Early peak #runoff for Western Slope rivers: Dust on snow played a role — @AspenJournalism

The Roaring Fork River seen here on May 24 near the Catherine Store Bridge in Carbondale. Downstream at Glenwood Springs, the river peaked for the season on May 20, early and outside the window of what’s considered normal. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

Rivers in western Colorado have already peaked for the season, creating challenging conditions for reservoir managers and rafting companies.

Fueled by spring windstorms that deposited snow-devouring dust on the mountain snowpack, most streams saw their peak flows between May 19 and 21 for this year, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

On May 19, the Crystal River near Avalanche Creek hit its high mark for the spring at about 1,870 cubic feet per second. On that day in the southwest part of the state, the San Miguel River at Placerville peaked at 823 cfs; and the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs hit its high mark of 2,915 cfs..

On May 20, the Roaring Fork River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs peaked at 4,450 cfs; the Eagle River at Dotsero peaked at about 4,950 cfs.

On May 21, just upstream of major agriculture diversions to the Grand Valley at a location known as Cameo, the Colorado River peaked at about 10,730 cfs. At the Utah state line, streamflows peaked at 16,130 cfs.

The peak streamflow volumes for these locations were within the range of what’s considered normal.

Although there may be a second, smaller peak in coming days as summer temperatures return, forecasters say most of the snow below 11,000 feet has already melted out, meaning not enough is left to fuel a bigger peak than the one that has already happened.

For several locations — the Roaring Fork at Glenwood, the Crystal, the San Miguel and the Colorado at Cameo — the peak came so early that it was outside the window of what’s considered normal. The rest of the locations — the Yampa, the Eagle and the Colorado at the Utah state line — were inside the normal range, although on the earlier side.

These conditions can be partly attributed to dust on snow, which causes the snowpack to melt earlier and faster.

“Dust on snow has played a pretty big role this year,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the CBRFC. “It really allows the energy from the sun to get absorbed into the snowpack much more than if you have this white, clean snow surface.”

According to Jeff Derry, executive director of the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a total of 11 dust events occurred in April and May. A total of six or seven occur during a normal year.

This spring has been unusually windy, which has kicked up dust from northern New Mexico and Arizona and deposited it on Colorado’s snow-capped peaks; the San Juans Mountains, in the southwestern part of the state, were the hardest hit. Each year, the center ranks the severity of the dust storms.

“A number of those were really nasty events,” Derry said. “This is the first time since 2013 that we have said it’s a severe dust year.”

The Crystal River just below Avalanche Creek on June 3. Streamflows near this location peaked on May 19 at 1,840 cfs according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Early runoff brings challenges

The early runoff is a challenge for Blazing Adventures, a rafting company based in Aspen and Snowmass that runs trips on the Roaring Fork River. According to owner Vince Nichols, they usually try to run the Roaring Fork through the Fourth of July before heading to other sections of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers that see higher flows later in the summer. This year, it will be closer to mid-June, he said.

“It’s certainly been a strange runoff this year,” Nichols said. “We came out of the ski season with some optimism, but when we mixed in those high winds and dust, it ran off a lot faster than we were anticipating.”

The early runoff could also have implications for reservoir managers, who may have to begin releasing water earlier in the summer to meet downstream calls. A call happens when a senior water right is not receiving its full amount of water and junior upstream water users must cut back in order to send water to the senior user downstream.

This may end up being the situation with Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River, is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call from the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. The call comes on most years in midsummer, but this year, it may be earlier.

“I may have to start making storage releases earlier,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation. “That’s pretty typical of dry years, but with this early runoff, the call might come much earlier than what I expected.”

The same may happen at Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Ruedi is also operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call at Cameo, which comes on most summers.

Although Ruedi had been forecast to fill by the skin of its teeth this year, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Tim Miller said he now thinks it will end up 1,000 to 6,000 acre-feet short. He said he will continue releasing the minimum required flow of 110 cfs until downstream calls come on and he has to release more stored water.

“I always like to point out that our snowpack is a natural reservoir and if that reservoir releases its water earlier than what’s normal, you can kind of imagine the disruptions and problems that occur,” Derry said. “It makes reservoir management a little bit more complicated if you have the water coming down earlier than what you expected.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the June 4 edition of The Aspen Times.

Wildlife in the West: The good, the bad, the in-between — @HighCountryNews

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Jonathan Thompson) [June 1, 2022]:

Conservation and wildlife corridors can help, but is it enough?

On April 7, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that her department would “advance its work on wildlife corridors” by focusing on “conservation and restoration of wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity in a way that supports conservation outcomes.”

The federal initiative includes $2.5 million in grants for seven states and three tribal nations to fund 13 projects, from increasing climate-resilient habitat for big game on a New Mexico ranch owned by the Pueblo of Sandia, to doing post-fire restoration work in California. There’s also $250,000 to establish a conservation easement on the Twin Eagle Ranch in western Wyoming to avert potential residential development and protect the so-called Path of the Pronghorn, which runs through the area.

