This week, moderate to heavy precipitation fell over the northern Great Plains, parts of the Upper Midwest and much of the south-central and northeast U.S. This led to widespread improvements in drought conditions and abnormal dryness in these areas, as precipitation deficits lessened and soil moisture and groundwater and streamflow improved. Meanwhile, the West region was much drier this week than the last few, so few changes were made there, and mostly long-term drought and abnormal dryness continued across much of the region. A Kona low affected the Hawaiian islands this week, dumping heavy amounts of precipitation in the form of thunderstorms and high mountain snows on the Big Island, which led to improvements over most of the islands…
Widespread moderate to heavy rain and snow fell over parts of the High Plains region, especially the Dakotas and northern Nebraska. Due to the growing snowpack and lessened precipitation deficits, improvements were made across much of South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as in north-central and northwest Nebraska and the northeast corner of Colorado. Improvements were also made due to recent precipitation in the Kansas City metro area. Farther west in Kansas, dry weather continued this week, and long-term precipitation deficits and soil moisture deficits continued to grow, leading to a small expansion of extreme drought to the east…
Compared to the last several weeks, this week was generally quieter across the West region, with the exception of snowfall in the eastern plains of Montana from the same system that impacted the Dakotas. Some improvements were made in eastern Montana, as this snowpack helped to further alleviate long-term precipitation deficits. Elsewhere across the West, mostly long-term drought and abnormal dryness continued in most parts of the region…
Moderate to heavy rain fell this week across the eastern half of the south region, roughly to the east of Interstate 35 in Texas and Oklahoma. Due to increasing streamflow and soil moisture, and decreasing precipitation deficits, improvements were made across much of the eastern half of the region, including a small part of eastern Oklahoma, much of Arkansas, east Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. In parts of Texas that missed out on the rains, degradations were made in a few spots where precipitation deficits, and in some cases streamflow deficits, mounted. Widespread severe, extreme and exceptional drought continued across much of central and western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle…
As the current week leading up to Christmas Day comes to a close, a powerful storm system will drag a strong Arctic cold front through much of the central and eastern U.S. to the east of the Rocky Mountains. Light to moderate precipitation amounts, much of it in the form of snow in the central Great Plains and Midwest, will transition to heavier precipitation as the storm system strengthens in the Great Lakes region late in the week. Moderate to heavy precipitation accumulations are likelier in the eastern Great Lakes, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Into early next week (the week of Monday, December 26), heavier precipitation is also likely in northern Idaho and in far northwest California, western Oregon and western Washington.
Looking ahead to December 27 through New Year’s Eve, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center’s outlook favors warmer-than-normal temperatures in most of the Lower 48, with the exception of most of the Southeast region. Above-normal precipitation is strongly favored in much of the West, moderately favored from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf Coast and slightly favored in the Central and Northern Great Plains. Below-normal precipitation is favored in central and southern Texas and in New England. In Alaska, above-normal precipitation is favored in the southern half of the state, above-normal temperatures are favored in southeast Alaska and below-normal temperatures are favored in the northwest half of Alaska. For the period spanning December 29 through January 4, above-normal temperatures are favored over the entire Lower 48, and above-normal precipitation is favored over most of the Lower 48 as well. Above-normal precipitation is favored in southern Alaska, while temperatures are likely to vary from warmer than normal in the southeast to colder than normal in the Northwest.
Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico revived a program this week aimed at keeping water in the dwindling Colorado River by paying users who take conservation measures. Starting in April 2023, the System Conservation Pilot Program will pay users $150 per acre-foot of water they conserve. The plan is an attempt to keep more high elevation snowmelt flowing to lakes Mead and Powell, the largest reservoirs in the country, which are at historically low levels. The lion’s share of Colorado River water allocated for human consumption goes toward agriculture, and farmers and other users with a claim to the river will soon be able to submit a project proposal, then receive payment for what they conserve. The payments will come from a $125 million chunk of the Inflation Reduction Act, stemming from a $4 billion provision to fight drought in the Colorado River Basin. Participants could be paid more than the $150 per acre-foot rate if they submit a more detailed proposal…
The upper basin’s five-point plan to combat drought
Representatives from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, which constitute the upper Colorado River Basin, unveiled the program at the annual Colorado River Water User’s Association conference hosted in Las Vegas. The System Conservation Pilot Program is the first step in a five-point plan that the upper basin rolled out this summer in response to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s drastic announcement demanding states conserve at least 2 million acre-feet of water. The upper basin’s plan also includes a drought response plan that would potentially release water from upstream holdings to keep the Glen Canyon Dam operational; consider an “Upper Basin Demand Management program as interstate and intrastate investigations are completed”; use funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law to “accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting infrastructure to improve water management tools”; and “continue strict water management and administration within the available annual water supply.”
Rio Blanco County Commissioners and staff discussed the nuance and minutiae of water administration in the White River Valley during a special work session Tuesday. “It will be tough for sure” said Commissioner Ginny Love, noting that residents will have to adjust to using less water, or even having water shutoff at certain times of year.
“There’s not much we can do about it, it’s more of how to learn to live with it,” said Colorado River District water commissioner Betty Kracht. She visited with the board to share background info about Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s (RBWCD) call on the river and answer questions about how water administration will affect residents of Rio Blanco County.
RBWCD placed a “standing call” on the river using multiple water rights, beginning with a 1966 decree for 620 cubic feet per second (CFS). Kracht explained that once the first right is met, another call (from another junior water right) would then kick in. Whenever the call is in-effect, water rights holders junior to RBWCD’s 1966 decree will be subject to shutoff/curtailment. According to Kracht, about one-third of rights in the drainage are junior to 1966. Senior water rights holders can still use their allocated amount during the call, though Kracht warned they’ll still be affected by administration if they’re not in compliance with state water regulations. “With this call, anyone who wants to irrigate must have a headgate, must have a measuring device,” said Kracht, noting the measurement rules affect the entire county, not just people upstream from the Taylor Draw Dam. Kracht further detailed results of water administration, which will include stricter enforcement of water use. For example, water decreed for irrigation can’t be used for livestock watering, or vice-versa.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources staff in Steamboat Springs reminds landowners with existing unpermitted wells, and ponds fed by ground water, to file permits for those water structures by Dec. 31 to be evaluated without the well impacts treated as injurious, or harmful to water rights.
The state water engineer designated the middle Yampa River basin from west Steamboat Springs to the confluence with the Little Snake River west of Maybell, including all of its tributaries, as over-appropriated on March 1. Through the end of 2022, owners of existing unpermitted wells in that area can obtain a well permit without negative impacts if the well owner can demonstrate the well and its uses existed prior to March 1. The wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere.
Water resources officials estimate hundreds of unpermitted wells exist in that area. A map of over-appropriated areas is available online at dwr.colorado.gov/division-offices/division-6-office, and click on the link “Report Designating Yampa River as Over-Appropriated.”
For applications for existing unpermitted wells filed on or after Jan. 1, Division of Water Resources staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells when evaluating applications, which may result in a permit issued that considerably limits the use of water from the well. For questions, call the state’s well information desk at 303-866-3587. Permitting information is available online at Dwr.colorado.gov/services/well-permitting.
On a dark evening in early October, about 20 people gathered in a dimly lit room on the bottom floor of the Redstone Church. Many of the chairs were empty, but a smattering of locals from around the small, tightknit hamlet of Redstone had come to learn more about a project that could transform Coal Basin, a mountain valley just west of town.
For more than a century, invisible clouds of methane gas have been leaking out of several former coal mines that once operated in the basin. Although methane occurs naturally in coal deposits, ripping a hole in the mountain in the form of a coal mine releases the methane much faster. A potent greenhouse gas, methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year time period. (Over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more powerful.)
