Eagle River Water & Sanitation District #ActOnClimate

Location of proposed Bolts Reservoir at the south end of the town of Minturn. Photo credit: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District

From email from the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District (Diane Johnson):

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority closed on the purchase of the Bolts Lake site, a 45-acre parcel at the south end of Minturn, an historic mining and railroad town, with the intent to develop a water supply reservoir up to 1,200 acre-feet in volume.

The district, the authority and the landowner, Battle North, last February reached an agreement for the district and authority to purchase the site and commenced a year-long due diligence period that recently concluded with the purchase.

“Bolts Lake will provide critical in-basin water storage to the district and authority’s portfolio of water resources. Once constructed, the reservoir will improve the resiliency of our community’s water supply as we adapt to the impacts of a changing climate, and it will provide a water supply for important community initiatives such as workforce housing.” says Jason Cowles, district director of engineering and water resources.

In addition to serving all existing district and authority customers, water stored in the reservoir will also be used to augment diversions of the town of Minturn and Battle North’s planned future development on the land surrounding the reservoir site. The Minturn Town Council approved an Intergovernmental Agreement with the district and authority on Feb. 2 that secured augmentation rights for Minturn in exchange for a simplified future reservoir permitting process and other considerations.

The reservoir development project is projected to take up to 10 years to complete. The construction of the reservoir will require deep excavation within the former lake footprint to roughly triple the volume of the original reservoir capacity. Based on a planned joint effort between the district, the authority and Battle North, the removed material will be used to cap the surrounding property on the Bolts site that furthers remediation of mining impacts on the property and improves downstream water quality in the Eagle River.

An additional community benefit will be that the district and authority have agreed to allow passive recreation on the reservoir, including non-motorized boating and fishing, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the reservoir’s main purpose of water supply.

The next step for development of the reservoir is federal, state, and local permitting; because the property is not located on public lands and was previously used as a reservoir, the permitting process will be streamlined compared to water projects that are proposed on public lands, Cowles explained.

Bolts Lake was originally constructed in the 1890s by Ben Bolt as a freshwater lake for recreational boating and fishing for the local homesteader and mining community. The lake and surrounding property were sold to the Empire Zinc Company in 1917 and areas surrounding the lake were used by the Eagle Mine operation as mine tailings repositories; there is no evidence that mine tailings were ever deposited in the lake. The mine closed in the early 1980s and the surrounding land was placed on the list of Superfund sites in 1986. However, the lake property is not included in the Superfund-regulated area. In the 1990s, the state deemed the dam unsafe and ordered it to be breached. Bolts Lake has remained empty since that time.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the property surrounding the lake was remediated. The efforts last summer by Battle North with the support of the district and authority to clean up portions of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site surrounding the lake have been deemed completed, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) approving the final completion report on Dec. 22, 2021.

Battle North representatives approached the district and authority in 2017 to determine if it made more sense for the water providers to take over the lake property and develop the reservoir. The site can accommodate a 1,200-acre foot reservoir on about 45 acres, with enough water storage to serve the potential Battle North development, the Town of Minturn and significant surplus storage that could benefit areas served by the district and authority. “The purchase of the reservoir site and the agreements that set us on the path to developing this important water supply reflect this community’s values around cooperation and water security,” says District and Authority chairmen Bill Simmons and George Gregory, respectively. “We are grateful to Battle North for recognizing the community need and bringing us this unique opportunity.”

“We are very much looking forward to continued collaboration with the district, the authority, the Town of Minturn, and the team that will be involved to complete reservoir construction,” says Tim McGuire, Battle North’s chief of operations. “Delivering water security to the Town of Minturn and greater portions of the Eagle River Valley is something to celebrate. All parties came to the table with the best of intent and flexibility to get this done.”

“The Town of Minturn supports the important undertaking by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority to rebuild Bolts Lake,” says Minturn Mayor Earle Bidez. “Climate change will continue to result in unpredictable water supplies from the Eagle/Colorado River Basin well into the future. The construction of Bolts Lake Reservoir represents a significant project to address the water future of the upper valley communities.”

Aspinall Unit Forecast for Operations (February 22, 2022) #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):