This past week, I joined teams of other scientists gathering the most important measurements of the Sierra Nevada snowpack from over 265 sites throughout the state. Typically, this measurement marks the transition from snow accumulation season to the melt season and contains the most snow of any measurement throughout the year. The 2022 results, however, confirmed what those of us monitoring the state’s drought had feared: California’s snowpack is now at 39 percent of its average, or 23 percent lower than at the same point last year. This signals a deepening of the drought — already the worst in the western United States in 1,200 years — and another potentially catastrophic fire season for much of the West.
Many people have a rather simplistic view of drought as a lack of rain and snow. That’s accurate — to an extent. What it doesn’t account for is human activity and climate change that are now dramatically affecting the available water and its management. As more frequent and large wildfires and extended dry periods batter the land, our most important tools for managing water are becoming less and less accurate. At the same time, our reliance on these models to try to make the most of the little water we have is becoming more and more problematic.
Droughts may last for several years or even over a decade, with varying degrees of severity. During these types of extended droughts, soil can become so dry that it soaks up all new water, which reduces runoff to streams and reservoirs. Soil can also become so dry that the surface becomes hard and repels water, which can cause rainwater to pour off the land quickly and cause flooding. This means we no longer can rely on relatively short periods of rain or snow to completely relieve drought conditions the way we did with past droughts…
Many storms with near record-breaking amounts of rain or snow would be required in a single year to make a significant dent in drought conditions. October was the second-snowiest and December the snowiest month on record at the snow lab since 1970, thanks to two atmospheric rivers that hit California. But the exceptionally dry November and January to March periods have left us with another year of below-average snowpack, rain and runoff conditions.
This type of feast-or-famine winter with big storms and long, severe dry periods is expected to increase as climate change continues. As a result, we’ll need multiple above-average rain and snow years to make up the difference rather than consecutive large events in a single year.
According to the latest data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the snow water equivalent of the Blue River was at 92% of the median, dipping slightly since Summit County had heavy snowfall in early March. This means that, so far, there are 13.7 inches of snowpack in the area. The 30-year median level for the same date is 14.7 inches, but this week’s expected snowfall is likely to push those levels closer to the median…
The Blue River Basin is still several weeks out from the median peak, which usually hits its crest on or around April 25. By that time, the basin usually has between 16.5 and 17 inches. This time last year — a particularly dry year across the Western Slope — the basin was already at its peak by the end of March. The most snow that had accumulated in 2021 was 13.5 inches, causing a dramatic drop throughout April and May.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on mitigating the impacts of climate change, a new poll from the Walton Family Foundation, in collaboration with Morning Consult, reveals how Americans think about climate change solutions. Specifically, when asked about natural infrastructure, described as the use of naturally occurring landscape features or nature-based solutions that promote, use, restore, or emulate natural ecological features, three-in-four voters (76%) supported the use of natural infrastructure to address climate change.
Natural infrastructure is a bipartisan solution to addressing climate change. At least seven-in-ten Democrats and Republicans nationally support these solutions.
“Climate change is water change. As Americans reckon with the changes in climate that are already underway, we see that voters understand that we need to seek solutions to use the power of nature to help solve problems – and that’s what natural infrastructure is all about,” said Moira Mcdonald, Environment Program Director of the Walton Family Foundation. “Despite political divisions in our country, Americans agree on protecting our planet, and it is time we put this unity into action.”
As leaders from local, state, and federal offices consider how to apply funding made available through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, voters strongly support natural infrastructure solutions, including:
Shoring up coastline and river communities to better withstand increasingly frequent and intense storms and flooding (80% support);
Restoring wetlands to mitigate climate impacts including soaking up water from storms and rehydrating landscapes to prevent wildfires (82% support);
Protecting groundwater supplies to increase available water while also supporting rivers and streams (83%);
Using floodplains to reduce flooding, and protect communities, farmlands, and wildlife (83%).
Other key findings from the poll include:
A majority of Americans agree climate change will alter important aspects of life in the U.S. such as agriculture (76% total, 89% Democrats, and 61% Republicans), water resources (76% total, 90% Democrats, and 59% Republicans) and the economy (71% total, 87% Democrats, and 55% Republicans).
73% of Americans are worried about climate change and water scarcity, with at least three-in-five voters saying that drought, increased temperatures, wildfires, extreme weather and flooding are a product of climate change’s effect on water resources.
Black and Hispanic voters expressed more concern about climate change’s impacts on the economy (84% Black, 81% Hispanic, 68% White), health (88% Black, 78% Hispanic, 67% White), and issues around equality (69% Black voters, 62% Hispanic voters, 44% White).
