While Douglas County remains under a drought watch, water officials in Parker and Castle Rock are optimistic about water supplies as the state heads into the hottest part of summer.
Castle Rock Water Director Mark Marlowe said this is the first summer the town is using the reusable water supply. In 2006, the town invested $208 million to build the reusable water facility. Water started pumping into residents’ homes early this year.
Because of the renewable water source, Marlowe said as the high-use water months continue, Plum Creek resources are “holding up well.”
“We have been able to utilize renewable water because the creek is running well,” he said. “Reusable water tends to be more drought resistant, and it does not depend on rainfall. It is water we have already used that will be put back into the system. It is a reliable source, especially during a drought.”
Ron Redd, district manager for Parker Water & Sanitation District, said water supplies are holding up well, and residents have not even met peak demand as expected this year.
Thanks to a wet spring, Redd said, customers in Parker and Castle Pines have used a lot less water in June and early July this year compared to the same time last year.
With 2020 being so dry, Redd said residents were using about 28 million gallons of water per day. This year, the average use is half that at 14 million gallons.
Even in the absence of bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire, trees in Colorado subalpine forests are dying at increasing rates from warmer and drier summer conditions, found recent CU Boulder research.
The study, published in February in the Journal of Ecology, also found that this trend is increasing. In fact, tree mortality in subalpine Colorado forests not affected by fire or bark beetle outbreaks in the last decade has more than tripled since the 1980s.
“We have bark beetle outbreaks and wildfires that cause very obvious mortality of trees in Colorado. But we’re showing that even in the areas that people go hiking in and where the forest looks healthy, mortality is increasing due to heat and dry conditions alone,” said Robert Andrus, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at Washington State University. “It’s an early warning sign of climate change.”
These deaths are not only affecting larger trees, thus reducing forests’ carbon storage, but hotter and drier conditions are making it difficult for new trees to take root across the southern Rockies in Colorado, southern Wyoming and northern parts of New Mexico.
It’s well known that rising temperatures and increasing drought are causing tree deaths in forests around the globe. But here in Colorado, researchers found that heat and drought alone are responsible for over 70% of tree deaths in the 13 areas of subalpine forest they measured over the past 37 years. That’s compared with about 23% of tree deaths due to bark beetles and about 5% due to wind damage.
“It was really surprising to see how strong the relationship is between climate and tree mortality, to see that there was a very obvious effect of recent warmer and drier conditions on our subalpine forests,” said Andrus, who conducted this research while completing his graduate degree in physical geography at CU Boulder. “The rate of increasing mortality is alarming.”
With temperatures in Colorado having risen by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s and increasing more quickly at higher elevations, estimates of another possible 2.5 or more degrees of warming in the next few decades due to climate change indicate that the rate of tree deaths will only increase.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Subalpine forests cover over 10,000 square miles in Colorado and are best known by those who ski or recreate in the mountains. Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dominate the area above the Peak to Peak Highway in the Front Range, and if you go over any mountain pass in Colorado, you’re going into the subalpine zone, according to Andrus.
Previous research at CU Boulder has shown how wildfire, beetle kill and the two combined can affect the mortality and health of Rocky Mountain subalpine forests. This new research isolated the effects of those two common stressors from those of heat and moisture to find out how much of an effect climate change is having on these tree populations.
“As trees die in increasing numbers due to fire, bark beetles and drought, the warmer and drier climate is making it much less likely that new tree seedlings can establish and replace the dead adult trees,” said Tom Veblen, co-author of the study and professor emeritus of geography.
Launched by Veblen when he arrived on campus in 1982, this is the longest running study of tree mortality in Colorado with measurements made frequently enough to identify the factors causing tree death. Every three years since, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and undergraduate field assistants have diligently returned to the more than 5,000 marked trees on Niwot Ridge just west of Boulder. In these 13 subalpine forest plots, they recorded that more trees died during summers with higher maximum temperatures and greater moisture deficits.
They found that tree mortality increased from .26% per year during 1982 to 1993, to .82% per year during 2008 to 2019—more than tripling within 40 years.
“It is really challenging because it’s not very visually obvious to the casual observer,” said Andrus. “But the thing to keep in mind is that while warmer, drier conditions are also causing more fire and bark beetle outbreaks, these slow and gradual changes are also important.”
Additional authors on this publication include Rachel Chai of the Veblen Lab at CU Boulder; Brian Harvey, previously a postdoctoral researcher in geography at CU Boulder and now an assistant professor at the University of Washington; and Kyle Rodman, previously a graduate student in the Veblen Lab at CU Boulder and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Today is a big day! As of July 26th, 2021 our partners at Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment will be mobilizing crews and setting the stage for channel construction and Rock Island Road bridge installation. The pull off at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road will be used by crews to stage equipment and will be closed to overflow parking from the Tiger Trailhead through the end of the construction season. Rock Island Road will remain open to the public throughout the construction phase, including during bridge installation.
This seasons work will include final grading, channel construction, bank stabilization, bridge installation, and initial revegetation of the site. When completed, 4,800′ of new channel, 13 acres of riparian habitat, and 5 acres of upland habitat will be created on Reach B. The new channel will include 20 riffle-glide-pool sequences that mimic the natural morphology of reference streams in similar elevations and habitats. These sequences will provide natural aquatic habitat and will be paired with large woody debris and boulder installation to further diversify the available habitat along this stretch of stream. New bank stabilization techniques that utilize logs and root wads will also be installed on this stretch to serve as fish refuges. By taking into consideration lessons learned on Reach A, we have made these improvements to the Reach B design and will continue to utilize the most current restoration techniques.
Last week, Summit TV was on site to shoot some aerial photography prior to the beginning of construction (see the photos below). Colorado Parks and Wildlife also toured the Reach A site recently to see an example of successful stream restoration and the following establishment of brook trout and sculpin populations. We hope that this project can continue to serve as a model for stream restoration, both here in Colorado and around the country.
Keep following the blog to see progress photos throughout the construction season and the transformation of the site.
The water level in Lake Powell has dropped to the lowest level since the U.S. government started filling the enormous reservoir on the Colorado River in the 1960s — another sign of the ravages of the Western drought.
On Monday, the pool elevation in Lake Powell, which stretches from Utah into Arizona, had dropped to 3,554 feet. (On Tuesday, it stood at 3,555 feet.) The water level has plunged as the American West experiences what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”
Too little water is coming into the lake, and too much is being sent downriver to maintain levels in Lake Mead, which is also at historically low levels…
The dams that hold back the water on the lakes produce hydropower for many Western states, and electric production from the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead has dropped by about 25 percent during the drought…
Last month, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a 24-month study showing that the amount of water flowing into Lake Powell had dropped sharply in the previous six months, and issued a prediction of a 79 percent chance that Lake Powell would fall below 3,525 feet “sometime in the next year,” which could lead to stricter water restrictions…
Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University, was more blunt: “I’m struggling to come up with words to describe what we’re seeing here,” he said.
The effects of climate change and water use management have led to “off the charts” water depletion, he said, comparing the water restriction measures that are currently in place to a parachute. “I worry that the parachute is not big enough,” he said, “and that we didn’t deploy it soon enough.”
Here’s the release from the USGS (Jennifer LaVista):
The southern portion of the Great Salt Lake is at a new historic low, with average daily water levels dropping about an inch below the previous record set in 1963, according to U.S. Geological Survey information collected at the SaltAir gauge location.
“Based on current trends and historical data, the USGS anticipates water levels may decline an additional foot over the next several months,” said USGS Utah Water Science Center data chief Ryan Rowland. “This information is critical in helping resource managers make informed decisions on Great Salt Lake resources. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Wind events can cause temporary changes in lake levels. Therefore, the USGS emphasizes that average daily values provide the most representative measurement. The USGS maintains a record of Great Salt Lake elevations dating back to 1847.
“While the Great Salt Lake has been gradually declining for some time, current drought conditions have accelerated its fall to this new historic low,” said Utah Department of Natural Resources executive director Brian Steed. “We must find ways to balance Utah’s growth with maintaining a healthy lake. Ecological, environmental and economical balance can be found by working together as elected leaders, agencies, industry, stakeholders and citizens working together.”
Streamflow levels across the state are also being impacted by extreme drought conditions. Currently, 63% (77/122) of streamgages with at least 20 years of record are reporting below-normal flows.
Current extreme drought conditions, water levels, weather and flood forecasts are available via the USGS National Water Dashboard on your computer, smartphone or other mobile device. This tool provides critical information to decision-makers, emergency managers and the public during flood and drought events, informing decisions that can help protect lives and property.
The nation’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, is now at its lowest point since it filled in the 1960s.
The massive reservoir on the Colorado River hit a new historic low on July 24, dropping below 3,555.1 feet in elevation. The previous low was set in 2005. The last time the reservoir was this low was in 1969, when it first filled. It’s currently at 33% of its capacity.
The popular southwestern recreation hotspot on the Arizona-Utah border, which plays host to houseboats, kayaks and speedboats, has fluctuated over the past 21 years due to low river flows exacerbated by warming temperatures. About 4.4 million people visited Lake Powell in 2019, and spent $427 million in nearby communities, according to the National Park Service.
Demand across the seven U.S. states and two Mexican states that rely on the river hasn’t declined fast enough to match the reduced supply, said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University…
Forecasts for Lake Powell’s inflows from the Colorado River grew increasingly pessimistic during spring and early summer this year. Flows from April to July are projected to be 25% of the long term average, placing 2021 into the top three driest on record for the watershed.
“The hard lesson we’re learning about climate change is that it’s not a gradual, slow descent to a new state of affairs,” Udall said…
Emergency water releases from smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell will take place over the next six months. They’re meant to maintain hydropower production at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“I’m very alarmed,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department. “It’s not only focused on hydropower concerns, we’re concerned operationally in general. We’re acting in coordination with the states about these decisions.”
Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, also on the Colorado River, is at a record low. Both Powell and Mead are projected to decline further this year…
The river’s current managing guidelines are set to expire in 2026. An update to those guidelines passed in 2019 included a potential demand management program in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In its conceptual form, the program would pay water users to voluntarily forgo water deliveries in exchange for payment. The saved water could be banked in Lake Powell to buffer against a potential Colorado River Compact call from downstream states.
None of the Upper Basin states has committed to fully implementing a plan to rein in demands on the river’s water in order to fill Lake Powell with conserved water. The plan remains in an investigatory phase.
Leaders of the Colorado mountain town Nederland just gave their surrounding 448-square-mile watershed “fundamental and inalienable rights,” like those conferred on people and corporations — bolstering a movement that has gained traction amid concerns nature is suffering.
The Nederland resolution, which passed 5-1 on July 6, also directs town trustees to appoint guardians who can speak for nature in local decision-making the way court-appointed guardians speak for children, dementia-stricken elders and pop star Britney Spears.