The Path of the Pronghorn is a 6,000-year-old, 150-mile-long migration corridor in northwest Wyoming that the iconic ungulates follow north every spring to higher grazing ground in the Tetons and then retrace southward in the fall. The Twin Eagle (née Carney) Ranch sits right in the middle of it, making its conservation a victory for the pronghorn.

Just two days prior to Haaland’s announcement, however, the corridor suffered a major blow when, as first reported by WyoFile, a federal judge cleared the way for Jonah Energy’s 3,500-well Normally Pressured Lance Field natural gas drilling project to advance on 140,000 acres of mostly public land — smack-dab in the Path of the Pronghorn. When the Bureau of Land Management OK’d the project in 2018, conservation groups sued, saying the agency didn’t properly consider impacts to the pronghorn and greater sage grouse. But on April 5, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl rejected their challenge.

Now it appears that even as the pronghorn were guaranteed clear passage through the Twin Eagle Ranch, the groundwork was being laid for an industrialized obstacle course that they’ll have to navigate one day.

The entire back-and-forth epitomizes the good, bad and ugly state of wildlife in the West in the spring of 2022, as setbacks are followed by breakthroughs — and vice versa.


Monarch butterfly on milkweed in Mrs. Gulch’s landscape July 17, 2021.

MONARCH MAKES A COMEBACK?: In spring 2021, it seemed as if the monarch butterfly was doomed. The Xerces Society, which conducts an annual California-centered count, documented a 99% decline in monarch populations since the 1980s, possibly caused by climate change, increased use of the herbicide glyphosate, industrialization and the residential development of farmland. So it was a bit of a welcome surprise this winter when California’s skies fluttered with orange and black wings: Xerces’ Thanksgiving count tallied 250,000 monarchs, compared to just 2,000 the previous year.

Two male specimen of the Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) photographed in the Devil’s Hole, Nevada. This image originates from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

PUPFISH RETURN: Fish biologists were swigging the bubbly (figuratively) after counting a whopping 175 Devils Hole pupfish this spring. That may not sound like much, especially since it constitutes the species’ entire wild population. But it’s the most seen in 22 years at the tiny fish’s tiny habitat, which comprises the upper 80 feet of a water-filled cavern in a detached unit of Death Valley National Park in Nevada. Prior to the 1990s, the Devils Hole pupfish — one of the world’s rarest fishes — consistently numbered about 200, but the population plummeted to less than half that before this recent rebound.


WIND POWER VS. BIRDS: ESI Energy, a subsidiary of renewable energy giant NextEra, has killed at least 150 golden and bald eagles at its wind power facilities in eight states since 2012 without applying for an incidental take — or accidental killing — permit, according to federal prosecutors. The company was fined over $8 million and sentenced to five years’ probation after pleading guilty to nine of those killings in Wyoming and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Water and Power Department has applied for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cover the incidental take of up to two free-flying California condors and two associated eggs or chicks over 30 years at its Pine Tree Wind Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains. The utility is breeding birds in captivity in hopes of replacing the slain vultures. The California condor is North America’s largest land bird, and though it has been brought back from the brink of extinction, it remains imperiled (See story).

GET THE LEAD OUT (OF THE EAGLES): The first study of population-level lead poisoning in bald and golden eagles was published this winter. The news was not good: Of the more than 1,200 eagles sampled, almost half showed evidence of repeated exposure to lead, most likely from ammunition fragments ingested after hunters dress game in the field. Bald eagles are not affected as much because their numbers are climbing at a rapid rate, researchers say. “In contrast, the golden eagle’s population is not as stable, and any additional mortality could tip it towards a decline,” said Brian Millsap, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national raptor coordinator and co-author of the study.

PAUCITY OF PINYON JAYS: Pinyon jays — social corvids often called camp robbers, owing to their tendency to snatch campers’ snacks — are critical components of the Southwest’s piñon-juniper woodlands: They harvest piñon nuts and bury them for later eating, leaving some of the buried seeds to germinate and grow into new piñon trees. Now the birds are disappearing at an alarming rate; over the last five decades, the population has declined by as much as 85%. Suspected culprits include thinning or clearing of piñon woodlands and climate change’s impact on habitat. In April, Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the Biden administration to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

Image from Grand County on June 6, 2020 provided courtesy of Jessica Freeman via Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

WRANGLING OVER WOLVES: Following the colonial-settler invasion of the Western U.S., local and state governments, ranchers and individuals set out to exterminate the gray wolf. They nearly succeeded, virtually extirpating it from the Lower 48. But federal Endangered Species Act protections helped bring it back, enough to result in the lifting of federal protections in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, in 2011. Now wolves are being hunted in the Northern Rockies as avidly as they were in the 1800s. In 2019, the Trump administration delisted gray wolves in the remaining states, potentially opening those sparser populations to the same treatment. But a federal judge reversed that decision earlier this year. Mexican wolves have remained protected, and in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the population grew by 5% last year, to reach a total of 196 animals.

Graphic credit: The High Country News