Updated 2022 Secretarial #Drought Designations through Jan. 18, 2023 — @DroughtDenise

Primary counties: 1,305 Contiguous counties: 388 For more info, please see the Emergency Disaster Designation and Declaration Process Face Sheet https://fsa.usda.gov/Assets/USDA-FSA-Public/usdafiles/FactSheets/emergency_disaster_designation_declaration_process-factsheet.pdf

Atmospheric Rivers Endanger the West — Writers on the Range

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):

Moab, Utah, gets just eight inches of rain per year, yet rainwater flooded John Weisheit’s basement last summer. Extremes are common in a desert: Rain and snow are rare, and a deluge can cause flooding.

Weisheit, 68, co-director of Living Rivers and a former Colorado River guide, has long warned the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that its two biggest dams on the Colorado River could become useless because of prolonged drought.

Although recently, at a BuRec conference, he also warned that “atmospheric rivers” could overtop both dams, demolishing them and causing widespread flooding.

Weisheit points to BuRec research by Robert Swain in 2004, showing an 1884 spring runoff that delivered two years’ worth of Colorado River flows in just four months.

California well knows the damage that long, narrow corridors of water vapor — atmospheric rivers — can do. Starting in December, one atmospheric storm followed another over the state, dumping water and snow on already saturated ground.

The multiple storms moved fast, sometimes over 60 miles per hour, and they quickly dropped their load. Atmospheric rivers can carry water vapor equal to 27 Mississippi Rivers.

These storms happen every year, but what makes them feel new is their ferocity, which some scientists blame on climate change warming the oceans and heating the air to make more powerful storms.

In California, overwhelmed storm drains sent polluted water to the sea. Roads became waterways, sinkholes opened up to capture cars and their drivers, and houses flooded. At least 22 people died.

Where do these fast-moving storms come from? Mostly north and south of Hawaii, then they barrel directly towards California and into the central West, says F. Martin Ralph, who directs the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

“Forty percent of the snowpack in the upper Colorado in the winter is from atmospheric river storms penetrating that far inland,” he adds.

The real risk is when storms stack up as they did in California. That happened in spades during the winter of 1861-1862, in the middle of a decade-long drought, when the West endured 44 days of rain and wet snow. California Governor-elect Leland Stanford rowed to a soggy oath-of-office ceremony in flooded Sacramento, just before fleeing with state leaders to San Francisco.

Water covered California’s inland valley for three months, and paddle wheel steamers navigated over submerged farmlands and inland towns. The state went bankrupt, and its economy collapsed as mining and farming operations were bogged down, one quarter of livestock drowned or starved, and 4000 people died.

In Utah that winter, John Doyle Lee chronicled the washing away of the town of Santa Clara along the tiny Santa Clara River near St. George. Buildings and farms floated away leaving only a single wall of a rock fort that townspeople had built on high ground.

Weisheit knows this history well because he’s been part of a team of “paleoflood” investigators, a group of scientists and river experts. To document just how high floodwaters rose in the past, researchers climb valley walls. The Journal of Hydrology says they seek “fine grained sediments, mainly sand.”

It’s a peculiar science, searching for sand bars and driftwood perched 60 feet above the river.

The Green River contributes roughly half the water that’s in the Lower Colorado River, and in 2005, Weisheit and other investigators found six flood sites along the Green River near Moab, Utah. Weisheit says several sites showed the river running at 275,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

If the Green River merged with the Colorado River, also at flood, the Colorado River would carry almost five times more water than the 120,000 cfs that barreled into Glen Canyon Dam, some 160 miles below Moab, in 1984. That epic runoff nearly wiped out Glen Canyon Dam.

Now that we’ve remembered the damage that atmospheric river storms can do, Weisheit believes that Bureau of Reclamation must tear down Glen Canyon — now.

He likes to quote Western historian Patty Limerick, who told the Bureau of Reclamation, at a University of Utah conference in 2007, what she really thought: “The Bureau can only handle little droughts and little floods. When the big ones arrive, the system will fail.” 

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Visit Media to see details. Animation showing AR plumes over the Pacific during January 2012.

Say hello to Great Salt Lake (greatsaltlake.utah.gov)

Click the link to go to the Great Salt Lake website:

Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world – boasting a rich web of relationships between people, land, water, food and survival. The lake contributes $1.9 billion to Utah’s economy (adjusted for inflation), provides over 7,700 jobs, supports 80% of Utah’s valuable wetlands, and provides a stopover for millions of birds to rest and refuel during migration each year. Lake effect snow also contributes 5-10% to Utah’s snowpack.

Drought, climate change and continued demand are threatening the lake

A drying Great Salt Lake has local and regional consequences and could result in increased dust, poor air quality, reduced snow, reduced lake access, habitat loss and negative economic consequences to the state. By protecting the lake, we help our economy, environment, wildlife and future.

