Bioreactors Form a Last Line of Defense against Nitrate Runoff — NRCS

Illustration of how a denitrifying bioreactor fits in with drainage water management. Credit: NRCS

Click the link to read the article on the NRCS website (Kari Cohen):

Walk to the edge of certain crop fields in Iowa and look down. You might not notice anything unusual, but just beneath the surface hordes of woodchip-dwelling microorganisms are busy removing excess nitrates from water before it leaves the field. By filtering nitrates, this organic gauntlet safeguards local streams and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Hungry microorganisms and woodchips are the key components of denitrifying bioreactors, a conservation practice that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) made eligible for financial assistance last year with the publication of a Denitrifying Bioreactor conservation practice standard. Progressive farmers in the Midwest have been experimenting with bioreactors for about a decade, and NRCS has piloted the practice in a handful of states including Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.

“We’re really excited about the potential to spread this technology across the Mississippi River Basin,” said Dr. Wayne Honeycutt, deputy chief for science and technology at NRCS. “When paired with nutrient management, cover crops and no-till practices, denitrifying bioreactors are a fantastic line of defense for subsurface nitrates.”

Water control structures (in the large white circles) route water running through tile lines into the denitrifying bioreactor, which lies underground at the edge of a field. Image by John Peterson via the NRCS

A bioreactor is basically a buried trench filled with a carbon source – usually wood chips – installed at the edge of a field. Tile drains from the field carry excess water from the plant root zone, and divert a portion of the drainage water into the bioreactor. Microorganisms on the wood chips consume the nitrates in the water and expel it as nitrogen gas. Performance varies based on size, location, and a variety of other factors, but the average bioreactor can be expected to remove 35-50 percent of nitrates from the water flowing through it. Bioreactors have no adverse effects on crop production and do not restrict drainage.

In 2011, the Iowa Soybean Association was awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant from NRCS to increase farmer awareness and accelerate implementation of denitrifying bioreactors. Project leaders monitored and analyzed the performance of new and existing bioreactors, and explored ways to limit buildup of harmful contaminants in the woodchip pile.

“One thing we learned is that it’s important not to build bioreactors too large,” said Keegan Kult, environmental projects manager with the Iowa Soybeans Association. “If they’re too large, it becomes hard to control the flow of water through the bioreactor.”

The project also provided outreach and training to NRCS field staff and drainage contractors to build confidence and familiarity with the new practice. Kult said that the Iowa Soybean Association has been involved in the installation of 22 bioreactors in Iowa, and estimates that there are probably another 10-15 beyond that.

Installation costs of a bioreactor vary, but the average model costs $8,000-$12,000. NRCS, through the new conservation practice standard, may provide partial financial assistance for the cost of implementation. Nabbing Nitrates Before Water Leaves the Farm: Bioreactors, a short video by the Missouri & Mississippi Divide Resource Conservation and Development with support from NRCS, provides a nice overview of a bioreactor from start to finish.

NRCS promotes coordinated conservation practices that help producers avoid loss, and control and trap nutrients and sediment at the edge of farm fields. Denitrifying bioreactors hold great promise as a nutrient trap, reducing the flow of excess nitrates into local bodies of water, a significant water quality concern throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

Due to their potential for capturing nitrates, bioreactors are gaining popularity. Bioreactors are still a relatively new technology, however, and continued research and testing will lead to further refinement and performance improvement in the future.

Installation of a denitrifying bioreactor. Nitrates beware. Photograph by Jason Johnson, NRCS Iowa.

November was largely dry for much of the Southwest, Plains, and Midwest. Some areas, though, saw dramatic variability @DroughtCenter

In Kansas, the Dakotas, Nevada and New Mexico, some places received less than 5% the normal amount of rain for the month, while others saw more than 200%.

‘Free Water’ Was Never Free, Writes a Historian of the American — The Revelator #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Click the link to read the guest column on The Revelator website (Nate Housley):

Subsidized water cultivated the West, but this required becoming increasingly profligate with the region’s scarcest resource

The West uses too much water. For such a simple problem, the obvious solution — use less — lies frustratingly out of reach.

