As western mountain snowpacks diminish and wildfires race across parched landscapes, appreciation has grown for the moist mountain meadows and wetlands that hold water up high, feeding streams throughout the summer and providing fire-resistant refuges for wildlife. Before beavers and their dams were largely eliminated by the fur trade, these natural water storage features and refuges were common across western states’ mountain landscapes.
The removal of beavers and other land disturbances have led many creeks to cut deeper into their valleys and detach from their floodplains, dropping the water table and drying out the landscape. A growing field of stream restoration, known as low-tech process-based restoration (LTPBR), seeks to reverse these changes through methods that mimic beaver activity in hopes of enticing them to return.
Projects across the west have demonstrated the benefits of LTPBR on the landscape. Projects have improved water quality, provided important habitat, trapped sediment, increased riparian vegetation and forage, and bolstered resilience against drought, fire, and floods. These benefits are achieved by installing low-tech, hand-built structures, creating “speedbumbs” that enable water from snowmelt and storms to spread across the riparian area, slowing peak flows and recharging groundwater. The rewetted soil “sponge” supports healthy riparian vegetation and reduces wildfire risks.
As LTPBR projects have proliferated across western states, both excitement about their benefits and questions about potential impacts have grown. A new report from American Rivers reviews the published science and case study information on LTPBR to better understand the full range of benefits these projects can provide, and provides scientific evidence to address potential concerns. The report finds ample evidence for LTPBR benefiting habitat and buffering the impacts of droughts, floods, and wildfires, but concludes that more research is needed to better understand the full suite of ecosystem service benefits. It also provides insights on how to address human and social factors related to LTPBR projects, such as mitigating beaver dam impacts to infrastructure.
Beavers could help protect water quality and ecosystem health from the effects of climate change, new research suggests. The conclusion comes from a new study in the journal Nature Communications focused on a beaver dam outside Crested Butte. In 2017, Christian Dewey, then a doctoral student focused on water and soil science at Stanford University, set out to research shifting steam flows along the East River, a winding tributary of the Colorado River. Dewey, now a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University, hoped the study could add context to a potential threat to western watersheds. As climate change drives more frequent droughts and drier weather long-term, scientists fear excess nutrients, like nitrogen, could build up in waterways, contaminating the water and the surrounding river ecosystems. Major downpours and seasonal snowmelts flush away the harmful chemicals in normal years. Low nitrogen levels benefit many organisms, but Dewey said too much can trigger harmful algal blooms that deprive fish and other creatures of essential oxygen. Accumulated nitrogen also puts human infants at a higher risk of “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially deadly condition defined by low blood-oxygen levels.
Dewey had no plans to study beavers until the industrious rodents took over his research site. During the dry summer of 2018, a dam appeared across the main channel of the river, slowing the flow into a small pond.
“We were really just in the perfect position to capture the changes the beaver damn caused. It was really being in the right place at the right time,” Dewey said.
The beavers maintained the dam for two months until the water swept away the mud and branches. By carefully tracking steam’s flow and chemical composition, Dewey found the structure flooded the surrounding soil, allowing microbes to convert excess nitrogen into a harmless gas. Rain and snowmelt have a similar effect but nothing close to the benefits of beavers. The research found the dam increased nitrogen removal by 44 percent compared to the river’s normal seasonal fluxations.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Rae Solomon). Here’s an excerpt:
Yellow Barn is a baby of a farm. The 100-acre operation in Longmont started up just a little over 2 years ago, on the grounds of a shuttered horse stable. Nick DiDomenico is Yellow Barn’s young farmer. DiDomenico practices regenerative agriculture, a holistic approach to farming and ranching. It rebuilds depleted soils, improves ecosystems and mitigates climate change by putting carbon back in the ground. Farmers in Colorado are increasingly experimenting with those techniques, to different degrees. DiDomenico is among those leading the pack. The fields at Yellow Barn are just getting started. DiDomenico has been working to establish a silvopasture here – an integrated system of trees and livestock that work together to produce an overall regenerative benefit – including increased biodiversity on the land, leading to higher soil fertility, and better water retention. “We’re farming here, we’re running our cattle,” Didomenico explained. “It’s this rotational grazing strategy that improves the land.”
On a recent afternoon, DiDomenico adjusted a faulty pump on the water trough that keeps his small herd of belted Galloway cows hydrated. “It’s a really niche thing that we’re doing,” he said, “which is converting completely decertified, degraded, marginalized land and redeveloping it into agricultural systems that are viable.”
