Uinta Basin rail project in Utah could result in dramatic increase of hazardous material on Union Pacific line through Colorado
State officials since last spring have quietly been reaching out to communities along Colorado’s main east-west rail line to gauge local sentiment as the state negotiates a new lease with rail giant Union Pacific, which pays $12,000 a year to send trains through the state-owned Moffat Tunnel.
Union Pacific’s 99-year lease to use the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel expires Jan. 6, 2025, and Kate McIntire, a regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, has been tasked with “developing our list of concerns, potential opportunities, roles, responsibilities, and ways stakeholders would like to ensure they’re involved in the negotiation.”
McIntire, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the recently formed Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit of the Department of Personnel and Administration, will be ramping up outreach this fall and through 2024.
McIntire expects to hear more input from counties and towns along Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line between Denver and Grand Junction about the controversial 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway proposal in Utah. The project would send up to 350,000 additional barrels of oil per day along the route, which travels for about 100 miles along the headwaters of the endangered Colorado River.
“Yes, some of those comments came up and were addressed more directly to Union Pacific,” McIntire said of meetings the state has already held with Denver Water, which uses the Moffat Tunnel’s original 1922 bore hole for transmountain water diversions; Adams, Gilpin, Grand and Jefferson counties; and the cities of Arvada, Golden, Winter Park, Fraser and Kremmling.
Asked to characterize some of the comments she’s hearing on an oil train project that’s already been approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and on the high end would more than quintuple the amount of freight rail traffic on Colorado’s Western Slope, McIntire offered this:
“I’ll just kind of draw back on the fact that we’re really early in a complex process with legal considerations, roles, responsibilities, and potential opportunities that may or may not be tied to the lease,” McIntire said. “But we’re definitely aware of those concerns, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure stakeholders are engaged.”
The city of Denver estimates the Uinta Basin project will quadruple the amount of hazardous materials transported by rail through the metro area as up to five two-mile-long oil trains a day chug east through the Moffat Tunnel at the base of the city-owned Winter Park Resort ski area and then make their way down through Denver and toward Gulf Coast refineries.
Eagle County, where the Central Corridor rail line separates from Interstate 70 at Dotsero and follows the Colorado River through remote canyons northeast into Grand County, is suing the Surface Transportation Board to overturn or at least more comprehensively consider the down-the-line impacts of Uinta Basin trains from inevitable derailments, spills, wildfires and climate change.
Environmental groups have also filed suit, and Eagle County has the support of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff, Vail, Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties.
Seeking more state support
“Still conspicuously absent in these efforts is the state of Colorado,” Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu wrote in an email. “Anything the state can do to get off the sidelines and participate would be appreciated. We would encourage the state to use all tools at its disposal, including any Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations, to protect every Colorado community along the rail corridor that will be forced to face very real risks of derailment, spills, water contamination and fires.”
Asked to characterize the comments the Nebraska-based railroad company is hearing on the Uinta Basin Railway and whether it’s appropriate for Colorado to consider opposition to the Utah project in its Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver responded: “Union Pacific is aware the Moffat Tunnel lease expires in 2025, and negotiations are underway,” Tysver wrote in an email. “Union Pacific is required by federal law to transport hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including crude oil, fertilizer and chlorine, and 99.9% of the hazardous material shipped by rail reaches its destination safely.”
Union Pacific chief safety officer Rod Doerr on Monday told the Colorado General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee the company hasn’t specifically analyzed the risks of increased oil-train traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway project. The committee will meet again in August to consider potential legislation in the next session that starts in January.
Since the General Assembly first created the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District for taxing purposes in 1922 and still owns the tunnel and administers it via DOLA, the terms of the lease might logically be a topic of discussion.
“It’s crazy that Union Pacific pays Colorado far less rent for the Moffat Tunnel than the median price of a studio apartment in Denver,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing to stop the oil trains. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for (Gov. Jared Polis) to protect Colorado communities, our water, our rivers, and our public lands from hazardous materials spills from trains that travel through the Moffat Tunnel.”
Eagle County’s Treu, who said he’s yet to hear from the state on the Moffat lease, would like to see a lot more pushback from the state against federal approvals for the Utah oil-train partnership backing the project, which is still seeking funding via tax-exempt U.S. Department of Transportation bonds.
“We asked the (Colorado Attorney General’s) office to participate as an amicus party in our litigation against the Surface Transportation Board,” Treu said. “The state declined, leaving us to fend for ourselves. That response was surprising considering the crux of this litigation is STB’s complete failure to consider the downline impacts to the sensitive Colorado River corridor through all of Colorado. This isn’t just an Eagle County issue.”
The office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser responded with the following statement:
“As the Attorney General said in his letter to the federal government, the Uinta Basin Railway proposal is as risky to our environment and communities as it is unsupported by Coloradans. It should not move forward. And it most definitely should not receive federal subsidies. The Attorney General’s Office has visited with advocates on the risks the UBR poses to our state, has collaborated with Colorado’s congressional delegation on options to prevent construction, and is committed to visiting with any group with ideas on how to protect Colorado’s environment from this risky venture.”
In various forms, both Colorado U.S. senators — Democrats Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — and a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation, particularly Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, have reached out to a variety of federal agencies to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway.
Jonathan Godes, a Glenwood Springs City Council member and former mayor whose term ended in April, said he has yet to be contacted by DOLA on the Moffat Tunnel lease, but he looks forward to hearing from McIntire, who is a former Grand County manager and former acting Jefferson County manager.
Godes says he doesn’t yet have enough information to comment on the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations or possibly using them to restrict hazardous material transport through Glenwood.
“But I will say that I’m really glad that both of our senators, Congressman Neguse, commissioners in Eagle County, Grand County, and leaders in dozens of municipalities all agree that this is objectively and definitively a horrible idea for our communities, for the Western Slope, the mountain communities in the state of Colorado,” Godes said. “I’m looking forward to when the state decides to join up with our congressional delegation and our local leaders in solidarity against this abomination.”
Tennessee Pass Line
Terry Armistead, a Minturn Town Council member, mayor pro tem, and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, made it clear she was not speaking for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she acknowledged she has spoken to McIntire.
“In regards to the Tennessee Pass Line, I heard nothing in that short meeting of any substance, unfortunately. It was kind of anticlimactic,” Armistead said of a long-dormant Union Pacific rail line that connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero and heads southeast along the Eagle and Arkansas rivers to Pueblo — a route that if revived would avoid the Moffat Tunnel and Denver altogether.
That is one of the fears Eagle County expressed in its litigation — added pressure to restart rail traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line through Avon and the former mining and railroad towns of Minturn and Red Cliff off the backside of Vail Mountain.
Armistead said she started calling Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who used to be mayor and still lives in Minturn, four years ago when the TPL revival idea first came up, telling him, “Minturn is too small a voice in the room, and we can’t do this alone; the county needs to speak for all of us.” She supports the county’s position regarding the Moffat Tunnel lease and would like to see Union Pacific be allowed to formally abandon the TPL for an outdoor recreation trail.
“I’m not going to mince words. I would love to see (the Tennessee Pass) rail ripped up,” Armistead said of the line that’s been dormant since 1997 — the year after a Union Pacific and Southern Pacific merger. “I would love to see them sell us, or sell somebody the land, and develop the rail yard in Minturn. I’ve been saying it for years.”
DOLA’s McIntire could not say if the status of the Tennessee Pass Line will be at all considered in the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, since it’s a separate and active Union Pacific rail line.
“We’re still very early in this process and we really haven’t determined whether that’s a separate issue or not,” McIntire said. “I don’t want to come out and say that that’s not going to be something that we’re going to address.”
For Union Pacific, which did try to formally abandon the TPL in the late 1990s after the merger — only to be snubbed on that front by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — it’s somewhat of a moot point.
“We have no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass,” Union Pacific’s Tysver said.
From email from the Reclamation Western Colorado Area Office:
BUREAU OF RECLAMATION
NAVAJO DAM RELEASES
SENT VIA E-MAIL
July 28th, 2023
In response to falling flows in the critical habitat reach, and an updated USGS gage shift that shows flows are lower than previously gaged, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs for tomorrow, July 29th, at 4:00 AM.
Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
The first week of July included at least four days in which the global temperature was the highest ever recorded on earth. A recent study shows mountain areas are seeing a decrease in snowpack and an increase in intense rain events. Many high elevation places in our region, including Pitkin, Garfield, Gunnison, Delta, Montrose, and Ouray counties, are already heating more quickly than other places in the United States and world.
As the tourist season began, wineries and businesses in Colorado’s North Fork Valley were facing an unexpected challenge – the main highway east was destroyed by the raging run-off from a small. normally placid creek. And while, so far, western Colorado has avoided the smoke-choked skies we have suffered in years past, the Mountain West has been the anomaly as never-before-seen levels of wildfire ravage Canada and pour smoke across much of the U.S.
The climate emergency is here. While its costs remain unknown, failure to act with the urgency needed only means that what comes due will be even more expensive and more deadly. Western Slope watersheds like the Gunnison River and the Roaring Fork are vital national headwaters. As this area heats more quickly than most of the world, and as our snowpack shifts to torrential rainfalls more damaging than welcome – the fate of this region matters to more than just the locals who live and work here.
And for those who follow climate science, the crisis we face is existential and demanding of immediate, far-reaching action. But science also indicates that we still have some time to act. We are living right now through the impacts of global heating, which will now–due to decades of wilful inaction–certainly grow worse. But how worse remains up to us.
The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest-ever federal contribution to addressing climate change. Through the IRA, western Colorado can solidify itself as a global climate leader. Small cities like Glenwood Springs, Montrose, Grand Junction and Gunnison can provide the research, professional services and economic muscle to help move results-driven solutions forward. And even rural places with small populations, like the North Fork Valley, can showcase rural climate leadership – such as installing more renewables on farms through systems such as agrivoltaics, providing more funding to help farmers shift toward more regenerative practices, and prioritizing the conservation and rehabilitation of degraded lands, habitats, and watersheds.
Climate science does not care if someone believes in it or not. And after decades of intentional industry paltering, direct lies and misdirection too many still think that climate change is not real, is not significant, is not human-driven, or is not worth the effort and cost to address. They are wrong. But the damage from these false-beliefs is more the cover they provide to cowardly or corrupt politicians and policy-makers looking for an excuse, often any excuse, not to act. Industry disinformation campaigns find public purchase which can stymie individual action, but it is the armies of lobbyists that do the real damage, The decades of industry lies have provided cozy cover for failed leaders, bad actors and polluters. And now the crisis the fossil fuel industry’s own (covered-up) science accurately described is here. Hitting like a heatwave, Like a mudslide. Like a wildfire.
But that’s not just my observation: the world’s preeminent body on climate change and climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change largely seems to agree in its 6th Assessment, noting in its spring 2022 installment that sufficient climate action is “being impeded by deliberate misrepresentation of that science to protect vested interests,” according to a summary from the Imperial College of London.
Colorado does not need leaders driving toward the future by looking in the rear-view mirror. The Western Slope has a once-in-generations opportunity right now to step forward as a major force, and national model, for climate action. Now, with historic funding on the table to help western Colorado prepare for and mitigate contributions to and impacts from climate change – the resistance of some leaders to taking action is more than just a climate failure, it is an economic and community-leadership failure too.
With leadership matched to the moment, this work can prepare our communities for what is to come and for a more sustainable energy future. But to seize that opportunity we need policymakers, in city and county governments, in the State House, and in Congress, ready to step up with the commitment and drive to meet it.
Pete Kolbenschlag is a rural advocate, long-time climate activist, and director of the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance which works to provide a platform for rural leadership to support secure, equitable and resilient food systems, conservation, and climate action.He lives in Delta County.
Photographer Dave Showalter had a great idea – to show the Colorado River’s promise through the life it supports and stories of people working to protect it.
Where there’s water, there’s life.
That’s what author and conservation photographer Dave Showalter wants us to know about the Colorado River. Yes, climate change and drought are creating unprecedented stress on this magnificent river. Yes, the people who depend on the river are facing a future with less water.
But that’s just part of the story. In his new book, “Living River,” Showalter tells a story of optimism that he believes can spur greater action to protect the Colorado.
“Hope and love are more powerful emotions than despair,” he writes.
The foundation supported the publication of “Living River” to help people understand the the Colorado and see it through a different lens. The river is far more than just a delivery system for water in a thirsty region.
I spoke with Showalter about his connection to the river and where he finds hope for its future.
I’ll just start by asking why did you want to do this book?
I heard an expert, who should have known better, say the Colorado River was dead. And that kind of just triggered something in me. I thought, “You know what, that’s just not my experience. My experience is where there’s water, there’s life.” We need to change the narrative about how we talk about these rivers if we want to save them.
Why call the book “Living River?”
Right now, we’re focused a lot on the river’s plumbing system, and rightfully so, because of systemic water shortages exacerbated by climate change, and our commitments to agriculture and downstream communities. But the fact of the matter is the river must continue to flow to reach those big users at the bottom of the watershed. And where rivers flow, there is life. And there is ample opportunity to protect that life. So why not tell that story? Why not take people to the river? I feel strongly that nobody’s going to care unless they go to the river – physically or through story – to see what’s at stake and how incredibly diverse and beautiful and wild it can be.
Who do you hope to reach in telling the story of the Colorado as a “living river?” What do you hope they take away from the book?
I think you’re always assessing, “Who is my audience?” For the people making decisions about water allocations, I think this story serves to remind them that we still have a river to protect. We have a watershed, and all the rivers that feed into the big river are worth protecting, too.
And for everyone who isn’t in those rooms making decisions about water, I hope they come away with a better understanding of how we need to change our relationship to water in the West during the driest period in 1,200 years. How we relate to water and how we interact with rivers is critically important right now. For me, it’s visceral, it’s personal. I want people to feel that sense of what it’s like to be standing in the waters of a wild river, to feel the pulse and the energy and that deep connection. I want us to reach a point, culturally, where we see no separation between us and the rivers that flow through us.
In what way do you want folks to change their relationship to the river and the water that they use?
There’s a process that happens when we ask the question, “Where does my water come from?” We realize it’s not the tap. And it’s not the reservoir. Maybe it’s a place atop the Rocky Mountains somewhere. And if we go there, either virtually or in person, and then we start asking the questions like, “How’s the water used? Where does it go?”
Then we feel compelled to engage. Culturally, if we do that at scale, we start to become the river and we begin talking about water in the West in a different way. It’s not a resource, but it’s a life force. I want to show what it is to be part of a larger watershed community. Maybe that helps us find solutions. Every one of us is going to share in the cuts that are coming. We are only going to be able to absorb those cuts if we feel a sense of community.
What do you say to people who might see the images of drought and depleted reservoirs and think it’s maybe already too late for the Colorado?
The approach I took with this story is to tell it through people who are doing good work. We call them river keepers. No matter where you go in the watershed, whether it’s the top of the watershed or in the Colorado River Delta, you find people who are doing conservation in communities.
They’re working for decades of their lives to protect a particular reach of a river. I wanted people to see these hopeful signals of what happens when we come together as a watershed community. We’re not going to save all of it, but there’s a whole lot of the watershed where there’s really strong signs of hope and great work happening. We need to draw upon that for inspiration.
You obviously made a very deliberate choice here to make this a story about people, as well as the river.
If we want to bring people to these issues and compel them to engage in some way, they need to see themselves through the good work of others. When we see these river keepers, that’s an invitation for all of us to say, “You know what? You can join in this work at any level that you want to.
What’s your favorite place on the river or in its watershed?
It depends on the season and there are many favorite places. I love going into the headwaters, above timber line, roaming the alpine tundra. It’s spectacular. But it is also amazing to visit the wild Upper Gila River, go anywhere in the Grand Canyon region, see the restoration in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, and travel to Bears Ears National Monument to be with Indigenous folks who don’t even have access to clean water and to experience their own sacred connection to the land and the water. It’s soul stirring. You get a sense of how we need to be present for each other in this moment and not let lack of water divide us, but let it bring us together.
Randy Meisner, a founding member of the Eagles whose broad vocal range on songs like “Take It to the Limit” helped catapult the rock band to international fame, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 77. Mr. Meisner, the band’s original bass player, helped form the Eagles in 1971 along with Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Bernie Leadon. He was with the band when they recorded the albums “Eagles,” “Desperado,” “On the Border,” “One of These Nights” and “Hotel California.”
“Hotel California,” with its mysterious, allegorical lyrics, became among the band’s best-known recordings. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977 and won a Grammy Award for record of the year in 1978…
He left the band in September 1977 but was inducted with the Eagles into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. An essay by Parke Puterbaugh, published by the Hall of Fame for the event, described the band as “wide-eyed innocents with a country-rock pedigree” who later became “purveyors of grandiose, dark-themed albums chronicling a world of excess and seduction that had begun spinning seriously out of control.” The Eagles sold more records than any other band in the 1970s and had four consecutive No. 1 albums and five No. 1 singles, according to the Hall of Fame. Its “Greatest Hits 1971-1975” album alone sold upward of 26 million copies. Before joining the Eagles, Mr. Meisner was briefly the bassist for Poco, another Los Angeles country-rock band, formed in 1968. He left that band shortly afterward and joined Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band.
The Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC) has received an additional $100 million in federal funding, the Department of Interior announced Thursday.
“We are exceedingly excited about today’s announcement,” said Jim Broderick, Executive Director of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “This funding will help us to continue to accelerate the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit in order to provide a clean, reliable drinking water supply to the people of the Lower Arkansas Valley.”
The AVC is being constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Southeastern District’s Water Activity Enterprise are building the AVC, which will deliver water to 50,000 in 39 communities east of Pueblo. Reclamation has started construction on the trunk line of the AVC, while Southeastern awarded its first contract for Avondale and Boone delivery lines last week.
The most recent funding brings the total federal funding for AVC to $221 million since 2020, on top of about $30 million previously spent.
The state of Colorado has pledged $120 million toward the AVC, Southeastern has contributed $4.8 million and counties and participants have contributed or pledged $3 million in American Rescue Program Act (ARPA) funds, and participants have contributed about $2 million.
WASHINGTON – The Department of the Interior today [July 27 2023] announced a $152 million investment from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that will bring clean, reliable drinking water to communities across the West through six water storage and conveyance projects. The projects in California, Colorado and Washington are expected to develop at least 1.7 million acre-feet of additional water storage capacity, enough water to support 6.8 million people for a year. The funding will also invest in a feasibility study that could advance water storage capacity once completed.
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
“In the wake of severe drought across the West, the Department is putting funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to work to provide clean, reliable drinking water to families, farmers and Tribes throughout the West,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Through the investments we’re announcing today, we will expedite essential water storage projects and provide increased water security to Western communities.”
“Water is essential to every community – for feeding families, growing crops, powering agricultural businesses and sustaining wildlife,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Our investment in these projects will increase water storage capacity and lay conveyance pipeline to deliver reliable and safe drinking water and build resiliency for communities most impacted by drought.”
The selected projects from today’s announcement are:
B.F. Sisk Dam Raise and Reservoir Expansion Project: $10 million to the San Luis and Delta- Mendota Authority, to pursue the B.F. Sisk Dam Raise and Reservoir Expansion Project. The project is associated with the B.F. Sisk Safety of Dams Modification Project. Once completed, the project will develop approximately 130,000 acre-feet of additional storage.
North of Delta Off Stream Storage (Sites Reservoir Project): $30 million to pursue off stream storage capable for up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water in the Sacramento River system located in the Coast range mountains west of Maxwell, California. The reservoir would utilize new and existing facilities to move water in and out of the reservoir, with ultimate release to the Sacramento River system via existing canals, a new pipeline near Dunnigan, and the Colusa Basin Drain.
Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion Phase II: $10 million to efficiently integrate approximately 115,000 acre-feet of additional water storage through new conveyance facilities with existing facilities. This will allow Delta water supplies to be safely diverted, stored and delivered to beneficiaries.
• Arkansas Valley Conduit: $100 million to continue construction of a safe, long-term water supply to an estimated 50,000 people in 39 rural communities along the Arkansas River. Once completed, the project will replace current groundwater sources contaminated with radionuclides and help communities comply with Environmental Protection Act drinking water regulations for more than 103 miles of pipelines designed to deliver up to 7,500 acre-feet of water per year from Pueblo Reservoir.
• Upper Yakima System Storage Feasibility Study: $1 million to begin a feasibility study to identify and assess storage alternatives within the Kittitas Irrigation District area. The district could
utilize conserved water or water diverted for storage as part of total water supply available for tangible improvements in meeting instream flow objectives, tributary supplementation efforts, aquatic habitat improvements, and support the delisting of steelhead and bull trout populations to meet the goals of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.
• Cle Elum Pool Raise Project: $1 million to continue to increase the reservoir’s capacity to an additional 14,600 acre-feet to be managed for instream flows for fish. Additional funds for shoreline protection will provide mitigation for the pool raise.