One-quarter of American voters believe their state will not have enough water during their grandchildren’s lifetimes (the next 100 years). The numbers are even higher in western states – 55% in Colorado said their state would not have enough water in the next 100 years and 53% said the same in Arizona.
The national poll was conducted between March 4-March 6, 2022 among a sample of 2005 Registered Voters across the United States. The interviews were conducted online, and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of Registered Voters based on gender by age, educational attainment, race, marital status, homeownership, race by educational attainment, 2020 presidential vote, and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
The state-level polls were conducted between March 4-March 8, 2022, among a sample of 298 Registered Voters in Arizona and a sample of 300 Registered voters in Colorado. The interviews were conducted online, and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of Registered Voters based on gender, age, education, race, ethnicity, marital status, homeownership, and 2020 vote choice. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
The world will probably burn through its carbon budget before the global climate panel issues its next update on mitigation
Whatever words and phrases the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been parsing late into Sunday night, its new report, issued Monday, boils down to yet another dire scientific warning. Greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025 to limit global warming close to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as targeted by the Paris Agreement, the report says. In a way, it’s a final warning, because at the IPCC’s pace, the world most likely will have burned through its carbon budget by the time the panel releases its next climate mitigation report in about five or six years. Even with the climate clock so close to a deadline, it’s not surprising that the IPCC struggled to find consensus during the two-week approval session, said Paul Maidowski, an independent Berlin-based climate policy researcher and activist. The mitigation report may be the most challenging of the three climate assessments that are done every five to seven years under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, he said.
The first two reports of each IPCC assessment cycle, one on the physical basis of climate science, and another about impacts and adaptation, are mostly based on unyielding physics, like how much global temperature goes up for every added increment of CO2, and how fast and high sea level will rise based on that warming.
But the mitigation report, which outlines choices society can make to affect the trajectory of climate change, has to reconcile those scientific realities with economic and political assumptions that are not constrained by physics, Maidowski said. Other researchers have described the IPCC report as a mechanism to determine what is politically possible, he added. If those assumptions—for example about future availability of carbon dioxide removal technology—don’t materialize, “then you are left with illusions, essentially,” he said. The IPCC has “blinded itself” to deeper questions of sustainability and is thus asking the wrong questions, like how to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, he added. Instead, it should be more up front about acknowledging the physical limits of the planet, and start asking how to downscale current resource consumption to a sustainable level.
The report found that “without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.”
On the hopeful side, the panel noted that renewable energy costs have dropped by as much as 85 percent in the past decade, and that new policies in many countries have accelerated deployment of wind and solar power.
Click the link to read the article on the USGS website (Carol A Finn, Ph.D. and Paul A Bedrosian):
What do the subsurface fluid pathways look like for all of the hot springs and geysers scattered throughout Yellowstone? A new set of data from an aerial electromagnetic survey provides a new perspective on this age-old question.
Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs, Steamboat Geyser, and Mud Volcano are just a few of the over 10,000 active hydrothermal features formed by the interaction of ground water with the heat from the magmatic system beneath Yellowstone Caldera. While these enthralling features are enjoyed by millions of visitors every year, the underground plumbing system that feeds them is mostly hidden from view. Where does the hot water come from, and where does it go? Such information might tell us in general why surface thermal features are located where they are.
Yellowstone’s hydrothermal plumbing system results from several factors. The water from high precipitation (snow and rain) penetrates 4–5 kilometers (2.5–3.1 miles) deep along the many faults in the region. These deep waters are heated by magma and hot rock, forcing them to return to the surface much like “lava” in a lava lamp. This vast underground plumbing system ultimately feeds the iconic thermal features, where much is known about their temperature and chemistry. In contrast, little was known about how the surface features are connected to each other and deeper sources of fluids. Until now.
In 2016, a technique called airborne electromagnetics (AEM) was used to measure the physical properties of ground beneath Yellowstone. AEM takes advantage of water being a much better electrical conductor than rock, and that this difference between wet and dry rock can be detected by a sensitive electromagnet to depths of 150–700 meters (500–2300 feet). The technology is a larger version of that used in induction stoves or wireless cell phone chargers. The AEM instrument, mounted on a hoop that is 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) across and dangles beneath a low-flying helicopter, detected these variations in detail, like a medical cat scan uses data from a set of surface detectors to “see” inside a human body.