Conventional agriculture costs a lot of money. Farmers typically pay dearly for inputs like fertilizer and pesticides and the fuel needed to spread them in the field. Since the 1930’s, the federal government has subsidizedthose costs heavily. But Farm Bill subsidies are deliberately conservative. They aren’t equipped to encourage risk and experimentation. “They’re designed for commodity mid- to large-scale agriculture,” according to Clark Harshbarger, a regenerative agriculture expert with the NGO Mad Agriculture in Boulder, Colorado. “They purposely try to take the risk out of those practices because it’s taxpayer money already spent,” Harshbarger said. “And sometimes [the USDA] vetting process hasn’t necessarily caught up with progressive regenerative farming systems.” As a small-scale regenerative farmer, DiDomenico falls through the cracks when it comes to federal subsidies. The farming technique at Yellow Barn is experimental and holistic. Harshbarger is familiar with DiDomenicos’ work. “It’s very creative and it’s complex,” he explained, but “the Farm Bill is designed to be very specific… very 1 to 1.”
The USDA doesn’t subsidize this type of work. So DiDomenico finds financial support in some unlikely places…Just off the highway, in the city of Boulder, there’s a strip mall with an Indian Restaurant, a nail salon, and a locksmith. In a corner behind the Goodwill, a Subway sandwich shop does brisk business at lunch hour. But this Subway is special, because along with the standard steak and cheese, spicy Italian and tuna subs, it offers customers the opportunity to support regenerative farming in the neighboring rural areas. That’s because of a program called Restore Colorado, that takes a little extra charge – just 1% of the cost of your meal – from urban restaurants, like this Subway, and gives it to rural farmers, like DiDomenico, to invest in their soil. That comes to just a few cents on top of the cost of each sandwich, that shows up on the sales receipt as the 1% Restore Colorado charge.
Water Year 2022 started slow, lit up at wintertime, dried up in early spring, leaped back into action in late summer, then got lazy in early fall before one last hurrah.
The erratic spurts over the just-completed “water year,” the 12-month span between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30 that hydrologists use to track water trends, added up to a not-terrible-but-not-great-either result for Denver Water.
The most noticeable events included a very slow start to mountain snowfall through the first three months (bad), a second straight year of healthy summer monsoons in the mountains (good) and a sizable split between the water fortunes of Denver Water’s collection area (the high country and foothills) versus its service area (Denver and parts of five surrounding counties).
In short, it translated into a reasonably good water year in higher elevations and a far drier one for the 1.5 million people the utility serves in Denver and nearby suburbs.
One memorable result? Denver’s first snowfall came Dec. 10 — the latest first snow on record for Denver.
“Every water year is different, and Mother Nature throws new challenges at us almost every time,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “But timely rains and good customer practices helped us keep reservoir levels in solid shape and we soldiered through an up-and-down year.”
The very best news appears to be the way a second consecutive year of strong monsoon rains and higher humidity replenished dry soils in the mountains.
Should Colorado enjoy a deeper winter snowpack this year, it would mean more melting snow in the spring could find its way to streams and reservoirs in 2023, rather than vanishing into parched soils as has been the case in recent cycles.
Dice up the numbers in a different way and zoom out from Denver Water and the picture looked better from a statewide perspective, with summer precipitation levels the best since 2015.
Additionally, soil moisture is at its highest levels in three years, according to climate trackers at Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service via recent reporting from Marianne Goodland in the Denver Gazette.
While those are positive developments, experts across various agencies agree that Colorado and its water utilities need a string of strong winters, and preferably some wetter/cooler years overall if we’re ever to see longer-term improvements in hydrology.
But in an era of steady climate change that appears to be unlikely. Colorado’s summer of 2022 was the sixth warmest in the 128-year record maintained by state climatologists.
Denver Water’s supply managers faced some tough conditions in the 2022 water year.
Ongoing work to expand capacity at Gross Reservoir has limited storage in the facility west of Boulder. At the same time, unusually dry conditions on the South Platte River downstream of Denver left farmers calling on water rights dating all the way back to 1871 (just a decade shy of the oldest water rights on the river).
These rights are senior to all of Denver Water’s South Platte River reservoirs and made it difficult to fill those reservoirs. Cheesman Reservoir’s 1889 right is the most senior storage right in Denver Water’s portfolio.
All of that meant more water bypassed Denver Water’s reservoirs to meet those agricultural calls and there was less ability to make up that water by pulling from Gross Reservoir on the north side of the utility’s system. It also meant higher-than-average flows through the Roberts Tunnel to help supplement South Platte supplies.
But, in a hat tip to customers and Mother Nature, smart irrigation techniques (like turning off systems in rainy periods) and solid summer precipitation in the higher country (and, at times, in metro Denver) helped keep Denver Water’s reservoirs at just below average levels.