Under current U.S. law, forests, mountains and rivers lack legal rights, let alone standing to be represented in court.
Proponents contend subjugating nature as a commodity, used to satisfy human demands, is leading to disaster as the climate warms and they’re pressing for a new paradigm. But federal and state law can preempt local measures, and property rights groups are girding against what they see as an environmentalist grab for moral high ground.
For now, the focus of the nonbinding resolution in Nederland (population 1,600) is simply to spur deeper conversations about effects of population growth and development — and avoid litigation. Upcoming tests include new construction in the Caribou Ridge subdivision on moose and elk habitat, and a proposed new reservoir along Boulder Creek.
“This may become a national movement. We’re at a very early stage, just getting off the ground with this,” said Nederland trustee Alan Apt, a retired publisher and former Fort Collins councilman who led the local effort. “Human needs are important, and we want to make sure we meet the needs of our human population. But we also need to think about the air, water, wildlife, trees – everything that constitutes nature. It’s a survival issue.”
At a time when studies warn of open space disappearing across the United States at the rate of a football field every 30 seconds, elected leaders in recent years have passed rights of nature ordinances in Santa Monica, Calif.; Toledo, Ohio; Grant Township and Tamaqua, Pa.; Mora County, New Mexico; and Orange County, Fla.
The concept has been circulating for decades after emerging a half-century ago in a law professor’s article. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 recognized possible rights of nature in a case addressing a proposed ski resort development in a federal forest, with Justice William Douglas declaring in a dissent that “public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium … should lead to the conferring of standing upon environment objects to sue for their own preservation.”
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty, urges leaders worldwide “to consider and recognize when appropriate the rights of nature.” The Yurok tribe in California in 2019 gave rights to the Klamath River, and the Nez Perce did so with the Snake River last year. Nature’s rights are enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution, and Bangladesh in 2019 gave rivers the same legal rights as humans.
Crestone in 2018 became Colorado’s first town to pass general rights of nature legislation, part of a push for official certification as a dark skies community that controls light pollution.
Nederland is the first municipality in the Rocky Mountain West to pass a measure specifically designating a watershed, reflecting water’s essential ecological role and recent river-protection court wins in Colombia and New Zealand based on inherent rights of nature.
Organizations leading the movement — the nonprofit Save the Colorado River in Colorado and California-based Earth Law — say legal rights for nature to exist, flourish and be restored will guide local government decisions, from proposals to build new houses and roads to routing of new pipelines to siphoning of water that humans demand…
Colorado voters’ track record on environment-oriented ballot measures, most recently ordering state officials to reintroduce wolves, has opened this as a possibility for establishing legal rights of nature.
“Young people here in Denver and across the state are talking about it,” GreenLatinos and Sunrise Movement leader Ean Tafoya said. “If corporations have personhood rights, why shouldn’t the natural world?”
Here’s a guest column from Bruce Babbit that’s running on AZCentral.com:
It’s too soon to tinker with key parts of the Colorado River Compact. For now, our best bet may be to temporarily extend the Drought Contingency Plan.
Lake Mead is disappearing. It has already fallen more than 146 feet since 2000.
Last week the Bureau of Reclamation forecast that it will likely drop another 42 feet in the next five years, drawing the lake surface down to a level barely sufficient to generate power and release water for downstream water users in California and Arizona.
To manage this decline and stabilize the lake is not rocket science. Cities and farms are simply taking more water out of Lake Mead than is coming in from the Colorado River. The lake is like a bank account: on average, you can only take out as much as is being deposited by the Colorado River.
We’ll need all of DCP’s cuts to stabilize Lake Mead
When the current drought began in 2000, the three Lower Basin states that take water from the lake (Arizona, California and Nevada) suddenly awakened to the problem. After several years of difficult negotiations, they agreed on a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) that, with previously agreed cuts, would bring the lake into balance.
Hoping the drought would lift before too long, the DCP negotiators agreed to spread the cuts over coming years in response to changing lake levels. However, as the drought continues and intensifies, the Drought Contingency Plan is looking more like a Drought Certainty Plan.
It now appears that the full schedule of DCP reductions will be needed to bring the lake into balance at approximately 1,025 feet of elevation. The next reduction begins in 2022, a further cut is likely in 2023 with even deeper remaining cuts likely to occur by 2026, the year in which the current DCP will expire.
By that time the states that share the Colorado River must reach a new agreement. Their first task will be to decide whether still more reductions beyond the present DCP will be necessary in a new “DCP Plus.” It will be a close call, for the existing DCP schedule may be enough to bring the lake into balance, albeit at a very low level.
The negotiators will then face a newly emerging problem – the threat that the Colorado River might run so low, there will not be enough inflow to stabilize the lake, even with the full agenda of DCP reductions.
It works if we keep getting the minimum flow
So far Arizona and the Lower Basin states have managed through the drought by counting on a steady average minimum of at least 7.5 million acre feet of new water released annually from upstream reservoirs into Lake Mead. This minimum flow “guarantee” is contained in Article III(d) of the Colorado River Compact, the basic law governing the river.
This combination of a guaranteed minimum inflow from upstream reservoirs, paired with scheduled DCP reductions, makes it possible to plan with some confidence for Central Arizona Project (CAP) deliveries.
The Central Arizona Project aqueduct will not run dry and disappear alongside the ancient Hohokam canals. It will continue to deliver water up from the river to the Phoenix and Tucson areas.x
As long as the scheduled DCP cuts are carried out, and as long as the minimum anticipated inflow guaranteed by Article III(d) remains in place, the CAP should deliver into the future an average of about 40% less than the delivery forecast in 2020.
As its shoreline shrinks, Lake Mead will be a smaller lake, but it should hold steady at a level sufficient to generate power and deliver water through its outlets. And it will remain a beautiful and inviting National Recreation Area.
A warming climate could upend the law of the river
However, there is an elephant in the room. It is called human caused global warming.
As the climate continues to warm, rising temperatures cause more of the runoff from rain and melting snow to both evaporate and soak into drying soils before reaching the Colorado River.
If these predictions hold, there will come a point at which the guaranteed Article III(d) flows into Lake Mead could so severely limit water use in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming that the entire law of the river, including the Colorado River Compact, will be up for discussion and reconsideration.
We have not reached that point.
More studies are necessary and the predictive power of science is still evolving. The natural drought cycle that exists apart from global warming may lift. The Upper Basin states have yet to curtail any of their water uses in order to send flows to the Lower Basin.
For now, it might be smart to extend DCP
It is, therefore, too soon to be tinkering with Article III(d) or other provisions of the Colorado River Compact.
From the vantage point of today, the best alternative for a new agreement in 2026 will be to extend the existing DCP for another 10 years.
The negotiators will surely need to make adjustments to the amount and timing of DCP reductions. And there is certainly some flexibility to simultaneously adjust the amount and timing of the Upper Basin’s releases to the Lower Basin.
The Colorado River is a magnificent and wildly unpredictable resource. Managing it will always require our ongoing vigilance and commitment to working together to create fair and equitable outcomes.
Bruce Babbitt is is a former Arizona governor and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Reach him at email@example.com.
At a special meeting on Monday, July 19, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to enter into Stage 1 drought restrictions in compliance with its 2020 Drought Management Plan.
At the special meeting, District Manager Justin Ramsey explained that the primary factor behind deciding when to enter into the restrictions is the San Juan River flow rate.
“We’re not seeing an average flow anywhere near median, so that’s where we’re at,” Ramsey stated.
He explained that it is not likely that the river will rise enough in the next month or two to where it would no longer meet the Stage 1 restriction requirement.
Ramsey explained that with en- tering into the Stage 1 restrictions, there is still no requirement as to which days residents are allowed to water lawns.
However, he mentioned that PAWSD is still asking people to voluntarily irrigate on an odd/even schedule where those with even-numbered addresses irrigating only on even-numbered days and odd-numbered addresses irrigating only on odd-numbered days.
Ramsey explained that one requirement with the Stage 1 restrictions is that residents must irrigate after 6 p.m. and before 9 a.m.
Board member Glenn Walsh noted that this is the first time the district has been through this process under the 2020 Drought Management Plan…
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) was updated on July 13, showing that 100 percent of Archuleta County is in a moderate drought and more than half of the county is in severe drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, rangeland growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county…
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 81.7 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 263 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1941 at 1,470 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 15.4 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 66.2 cfs. This is an increase from a July 14 reading of 62.3 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 232 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,350 cfs in 1986. The lowest recorded rate was 10.3 cfs in 2002.
In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Tuesday, July 27th, starting 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.
A couple of things are important to understand about climate change’s role in extreme weather like this.
First, humans have pumped so much carbon dioxide and other planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that what’s “normal” has shifted. A new study, published July 26, 2021, for example, shows how record-shattering, long-lasting heat waves – those that break records by a wide margin – are growing increasingly likely, and that the rate of global warming is connected with the increasing chances of these heat extremes.
Second, not every extreme weather event is connected to global warming.
Shifting the bell curve
Like so many things, temperature statistics follow a bell curve – mathematicians call these “normal distributions.” The most frequent and likely temperatures are near the average, and values farther from the average quickly become much less likely.
The stream of broken temperature records in the North American West lately is a great example. Portland hit 116 degrees – 9 degrees above its record before the heat wave. That would be an extreme at the end of the tail. One study determined the heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. Extreme heat waves that were once ridiculously improbable are on their way to becoming more commonplace, and unimaginable events are becoming possible.
The width of the bell curve is measured by its standard deviation. About two-thirds of all values fall within one standard deviation of the average. Based on historical temperature records, the heat wave in 2003 that killed more than 70,000 people in Europe was five standard deviations above the mean, so it was a 1 in 1 million event.
There’s a basic hierarchy of the extreme events that scientific research so far has shown are most affected by human-caused climate change.
At the top of the list are extreme events like heat waves that are certain to be influenced by global warming. In these, three lines of evidence converge: observations, physics and computer model simulations that predict and explain the changes. At the bottom of the list are things that might plausibly be caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases but for which the evidence is not yet convincing. Here’s a partial list.
5) Reduced spring snowpack: Snow starts accumulating later in the fall as temperatures rise, more water is lost from the snowpack during winter, and the snow melts earlier in the spring, reducing the flush of water into reservoirs that supports the economies of semiarid regions.
7) Hurricanes and tropical storms: These derive their energy from evaporation from the warm sea surface. As oceans warm, larger regions can spawn these storms and provide more energy. But changes in winds aloft are expected to reduce hurricane intensification, so it’s not clear that global warming will increase damage from tropical storms.
8) Extreme cold weather: Some research has attributed cold weather that dips south with the meandering of the jet stream – sometimes referred to as “polar vortex” outbreaks – to warming in the Arctic. Other studies strongly dispute that Arctic warming is likely to affect winter weather farther south, and this idea remains controversial.