Standing in front of the audience, Chris Caskey, a Paonia-based scientist and architect of a proposal to deal with the methane leaks, pulled up a picture of one of the mine portals on a projector screen. The image was taken with an infrared camera, which made visible the methane billowing out from around the concrete header on the mine portal.
“These mines are doing $12 million of damage a year on society,” said Caskey, referring to the social cost of methane, a calculation that seeks to put a dollar figure on the total damages to society as a whole by emitting 1 ton of methane into the atmosphere. This includes, for instance, contributing to climate change, damaging public health and reducing the yield of agricultural ecosystems.
Not everyone was convinced. For many locals, the methane leaking out of the mine was less problematic than the potential changes to what they consider a treasured backyard wilderness, encompassing 6,000 mountainous acres of aspen groves, waterfalls and a new mountain-bike trail system.
The meeting was supposed to inform locals about the project — and ultimately win their support — but it also offered a window into a much deeper debate in the fight against climate change: How can the global benefits of a project that would reduce heat-trapping emissions be reconciled with the impacts the project would inevitably have on the local environment? For Caskey and the other proponents of the Coal Basin methane project, their biggest hurdle might not be the layers of bureaucracy they will have to navigate, but convincing Redstone residents that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Identify and authorize
The Coal Basin mines are among thousands of shuttered coal mines across the country currently leaking methane long after they have closed. So far, Caskey has identified 12 major leaks in Coal Basin, but there are probably more, which he hopes to find with a drone or by helicopter. Using a portable methane sensor, Caskey has measured methane from two of those leaks (the only two that are easy to measure) at a combined rate of 100 to 200 tons per year. Extrapolating that number using Environmental Protection Agency data, he believes the Coal Basin mines are, in total, emitting roughly 10,000 tons, or the equivalent of 248,040 tons of carbon dioxide, which is roughly half of Pitkin County’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
That situation is untenable to Caskey, a self-described “climate guy” who learned about the problem a few years ago and began thinking of solutions. Backed by almost $900,000 in funding from private companies such as Atlantic Aviation, nonprofits such as Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) and Pitkin County, Caskey hopes he can find a way to deal with the methane leaks. He has proposed capturing the methane and either using it or destroying it, depending on which option proves most viable. The purpose of the meeting was to outline the next steps in the process to identify a project and get it authorized — and hopefully, gain more support from the Redstone community, which appears skeptical based on the sentiment expressed at the October meeting and in subsequent interviews.
Early this month, Caskey submitted clarifications for his proposal to the U.S. Forest Service asking for permission to run a “flow test” this spring or summer at the mines in Coal Basin. The test would deliver more precise information about the methane and other gases coming out of the mines, revealing the exact quantity and quality of the methane — and the best option for dealing with it. If the test reveals that the gas contains a minimum of 18% methane, the most viable project would be destroying the methane through flaring, or burning, it. If the test shows the emissions have more than 30% methane, then it would be possible to capture the methane and convert it to electricity — a much costlier and more environmentally invasive project, involving pumping stations and building a pipe (either above ground or below) to bring the gas down.
Doing nothing is also an option, Caskey said, but, given the urgency of the climate crisis, it was not one he favored.
Reading the room
As the meeting progressed, tensions in the room rose as Caskey described what the flow test would entail. The test requires having to haul up a large, heavy measuring device to the mine portals in Coal Basin. To do that, they would have to reopen the old road, building culverts over the stream crossings so that a truck could get through.
A woman in the audience asked, “Any other way to do this without dragging equipment up there?”
“Will this project kill our dwindling elk herd?” asked Gentrye Houghton, a Redstoneresident.
Caskey assured her that a project to deal with the methane would not kill the elk herd. Still, his affirmations that any project proposal would first undergo environmental impact studies under the National Environmental Policy Act seemed not to have much sway.
“That’s not what the residents want to see up there,” a man said. Another person asked how many diesel generators a methane electrification project would require.
Caskey tried to acknowledge the sentiments diplomatically: “I’m hearing that people have noise concerns,” he said.