Snowfall at Steamboat Resort this winter has already surpassed all of last season — The Summit Daily #snowpack

West snowpack basin-filled map January 23, 2023 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read the article on the Summit Daily website (Shelby Reardon). Here’s an excerpt:

With the six inches of snowfall recorded the morning of Wednesday, January 18, 2023 Steamboat Resort has officially seen as much snow this year as it did all of last winter. The 2022-23 total snowfall at mid-mountain has exceeded 254 inches, according to the resort website, eclipsing the 250 inches that fell through the entirety of the 2021-22 season. This winter has actually surpassed the previous winter as well, and has nearly met the total of 261 inches in the 2019-20 season, although that one was cut short due to the pandemic. Stipulations or not, this winter is on track to be one of the snowiest in Steamboat. Steamboat Resort has snowfall data dating back to 1980. Since then, there have been eight 400-inch seasons, the most recent coming in 2010-11. The snowiest season recorded in Steamboat came in 2007-08, with 489 inches falling…

January is typically the snowiest month, accounting for about 22% of snowfall. Meanwhile, February accounts for about 20%. By the end of January, Steamboat visitors can expect about 60% of the season’s snow to have fallen already.

How to Save the #ColoradoRiver? Use Less Water: Audubon submits comments to Bureau of Reclamation as they develop new operating rules #conservation #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, has seen water levels drop precipitously as a result of two decades of drought. (Source: The Water Desk and Lighthawk Conservation Flying)

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

The massive dams on the Colorado River were supposed to protect us.

President Franklin Roosevelt at dedication of Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, September 30, 1935

At the dedication of Hoover Dam, the colossus just outside of Las Vegas created Lake Mead, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrated “its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.” The Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960’s into the red rocks of Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell. Floyd Dominy, the Reclamation Commissioner who presided over its construction extolled that “you wouldn’t have anywhere near the number of people living comfortably in the West if you hadn’t developed the projects, if you hadn’t managed the water.”

Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.

How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. Photo: Marti Phillips/Audubon Photography Awards

In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

‘Our job is to protect #Nebraska’s interests’ — The Lincoln Journal-Star #OgallalaAquifer

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Click the link to read the article on the Lincoln Journal-Star website (Chris Dunker). Here’s an excerpt:

Governments at all levels have stepped in to cut use in order to stabilize water levels [ed. in the U.S. West], but the ongoing and worsening crisis has revived discussions online and on newspaper opinion pages about dramatic proposals to pipe water into the region from elsewhere. Building a pipeline thousands of miles long to divert water from the Mississippi River to drought-stricken Southern California. Diverting a part of the Missouri River into an aqueduct that would supply water to the drylands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas…

That’s a prospect Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said he wants to prevent, at least in the Cornhusker state: “Water certainly is our most precious natural resource in Nebraska and it needs to be preserved and protected for future generations of Nebraskans.”

His bill (LB241) would prohibit the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources from granting any permit “that would allow groundwater to be transported more than 10 miles outside this state,” unless it was to comply with an interstate compact or decree. Essentially, Briese’s idea would allow the Legislature a say on any project seeking to tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, a major geological feature underlying much of Nebraska.

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

NRCS eyes $20M for embattled dam as public demands answers — @WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A member of the public poses a question during a public meeting in Saratoga Jan. 12, 2023 regarding the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. and  Dustin Bleizeffer):

The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service will likely request some $20 million for the West Fork Dam on the Colorado border, a potential new funding source for the contested project

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will likely request funding “in the over-$20-million range” to help finance a controversial dam proposed for the Little Snake River drainage, a federal official said last week.

The revelation emerged from a long-awaited series of public meetings in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga during which project critics and proponents interrogated state and federal agency representatives and argued the merits of the West Fork Dam initiative. 

Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the 260-foot-high concrete structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir in Carbon County near the confluence of Battle and Haggarty Creeks has become the latest skirmish line in the West’s interminable water wars.

Water developers and many in the local agricultural community hail the public work as a critical tool for mitigating the effects of deepening drought and a boon for wildlife, recreation and the local economy. Opponents describe it as an expensive boondoggle poised to benefit a small number of irrigators — many of whom aren’t even in Wyoming — while shifting negative environmental impacts downstream.  

Following years of quiet agency maneuvering, legislative negotiating and campaigning from both sides, a framework for the potential deal has taken shape. It involves a state-federal land swap, complex “public benefit” calculations, a streamlined environmental review, majority funding from the state of Wyoming, minority contributions from water-users and now, apparently, a potentially skid-greasing influx of federal dollars. 

The NRCS’s funding interest was “some new info,” according to a participant at one of last week’s public meetings.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service will request funding if it and other agencies approve construction, said Shawn Follum, state conservation engineer with the NRCS in Casper. 

Funds aren’t guaranteed, he said; “We can’t commit Congress’ dollars in the future.” But the money could qualify as the required contribution from the Pothook Water Conservancy District of about two dozen irrigators in Colorado, according to discussions at the public meetings.

