Four months after announcing they wouldn’t use federal COVID-19 funds on the proposal from Renewable Water Resources, or RWR, the commissioners heard a legal update on the project from the county’s outside counsel, Steve Leonhardt, Sept. 13. Leonhardt, who recently met with RWR, provided advice and a piece of “work product” for commissioners to review…
In May, Laydon made the decisive vote not to use a portion of the county’s $68 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on the proposal. However, he said he was still interested in continuing to look at the project. Since then, the county has continued to pay Leonhardt to talk with RWR…
Commissioner George Teal, a longtime supporter of the plan, said during the Sept. 13 meeting that Leonhardt’s advice reflects the current legal and political setting and that things could change in the decades it would take for the project to come to fruition…
Opponents of the plan have come from across the political spectrum, including Rep. Lauren Boebert, Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa and both U.S. senators.
Speaking of the November election, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon is up for re-election in a race against Democratic challenger Kari Solberg. Should he win – and expectations are that he will in a county that trends toward local Republicans – expect Douglas County to make another full-court press on a deal with Renewable Water Resources. A renewed push, despite clear public opposition including from Douglas County residents, relies on Laydon being re-elected to the three-member board of commissioners, since it is a split public body with Commissioner Lora Thomas staunchly opposed to the idea of exporting water from the San Luis Valley and Commissioner George Teal a key ally of RWR. Laydon needs to win re-election for RWR to move forward. Upcoming campaign finance reports will show how big a bet RWR’s Bill Owens, Sean Tonner and other water exportation enthusiasts have placed behind him.
You’ll recall Douglas County decided not to use its federal COVID relief money to invest in RWR, but rather told its staff and water attorneys it has hired to negotiate and to continue working with RWR on the proposal. The deal was never dead – Douglas County simply took it off its public agenda while staff and attorneys worked on the plan with RWR’s Bill Owens and Sean Tonner. Earlier this month, on Sept. 13, Steve Leonhardt, the lead water attorney hired by Douglas County, met in executive session with the three commissioners to update them on his ongoing talks with Owens and RWR. Once November passes, and should Laydon win, expect Douglas County to again make its case for why its way of life in the suburbs of metro-Denver is more critical to the future of Colorado than the agriculture and environmental assets of the San Luis Valley and the health of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
Snowpack is a victim of increasing western wildfires, causing some regions to have less peak snow accumulation and reducing the number of days snow is on the ground, according to new Colorado State University research.
In burned forests, trees no longer block as much energy from the sun and burned timber sheds soot making snow melt quicker in the late snow zone of mountain ranges – the highest area where snow is deepest and lasts the longest. Less snow could mean less water for a region that relies heavily on mountain snowpack for water supply, according to researchers.
At the highest elevations, burned areas were snow-free up to 14 days earlier than in nearby unburned areas and in lower elevations, snow-free dates occurred 27 days sooner, according to research conducted by Stephanie Kampf, professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability in the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. Kampf is the lead author on the study, “Increasing wildfire impacts on snowpack in the western U.S.,” published Sept. 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We found that wildfire area has been increasing in many of the snowiest parts of the West, including the Sierra, Nevada, Cascades, and Rockies,” Kampf said.
Significant increases in wildfire in the west (punctuated by 2020 when more than 10 million acres burned) has compounded western water issues. In the Southern Rockies, site of the East Troublesome Fire, Cameron Peak Fire and Mullen Fire in 2020, the area burned in the late snow zone exceeded the total burned area over the previous 36 years combined. In other regions, like the Arizona-New Mexico mountains, wildfire activity has shifted from low snow zones to early/middle snow zones.
“The energy balance has been fundamentally altered,” said Dan McGrath, assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Colorado State and co-author of the study, explaining why burned areas become snow-free earlier. “These impacts can persist for a decade or longer.”
Steven Fassnacht, professor of snow hydrology and fellow at Colorado State’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA), co-authored the study.
“Snow melting anywhere between two to four weeks earlier can create additional problems for water managers because it puts water in streams and rivers sooner,” Fassnacht said. “That water is often needed later in the season.”
Post-fire impacts will vary regionally, depending on the amount of sun impacting the snowpack energy balance. Mountain regions in Arizona and New Mexico could have greater fire impacts due to increased shortwave radiation at lower latitudes.