Today’s investments build on $210 million in funding announced last year from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for water storage and conveyance projects.
More detailed analysis is underway for “less environmentally impactful” locations for the proposed 264-foot high concrete West Fork Dasm and 130-acre reservoir
Citing a need to examine alternative dam and reservoir sites, officials have pushed back the expected completion of the environmental review of the proposed and contested West Fork Dam.
The Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy and Colorado’s Pothook Water Conservancy District want Wyoming to build the 264-foot-high dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest and swap state land with forest service property to streamline and enable the project. Designed to meet irrigation desires and provide other benefits to Carbon County’s Little Snake River Valley, the proposed 10,000 acre-foot reservoir would flood 130 acres at the confluence of the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggarty Creek.
But the proposed development in a steep, forested canyon drew opposition over its cost, location, need, efficiency and potential environmental impacts. Opponents have criticized a proposed land exchange between Wyoming and the Medicine Bow that would put the development site in state hands and construction more firmly under its control.
Wyoming, which would pick up the bulk of the initially estimated $80-million dam cost, favors that site and design, said Jason Mead, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office. Wyoming has touted the development as one that would meet late-season irrigation needs and provide environmental benefits too.
“When the state and [irrigation] districts went through the feasibility analysis, it was felt, based on the information, that the West Fork site was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” he wrote in an email.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service anticipated completing a draft environmental impact statement in September. The review of alternative sites has added “a few months to the anticipated schedule” spokeswoman Alyssa Ludeke wrote in an email, but how long the delay might be is unknown.
A better solution?
Wyoming identified nine alternative sites, one or more of which will now be reviewed in depth in the draft environmental impact statement.
“We have to do a more detailed analysis to see if [they are] less environmentally impactful or provide a better answer, a better solution,” Shawn Follum, an engineer with the NRCS, said Friday. “While there’s a preferred alternative [at the West Fork site], that’s the very beginning, not a deal.
“We’ve not seen any indication that that site won’t be a possibility,” Follum said.
Meantime, the Medicine Bow National Forest continues to work on a “feasibility analysis” to inform the Forest Supervisor whether to move forward with a land exchange for the West-Fork site. There’s no deadline for that yet, said Aaron Voos, the Medicine Bow spokesman, and no guarantee a land swap would take place.
“It is looking highly likely that one of the alternatives analyzed will include a non-land exchange option, such as a special use permit,” Voos said.
The Medicine Bow has been analyzing the feasibility of the proposed land exchange, Voos said. If feasible, the Forest Service would determine whether an exchange is in the public interest.
“‘Public interest’ is required to be addressed and will be heavily factored into the Forest Supervisor’s recommendation to proceed or not proceed,” Voos wrote in an email.
Wyoming shunned obtaining a special use permit for the West Fork site because environmental reviews and other regulatory burdens would have been more complex. If the reservoir land were instead exchanged and became state property, construction permitting would be simpler, according to state officials.
Wyoming may have underestimated the complexity of the undertaking, stating in a proposed contract that it expected 100 comments on the development plan with only 40 being substantive. Instead, people submitted 936 comments, of which 96% opposed the project, according to a tally by WyoFile.
The study’s delay is not a surprise, Mead said. “Oftentimes federal agencies want a little more information to determine if an alternative should be dismissed or not, or may want to reconsider other sites,” he said. The additional analyses will ensure “a reasonable range of alternatives” is considered, he said.
New work necessary for the draft environmental impact statement includes hydraulic analysis and other tasks, some of which may involve field work, Follum said. It’s possible that work could be delayed by snow, extending the task until next spring, he said.
The NRCS is leading the environmental study with cooperation from the Medicine Bow National Forest and other agencies.
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (307)… More by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
Areas of the High Plains, Central Plains, Midwest and South had the most active precipitation patterns over the last week. Record-setting rains were recorded over western Kentucky and the area had significant flooding. The monsoon season in the Southwest has remained quiet with record-setting heat dominating the region into the southern Plains. Temperatures were cooler than normal over most of the central Plains, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic with departures of 2-4 degrees below normal widespread. Temperatures in the West, Southwest, South and Southeast were warner than normal, with some departures in Arizona 8-10 degrees above normal for the week and most other areas at least 2-4 degrees above normal…
It was a mostly dry week across the region with the most significant rains falling over eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, eastern Colorado and western Kansas, with some pockets of above-normal precipitation over southern South Dakota and eastern Nebraska as well. Temperatures were cooler than normal over much of the region with departures of 1-3 degrees below normal. Abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions were expanded in northern North Dakota and all of western Kansas saw a full categorical improvement this week. Improvements to severe and extreme drought were made over southeast South Dakota and into northern Nebraska. Severe drought was expanded in eastern South Dakota along the border with Minnesota…
The ongoing heatwave was impacting much of the Southwest into southern California over the last several weeks. Temperatures in the region were well above normal for most areas and some departures in the Southwest were 8-10 degrees above normal this week. Areas of northern Utah and Nevada as well as portions of western Wyoming had above-normal rainfall this week. Moderate and severe drought were expanded in Idaho as well as the north and western portions of Montana. Abnormally dry conditions expanded over southern and southwest Colorado with moderate drought introduced this week in south central Colorado. A vast expansion of abnormally dry conditions was made in Arizona into western New Mexico, with moderate and severe drought expanding over southern New Mexico. Moderate drought also expanded over northern and northwest New Mexico…
Temperatures were cooler than normal throughout Oklahoma and most of Arkansas, but warmer than normal elsewhere with departures in west Texas 6-8 degrees above normal. Areas of northern Oklahoma and Arkansas recorded above-normal precipitation, but most other areas were dry with little to no rain this week. A new area of severe drought was added over east Texas into southern Louisiana. Moderate drought was expanded over east Texas and abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions expanded over south Texas with a new area of severe drought introduced. Severe and extreme drought expanded over central and eastern portions of Texas as well. Southern Mississippi had abnormally dry conditions expand this week related to short-term dryness…
Over the next 5-7 days, much of the West and the southern Plains into the South look to be quite dry. Some monsoonal moisture is anticipated over the Four Corners with light precipitation anticipated over the High Plains and Midwest. The wettest conditions are anticipated over the Great Lakes and into the Northeast as well as the Florida peninsula. Temperatures are anticipated to be above normal over the central and southern Plains and into the South. Cooler-than-normal temperatures are anticipated over the coastal areas of the West.
The 6–10 day outlooks show that there are above-normal chances of warmer-than-normal temperatures over the lower Mississippi Valley and most of the southern Plains into the Southeast as well as in the Pacific Northwest. There are also above-normal chances of cooler-than-normal temperatures over New England. The greatest likelihood of above-normal precipitation is over the Rocky Mountains and New England while the greatest likelihood of below-normal precipitation is in the Southeast.
A few weeks ago, on June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) handed down its much-awaited decision in Arizona v. Navajo Nation. Twenty years in the making, but with a far longer backstory, the decision’s significance stems, in no small part, from what SCOTUS did not do, including vis-à-vis tribes with water rights held in trust by the federal government that may be affected by negotiations over Colorado River management between now and 2026.
Water Injustice on the Navajo’s “Permanent Home”
Too much historical context surrounds Arizona v. Navajo Nation to recount. In the big picture, this context encompasses the Crusades of medieval Europe; the Age of Discovery (read: Discovery Doctrine); and successive colonization efforts of Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans from 1540-present. I’ll highlight just a few pieces of the human and legal geography.
One of the Colorado River Basin’s most remarkable qualities is the rich presence of Native peoples. They have inhabited the basin, holding existential relationships with the river system, since time immemorial. At present, the Diné (Navajo) are one of 30 tribal sovereigns residing on 29 reservations across the basin, with the Navajo Reservation being the largest in the country: 27,413 square miles, slightly bigger than West Virginia. (Map to the right, here’s a bigger version.
An 1868 treaty established the Navajo Reservation, in a modest portion of the tribe’s vast traditional lands, designating it the Navajos’ “permanent home” and providing for farming and animal raising to take place there. An earlier 1849 treaty had called for the reservation’s eventual creation, as well as promised the Navajo would “forever remain” under the federal government’s “protection.” To be clear, though, the 1868 treaty enabled the Navajo to return to their “permanent home” only after enduring the tragic Long Walk, followed by the tribe’s inhumane internment at Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico, between 1864 and 1868—a shameful episode in U.S. history. The reservation later grew, in increments, to its current size.
The 1868 treaty raises a basic question: What’s needed on the dry Colorado Plateau for a tribe’s “permanent home” to be just that? Water is life. As recognized by the United Nations General Assembly, “the right to safe drinking water and sanitation [is] a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” But you might not know it after spending time on the Navajo Reservation or reading the tribe’s complaint in the lawsuit.
“How did we get here, in this country, in the twenty-first century?” That pitch-perfect query, from the Navajo’s Supreme Court brief, captures the moral and emotional upshot of the water-access issues outlined in the tribe’s complaint (third amended complaint). In some parts of the reservation (i.e., the Coppermine region), “91% of Navajo households . . . lack access to water”; “[o]ver 30% of Navajo tribal members live without plumbing, and in some areas of the Navajo Reservation the percentage is much higher”; and while tribal members use “around 7 gallons of water per day for all of their household needs,” the U.S. average is 80-100 gallons. Water injustice of this sort is not unique among Colorado River Basin tribes.
From Surplus Guidelines to Cert Petitions
Arizona v. Navajo Nation aimed at this injustice. As with the broader context, the case’s procedural history is too lengthy to detail, but suffice it to say the litigation had run for roughly two decades before SCOTUS’s decision.
The Navajo Nation filed suit in 2003 against the Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. One claim was that these federal defendants had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), another was that they had breached trust obligations to the tribe, while developing the 2001 surplus guidelines for the Lower Colorado River. Three basin states intervened as defendants—Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado—joined by major agricultural and municipal water agencies, including Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Imperial Irrigation District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Settlement negotiations spanned a decade but did not bear fruit. The case then moved through the lower federal courts from 2013-2022. In a nutshell, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled against the Navajo in 2014, 2018, and 2019, and it was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 and 2022. SCOTUS’s decision focused on the 2022 opinion from the Ninth Circuit. Contrary to the district court, it held the Navajo’s third amended complaint stated a viable breach of trust claim against the federal defendants—a claim extended in the complaint to Colorado River management decisions beyond the 2001 surplus guidelines, including the 2007 shortage guidelines and Minute 323 to the U.S.-Mexico Treaty.
The tribe was thoughtful and strategic about its request for relief. One piece was an assessment by the federal defendants of “the extent to which the Nation requires water from sources other than the Little Colorado River to enable its reservation in Arizona to serve as a permanent homeland.” Another piece was inseparable: “a plan to secure the needed water.” A final piece was for the federal defendants to manage the Colorado River “in a manner that does not interfere with the plan to secure the water needed by the Navajo,” including “mitigation measures to offset any adverse effects” of management actions. An intertwined assessment, plan, and water management regime—that was the Navajos’ request.
With the Ninth Circuit’s 2022 opinion, this relief moved one step closer to reality, and the case rose to the national level. SCOTUS agreed to review it—granted certiorari—following a petition from the federal defendants and another from the basin states and agricultural and municipal water agencies. One question presented was about SCOTUS’s decree in the epic Colorado River case of Arizona v. California: Did the Ninth Circuit’s opinion infringe on the decree’s jurisdictional provision? Another question addressed the breach of trust claim: “Can the Nation state a cognizable claim for breach of trust consistent with this Court’s holding in Jicarilla based solely on unquantified implied rights to water under the Winters Doctrine?”
Arizona v. Navajo Nation & What Lies Downstream
SCOTUS split 5-4. Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch wrote the majority and dissenting opinions, respectively, and Justice Thomas penned a concurrence that won’t be discussed further below. My angle in wading through the decision is to emphasize what the Court did not do, rather than what it did, in an admitted attempt to see silver linings of some of the “nots” for negotiations over Colorado River management during the next several years—specifically, ongoing processes for developing replacements for the 2007 shortage guidelines, Drought Contingency Plans, and Minute 323, all slated to expire in 2026.
Quick work can be made of the Arizona v. California decree question. SCOTUS did not answer it. In the last footnote on the last page of the majority opinion, the Justices described the question as going to the case’s merits, not jurisdiction, and declined to do more.
That’s because of how the Court came out on the breach of trust claim. By the narrowest margin, the Justices diverged, with the majority applying (mistakenly according to the dissent) an analytical framework from a 2011 case noted above, Jicarilla Apache, to reject the Navajo’s claim. Despite this loss for the tribe, three aspects—again, silver linings—of the Court’s holding are worth considering in relation to what lies “downstream” along the Colorado River.
First, SCOTUS did not dilute the Winters doctrine. “When the United States establishes a tribal reservation,” described the majority, “the reservation generally includes . . . the right to use needed water on the reservation, referred to as reserved water rights.” The dissent recited the doctrine in full; flagged how the extent of the Navajos’ Winters rights has never been assessed; and canvassed the tribe’s persistent efforts to have its Lower Colorado River rights quantified, both in and since Arizona v. California. All told, Winters remains intact. It underpins the five basin tribes’ reserved rights quantified in Arizona v. California. It has spurred 17 negotiated settlements quantifying other basin tribes’ water rights from 1978-2022. And it is a foundation for future settlements (or adjudications) to address unresolved water rights claims held by nearly a dozen basin tribes. Resolving those claims is a basinwide policy priority that should be pursued in parallel with negotiations over post-2026 Colorado River management. The Navajos’ unquantified water rights along the Lower Colorado River and the Little Colorado River cannot go unmentioned here. Nor can the majority’s description of Winters’s application: “The 1868 treaty reserved necessary water to accomplish the purpose of the Navajo Reservation.”
Second, SCOTUS did not call into question the existence of a general trust relationship between the federal government and tribes in the context of policymaking over the Colorado River, even though the decision reinforces the Court’s strict test for bringing breach of trust claims in litigation against the federal trustee. As the majority acknowledged, “this Court’s precedents have stated that the United States maintains a general trust relationship with Indian tribes, including the Navajos.” The opinion surveyed past water-related legislation and infrastructure investments intended to satisfy “the United States’ obligations under the 1868 treaty.” The federal defendants’ brief contained the same content. Likewise, in key NEPA documents—e.g., the 2023 draft supplemental environmental impact statement on near-term Colorado River operations—the Bureau of Reclamation has described basin tribes’ water rights as “Indian Trust Assets,” “held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of Native American Tribes or individuals.” So despite the majority’s holding on the breach of trust claim in this specific case (see below), the general trust relationship remains intact in the policymaking context, including negotiations over post-2026 Colorado River management. Basin tribes should have meaningful opportunities to engage in the negotiations—perhaps as part of a Sovereign Governance Team—and negotiators should consider with care quantified and unresolved tribal water rights while developing reservoir operating rules, conservation programs, etc.
Third, SCOTUS did not preclude the Navajo or other basin tribes from bringing future breach of trust claims against the federal trustee, stemming from Colorado River management. The majority described the Navajo’s claim in this specific (narrow) way: “In the Tribe’s view, the 1868 treaty imposed a duty on the United States to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Navajos.” (Emphasis added.) While the dissent provided an extensive, well-reasoned analysis that supported interpreting the treaty precisely this way, the majority was unwilling. Nonetheless, the pivotal thing for my purposes is a distinction emphasized by the majority several times: “The Navajos’ claim is not that the United States has interfered with their water access.” (Emphasis added.) The dissent elaborated in this way:
This distinction between affirmative steps versus non-interference is significant. What might a successful breach of trust claim rooted in federal interference with the Navajo’s (or other basin tribes’) water rights look like? As this question applies to negotiations over post-2026 Colorado River management, I won’t attempt to answer it now. But I’d be remiss not to flag it, as well as the distinction on which it’s based, among the notable aspects of SCOTUS’s decision.
My hope is the question doesn’t require an answer over the next few years of Colorado River governance. Winters remains a solid foundation for basin tribes’ quantified and as-yet unresolved water rights, and the general trust relationship applies to these water rights in policymaking processes. Despite its reinforcement (arguable misapplication) of the strict breach of trust analysis, Arizona v. Navajo Nation did not undo those bedrock principles. The dissent’s closing aspiration lies at their confluence: “some measure of justice will prevail in the end.”
Sinead O’Connor, the outspoken Irish singer-songwriter best known for her powerful, evocative voice, as showcased on her biggest hit, a breathtaking rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and for her political provocations onstage and off, has died. She was 56…Recognizable by her shaved head and by wide eyes that could appear pained or full of rage, Ms. O’Connor released 10 studio albums, beginning with the alternative hit “The Lion and the Cobra” in 1987. She went on to sell millions of albums worldwide, breaking out with “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” in 1990. That album, featuring “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a No. 1 hit and MTV staple, won a Grammy Award in 1991 for best alternative music performance — although Ms. O’Connor boycotted the ceremony over what she called the show’s excessive commercialism…
At 15, at a wedding, she sang “Evergreen” — the love theme from “A Star Is Born,” made famous by Barbra Streisand — and was discovered by Paul Byrne, a drummer who had an affiliation with the superstar Irish band U2. She left boarding school at 16 and began her career.
Kudos to Southern Nevada, which at ~202kaf is on track for its lowest take on the Colorado River since 1992. Clark County’s population has nearly tripled in that time.
At ~860kaf, the Central Arizona Project is on track to make its lowest draw on the Colorado River since 1995.
At ~803kaf, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s forecast draw on the river is taking 12.5 percent less than its average over the last decade, but Met is weird because of California State Water Project wet year chaos, so I’m not sure I fully understand what they’re up to. (Jump in the comments and explain, Met friends!)
The Imperial Irrigation District is forecast to take ~2.5maf from the river this year, which is basically unchanged from its use over the previous decade.
What is Needed
The analysis by Jack Schmidt et al suggests that, based on 21st century hydrology, we need to cut 1.5 million acre feet per year just to stabilize the system. If we want to actually refill a bit, to provide cushion against the sort of catastrophe that was narrowly averted this year by a big snowpack, the cuts need to be even deeper.
The above graph from their paper shows the problem. I’ve circled the last big snowpack year in red, and you can see the others as well. Every time we got bonus water, we just used it.
Resilience is the ability for the Colorado River Basin to prepare for and adapt to climate shifts and extremes, including rising temperatures, increased drying, and variability in precipitation. Resilience on the Colorado River means identifying, piloting, and implementing durable strategies to avoid or mitigate climate-related risks to the Colorado River community.
Regaining functionality in Colorado’s headwaters systems by restoring nature’s design
Most of Colorado’s source streams are changing rapidly and look nothing like they did a couple hundred years ago. With climate change impacting headwater areas, we’re learning to appreciate what was lost—and what can be regained.
Intrepid though they were, the first European explorers and settlers along the West’s various river systems did a lot of complaining. Pioneers groused about downed trees blocking their path and waterlogged ground that made footing treacherous. Mosquitoes, debris jams, underwater snags, and a confusing network of secondary streams thwarted humans’ attempts at efficient travel.
Intrepid though they were, the first European explorers and settlers along the West’s various river systems did a lot of complaining. Pioneers groused about downed trees blocking their path and waterlogged ground that made footing treacherous. Mosquitoes, debris jams, underwater snags, and a confusing network of secondary streams thwarted humans’ attempts at efficient travel.
“It was hard to boat, hard to hike,” explains Ellen Wohl, an author and geosciences professor at Colorado State University who has researched written accounts of early exploration–along with virtually every other aspect of changing stream structure and ecology. A self-professed fast-talker and a preeminent expert on how rivers interact with the land over time, she rattles off terms such as “spatially heterogeneous” and “morphological influences” with the casual ease of someone ordering a pizza. Yet she also translates fluvial geomorphology into blessedly common language: In their natural state, says Wohl, streams are messy. “They’ve got pools, riffles, constrictions and expansions, logjams, beaver dams, and wetlands that spread across the valley floor.”
Such tangles were particularly thick at headwaters—the source streams feeding into the larger rivers that we know by name, such as the Colorado and South Platte rivers. Beavers typically turned these smaller waterways into a vexing labyrinth of dammed pools and wetlands choked with water-loving willows and trees.
And so, feeling antagonized by the headwaters’ soggy, messy terrain, Colorado’s early European settlers devoted their energies to tidying up. They extirpated the beavers and demolished their dams; settlers also straightened and diverted the streams to irrigate crops and fill miners’ rocker boxes. Human engineering replaced nature’s infrastructure across most of the state’s headwater systems. Consequently, neat channels surrounded by pliant grasses replaced the jumble of wetlands that once characterized source streams from the Eastern Plains to high-alpine valleys.