9) Severe thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes: These storms are triggered by strong surface heating, so it’s plausible that they could increase in a warming world. But their development depends on the circumstances of each storm. There is not yet evidence that the frequency of tornadoes is increasing.
When extreme heat shatters records
In the new heat wave study, Erich Fischer and colleagues at the Swiss Institute for Atmosphere and Climate Science looked at the frequency of weeklong heat waves that don’t just push the envelope of previous climate, they shatter records by huge margins. The scientists analyzed thousands of years of climate simulations to identify unprecedented heat events and found that global warming caused by coal, oil and gas was commonly associated with such events. In models, these record-shattering weeklong heat waves don’t just gradually increase with global warming but instead strike without warning.
The researchers showed that record-shattering heat is much more likely than it was a generation ago, and that these devastating events will occur much more often over the next few decades. Critically, they found that the likelihood of these unprecedented heat waves is associated with the rate of warming – and that their likelihood decreases markedly when fossil fuel emissions fall.
A warning that can’t be ignored
The catastrophic impacts of extreme weather depend at least as much on people as on climate.
The evidence is clear that the more coal, oil and gas are burned, the more the world will warm, and the more likely it will be for any given location to experience heat waves that are far outside anything they’ve experienced.
Disaster preparedness can quickly fail when extreme events blow past all previous experience. Portland’s melting streetcar power cables are a good example. How communities develop infrastructure, social and economic systems, planning and preparedness can make them more resilient – or more vulnerable – to extreme events.
This article was updated July 26, 2021, with the heat study.
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Susan Dunlap):
Climate change isn’t in the future for New Mexico—it’s already here and impacting families of color, according to climate change experts.
From Navajo leaving their land due to dwindling resources, hotter wildfires altering landscapes, an increase of climate change refugees crossing outside ports of entry and wells running dry in rural areas, families of color in New Mexico are already feeling the heat from climate change, various sources told NM Political Report.
Joan Brown, executive director of climate justice organization New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, said it’s hard to not feel “immobilized” by the immensity of the problem…
According to a Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication report, communities of color are likely to disproportionately feel climate change more than white communities due to socioeconomic inequities. Communities of color are likely to be more vulnerable to heat waves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and the resulting job opportunity dislocations, the report said.
Brown said she believes the first aspect of climate change to have the greatest impact on families of color in New Mexico will be the intensity of forest fires in the state.
This week forest fire smoke from western states has affected skies and air pollution in the eastern part of the U.S. and the Bootleg Fire in Oregon is so intense it is causing its own weather…
Families of color who live in Albuquerque are also feeling the effects of climate change and the ensuing severe drought, Brown said. Her organization has been involved in tree plantings, as part of the City of Albuquerque’s initiative to plant thousands of trees in city neighborhoods. Brown said New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light has focused its efforts in the International District in Albuquerque because the area acts as a “heat sink” due to a lack of vegetation and too much concrete, she said.
Heat sinks, which occur in urban settings, are more likely to affect low income and diverse communities such as the International District, Brown said…
Brown said there are places around New Mexico where wells are running dry. She said the state needs to allocate money and put more effort toward water preservation, adaptation and mitigation…
In southeast New Mexico, where significant oil and gas extraction takes place in the Permian Basin, Brown said the “folks suffering the most” are those who have less access to income. She said families of color who are low-income suffer from pollution-related health issues such as asthma.
With the anticipated increased heat from climate change, she said, low income families of color will suffer the most because they often don’t have evaporative coolers, insulated houses or air conditioning.
In another corner of the state, local organizer Nena Benavidez works with the social justice organization New Mexico CAFé in the Silver City area, the home of the Santa Rita Copper Mine. As the state plans to transition to meet legislation enacted to plan for a 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030, Benavidez is focused on the transitioning economy for rural locales, such as Silver City, which has been dependent on the metal mining industry since the late 1800s.
The Energy Transition Act is about phasing out the state’s reliance on coal, not copper, but New Mexico CAFé is concerned about what happens to jobs in rural communities, such as Silver City as the planet heats up. Johanna Bencomo, executive director for New Mexico CAFé, said immigrants and people of color in rural areas frequently work outside in the extractive industries or agriculture…
Bencomo said this summer, which has been one of the hottest and driest on record, impacted people of color picking green chile, as well as people of color working in the copper mine and in dairies.
New Mexico CAFé is pushing for a “just transition” to a green economy especially for the state’s rural communities. Not everyone wants to leave their small towns for a bigger city, Bencomo said…
The Navajo Nation
Mario Atencio, who is Diné [Navajo] and a board member of Diné C.A.R.E. (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), said the Navajo, who are still living on their traditional land, are already being dispersed from their homeland due to climate change.
“Even now, people are selling their cows. It’s kind of happening. There are no jobs, you can’t raise and sustain a herd of cows, what else are you going to do? You’ve got to go work. It’s not going to be a mass migration. It’s happening very slowly, a climate change diaspora,” he said…
He said some Indigenous people who rely on medicinal plants are not finding those plants due to climate change and worsening drought, which he said is a matter of food security and food sovereignty…
But, the biggest climate change challenge facing the Navajo will be sustainable water resources, Atencio said. Robyn Jackson, Diné [Navajo] and climate and energy outreach coordinator for Diné C.A.R.E., said a number of Navajo farmers did not plant this year because of the significant decrease in water due to the severe drought…
Not being able to plant, as Navajo people have done for generations, affects mental health because many dry land farmers received their seeds from their grandparents. She said maintaining the generational traditions are a reminder of the Navajo way of life.
Navajo and other Indigenous people have had to suffer the effects of environmental racism for generations. Jackson said that during the 1970s, the U.S. government named areas of the Navajo Nation a national sacrifice zone to meet the energy needs for large cities in the southwest region…
Oil and gas wells have been in operation on Navajo land since the 1920s, Jackson said. The extractive industries have brought “huge environmental impacts” with air and water quality issues and now that some, such as the coal industry, are in decline and closing, this brings additional economic impacts as well, Jackson said.
In a land where water is scarce and a third of Navajo families lack electricity and running water at home, the Navajo’s water issues have been exacerbated by different types of mining that American industry has extracted on Navajo land, including uranium mining and strip coal mining, Jackson said. This has left the Navajo with some contaminated water sources. She said there are over 1,000 abandoned mines on Navajo land.
As the drought worsens across the West and ushers in an early fire season, cattle ranchers are among those feeling the pain. Their hay yields are down, leading some to make the hard decision to sell off animals. To avoid the high cost of feed, many ranchers grow hay to nourish their herds through the winter when snow blankets the grass they normally graze…
At the Loma Livestock auction in western Colorado, sales were bustling earlier this month even though its peak season isn’t usually until the fall when most calves are ready to be sold. Fueling the action are ranchers eager to unload cattle while prices are still strong…
Weather has long factored into how ranchers manage their livestock and land, but those choices have increasingly centered around how herds can sustain drought conditions, said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association…
Culling herds can be an operational blow for cattle ranchers. It often means parting with cows selected for genetic traits that are optimal for breeding and are seen as long-term investments that pay dividends.
Last year’s historic wildfire season increased the area that’s prone to flooding, causing “an abnormal year of flooding events” this year, climate researcher says.
Areas scorched during last year’s historic wildfire season could pose flash flooding risks through the summer as rain picks up speed along steep terrain in the burn scars, sweeping debris onto major roads.
While heavy rain is typical of the summer monsoon season, Colorado is seeing “an abnormal year of flooding events,” partly because of last year’s historic wildfire season and the increased area of scorched land, Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said.
So far this year, mudslides along burn scars have caused dozens of road shutdowns, including along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, resulting in severe delays in traffic or significant detours. And that’s likely to continue through the end of monsoon season due to the altered composition of the soil along burn scars, Bolinger said.
Instead of the rain soaking into the soil, Bolinger compared the rainfall along burn scars to rain hitting a car and immediately running off.
“Particularly in areas that have suffered from wildfires, specifically last year, what happens to the soils is that they almost repel that water,” she said. “Basically, the fire changes the composition of the soil so that water cannot get into the soil as it would in a normal situation.”
The flooding becomes more dangerous along steep terrain as rain slides runs the slope and picks up speed as it goes, Bolinger said. If the slope is next to a road, there’s exponentially more danger.
“With that slope, that is what gets your flash flooding as opposed to a regular flooding event,” she said.
Rain can erode steep terrain between 24 to 40 tons per acre each year during the first few years after a wildfire, according to the U.S. Forest Service…
In the past month, vehicle and recreational traffic through Glenwood Canyon has been shut down several times after mud washed from the Grizzly Creek burn scar onto roads and when the risk of flash flooding was high. Lanes in both directions closed again Thursday night, with no estimated time of reopening, after more rain swept massive debris piles debris along the road, the Colorado Department of Transportation said in a tweet.
“Part of it is is just luck — or bad luck — of where these fires happened, particularly the Grizzly Creek fire, which wasn’t a really huge fire, but its placement next to I-70 and in that steep terrain has really led to that one being one of the highest impact areas this summer for flooding,” Bolinger said…
One person died and several people were reported missing as of [July 23, 2021] after flash floods sent debris flowing into Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins. Several homes were destroyed and buildings were damaged as trees, mud, rocks and structures washed into the river, causing debris to pile up six feet high in some places.
Parts of Colorado 125 and U.S. 40 in Grand County were closed for several hours after a mudslide fell along the East Troublesome burn scar Thursday.
But sometimes, there doesn’t need to be much rain for flooding to become a disaster.
“There’s not a perfect relationship between how much rain you get and the level of flooding. Even if we are not expecting a ton of rain, it could just be enough,” Bolinger said. “You want to make sure what you’re going into because even a little bit of rain can quickly change the situation where you are.”
Rain-flushed mudslides are not just in burn zones either. Heavy rains in Telluride and Avon this week buried roads and pedestrian trails in debris.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to help small forest owners become a more significant part of the carbon markets, earn an income on their land, and help with carbon sequestration.
The Biden administration has set its climate change policy agenda, with a broad call to engage rural America. But one approach lacking a laser focus is on incentivizing rural forest owners to use their land for capturing and storing carbon.
America’s forests and forest products already capture and store more than 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of nearly 15 percent of annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. With the right policies that enable voluntary action, the nation’s forests can do even more, with some estimates saying the U.S. could double this important contribution to climate mitigation.
“With the right tools and partnerships, American agriculture and forestry can lead the world in solutions that will increase climate resilience, sequester carbon, enhance agricultural productivity, and maintain critical environmental benefits,” the U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a new progress report on using forests and agriculture to mitigate the impact of climate change.
One of those “right tools” must be action by the government to jumpstart carbon markets for small forest owners.
Families and individuals own the largest portion of forests – 36% – across the U.S. Research from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the U.S. Forest Service has found that these owners want to improve forest health, but the vast majority are not employing best practices due to the high costs associated with forest management.