A shorter snow season can also reduce the productivity of the forest ecosystem and its carbon sequestration as drier conditions can inhibit vegetation recovery, causing fire impacts to the snowpack to last for decades.
Western Water Q&A: Chuck Cullom, a longtime Arizona water manager, brings a dual-basin perspective as top staffer at the Upper Colorado River Commission
With 25 years of experience working on the Colorado River, Chuck Cullom is used to responding to myriad challenges that arise on the vital lifeline that seven states, more than two dozen tribes and the country of Mexico depend on for water. But this summer problems on the drought-stressed river are piling up at a dizzying pace: Reservoirs plummeting to record low levels, whether Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam can continue to release water and produce hydropower, unprecedented water cuts and predatory smallmouth bass threatening native fish species in the Grand Canyon.
“Holy buckets, Batman!,” said Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I mean, it’s just on and on and on.”
Cullom is keeping tabs on the river’s rapidly growing list of issues while guiding the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in talks with other water users on how to save a river system that is crashing under the weight of drought and climate change. Demand continues to greatly outstrip supply and now state officials, water users and tribes are hurrying to craft a new drought plan and avoid intervention from the federal government.
The Upper Basin has proposed a plan built around paying users to reduce water consumption. Though it doesn’t include mandatory cuts for water users, Cullom and the commission have made it a focal point of their negotiations with the Lower Basin.
Cullom spent the last two decades viewing issues on the river through a Lower Basin lens, managing drought strategies and mitigation plans for the Central Arizona Project. Now, in his first year at the commission, Cullom has the chance to use his dual-basin perspective to help the seven states and 30 federally recognized tribes hash out ways to divide the river, which continues to shrink swiftly.
In an interview with Western Water, Cullom explains the importance of communicating effectively on the river, why the Upper Basin’s five-point plan doesn’t require mandatory water cuts or offer potential savings amounts and the push to make the Lower Basin responsible for evaporation losses at Lake Mead.
WESTERN WATER: How has your previous experience in the Lower Basin prepared you for your current position as you switch your focus to the significant challenges facing the Upper Basin?
CHUCK CULLOM: One of the things that I learned over the course of my experience in the Lower Basin was that while we may want to isolate issues or challenges in one basin or another, we are tied together. So that was very important as I transitioned from Lower Basin to Upper Basin, recognizing that while we may want to isolate the issues between Upper and Lower, they cascade in both directions.
I understood early on that the Lower Basin perspective on how the system operates is different and unique from the Upper Basin. Water uses and management in the Upper Basin reflect and are driven by annual hydrologic circumstances, meaning that the hydrology and inflows that occur influence water management decisions year over year. Whereas the Lower Basin relies principally on storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. When your perspective is so distinct and different, you have to be very careful about what you say and how you say it.
WW: Can you expound on the difficulty of communicating on such a large river system?
CULLOM: I had an experience in the early days of the system conservation pilot program in Arizona. The words we were using to describe how we were managing our uses, while useful and appropriate for what we were doing internally to Arizona, was offensive and inappropriate for the Upper Basin because it implied things that weren’t true. And the Upper Basin folks thoughtfully reached out and communicated directly … and then we figured out how we were going to work together. When you experience the world differently because you’re upstream or downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, communication becomes very important.
And it’s the same with tribal engagement. … The Upper Division [Basin] commissioners met with the tribal leaders for the six Upper Basin tribes and had a very thoughtful, frank and open discussion about the importance of working collaboratively on interstate Colorado River issues and what is helpful and unhelpful in that context. And it was a very useful conversation.
WW: In moving from the Lower Basin to the Upper Basin, has anything involving the Colorado River surprised you? How has your perspective changed?
CULLOM: One thing that surprised me is that the technical capacity in the Upper Basin is on par and in some instances higher than what I anticipated; it exceeds some of the capacity in the Lower Basin. Folks up here are super smart, super talented and lots of modeling expertise is engaged every day.
WW: In June, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the seven Basin states to devise a plan to reduce use of the river to protect Lake Powell and Lake Mead. She also indicated that all users will have to take cuts. Are Upper Basin states preparing to take cuts? And how might these cuts play out?
