#Colorado Water Center Director John Tracy addresses common #water worries — Colorado State University

Tap water via Wikimedia

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado State University website (Jayme DeLoss):

Water. Those of us fortunate enough to have easy access to this essential resource might not think about how much we use or whether those uses are worthwhile. And if we do, we might not know what we can do to be better stewards.  

In honor of World Water Day, March 22, SOURCE asked Colorado Water Center Director John Tracy a few questions – maybe even some that have been on your mind. His answers might surprise you. You could even see the glass as half full. 

What does World Water Day mean to you?

World Water Day means reflecting on how we are interconnected through water. The water you use either evaporates into the air, which becomes somebody else’s water supply, or it goes down the drain to a water treatment plant and gets treated and sent back to the river, which is somebody else’s water supply. The water we use is somebody else’s supply, which means somebody else’s use is our supply. 

How concerned should we be about the Colorado River drying up? 

The Colorado River Compact was set up to allocate 17.5 million acre-feet a hundred years ago, and there never was 17.5 million acre-feet to allocate in the first place. It was an imaginary number that came about through a political agreement. Over the years, climate change has led to a decrease in overall water supply in the Colorado River. The last several years were very bad drought years, but if you looked at the total water supply, it was still about 12.5 million acre-feet. The idea of the river drying up completely, that’s just not within the realm of possibility now. In 100 years, who knows? But that’s not where we’re at right now. The question becomes: Who’s going to use less water? The second decisions are made and everybody has certainty with what they really have – both in terms of an agreement and in terms of what I call real water – with that level of certainty, people will be able to make good decisions and move forward. 

Does Colorado have a water crisis?  

We have continuing issues we have to deal with. It’s not so much a problem of not having enough water or knowing what we have to manage. We’re having to live with politically negotiated documents that don’t reflect either the physical situation or the value system we’re under right now. Climate change is affecting our snowpack, which is affecting our runoff, and it is making some management difficult because the snowpack is coming down a little earlier, there’s more consumptive water use higher up in the watershed, and it’s having real impacts. But there’s a lot of other issues that just have to do with living within the constraints of the compacts. It’s harder, and we’ve got to put more time and effort and money into it, but it’s not a crisis in my mind. 

John Tracy, director of the Colorado Water Center, Colorado State University

What is Colorado’s biggest water issue?  

Workforce. Everybody talks about infrastructure to solve our water problems. But when you build this infrastructure and you have all these management systems and you have to live within the constraints of our river compacts, you need a sophisticated workforce to understand how to operate and manage all of this. I think that’s where our challenge is. There’s not enough of a workforce development pipeline right now, and part of that is, it’s still a very traditionally white, male field. If you’re not recruiting from the entire workforce, which is much more diverse than it was 30 years ago, the pool you’re recruiting from is too small.  

Do we have to worry about turning on the tap and not having water?  

It depends on where you are and how well your water supply system is maintained. There are areas across the U.S. that have relied on shallow groundwater wells for water supplies that have seen groundwater levels drop enough that their wells can no longer produce water. The simplest solution to this problem is to dig a deeper well, but this can be expensive and in the long run results in “a race to the bottom” with the deepest well winning. This problem does exist for some homeowners in Colorado, but primarily for those who use self-supplied groundwater and live in areas with heavy agricultural groundwater use. For Coloradans living along the Front Range who receive their water supplies from municipal providers, this is not really a problem.   

You have said that Colorado is using less water now than it was 20 years ago, despite population growth. How is that possible? 

I am working with a class of undergraduate environmental data science students to have them analyze this situation. Here is a graph of overall water use for the U.S. and some of the fastest growing states since 1985. All states are reporting less water use since 2000, and this trend is continuing. 

Graphic credit: Colorado State University

The simple answer is that this decline in water use is directly related to increased efficiency. But it should be stressed that there is a difference between water use reported to the USGS and consumptive water use, which relates to water that is used for economic gain. I have not seen any statistics on changes in consumptive water use, but new tools are being developed that will be much better at assessing this statistic. 

What should we think about/do at the individual level to respect our water resources?

We need to be aware of the value (economic, ecological, social, spiritual) we are getting when we use water. Before 2000, we used a lot of water without getting any value for it. The more we pay attention to the value we receive from our water use – whether it is watering a section of lawn for our children to play on, having it flow in the Poudre River so we can float the river, irrigating our crops or simply enjoying a sunset over a lake – the more we will respect water and be better informed in our decisions on how to manage water as a society.