In most volcanic hydrothermal systems, characteristic sequences of hydrothermal clays reveal fluid or gas conduits along faults and fractures that can also be detected from the air. To map these clays below the depth resolution of the AEM, down to about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles), an additional instrument was employed—one that senses variations in the magnetic properties of rocks. Clays are less magnetic than volcanic rocks, making this difference relatively easy to detect.
For several weeks, the helicopter flew back and forth across Yellowstone to measure variations in these electric and magnetic properties, in the process revealing clues about Yellowstone’s hydrothermal plumbing system. These techniques are highly effective in environments like Yellowstone, where strong contrasts in the electrical conductivity of cold groundwater, thermal fluids, and dry volcanic rocks can be exploited. Additionally, thermal fluids alter the rocks they pass through, turning rock into clay minerals which have low electrical resistivity and subdued magnetization. But flying the survey was only part of the challenge. Translating all that data into something tangible required years of painstaking work!
The instrument responses were analyzed to produce detailed cross-sections along the flight lines, as well as depth maps from resistivity and susceptibility models. The models show that most thermal features are located above low-resistivity and low-magnetic-susceptibility clay-capped buried faults and fractures that channel fluids and gases from depth. Shallow sub-horizontal pathways between ancient lava flows contribute groundwater into the system, which mixes with thermal fluids from the channels. As fluids approach the surface, local constrictions induce boiling, degassing, or conductive cooling that produce the diversity of thermal features at Yellowstone.
Due to its resolution, capable of detecting features on the order of 100 meters (330 feet) in size, the AEM system cannot directly image the narrow fluid-flow paths to specific geysers and hot springs. By way of analogy, this would be like imaging a city’s water supply and distribution lines but not the lines feeding individual houses. Despite their diversity, the fluid flow paths to most thermal features are similar across Yellowstone, suggesting that local, rather than regional, conditions control the chemistry and style of geysers, mud pools and hot springs. The new models, however, provide a regional framework for focused geophysical and geochemical studies of the individual thermal features.
This work, published recently in the journal Nature, fills in a longstanding gap in knowledge about the underpinnings of Yellowstone’s charismatic hydrothermal features and has sparked considerable interest across a range of disciplines. This includes microbiologists looking to link areas of groundwater and gas mixing to regions of extreme microbiological diversity, geologists using the models to map lava flows and estimate eruptive volumes, hydrologists interested in incorporating flow paths and regions of groundwater and thermal water into geochemical fluid evolution models, and economic geologists interested in Yellowstone as a modern analogue for epithermal mineral deposits. The full potential of these new airborne geophysical data are just beginning to be realized!
Sometimes, when you’re a small nonprofit, the high price of water is a good thing.
The YMCA of the Rockies, an historic Estes Park resort founded more than 100 years ago, has entered into a multimillion-dollar agreement with the Town of Estes Park in which it will transfer water rights valued at roughly $1.9 million to the town, in exchange for a perpetual water treatment contract.
Chris Jorgensen, the YMCA’s chief financial officer, said the agreement allows the resort to forego the high cost of building a modern water treatment plant and gives Estes Park a more robust water portfolio and delivery system that has better economies of scale.
“The cool thing about it is the collaborative nature of it,” Jorgensen said. “Our existing plant is within a mile of theirs. We’re going to go from operating two water plants to one. It speaks to good stewardship of our natural resources, and it benefits both of us.”
The YMCA has 312 shares in the federally owned Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) Project water system, according to the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages the C-BT Project. Flowing straight from the Alba B. Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide from Grand Lake to the Front Range, the water is among the most highly valued in Colorado. Clean and easily delivered and traded, its value has skyrocketed in recent years.
Under the agreement, the YMCA is transferring 32 shares of its C-BT water to the Town of Estes Park. According to Northern Water, the value of the water varies, but recent sales have been priced at $60,000 to $65,000 per share. Just four years ago the price was closer to $30,000 per share.
That puts the water value of the deal at $1.9M with the YMCA also agreeing to pay the town $1 million over the next 10 years in system development charges.
Reuben Bergsten, Estes Park utilities director, said the town is making an effort to incorporate more small communities who lack modern water infrastructure into their treatment network.
“The town sees it as a civic duty,” Bergsten said.
What the YMCA plans to do with its remaining water rights isn’t clear yet. Jorgensen declined to comment on any other potential sales, but said the resort’s water portfolio is being used fully now to serve customers.
And Jorgensen said the value of the water isn’t the most important piece of the transaction.
“It’s a tremendous relief to be out of the water treatment business,” he said. “Now we can maximize the value of our business for our guests.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.