That inability to change may seem hard to understand, but the root of the problem becomes clearer if we consider the role of the West in the historical development of the United States:

The purpose of our system of “free water” — heavily subsidized water for irrigation — was to provide opportunities to settlers.

The frontier has served an important function in the Euro-American imagination since before there was a United States. For historians of the American West like me, the significance of the frontier has been at the center of our field for more than a century. Thomas Jefferson made the most notable case for westward expansion, prescribing it to relieve the social and political pressures that were building up as eastern populations grew and fought over limited resources. By the mid-1800s policymakers believed his ideal of yeoman homesteaders and their patchwork of farms was the Manifest Destiny of the United States’ exceptional democracy.

But that ideal never made it all the way across the continent. It ran into a problem right around the 100th meridian, west of which there wasn’t enough rainfall for agriculture.

Agriculture would require irrigation. A lot of it.

Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows

To solve this problem, the United States formed the Reclamation Service (the precursor to the Bureau of Reclamation) just over a decade after the frontier closed in 1890. While the federal government wasn’t quite powerful or rich enough, at the time, to construct many major irrigation projects, the Service provided a signal of the nation’s commitment to investing in the West as a site for settlement. It was too important a project to leave to private irrigation companies and too much work for individual homesteaders. As historian Donald Pisani put it in his book Water and American Government, “Federal reclamation was the last stage of Manifest Destiny.”

With the New Deal, the Bureau of Reclamation came into its own: Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 as the world’s largest dam, served as a symbol for the country’s ability to conquer nature.

Progressives championed desert reclamation at the turn of the century, but the federal government’s willingness to build infrastructure and give water away on extravagantly lenient terms was just as appealing for conservatives after World War II. Even Barry Goldwater, while courting the libertarians of the nascent New Right, advocated for the federally funded Central Arizona Project in his home state so that farmers could grow cotton in the Sonoran Desert.

That’s the defining contradiction of life in the West: “Government,” in Western parlance, was and is the stuff of restrictions, even when it’s the government that underwrites ever-popular sprawl.

While some made fortunes off this deluge of government spending, the enrichment of a few landowners was not the policy objective. Rather, the purpose of all the free water was to retain the West as a “safety valve,” a place of refuge for those who wanted to avoid the taxes and regulations of the East. But to accommodate growth without limits as the population boomed, the region would need to heighten the contradictions and become increasingly profligate with its scarcest resource.

Agriculture was once the means for permanent settlement of the arid West, and it continues to drive water consumption today. Around 80% of Colorado River water goes toward agriculture. About half of that is directed toward alfalfa hay that feeds cattle, an extremely inefficient way to provide calories for humans.

Agricultural water rights are some of the oldest in the West, and water law here revolves around seniority. Yet even if there were a ready legal pathway to divert water away from alfalfa fields, the fact remains that the apparatus for western water delivery was simply not built with a regulatory lever. The underlying imperative to grow without limits would inevitably lead back to a state of crisis.

Consider St. George, Utah. The fastest growing metropolitan area in the country consumes almost no agricultural water, yet its lawns and golf courses quickly suck up its scarce water supply. The city, a popular destination for retirees, is expected to double in population by 2050. Officials now find themselves struggling to find sources of water for the surge in residents. What is quickly becoming a crisis for humans is also creating additional pressure on other species such as the endangered woundfin and Virgin River chub.

Pine Valley Mountains with St. George, Utah in the foreground. By Óðinn – Own work  This image was created with Hugin., CC BY-SA 2.5 ca

The system’s deference to ideology over pragmatism is clear when it comes to the Basin’s 30 Native American Tribes. Collectively, they control about 20% of the water rights in the Colorado River system, yet many of those rights consist of “paper water.” They’re unrealized due to a lack of infrastructure. Building the necessary water projects for the Tribes would not only cost money but also push the system past the point of collapse. The very viability of the free water system depends on a de facto denial of the water rights of Indigenous nations, just as broken treaties facilitated the “free land” policy of the 19th century.