Snowfall =>500 inches on Steamboat Mountain #snowpack March 23, 2023

Click the link to read the article on the OutThereColorado.com website (Spencer McKee). Here’s an excerpt:

As snow keeps falling in Colorado, boosting some parts of the state to record-highs, plenty of powder has been stacking up in the state’s ski country. On March 23, Steamboat Resort took to social media to announce that their mid-mountain station had passed the 400-inch season total mark. Perhaps more impressive is the 500 inches of snow they report has landed on the ski area’s summit. Reported totals at the mid-mountain station and the summit are 401.5 inches and 507 inches, respectively…According to Steamboat Pilot and Today, this is only the 9th time the mid-mountain station has recorded more than 400 inches, with the last time being the 2012 to 2013 season, when 433 inches fell. The snowiest season on record was that of 2007 to 2008, when a total of 489 inches was hit…

The greater Yampa-White-Little Snake river basin that includes Steamboat Springs is currently at 147 percent of the 30-year to-date median snowpack. This isn’t a record high, but it’s close.

#Utah: Largest #snowpack since 1952 as of March 24, 2023

How walking along rivers changes your brain — @AmericanRivers #BlueMind

Oregon’s Sandy River, which includes two federally designated Wild and Scenic River segments. | Bureau of Land Management

Click the link to read the article on the American River website (Amy Souers Kober):

My little boys are growing up. My older one starts kindergarten next month. My little one is charging out of toddlerhood, becoming more independent by the day. Life moves so fast, and the best way I know to slow things down and treasure the moments is to get out on a river.

My sons exploring outside together. Photo credit: Amy Souers Kober

So I took the boys to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. It’s in the heart of Portland, not far from our house.

A little piece of wildness on the Willamette River. An easy urban escape. It was cloudy, a welcome break from the record heat and drought we’ve had this summer. The alders and cottonwoods smelled so good as we walked the shady trails.

Walking down to the river, we talked, free of distractions. At home I feel as if I’m always trying to do five things at once and conversations are constantly interrupted. But here, it’s just us. No chores or emails, just walking and chatting. Just being, together. My five year old reaches out to hold my hand, and my heart melts. How much longer until he’s too old, too cool, for this?

As we walk, I’m thinking about a recent New York Times article, HOW WALKING IN NATURE CHANGES THE BRAIN. The story looks at how spending time in natural spaces reduces anxiety, worry and stress.

For me, rivers are medicine. I know when I need a break, when I need to get out for a float, swim, paddle, or streamside hike. If walking in nature changes our brains, then spending time on rivers must deliver an even bigger bang for the buck, right? I’m thinking of multi-day river trips. I’m thinking of finding peace and connection, of open hearts and strengthened spirits. Healing waters. I’m remembering floating on my back down the Salmon, nights in the Grand Canyon, early morning kayaking on the Potomac…

My boys, racing for the river’s steep bank, bring me back to earth. I snap out of my reverie and take their hands. Together, we carefully approach the eroded edge. A sailboat is anchored here, and kayaks paddle by. We wave, and they wave back.

My five year old asks if he can get a kayak for his birthday.

I think that’s his best birthday present request yet. And I’m game. Any excuse to get us out here more often. For fun, of course. But also to test our own mini science experiment that nature, that rivers, really are fundamental to our health, well-being, and relationships. That they are essential to our happiness, to who we are.

Water in space – a ‘Goldilocks’ star reveals previously hidden step in how #water gets to planets like Earth — The Conversation

The star system V883 Orionis contains a rare star surrounded by a disk of gas, ice and dust. A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), CC BY

John Tobin, National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Without water, life on Earth could not exist as it does today. Understanding the history of water in the universe is critical to understanding how planets like Earth come to be.

Astronomers typically refer to the journey water takes from its formation as individual molecules in space to its resting place on the surfaces of planets as “the water trail.” The trail starts in the interstellar medium with hydrogen and oxygen gas and ends with oceans and ice caps on planets, with icy moons orbiting gas giants and icy comets and asteroids that orbit stars. The beginnings and ends of this trail are easy to see, but the middle has remained a mystery.

I am an astronomer who studies the formation of stars and planets using observations from radio and infrared telescopes. In a new paper, my colleagues and I describe the first measurements ever made of this previously hidden middle part of the water trail and what these findings mean for the water found on planets like Earth.

The progression of a star system from a cloud of dust and gas into a mature star with orbiting planets.
Star and planet formation is an intertwined process that starts with a cloud of molecules in space. Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF, CC BY

How planets are formed

The formation of stars and planets is intertwined. The so-called “emptiness of space” – or the interstellar medium – in fact contains large amounts of gaseous hydrogen, smaller amounts of other gasses and grains of dust. Due to gravity, some pockets of the interstellar medium will become more dense as particles attract each other and form clouds. As the density of these clouds increases, atoms begin to collide more frequently and form larger molecules, including water that forms on dust grains and coats the dust in ice.

