Agriculture, water and land experts urged the federal government to take decisive action on drought, wildfires and the climate crisis in the western United States on Wednesday at a U.S. Senate hearing.
The hearing was held by the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources and was chaired by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. It included testimony from experts from Colorado and Kansas about water conservation, agriculture and climate issues.
The hearing focused on finding solutions to persistent drought and creating resilience for issues facing forests and farmlands in western states such as Colorado. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, almost all of Colorado is at least abnormally dry, with parts of the state falling into severe, extreme or exceptional drought categories. The drought affects the water supply of the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people.
Mark Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, discussed the prospects for summer monsoonal rains Tuesday during a meeting the agency held in Grand Junction to discuss monsoon planning and preparation with partners such as the Colorado Department of Transportation and area emergency management planners.
Summer monsoonal moisture pushing into Arizona and New Mexico and sometimes farther north can bring welcome relief from dry and hot conditions. But it also can pose challenges such as flooding, sometimes exacerbated by previous wildfires that leave slopes more flood-prone. That can lead to results like last year’s shutdown of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon for about two weeks. Flooding also occurred last year in the area of the 2020 Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction…
While monsoon moisture can largely fail to arrive locally some summers, Miller said La Niña periods, like the one that continues to persist now, tend to be associated with above-normal monsoonal rainfall in Arizona and New Mexico. That is helping create expectations for an active monsoon season in western Colorado as well…
[ Jaime Kostelnik] said vegetation recovery in Glenwood Canyon over the first year after the fire, while not uniform, was good, and experts are watching to see what happens this year in terms of further recovery. But she said understanding watershed response in year two and beyond in a burn area “is a complex problem.”
New study will help inform understanding of natural climate variability and assist the evaluation of the current drought compared to history
The drought currently impacting the upper Colorado River Basin is extremely severe. A new study from federal government and university scientists led by the Bureau of Reclamation and published in Geophysical Research Letters identifies a second-century drought unmatched in severity by the current drought or previously identified droughts.
“Previous studies have been limited to the past 1,200 years, but a limited number of paleo records of moisture variability date back 2,000 years,” said Subhrendu Gangopadhyay, lead author and principal engineer for the Water Resources Engineering and Management Group at the Bureau of Reclamation. “While there has been research showing extended dry periods in the southwest back to the eighth century, this reconstruction of the Colorado River extends nearly 800 years further into the past.”
The research finds that compared to the current 22-year drought in the Colorado River, with only 84% of the average water flow, the water flow during a 22-year period in the second century was much lower, just 68% of the average water flow.
“Tree-ring records are sparse back to the second century,” said Connie Woodhouse, a professor at the University of Arizona and a study co-author. “However, this extreme drought event is also documented in paleoclimatic data from lakes, bogs, and caves.”
The authors reconstructed the streamflow at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River to develop these findings. Paleoclimatic data for the reconstruction is from a gridded network of tree-ring-based Palmer Drought Severity Index values. These extended records inform water managers whether droughts in the distant past were similar to or more severe than observed droughts in the past centuries. The baseline for the study’s analysis uses the natural flow estimates data from 1906 to 2021 from the Lees Ferry gage.
The reconstructed streamflow data developed in this research is now available for public use. It is anticipated that water managers will use this new extended data to understand past droughts better and to plan for future droughts.
“The results of this work can provide water managers with an increased understanding of the range of flow variability in the Colorado River,” added Gangopadhyay. “It should provide information to help water managers plan for even more persistent and severe droughts than previously considered.”
“For future work, collection and analysis of more remnant wood can further document this second century drought,” added Woodhouse.
The Colorado River basin is experiencing a severe 22-year drought with extensive impacts throughout the West. This includes water for homes and crops to the generation of electricity that supports everything we do. Drought impacts everything within the basin.
Study co-authors also include Greg McCabe of the U.S. Geological Survey, Cody Routson from Northern Arizona University, and Dave Meko of the University of Arizona.
Lake Mead now sits just 29 percent full, dropping below 30 percent for the first time since the reservoir was initially filled more than 80 years ago, according to the most recent weekly report released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We have been planning for this and preparing for this potential for more than two decades,” said Bronson Mack, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “We anticipate that Lake Mead’s water level is going to continue to decline as a result of drought and climate change conditions. But this further emphasizes the seriousness of this issue. And it does serve as a very stark reminder that we all need to conserve the water that we use outdoors.”
Lake Mead’s continued drop is not a surprise. Beyond the rising temperatures and dwindling water supply in the Colorado River, the Bureau of Reclamation recently implemented a plan to hold back 480,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell that would normally be released downstream and to Lake Mead, a measure taken to ensure that Glen Canyon Dam can continue to generate electricity amid what the Department of Interior has said are the driest conditions in the American West in more than 1,200 years.