Free water was destined to run out eventually. Facing this problem in the West will be difficult, considering that politics and culture have worked in tandem for so long to keep “government” out of government-subsidized water. It’s unclear whether the system can be retrofitted with an off switch and whether the necessary governments can work together to do so before the Colorado River system crashes.

So how do we move forward? Ending the current subsidies seems the most commonsense solution — as well as the most unlikely to gain political traction.

Another possible solution: commodities trading. The classic solution for an imbalance of supply and demand is to introduce markets. Yet applying this approach to western water faces logistical challenges and can do little about longstanding problems of equity.

Still, the problem is big enough that all interventions may be necessary. Perhaps these first two ideas can be implemented. And perhaps we can think bigger.

One way forward is for the government to recognize the inherent worth of natural waterways, rejecting the premise that all fresh water must be consumed. Giving legal rights to ecosystems is the goal of the rights of nature movement, which has had some success across the world and even in the U.S. West. The organization Save the Colorado helped the communities of Ridgway, Nederland, and Grand Lake in Colorado pass resolutions recognizing the intrinsic rights of their watersheds. I’m part of an organization, Save Our Great Salt Lake, that’s exploring a similar strategy.

Wherever the future leads, the aridification of the American West will have consequences not just for those living here, but for the entire country.

It’s conceivable that westerners will adapt more readily to a drier climate than the rest of the nation will adapt to the loss of a region that functions as a safety valve. At any rate, we’re approaching the end of an era in which water was taken for granted. Just as human beings physically depend on water, our policies and conversations need to align with the water cycle.

Nearly 400 People Learn About #Water Issues During Fall Symposium — @Northern_Water #SouthPlatteRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Attendees of the 2022 Fall Symposium learn about the water supply challenges facing the region.

Click the link to read the article on the Northern Water website:

Two of the biggest current topics in water resources management drew nearly 400 people to the Embassy Suites on Nov. 15.

The Northern Water Fall Symposium offered in-depth panel discussions exploring the ongoing challenges facing users of Colorado River water and the challenges of developing housing with appropriate water-conserving landscaping.

With an overall theme of the event highlighting the physical and sociological adaptations that may be required of Northern Colorado residents into the future, the Symposium brought together water users from across many municipalities, agricultural interests and industries to hear from top experts in their respective fields.

In addition to the in-depth discussions, the Symposium offered the opportunity to meet the new director of the Colorado Water Center – John Tracy, hear about the regional outlook from the state’s climatologist, forest health initiatives and local water projects.

Planning for the Spring Water Users Meeting has already begun, and more information will be released soon.

Snowmaking stretches ski season. But is it sustainable? — Red (Metropolitan State University of Denver)

Full blast snow cannon at The Nordic Centre, Canmore, Alberta, Canada. By Calyponte, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Click the link to read the article on the Metropolitan State University of Denver website (Mark Cox):

Colorado’s ski-and-snowboard industry fights to mitigate the consequences of climate change while boosting the state’s economy.

It’s the first rule of skiing and riding: You need snow.

And when Mother Nature is stingy in providing the white stuff, Colorado’s ski-and-snowboard industry ramps up its efforts to lend her an icy helping hand.

Arapahoe Basin opened Oct. 23 this year, with several other resorts following suit a few days later. Winter Park had the earliest opening day in its 83-year history despite the fact that it has seen less natural snowfall this year than last.

It’s all thanks to the resorts’ extensive snowmaking operations, where water and pressurized air are used to create artificial snow. Recent advances in snowmaking technology, coupled with some major investments in state-of-the-art equipment, often send ski-and-snowboard season off to a flying start before Halloween.

That’s great for Colorado’s outdoor industry, which generated $11.6 billion in economic activity in 2021, said Lincoln Davie, Ph.D., associate professor of Outdoor Recreation in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s School of Hospitality. Snow activities alone generated $1.3 billion in Colorado, which ranked first in the nation.

“The ski industry remains our most robust outdoor market,” Davie said, “and there’s an expectation that adventure tourism will bring in more than $1 trillion globally by 2030. So yes, you could say getting a steady supply of snow is pretty critical.”