Helping small forest owners access carbon markets would allow them to generate income from their land that can then be poured back into the trees for increased conservation and carbon capture. And generating income from carbon markets would provide a much-needed financial boost for forest owners, as many lack resources to sufficiently maintain their forests. One in three family forest owners has an annual income of less than $50,000.
If 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for shining a light on the realities of our connected world, then the summer of 2021 will be remembered for the mirror it held up to the realities of a warming and drying future for water in the Colorado River Basin.
We’re on the brink of the federal government declaring a water shortage, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have plummeted, and any sign of replenishing flows is precarious at best. But unlike COVID-19, this shortage has been on the horizon for decades. Water managers, scientists, and non-profits like American Rivers are sounding the alarm (and have been), about the realities of a simultaneously drying and ever-more-demanding West.
Concerns about drought and impacts to everything from fish to farmers are not political statements—they’re true ones, backed now by a bounty of science. The harsh reality of these truths is that the scale and pace of climate-related changes in the Colorado River Basin pose a gargantuan challenge, unprecedented in the history of water management.
It’s not that we haven’t made attempts to respond. Certainly, we have. Conservation efforts have long centered on balancing supply and demand, but these are in-the-moment and short-term responses to a very long-term challenge. What we need now is forward thinking strategies to adapt, respond to, and mitigate the steady, compounding, and extreme risks of climate change to economies, communities, wildlife, landscapes, and at the root of all of it—the rivers we rely on.
At this precipice, our future demands that we invest our time, energy, and financial resources boldly and immediately in strategies that will work—that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.
A recent report to which American Rivers contributed entitled “Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience in the Colorado Basin,” authored by Martin & McCoy and Culp & Kelly, LLP, outlines those strategies (see below). To arrive at this list of top ten, report authors asked:
Could the investment help the Basin adapt to ongoing climate shifts?
To what extent would the investment reduce pressure on existing water supplies?
Would the investment help mitigate climate change?
Could the investments strengthen economic resilience in communities?
The resulting top 10 investment strategies for a more resilient future are:
Forest Management & Restoration – Prioritizing forest management and restoration to maintain system functionality and biodiversity
Natural Distributed Storage – Restoring highly degraded natural meadow systems to improve local aquifer recharge, water retention, reconnect historic floodplains, and support productive meadows and riparian ecosystems
Regenerative Agriculture – Promoting voluntary farming and ranching principles and practices that enrich soils, enhance biodiversity, restore watershed health, and improve overall ecosystem function and community health
Upgrading Agricultural Infrastructure & Operations – Upgrading diversion, delivery and on-farm infrastructure and operations, including irrigation systems
Cropping Alternatives & New Market Pathways – Developing on-farm operational shifts and market and supply chain interventions to incentivize water conservation, e.g. shifting to lower water-use crops
Urban Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing conservation technologies, indoor and outdoor conservation programs, and direct and indirect potable reuse
Industrial Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing modifications and upgrades to reduce water use and increase energy efficiencies
Coal Plant Retirement Water – Purchasing or reallocating water rights from closed or retiring coal plants to be used for system or environmental benefits, or other uses
Reducing Dust on Snow – Improving land management practices to reduce the dust on snow effect — which controls the pace of spring snowmelt that feeds the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Covering Reservoirs & Canals – Implementing solutions to reduce evaporation from reservoirs and conveyance systems
The full report outlines, in detail, not just the near-term next steps for moving these strategies forward but includes demonstration projects, investments and action-oriented research.
But it’s important to emphasize that these strategies can’t be implemented in a silo. “I” doesn’t work in these conditions. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our ability to count on them well into the future will be dependent upon our willingness to develop cross-sector partnerships and basin-wide funding for these investments that can be cohesively implemented at a scale commensurate to the challenge. Local, state, and tribal governments must be on board. Our private land partners need voluntary measures and incentives, not mandates.
And we can’t wait for calls on the river, fallowed fields, and dry stretches to act. These investments in climate resilience for the Colorado River are needed now.
FromBizWest Media/Boulder Daily Camera (Lukas High) via The Sterling Journal-Advocate:
Predictability is critical for Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, who are grappling with increasing volatility related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Extreme weather is not new,” Colorado State University professor Becca Jablonski said during Colorado Proud’s “Growing, Evolving and Thriving Colorado Agriculture: Farmers and Ranchers” roundtable held [July 21, 2021]. “But it’s arguably getting worse.”
Wildfires and droughts have become annual features of the summer growing season and unexpected freezes during the spring and fall are becoming increasingly common.
“We’re really concerned about climate change and variability,” said Steve Ela, owner of ELA Family Farms. “We farm in small microclimates here in Colorado, and those microclimates are shrinking.”
Ela’s operation lost half its peach crop during a freeze last October…
Adoption of low water-use practices and crops could “help keep agriculture alive and keep farmers and ranchers on the land,” Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said.
To complicate matters further, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on supply chains, making it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to source supplies and get their products to market.
Community-level networks “were really critical for learning to adapt” during the pandemic, Jablonski said…
Making quick pivots in response to unanticipated challenges requires a willingness to assume quite a bit of risk, she said, but farmers who are barely scraping by often cannot afford to take big chances.
Using controlled environment agricultural practices or shifting to heartier crops could help mitigate some risk, Jablonski said.
The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.
That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.
James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.
“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”
In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.
The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.
In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.
“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”
Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”
“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”
The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.
“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”
Drought Contingency Plan
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.
Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.
In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.
Decision making roadmap
Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.
Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.
“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.
River District’s interests
Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.
The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.
“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.
Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.
“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”
CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.
Ranchers like Washburn are trying to adapt. That might mean having to give up ranching altogether.
Washburn is raising the sixth generation of kids on the ranch, which has operated in Crested Butte for more than 130 years. He said that just in the last 20 years, there’s been a noticeable difference in the amount of available water.
Washburn grows hay on his private acreage while his cows graze on federal land. Some of the smaller creeks and ponds that irrigate the government rangeland are drying up.
“Year-after-year of this continued drought, we’re seeing places that we didn’t think would ever go dry,” Washburn said.
One creek dried up three years ago. Washburn said his father-in-law had never seen that creek go dry in his life.
Without enough water on their federal pasture, Spann Ranch is bringing its cattle back to the private ranch weeks earlier than they’re supposed to. That’s a costly snag. Without open grazing, ranchers are forced to use their winter hay supplies early to feed their hungry cattle during the summer. When the hay runs out, they have to buy more…
Most of the farmland in this county is irrigated, meaning farmers and ranchers flood their crops and pastures with river water.
Farmers and ranchers started digging this system of trenches and ditches more than 100 years ago, transforming the landscape. What was once sagebrush and rocks are now meadows of hay and grass. Colorado’s agricultural industry depends on this water, but more than 20 years of deep drought has depleted this critical resource.
Washburn believes that the lack of water on the Western Slope will mean the end of his family’s ranching operation within his childrens’ lifetime…
[Andy] Spann believes his family can stay in agriculture, but the operation will need to change. Right now, their business is raising and selling calves. That requires a lot of hay to feed mother cows during the winter.
Instead, Spann said they might move to raising cattle during the warmer months and selling off any hay they are able to grow.
More drastic options include transitioning from cattle ranching to growing hay full-time — or even turning the livestock operation into a horse ranch, Spann said…
Bill Parker, another Gunnison County rancher, said his operation is already successfully adapting to climate change.
Parker learned hard lessons from previous droughts, including the historic drought of 2012 that forced him to sell off half his animals for close to a loss…
If a bad drought year is forecasted, ranchers like Parker won’t raise as many animals. That usually means less potential profits, but Parker raises grass-finished beef and lamb that fetch a premium when he sells the meat directly to wholesalers locally and online.
Parker said his family uses direct marketing to pocket as much of the retail dollar as possible. Without a middleman, Parker can make more money by raising fewer animals instead of feeding and caring for a large herd when it’s abnormally dry.
Parker also moves his livestock to warmer places in the winter so they can continue grazing on grass, which means his operation isn’t dependent on a good hay crop.
He’s also adopted other climate-friendly ranching techniques. Instead of letting his sheep or cattle overgraze one spot, he moves them around using a portable electric fence. Parker said this allows him to control the health of his soil.
The technique, called rotational grazing, keeps the animals from eating all the plants before they can grow the deep roots that help hold moisture in the soil. Healthy soil and plants also absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which can help fight climate change.
Parker could get federal drought insurance and get compensated during dry years, but he doesn’t. He said he wants to take responsibility for ranching in the arid West, a burden that’s growing heavier as the climate warms.
Here’s a guest column from Phil Weiser and Bob Rankin that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
From the very founding of our state, our predecessors recognized that, in Colorado, life is inscribed in water. This truth is even written on our Capitol walls beneath the gold dome. As we continue to grapple with the implications of a changing climate and an ever-growing population, one thing is clear — the water management challenges we face require collaboration, innovation, planning, and major funding.
From the San Luis Valley to the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains, our communities depend on water for our agriculture, our outdoor recreation economy, and our lives. But we cannot simply stand pat and continue a status quo in the face of a growing population and decreasing water supplies on account of reduced snowpack.
We must invest in water infrastructure with a sense of urgency — so we can deliver win-win solutions. And we need to do this now as we have unprecedented opportunity to utilize federal and state funds. Our forecast for state revenues for the next few years rebounded dramatically from the initial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the American Rescue Plan Act provides Colorado $3.8 billion to recover from the pandemic and invest in our future. Water projects are one such investment in which these funds can and should be invested. Furthermore, Congress may very well send additional funds to Colorado this summer through a bipartisan infrastructure package. To be sure, there are competing demands for these funds, such as investing in broadband infrastructure for unserved areas. At the top of the list, however, we should prioritize water infrastructure.
We believe investment from these combined sources will dramatically strengthen Colorado’s water security and enable us to implement water management projects called for by the Colorado Water Plan. These funds will not address every need, or even every high-priority project, but they will drastically accelerate construction and maintenance work, such as repairing pipes and water leaks, on the systems we rely upon to deliver safe and clean water to our communities.
Colorado has both a vision and a strategy — as well as priorities — for how to allocate funding for water projects. The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, represents a visionary promise for how Colorado will manage its water resources. For starters, we are committed to protecting all of Colorado and not allowing wholesale “buy and dry” situations. When “buy and dry” plans are implemented, which has already happened in some rural counties, those plans spur the decline of rural communities’ infrastructure, undermine their agriculture, damage the economy, and hurt the local population. There are many cautionary tales in rural Colorado warning us that this is not how to manage water.
The Water Plan also calls for significant investments in water infrastructure, storage, and conservation efforts to meet tomorrow’s water needs. In particular, the plan identified billions of dollars in needs across water supply, infrastructure, recreation, and the environment over the next 30 years. Currently, as noted by the water plan, a fraction of the state budget goes toward water projects. We need to prioritize such investments.