Summer numbers have remained stable for 25 years despite dire warnings
For years, scientists have warned that monarch butterflies are dying off in droves because of diminishing winter colonies. But new research from the University of Georgia shows that the summer population of monarchs has remained relatively stable over the past 25 years.
Published in Global Change Biology, the study suggests that population growth during the summer compensates for butterfly losses due to migration, winter weather and changing environmental factors.
“There’s this perception out there that monarch populations are in dire trouble, but we found that’s not at all the case,” said Andy Davis, corresponding author of the study and an assistant research scientist in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology. “It goes against what everyone thinks, but we found that they’re doing quite well. In fact, monarchs are actually one of the most widespread butterflies in North America.”
The study authors caution against becoming complacent, though, because rising global temperatures may bring new and growing threats not just to monarchs but to all insects.
“There are some once widespread butterfly species that now are in trouble,” said William Snyder, co-author of the paper and a professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “So much attention is being paid to monarchs instead, and they seem to be in pretty good shape overall. It seems like a missed opportunity. We don’t want to give the idea that insect conservation isn’t important because it is. It’s just that maybe this one particular insect isn’t in nearly as much trouble as we thought.”
This study represents the largest and most comprehensive assessment of breeding monarch butterfly population to date.
Summer breeding makes up for winter monarch losses
The researchers compiled more than 135,000 monarch observations from the North American Butterfly Association between 1993 and 2018 to examine population patterns and possible drivers of population changes, such as precipitation and widespread use of agricultural herbicides.
The North American Butterfly Association utilizes citizen-scientists to document butterfly species and counts across North America during a two-day period every summer. Each group of observers has a defined circle to patrol that spans about 15 miles in diameter, and the observers tally all butterflies they see, including monarchs.
By carefully examining the monarch observations, the team found an overall annual increase in monarch relative abundance of 1.36% per year, suggesting that the breeding population of monarchs in North America is not declining on average. Although wintering populations in Mexico have seen documented declines in past years, the findings suggest that the butterflies’ summer breeding in North America makes up for those losses.
That marathon race to Mexico or California each fall, Davis said, may be getting more difficult for the butterflies as they face traffic, bad weather and more obstacles along the way south. So fewer butterflies are reaching the finish line.
“But when they come back north in the spring, they can really compensate for those losses,” Davis said. “A single female can lay 500 eggs, so they’re capable of rebounding tremendously, given the right resources. What that means is that the winter colony declines are almost like a red herring. They’re not really representative of the entire species’ population, and they’re kind of misleading. Even the recent increase in winter colony sizes in Mexico isn’t as important as some would like to think.”
Changing monarch migration patterns
One concern for conservationists has been the supposed national decline in milkweed, the sole food source for monarch caterpillars. But Davis believes this study suggests that breeding monarchs already have all the habitat they need in North America. If they didn’t, Davis said, the researchers would have seen that in this data.
“Everybody thinks monarch habitat is being lost left and right, and for some insect species this might be true but not for monarchs,” Davis said. If you think about it, monarch habitat is people habitat. Monarchs are really good at utilizing the landscapes we’ve created for ourselves. Backyard gardens, pastures, roadsides, ditches, old fields—all of that is monarch habitat.”
In some parts of the U.S., monarchs have a year-round or nearly year-round presence, which leads some researchers to believe the insects may in part be moving away from the annual migration to Mexico. San Francisco, for example, hosts monarchs year-round because people plant non-native tropical milkweed. And Florida is experiencing fewer freezes each year, making its climate an alternative for monarchs that would normally head across the border.
“There’s this idea out there about an insect apocalypse—all the insects are going to be lost,” said Snyder. “But it’s just not that simple. Some insects probably are going to be harmed; some insects are going to benefit. You really have to take that big pig picture at a more continental scale over a relatively long time period to get the true picture of what’s happening.”
The study was funded by grants from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The paper was co-authored by Timothy Meehan, of the National Audubon Society; Matthew Moran, of Hendrix College; and Jeffrey Glassberg, of Rice University and the North American Butterfly Association. Michael Crossley, who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology and is now at the University of Delaware, is first author of the paper.
This webinar looks at the past, present and desired water future of the Colorado Ute Tribes.
Chairman Manuel Heart, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
Council Member Lorelei Cloud, Southern Ute Indian Tribe
Amy Ostdiek, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Mike Preston, Weenuch-u’ Development Corporation President
Scott McElroy, Retired – McElroy, Walker, Meyer and Condon, P.C.
Steve Wolff, Southwestern Water Conservation District (moderator)
In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, and a declining flow forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs for Monday, June 13th, at 4:00 AM.
Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.