But maintaining that steady supply to sustain a crucial sector of the state’s economy is also a balancing act. Snowmaking at Colorado ski resorts annually diverts around 1.5 billion gallons of water and uses a lot of energy, all while the state endures a crippling 23-year drought and an accelerating climate crisis.

“It’s a difficult situation, certainly” said Tom Bellinger, Ph.D., an affiliate professor of Environmental Science at MSU Denver. “Although it does help that winter recreation occurs during the ‘recharge season’ of the water year, when there’s generally less demand for irrigation, plants and crops.”

But the situation remains fragile, he warned. A string of dry winters could easily lead to a sparse mountain snow covering, resulting in a limited water supply to fill the state’s reservoirs.

“That would be a double whammy for tourism,” Bellinger said. “If you had not enough mountain snow when resorts needed it most — plus a lack of available snowmaking water — you’d likely be looking at shorter snow seasons.”

‘Stretchy’ season

There’s good reason why the ski industry is investing so heavily in man-made snow. Snowpack in the U.S. West fell by nearly 20% during the last century, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency. And as natural snow progressively arrives later and melts earlier, snowmaking has provided a means to artificially “stretch” the skiing season — in both directions.

Besides enabling record early starts this year, man-made snow has been lengthening the ski season in recent years. That’s why snowmaking is critical to the industry’s bottom line and the 46,000 year-round jobs that depend on it, Davie said.

“Without reliable snow all season long, all those other highly profitable elements of the resort experience — guest ski passes, lodging, food and drink, even parking — simply would not happen,” he said.

Snowmaking first started to gain traction around 50 years ago and has become almost ubiquitous. The National Ski Areas Association estimates that around 87% of the country’s ski resorts use snowmaking equipment.

Still, you can’t say they’ve been napping through the climate crisis. In recent years, the multibillion-dollar industry has invested heavily to make snowmaking technology more energy-efficient and environmentally conscious.

Numerous resorts have replaced their manual snow guns with fully automatic models. Fitted with onboard weather systems, these complex machines “read” forecasts and switch on only when the temperature is suitably cold and crisp. The result: more snow with less water.

Crucially, resort operators have also gotten better at utilizing another valuable resource: experience. Davie argues that decades of trial and error have made ski specialists more strategically savvy about what does and doesn’t work, and better at managing risks.

“These days, resorts know precisely where to position snow guns to maximize cover, and they carefully scrutinize weather forecasts,” he said. “It’s a finely honed operation.”

Sustainable skiing

While the 1.5 billion gallons of water used annually in Colorado snowmaking sounds like a giant number, it’s a tiny amount — a thimbleful of water in a great lake — compared with the vast reserves (85% of Colorado’s total water allowance) set aside each year for agricultural use.

And most of this man-made snow, around 80%, eventually melts and returns to the watershed during the spring.

“Last season, Winter Park took around 72 million gallons from the Vasquez Canal for its snowmaking operations,” Bellinger said. “But most of that water, excepting 20% lost to evaporation, returned right back to the canal during the melt season.”

In other words, the ski resorts are largely “borrowing” the water rather than outright taking it.

Colorado’s ski industry is also fighting to mitigate its impacts and implement progressive environmental strategies.

“The outdoor industry has really led the way in demonstrating that business can’t be relevant without a deep integration of sustainability principles,” Davie said.

As an example, he pointed to Vail Resorts, a massive company that employs thousands but nonetheless is on track to achieve a zero net operating footprint by 2030. Other ski areas have also set similar goals through aggressive sustainability plans.

“That’s the kind of progress I’d like to see across the board,” Davie said. “If more industries could follow Vail’s example and commit to such ambitious environmental targets, it might give us a fighting chance.”

Did you know New York recently had a major “lake effect” snowstorm? — @NASAClimate

Lawsuit filed to protect #RioGrande silvery minnow from extinction — WildEarth Guardians

Click the link to read the release on the WildEarth Guardians website (Daniel Timmons):

WildEarth Guardians has filed a lawsuit seeking to hold federal agencies accountable for the continued decline of imperiled species in the Middle Rio Grande, including the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

The lawsuit filed today in the federal District of New Mexico, alleges that the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are in violation of the Endangered Species Act and seeks a court order compelling the federal agencies to reassess the effects of water management activities on threatened and endangered species along the Rio Grande. If successful, Guardians’ lawsuit would require federal agencies to develop enforceable measures to ensure that dams and diversions in the Middle Rio Grande do not jeopardize the survival or recovery of imperiled species.