In fact, all that combined to close a storage gap. Reservoirs were 5% below average in July. But by the end of September that deficit fell to just 1% below average.
And there was more good news. Another good summer of monsoons kept wildfires at bay, which was a big relief after the devastating water year of 2020, when record-setting late-season fires extended the burn season into October.
The last month of summer keeps getting warmer. This one set a new record for 90-degree days (10), which — along with other factors — make it the fastest-warming month in the Denver area when compared to the previous 30-year block of records that spans 1981 to 2010.
Conditions improved in late September, when late-season moisture boosted streamflows and dampened soils, especially in the high country, bringing a happy ending to the water year.
Some broader context also is in order.
The 2022 Water Year for the wider Colorado River Basin was another poor one. One simple metric captures the status of the basin: The amount of water in the two major reservoirs on the river dropped dramatically, with Lake Mead falling 1.8 million acre-feet from a year ago and Lake Powell falling 1.5 million acre-feet in the same time frame.
Trends in the Colorado River Basin matter a great deal to Denver Water, as the utility gets about 50% of its supplies from the headwaters of the basin.
The new 2023 Water Year that began Oct. 1 is off to a good start for Denver Water.
After the nip-and-tuck of the summer months, the utility’s reservoir levels have hit their average mark heading into late fall and winter, just where water managers want to be at the beginning of the snow-accumulation season.
“We hope Mother Nature makes a New Water Year Resolution to provide ample snow and rain fall in the water year of 2023,” said Elder.
It’s he and his team who must now begin planning for the various scenarios winter and spring might bring.
You, too, can make a resolution for the New Water Year: to reduce your water use. Check out Denver Water’s website for rebates and ways to use water efficiently.
Click the link to read the post on the InkStain website (Eric Kuhn and John Fleck):
Santa Fe, New Mexico, was off the beaten path in November 1922. That was the point.
After a logjam and a seven-month break, the Colorado River Commission finally reconvened in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Bishops Lodge on Nov. 9, 1922, to try to find common ground for a seven-state compact to divide the waters of the Colorado River.
The Commission’s chairman, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, chose to meet there because he wanted a secluded location where the commissioners and their advisors could roll up their sleeves and hammer out a compact.
The enthusiasm for a deal, and the optimism for what might follow, was palpable as leaders across the West descended on New Mexico. The obstacles were great, both technical and institutional, New Mexico’s Alamogordo Daily News reported in the days leading up to the gathering.
The lodge is a few miles north of the city over what was then a very rough road. Time was short. The 1921 law authorizing the negotiations only gave the Compact Commission a year to finish its task. Only 53 days remained and as far as Hoover could tell, the commission was nowhere near an agreement.
The 10th meeting did not get off to a smooth start. First, the commissioners from California, Nevada, and Wyoming had travel problems. All seven state commissioners would not get to Santa Fe until late on Friday. Next, Hoover had a second goal in picking the smallish Bishops Lodge. He wanted to limit the size and attendance at the meeting. In his view, the negotiations had too many camp followers, especially from California. Hearing that the lodge had booked as many as four to a room, he ordered Clarence Stetson, his aid and commission secretary, to direct the manager to reduce the guest list, limiting those staying at the lodge to two to a room. Although it upset those that were kicked out of the lodge, only a few departed Santa Fe. Instead, most decided to make the daily trek over the rough road and to Hoover’s annoyance, the state commissioners, especially California’s McClure, were reluctant to tell their state colleagues they were not welcome.
Hoover’s scheme to sequester the negotiations kept the press at bay. “The Associated Press dispatches from the conference have been meagre,” the Nevada State Journal reported as the proceedings rolled forward.
Without all the commissioners present, there was little of substance that could be accomplished pm the first day. The five commissioners decided to limit the attendance at executive sessions to the commissioners plus one legal and engineering advisor for each and any governor that might be in attendance. They then adjourned.
While the commission may not have met in seven months, they had kept in communications with each other and Stetson. Colorado’s Delph Carpenter, in many ways the Compact’s most important parent, had been especially active. He was still reeling from his state’s Supreme Court loss in the Laramie River case where the court decision applied the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation on an interstate basin. That loss in his view left the upper river states fully exposed to the big projects California already had in place or was actively planning. He and Utah’s Caldwell both had already decided they would give up on their insistence that Lower Basin projects never interfere with future water use on the upper river. Both had a new idea to share with their fellow commissioners based on dividing the use of the river’s waters between two basins and leave the dividing the water among the states to each basin.
Now they just needed to wait until everyone arrived.