CULLOM: I don’t think the question is about are we prepared, it’s how effective our actions will be. The magnitude of contributions in the Upper Basin is limited by the tools we have, the hydrologic and geographic circumstances and what happens in the Lower Basin. So, for the five-point plan to be effective, it needs significant actions in the Lower Basin. But we are moving forward with our plan with the expectation that everyone will contribute in a meaningful way.
WW: What is the goal of the Upper Basin’s five-point plan and what has been the response from Reclamation or the Lower Basin?
CULLOM: The plan includes tools that lead to additional conservation in the Upper Basin on top of what is inflicted by hydrology in dry years, plus contributions that have been made through the 2019 Drought Response Operating Agreement.
The one criticism that we’ve received is “why didn’t you quantify your system conservation program?” We didn’t know if we would have funding and support from Reclamation and we didn’t know what the appetite of water users would be to take on even more reductions. So we didn’t think it would be appropriate to speculate on what we might achieve as an aspiration; we’re focused on delivering results rather than projecting what might be.
Two of the Lower Basin states (California & Arizona) have questions, Nevada is supportive and Reclamation has expressed support and provided resources to help us implement the plan.
WW:The five-point plan talked about reviving work on a demand management plan that was supposed to be part of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Earlier this year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board halted work on such a plan because, it said, Colorado was much further ahead on investigating the concept than the other Upper Basin states (New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming). Is demand management a viable concept for the Upper Basin and what’s been done?
CULLOM: Colorado’s so-called pause on demand management is not that. The interstate work through the commission is continuing and will be completed in the fall and it will provide a report by the end of the year. I think Colorado was indicating that they had enough information and didn’t need any additional consultants or studies as they complete their own homework.
WW: How can Congress and the federal government help in facilitating a plan to keep the river system from crashing?
CULLOM: Congress has been very helpful. They passed the DCP and they passed the Inflation Reduction Act funding. We’re appreciative and trying to put that funding to very good use.
For the long-term perspective, Commissioner Touton identified tools that she is going to explore and develop and potentially implement in the Lower Basin, including appropriate accounting for evaporation and [transmission] losses. There’s about 1.2 million acre-feet of water that is unaccounted for in the Lower Basin that contributes to the imbalance between supply and demand. And the impact of that imbalance is higher releases from Glen Canyon Dam at a time when Glen Canyon Dam is in jeopardy. We support her efforts to try and bring the Lower Basin system into balance just like the way the Upper Basin accounts for evaporation and transmission losses. We think the secretary has significant authority to do that.
WW:With aridification shrinking the river supply and the disparity in use between the two basins, do you think re-apportioning the river is a serious possibility in the future?
CULLOM: I don’t think it’s warranted or helpful.
WW: In the short term or it’s just a concept that’s just absolutely not in play?
CULLOM: Well, folks can want to talk about it but trying to reconfigure [river apportionments] right now seems like you would create more uncertainty than you’re trying to resolve. In addition, there are the folks who would be most at risk from that conversation in underserved communities and tribes. There are significant tribal water rights that are confirmed but undeveloped.
I think there is significant room for flexibility to adapt to the ongoing drought and for aridification, climate change or whatever you want to call a hotter, drier future. And we need to work within the within the regulatory framework we have because otherwise it becomes a discussion about brute political force rather than what the system needs collectively.
WW: Looking ahead to the renegotiation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, what are some of the main priorities for the Upper Basin?
CULLOM: We absolutely need a new set of rules. Extending rules that are under stress is not, I don’t believe, a viable option. A significant goal for the next set of rules is to bring the Colorado River uses into balance. By uses I mean including evaporation and losses. We need to bring the system depletions into balance with the available supply every year and rebuild the resiliency in the system by replacing the depleted storage. I think that’s the framework that the Upper Basin is seeking to explore.
A new study led by Oregon State University suggests leaves in forest canopies are not able to cool themselves below the surrounding air temperature, likely meaning trees’ ability to avoid damaging temperature increases, and to pull carbon from the atmosphere, will be compromised in a warmer, drier climate.
The findings by an international collaboration that included researchers from multiple universities and government agencies contrast with a prevailing theory in the scientific community that canopy leaves can keep their temperature within an optimal range for photosynthesis – the process through which green plants make their food from sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research is important for understanding and predicting plant responses to climate change, said lead author Chris Still of the OSU College of Forestry, who notes that multiple studies suggest many of the world’s forests are approaching their thermal limit for carbon uptake.