The Rio Grande is a critical artery of life through the desert of the American southwest. But a century of dams, diversions, and modifications have decimated this living river and driven numerous native species to extinction and others to the brink. Critical wildlife habitat in and along the Rio Grande has been impaired, threatening bird species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo. And nearly 30 years after the silvery minnow was listed as endangered in 1994, this once-abundant fish remains perilously close to extinction. While federal, state, and local agencies have been working to protect and recover silvery minnow populations for decades, critically-low population levels show that new solutions are desperately needed.

“Fish need water. With the Rio Grande running dry through Albuquerque during the summer of 2022—for the first time in decades—it comes as little surprise that silvery minnow populations remain in crisis,” said Daniel Timmons, Wild Rivers Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “It is time to move beyond band-aid solutions for the Middle Rio Grande and think holistically about how to save a living river and all the native species that call the river home.”

“With the climate crisis and aridification contributing to long-term changes in Rio Grande flows, federal water managers must recognize that the status quo is a recipe for extinction,” said Timmons. “Time is running out—not just for the silvery minnow, but for a living Rio Grande. If future generations of New Mexicans are to enjoy a living, flowing Rio Grande, a verdant bosque, and abundant fish and wildlife, we must come together and figure out new, sustainable solutions to meeting human needs for water for cities and farms, while protecting our environment.”

Rio Grande. Photo by Javier Gallegos.

Reclamation makes operational adjustments from #LakePowell to protect low level critical elevations #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Glen Canyon Dam November 2022. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website (Becki Bryant and Michelle Helms):

The Bureau of Reclamation has begun monthly operational adjustments with reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam under the Drought Response Operations Agreement. The adjusted releases are designed to help protect critical elevations at Lake Powell until the spring runoff materializes.

The monthly adjustments will hold back 523,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell from December 2022 through April 2023 when inflow to the reservoir is low. The same amount of water (523,000 acre-feet) will then be added to releases to Lake Mead between June and September after the spring runoff occurs.

Consistent with the DROA and the dam’s Long-term Experimental and Management Plan Record of Decision, only the monthly volumes are being adjusted. The annual release volume of 7.0 million acre-feet for water year 2023 (October 1, 2022, through September 30, 2023) will remain the same as described in the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (referred to as the 2007 Interim Guidelines).  

These monthly adjustments will boost Lake Powell’s elevation by nearly 10 feet by April 2023. Latest projections show the reservoir dropping below the 3,525 feet target elevation as early as this month. The target elevation is a buffer that allows for response actions to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below elevation of 3,490 feet, the lowest elevation that Glen Canyon Dam can still release water through its eight penstocks and generate hydropower.

The modified release pattern for Glen Canyon Dam is as follows:

Modified release plan for Glen Canyon Dam December 2, 2022 via Reclamation

“Under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, making these monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam is an integral part of ongoing actions to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan.

Reclamation and the DROA parties have amended Attachment B – Operational Adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam to reflect the decision to modify monthly releases from the dam. Work continues to develop a Drought Response Operations Plan for the 2023 DROA year (May 1, 2023 – April 30, 2024), which could include additional water releases to Lake Powell from the upstream Colorado River Storage Project initial units of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs.

Reclamation continues to closely monitor the basin’s hydrology and will release updated projections later this month with the December 24 Month Study. Those projections, scheduled to be released Dec. 15, will include the modified monthly releases from Glen Canyon Dam.  

“We’ll continue to work with our basin partners in the future in the same collaborative spirit we have demonstrated in the past,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jaci Gould.

Reclamation is working with its partners in the Colorado River Basin to meet the need for long-term adaptation for drought and a changing climate. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act provide the resources to back up Reclamation’s commitment to work in a consensus manner to protect the Colorado River system.