Fast forward almost 200 years and Colorado communities are facing new threats. Catastrophic wildfires, enduring drought, and waterborne pollutants endanger the many cities that developed downstream of headwater systems. Experts now believe that the swampy ecosystems that once tormented early explorers may actually become allies in weathering and adapting to these new threats. Restoring natural infrastructure, such as beaver habitat and the wetlands it creates, could shield communities from damaging floods, purify water of toxins and high sediment loads, and reduce the apocalyptic effects of megafires. Such benefits become possible when people appreciate the genius of headwaters’ natural state—but only if people can learn to live with their mess.
The Big Thompson River headwaters flow through Moraine Park, which doesn’t appear to be degraded—at least not to most observers. They see a simple ribbon of water snaking among grasses that allow for unobstructed views of the surrounding summits as well as the valley’s resident elk—making this one of the best-loved areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even anglers flock here to cast for Big Thompson trout without worrying about tangling their lines in trees or shrubs, both of which are largely absent.
However, this kind of naked channel isn’t natural, explains Mark Beardsley of EcoMetrics, a collective of scientists that analyzes and restores headwaters. The Big Thompson’s ribbon-like stream resulted from previous generations’ attempts to impose order on what was once a jumbled, waterlogged valley. Before, willows and trees slowed the water’s flow and created sanctuaries for juvenile members of many wildlife species. The slower water also would let woody debris like leaf litter, branches and roots settle out of the flow, keeping downstream rivers cleaner.
But in its current state, says Wohl, “Big Thompson in Moraine Park provides less attenuation of water, solutes [such as nitrate], and sediment moving downstream, and less diverse and abundant aquatic and riparian habitat than it provided when the beavers were more active there.” And across Colorado, many headwater streams now look as stripped-down as the Big Thompson. “We have simplified our headwaters into ditches,” says Wohl. “Like a tree that’s had all its branches cut off, but actually, all those branches are really important to the health of the tree.”
Changes began with the fur trade in the early 1800s, when trappers all but eliminated beavers from Colorado. By some estimates, today’s beaver population represents just 10% of historical numbers. Without those dam-builders, many headwaters lost the ponds and waterlogged uplands that once filled valleys such as Moraine Park. Where wetlands persisted, settlers drained them to establish streamside homesteads and ranches.
Scientists define streams by numerical order: A first-order stream has no tributaries, and a second-order stream is created at the confluence of two first-order drainages. Headwater streams are typically first- and second-order streams. They can be found at various elevations, from mountain valleys to the plains, and their characteristic plants vary by ecosystem. Regardless of where they’re located, headwaters often take on tangled shapes that slow the water’s progress and distribute it across meandering oxbows and liquid fingers that look more like wet webs than streamlined ribbons. Though some Colorado headwaters stop flowing during dry seasons, historically they’re moist, soggy places that keep water on the landscape, like sponges.
And headwater streams are often so small that they could be plowed over or piped underground, explains Wohl. Many were diverted to run mines and ranches. Others served as flumes conveying felled timber, and, says Wohl, as those logs rode snowmelt rushing downstream “it was like taking a scouring brush to the channel.”
Over time, as headwater streams lost their “branches” and became a single trunk of water, they began to act like irrigation ditches that accelerate water, and everything in it, to locations downstream. With climate change intensifying both storms and droughts, the canal-like efficiency of modified headwaters is proving to be a detriment for communities across Colorado. “Floods get bigger, with a higher peak flow for a shorter time,” Wohl says. Researchers are only now beginning to measure the flood-intensifying impact of channelized headwaters and every site is different, but according to unpublished modeling studies conducted by Nicholas Christenden, a PhD student at CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, one Front Range site demonstrated that restored beaver structures and associated vegetation might attenuate peak flow by 26%.
Faster, stronger floodwaters pose many long-term threats to stream and community health. They threaten bridges and riverside roads, and pollutants—including everything from sediment to agricultural chemicals—get funneled into municipal water sources.
Biodiversity also suffers from this channelization, because without complex wetlands and floodplains, streams support a less diverse population of insects, fish, amphibians, plants, birds and even bacteria.
Yet Colorado has managed to preserve a limited number (about 20% of the state’s total headwaters mileage, estimates Wohl) of “stage-zero” headwater streams that still function as nature designed. On this scale developed a decade ago and commonly used by stream health practitioners, stage zero refers to these unaltered systems. As streams degrade they can go from stage zero up to stage four before they start to recover. The scale maxes out with stage-eight streams, which have recovered to near pre-disturbance levels. Stage-zero systems demonstrate remarkable resiliency during extreme weather events, and they’ve persuaded some experts that we need to up our investment in preserving and restoring headwaters, not as we made them, but as they were.
Should you hike up to the uppermost reaches of Cochetopa Creek, within La Garita Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains, you will find a waterlogged, willow-choked valley that Wohl adores. “Oh it’s beautiful,” she croons of this stage-zero gem.
With its beaver ponds and meandering secondary channels where juvenile amphibians and fish can take shelter and grow, the Cochetopa Creek headwaters is a de facto sponge that slows and retains water passing through. Floods are dispersed across its many inlets, which trap pollutants and suspend sediment and return clear water to the flow downstream, just as a water treatment plant might do, but without the multi-million-dollar price tag. Thus the chain-of-ponds system also reduces the impact of high-energy surges. That water-purifying capability also traps atmospherically deposited nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals, which would otherwise concentrate in downstream water bodies where they trigger toxic algae blooms, says Wohl, who published her findings in a 2018 paper for Biochemistry.
“Certainly we see significant benefits downstream,” explains Dan Brauch, a Gunnison-area fisheries biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Cochetopa’s stage-zero beaver complexes store water that’s slowly released during late summer’s hot, dry periods, which improves water quality and quantity for downstream trout, Brauch says. “That water retention is also important to this area’s agricultural properties, because it means that more water is likely to reach those irrigators for a longer portion of the season,” he continues. Of course not all stream systems react to beaver activity in the same way. A 2015 study looking at the impacts of beaver dams on streamflow and temperature in Utah found that beavers don’t have consistent results on streamflow. During the study period, beaver development caused more variability in stream systems but, the report says, continued study is needed to better predict and understand beavers’ impacts.
The complex of wetlands found in intact headwater systems, such as at Cochetopa Creek, also can serve as a fire break and refuge for the area’s animals during wildfire. “Every living thing that can get there will,” attests Beardsley. After widespread fires, waterlogged headwater systems remain as a “big green patch,” he continues, from which repopulation efforts take hold in the surrounding burn.
These wetlands even sequester carbon in the floodplain to counterbalance the factors fueling climate change. Wohl’s study of North St. Vrain Creek concluded that while its broad, sponge-like floodplains represent just 25% of the total channel length within the river network, they store 75% of its organic carbon. “Headwaters that remain in their original condition provide a lot of ecosystem services,” Wohl says.
Residents of Glenwood Springs, for example, enjoy lower water costs because several of their headwater systems retain many of their natural processes. “Bison Lake Basin, No Name Creek and Grizzly Creek watersheds are [considered] stage-one watersheds exhibiting high geomorphic, hydrologic, and biotic integrity,” says David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, where these headwaters are located. That’s advantageous to the city’s water treatment, explains Matt Langhorst, Glenwood Springs’ public works director. “The water that comes out doesn’t have a lot of sediment, so it costs us a little less money to put it through the treatment process, and we pass that savings along to residents of Glenwood Springs,” he continues.
What’s more, these headwater wetlands also support a boggling diversity of flora and fauna, says Sarah Marshall, a wetland ecologist with CSU’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program. “The most intact systems just have more species,” she explains. “Birds, mammals, bugs, bats—all of it,” she continues. “Between the sights and also the sounds, it’s a very rich sensory experience to be in a diverse wetland.”
Headwaters’ power is their complexity, says Marshall. “When you take water out of that system,” as has happened at the Big Thompson and so many Colorado headwater streams, “You take away that complexity piece.” It’s like trying to support a reef ecosystem without the coral. Headwater wetlands, like coral reefs, “Provide a structure or a home for a lot of living species, and is itself a living thing, with fungi and bacteria that live in the soil,” Marshall explains. Trout, for example, depend on the deep pools that beavers create to survive the cold Colorado winters, because only those pockets stay warm enough to keep fish alive, whereas most headwater streams are so shallow that they freeze solid.
Yet defining what “healthy” means when describing headwater streams remains challenging, says Marshall. Health isn’t based on easily definable traits and each system is unique. Still, says Wohl, there are certain markers that generally point to “healthy” headwater systems. “Natural systems are not static, so there should be a range of variability,” she continues. Water flows will vary greatly between peaks and lows; water temperature will differ by location; species’ numbers may also fluctuate. Healthy headwaters, says Wohl, “have the ability to sustain their natural communities.” Thus native migratory birds and wild trout should be able to live, season to season, without replenishment or support from human agencies.
Beardsley, meanwhile, defines a healthy headwater system as one that’s preserved its natural processes. “In human health, we’d say that the person can still perform their vital functions,” he explains. Yes, scientists can measure water quality and use that to indicate something about purity, but “health is broader than that,” Beardsley explains. “It’s about physical and biological integrity, where plants, animals and abiotic parts all depend on one another.” In other words, he concludes, health is something that’s challenging to define or measure, but “defining and measuring it is something we can and must do to restore healthy watersheds.”
For all their planetary and human benefits, healthy headwaters come with tradeoffs that people sometimes find hard to accept. Hikers don’t like soaking their boots amidst flooded willows that stymy progress. In their natural state, headwaters are jumbled, cluttered places that frustrate our preference for efficiency.
But the biggest concern comes from downstream water users, including some water providers, municipalities, agricultural producers and others who raise concerns about the potential implications of holding water on the floodplain. These water rights holders worry that water retained upstream in headwaters areas—whether in wetlands or behind beaver dams—might alter or limit the amount of flows or timing of runoff, impacting the water that they legally have a right to use.
But, says Marshall, “If you want to catch fish and you want clean water to drink, you really need the mess upstream.”
When land and water managers or property owners seek to rehabilitate headwater streams that have suffered decades of replumbing and degradation, they can follow a surprising number of clues that indicate how the waterway once functioned.
Some glimpses remain in the written records that settlers left. “There are general land office descriptions, when people surveyed, that document what they saw,” says Marshall. “They are sometimes very descriptive, especially with the acres that were difficult to cross,” she jokes. In their snarled, labyrinthian state, headwaters have never facilitated easy passage for humans’ preferred forms of travel.
Technological imaging can also provide sketches of headwaters’ former shapes, sizes, and historical footprint. “Aerial photography lets us see evidence of where rivers used to be,” notes Marshall. Imprints from former beaver ponds and wetlands often remain on the land and suggest the paths that water used to take through valleys that now evidence a single stream among stark grasses.
LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, is yet another way that researchers discern evidence of past water patterns. LiDAR has helped water managers assess snowpack depth across various headwaters in Colorado, and the data can also guide practitioners who want to understand what a particular stream looked like before human re-engineering.
“Aerial imagery of the Big Thompson in Moraine Park, as in a lot of mountain parks, shows broad floodplains that used to be a mix of meadows and wet places, with meandering, multi-threaded sliver channels that historically had beavers and large wood,” Marshall explains. But as elk replaced beavers in Moraine Park, the woody vegetation all but disappeared, either because it was browsed by ungulates or didn’t find sufficient water, and the simplified stream dug into the floodplain, losing its connection to the surrounding ecosystem.
Sometimes, Wohl and other researchers look at data, such as streams’ hydrographs, to determine the threshold requirements for sustaining key ecological functions. “Fish spawning, for example, might require a certain minimum flow and distribution,” Wohl explains. Managers can aim for those targets, rather than trying to restore working waterways to their pristine conditions.
Indeed, it’s not always easy—or desirable—to try to recreate the past with today’s streams. After all, they’re living, dynamic systems, not museum artifacts, and they’re healthiest when they have the freedom to change and adapt. “You could pick a point in history to return to,” says Beardsley, “But these ecosystems are always changing and evolving. So there’s no point in trying to create a static system.” The idea is to restore streams’ multi-faceted functionality, so earth, water, rock, chemical and biological elements all work together—and then let the system run itself.
In fact, headwaters’ adaptability is precisely what makes them such valuable assets for human communities looking to boost their resiliency in the face of climate change. “We want systems that can react and adapt to future pressures,” Beardsley continues. When torrential rains fall on mountainsides that have been denuded by wildfire, headwater systems can slow the flooding and filter the water before it arrives at municipal infrastructure—but only if these streams retain some version of their original, natural processes.
That’s why the Mile High Flood District (MHFD) recently helped a landowner in Parker to create a development plan that restored Stroh Gulch, a headwater stream that feeds Cherry Creek. Not that Stroh Gulch was pristine: Located on a cattle ranch, it includes reaches that have lost their native scrub oak and have become channelized. But as the landowner prepared to offer the property to housing developers, the MHFD collaborated on a vision for the project that would revive the headwater stream’s health and meet builders’ economic needs. Three years ago, E5X Management and Muller Engineering Company accepted the project parameters, and this year, construction begins on the 1,200-acre Tanterra development.
Instead of lining Stroh Gulch with concrete and reducing it to nothing more than a ditch, developers are planting grasses, shrubs and trees that restore the stream’s heterogeneity. “We look at them as infrastructure,” explains Barbara Chongtua, MHFD’s development services director. “One benefit to homeowners is the aesthetic component, that these become places to walk, meditate and play,” she continues. “But the natural system—we refer to it as nature-based solutions—also slows the water down and prevents erosion,” she explains. The water infiltrates the ground closer to its source, so it doesn’t all dump into the active channel. According to simulations conducted by Muller Engineering, the interplay of rocks, shrubs, and trees “really beat down the peak and the frequency of runoff,” says Chongtua.
“The Mile High Flood District is dedicated to protecting people, property, and our environment, and we used to do that with a lot of concrete and rock, to contain [flooding],” Chongtua continues. “But now we’re realizing that we can achieve that protection by working with nature, by working with its living systems, which are a lot more cost-effective and get stronger over time.” Tanterra is just the beginning. Says Chongtua, “This gives us a pilot project that we can scale up.”
Improving the health of Stroh Gulch makes a positive difference, even though the stream isn’t likely to achieve stage zero status. Because, experts agree, headwaters health isn’t an all-or-nothing game: Degrees matter. The rehabilitation efforts that are most likely to succeed also work by degrees, so that the best candidates for restoration typically retain some of their defining characteristics, says Beardsley. For example, it’s hard to relocate beavers to a zone where they have no food, habitat, or building materials.
It’s difficult to relocate beavers, period, says Beardsley. They’re natural forces that humans can’t readily control. So at Trail Creek, located within the Taylor River headwaters between Gunnison and Crested Butte, efforts merely invited beavers onto the mile-long segment. Wanting to improve water quality above Taylor Park Reservoir, local land managers worked with funding partners that included the National Forest Foundation and the Coca-Cola Corporation to restore water-holding wetlands. Beginning in 2021, volunteers sunk wooden posts into the stream banks and wove willows between them to create artificial beaver dams that, they hoped, would attract beavers from the surrounding forests.
It worked: By the following summer, beavers had returned to the valley after a 20-year absence and had constructed a dam and lodge that had begun to saturate the once-parched riparian zone. Retained water nourished the 200-plus willows that teams had planted, and the revived interaction between plants, water and wildlife promises to reverse the encroachment of sagebrush that had replaced riparian plants throughout the corridor.
“The big benefit is that water remains on the landscape,” says Beardsley. “That provides a big resiliency factor in times of drought.”
Coloradans have different needs and face a fresh set of threats that didn’t bear on those European settlers 200 years ago. “We’ve traded away a lot of those functions and benefits [of headwaters] by some of our past land uses,” says Beardsley. “But we can trade back, which is exciting.” Trail Creek and related projects indicate that headwater streams can indeed heal, when humans set them up to self-adapt.
“We don’t know how they should respond to a lesser snowpack or drier conditions or wildfire,” admits Beardsley. But he trusts nature to figure it out. “We ha
A freelance writer living in Steamboat Springs, Kelly Bastone covers water, conservation and the outdoors for publications including Outside, AFAR, 5280, Backpacker, Field & Stream, and others.
Two studies have shown that a large meadow on the east side of the Crystal River known as Janeway shows promise as a potential site for a water-replacement project. But at least one Pitkin County official is questioning the need for a basin-wide water replacement plan at all.
Engineers say the 50-acre, 1,000-foot-wide historic floodplain just downstream of the Crystal’s confluence with Avalanche Creek could work as a location for a project to help junior water users solve shortages in dry years. One study looked at inundating that floodplain with water from the Crystal River during spring runoff, which would percolate through layers of earth and be stored as groundwater before seeping back to the river days, weeks or even months later.
This type of nature-based aquifer recharge project that retimes water from spring runoff could also have added benefits for the riparian ecosystem by reconnecting the floodplain to the river, which has been channelized by decades of development in the Crystal River Valley including the construction of Highway 133 and the railroad before that. The historic Janeway townsite is marked by the ruins of a log structure and old railroad grade, but the U.S. Forest Service parcel is now dominated by native grass, potato cactus, mountain mahogany, sagebrush and juniper.
“I think the Janeway is of particular interest given its location,” said Fay Hartman, southwest regional program conservation director with environmental group American Rivers, who worked on the nature-based solutions study. “It’s a pretty good-sized floodplain, which is obviously important. In the initial analysis it seems like it’s the best fit.”
Janeway was also one of the sites considered by Colorado River Engineering, which is the engineering firm that conducted an analysis for the West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River Water Conservation District of potential water-supply replacement options. This draft study considered more traditional water-replacement methods that are not natural-process based. If the nature-based concept does not move forward at Janeway, West Divide may explore the construction of a recharge pond at the same location.
“It is a similar concept with a more simplified approach,” the study reads. “It would not provide the riparian floodplain benefits that the nature-based solutions project does, but would have reduced costs for construction, operation and maintenance.”
Historic call spurs studies
The two studies aimed at finding replacement water came at the direction nearly five years ago of engineers from Division 5 of Colorado’s Division of Water Resources. During the hot, dry summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which pulls water from the Crystal River and irrigates hayfields south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time. That means the Ella Ditch wasn’t getting the full amount to which it is entitled and upstream junior water users had to stop taking water so that the Ella could get its full amount.
The Ella Ditch has water rights that date to 1902, and any water rights younger than that — including those held by the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company and several residential subdivisions along the Crystal River — were subject to being shut off under a strict administration of the river by DWR. Under Colorado’s system of water law known as prior appropriation, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
Most junior water rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which allows them to continue using water during a call by releasing water from a backup source, such as a nearby reservoir. The problem is that some of the in-home water users on the Crystal don’t have an augmentation plan.
The goal of the two studies, which were largely funded by grants from the state of Colorado and the River District, was to find potential sources of augmentation water. The initial study by Colorado River Engineering looked at traditional sources of replacement water like off-channel storage ponds.
A second study by American Rivers and others looked at nature-based solutions like aquifer recharge. That study looked at four potential project sites — Thompson Creek Open Space, Avalanche Creek confluence, Coal Creek and Janeway — with the Janeway site being the most promising. To address environmental concerns from Pitkin County and others, the River District has promised that any storage constructed as part of an augmentation plan will not happen on the main stem of the Crystal River.
Finding potential augmentation supply sites in the Crystal River Valley has been difficult, said Brendon Langenhuizen, director of technical advocacy at the River District.
“It’s a really tight basin. It’s really narrow with lots of steep tributaries, which means there’s not a lot of off-channel reservoir sites,” he said. “There’s not a lot of valley bottom where we could develop something.”
Amount of water needed
Although Janeway is the most promising area for a nature-based solution and the one overlapping potential project site of the two studies, it still has drawbacks. The aquifer recharge project with additional environmental benefits is estimated to cost $1.5 million. The project could include a 765-foot excavated channel at the south end of the floodplain so it could be hydrologically connected to the river. Small porous wood structures across the floodplain would aid in ponding and water retention and revegetation efforts could include willows, cottonwoods and wetland sedges.
But this project wouldn’t meet all of the augmentation needs. And there are also still unanswered questions about the retiming of flows: The lagged natural return flows may not align with when water is needed. According to the Colorado River Engineering study modeling, the Janeway project site could provide up to 60 acre-feet of lagged return flows to the river over the course of the summer, with the most occurring in June. But the highest water demands are in July and the most likely months for a call are July, August and September, so the Janeway site is estimated to only provide 10 to 20 acre-feet toward solving a shortage.
Engineers are applying to the U.S. Forest Service for permits to install measurement devices known as piezometers to gather more information about the groundwater on the site.
“We have a request in to run some localized tests on the aquifer to see how fast water could move back to the Crystal River,” Langenhuizen said. “What we are looking for is some delay. Our peak demands are in July and if we could get two to three months delay that would be really helpful.”
According to the study, the total replacement water needed is 105 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot and could supply one to two families a year. July’s potential requirement is 34 acre-feet.