“A hypothesis known as limited leaf homeothermy argues that through a combination of functional traits and physiological responses, leaves can keep their daytime temperature close to the best temperature for photosynthesis and below what is damaging for them,” said Still. “Specifically, leaves should cool below air temperature at higher temperatures, typically greater than 25 or 30 degrees Celsius. That theory also implies that the impact of climate warming on forests will be partially mitigated by the leaves’ cooling response.”
Still and collaborators used thermal imaging to look at canopy-leaf temperature at numerous well-instrumented sites in North America and Central America – from Panamanian rain forest to the high-elevation tree line in Colorado – and found that canopy leaves do not consistently cool below daytime air temperatures or remain within a narrow temperature range as predicted by the limited leaf homeothermy theory.
The thermal cameras were mounted on towers equipped with systems that measure carbon, water and energy “fluxes” – exchanges between the forest and atmosphere – as well as a host of environmental variables.
“Using high-frequency, continuous thermal imaging to monitor forest canopies really changes what we can learn about how forests are dealing with the stress of rising temperatures,” said Andrew Richardson, a professor at Northern Arizona University and a co-author of the study. “Before thermal cameras, if you wanted to measure canopy temperature you had to stick thermocouples to leaves with Band-Aids and wait until the wind pulled them off. But these cameras let us measure change 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across many seasons and years.”
The study showed that canopy leaves warm faster than air, are warmer than air during most of the day and only cool below air temperature in mid- to late-afternoon. Future climate warming is likely to lead to even greater canopy leaf temperatures, which would negatively impact forest carbon cycling and enhance forest mortality risk, the scientists say.
“Leaf temperature has long been recognized as important for plant function because of its influence on carbon metabolism and water and energy exchanges,” Still said. “If canopy photosynthesis declines with increasing temperature, the ability of forests to act as a carbon sink will be reduced.”
Leaf temperature in different habitats is affected by how leaf size varies with climate and latitude as well as canopy structure, Still explains. Large leaves occur primarily in warm and wet climates, and leaf traits like higher reflectance and smaller sizes, which enhance the ability to shed heat and lead to greater cooling, occur mainly in plants growing in hot, dry areas.
In much of the warm, wet tropics, leaf temperature is already approaching or surpassing thresholds for positive net photosynthesis – the carbon fixation rate minus the rate of carbon dioxide lost during plant respiration.
“If leaves are generally warmer than the surrounding air, as our findings suggest, trees may be approaching critical thresholds of temperature stress faster than we expect,” Richardson said.
“Our results have big implications for understating how plants acclimate to warming, and they suggest a limited ability for canopy leaves to regulate their temperature,” Still added. “Our data and analyses suggest a warming climate will result in even higher canopy leaf temperatures, likely leading to reduction of carbon assimilation capacity and eventually heat damage.”
Chad Hanson and Hyojung Kwon of the OSU College of Forestry also took part in the study, as did scientists from the University of Colorado, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Florida State University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of California, Irvine, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, Canadian Forces Base Trenton, the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The National Science Foundation supported this research.
Farmers and academics at a Wednesday hearing stressed the need for members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee to support regenerative agriculture farming practices in the upcoming farm bill in order to protect topsoil.
U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chair David Scott said he held the hearing to discuss ways policymakers and the Department of Agriculture could help farmers incorporate regenerative agriculture practices. That investment in soil health would curb climate change and prevent a food shortage, the Georgia Democrat said.
Regenerative agriculture occurs in farming and grazing practices that focus on rebuilding organic matter in topsoil, restoring degraded soil biodiversity and improving the water cycle. All of these mitigate climate change by growing plants that capture carbon dioxide and move it into the soil.
“Conventional agriculture models are degrading American soil,” Jeff Moyer, the chief executive officer of Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, said. Rodale was a pioneer in organic farming.
About 95% of food is grown from topsoil, which is the most important component to food systems. If soil cannot filter water and adsorb carbon, it will hinder farmers’ ability to grow food to feed people, creating a food crisis. Around the world, soil is eroding 10 to 40 times faster than it can be replaced.
Moyer said that a third of the world’s soil has already degraded and if “the current rate of soil degradation continues, all of the world’s topsoil could be lost within 60 years.”