Cost versus benefit
A month after the meeting, I met with Houghton at the Redstone General Store. Thirty-seven years old with short pink hair, Houghton is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Crystal Valley Echo, a local paper, and works as a massage therapist on the side. She moved to Redstone almost 10 years ago, after an internship with Rock and Ice, a now-defunct Carbondale magazine. In 2018, she bought a house — formerly the town laundromat and, at 430 square feet, “literally the smallest home in Redstone,” she said. Coal Basin is where Houghton taught herself to backcountry ski — on a hillside she later found out was not a natural slope but, rather, a mound of old coal tailings. These days, she estimates that she is up in the basin at least once a day to recreate, depending on the season.
Houghton first heard about Caskey’s methane project proposal while scrolling through the minutes from a Pitkin County commissioners meeting. The commissioners had allocated $200,000 to the project, which Houghton said helps illuminate some of her and other Redstone residents’ broader frustrations about the project. “The big sentiment is: Is this big money bulldozing us over?” she said. “Is this just a pet project for billionaires who don’t have to look at it in their backyard?”
Many residents, she said, remember Coal Basin’s reclamation process, a $4 million restoration effort that lasted until 2002 to clean up the environmental disaster left over from the mining operations. They fear that a methane project could undo those decades of progress. Houghton pushed back at the notion that Redstone residents were prioritizing their own interests over addressing climate change. The 10,000 tons produced annually by the Coal Basin mines are just a small fraction of the 570 million tons of methane emissions that occur globally. According to Houghton, many locals are unconvinced that the environmental impacts of the project are worth the benefits.
Chuck Downey, 84, another longtime Redstone resident, echoed those feelings. Growing up in the Fryingpan Valley, he saw how the Ruedi Dam construction in the 1960s forever changed the valley. Afterward, he vowed to fight if another project that would negatively affect his local ecosystem ever arose. Of particular concern to Downey was the electricity-generation option. Initially, Caskey had hoped that the flow-test results would support his idea to convert the methane leaking from the coal mines into electricity. However, based on the lessons learned from the nearby methane-to-electricity power plant at a mine in Somerset (one of only two such facilities in the country), Caskey said he now questions whether electricity generation from the Coal Basin methane will be viable. Downey would be more amenable to Caskey’s other proposal — flaring the methane — but he said he would still not endorse the plan, believing that the amount of methane leaking from the mines is too small to warrant the impacts to national forest land. “The way I see it,” he said, “what’s being proposed is indeed a really good idea, but it’s in the wrong place.”
Caskey isn’t surprised that locals are wary of the project. “I run a for-profit company. Anytime one shows up in your town, you should be suspicious,” he said. Overall, he added, the reception to his proposal has been overwhelmingly positive, but the closer you get physically to where the project would occur, the more concerns there are.
At the meeting, proponents expressed how Coal Basin’s mining history and already-disturbed status make it an ideal location for a methane project. “It’s not a pristine mountain area,” a man said. “It’s not even fully restored.”
A lady in a puffy pink jacket objected to his assessment, saying that she hikes in Coal Basin regularly. “I know what I’m talking about,” she said tartly.
For Caskey, the local impacts aren’t the only questions relevant to the methane project. Wealthy Coloradans have benefited from resource exploitation, he said. “The more pertinent question is: ‘What responsibility do we have to clean up the mess related to that exploitation given that it hurts other people?’”
Another proponent reminded the room that Coal Basin’s minerals are owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages resources for all Americans, not just the few who live in Redstone. “What if this project could contribute to good?” the person added. “It could be a model for the rest of the world — opportunity for Redstone to rally around in a time when so much is wrong.”
“We need more studies,” said a man in a blue fleece.
“Oh, there will definitely be more studies,” said Caskey, flipping the projector to the next slide.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is supported by the Catena Foundation, which is affiliated with the owner of the parcel home to the mountain-bike trail network referenced in the story. We are also supported by Pitkin County’s Healthy Community Fund. Aspen Journalism is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.