Other sources of augmentation water could be up to 38 acre-feet from Beaver Lake, which is located in Marble and managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife; 10-15 acre-feet from Upper Basin Pond, a small, off-channel pond on private land upstream of Marble; and about 10 acre-feet from Rapid Creek Pond, a small off-channel parcel on private land downstream of Marble.
Other sites like the Orlosky Reservoirs in Marble, upper Coal Creek and lower Avalanche Creek were deemed not workable for a variety of reasons. The study also says that irrigators were approached about an agreement where they could temporarily cease irrigation to make water available to other users, but there was limited interest.
All four identified supplies would need to be built at their maximum capacities to meet a potential 20% future increase in demand of 11 acre-feet, according to the study.
Pitkin County concerns
Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar is skeptical that an expensive, complicated augmentation plan for junior water users on the Crystal is necessary.
“We are talking about such a small amount of water that is needed so it still seems to me there is a pretty substantial flaw in not looking to see if there is any use of water on the Crystal that shouldn’t be occurring or isn’t occurring legally right now,” Makar said.
Like most places on the Western Slope, agriculture is king on the Crystal, with ranches on the lower reaches using far more water to grow hay and alfalfa than what’s needed to keep residential taps flowing.
Making sure all water users on the Crystal are held to the same standard should be the first step toward finding water to meet demands, Makar said.
“Why would we not want to look at low-hanging fruit that might be politically difficult but is actually engineering-wise and physically easy?” Makar said. “Instead we are looking at very difficult physical engineering solutions because we aren’t looking at what exists in the system.”
According to Division 5 Engineer James Heath, the wells for indoor water use that triggered the augmentation plan studies use less than 1% of the water used by agriculture on the Crystal. He said he has never shut off wells for in-home domestic use due to them using water out of priority, and probably would not in the future. His office has said it will not shut off indoor use as long as water users are working toward finding a solution, although outdoor watering of lawns, gardens and landscaping may be curtailed.
“Generally, what we try to do is limit the outdoor use and allow for indoor use to continue,” he said. “We can get the biggest bang for the buck by curtailing the outdoor use, which is where most of the consumption happens.”
Heath said in general agricultural water users are not wasting water on the Crystal. The problem, he said, is that there is sometimes not enough water in the river to meet demands, especially in late summer of dry years. He said during the summers of 2020, 2021 and 2022, some irrigators were not getting their full share and could have placed a call, but chose not to.
But waste has occurred at least once in recent years. In 2018 — the same year as the first-ever call on the Crystal — a water commissioner from the Division of Water Resources turned down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch for what he said was waste, based on state guidelines.
During the 2018 call, the East Mesa Ditch loaned 1 cubic foot per second of water to the town of Carbondale — under an emergency substitute water-supply plan that allowed a temporary change in water use from agriculture to municipal — so it could continue to legally supply about 50 homes on the Nettle Creek pipeline with water. Makar said there’s no legal reason water users couldn’t craft a similar more permanent agreement, which could be activated if a call ever comes on again.
“It certainly has been done and done successfully,” she said.
Veteran Colorado water attorney Jim Lochhead has been part of most of the history-making Colorado River deals crafted over the last 30 years including California’s landmark 2003 quantification settlement agreement, where the state famously agreed to cut back its overuse of the Colorado River. For decades, he advised state and local agencies on Colorado River issues. He also served as head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Roy Romer from 1994 to 1998.
But in 2010 he moved into a decidedly different role: running Denver Water, a 1,200-employee agency that serves more than 1.5 million customers in the Denver metro area and which operates as an independent government agency.
Under his leadership, Denver Water launched a major capital investment program, which included a new, hyper-green operations complex. It built a new water treatment plant and battled on many fronts to launch a controversial expansion of Gross Reservoir. The agency also launched one of the largest lead pipe replacement programs in the country.
Lochhead, who announced he was leaving Denver Water in December, has a departure date of Aug. 7. Alan Salazar, chief of staff for the city of Denver, will take over as interim CEO for the next year, until a permanent hire is made.
But is Lochhead, 71, planning to retire? Not just yet. See what this high-profile water veteran has to say about the state of the Colorado River these days and what his future may hold.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: Why leave now, when issues on the Colorado River are just getting interesting?
Answer: I think as a CEO you need to realize what your shelf life is. I’ve accomplished what I was hired to do. When I came, Denver Water was right in the middle of negotiating the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement [a deal that resolved many, though not all, conflicts between West Slope Colorado River water users and those on the Front Range, including Denver.]
I was really brought in to move Denver Water forward in terms of being a trusted leader in the water industry and in serving customers, and to focus us on the sustainability of our water supply and the health of our watersheds. I’d like to leave Denver Water in a good place, and I feel like we’re in good a place.
Question: This summer critical negotiations begin on how to operate the Colorado River system and the two major reservoirs on the river, lakes Powell and Mead, in ways that stop overuse and allow the system to operate more efficiently. Have you heard any great ideas that you think would solve its problems?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. What we need is a path forward that includes the tribes in the basin. We need a process that is not so onerous for participants so that we can collaborate and come to solutions. It’s going to require tremendous leadership.
Question: Lakes Powell and Mead operate under different agencies, in some cases use different calendars, and serve different regions. Some have suggested that the two lakes should be operated as one, to simplify management and improve operational efficiencies. Do you support this idea?
Answer: It’s worth exploring. We need to be looking at totally different ideas about how the system is managed.
Question: Others have suggested that any new reservoirs or dams should be stopped, that the seven-state Colorado River Basin should be closed to new water development. What are your thoughts on this?
Answer: I don’t even know how you would do that. There is no authority. In Colorado [and the other Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming] the prior appropriation system is self-limiting. [The system delivers water in times of scarcity based on which water right is the oldest. Any newly claimed water rights, in practicality, would never receive water.] All of our rivers are over-appropriated. If you are going to do something new you have to buy an existing water right. You would just be shifting use between sectors.
And in the Lower Basin [Arizona, California and Nevada] the amount of water that is taken is limited by contract and federal law to 4.4 million acre-feet in California, 2.8 million acre-feet in Arizona, 300,0000 in Nevada and 1.5 million acre-feet in Mexico. The big problem is that river [transit] losses and evaporation sit on top of all of that.
Question: Farms and ranches use as much as 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. What could be done to reduce agricultural water use while protecting the farm economies and food supplies?
Answer: The fundamental dilemma that we have is the conflict between the priority dates of long-established irrigation districts in the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin under the priority system, versus new development and growth that is occurring that is junior in priority.
If we strictly went by those priorities, you would literally be cutting off the Central Arizona Project, as well as Las Vegas, Denver and the Metropolitan Water District [of Southern California]. That’s just not going to happen. So how do we equitably manage through that dilemma, so that ag economies and the communities that have grown to depend on those priorities grow and can rely on that supply? And how do we have security of water for the 40 million people who live in this basin?
It is going to result in a shift of waters. The Lower Basin has asked for $1.2 billion to reduce demands. I don’t have a silver bullet, but to me that is the heart of the negotiation that is going to have to occur.
Question: A number of people have suggested that a new forum of some kind needs to be created to help solve the Colorado River’s problems now. You’ve said that you don’t plan to retire. If you were offered the opportunity to run that new entity, would you take it?
Answer: Going out to pasture is not my nature. I would have to think about it. I would love to stay involved.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
“Whether we had a good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.” Those were the final words from District 3 Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales just before adjourning court last Thursday in the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group case. The water court trial may have ended suddenly, but the issues surrounding the unconfined aquifer do not, and therein lies the problem. The irrigators in Subdistrict 1, who are responsible for restoring the unconfined aquifer and feel the pressure of the clock running on a state engineer order to make it happen by 2031 or else, just did adopt and the state engineer approved, a new strategy to recover the aquifer. Problem is the plan, called the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, will undoubtedly end up in District 3 Water Court due to objections. And once it lands there, it’s likely to be a couple of more years before the chief water judge makes a decision on whether to approve, according to the experts. In the meantime, expect more retired acres to permanently retire water. It seems to be the only way.
A tragic night in Fort Collins 26 years ago birthed what grew into the single largest daily precipitation network in the U.S. The July 1997 Spring Creek Flood killed five people, injured 54 and caused millions in damages. The catastrophe turned into a grassroots collaboration that served as impetus for the creation of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which has grown from its humble Fort Collins beginnings into 26,000 volunteer citizen scientists across the country and beyond.
“I had never seen a storm like that in my entire life,” said Nolan Doesken, Colorado’s state climatologist at the time and founder of CoCoRaHS…
It wasn’t just the copious amount of rain that caused one of the city’s most damaging natural disasters July 27-28, 1997, but also the wide variance in rain received across the city. Western parts of the city saw more than 14 inches of rain in 31 hours, while the center of the city saw 6 inches and eastern areas 2 inches. The 14.5 inches was nearly as much precipitation as the city sees in an average year. But those measurements weren’t known because there wasn’t a way to reliably measure torrential rains in Colorado, Doesken said.
“The state had just completed a study of extreme rain events at the time,” he said. “The conclusion was we didn’t for sure know how much rain fell during past storms producing rain that creates flooding. I felt this was my chance.”
We spoke with Senator Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, for the summer 2023 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Healthy Headwaters Issue” about healthy riparian systems and Senate Bill 23-270, signed into law in early June. Sen. Roberts sponsored this bill on Projects to Restore Natural Stream Systems and continues to work on next steps related to restoration. Sen. Roberts is a member of the WEco Board of Trustees and chair of the Colorado Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, he serves Colorado’s Eighth Senate District.
Can you speak to the importance of Colorado’s headwater systems, and what you hear from constituents about healthy streams and riparian areas?
So this is an issue that’s incredibly important here on the Western Slope and here in the headwaters area of the Colorado River, or any river system. Having healthy watersheds is vital for the entire river system. I’ve heard of and personally seen many great stream restoration projects across my district and across the state and have been able to see the value of them and the way they preserve our environment and protect our watersheds. So that is one of the reasons why I was very enthusiastic to sponsor the stream restoration legislation last session.
It was building off of some of the great work that we’ve seen with stream restoration projects across the state but also hearing from local governments and nonprofit groups and organizations that wanted to do more [restoration work] but were running into legislative hurdles or cost burdens preventing those projects from happening. So the reason for that legislation was to reduce some of the barriers getting in the way of these important projects.
And it sounds like the focus of that bill was significantly narrowed before it was passed, can you talk about what happened there? Is there an impact?
So we had been working with stakeholders and [the Colorado Department of Natural Resources] (DNR) for many months prior to the introduction of that bill and then the work continued after the introduction and we heard some very valid concerns from folks in the water community that the threat in the way the bill was introduced could have unintended consequences … so we worked with them through amendment and committee processes and narrowed the scope of the bill. So the bill [that passed] this year was focused on minor restoration projects and we’re going to continue the conversation this summer and fall and into the next [session] about tackling bigger restoration projects … ultimately the legislation that passed is going to be very impactful and is ultimately going to help us set up a conversation [around bigger restoration projects] moving forward.
What comes next? Is there ongoing work and study to see if some of the gray areas around restoration can be cleared up through legislation in the future?
I was just speaking with DNR about this and we are currently planning a field trip for the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee to go down to the San Luis Valley in July to look at some stream restoration projects that have happened down there … Then I plan to have the stream restoration topic as part of our committee agenda during our fall meeting and hope to engage all of the relevant stakeholders if we decide to move forward [with reintroducing legislation] in the next session.
For folks on the committee and the broader water community, to make sure they’re comfortable with the bill we need to figure out the size of projects or the scope of projects that would be acceptable to move forward outside of the water court process. The big concern that we heard before the bill was amended this year was that there were projects that were too big to move forward without going through the water court process which would have put some downstream users at risk without having a forum to object to that.
We need to find what is the acceptable size of a project that we can put in statute that doesn’t need to go through the water court process, and what size of project should still need to go through that [water court] process so it’s finding that delineation point.
Ideas in water take a lot of time to discuss and we don’t want to rush into anything and have things result in unintended consequences. So just having the stream restoration concept top of mind for folks in Colorado in a multi-year process will get everyone comfortable with the process, get everyone an opportunity to engage, and make sure we’re not rushing through legislation.
I’ve heard that everyone thinks stream restoration projects are a good thing but it was a new thing for a lot of people to see legislation that would have expanded [the scope of which projects can proceed without going through water court]. But the fact that we’re just keeping it at the top of everybody’s radar will help a lot to make folks more comfortable.
Is there anything else in the works or that you’re thinking about related to the restoration and preservation of stream systems?
On the restoration front, one of the other reasons why we passed the bill this year and something I’m going to stay in touch with DNR on is there is a historic amount of funding available from the federal government through some of the legislation that Congress passed over the last couple of years that can be accessed through these projects. So that’s the other hurdle is having the approval and funding to [proceed with these projects and implement them]. So I want to continue following how does Colorado maximize the federal funding for these projects.
Us passing that bill and getting it signed into law is a huge step because now Colorado can say we’ve cut down some barriers. We want to maximize federal funding to get as many of these projects off the ground as possible.
And as a Water Education Colorado (WEco) board member, anything to say about your time on the board or our work?
I am thrilled and honored to be on the WEco board. I just became the chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee over the past year so that’s how I’m able to be on that board [one seat on the WEco board is reserved for the Senate committee chair and one seat is reserved for the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee chair] but I’ve been involved with WEco during my time on the legislature, and value the things that WEco does.
I think us working on stream restoration and WEco’s work more broadly couldn’t come at a more important time. We know Colorado’s water future is top of mind for many people and a lot of people are worried about our state’s water future. The work that WEco does and the work the legislature is doing could not be more important. There are a ton of opportunities and exciting things happening with WEco and the state so I’m excited about the work ahead.
WHEN the town of Del Norte terminated its agreement this week to lease water to the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group, it effectively killed the SWAG’s efforts to get an alternative augmentation plan through state District 3 Water Court.
Sustainable Water Augmentation Group withdrew its application Thursday for its own augmentation plan separate from Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Conservation District, whose rules SWAG operators have been following and now will continue to follow in the irrigation seasons ahead. The owners of SWAG irrigate 17,255 acres in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties and had proposed fallowing 5,014 under the plan.
The withdrawal of SWAG’s application was a sudden end to a water court trial that had been scheduled to last five weeks by Chief District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales due to the technical and complicated issues of managing the supply of water for irrigators in the San Luis Valley.
Gonzales’ ruling earlier in the day Thursday, in which he denied a motion by SWAG on how it wanted to address the loss of the Del Norte water in its application, convinced members of SWAG to withdraw.
Since it had lost the Del Norte water as a replacement source for groundwater pumping, SWAG attorneys had proposed that they be allowed to update their application with data from the 2023 water year to demonstrate how the SWAG plan never really needed the Del Norte water to begin with.
Gonzales ruled that wouldn’t be fair to water users and the state Division of Water Resources opposing the plan. Gonzales said SWAG knew going into the water trial that the Del Norte water may not be legally available to it and could have anticipated that before Del Norte actually took the water away.
“The Del Norte lease went away on the second day of trial through no fault of the applicant. I realize that,” Gonzales said. SWAG at that point, he said, had an option to “simply remove reference to the Del Norte water” from its application and provide updated numbers for the trial to move forward.
Instead, said Gonzales, “the applicant made what may be a strategic decision … to amend their disclosures to not only reflect that they would no longer be relying on the Del Norte water, but in addition to that to incorporate the 2023 numbers from the subdistrict and to ultimately change their theory of the case. I think that’s the best way to summarize it.”
“That I find significant. That is significant and substantial,” Gonzales said.
The district court judge told applicants and opposers that it was unfortunate for the trial to come to such a sudden end given the important and complicated issues facing irrigators in Subdistrict 1 as they work to restore the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin.
“I’m sorry we’re at this point … I think our issues that we as a community and we as a district number three have to address, those don’t end today. We know that full well. Whether we had good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.”
The Environmental Protection Agency recently earned applause from environmental groups for a move that went largely unnoticed.
For the first time, the U.S. government in 2022 included methane emissions from dams and reservoirs in its annual report of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the Inventory of Greenhouse Gases and Sinks required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change…
While we’ve long known that coal and gas-fired power plants emit troubling amounts of greenhouse gases, research has found that reservoirs can emit significant amounts of methane, too — which has a global warming potential 85 times that of carbon dioxide over 20 years — along with smaller amounts of nitrous oxide and CO2.
Emissions from some reservoirs can even rival that of fossil fuel power plants. Yet, until now, there’s been no real accounting at the national or international level for these emissions, which fall under the category of “flooded lands.”
“To our knowledge, the U.S. is the first country to include estimates of methane emissions from flooded lands in their greenhouse gas inventory,” the EPA press office told The Revelator.
That may be in part because calculating reservoir emissions isn’t a simple task, as The Revelator reported last year:
“Tracking emissions from reservoirs is complicated and highly variable. Emissions can change at different times of the year or even day. They’re influenced by how the dam is managed, including fluctuations in the water level, as well as a host of environmental factors like water quality, depth, sediment, surface wind speed and temperature.”
EPA researchers are working to improve how they calculate those emissions, and they’re also conducting a four-year study of CO2 and methane emissions from 108 randomly selected U.S. reservoirs. This aims to “inform a greater understanding of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from U.S. reservoirs, and the environmental factors that determine the rate of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs,” according to the agency’s website…
Last year [Save the Colorado], along with more than 100 other organizations, petitioned the EPA to begin a rulemaking to include dams and reservoirs under the United States’ Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which currently requires 8,000 facilities, including coal- and gas-burning power plants, to declare their greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroelectric plants and other reservoirs aren’t currently included in that list.
There are a few reasons why they should report their emissions, the petitioners explain. Hydropower is largely regarded as a clean, emissions-free energy source — although research suggests otherwise.
“As a result, the federal government, states and utilities frequently make decisions regarding climate policies and advancing toward a cleaner electric sector based on incomplete information and mistaken assumptions regarding dams and reservoirs’ greenhouse gas emissions,” the petition states.
If operators of hydroelectric dams are required to regularly report emissions, that would help agencies, nonprofits and the public better assess whether current dams should be relicensed or decommissioned — and whether new projects should be built.
The result, the petitioners say, would be “better-informed climate policies and better-informed permitting decisions.” A win-win.
The United States continuing to report dam emissions to the United Nations, and at home, would also send an important international signal.
Washington D.C.– More than 500,000 people are calling on the U.S. Forest Service to protect mature and old-growth trees and forests from logging on federal land as a cornerstone of U.S. climate policy.
In April the Forest Service issued a rulemaking proposal to improve the climate resilience of federally managed forests. The public comment period on the proposal closed today.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who weighed in, dozens of environmental and grassroots organizations submitted comments, including the Climate Forests Campaign, a coalition of more than 120 organizations working to protect mature and old-growth trees and forests on federal land from logging.
Activists and environmental advocates gathered today at the D.C. offices of the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, to celebrate the amount of public support.
“Hundreds of thousands of people from across the country have chimed in with enthusiastic support for President Biden’s order to protect mature and old-growth forests on federal land,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice. “Establishing a durable, nationwide, rule to protect these vital forests would be a historic climate achievement for the U.S.”
“The public wants the nation’s mature forests and trees to be protected from the chainsaw, and with good reason,” said Garett Rose, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “They store carbon. They protect imperiled species. They safeguard key waterways. It’s well past time for the federal land managers to adopt a rule that durably protects these climate-critical trees–and lets them be a key ally in the climate right.”
“Mature and old-growth forests are the only proven, cost-effective carbon capture and storage technology. We just have to let them grow,” said Randi Spivak, public lands policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s really frustrating that the Forest Service, in the midst of this proposal, is still planning to log even more of these old trees. Our climate can’t wait another year for a rule. The time to act is now.”
“Climate change isn’t off in the distant future; it’s here, now. My hometown of Montpelier, VT and others across the Northeast were ravaged by climate-driven floods on July 10th that could have been mitigated by the presence of old-growth forests,” said Zack Porter, executive director of Standing Trees. “As the single largest steward of forests in the nation, the US Forest Service has an obligation – not just an opportunity – to protect communities from natural disasters by managing national forests, often located in critical headwaters, to grow old.”
“We are urging President Biden to enact a clear rule protecting mature and old growth forests from the Forest Service chopping block,” said Adam Rissien, WildEarth Guardians’ ReWilding Manager. “Public support has never been higher for bold, effective solutions to keep carbon in the woods and in the ground.”
“I’m not surprised that so many people took the time to get involved in this comment period. We love our trees and forests so of course people spoke up, said Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director for Environment America Research & Policy Center. “Our forests clean our water, are home for wildlife and are an incredible ally in our work to stop climate change. Our mature and old-growth forests and trees are worth more standing than as lumber.”
Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) concluded a public comment period for its own proposed rulemaking, with hundreds of thousands of people calling on the federal government to protect mature and old-growth trees and forests from logging. In March the BLM announced its wide-ranging “Conservation and Landscape Health” rule, with a goal to “promote ecosystem resilience on public lands” and included an acknowledgment of the importance of mature and old-growth trees and forests.
In addition to the two proposed rules, the Forest Service and the BLM releasedan inventory of mature and old-growth forests, the first of its kind, as required by theexecutive order President Biden signed on Earth Day 2022. The White House directed the Forest Service and the BLM to inventory and conserve mature and old-growth forests on federal land, and to implement policies to address threats facing forests.
The Climate Forests Campaign has been elevating calls from community members, scientists, and activists around the country about the necessity of protecting these mature and old-growth trees and forests, including from the ongoing threat of logging. The coalition has highlighted the threat to mature and old-growth forests and trees in two reports, citing 22 of the worst logging projects on Forest Service and BLM-managed forests.
Mature and old-growth forests are some of the most effective tools available for mitigating climate change and promoting biodiversity.They store huge amounts of carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere. They also provide essential wildlife habitat and are the most fire-resilient trees in the forest. As the world experiences record-shattering heat and widespread climate disasters, protecting these forests is critical for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.
Last week featured a highly variable precipitation pattern across the contiguous states. Over 3 inches of rain fell on broad areas across the central Appalachians, central and southern Virginia, parts of the northern and central Carolinas, much of New England and the adjacent Northeast, parts of Florida, the central Gulf Coast Region, the lower and middle Mississippi Valley, the Upper Midwest, the southern Great Lakes Region, and the central Great Plains. Between 5 and 7 inches soaked some areas in the southern tier of Arkansas, areas near the central Alabama/Mississippi border, the Florida Panhandle, and southwestern Virginia. In contrast, very little precipitation fell from the Rockies westward to the Pacific Coast,, the Dakotas, Oklahoma and western Kansas, most of Texas, central and western Louisiana, part of the Illinois Valley, the Tennessee Valley, the interior Southeast, parts of the upper Ohio Valley, most of the coastal and piedmont areas in the Carolinas, upstate New York, and the central mid-Atlantic Region. In the south-central and southwestern parts of the Lower 48, intense heat accompanied dry weather, with the week averaging 5 to 9 deg. F above normal from Texas westward through the desert Southwest and part of the southern half of the Rockies. Temperatures reached 129 deg. F near Baker, CA on July 16. Elsewhere, the Northeast, Florida, the lower Mississippi Valley, and the West Coast States were also warmer than normal…
Drought remained widespread across Kansas, Nebraska outside the Panhandle, and southeastern South Dakota, with some swaths of improvement incurred in eastern parts of Nebraska and Kansas. Meanwhile, dryness and drought expanded slightly across northern North Dakota, and with the Southwest Monsoon off to a slow start, abnormal dryness has developed over a large part of the southwest quarter of Colorado. Other parts of the central Rockies and most of the Dakotas are unchanged from this past week. In South Dakota, 31 percent of Spring Wheat and 19 percent of oats are in poor or very poor condition, along with 15 percent of Spring Wheat in North Dakota…
There was little rainfall in the West Region this past week, but since this is a dry time of year in much of the Region outside the Four Corners States, there was little change in dryness and drought for most areas; however, monsoonal rainfall was again lacking in the Four Corners, prompting a significant expansion of abnormal dryness across New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern Utah. D0 and D1 also increased across west-central and northeastern Montana…
A broad range of conditions can be found across the region, and even regarding the week’s rainfall totals, some got too much while others languished in heat and drought. Most of Texas was dry this past week, and conditions deteriorated south of the Panhandle. D3 and D4 conditions (extreme to exceptional drought) expanded in the middle of the state, and severe drought (D2) pushed northward toward the central Red River Valley. Agriculture is increasingly impacted by the drought here, with 45 percent of the Texas cotton crop in poor or very poor condition. Almost half of rangelands were in poor or very poor condition, increasingly stressing livestock. In addition, 27 percent of Texas oats are in poor or very poor condition.
Elsewhere, the only other area remaining in D2 to D3 are north-central and southwestern Oklahoma, and agricultural impacts have been far milder outside the Lone Star State. Heavy rains over the past two weeks have left a large swath across the Panhandles, central Oklahoma, the north half of the Lower Mississippi Valley, and much of Tennessee free of any abnormal dryness…
According to the Weather Prediction Center (WPC), over the next 5 days (July 20 – 24, 2023) moderate to heavy precipitation is expected across parts of the central and southern High Plains from central New Mexico northward into southeast Wyoming, and eastward across western Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and adjacent locales. Totals near or over 2 inches are forecast for parts of northeastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. Light to locally moderate amounts are expected in higher elevations of the southern Rockies and some adjacent locations, with at least a few tenths of an inch possible over the central Rockies and part of the Great Basin. Little or no precipitation is expected elsewhere from the Plains States westward to the Pacific Coast, except in parts of extreme southeastern Texas. Most of the Lone Star State is forecast to receive little if any precipitation. Farther east, moderate to heavy rains are expected near the central Gulf Coast, southeaste4rn Georgia and the eastern Carolinas, eastern Tennessee, and parts of the northern Appalachians. Anywhere from 1.5 to locally 3.5 inches of precipitation may fall from extreme southeastern Louisiana across southern Alabama and the adjacent Florida Panhandle, The Coastal Plains in Georgia and South Carolina, northeastern North Carolina, and a few areas scattered across northern Pennsylvania, central and northeastern New York, and western New England. Light to moderate totals are expected over most of the middle and lower Mississippi Valley, the mid-Atlantic Region, the Great Lakes Region, and the Ohio Valley, and portions of Peninsular Florida. Temperatures are expected to remain considerably above normal from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, over much of the northern and southern Plains, across Peninsular Florida, and in New England. Temperatures should average closer to normal elsewhere, with slightly cooler than normal conditions expected over and near the greater Ohio Valley and the adjacent interior Southeast.
During the ensuing 5 days (July 25 – 29), the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) favors above normal temperatures for almost all of the contiguous states and Alaska, except in the Pacific Northwest. Odds for significantly above-normal temperatures exceed 70 percent in a large area encompassing the eastern Great Basin, central and southern Rockies, and most of the Plains from central North Dakota southward into central Texas. Meanwhile, there are slightly enhanced odds for wetter-than-normal weather over the southeastern Great Lakes Region, the interior Northeast and New England, the western Great Lakes Region and upper Mississippi Valley, and western Washington. Odds slightly favor drier-than-normal weather in the northern Intermountain West, the Great Basin, much of Oregon and adjacent California, the southern High Plains, most of the central and southern Great Plains, the middle and lower Mississippi Valley, the lower Ohio Valley, the Tennessee Valley, the Southeast, and the South Atlantic Coastal Plain from northern Florida into North Carolina.
Looking to oversee hundreds of streams and wetlands left unprotected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Colorado water quality officials have taken emergency action to provide at least temporary protections while a more permanent program can be set up.
The move comes just weeks after a U.S. Supreme Court decision sharply reduced the number of wetlands and streams protected under the Clean Water Act.
“We will rely on this temporary policy while we work out something longer term,” said Nicole Rowan, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) Water Quality Control Division.
Under the new policy, the CDPHE is requiring notice of discharge into state waters and it will use its new authority to guide its enforcement actions when unpermitted dredge and fill materials are discharged into state waters, according to Kaitlyn Beekman, a CDPHE spokesperson.
Members of a working group, which includes environmental and agricultural interests, as well as water utilities and mining companies, have been working with the state to explore how to create a permanent mechanism to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands in the future.
At issue is how the U.S. EPA defines so-called Waters of the United States (WOTUS), which determines which waterways and wetlands are protected under the federal Clean Water Act. The definition has been heavily litigated in the nation’s lower courts since the 1980s and has changed dramatically under different presidential administrations.
But on May 25 in Sackett v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, among other things, that the WOTUS definition that included wetlands adjacent to streams, was too broad.
In its ruling, the court said only those wetlands with a direct surface connection to a stream or permanent body of water, for instance, should be protected.
The court decision has far-ranging implications for the environment, as well as agriculture, construction and mining, all major parts of Colorado’s economy, officials said.
The decision may also have more impact in semi-arid Western states, where streams don’t run year round and wetlands often don’t have a direct surface connection to a stream.
“Although the court’s decision directly addresses only the scope of ‘adjacent wetlands,’ its description of ‘waters of the United States’ as including only relatively permanent bodies of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters will likely result in ephemeral and intermittent waters, which constitute the majority of Colorado’s stream miles, being outside the scope of federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction,” the CDPHE said in a statement on its website.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for issuing permits and enforcing violations when dredge and fill activities associated with construction and road projects, among others, harm wetlands and waters considered to be waters of the United States.
Right now, though, as a result of the new Supreme Court decision, no agency has the authority to issue a permit or take enforcement action on these newly unprotected wetlands, according to Trisha Oeth, CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection programs.
“There are waters that used to be protected under federal law and you used to be able to get a permit [for dredge and fill work]. Now there is no protection and no way to get a permit,” Oeth said.
Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he was pleased the state was moving quickly to fill in the regulatory gap.
“We were not excited about Sackett,” Funk said. “But we’re glad Colorado is doing something about it.”
Funk is hopeful that the CDPHE and lawmakers will move to introduce legislation next year that will create a wetlands law specific to Colorado that will offer broad, lasting protections. Funk said a handful of states, including Ohio and New York, have taken similar action to address the changes to the Waters of the U.S. rule.
Agricultural interests have long been worried about the WOTUS rule, because irrigators routinely work with streams and irrigation systems on their lands, where wetlands also exist.
Austin Vincent, general counsel and policy director for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said his members are comfortable with the approach the CDPHE is taking in part because there are critical exemptions for on-farm work, such as irrigating, plowing and irrigation system maintenance.
Part of the problem in the past is that the law changed so frequently, that it was difficult to know with certainty where and when permits were needed, Vincent said.
“It’s a big, big issue,” he said. “We want to make sure that the definition the state comes up with doesn’t encompass an overly broad number of waterways … Certainty is difficult in water. But we want as much certainty as we can get from the regulatory community.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click the link to access the article on the Science Direct website (Joel B. Sankey, Amy East, Helen C. Fairley, Joshua Caster, Jennifer Dierker, Ellen Brennan, Lonnie Pilkington, Nathaniel Bransky, Alan Kasprak). Here’s the abstract and highlights:
•Integrity of 362 Colorado River archaeological sites assessed 60 years after damming.
•River-sourced aeolian sand decreased since 1973, making most sites more erosion-prone.
•Proportion of sites eroding by gully processes has increased since 2000.
•Erosion limits management goal to maintain or improve site integrity in situ.
The archaeological record documenting human history in deserts is commonly concentrated along rivers in terraces or other landforms built by river sediment deposits. Today that record is at risk in many river valleys owing to human resource and infrastructure development activities, including the construction and operation of dams. We assessed the effects of the operations of Glen Canyon Dam – which, since its closure in 1963, has imposed drastic changes to flow, sediment supply and distribution, and riparian vegetation – on a population of 362 archaeological sites in the Colorado River corridor through Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. We leverage 50 years of evidence from aerial photographs and more than 30 years of field observations and measurements of archaeological-site topography and wind patterns to evaluate changes in the physical integrity of archaeological sites using two geomorphology-based site classification systems. We find that most archaeological sites are eroding; moreover, most are at increased risk of continuing to erode, due to six decades of operations of Glen Canyon Dam. Results show that the wind-driven (aeolian) supply of river-sourced sand, essential for covering archaeological sites and protecting them from erosion, has decreased for most sites since 1973 owing to effects of long-term dam operations on river sediment supply and riparian vegetation expansion on sandbars. Results show that the proportion of sites affected by erosion from gullies controlled by the local base-level of the Colorado River has increased since 2000. These changes to landscape processes affecting archaeological site integrity limit the ability of the National Park Service and Grand Canyon-affiliated Native American Tribes to achieve environmental management goals to maintain or improve site integrity in situ. We identify three environmental management opportunities that could be used to a greater extent to decrease the risk of erosion and increase the potential for in-situ preservation of archaeological sites. Environmental management opportunities are: 1) sediment-rich controlled river floods to increase the aeolian supply of river-sourced sand, 2) extended periods of low river flow to increase the aeolian supply of river-sourced sand, 3) the removal of riparian vegetation barriers to the aeolian transport of river-sourced sand.
Some people call the Great Plains “flyover country.” Outdoor enthusiasts sail above it on the way to the mountains of Acadia, California’s redwoods or Utah’s red rock. Conservationists, too, have bypassed the region. Few big public preserves or parks exist there.
Some of that work is already underway. In 2002 Freese helped launch the nonprofit American Prairie, which aims to establish a preserve of 3.2 million acres in northeast Montana where the mixed-grass prairie has escaped the wrath of the plow that uprooted many other areas of the Great Plains. The group’s about halfway to its goal, with nearly 600,000 acres of deeded lands or leased public lands, along with 1.1 million acres of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
“The region offers our best chance to reassemble the native wildlife community within a vast reserve large enough to preserve the ecosystem to its fullest potential,” he writes in the book.
The Revelator spoke with Freese about the biodiversity of the northern Great Plains, what it would take to restore native wildlife, and what obstacles remain.
Why do you think the Great Plains is often neglected when it comes to conservation?
I think there’s two main reasons. One was that compared to wetlands or forests or mountains, agriculture could simply get a quick jump on colonizing the Great Plains. You didn’t have to drain the wetlands, you didn’t have to clear the forest, you just opened the gates and let the cows out. It was all right there, ready to eat or plow.
Secondly, the turnover from 1870 to 1895 was dramatic. There had never been such a big change in the world so quickly — from an ecosystem where there was nothing but wild ungulates, to one that virtually eliminated all the ungulates and you had nothing but livestock. Because it was eliminated so quickly, there wasn’t a chance for the public to appreciate what had been — to say, “We need a big Great Plains park like Yellowstone.” We never had the chance.
What was the biodiversity of the region like before European colonization brought plows and cows? And how does that compare with what’s there now?
This was one wild, rambunctious system that went through a lot of ups and downs. We had glaciers covering it just 12,000 years ago. In the mixed-grass prairie it’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and sometimes it’s -50 degrees in the winter, so you’ve got to be tough to live there. Prairie wildlife exhibits that. Bison don’t need to go to water nearly as much as cows do.
When Lewis and Clark went through eastern Montana [in 1805-1806] they saw more wildlife than any other place in their trip — either to the east or to the west of the Rocky Mountains — all the way to the coast. It was just a remarkable ecosystem that we once had.
Now most of the species are either [greatly diminished] or not there at all, such as the wolf. Wolves now are in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, but back in the 1880s and 1890s, the state put a bounty on them, and every year roughly 4,000 to 6,000 wolves were killed, mostly in the plains of eastern Montana.
Today we’ve got relatively good numbers of deer because people like to hunt deer and they’re not quite so threatening to agriculture. But the elk numbers are highly suppressed because of depredation concerns about crop land, and pronghorn numbers are still down. The bison is simply a fraction of 1% of what it once was.
What’s the potential to be able to restore some of these populations of native wildlife?
What I see in northeast Montana — and what’s great about this ecosystem — is its diversity of habitat. You’ve got the Missouri River running through it. Then you’ve got floodplains and the rugged Badlands-like environment as you come out of the floodplain up into the rolling prairie. And then there are these isolated mountain ranges, like the Little Rocky Mountains, with pine forests. You have this wonderful cross section of habitats that support a great diversity of species. Some only live down in those floodplains. Some live in the rolling prairie, like the swift fox, and others live in the more mountainous and forested areas, like mountain lions.
The diversity of habitat is there, and much of it’s intact, but there’s still a threat of prairie being plowed up and put into wheat and barley. Once you plow it up, that’s the killer threat. Nothing survives very well in a wheat field.
Put bison out there [instead], they’ll double the population every three or four years, no problem. Three of the Indian reservations in the region have bison. Grasslands National Park just across the border in Saskatchewan has bison. But we need to create much bigger herds of bison to mimic what they once did to that ecosystem and support the diversity of grassland habitat by their grazing. So there’s a long way to go in terms of building back the wildlife numbers.
Some, like the black-footed ferret, have a real challenge ahead of them because prairie dogs, which are their main source of food, continue to be poisoned and shot. Another threat is an introduced disease that came decades ago from Asia and is highly lethal to prairie dogs, as well as ferrets.
Others are also going to take some extraordinary effort to bring back. With wolves and grizzly bears, the problem isn’t a lack of food — or as we say, the “ecological carrying capacity” of the environment. It’s the social carrying capacity — people’s tolerance for big predators. We need to have some innovative approaches to enabling these big predators.
What does recovery look like for native grassland birds, many of whom are also declining?
Ecologist Andy Boyce said that recovering birds should be the easiest. They don’t threaten anybody. They move around to find the best habitat. And yet we still have declining bird populations because of three main threats.
One is the ongoing conversion of grasslands to cropland. The problem there as much as anything is the huge farm subsidies that lead to more plow-up and conversion of prairie to cropland.
The second is homogeneous grazing. In rangeland management the idea is to have the cows eat half the grass and leave half the grass everywhere. Uniform grazing. Well, to a lot of birds, that’s the worst outcome because some birds like it grazed down to the ground. Other birds like it not grazed at all. If you’re a five-inch-tall bird, that difference in grass height is like the difference for us of walking through a forest versus the shrubland.
So we need bison, and sometimes fire, to go back and recreate that diversity of grassland habitat, which birds depend upon.
The third one that’s an increasing threat are the new neonicotinoid insecticides, which are shown to be highly toxic to migratory birds and pollinators like butterflies and bees.
What’s needed to boost conservation in the region?
There are three pillars of conservation in the Great Plains. The first is no more sod busting, no more conversion of grassland to cropland.
Number two is the ranching community needs to be much more friendly to prairie wildlife. A lot of ranchers do a good job. There’s a lot of good ranch management going on, but a lot of them don’t. For example, prairie dogs are still much maligned and not tolerated, and they don’t create that much of a problem for ranching. And we also still see bison as belonging behind a fence, which is nuts.
We need to have a new kind of approach to ranching that realizes wildlife like bison, big predators, and small animals like prairie dogs, all have a place. Ranching can provide corridors and safe passage between parks, refuges and reserves for wildlife to move through.
Then third, we’ve got to have big protected areas of a million acres or more. Those are the cornerstone of wildlife conservation, whether you’re in the Great Plains, the Amazon or the Arctic. So we need more places like American Prairie and the Charles M. Russell Refuge across the Great Plains if we want to restore and conserve everything from prairie birds to ferrets to large predators and ungulates.
We’ve got a lot of public lands in the Bureau of Land Management lands and National Grasslands, which are managed by the Forest Service. An act of Congress could convert those into more protected status.
Those places have a multiple-use mandate that includes biodiversity conservation. I think we simply have to provide greater weight to the biodiversity benefits of these public lands that belong to all the public, not just to the ranching communities that graze them. I think we need to have a shift in attitudes about what the best use of these lands is. And I think in a lot of cases, these public lands, the best use is for wildlife biodiversity conservation.
In just the Great Plains alone, we’re spending $10 billion a year to subsidize farming. What if we just took 10% or 20% of that and we apply it to buying and conserving grasslands?
Private lands have got to be part of the solution too, because especially in the southern Plains, almost all the lands are private lands.
A third part of the solution is Tribes. Indian reservations are engaging in wildlife restoration as well.
American Prairie, working with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, can serve as a place where the American public can visit a landscape of an endless sky and wildlife with no fences, the likes of which you won’t see unless you go to the African Serengeti now. It used to be the African Serengeti in the Great Plains. Once people experience that, it’s going to be a revelation of, “Yes, we could have this, we could restore it.”
This article was originally written in 2018 and updated in June 2023.
Is the name of a river really that important? If it’s the “Colorado River,” absolutely. The Colorado River is a lifeline in the West for people, birds, and nature. On July 25th, Colorado River Day, we pause to celebrate and reflect on the awe-inspiring 1,450 miles of the Colorado River.
But the “Colorado River” has not always traveled this distance. The Colorado River flowed from the subalpine headwater meadows of present-day Rocky Mountain National Park to the Gulf of California for millions and millions of years. The River got so developed in just the last 100 years that it has rarely flowed to the sea for decades. And, the Colorado River never did before 1921, but not because of hydrology.
Indigenous peoples named the rivers of the Colorado Basin. Then, Western Europeans began applying their names, starting with Spanish exploration in the 16th century. Until 1921, the Spanish name “Colorado”—meaning “red”— flowed exclusively below the confluence of the Grand and Green Rivers deep inside modern-day Canyonlands National Park in Utah. As Europeans settled into the West, they named the stretch of river between the Green and the Gunnison Rivers the Grand River. Late in the 1800s, the name “Grand River” replaced many other river names and was applied to the growing river flowing from the western slopes of La Poudre Pass on the Continental Divide in northern Colorado to the confluence with the Green River in Utah (about 350 river miles).