In the Colorado Water Plan, we have a broad roadmap to invest in Colorado’s water future. But right now our biggest challenge is funding. With continued growth on the horizon, planning for the future of water management will become even more important. And to fulfill the plan’s vision, it will take billions of dollars. To be sure, the General Assembly has commendably found both some one-time funding and dedicated funding streams to fund the water plan in recent years. But to properly fund Colorado’s water will take billions more.
Colorado can have a bright future that enables our entire state to thrive. Ensuring that future, however, is going to require smart and innovative investments in how we manage our water. By investing a meaningful portion of the billions provided to Colorado under the American Rescue Plan Act, we can shore up critical water infrastructure that will enhance our resilience going forward, and deliver dividends by strengthening rural communities, creating jobs for agricultural and outdoor recreation centers, and ensuring water resources are protected for the next generation. We have the available resources now to do it and should come together to make the investments called for by the Colorado Water Plan. We both stand ready to work and support the effort to do just that.
Phil Weiser is the attorney general of Colorado. Bob Rankin is a state senator and represents Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.
Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.
More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.
After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.
Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.
Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…
Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…
Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
Diane Carman’s opinion column this morning touches on the cost of moving sustainability and resilience forward in Denver Suburb:
For decades, we’ve heard that a reckoning was coming.
Climate change would threaten our fundamental way of life in the West. After years of neglect, essential parts of our infrastructure would fail. The bills for the costs of maintaining our essential services — kicked willy-nilly down the road to a murky unidentified date in the future — would come due.
We ignored it all, blithely turning up the air conditioning, watering our lawns and tuning out the scientists, the engineers, the city managers.
Now that reckoning has arrived.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Westminster. They can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money.
Officials from Westminster’s water and sewer departments began warning that the 50-year-old facilities were worn out.
The storage tanks for the city’s water, the pipes and pumps delivering it, and the sewage treatment systems were shot. Concrete was flaking away, pipes deteriorating, pumps becoming unreliable.
The city council looked at the mountain of evidence and made the only responsible choice: it voted to upgrade the system.
To pay for it, the council also voted to raise the rates for water and sewer customers and, since the cost of the projects was estimated in the tens of millions, the increased fees were significant, especially for high users.
When the summer of 2020 came and the thermometer hit 90 or above for a record-setting 75 days, the good folks of Westminster sprinkled their lawns like they always had (maybe not blithely but still …) and the resulting water bills blew their minds.
Still in deep denial of reality, a group of Westminster activists mobilized as Water Warriors to recall several city council members for their failure to kick the problems down the road once more.
The effort was an expensive bust, with the recall of only one council member, Jon Voelz, making it onto the ballot, only to fail spectacularly in the special election last week.
But this war is far from over.
Several Westminster council members will face re-election in November and surely water rates will be an issue. Those who routinely flood their lawns with 20,000 gallons or more each month and pay the highest rates are not about to give up the fight for their right to Kentucky Bluegrass — drought and system failures be damned.
But Westminster is hardly unique. In fact, it’s really Everytown, USA. Its water war is a mere skirmish in the seething national debate about how to face the reckoning now upon us.
The facts are indisputable.
After years of drought in the West, reservoirs, water tables and rivers are at historic lows.
California is forced to forced to choose between leaving enough water in the streams so that salmon can survive and drawing enough to grow crops. Ranchers across the West are reducing their stocks as it becomes more apparent that they won’t be able to feed them. Customers who rely on hydroelectric power face shortages as water levels drop and heat waves stretch even into Canada. Fishermen have been asked to abide by a voluntary ban on angling in the mighty Colorado River.
At the same time, critical infrastructure from bridges and highways to the antiquated electric grid have been left to degrade for most of a century, risking public health and safety for lack of political will.
The backlog of delayed infrastructure projects in Colorado alone is huge: $10 billion for safe drinking water, $9 billion for transportation, $4 billion for wastewater systems … the list goes on.
But while nobody would say the Westminster water wars have been easy (or cheap), the outcome so far is cause for mild optimism.
Mayor Anita Seitz has listened to constituents’ concerns both about the condition of the water system and the painful rate increases and has chosen not to duck the issue for mere political expedience. Instead, she and other council members are working to help the community understand the problem and what the future holds.
Acres of green lawns, long a symbol of abundance, now represent reckless profligacy. Failure to address the crumbling infrastructure can only bring more serious and expensive problems down the road. An unwillingness to fix the problems now will only cost the community more in the future.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility,” Seitz said. There’s not much “wiggle room.”
She’s right. Whatever wiggle room we had to address climate change and meet our infrastructure needs is long gone.
In this summer of heat domes, wildfires, droughts, floods and structural failures, that message should be loud, clear and irrefutable.
Take it from the folks in Westminster, it’s time for action.
Lake Powell will soon hit its lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam started trapping the Colorado River’s water in 1963 — even with emergency releases of water from reservoirs upstream.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced Thursday that the lake elevation will soon drop below 3,555.1 feet above sea level, the record set in 2005, back near the start of a 20-year dry cycle plaguing the Colorado River Basin.
“Lake Powell’s elevation is expected to drop another two feet by the end of July, and will likely continue to decline until next year’s spring runoff into the Colorado River begins,” the bureau said in a news release.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low…
Meanwhile, various projects remain on the drawing board in Utah and other Upper Colorado River Basin states that would divert even more water from the Colorado. Utah, for example, is fully committed to its $1.5 billion Lake Powell pipeline proposal, which would move 86,000 acre-feet a year to Washington and Kane counties, and has recently established the Colorado River Authority of Utah to advanced the Beehive State’s claims to the river.
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation authorized the release of 181,000 acre-feet over the next five months at three reservoirs, mostly from Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River. Conservationists like John Weisheit of Living Rivers say that move is merely buying time, forestalling the day when Lake Powell will no longer function as a reservoir.
“Emptying the upstream reservoirs is … like burning your furniture to stay warm,” said Weisheit, paraphrasing a famous quote from Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” “It’s an act of desperation. … Everything is breaking. We have exceeded the limits of nature.”
Originally an afterthought, recreation has become Lake Powell’s most important and visible role for many Westerners who explore the 185-mile lake by boat to play, camp and fish. Now most of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s boat ramps are either unusable or difficult to use, and the marinas could become inoperable.
On Monday, the National Park Service closed the lake’s Dangling Rope Marina, the only place to get fuel in the 100-miles stretch between Wahweap and Bullfrog, at least through the end of the year. Houseboats can no longer be launched at Wahweap, although they still can be retrieved for now.
Governor Mark Gordon is convening a Colorado River Working Group that will meet regularly to discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The action comes in response to drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins that have led the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to announce drawdowns from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in order to maintain minimum levels at Lake Powell. At this time no restrictions on Wyoming water users are proposed.
The group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors of the Green and Little Snake River Basins, including agricultural, municipal, industrial and environmental interests. It will discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. The Working Group is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019. More information about the Colorado River Working Group’s inaugural public meeting will become available soon.
“The West finds itself facing unprecedented drought conditions and Wyoming must be prepared to address the potential future impacts of water shortages,” Governor Gordon said. “It is important that local perspectives on issues that impact our water users and the State are heard and included in the process. I want to ensure that representatives of key water use sectors are able to provide input on this crisis, which is challenging us today and may last for years.”
In its 24-Month Study released [July 16, 2021], Reclamation confirms continual declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. The results show that drought response releases from key Reclamation reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin — including Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah — will be necessary starting this summer.
Based on Reclamation’s announcement, 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir will be released to protect storage elevations in Lake Powell. These releases will be staged July through October and will likely result in Flaming Gorge water elevation dropping an additional 3.5 feet by mid-autumn. No Wyoming water rights are tied to the water being released, so no Wyoming water right holders will be affected.
Today’s announcement from Reclamation underscores that water supply throughout the West is becoming less reliable, especially in the Colorado River Basin. The Governor is committed to ensuring that Wyoming’s water users are protected under the state’s apportionments provided for under the 1922 Colorado River and 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compacts. The Governor is also committed to continuing collaboration on water management and operation solutions which provide overall water supply reliability and certainty, as well as meeting Compact and Treaty obligations and maintaining environmental commitments, all of which make the system work for all who depend on the Colorado River.
Knowing the increasing risks, Wyoming has planned ahead. In 2019, Wyoming signed onto the Drought Contingency Plan alongside the other Colorado River Basin States and the Department of Interior. This plan helps protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, which is an important insurance policy for Wyoming to bolster the State’s ability to maintain and develop its water uses while also satisfying its compact obligations. The drought response releases are part of the plan’s overall strategy to help prevent curtailment triggers under the 1922 Compact.
“It has not taken a whole lot of rain to move what has moved so far so I anticipate there will be more movement in some of those same drainages but it’s hard to measure and know exactly so much,” said Elizabeth Roberts, an ecologist with the White River National Forest who has spent most of the past year planting grasses in the burn scar to stabilize soil and restore damaged terrain.
The seeds Roberts and her team sow will eventually become the rooted plants that keep soil from moving in the dozens of debris fields that funnel into Glenwood Canyon’s Colorado River. But since the Grizzly Fire burned into winter last year, she’s racing to get seeds into every path of scorched earth. Many of the Grizzly Creek Fire’s 32,631 acres are in steep, rocky chutes where seeds would not take anyway.Everyone knew the runoff and rains of 2021 would pose a threat to Glenwood Canyon. The City of Glenwood Springs spent more than $10 million on emergency watershed protection projects that included replacing and upgrading water intakes and filtering systems in the No Name and Grizzly Creek drainages where the city collects its water.
Swift protection for the highway from rain-loosened debris was much more difficult, if not impossible…
The U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map following the Grizzly Creek Fire that identified dozens of drainages where the likelihood of debris flows was increased if the area saw only 15 minutes of rain that fell at a rate of roughly an inch an hour. That map was spot on. Debris flows that shoved tons of mud onto the highway have come from three separate areas where the USGS estimated the chance of debris flows was between 40% and 100%.
Forest and transportation officials were working with models, so the actual amount of mud coming down and where it might end up was impossible to predict…
Roberts has been doing most of her seeding work on the rim above the canyon. She’s been surprised to see lots of natural vegetation coming back in the first year. The growth of herbaceous shrubbery — known as forbs, which are neither grassy nor woody, like snowberry, chokecherry and fireweed — has been “quite significant,” Roberts said.
That’s been helpful because forest botanists are generally speeding native grasses, which can take a couple years to firmly establish, depending on the health of the soil…
Mitigation in the narrow canyon is complicated. The stretch of interstate built between 1980 and 1992 is an engineering marvel, heralded not only for its ingenious efficiency but how its minimal footprint protected as much of the canyon as possible. When a fire hit perhaps the worst place on Interstate 70 for a burn scar, there just isn’t much room for barriers and other strategies for protecting roads from rain-riding debris. That isn’t stopping CDOT from trying to find ways to divert flows of mud and rock.