Stars begin to form when parts of the collapsing cloud reach a certain density and heat up enough to start fusing hydrogen atoms together. Since only a small fraction of the gas initially collapses into the newborn protostar, the rest of the gas and dust forms a flattened disk of material circling around the spinning, newborn star. Astronomers call this a proto-planetary disk.

As icy dust particles collide with each other inside a proto-planetary disk, they begin to clump together. The process continues and eventually forms the familiar objects of space like asteroids, comets, rocky planets like Earth and gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn.

A cloudy filament against a backdrop of stars.
Gas and dust can condense into clouds, like the Taurus Molecular Cloud, where collisions between hydrogen and oxygen can form water. ESO/APEX (MPIfR/ESO/OSO)/A. Hacar et al./Digitized Sky Survey 2, CC BY

Two theories for the source of water

There are two potential pathways that water in our solar system could have taken. The first, called chemical inheritance, is when the water molecules originally formed in the interstellar medium are delivered to proto-planetary disks and all the bodies they create without going through any changes.

The second theory is called chemical reset. In this process, the heat from the formation of the proto-planetary disk and newborn star breaks apart water molecules, which then reform once the proto-planetary disk cools.

Models of protium and deuterium.
Normal hydrogen, or protium, does not contain a neutron in its nucleus, while deuterium contains one neutron, making it heavier. Dirk Hünniger/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

To test these theories, astronomers like me look at the ratio between normal water and a special kind of water called semi-heavy water. Water is normally made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Semi-heavy water is made of one oxygen atom, one hydrogen atom and one atom of deuterium – a heavier isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron in its nucleus.

The ratio of semi-heavy to normal water is a guiding light on the water trail – measuring the ratio can tell astronomers a lot about the source of water. Chemical models and experiments have shown that about 1,000 times more semi-heavy water will be produced in the cold interstellar medium than in the conditions of a protoplanetary disk.

This difference means that by measuring the ratio of semi-heavy to normal water in a place, astronomers can tell whether that water went through the chemical inheritance or chemical reset pathway.

A star surrounded by a ring of gas and dust.
V883 Orionis is a young star system with a rare star at its center that makes measuring water in the proto-planetary cloud, shown in the cutaway, possible. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), CC BY

Measuring water during the formation of a planet

Comets have a ratio of semi-heavy to normal water almost perfectly in line with chemical inheritance, meaning the water hasn’t undergone a major chemical change since it was first created in space. Earth’s ratio sits somewhere in between the inheritance and reset ratio, making it unclear where the water came from.

To truly determine where the water on planets comes from, astronomers needed to find a goldilocks proto-planetary disk – one that is just the right temperature and size to allow observations of water. Doing so has proved to be incredibly difficult. It is possible to detect semi-heavy and normal water when water is a gas; unfortunately for astronomers, the vast majority of proto-plantary disks are very cold and contain mostly ice, and it is nearly impossible to measure water ratios from ice at interstellar distances.

A breakthrough came in 2016, when my colleagues and I were studying proto-planetary disks around a rare type of young star called FU Orionis stars. Most young stars consume matter from the proto-planetary disks around them. FU Orionis stars are unique because they consume matter about 100 times faster than typical young stars and, as a result, emit hundreds of times more energy. Due to this higher energy output, the proto-planetary disks around FU Orionis stars are heated to much higher temperatures, turning ice into water vapor out to large distances from the star.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a powerful radio telescope in northern Chile, we discovered a large, warm proto-planetary disk around the Sunlike young star V883 Ori, about 1,300 light years from Earth in the constellation Orion.

V883 Ori emits 200 times more energy than the Sun, and my colleagues and I recognized that it was an ideal candidate to observe the semi-heavy to normal water ratio.

A radio image of the disk around V883 Ori.
The proto-planetary disk around V883 Ori contains gaseous water, shown in the orange layer, allowing astronomers to measure the ratio of semi-heavy to normal water. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Tobin, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), CC BY

Completing the water trail

In 2021, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array took measurements of V883 Ori for six hours. The data revealed a strong signature of semi-heavy and normal water coming from V883 Ori’s proto-planetary disk. We measured the ratio of semi-heavy to normal water and found that the ratio was very similar to ratios found in comets as well as the ratios found in younger protostar systems.

These results fill in the gap of the water trail forging a direct link between water in the interstellar medium, protostars, proto-planetary disks and planets like Earth through the process of inheritance, not chemical reset.

The new results show definitively that a substantial portion of the water on Earth most likely formed billions of years ago, before the Sun had even ignited. Confirming this missing piece of water’s path through the universe offers clues to origins of water on Earth. Scientists have previously suggested that most water on Earth came from comets impacting the planet. The fact that Earth has less semi-heavy water than comets and V883 Ori, but more than chemical reset theory would produce, means that water on Earth likely came from more than one source.

John Tobin, Scientist, National Radio Astronomy Observatory

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.