Today, the legacy of the name “Grand River” persists in place names. The Grand River lent its name to: the Grand Ditch, which pulls water from the Colorado River’s headwaters to the eastern slope; the town of Grand Lake, the City of Grand Junction, in the Grand Valley, from its location at the junction of the Gunnison and Colorado (formerly the Grand) Rivers. Both Utah and Colorado have a Grand County named after the river. However, the Grand Canyon was named by John Wesley Powell purely for the grandeur of the Canyon rather than for the river’s upper reaches.
Early in 1921, the Colorado River was at the center of a brawl over names and ownership brewing in the State of Colorado and the U.S. House of Representatives. The Honorable Colorado Congressman Edward Taylor, a Glenwood Springs resident, advocate for West Slope water, and known for being a fount of knowledge and love for Colorado, presented a determined case to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the United States House of Representatives. To Taylor names mattered, and he had one goal: to convince the Committee to pass a resolution to Congress that would officially change the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. Although the states of Utah and Wyoming opposed it, Taylor had fuel for his case from supportive Coloradans and state legislators for the name change of the river, Colorado’s namesake river.
There was disagreement. At that time, the Colorado River began in Utah below the confluence of the Grand and Green Rivers. Politicians from Utah and Wyoming opposed the name change because the Green River, which runs through Utah and Wyoming, is the longer tributary with a larger drainage area. Congressman Taylor rebutted their arguments with two justifications. First, the Grand River contributes a significantly larger volume of water than the Green River. And second, the Grand River originates in the State of Colorado and should be known as the Colorado River.
Congressman Taylor’s efforts triumphed. On July 25th, 1921, Congress passed House Joint Resolution 460, which officially changed the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. But “Colorado” was just the last name in this amazing river’s long line of labels. A little over a year later, the Colorado River Compact of 1922 was finalized, guiding the River’s apportionment.
Due to the historic name change, July 25th is now known as Colorado River Day. This day honors the River’s history and its critical importance to people and the environment. Riparian habitats like the forests and wetlands that line the Colorado River support some of the arid West’s most abundant and diverse bird communities, serving as home to some 400 species. The Colorado River also provides drinking water for more than 40 million people, 90% of the nation’s winter vegetable production, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farms and ranches, and supports 16 million jobs throughout seven states, with a combined annual economic impact of $1.4 trillion.
Congressman Taylor’s love for the Colorado River and his state serve as examples to us now when there is so much talk about water scarcity, conflict, a rethinking of river relationships, and needed rebalancing of how the West lives with the realities of the River’s water availability. The value of the Colorado River is essential to all of us and the ecosystems we depend upon, and it’s up to us to ensure its future.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The Imperial Valley produces $2.9 billion in crops and livestock each year. That’s because the valley’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) holds the largest single allocation of Colorado River water – bigger than any other farming district or city between Wyoming and Mexico. But now, that water allocation is under increasing scrutiny from water managers looking to cut back on water use and correct a perilous gap between supply and demand on the Colorado River. The valley’s farmers are bound together by IID. The body represents growers in negotiations about water rights and wields a tremendous amount of clout. California’s share of Colorado River water is larger than any other state, and about 70% of it is earmarked for IID…
Imperial Valley growers often court criticism for the amount of water they use, but are quick to assert just what they do with it – grow a sizable portion of America’s vegetables. Estimates vary because Imperial’s greens are packaged and counted alongside veggies from other nearby regions, but around 90% of the nation’s leafy greens sold in the winter are grown with Colorado River water between a few valleys in California, Arizona and Mexico. Imperial contributes a large portion of that…
[Jack] Vessey and his peers are also churning out fields of alfalfa hay, a particularly thirsty crop fed to cattle. Vessey said alfalfa is an important piece of his growing portfolio, and can be planted when fields need a break between seasons of leafy greens better suited for human consumption. Alfalfa growth in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere across the river basin has drawnwidespreadcriticism. Cities under pressure to use Colorado River water more judiciously are quick to point out that about 80% of the river’s water is used for agriculture, and some critics point to alfalfa as a glaringly inefficient use within that sector. The Colorado River basin as a whole ships an estimated $880 million of hay overseas each year, with most going to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia…
[John] Hawk’s sentiment is a common one around these parts. Conservation takes a backseat to the bottom line. New technologies and methods exist that could help farmers like Hawk cut back on water use, but there’s little incentive to install them without money on the table…Hawk argued that even compensated cuts would be painful – threatening local jobs and risking an increase to the cost of vegetables and the cost of beef and dairy produced with the help of Imperial hay…[Michael] Cohen is skeptical that drip irrigation could serve as a silver bullet for agencies looking to squeeze some extra water out of the Imperial Valley, and expects farmers would bristle at programs that incentivize them to fallow their fields – pausing or permanently stopping growth in some areas. The next frontier, he said, is shifting to different types of crops, exploring alternatives to alfalfa and other similar water-intensive grasses. That’s a process that could see some of the Colorado River’s biggest tensions play out in the grocery aisle.
Click the link to register for the webinar on the NGWA website:
In this one-day short course, you will learn about the equipment and tools used to drill and install vertical ground loops. You will also learn the proper procedures for grouting geothermal boreholes.
The ground source heat pump industry has increased in activity with the extension of both the residential and commercial geothermal tax credits that were signed into law in 2022. As geothermal involves more work than an average water well, proper education is key for groundwater professionals to understand what is required.
Additionally, ISCO Industries will guide you through the proper methods of thermally fusing HDPE pipe. The demonstration, followed by hands-on participation, will focus on the two most common methods of thermal fusion applicable to the geothermal industry: manual butt fusion and socket fusion. All equipment and materials will be provided for your use. Upon completion, you will leave with an understanding of why HDPE is the absolute best material for geothermal installations.
THE eyes of the San Luis Valley water world will be on state District 3 Water Court on Monday, where District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales begins to hear testimony on an augmentation plan filed by a group of ag producers in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The group of 12 – umbrellaed under the name SWAG or Sustainable Water Augmentation Group – is seeking the first group augmentation plan filed under the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Season Rules. The rules govern groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley and are a constant source of state government oversight on the Valley’s groundwater and surface water users.
Opposing the SWAG application is the influential Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which applies the state groundwater rules through a formation of subdistricts with oversight from farmers and ranchers who own water rights and wells within a subdistrict. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and host of local water users have also filed objections to the SWAG plan.
The fact Chief Water Court Judge Gonzales set five weeks to hear from the applicants, and water managers and users in opposition, speaks to the weight of the case, both in substance and precedence, to the arguments and the sheer volume of court documents associated with the SWAG case.
There are 1,946 scanned documents and over 1,000 exhibits in the voluminous court file – all part of a water augmentation plan that has the potential to upend the years of collaboration that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser applauded during a recent trip to the Valley.
“This community has shown the state of Colorado what collaboration looks like,” he said. “The Rio Grande Basin issues related to groundwater really have called for people figuring out how we work together.”
That notion of collaboration and everyone-in-it-together gets flipped on its head with the SWAG case.
What it’s all about
SWAG producers are part of Subdistrict 1, the Valley’s most lucrative for crop sales of the six subdistricts, but also the most challenged when it comes to reaching the state engineer’s order to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply.
In this case that means bringing stability to the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin, a directive the subdistrict has been working on since it first formed in 2006 only to find itself continuing to fight an uphill battle.
Here’s the problem: The state engineer has given the subdistrict until 2031 to reach the sustainable benchmark, but during the past 12 years that subdistrict irrigators have been reducing groundwater pumping and retiring once-productive land, the bar to water sustainability has hardly moved.
OW time is ticking and Subdistrict 1 has moved to adopt even more restrictive groundwater pumping measures under its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management, which the state engineer blessed on June 20, some 13 years after approving the first plan. It’s an amended document the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict spent the past 18 months discussing, crafting and sending to the full Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and state engineer’s office for review and approval.
It’s also the document that pushed the SWAG to develop and file its own augmentation plan in state District 3 Water Court. Its big objection to the Subdistrict 1 plan is a new groundwater overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot, up from $150 and the subject of lengthy debate during formation of the plan.
Farm operators would pay the hefty overpumping fee any time they exceed the amount of natural surface water tied to the property of their operation. The whole point of the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management is to let Mother Nature dictate the pattern of how irrigators in Subdistrict 1 restore the unconfined aquifer and build a sustainable model for farming in the future.
The plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits, which is a game-changer particularly for farm operations like those in SWAG which have little to no natural surface water coming into their land.
SWAG says it owns 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres. Its augmentation plan relies on purchasing land for the surface water and retiring the acres. The finer arguments – on whether SWAG is contributing its “proportional” share to creating a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state of Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact – will define the case.
The finer arguments to be made
To wade a bit deeper into the mud, the state engineer’s 2015 groundwater rules added more responsibility to the Valley’s groundwater users beyond making sure senior surface water rights aren’t harmed. The rules also require augmentation plans like the one being sought by SWAG to “bear proportionally the obligation to replace or Remedy Injurious Stream Depletions and for achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Water Supply.”
And the rules say groundwater irrigators can’t “prevent unreasonable interference with the State of Colorado’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”
The directive to bear proportional share in achieving and maintaining a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact to New Mexico and Texas is what makes the SWAG application and the preceding weeks of testimony and evidence a water case to watch.
“This will be up to the court to finally figure out what do these (augmentation plans) look like going forward?’” said Cleave Simpson, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and state senator representing the SLV. “As expensive as it is and as divisive as it is, it’s kind of a necessary step I guess.”
Augmentation Plan: Historically required of junior water users on over-appropriated streams, like those in the Rio Grande Basin, to obtain sufficient replacement water to offset any injurious depletions to senior water rights. Under the state Department of Water Resources 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Rules, an augmentation plan also must help achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply and not interfere with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact and annual water delivery to New Mexico and Texas.
Subdistrict – A defined territory within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that helps promote local interests and accomplish improvements within that defined “special improvement district” or “subdistrict.” Currently there are six subdistricts, numbered consecutively as they were created. Subdistrict 1 was formed in 2006, and others subsequently after. Participation among crop producers is voluntary. Each subdistrict has a board of managers. Their decisions are voted on by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors.
SWAG – A group of groundwater users within Subdistrict 1 who have crafted their own augmentation plan rather than participate in the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management and Annual Replacement Plan that have been approved by the state. The group says it has 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres.
Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management – Specific to Subdistrict 1, it establishes how irrigators will meet the state Division of Water Resources order to recover and create a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The first Plan of Water Management was approved in May 2010, and there were subsequent amendments to the plan approved in June 2017 and August 2018. The fourth amended plan was approved by Colorado Division of Water Resources in June 2023 and final by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board on July 14. There is a 10-day period from when the RGWCD board gave final approval that allows irrigators to challenge the plan in district water court and there are already challenges, meaning it won’t go into effect until it’s approved by the water court.
When I was leading groups into the Wyoming wilderness in the 1990s, once we left a trailhead we were on our own.
If somebody got hurt, we could walk or carry the injured person out or send runners to the road to call for support. In the case of a life- or limb-threatening emergency, we could use a transponder to try to send a coded message to a passing aircraft, pleading for help.
Things have definitely changed.
“People expect to be rescued,” said Tod Schimelfenig, who has been on the search and rescue team for Fremont County, Wyoming, since the 1970s. “Maybe it’s that a whole generation has grown up with instant communication, and that drives what they do when they go into the wilderness.”
What they do, according to Schimelfenig, is go farther and attempt more difficult objectives, which means demands on search and rescue teams have increased sharply over the last decade.
The United States has a patchwork of search and rescue organizations charged with responding to backcountry emergencies. Who comes to your aid depends on where you are and what land management agency is responsible. Most have volunteer teams that report to a local law enforcement officer, although some national parks, like Yosemite or Grand Teton, have paid crews on call.
In the 1930s, The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based climbing group, came up with what they called the Ten Essentials to help prepare people for outdoor emergencies. The checklist became ubiquitous. But it’s longer now, says Maura Longden, a member of the Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue, who trains teams across the country.
In addition to practical things like water, food, a map and layers of clothing, the essentials list now includes cellphones, personal locating beacons and GPS devices. Communication is critical.
Carol Viau, who’s been with Teton County, Wyoming, Search and Rescue for 23 years, says that many people choose climbing routes, ski descents and remote peaks just by surfing the Internet.
This past winter Viau helped rescue a skier who’d been injured in a fall while deep in the Tetons —a place he’d chosen online. He used his phone to call for assistance, and Teton County’s SAR team brought him out.
Jim Webster has been involved in search and rescue since the 1970s and leads the Grand County, Utah, SAR team. He says today’s outdoor recreationalists aren’t as self-sufficient as they used to be.
This spring, Webster’s team helped rescue a canyoneer who realized — midway down a rappel into a slot canyon — that her rope failed to reach the ground. She hung suspended in the air until rescuers were able to find her and haul her back out of the canyon.
Another spring rescue involved a solo boater who decided he wanted out from descending a flood-stage river. He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — go farther. Webster said he called for help and a rescue boat went to his aid.
Both of those calls had happy endings. But Webster’s team has experienced the opposite, including recovering the body of a BASE jumper last fall.
Webster says his team of 30 to 35 people responds to around 120 calls per year, an average of two a week. But teams often get two or three calls in a single day. Most teams are made up of volunteers, though in the case of Grand County, volunteers get paid when they’re on a call. Many have to take time off from work to respond.
This past winter in Wyoming, Viau says she was called out every day for a week — usually just as she was getting off her job as a guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. That stretched her eight-hour days into 12-plus-hour days. She’s so busy, she says, she doesn’t think she should own a dog.
It’s undeniable that the volunteer search and rescue system is feeling the strain. Last October, Christopher Boyer, executive director of the National Search and Rescue Association, told the PBS NewsHour the current system was “broke.”
What’s the solution? In Colorado, you can buy an inexpensive SAR card that reimburses a county for the cost of your rescue. Or what about diverting some tax revenue to equip and pay teams?
For now, these unsung heroes keep bringing a victim back alive. They do it even when the desperate caller has gone somewhere they probably shouldn’t have — somewhere they couldn’t leave without help.
Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes in Idaho
A scorcher has settled over the entire Southwestern United States, with highs expected to hit the triple digits for several days in a row from Bakersfield to Las Vegas to Grand Junction. Phoenicians will be doing the Summer Solstice Swelter during that long day and short night—the minimum temperature is sticking at just below 90 degrees, to give even those used-to-be-cool predawn hours an ovenlike ambience.
That type of heat can cause the human body to go haywire, short-circuiting the renal system, causing the brain to swell, blood pressure to drop, heart-rate to increase, blood clots to form. Last year this heat-caused cascading failure proved fatal for more than 300 people in greater Phoenix.
Now, the electricity grid is not a living organism, but it can behave like one in a variety of ways. And just as excessive heat can ripple through the vital organs of the body, so too can it trigger chain reactions and feedback loops in the power system that keeps society churning along. Which is why during heatwaves like this one—that threatens to drag on in varying degrees of intensity throughout the summer—the power often goes out, right when folks need it most to keep their homes habitable.
To continue with the body metaphor, the grid has a heart, made up of all of the generators such as power plants and wind farms and so forth; a circulation system made up of arteries (high voltage transmission lines) and capillaries (distribution lines that carry power to your home or business); and organs, or the electricity consumers. The supply of power generated must always be equal to the collective demand. If demand kicks up, then the grid operators (the brain) have to increase the output of the “heart” accordingly.
In the West, we get our power from the Western Interconnect, which is actually broken up into about 38 separate grids, each with its own heart and brain and organs.
On a summer’s afternoon, as the temperature rises, thermostats signal air-conditioners to start running in order to keep homes and businesses comfortable and—in some cases—survivable. Cooling space requires a lot of energy. A 2013 study found that during extreme heat events, about half of all electricity use goes toward space-cooling of some sort. So when some 18 million residential AC units, plus all of the commercial units, kick in across the West, it increases the demand—or load—on the respective electricity grids significantly.
Some of that sudden increase in demand is offset by a corresponding uptick in solar generation, if available on the grid, and wind power—assuming the wind’s blowing at the time. The problem is, solar generation tends to peak in the early afternoon, but temperatures—and therefore AC-related demand—peak a few hours later. Grid operators need to turn to other resources in order to match that late afternoon peak.
Probably the best source of “peaking” power is a hydroelectric dam, which is essentially a big battery in that it stores energy in the form of water that can be run through turbines to generate power at the flip of a switch. Except, well, in the hottest, driest years, just when that hydropower is most needed, hydroelectricity is in short supply thanks to shrinking reservoirs.
Meanwhile, the nuclear reactors that are currently in service can’t be ramped up or down to “follow the load.” The same goes for coal power plants. Still, those sources provide important baseload, a fairly constant stream of power. Yet many thermal power plants run less efficiently when the ambient temperature is high, and nearly all of them—whether nuclear, coal, or natural gas (steam, not turbine)—need billions of gallons of water per year for cooling and steam-generation purposes, another problem during drought. And the warmer that water is, the less effective it is: Nuclear plants have been forced to shut down because the cooling water is too warm.
Since grid operators have no control over wind or solar generation and there aren’t enough batteries online yet, they have little choice but to turn to natural gas peaker plants, which can be cranked up quickly but are also expensive to run and emit more pollutants than conventional plants, including greenhouse gases that warm the climate and exacerbate heat waves and drought. Sometimes even that’s not enough to meet demand and grid operators must “shed load,” or do rolling power outages.
And that smoke? It’s not so good for solar power: Smoke from wildfires was so thick last summer that it blotted out the sun and diminished solar power generation in California, which meant grid operators had to scramble to make up for the loss.
Even when the power does make it to the air conditioners without triggering disasters, troubles remain. Air conditioners work by pulling heat from indoors and blowing it outside, as anyone who has walked past an AC vent when its running has experienced. Multiply that phenomenon by hundreds of thousands and you’ll get an increase in nighttime temperatures and exacerbate the urban heat island effect, according to a study by an Arizona State University researcher. Not only are the emissions from generating power to run the air conditioners heating things up, but so is running the air conditioners, themselves.
And heat doesn’t affect everyone equally. Various studies have found that heat disproportionately affects people of color and those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. That’s in part because those neighborhoods don’t have as many trees or green-spaces, which mitigate the urban heat islands. And it’s also due to the fact that they are less likely to be able to afford air conditioning equipment or the electricity to run them. It’s just another way in which wealth inequality ripples throughout society, creating health inequality, quality of life inequality, opportunity inequality, and so forth.
The first priority is to help the people who are most affected by the heat and the resulting grid failures, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions so as not to exacerbate the heat even further. And we need to pursue solutions for the grid, by installing more batteries and energy storage, breaking down the divisions between the balkanized grids in the West, expanding transmission in some places to enable moving clean power across big distances so that solar and wind from the Interior can match up with California’s demand peak, while also focusing on micro-grids for fire-prone areas and rooftop solar paired with batteries—for everyone, not just the wealthy—so that the grid becomes somewhat redundant.
It’s a massive challenge, but we have to take it on before it’s too late.
And on the lighter side, please witness comedian Blair Erskine’s impression of a spokesperson for the Texas grid:
Climate-driven changes in drought could disrupt electricity systems that depend heavily on hydropower, potentially increasing generation from fossil fuel sources. Impacts from the associated emissions and air pollution could represent a large and unaccounted-for social cost of climate change. We empirically quantify the impacts of drought on fossil fuel power plants in the western United States and the consequent effects on emissions and air quality. Damages through these channels are estimated to be 1.2 to 2.5x the increase in direct economic cost of drought-induced fossil fuel electricity generation. Under future climate, these drought-induced impacts likely remain large due to increasing drought risks, and we find that even rapid expansion of renewable energy has limited ability to curb these impacts.
The western United States has experienced severe drought in recent decades, and climate models project increased drought risk in the future. This increased drying could have important implications for the region’s interconnected, hydropower-dependent electricity systems. Using power-plant level generation and emissions data from 2001 to 2021, we quantify the impacts of drought on the operation of fossil fuel plants and the associated impacts on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, air quality, and human health. We find that under extreme drought, electricity generation from individual fossil fuel plants can increase up to 65% relative to average conditions, mainly due to the need to substitute for reduced hydropower. Over 54% of this drought-induced generation is transboundary, with drought in one electricity region leading to net imports of electricity and thus increased pollutant emissions from power plants in other regions. These drought-induced emission increases have detectable impacts on local air quality, as measured by proximate pollution monitors. We estimate that the monetized costs of excess mortality and GHG emissions from drought-induced fossil generation are 1.2 to 2.5x the reported direct economic costs from lost hydro production and increased demand. Combining climate model estimates of future drying with stylized energy-transition scenarios suggests that these drought-induced impacts are likely to remain large even under aggressive renewables expansion, suggesting that more ambitious and targeted measures are needed to mitigate the emissions and health burden from the electricity sector during drought.