This report analyzes the energy, economic, environmental, and health outcomes of an illustrative clean energy standard (CES) design that reaches 80% clean electricity by 2030, and offers important information on the costs and benefits of such a policy.
The analysis is the first to map at a county scale the changes in air quality and related health benefits for the lower 48 states. It compares an 80×30 policy scenario to a range of alternative policies for reducing carbon from the energy sector and finds it is the top performer in terms of net climate benefits (climate benefits minus costs) and total health benefits. The analysis is also the first to look at the health impacts of projected air quality improvements by racial and ethnic groups.
The analyses in this brief were conducted over the last two years as part of the Clean Energy Futures project, an independent collaboration with researchers from Syracuse University; the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Georgia Institute of Technology; and Resources for the Future.
The 80×30 CES has the largest net benefits of the 8 policies examined: The illustrative 80×30 CES has the largest estimated total and climate-related net benefits of other policies analyzed in the Clean Energy Futures project
Nationally, the estimated climate benefits of an 80×30 CES are large and outweigh the costs: Estimated climate benefits are $637 billion; estimated costs are $342 billion and include the cost of fuel, building new capital projects and retrofitting existing facilities, and operating energy facilities.
The additional health benefits from cleaner air would be immediate, substantial, and widespread.
Estimated 317,500 lives saved from 2020-2050 from reduced exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone
9,200 premature deaths avoided in 2030 when the policy reaches 80% clean electricity
Estimated $1.13 trillion in health savings due to cleaner air between now and 2050
Air quality improvements occur in every state by 2030
Air quality improvements are projected to occur for all racial and ethnic groups. Nationally, non-Hispanic Black people are estimated to experience the largest reductions in average population-weighted pollution exposures.
Top Ten States for Premature Deaths Avoided in the Year 2030: Ohio (771), Texas (737), Pennsylvania (582), Illinois (529), Florida (463), North Carolina (453), Indiana (441), Tennessee (424), Michigan (396), Georgia (377)
Authors and Clean Energy Futures Team
Charles Driscoll*, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University
Kathy Fallon Lambert*, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Center for Climate Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE)
Peter Wilcoxen*, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Armistead (Ted) Russell, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Dallas Burtraw, Resources for the Future
Maya Domeshek, Resources for the Future
Qasim Mehdi, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Huizhong Shen, School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Southern University of Science and Technology
Petros Vasilakos, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
Active weather prevailed across much of the South, East, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Plains, into the middle of July, followed by a southward shift in widespread shower activity. Meanwhile, a robust monsoon circulation provided limited Southwestern drought relief, particularly in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Farther north and west, however, little or no rain fell in California, the Great Basin, and the Northwest, where dozens of wildfires were in various stages of containment. Smoke and other particulate matter from those fires carried downwind at various atmospheric levels, producing hazy skies and reducing air quality—in some cases thousands of miles from the points of origin. Dry weather extended eastward across the nation’s northern tier as far east as Lake Superior, while heavy rain eased or eradicated drought in the remainder of the Great Lakes region, along with the Northeast. In the driest areas of the northern and western United States, drought’s impact on water supplies, as well as rangeland, pastures, and a variety of crops, was further amplified by ongoing heat. Weekly temperatures averaged as much as 10°F above normal from the interior Northwest to the northern High Plains. On July 19, temperatures as high as 110°F were reported in eastern Montana. Another pocket of hot weather was centered over the middle Atlantic States. In contrast, near- or slightly below-normal temperatures dominated the Plains, Midwest, and South…
Scattered showers largely ended early in the drought-monitoring period. Meanwhile, extreme heat returned across northern portions of the region. Agricultural drought impacts across the northern High Plains remained widespread and severe, despite spotty showers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, topsoil moisture on July 18 was rated 86% very short to short in North Dakota, along with 84% in South Dakota and 74% in Wyoming. Rangeland and pastures were rated at least one-half very poor to poor in Wyoming and the Dakotas, led by South Dakota at 78%. On July 18, North Dakota was the national leader in oats rated very poor to poor (50%; tied with South Dakota), along with soybeans (41%) and corn (32%). South Dakota led the nation, among major production states, in sorghum rated very poor to poor (29%). Nationally, the U.S. spring wheat crop was rated just 11% good to excellent and 63% very poor to poor on July 18, the lowest overall condition at this time of year since July 18, 1988, when the crop was categorized as 7% good to excellent and 73% very poor to poor. Initial estimates released by USDA on July 12 indicated that the 2021 U.S. spring wheat production will be down 41% from last year, while yield will be down 37%. If realized, the 2021 U.S. spring wheat yield of 30.7 bushels per acre would be the lowest since 2002…
Showers associated with the Southwestern monsoon circulation provided limited drought relief in Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado, while drought generally worsened across the northern Rockies and interior Northwest. The Western drought continued to act on multiple time scales, ranging from a few weeks (mostly agricultural impacts) to two decades (ecological and hydrological effects). Dozens of wildfires, primarily across northern California and the Northwest, continued to burn through hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, brush, and grass, aided by hot, dry conditions, dry soils, and ample fuels. Wildfire smoke continued to degrade air quality in many areas of the country, well outside the West. In southern Oregon, the nation’s largest active wildfire—the lightning-sparked Bootleg Fire—has consumed more than 394,000 acres of vegetation and has destroyed at least 184 structures. Meanwhile, Washington led the country in several drought-related agricultural categories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On July 18, Washington’s topsoil moisture was rated 98% very short to short—highest on record since the beginning of the 21st century. Prior to this year, the Washington state record of 89% very short to short had been set on September 10, 2017. Washington also led the country on July 18 in very poor to poor ratings for rangeland and pastures (96%), spring wheat (88%), and barley (63%). In addition to Washington, at least one-half of the rangeland and pastures were rated very poor to poor on that date in Montana (89%), Arizona (88%), Oregon (74%), Utah (72%), Nevada (65%), and Wyoming (52%). Partly due to the stunning drought-related impacts on agriculture, extreme to exceptional drought (D3 to D4) was broadly expanded across eastern Washington and environs, as well as parts of Montana and neighboring states. Moving to longer-term impacts, some of the West’s largest reservoirs and lakes continued to exhibit startling declines. The surface elevation of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, fell 135 feet in the 21-year period from July 1, 2000, to July 1, 2021, from 1,204 to 1,069 feet above sea level. By July 20, Lake Mead’s elevation stood at 1067.79 feet. Prior to the 21st century, Lake Mead’s surface elevation briefly fell below 1,100 feet only during two drought periods: 1955-57 and 1964-65. Since March 2014, the lake’s end-of-month surface elevation has been continuously below 1,100 feet—and currently stands at a record low since impoundment occurred more than 80 years ago. Farther upstream, water is being released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah to boost the level of Lake Powell for the purpose of guarding hydropower generating capability. Elsewhere in Utah, the surface elevation of the Great Salt Lake fell to 4,191.4 feet on July 20, tying the previous record low set in 1963. In California, 154 primary intrastate reservoirs gained just 1.7 million acre-feet of water during the 2021 melt season, barely 20% of the historical recharge average of 7.9 million acre-feet. At the end of June, the 154 reservoirs held just 62% of their typical volume for this time of year—and had lost 16.6 million acre-feet of water (49% of the original volume) over the last 2 years. Current California storage (17.5 million acre-feet) is less than 5.8 million acre-feet above what those reservoirs held on June 30, 1977, which was the year when statewide storage ultimately fell to a record-low end-of-month volume of 7.5 million acre-feet at the end of October. Finally, the punishing Western drought has been accompanied by record-setting high temperatures. The most recent northward shift in heat occurred as monsoon-related showers intensified across the Southwest. By July 19, Glasgow, Montana, reported a maximum temperature of 110°F—the highest reading in that location since July 18, 1936. It was also Glasgow’s third-highest temperature (tied with June 17, 1933) on record, behind only 113°F on July 31, 1900, and 112°F on July 18, 1936…
Patches of dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) have been relegated to a few areas in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Broadly, there are few drought-related impacts in the South. Frequent summer rain events have maintained adequate to abundant soil moisture. On July 18, Mississippi led the region with topsoil moisture rated 33% surplus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
The interaction between the Southwestern monsoon circulation and a weak cold front will result in locally heavy rain in the Four Corners States but only light showers on the drought-stricken northern Plains. Five-day Southwestern rainfall totals could reach 1 to 3 inches or more, mainly in parts of Arizona, western New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Meanwhile, little or no rain will fall in the Pacific Coast States, northern Great Basin, northern Rockies, and central and southern Plains. Flash drought could become a concern across the central and southern Plains and upper Midwest, where building heat will accompany the dry weather. Meanwhile, significant rainfall (1 to 2 inches or more) should be limited to the Great Lakes and Northeastern States, as well as parts of the Southeast. Higher totals may occur in peninsular Florida. Elsewhere, a significant hot spell will persist into next week across an area centered over the northern Plains, with heat-related impacts reaching into the northern Rockies, Intermountain West, central Plains, and upper Midwest.
The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for July 27 – 31 calls for the likelihood of hotter-than-normal weather nationwide, except for near-normal temperatures in the Northeast, Desert Southwest, and southern and western Alaska. Meanwhile, near- or below-normal rainfall in much of the country should contrast with wetter-than-normal weather across the Intermountain West, northern Great Basin, and western Alaska.
Given the momentum behind carbon farming as a climate change mitigation strategy, we believe now is the time to establish clear standards that ensure that only real net changes in carbon receive financial rewards.
Carbon farming basics
As plants grow, they pull carbon from the atmosphere, and soil soaks it up and stores it. The amount of carbon stored varies significantly across soil type and climate.
Another climate-friendly strategy is raising livestock and crops together. Rotating cows among pastures allows grasses to recover from grazing, and the animals’ manure and the impacts of their grazing regenerate carbon in soils.
Carbon farming is also a potential revenue stream for farmers and ranchers, who can sell the credits they earn in carbon markets. Large-scale greenhouse gas emitters, such as manufacturers, purchase these credits to offset their own emissions.
Companies such as IndigoAg and Nori are already facilitating payments to farmers for carbon credits. And on June 24, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021 by a vote of 92-8. The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners participate in carbon markets.
So far, however, there are no universal standards for measuring, reporting or verifying agricultural carbon credits. Here are the questions we see as top priorities.
Assessing carbon storage
One major challenge is that soils absorb varying amounts of carbon depending on depth, texture and mineral content. While certain practices increase carbon storage, quantifying how much is stored and for how long is critical for assigning dollar values to them. The markets and practices that work in different locations also vary widely.
Another priority is developing national minimum standards to predict and properly value soil carbon capture. Carbon may reside in soil anywhere from days to millennia, so time scale is an important consideration for markets. In our view, credits should reflect the duration carbon resides in soil, with full offsets generated only for longer-lasting storage.