“The very start of our food supply chain is the Earth, and we are losing the viable component of carbon,” Scott said, adding that it’s important to get carbon back into the soil. Carbon is the primary energy source for plants.
A study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in February found that “the Midwest has lost approximately 57.6 billion metric tons of topsoil since farmers began tilling the soil, 160 years ago.”
“The historical erosion rates exceed predictions of present-day erosion rates from national soil erosion assessments and levels considered tolerable by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” according to the report.
USDA project funding
The Biden administration has funneled as much as $3 billion to projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in agriculture. On Wednesday, USDA announced an expansion of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program to fund conservation programs.
Scott said a documentary, titled “Kiss the Ground,” helped open his eyes to the need to invest in regenerative agriculture.
“That is the way that we make sure that we have food security,” he said.
Republicans on the committee stressed that USDA programs based around regenerative agriculture should not become mandatory, and the top GOP lawmaker, Glenn Thompson, of Pennsylvania, argued that “tying food policy to climate policy is harmful.”
“Small farmers can’t always take on the risks that large farms can when adopting new practices, and I certainly don’t want to be the person that walks on to one of their farms and tells them the federal government mandates that they uphold your economic viability of their operations and livelihoods for the sake of climate change,” Thompson said.
He added that inflation was also more of an issue to farmers and that many farmers in his state already practice regenerative agriculture such as cover crops, which help prevent soil erosion and keep nutrients in the soil.
Rep. Jim Baird, an Indiana Republican, also questioned whether organic food was more nutritious than that produced by standard farming practices.
Rebecca Larson, the vice president of the Western Sugar Cooperative in Denver, Colorado, said there’s no substantial research that organic food has more nutrients and much of that rhetoric is “fear-based marketing.”
A study from 2019 has found that organic production can boost some key nutrients in foods, but most of those increases are moderate.
Rebuilding soil health
Rick Clark, a farmer from Williamsport, Indiana, said he adopted regenerative farming practices for his 7,000-acre cattle farm to rebuild the soil health over the past decade.
“We need to preserve our soil, cause that is going to be the future of our farming,” he said.
Rep. Shontel Brown, an Ohio Democrat, asked Clark how Congress can support regenerative farming efforts.
Clark, a representative from Regenerate America, urged lawmakers to consider bolstering education and technical assistance to farmers wanting to start using those practices, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from USDA. Regenerate America is a coalition of farmers and business partners that lobby for regenerative farming practices in the upcoming farm bill.
“Teaching and a support group is so critical here,” he said.
Clark said that he believes these programs should remain voluntary, but that the government should consider giving farmers who implement these practices the biggest share of federal subsidiary benefits. He also urged lawmakers to bolster crop insurance to help reduce the risk farmers have when implementing regenerative farming practices.
“This means bolstering crop insurance by removing outdated barriers and creating incentives that recognize the risk-reduction benefits of soil health and conservation practices and reward farmers implementing those practices—like a ‘good driver’ discount on your car insurance,” he said.
Moyer also pushed for lawmakers to reform crop insurance because current policies “create disincentives for American farmers seeking to transition and operate under a regenerative organic model.”
Clark added that USDA should consider defining what regenerative agriculture means and those practices should be added to labels for consumers. Clark added that many of the practices used in regenerative farming originated from Indigenous farming practices, and said those voices need to be heard by the committee.
Rep. Alma Adams, a North Carolina Democrat, asked one of the witnesses, Steve Nygren from Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, how regenerative agriculture can help build local economies.
Nygren is the founder and chief executive officer of Serenbe, which is an urban village within the city limits of Chattahoochee Hills that he and his wife created with the vision of a sustainable community.
“Soil health leads to economic vitality,” he said.
He said the shrinking of family farms has an economic impact on the local community. Industrial agriculture is not going to support the local economy the way local farmers do, he said.
“Think of soil health as a way to bring small towns back to life,” Nygren said.
He pointed to his state as an example. In 1950, nearly half of Georgia’s food came from the state, and today that number is nearly a quarter. In Serenbe, 70% of the 40,000 acres is reserved for agriculture and each week 75 families pay $34 for their weekly produce.
“If we bring small farms back into rural communities across the United States we’ll not only have a local food system that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels to get it to the shelf, but it can go directly from the farms to the consumer … it will really stimulate the local economy,” he said.