For the third consecutive month, global ocean surface temperatures set a record high.
Smoke plumes from Canada’s most destructive wildfire season reached European skies.
Antarctica saw its second consecutive month of record-low sea ice extent.
With nine tropical storms across the globe, June 2023 had a global accumulated cyclone energy that was almost twice its average value for the month.
Globally, June 2023 set a record for the warmest June in the 174-year NOAA record. The year-to-date (January–June) global surface temperature ranked as the third warmest such period on record. According to NCEI’s Global Annual Temperature Outlook, it is virtually certain (> 99.0%) that the year 2023 will rank among the 10-warmest years on record and a 97% chance it will rank among the top five.
This monthly summary, developed by scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia and the public to support informed decision-making.
Monthly Global Temperature
The June global surface temperature was 1.89°F (1.05°C) above the 20th-century average of 59.9°F (15.5°C), making it the warmest June on record. This marked the first time a June temperature exceeded 1.8°F (1°C) above the long-term average. June 2023 was 0.23°F (0.13°C) warmer than the previous June record from 2020, but 0.52°F (0.29°C) cooler than the all-time highest monthly temperature anomaly on record (March 2016). June 2023 marked the 47th consecutive June and the 532nd consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th-century average.
For the third consecutive month, global ocean surface temperature hit a record high. Weak El Niño conditions that emerged in May continued to strengthen in June, as above-average sea surface temperatures returned to the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Globally, June 2023 set a record for the highest monthly sea surface temperature anomaly of any month in NOAA’s 174-year record. June heat was not limited to the ocean surface; the Southern Hemisphere had its warmest June on record and the Northern Hemisphere tied 2019 for its warmest June.
The Caribbean Islands experienced their warmest June on record. Africa tied 2017 for its third-warmest June on record, and South America, Europe, and Asia (tied with 2010) each had their fourth-warmest June on record. Oceania had its sixth-warmest June, and June in North America ranked seventh warmest on record. Wildfires that began in May continued to scorch Canadian forests in June, burning over 20 million acres since the beginning of 2023 to become Canada’s most destructive wildfire season on record. Millions of Canadians and Americans experienced widespread and sustained air quality issues throughout much of June, with smoke plumes reaching as far as Europe.
Temperatures were above average throughout most of South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Parts of northern and southern North America, Oceania, Antarctica and the Arctic also experienced warmer-than-average temperatures this month. Sea surface temperatures were above average across much of the northern, central and western Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Parts of the eastern Atlantic, the southwestern Pacific, the southern Indian Ocean, as well as parts of northern Canada, Mexico, western Europe and southern Africa saw record-warm June temperatures. Combined, record-warm temperatures covered just over 8.6% of the world’s surface this month, which marks the highest June percentage since 1951.
Temperatures were near to cooler than average across parts of the U.S., Greenland, western Russia, Pakistan and northern India, western Australia, Chad and northeastern Nigeria. Sea surface temperatures were near to below average over parts of the central-eastern and southeastern Pacific and the northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Less than 1% of the world’s surface had a record-cold June.
Sea Ice Extent
June 2023 set a record for the lowest global June sea ice extent on record. This primarily resulted from record-low sea ice extent in the Antarctic, which saw its second consecutive month with the lowest sea ice extent on record. Globally, sea ice extent in June 2023 was 330,000 square miles less than the previous record low from June 2019.
The Arctic sea ice extent for June 2023 ranked as the 13th smallest in the satellite record at 4.23 million square miles, or about 130,000 square miles below the 1991–2020 average. The Antarctic sea ice extent ranked lowest on record at 4.25 million square miles, or 940,000 square miles below the 1991–2020 average. This was 470,000 square miles below the previous record low from June 2022.
Below-average June precipitation was observed across parts of western and southern North America, southern South America, northern Europe, northern China and the eastern and western coasts of Australia. Wetter-than-average conditions were present across parts of the eastern U.S., southwestern Europe, Turkey, equatorial western Africa, Pakistan and southeastern Australia.
Global Tropical Cyclones
Nine named storms occurred across the globe in June, four of which reached tropical cyclone strength (≥ 74 mph). One storm reached major tropical cyclone strength (≥ 111 mph). These counts are all above 1991–2020 averages for June. The global accumulated cyclone energy, an integrated metric of the strength, frequency, and duration of tropical storms, was almost twice its average value in June. The Atlantic basin saw three tropical storms this June, which ties eight other years for the most in June.
[Earth] is hotter than it’s been in thousands of years, and it’s as if every alarm bell on Earth were ringing. The warnings are echoing through the drenched mountains of Vermont, where two months of rain just fell in only two days. India and Japan were deluged by extreme flooding. They’re shrilling from the scorching streets of Texas, Florida, Spain and China, with a severe heat wave also building in Phoenix and the Southwest in coming days. They’re burbling up from the oceans, where temperatures have surged to levels considered “beyond extreme.” And they’re showing up in unprecedented, still-burning wildfires in Canada that have sent plumes of dangerous smoke into the United States.
Scientists say there is no question that this cacophony was caused by climate change — or that it will continue to intensify as the planet warms. Research shows that human greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from burning fossil fuels, have raised Earth’s temperature by about 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Unless humanity radically transforms the way people travel, generate energy and produce food, the global average temperature is on track to increase by more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit), according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — unleashing catastrophes that will make this year’s disasters seem mild…
“This is not the new normal,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the Imperial College London. “We don’t know what the new normal is. The new normal will be what it is once we do stop burning fossil fuels … and we’re nowhere near doing that.”
At this point, researchers say, the links between climate change and weather disasters are abundantly clear. When the planet’s average temperature is higher, heat waves can reach previously unheard of extremes. This was the case during recent heat waves in southeast Asia, southern Europe and North Africa, World Weather Attribution researchers found.
Synopsis: There is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter.
In June, a weak El Niño was associated with above-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) across the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Nearly all of the weekly Niño indices were at or in excess of +1.0ºC: Niño-3.4 was +1.0ºC, Niño-3 was +1.5ºC, and Niño1+2 was +3.3ºC. Area-averaged subsurface temperatures anomalies increased compared to May, with positive anomalies below the surface of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. In contrast, the tropical atmospheric anomalies were weaker compared to the oceanic anomalies. For the June monthly average, low-level winds were near average over most of the equatorial Pacific. Upper-level wind anomalies were easterly over the western Pacific and westerly over the eastern Pacific. Convection and rainfall were enhanced around the International Date Line and were weakly suppressed in the vicinity of Indonesia. The equatorial Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) remained negative (0.5 standard deviations below average), while the traditional, station-based SOI was near zero. Collectively, the coupled ocean-atmosphere system reflected a weak El Niño.
The most recent IRI plume indicates El Niño will persist through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2023-24. Forecasters favor continued growth of El Niño through the fall, peaking this winter with moderate-to-strong intensity (81% chance of November-January Niño-3.4 >= 1.0C). An event that becomes “historically strong” (seasonally averaged Niño-3.4 2.0C), rivaling the winters of 1997-98 or 2015-16, has an approximately 1 in 5 chance. In summary, there is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter.
Heavy to excessive rainfall significantly improved or removed drought from parts of the Northeast and south-central Great Plains. The heaviest amounts fell in a broken pattern from lower New York through Vermont, and in a swath from central Oklahoma through the fringes of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles. Many of these areas recorded over 6 inches of rain, with totals approaching 9 inches in a few isolated spots. Lesser but still heavy amounts exceeding 3 inches fell on portions of the central Plains, Texas Gulf Coast, lower Mississippi Valley, interior Southeast, Carolina Coastline, and upper Great Lakes Region, allowing drought to ease in some of these areas. In contrast, other parts of Texas, the middle and upper Mississippi Valley, the lower Great Lakes, and the central and northern Dakotas received only several tenths of an inch of precipitation at best, resulting in several areas of deepening drought. Hot weather from the desert Southwest through the southern Plains and across Florida exacerbated drought conditions there. West of the Rockies, seasonably dry conditions prevailed…
Heavy rainfall soaked much of south-central and southwestern Kansas, with 4 to locally 8 inches observed in many areas. Significant drought reduction resulted, although some degree of longer-term dryness remained in most locations. Eastern Nebraska, southeastern South Dakota, eastern Colorado, and a few other parts of Kansas received moderate to locally heavy rains, prompting substantial if less-widespread improvement in those areas. In addition, parts of Wyoming continued to benefit from the exceptionally wet and (in higher elevations) snowy winter, so D0 and D1 areas were again whittled down slightly. In contrast, moderate drought (D1) expanded in both the northwestern and northeastern sections of North Dakota, where persistently below-normal precipitation has been observed for the past few months. Although more improvement than deterioration occurred last week, exceptional drought (D4) remained over parts of southeastern Kansas, portions of west-central and north-central Kansas, and a few patches in eastern Nebraska…
Scattered light to moderate precipitation fell on parts of the southern half of Montana, eastern New Mexico, and isolated sites in the northern Intermountain West. Highly isolated amounts of no more than 0.2 inch were observed elsewhere, with most locations reporting no measurable precipitation. Growing moisture deficits led to areas of drought expansion and intensification across Washington and Oregon, a portion of northernmost Idaho, and parts of northern Montana. Farther south, despite the dry week, the exceptionally wet and snowy winter continued to benefit much of Utah, the Great Basin, and the desert Southwest. D2 was removed from southern Nevada, and areas of D0 and D1 were reduced in size. In the West Region, there is no longer any D2 to the south and east of central Oregon…
Highly variable condition were noted across this region. Heavy to excessive rainfall triggered some flooding in an area from the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles southeastward through northeastern Texas, with several locations in central Oklahoma reporting 7 to locally near 10 inches of rainfall. Existing dryness in this area was eliminated or at least greatly improved. Meanwhile, most of interior and western Texas saw little if any rainfall, prompting expansion and intensification of dryness and drought there. In addition, much of northern Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma reported only light rainfall at best, allowing expansion and intensification of D0 to D2 conditions across this area Other parts of the South were covered by a broken pattern of moderate to heavy rainfall, with a few locales reporting over 3 inches of rain. Scattered areas of improvement were noted through these regions…
According to the Weather Prediction Center (WPC), over the next 5 days (July 13 – 17) heavy precipitation is expected across Missouri and adjacent areas, where some of the most acute rainfall deficits have been observed recently. Amounts of 1.5 to locally over 3.0 inches are expected. Similarly heavy rains are anticipated in the eastern Lower Mississippi Valley, the central Appalachians, the southeastern Great Lakes Region, much of New England and the adjacent Northeast, parts of the mid-Atlantic Region, and southern Florida. Additional flooding is possible in portions of New England. Light to locally moderate rain is anticipated in most other locations east of the Mississippi River and across the central and south-central Great Plains. In contrast, most of Texas should see little if any precipitation, and seasonable dryness is expected west of the Rockies. Hot weather is anticipated along the southern tier of the country from the desert Southwest eastward through much of Florida, especially later in the period.
During the ensuing 5 days (July 18 – 22), the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) favors above normal temperatures across most of the contiguous 48 states, with odds leaning toward near or slightly below normal temperatures only in most of Washington, and in a swath from the northern Plain eastward across the upper Midwest and northern Appalachians through the lower Northeast. Dry weather is favored to continue across Texas and in most of the Intermountain West and Northwest. Increasing monsoonal activity is expected in southern Arizona and adjacent areas, where odds slightly favor above-normal precipitation. A slight tilt of the odds toward wetter than normal weather also covers the central and northern Plains, the Northeast and adjacent mid-Atlantic Region, and southern Florida.
Thick smoke from Canadian wildfires created air quality issues for millions in portions of the Northeast and Great Lakes this June.
Portions of the Midwest experienced dry soils, low streamflow and distressed crops in June. Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan each ranked in the top-10 driest June on record.
Much of the eastern U.S. had a warm start to 2023 with 29 states experiencing a top-10 warmest January–June including Florida which ranked warmest on record.
In June, the average temperature and precipitation for the contiguous U.S. ranked in the middle third of the historical record.
The average temperature of the contiguous U.S. in June was 69.0°F, 0.5°F above average, ranking in the middle third of the 129-year record. Generally, June temperatures were below average from California to the central Plains and across much of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Temperatures were above average from the Northwest to the northern Plains, as well as in the southern Plains and Florida Peninsula. North Dakota ranked third warmest on record for June while two additional states ranked among their top-10 warmest on record. Conversely, West Virginia and Virginia had their ninth- and 10th-coldest June on record, respectively.
The Alaska statewide June temperature was 50.0°F, 0.8°F above the long-term average, ranking in the middle third of the 99-year period of record for the state. Above-normal temperatures were observed across the Aleutians and in parts of the North Slope and the Southeast during the month while small pockets of below-average temperatures were observed in interior portions of the state.
For the January–June period, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 49.2°F, 1.7°F above average, ranking 21st warmest on record for this period. Temperatures were above average from the southern Plains to the East Coast and along parts of the Northern Tier, with near- to below-average temperatures from the northern Plains to the West Coast. Florida ranked warmest on record while Massachusetts had its second-warmest January–June period. An additional 27 states had a top-10 warmest year-to-date period. No state experienced a top-10 coldest event for this six-month period.
The Alaska January–June temperature was 22.8°F, 1.5°F above the long-term average, ranking in the middle third of the historical record for the state. Much of the state was near normal for the six-month period while temperatures were above average across much of the North Slope and in parts of the southeast, Kodiak Island and the Aleutians.
June precipitation for the contiguous U.S. was 2.85 inches, 0.08 inch below average, ranking in the middle third of the historical record. Precipitation was above average across much of the West and in parts of the Southeast and New England. Precipitation was below average across much of the Midwest and in parts of the Northwest, Southwest, southern Plains, Mid-Atlantic and southern New England. Wisconsin and Michigan each had their fifth-driest June on record, while two additional states had their top-10 driest June on record. Conversely, Wyoming ranked third wettest with two additional states ranking among their top-10 wettest June on record.
Across the state of Alaska, the average monthly precipitation was 2.85 inches, making last month the 19th-wettest June in the 99-year record. Conditions were wetter than average across most of the state while parts of the Northeast, Southwest and Panhandle were near normal and parts of the Southeast Interior and Aleutians observed below-normal precipitation during the month.
The January–June precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 15.70 inches, 0.39 inch above average, ranking in the middle third of the 129-year record. Precipitation was above average from California to the western Great Plains and in parts of the southern Mississippi Valley, northern Great Lakes, Southeast and Northeast. Conversely, precipitation was below average across parts of the Northwest, northern and central Plains, Southwest, central Mississippi Valley, Mid-Atlantic and along parts of the Gulf during the January–June period. Maryland had its fourth-driest January–June on record.
The January–June precipitation ranked 14th wettest in the 99-year record for Alaska, with above-average precipitation observed across much of the state. Precipitation was near average in parts of south-central Alaska and along the Gulf of Alaska coast while below-average precipitation was observed in part of the Aleutians during this period.
For 2023 to-date, 12 weather and climate disasters have losses exceeding $1 billion. These disasters consisted of 10 severe storm events, one winter storm and one flooding event. The total cost of these events exceeds $32.7 billion (CPI-adjusted), and they have resulted in 100 direct and indirect fatalities. For this year-to-date period, the first six months of 2023 rank second-highest for disaster count, behind 2017 with 14 disasters and behind 2021 which had $42.5 billion in terms of total cost.
The very active U.S. severe storm season is reflected in the high count of billion-dollar events that have produced destructive tornadoes, severe hail and high wind across much of the central and eastern U.S.
The 1980–2022 annual average is 8.1 events (CPI-adjusted); the annual average for the most recent five years (2018–2022) is 18.0 events (CPI-adjusted).
Since these billion-dollar disaster records began in 1980, the U.S. has sustained 360 separate weather and climate disasters where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (based on the CPI adjustment to 2023) per event. The total cost of these 360 events exceeds $2.570 trillion.
Other Notable Events
A series of heat waves brought record-breaking temperatures to portions of the U.S. during June:
An early June heat wave brought life-threatening conditions to Puerto Rico as heat indices reached as high as 125°F. On June 6, San Juan set a new daily high temperature record of 95°F.
A heat wave brought record heat to portions of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes during early June. Daily temperature records were set in parts of Michigan, New York and Vermont.
A heat wave caused temperatures to soar well above 100°F across parts of the southern Plains. In Texas, the cities of Del Rio and Rio Grande reached 113°F and San Angelo reported 114°F on June 20, setting the all-time heat record at each location. On June 24, the temperature at Rio Grande Village, Texas, topped out at 119°F–1°F below the all-time temperature record for the state.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires caused significant air quality issues in parts of the U.S. during June:
On June 7, around 100 million people across 16 states were under air quality alerts while New York City reported the worst air quality of major cities worldwide.
On June 27, wildfire smoke impacted a large portion of the Midwest, resulting in the city of Chicago having the worst air quality of major cities worldwide.
According to the July 4 U.S. Drought Monitor report, about 27.0% of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up about 8.0% from the end of May. Moderate to exceptional drought was widespread across much of the Great Plains, with moderate to extreme drought in much of the Midwest. Moderate to severe drought was present in parts of the Northwest, northern Rockies, Southwest, Mid-Atlantic, Hawaii and Puerto Rico as well as moderate drought in parts of the southern Mississippi Valley and Florida Peninsula.
Drought or abnormally dry conditions expanded or intensified in parts of the Northwest, eastern Plains, Mississippi River Valley, Great Lakes, Northeast, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico this month. Drought contracted or was reduced in intensity across interior parts of the West, the western Great Plains, and parts of the Ohio and Tennessee valleys, Florida Peninsula and Northeast.
According to the June 30 One-Month Outlook from the Climate Prediction Center, areas from Arizona to the East Coast and in parts of the Northwest, Great Lakes and northeast Alaska favor above-normal monthly average temperatures in July, with the greatest odds in parts of the southern Plains. The best chances for below-normal temperatures are forecast for parts of the central Rockies, northern Plains and in parts of southwest Alaska. Much of the Plains to the Northeast, as well as parts of northern and eastern Alaska are favored to see above-normal monthly total precipitation whilebelow-normal precipitation is most likely to occur in parts of the Southwest. Drought improvement or removal is forecast from the central Plains to the southern Great Lakes and in parts of the Northeast, southern Louisiana and Puerto Rico, while persistence is more likely in portions of the Northwest, Southwest, southern Plains, northern Great Lakes and parts of the central Plains and Hawaii. Drought development is likely in parts of the Northwest, southern Plains, Great Lakes and Hawaii.
According to the One-Month Outlook issued on July 1 from the National Interagency Fire Center, Hawaii and portions of the Northwest, northern Great Lakes and Southwest have above-normal significant wildland fire potential during July, while parts of California, New Mexico and Alaska are expected to have below-normal potential for the month.
If you are following the ever-unfolding sagas of the Colorado River in the 21st century, the Early Anthropocene, you are probably aware that there are water-related issues with the 30 remaining First Peoples living within the Colorado River Basin.
I’ll say, to start, that I don’t like to call the 574 recognized First Peoples in the United States and Alaska ‘Indians’ (colonizing and homogenizing term, inaccurate too), ‘American Indians’ (two Eurocentric colonizing words), or ‘Native Americans’ (anyone born here is a ‘native’). I prefer to think of them as ‘First People’ for a couple reasons. First, because many of the groups tend to call themselves ‘the people’ – Dine’e, the name the Navajos give themselves translates as ‘the people.’ Navajo, on the other hand, is from a Tewa People word meaning ‘planted field,’ hardly descriptive of a people still ambivalent about farming as a way of life. The Apaches call themselves Ndee, which translates as ‘the people’; but Apache is from the Zuni People’s word for ‘enemy.’ Just as Comanche comes from a Ute People’s word for ‘one who fights with me,’ while to themselves the Comanche are the Numinu, which translates as – you guessed it: ‘the people.’ These are more precise and intimate designations than ‘we the people’ in our constitution.
A second reason for calling them the First Peoples is to remind myself that they were in fact here first. They were not ‘civilized’ enough to understand the fundamental holy sanctity of private property, money, or anything else held sacred among the civilized people that overran them. Had they understood those things, and had prior appropriation doctrines in place, and the unified capability to enforce such doctrines, as we try to have in place now for selecting our immigrants – and also had a medical establishment capable of developing vaccines against strange microscopic invaders – then the history of the European Expansion into America would probably have been a little more humble than it has been. And the recent histories of the First Peoples, the people here first, might have been less traumatic and tragic.