We also believe that these programs must consider an operation’s net greenhouse gas emissions. For example, practices may store more carbon in soil but also increase emissions of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas.
Benefits and challenges
Rebuilding carbon-rich soil supports farmers’ bottom lines by improving soil health and increasing crop yields. But federal incentives could preferentially provide resources to big operations that have greater ability to sequester carbon on their vast acreage.
Ultimately, the goals of climate policy include curbing greenhouse gas emissions and actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Before farmers receive soil carbon credits they can sell to offset other sources of emissions, we believe their value must be accurately assessed to ensure that society gets what it pays for.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that IndigoAg does not purchase carbon credits.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) recently shared alarming news about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River and I’ll attempt to explain their complicated projections. Reclamation, the agency that oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even to those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
Just last month, in June, Reclamation shared their new 5-year projections for the Colorado River Basin to further assist drought management within the Basin. They share these projections a few times every year. The big news is that the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise their projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for their Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in Tier 1 shortage. And they say there is a greater than 99% chance of this shortage in 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80% probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering emergency response (outlined in the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement as part of the DCP here on page 7) whereby Reclamation will release water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. The entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
Climate change is here. We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our way of life is at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult. Please join us in advocating for climate solutions that benefit the Colorado River and other important rivers in the West. Sign up for updates here.
Northern California has some of the strongest offshore winds in the U.S., with immense potential to produce clean energy. But it has a problem. Its continental shelf drops off quickly, making building traditional wind turbines directly on the seafloor costly if not impossible.
Once water gets more than about 200 feet deep – roughly the height of an 18-story building – these “monopile” structures are pretty much out of the question.
A solution has emerged that’s being tested in several locations around the world: making wind turbines that float. In fact, in California, where drought is putting pressure on the hydropower supply and fires have threatened electricity imports from the Pacific Northwest, the state is moving forward on plans to develop the nation’s first floating offshore wind farms as we speak.
So how do they work?
Three main ways to float a turbine
A floating wind turbine works just like other wind turbines – wind pushes on the blades, causing the rotor to turn, which drives a generator that creates electricity. But instead of having its tower embedded directly into the ground or the sea floor, a floating wind turbine sits on a platform with mooring lines, such as chains or ropes, that connect to anchors in the seabed below.
These mooring lines hold the turbine in place against the wind and keep it connected to the cable that sends its electricity back to shore.
Most of the stability is provided by the floating platform itself. The trick is to design the platform so the turbine doesn’t tip too far in strong winds or storms.
There are three main types of platforms:
A spar buoy platform is a long hollow cylinder that extends downwards from the turbine tower. It floats vertically in deep water, weighted with ballast in the bottom of the cylinder to lower its center of gravity. It’s then anchored in place, but with slack lines that allow it to move with the water to avoid damage. Spar buoys have been used by the oil and gas industry for years for offshore operations.
Semi-submersible platforms have large floating hulls that spread out from the tower, also anchored to prevent drifting. Designers have been experimenting with multiple turbines on some of these hulls.
Tension leg platforms have smaller platforms with taut lines running straight to the floor below. These are lighter but more vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis because they rely more on the mooring lines and anchors for stability.
Each platform must support the weight of the turbine and remain stable while the turbine operates. It can do this in part because the hollow platform, often made of large steel or concrete structures, provides buoyancy to support the turbine. Since some can be fully assembled in port and towed out for installation, they might be far cheaper than fixed-bottom structures, which requires specialty boats for installation on site.
Floating platforms can support wind turbines that can produce 10 megawatts or more of power – that’s similar in size to other offshore wind turbines and several times larger than the capacity of a typical onshore wind turbine you might see in a field.
Why do we need floating turbines?
Some of the strongest wind resources are away from shore in locations with hundreds of feet of water below, such as off the U.S. West Coast, the Great Lakes, the Mediterranean Sea, and the coast of Japan.
In May 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to open up parts of the West Coast, off central California’s Morro Bay and near the Oregon state line, for offshore wind power. The water there gets deep quickly, so any wind farm that is even a few miles from shore will require floating turbines. Newsom said the area could initially provide 4.6 gigawatts of clean energy, enough to power 1.6 million homes. That’s more than 100 times the total U.S. offshore wind power today.
Globally, several full-scale demonstration projects are already operating in Europe and Asia. The Hywind Scotland project became the first commercial-scale offshore floating wind farm in 2017, with five 6-megawatt turbines supported by spar buoys designed by the Norwegian energy company Equinor.
While floating offshore wind farms are becoming a commercial technology, there are still technical challenges that need to be solved. The platform motion may cause higher forces on the blades and tower, and more complicated and unsteady aerodynamics. Also, as water depths get very deep, the cost of the mooring lines, anchors, and electrical cabling may become very high, so cheaper but still reliable technologies will be needed.
Expect to see more offshore turbines supported by floating structures in the near future.
Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:
Pikeview Reservoir, a popular fishing spot in central Colorado Springs and part of our water system, has tested positive for blue-green algae. While the reservoir is still safe for fishing, humans and pets are prohibited from entering the water until further notice. Anglers are directed to thoroughly clean fish and discard guts.
Pikeview has been removed as a source for drinking water until the reservoir is determined to be clear of the algae. There are no concerns about this affecting water supply for the community.
“It’s our responsibility to provide safe, reliable drinking water to our community and to always consider public safety at our reservoirs. We will continue to closely monitor our reservoirs and take appropriate actions,” Earl Wilkinson, Chief Water, Compliance and Innovation Officer said.
We conduct more than 400 water quality tests a month and collect approximately 12,000 water samples throughout our water system annually. With the increased risk of the blue-green algae, we are increasing the frequency of testing reservoirs at lower elevations.
In the past several years, there’s been increasing occurrence of toxic blue-green algae in reservoirs across the United States, forcing limitation of recreational access to the bodies of water for public safety.
Sickness including nausea, vomiting, rash, irritated eyes, seizures and breathing problems could occur following exposure to the blue-green algae in the water. Anyone suspicious of exposure with onset of symptoms should contact their doctor or veterinarian.
There is one climate topic that you’re likely to hear a lot about this year: tipping points.
In the context of climate science, a tipping point can occur when a relatively small change can have a large and irreversible effect on some of the Earth’s largest systems, such as the Antarctic ice sheets or the Amazon rainforest.
In the first post in our series on tipping points, we looked at the definition of tipping points. In the second of our series we literally go from pole to pole to examine the potential for huge change in the oceans and the cryosphere – the Earth’s wealth of ice.
Professor Tim Lenton – from the University of Exeter – is a world-renowned expert on tipping points. One tipping element (bits of the climate system that could pass a tipping point) that stands out as high risk for Professor Tim Lenton, is West Antarctica. Here there is physical evidence consistent with possibly having passed the tipping point for irreversible retreat of part of the ice sheet. Destabilization of the West Antarctica ice sheet could lead to about a three-metre sea-level-rise on a timescale of centuries to millennia. In a wider study Tim suggests that part of the East Antarctic ice sheet might similarly be unstable, with the potential to add another 3-4 m to sea level on timescales beyond a century.
He said: “We might already have committed future generations to living with sea-level rises of around 10 m over thousands of years. But that timescale is still under our control. The rate of melting depends on the magnitude of warming above the tipping point. More observational data will establish whether ice sheets are reaching a tipping point, and better developed models are needed to resolve how soon and how fast the ice sheets could collapse.” Tim.
Dr Ed Blockley, who leads the Polar Climate Group of the Met Office Hadley Centre, paints a similarly bleak picture for retreating Arctic sea ice. He explains that one challenge to understanding sea ice decline, is measuring the large seasonal and year-to-year variability against sustained long-term decline. However, over the past four decades, Arctic sea ice cover has reduced, on average, by 87,000 square kilometres, an area of more than four times the size of Wales each year. The Arctic has an important role to play in regulating climate, such as the albedo effect – where the expanses of white ice reflect the sun’s energy back into space – and atmospheric circulation patterns, which can influence the weather at lower latitudes such as in Europe.
Dr Blockley said: “One potential tipping point of Arctic sea ice is the ocean halocline, whereby cold, fresh water at the surface is less dense than warm, salty water below and currently prevents the warm water from reaching the surface and melting the sea ice. If the halocline were to collapse, this warm water, which contains enough heat to melt all the sea ice many times over, could mean that the Arctic would remain ice-free even if global warming were to be reversed.”
Tim Lenton added: “The Arctic is the place where a sort of cascade of unwelcome tipping point changes may be starting because it’s clearly the place that’s warming up two to three times as fast as the global average. We are also accumulating more evidence of casual interactions here as well, such as the role of Arctic sea-ice retreat and resultant warming in permafrost thawing. We appear to be approaching several tipping points.”
Perhaps one tipping element more than any other attracts regular media headlines: the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). This huge conveyor belt brings warm salty water from the tropics into the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic. A weakening or collapse of this current could have devastating impacts on the climate of the northern Atlantic region, potentially switching off the transport of warm conditions to northern Europe.
Dr Richard Wood, head of cryosphere and oceans group at the Met Office Hadley Centre, explains: “If we were to add fresh water to the North Atlantic – such as from melting glaciers or increased precipitation run-off, for example – you would make the surface water fresher and less dense, weakening the ‘pump’ that drives the ocean circulation.”
Warming of the surface waters due to greenhouse gases has a similar effect of making the surface waters less dense and so weakening the ocean circulation pump. So there is a ‘double whammy’ of warming and freshening conspiring to weaken the circulation.
Dr Wood added: “Because the AMOC is a circulation that spans the whole globe, it’s a fundamental part of our climate system. We don’t think a collapse is imminent in the next decade or so, but climate models do suggest that over the 21st century, the AMOC will weaken, as greenhouse gases increase. We need to monitor for any early warning signals that the AMOC is getting near a tipping point.”
The Met Office’s second episode of our Mostly Climate podcast on Tipping Points can be found here.
Next time in the lasts of our tipping points series we’ll be travelling to the Amazon.
High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.
For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.
A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.
And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.
But these systems aren’t without critics.
“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”
His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…
The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.
At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.
Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.
On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.
“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…
Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…
Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.
Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.
But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.
“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.
Late on Friday afternoon, July 16, the consumer protest organization calling itself Unbottle & Protect Chaffee County Water (“UPCCW”), a Colorado non-profit corporation, delivered a notice from the law offices of John Barth, of Hygiene, Colorado to the Chaffe Board of County Commissioners, and Chaffee Planning Director Dan Swallow. Interestingly enough, the notice did not include the county attorney’s office.
In it, the group issued a set of complaints; in their view, Chaffee County has failed to follow the required permitting procedure for issuance of a 1041 permit. The group’s basis for that claim; that the county plans to review a draft of the proposed 1041 permit and conditions at the upcoming July 20 BoCC meeting, but that it hasn’t yet made the document available. It also issued its own set of permit conditions.