Wyoming may still face challenges funding the dam if federal officials approve it. In an unprecedented move in 2018, state legislators cut some $35 million from a water-construction bill and required lawmaker approval for any new funds for the West Fork Dam.

In an era of infrastructure and stimulus funding, however, more federal money might be available. “The reality is there are a variety of places where to find this … funding,” rancher Pat O’Toole, a project proponent and former state lawmaker, said.

Funding, however, is only one of many variables that need to be solved for if the complex public works proposal is to come to fruition. The terms of a land swap and parallel environmental review are also top of mind for stakeholders, as is an evaluation of who actually stands to benefit from the undertaking.  

‘Somewhat befuddled’

Held over three evenings, the meetings drew about 150 people to hear how the NRCS and Medicine Bow National Forest might authorize the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek.

In what’s being called a “parallel process” The Medicine-Bow will decide whether to exchange land to enable the 130-acre reservoir that would hold 10,000 acre-feet, mostly for late-season irrigation. About 44 irrigators have expressed interest in buying the water, according to discussion at the meetings.

Pat O’Toole, who ranches in the Baggs area, was among participants at the Saratoga public meeting on the West Fork Dam on Jan. 12, 2023. Approximately 150 persons attended three sessions — also held in Baggs and Craig, Colorado — explaining how the Medicine Bow National Forest and U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will decide whether to authorize a 264-foot concrete structure. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Participants called the bifurcated approvals confusing and criticized the process that, according to Wyoming officials, is designed to skirt more lengthy federal environmental reviews.

“A lot of questions are coming from people who deal with this [National Environmental Policy Act] process a lot and they’re somewhat befuddled,” said Jeb Steward an Encampment resident, former state representative and a former member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission who has worked as a water rights consultant in the area.

Meeting participant Soren Jespersen said officials had created a “very confusing process, and it’s difficult … for the public to know when and how to weigh in.”

Cindy McKee, a rancher who irrigates from a stream above the proposed dam, and grazes cattle on state land that’s offered in the swap, echoed those concerns. “We’ve been very disappointed in the lack of communication from the state, as singularly affected as we are both by the land trade and by the proposed water project,” she said. “We were never notified that our [grazing] lease was up for consideration for the land trade. Fourteen years ago when the dam was conceived, we didn’t know about it for two years.

“It’s been difficult, quite honestly, to find information,” McKee said. “Documents are usually released very shortly before an opportunity to public comment. It’s been frustrating and discouraging.”

Comments and public interest

Federal and state officials stressed that comments about the review’s scopeshould be made in writing to the NRCS by Feb. 13. Only persons and organizations that comment can later object to any decision.

An NRCS draft environmental impact statement is expected in September with a final version released in April 2024 and adoption scheduled for that May.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

U.S. Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper Urge Reclamation to Allocate Additional Funding for the Arkansas Valley Conduit #ArkansasRiver

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

Click the link to read the article on Senator Bennet’s website:

Today [January 23, 2023], Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper urged the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to consider allocating additional funding from the recent omnibus funding bill for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) for the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC).

The AVC is a planned 130-mile water-delivery system from the Pueblo Reservoir to communities in Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. The Conduit is the final phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962.

“[T]he Conduit has been one of Colorado’s top priorities for nearly six decades,” wrote the senators. “Continuing to invest in this project will allow the project’s stakeholders to plan for more effective construction and delivery of clean drinking water throughout Southeast Colorado.”

In the letter, the senators highlight the $60 million allocated for the construction of the AVC from the BIL last fall, and ask BOR to allocate additional funds, which could be immediately applied to help advance different components of the AVC.

“For years, this project languished due to insufficient funding and a prohibitive cost-share agreement,” continued the senators. “Congressional appropriations over the past decade coupled with BOR’s recent $60 million award will finally enable the construction of this long-promised project. More investment, from the FY23 omnibus or future BIL awards, would accelerate the construction timeline and improve planning efficiency.”

Bennet and Hickenlooper have consistently advocated for increased funding for the AVC. The FY23 omnibus spending bill, which was signed into law in December, included $10.1 million for the Conduit after Bennet and Hickenlooper urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to continue to fund the project last May. In October, the senators visited Pueblo to celebrate the announcement of $60 million in BIL funds for the Conduit. The senators and U.S. Representative Ken Buck (R-Colo.) urged the OMB and BOR in July to allocate these funds. In March, Bennet and Hickenlooper secured $12 million for the Conduit from the FY22 omnibus bill. Prior to FY22, Bennet helped secure more than $70 million for the AVC. Bennet and Hickenlooper will continue working in Washington to ensure Colorado has the resources needed to complete this vital project for the region.

In 2009, Congress passed legislation Bennet worked on with former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to authorize a federal cost share for the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. In 2013, Bennet and his colleagues sent a letter to the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in order to expedite the project’s pre-construction process. In 2014, following Bennet and Udall’s efforts to urge the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s EIS, the Record of Decision was signed in February. Bennet joined the groundbreaking for the project in October 2020.

The text of the letter is available HERE and below.