This is a relevant topic at this point since the remaining First Peoples in the Colorado River region have made the mainstream news, at least in the West, twice just recently on water-related issues. One was a decision by the Red Meanies that are now the voice of The Supremes, singing their chorus on the power of power; they declared that, while the federal government acknowledges that the Navajo People are entitled to water for their reservation, the 1868 treaty with them contains no explicit responsibility to ‘act affirmatively’ in helping them develop or even lay claim to that water.
The other news story was reported from a conference at the Getches-Wilkinson Law Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder; 13 leaders from the 30 remaining First Peoples on reservations in the Colorado River Basin took the stage in a panel to convey the message that they will participate in the negotiations getting underway about the management of the Colorado River and its waters after 2026 and the expiring of the ‘Interim Guidelines,’ which are now proving as ineffective as the Colorado River Compact they were created to supplement.
There is, as usual, a lot more back story to these things than makes it into the news. And without at least some of the back story, the news stories make less sense. One thing to keep in mind is how ‘distinct’ the remaining 29 First Peoples in the Colorado River Basin are (like most of the 574 recognized First Peoples in the United States and Alaska). While the officially registered populations of each of the First Peoples range from a few hundred members to hundreds of thousands, each People has its own culture – an internal economy and polity that is more likely to be socialistic than individualistic, animistic spiritual practices that are closely associated with their living environment, a higher ratio of familial education (father to son, mother to daughter) to formal schooling, and often a unique language for only a few thousand people, or variations on a language common to several Peoples in the same region. These groups historically communicated with each other, traded with each other, and occasionally fought each other. Some who shared the same or similar languages would winter together in big encampments – one consequence of which was keeping their gene pools healthy with new input, new husbands usually joining their wive’s clans. But despite such interactions, they also retained their unique and distinguishing cultural characteristics. Many of these cultures are similar in their fundamentals, but they make serious efforts to retain the elements that distinguish them. These unique and passionately maintained distinctive cultures have been difficult for us dominating e pluribus unum Euro-Americans to comprehend and accept.
Adding to that difficulty is the extent to which the First Peoples throughout the Colorado River region were, at the time of contact with Euro-Americans, at different stages in adapting to the ‘trauma of success’ – the population expansions that occurred globally as the harsh Pleistocene climate mellowed into the warmer, wetter, more life-supporting Holocene interval. Expanding hunter-forager populations needed more territory.
That territorial tension was resolved – or not resolved – two different ways by the First Peoples, as it had been millennia before in Europe and western Asia. Some of the Peoples developed a culture of conflict with neighboring Peoples, cultivating warrior cultures engaged in fighting and raiding – as Steven LeBlanc documented in his Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Other Peoples gave up the hunter-forager life and transitioned to agriculture, concentrating their food plants and animal herds where they could be protected against the raiders. This also concentrated and stabilized the way they lived, the kind of structures they built to live in, the kinds of trading and commerce they engaged in. And pressure from the raiding Peoples also shaped the way they lived; some of those early conflicts are remembered in intertribal relations among First Peoples today.
Populations continued to grow, especially with agricultural surpluses, and the ongoing ‘trauma of success’ forced some of the Peoples to develop even more complex socioeconomic organizations for production and distribution of food and other survival goods – what we call the urbanizing ‘civilization’ stage in human culture. Two civilizations-scale cultures developed in the Precolumbian Colorado River Basin: one was the ‘Ancestral Puebloans’ who developed a highly integrated system of villages linked through storing and trading of grain and other resources in the San Juan River valleys, centered in the broad Chaco Canyon. The other was the Hohokam (or Huhugam) irrigation society in the confluence area of the Salt and Gila Rivers in present-day central Arizona. The Hohokam People’s irrigation system had a high degree of sophistication, considering that its irrigation systems were all dug with stick-and-stone tools and baskets. They also had a sizable urban center whose ruins have been preserved in (and dwarfed by) present-day downtown Phoenix.
By the time the Euro-American settlers and unsettlers arrived in the Colorado basin, though, these civilizations, like all historical civilizations globally to this point, had collapsed from their own density, complexity and the depletion of vital resources. Those who survived the chaos of the collapses dropped back to some earlier stage in that cultural evolution driven by population. Some refugees from the Ancestral Puebloans’ Chaco Canyon ‘Interconnect’ left the Colorado Basin and went to the Rio Grande valley to continue farming; others found remote spots in the San Juan tributaries. Several First Peoples from the Hohokam Culture relocated along the Gila, Salt and Colorado Rivers and continued irrigated farming on a small scale.
And because not everyone is temperamentally fit for agriculture, some of the collapse refugees went all the way back to the hunter-forager life – with raiding each other and the agricultural Peoples added to the repertoire. The bands of Utes in the Southern Rocky mountains showed up around the same time that the Chaco Canyon Interconnect was falling apart, and the Apache Peoples in the Arizona and New Mexico mountains expanded following the Hohokam collapse.
And then there were ‘newcomers,’ the Dine’e People, the ones the other Peoples called the Navajo. They were hunter-foragers filtering down all the way from Canada’s over-populating Athabaskan lake region. They began arriving in the Colorado River region about the time that the Chaco Canyon Interconnect began to fail, and were still trickling in till just a few centuries before the Spanish-Americans came into the region. The Navajo brought domesticated sheep with them, and followed their sheep around the valleys and uplands of the depopulating San Juan basin and Colorado Plateau, adapting their hunting and foraging skills in a new environment – and also joining in on the raiding that had become part of that way of life.
So the Euro-Americans encountered almost the full spectrum of human cultural evolution when they arrived in the Colorado River basin, except for an active civilization. They found primal First Peoples like the Cocopah down in the delta and some of the southern Great Basin Paiutes on the Colorado Plateau, still primarily hunting and foraging but also beginning to practice some basic agriculture. There were also post-civilization First Peoples like the Salt River Pima-Maricopa, the Gila River and the Colorado River Peoples with long histories of desert agriculture, and there were both pre- and post-civilization hunter-forager-raiders.
The European Expansion came to the Colorado River region first from the south, where Spanish invaders had conquered civilized Aztec Mexico early in the 16th century; exploratory parties went northward in search of gold and silver and laid claim to everything up to around the 40th parallel, but only really settled – and unsettled – in the middle Rio Grande valleys and California. Their interest in the First Peoples they encountered was limited to whatever material wealth they could commandeer in the name of the King; they did not appear to see the people themselves as fellow humans, but as simple savages to convert and enslave.
The First Peoples they encountered, on the other hand, became very interested in the horses the Spanish brought, some which went feral and, along with European germs, spread out ahead of the Spanish. The hunter-forager-raider Peoples quickly developed a horse culture and expanded both their range and their daring; they began to harass the new white settlers as well as each other.
The Spanish Americans lost their El Norte empire in the 1846-48 Mexican War, which opened the whole Southwest up to the larger Euro-American westward expansion. The Spanish had wanted the First Peoples as slaves; the Euro-Americans just wanted them out of the way. Skirmishes between the warrior/raiders of the First Peoples, armed at first with stone age weaponry, and the heavily armed U.S. Cavalry escalated into a multi-fronted three-decade war from the end of the Civil War to nearly the turn of the 20th century.
From the perspective of many prominent 19th-century western leaders – like Col. John Chivington, Methodist minister, Masonic Grand Master, and leader of 300 volunteers in the Sand Creek Massacre – genocide would not have been too strong a word for their objective; they wanted to rid the land of those who were there first and in the way of their Manifest Destiny to subdue the continent. Cooler heads prevailed in Washington, however, and the ultimate objective of ‘Indian policy’ came to be forced assimilation: instead of ‘kill the Indians,’ it was ‘kill the Indian, save the man (woman or child).’
The First Peoples one by one accepted ‘offers they could not refuse,’ to give up most of their traditional territory in exchange for a much smaller reservation, peace, and generally vague promises of federal assistance ‘to change their habits and to become a pastoral and civilized people’ – which some of them already were, perhaps moreso than many of the Euro-Americans.
To facilitate that assimilation, children as young as six were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to use their native language, and were schooled in becoming good industrial workers. To teach a proper respect for private property, the Dawes Act in 1887 broke up the reservations into 160-acre ‘homesteads.’ Programs were implemented to pay for the relocation of individuals and families to cities. Only the vast scale of the West and the limited number of policy enforcers for the numerous reservations enabled the First Peoples to keep their own cultural fires banked but burning.
This policy of forced assimilation prevailed until the 1930s. Current news stories about Colorado River issues have noted with righteous indignation that the Colorado River Compact ‘ignored the Indians,’ but that is not exactly the case; Article VII of the Compact says that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ In 1922, the ‘obligations to the Indian tribes’ were still construed to be facilitating their conversion to ‘civilized peoples.’ This essentially meant letting the tribes ‘disappear’ as the First Peoples discovered the blessings and advantages of assimilating into the mainstream culture, which would have negated the question of tribal waters. E pluribus unum.
It is probably important to remember that these assimilationist policies were not conceived and put into force by evil people, but by well-meaning Christians who sincerely believed they were acting in the best interests of the First Peoples; if the First Peoples had to be forced, it was because they were blind to their own best interests. Historically many bad things have come as consequences of good but naive intentions.
This was demonstrated just last month, when the constitutionality of a law intended to shut down one of the assimilationist strategies was challenged in the courts – the Indian Child Welfare Act, which put First People families first in line for adopting orphaned or abandoned First People children. Surely this is racist, was the argument against the Act; isn’t it obvious that it would be better for a child to grow up well provided for in a good middle-class home, rather than left on an impoverished reservation with an aunt or grandparent? The Supremes – a little surprisingly – upheld the Act, 7-2, against the suit brought by several ‘red’ states, but the well-meaning will continue to act in what they perceive to be the best interests of those who were here first.
That is a good place to pause; next post we’ll look at how things began to turn around for the First Peoples – how they themselves worked, and continue to work, to turn things around, and found co-conspirators in the larger society, even in the government. What’s the saying? What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. And the First Peoples have survived the efforts to kill them, first physically then culturally, and are here to stay – and to be heard on our common future.
Stay tuned for Part 2, when we will look more closely at the Navajo decision, and at some things the First Peoples might contribute to the next chapters in the management of our coyote river.
The role of climate change is becoming increasingly evident in these types of deluges.
Studies by scientists around the world show that the water cycle has been intensifying and will continue to intensify as the planet warms. An international climate assessment I co-authored in 2021 for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reviewed the research and laid out the details.
It documented an increase in both wet extremes, including more intense rainfall over most regions, and dry extremes, including drying in the Mediterranean, southwestern Australia, southwestern South America, South Africa and western North America. It also shows that both wet and dry extremes will continue to increase with future warming.
Why is the water cycle intensifying?
Water cycles through the environment, moving between the atmosphere, ocean, land and reservoirs of frozen water. It might fall as rain or snow, seep into the ground, run into a waterway, join the ocean, freeze or evaporate back into the atmosphere. In recent decades, there has been an overall increase in the rates of precipitation and evaporation.
A number of factors are intensifying the water cycle, but one of the most important is that warming temperatures raise the upper limit on the amount of moisture in the air. That increases the potential for more rain.
This aspect of climate change is confirmed across all of our lines of evidence. It is expected from basic physics, projected by computer models, and it already shows up in the observational data as a general increase of rainfall intensity with warming temperatures.
Understanding this and other changes in the water cycle is important for more than preparing for disasters. Water is an essential resource for all ecosystems and human societies, and particularly agriculture.
What does this mean for the future?
An intensifying water cycle means that both wet and dry extremes and the general variability of the water cycle will increase, although not uniformly around the globe.
Globally, daily extreme precipitation events will likely intensify by about 7% for every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) that global temperatures rise.
Many other important aspects of the water cycle will also change in addition to extremes as global temperatures increase, the report shows, including reductions in mountain glaciers, decreasing duration of seasonal snow cover, earlier snowmelt and contrasting changes in monsoon rains across different regions, which will impact the water resources of billions of people.
The IPCC does not make policy recommendations, but the results show what the implications of different choices are likely to be.
One thing the scientific evidence in the report clearly tells world leaders is that limiting global warming to the international target of 1.5 C (2.7 F) will require immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
As the evidence shows, every fraction of a degree matters.
This updates an article originally published July 29, 2022, with flash flooding in the Northeast.
When [Michael] Vicenti turns toward field No. 2180 [on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation], the condition of the road deteriorates and his knowledge of the plot before him starts and ends with water. He can’t tell the two crops planted there apart, he said. The field was planted for the first time in four years last month because the farm lacked adequate water to irrigate it until this spring. Now, among abundant patches of weeds, tender seedlings are sprouting in neat rows. Half the field, just 23 acres, is planted with sainfoin, a forage legume for animals. The other half bears Kernza, the trademark name of an intermediate perennial wheatgrass developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Those delicate sprouts are an experiment on every level, says the farm’s general manager, Simon Martinez. But they hold the promise of water reduction, increased drought resiliency, and the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of adaptation to the changing climate…
With the farm’s full water allocation – 24,500 acre-feet – flowing down the canal from McPhee Reservoir, this year was the time to test out these two new drought-resistant crops…But not every year brings ample snowfall to the peaks above McPhee, and as the Colorado River basin charges through year 23 of a historic megadrought, Martinez is starting to tinker Kernza and sainfoin as possible resilient alternatives to alfalfa and wheat.
The experiment is just one step of several the farm has taken. Outside grants have helped fund micro-hydroelectric units, which harness the power of the irrigation canal’s natural downhill flow. The farm was also outfitted with new nozzles on its center pivots that reduce water delivery from 8.2 gallons per minute to 7.5. Corn, for example, is watered in a pattern of three days on, two days off. By reducing the flows from each nozzle by 0.7 gallons per minute, Martinez said the farm is saving thousands of gallons of water across the farm. Although it cannot be attribute only to the water-saving nozzles, Vicenti and Martinez estimate the farm will use only 80% of its allocated water this year, leaving roughly 4,900 acre-feet in McPhee…
“We’ve never, as Ute people, never been farmers,” Chairman Heart said. “We were put into the position of becoming ranchers and farmers in the 1800s (after) what happened up in Meeker and as a Ute people in general. … It’s (Farm and Ranch) trying to do what we can in this arid soil reservation that we’ve been put in.”
The use of artificial intelligence is creating vast improvements in data processing and forecasts that will give Western states the tools they need to better manage their scarce water supplies, according to Richard Spinrad, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Machine learning and deep learning are actually the places where I think we’re going to see extraordinary improvements,” Spinrad said at a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association in Boulder last week.
AI refers to computer systems that perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, while machine learning is a form of AI that focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way humans learn, gradually improving accuracy, according to the Oxford Dictionary.
Spinrad credited the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 with giving the National Weather Service, an agency housed within NOAA, the resources it needs to develop a new Hydrologic Ensemble Forecast System that will provide highly accurate forecasts for more than 3,000 locations across the nation.
“Governors need actionable information, especially in times of crisis,” he said. “It is critical to have credible, reliable, actionable information. And at NOAA, we take that responsibility extremely seriously. We’re doing it for the needs of today and tomorrow, but also in terms of infrastructure development, we are working to develop the projections 10, 20 and 50 years out as well.”
Big breakthroughs that allow super-fast processing of large sets of data, satellite-based monitoring, as well as models that can precisely predict landslides and summer monsoons should vastly improve the ability of weather and water agencies to manage their supplies better and respond to emergencies faster.
At the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) there has been a push to increase the presence of weather radars, including in Colorado’s Rio Grande River Basin. Everette Joseph, director of NCAR, said work already has significantly improved forecasts.
Working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, NCAR has improved its techniques for forecasting summer monsoons, which can produce 60% to 80% of total annual precipitation in the desert Southwest.
The scientists emphasized that much of their work in delivering models is focused on helping the states understand the risks and uncertainties in managing water.
And that means getting data faster and using it to make decisions and develop policies faster as well, according to Yvonne Stone, a senior manager at Deloitte, an accounting and consulting firm.
“Quicker, faster, better, more connected,” she said, in describing advances in data collection and management. But for it to be useful, it must be curated and analyzed in a way that provides a framework for making a decision. Once that policy decision is made, then outcome needs to be measured. Did it produce the expected results? That, in turn, means the need for more data.
“The problem is that there’s a fundamental tension between data and policy decisions. Water data is extremely complex and nuanced. Even just to understand the amount of water. Are you talking the flow? Are you talking the melt? How much of that was absorbed into the soil? What was the soil moisture content? How much of evapotranspiration happened? It’s enormously complex,” she said.
But on policy, it all boils down to a decision, a yes or no. “Are we going to curtail this year? Who are we going curtail? What thresholds are we going to set for groundwater pumping? What’s an acceptable level of nutrients in water or temperature for water discharge? And so it requires a lot of work to connect those pieces, to connect analysis through data policy decisions and study the outcomes to see whether they’re on track or not,” Stone said.
One year ago today, nearly 98 percent of Colorado was experiencing drought conditions. Now, for the first time since August 2019, there’s no drought conditions anywhere in the state. Statewide drought levels have been steadily dropping over the past several months, as heavy rains picked up across the state. The July 4 update from the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that it had indeed disappeared completely…Colorado’s snowpack and rainfall levels have been higher this year than previous ones, due to constant and intense storms this spring and summer, which has helped pull the state out of current drought conditions…
“To have a good picture on the drought, that’s honestly gonna require a bunch of winters like this last winter we had with huge snows in the mountains,” [Russ] Schumacher said. “It could happen, but it probably isn’t real likely to have year after year of really snowy conditions.”
“If we zoom out to the Colorado River Basin, there’s still very significant issues there,” Schumacher said. “The reservoirs we have in Colorado, for example, have all filled up after our big snow this year, but those big reservoirs downstream, Lake Powell, Lake Mead are still way below average, let alone being full.”
At the confluence of the Roaring Fork and the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, it’s clear that a big, snowy winter has turned into a big spring and summer for local streamflows, too. On June 23, the water was 50 percent higher than it was at the same time last year, flowing twice as fast, according to a sensor monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey. Provisional data shows the water was colder, too, by a few degrees Celsius. That’s all good news for the fish that call these waters home — at least for now.
“My impression is that it’s a good year in a bad pattern,” said Clay Ramey, a fisheries biologist with the White River National Forest, in an interview in the U.S. Forest Service office in Aspen…
…streamflows in the Upper Basin were nearly 20% lower than the last century’s average, the worst 15-year drought on record. Researchers from the Colorado River Research Group in Boulder estimate that between one-sixth and half of that loss was due to warmer temperatures — nearly one degree Celsius hotter than averages in the 20th century. Their study reported that those higher temperatures were tied to human-caused climate change and increased greenhouse gas emissions, and that “future climate change impacts on the Colorado River will be greater than currently assumed.”
Data from the Western Water Assessment through the University of Colorado Boulder shows similar patterns on the Roaring Fork River. Since the year 2000, streamflows have been 13% lower on average than the 20th century — even though the amount of rain or snow falling didn’t change that much. Wildlife managers have seen the impacts firsthand, throughout an interconnected river system. In 2019, Ramey was counting cutthroat trout in West Divide Creek, which flows into the Colorado River near Silt. In a 100-meter stretch of stream, where fish-counters used to find 30 to 40 adult fish, Ramey said they found just one during that count. Another coldwater species, the mountain whitefish, is struggling too. They’re native to other Northwest Colorado rivers and were introduced to the Roaring Fork in the 1940s. And their populations here have plummeted in the past 15 years or so, which researchers attribute to warmer temperatures in the Roaring Fork River, along with increased sediment flushes from monsoon rain events. One of those researchers is Kendall Bakich, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Catastrophic floods in the Hudson Valley. An unrelenting heat dome over Phoenix. Ocean temperatures hitting 90 degrees Fahrenheit off the coast of Miami. A surprising deluge in Vermont, a rare tornado in Delaware. A decade ago, any one of these events would have been seen as an aberration. This week, they are happening simultaneously as climate change fuels extreme weather, prompting Governor Kathy Hochul of New York, a Democrat, to call it “our new normal.” Over the past month, smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed major cities around the country, a deadly heat wave hit Texas and Oklahoma and torrential rains flooded parts of Chicago.
“It’s not just a figment of your imagination, and it’s not because everybody now has a smartphone,” said Jeff Berardelli, the chief meteorologist and climate specialist for WFLA News in Tampa. “We’ve seen an increase in extreme weather. This without a doubt is happening.”
It is likely to get more extreme. This year, a powerful El Niño developing in the Pacific Ocean is poised to unleash additional heat into the atmosphere, fueling yet more severe weather around the globe.
“We are going to see stuff happen this year around Earth that we have not seen in modern history,” Mr. Berardelli said.
And yet even as storms, fires and floods become increasingly frequent, climate change lives on the periphery for most voters. In a nation focused on inflation, political scandals and celebrity feuds, just 8 percent of Americans identified global warming as the most important issue facing the country, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. As climate disasters become more commonplace, they may be losing their shock value. A 2019 study concluded that people learn to accept extreme weather as normal in as little as two years.