The UPCCW group takes the position that since the BoCC hasn’t yet made that draft available, the failure to do this constitutes a violation of the law. Further, it claims that the county violated the law by voting to approve the issuance of a 1041 permit for the project, before considering a draft proposal of the 1041 permit and conditions.
The UPCCW was formed specifically to protest the Nestlé Waters North America/BlueTriton 1041 permit. Its nonprofit membership includes residents of Chaffee County opposed to the renewal of a 1041 permit for Nestlé Waters North America — now BlueTriton Brands.
That permit allows the company to pump spring water from Ruby Mountain Spring, on property Nestlé owns in Chaffee County, transfer it to its pumping station in Johnson Village, then trucking it to its Denver bottling plant.
The notice goes on to state that the county didn’t reopen public comments during the last session (this, after multiple public sessions with the most extensive public comment ever held in the county on a proposal, and formal notification of the process laid out to be followed). The group’s complaint; that by not specifically seeking their input on the language of the 1041 permit conditions as it has been drafted, that this also constitutes a violation of the law.
The document also cites numerous state statutes for what it claims; then makes an assertion that it is their perception that Chair Greg Felt has a conflict of interest that should have prevented him from ruling on this. In fact, in what many will consider an audacious request, it asks that the BoCC’s July 6 decision to approve the permit be rescinded and that Mr. Felt recuse himself from the proceedings.
Felt has addressed the issue of conflict of interest not once, but twice during the proceedings. While the protest groups make reference to his role as the Vice–Chairman of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservation District (UAWCD) it’s stated as a perceived conflict; the mission of the UAWCD is to secure and manage water resources to meet the needs of the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
During their July 6 session, following the 2 to 1 vote on the permit, which ended months of lengthy questions and debate, the BoCC openly discussed the necessary timing to proceed with a new 1041 permit, and the development of what will be complex conditions. They pushed county legal, which was concerned about the tight timeframe, to get a first draft ready for them to review in the public meeting on July 20, which they explained would be the beginning of the permit development public process.
Once, or if, the BoCC finalizes a written resolution containing the conditions of the permit renewal, the issuance of that resolution and written 1041 permit will trigger the statute of limitations for any challenges to the BoCC’s actions under Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 106.
Click here to read the newsletter and to follow the links in the article. Here’s an excerpt:
Drought in the Southwest is a “hot” topic, and its effects wreak havoc on all aspects of life as we know it. The 20-year drought across the US West is taking a major toll on the Colorado River with extreme low flows and high temperatures. Lakes Powell and Mead are at historic lows. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that Lake Mead is likely to fall to levels in June/July that could trigger the first federal water shortage declaration, with water use restrictions across the region.
We are seeing negative impacts on our fish life, agriculture/ranching water supply, urban water supply, forest, soil and river health, and environmental impacts in general. Trees in Western forests have been dying at an alarming rate over the past two decades due to droughts, high temperatures, pests and fires.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 93% of the U.S. West is in drought conditions, and nearly 59% of the area is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst conditions, indicating widespread risk of crop loss, fire and water shortages.
While I don’t mean to spout doom and gloom, we are witness to the impacts of climate change and it is a serious situation in the West. The impact that changing drought and fire regimes will have on forests in the future is still unclear.
As continuing greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet and drive moisture loss, increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of droughts, research shows the U.S. will likely witness more widespread forest fires, tree death and water scarcity.
In a new study conducted by researchers from The University of New Mexico, they have found that wildfires — which have been increasing in frequency, severity and extent around the globe — are one of the largest drivers of aquatic impairment in the western United States, threatening our water supply. The research, “Wildfires increasingly impact western U.S. fluvial networks,” was published recently in Nature Communications.
So, what can be done about it?
A variety of government agencies and community advisory groups (CAGS) are actively working on conservation policy and ways to help mitigate some of the water challenges ahead.
Even though the legislature had to cut 3.5 billion from the 2020 budget due to COVID, it was able to restore millions of dollars for a variety of education and infrastructure projects and small business. It also made for considerable amounts of funds to be dedicated to wildfire prevention and mitigation, water education, and Colorado’s Water Plan, including its statewide and basin grant programs.
A few of the water related bills included:
House Bill 1260, which transfers $15 million in state general funds to the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund to be spent by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on grants to help meet the plan’s goals. HB 1260 moves $5 million into CWCB’s Water Supply Reserve Fund for the state’s basin roundtables.
Senate Bill 240, also takes advantage of stimulus money and transfers $30 million in general fund revenue to the CWCB Construction Fund for grants to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from wildfire-induced erosion and flooding.
House Bill 1008, helps fund watershed protection efforts by authorizing local governments to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes for wildfire mitigation and forest health projects.
Senate Bill 234 creates the Agriculture and Drought Resiliency Fund in the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help the state prepare for and respond to drought. It transfers $3 million in general fund revenue to the new fund to support agricultural water projects and recovery of grazing lands affected by wildfires
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is continuing to investigate the feasibility of a Demand Management program, which would involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in consumptive use to bank water in Lake Powell as a hedge against future shortfalls on the Colorado River, as one option to ensure that Colorado and the three other upper basin states comply with Colorado River Compact delivery obligations.
Citizens can check out the Water Smart and Water Wise resources and programs, as well as the Water Information Program website. The public can participate in the local basin Roundtable meetings, join a Citizens Advisory Group, and participate in water conservation efforts. If you are not aware of the Colorado Water Plan you can check out the executive summary here. Water Education Colorado and the Statewide Water Education Action Plan (SWEAP) has a lot of great resources for Water Education’s role in achieving sustainable water for Colorado by 2050.
Since mid-May, Woodland Park residents and businesses have confronted Level 2 water restrictions conditions, which can affect their daily and weekly watering habits.
Property owners can only water their lawns so often, and the restrictions impact big commercial users, like the Shining Mountain golf course in Woodland Park. Area linksters will be forced to abide by cart-path-only rules for some time due to the lingering drought and because of the city’s limited availability of H2O…
With all the recent rainfall, locals may be wondering why these restrictions are still in place. The story is complicated, as much of the city’s water supply depends on sources some 200 miles away.
According to drought.gov website, in collaboration with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAH) and National Integrated Drought Information System, (NIDIS), no one in Teller are affected by drought at this time. Drought.gov states that May of 2021 was the 24th wettest period in 127 years, at 1.52 inches above normal for Teller County.
However, drought.gov also states that 36.4-percent of Colorado is under a “severe drought” and 30-percent of the state is under “extreme drought” conditions. The western slope of Colorado is where the majority of these “severe” and “extreme” drought conditions exist. The western slope headwater drainages are the major source of the city’s augmentation water.
As a result of the drought conditions on the western slope, On July 1, a declaration of a drought emergency for Western Colorado by Gov. Jared Polis opened up federal and state dollars to help those most affected by the lack of moisture. As of July 1, the US Drought Monitor lists 18 counties as being in extreme or exceptional drought.
Drought conditions are so bad on the Colorado river, that water storage in Lake Mead is at historic lows. Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir, and fed by the Colorado River — fell below the elevation of 1,075 feet. It has hit that mark only a handful of times since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, but it always recovered shortly after. It may not this time, at least not anytime soon…
Lake Mead is currently 16 feet below where it was this time last year and the reservoir is only 37-percent full.
The second largest reservoir in the Colorado river basin, Lake Powell, is not faring any better.
Lake Powell is down 35 feet from last year and sits at just 34-percent of the lake’s total capacity…
According to Wiley, “The amount of water in a share varies according to the source. Our shares never get cut off. We always own those shares. It’s the production of those shares (amount per share). The production is controlled by the amount of precipitation and snowpack and then how water rights are allocated. The only thing that happens is in a dry year the yield (amount) is less on those shares.”
Click here to download the report. Here’s the abstract:
We quantify long-run adaptation of U.S. corn and soybean yields to changes in temperature and precipitation over 1951–2017. Results show that although the two crops became more heat- and drought-tolerant, their productivity under normal temperature and precipitation conditions decreased. Over 1951–2017, heat- and drought-tolerance increased corn and soybean yields by 33% and 20%, whereas maladaptation to normal conditions reduced yields by 41% and 87%, respectively, with large spatial variations in effects. Changes in climate are projected to reduce average corn and soybean yields by 39–68% and 86–92%, respectively, by 2050 relative to 2013–2017 depending on the warming scenario. After incorporating estimated effects of climate-neutral technological advances, the net change in yield ranges from (−)13 to 62% for corn and (−)57 to (−)26% for soybeans in 2050 relative to 2013–2017. Our analysis uncovers the inherent trade-offs and limitations of existing approaches to crop adaptation.
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.
State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.
“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”
Yampa/White/Green river basin
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.
In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.
“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.
Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.
“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”
In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.
Water shortages drive measurement push
The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.
“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.
A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.
As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.
“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.
The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.
“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.
Low interest in grant funding
One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.
“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”
The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.
“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.
As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.
“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”
Water, always an important topic in our area, will be the focus of this month’s meeting. In July, we will learn about the work of the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), a local organization working to address the management of this precious resource.
Al Pfister, on behalf of the WEP, will be presenting the results of data collected in Phase II of the WEP’s assessment of the environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the Upper San Juan River. The WEP’s data collection is a part of the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan of 2015 in the development of a Stream Management Plan/Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The WEP’s data collection efforts were done to assess local environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the face of a warming and drying climate.
Pfister is a semi-retired fish and wildlife biologist who has worked in seven western U.S. states dealing with endangered species issues, trying to find a balance between conserving imperiled fish, wildlife, plants, herptiles and invertebrates, while still allowing the various uses (development, recreation, grazing, timber harvest, energy development, etc) to coexist. In addition to his work with WEP, he serves on the board of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership and on the board of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. He is a past board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society.
Audubon meetings are open to the public. Please come with your questions about this important management tool. We hope to be able to return to in-person meetings this fall if conditions allow.
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) shows 100 percent of Archuleta County is in moderate drought, with almost three-quarters of the county in severe drought and just over the half the county is in extreme drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, range- land growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county.
The NIDIS website notes that, under an extreme drought stage, large fires may develop and pasture conditions worsen.
According to the NIDIS, 6.24 percent of the county, in the southwestern portion, is in an exceptional drought stage.
Under an exceptional drought stage, agricultural and recreational losses are large and dust storms and topsoil removal are widespread.
For more information and maps, visit: https://www.drought. gov/states/Colorado/county/ Archuleta.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 92.2 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 328 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1995 at 1,550 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 10.9 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 62.3 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 266 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,160 cfs in 1979. The lowest recorded rate was 9.44 cfs in 2002.
With federal officials expected to announce a water shortage at Lake Mead next month, this would be an ideal time for Utah officials to kill off that state’s insane plan to divert a huge amount of upstream water to fuel development in the St. George area.
On Thursday, a diverse group of Colorado River stakeholders gathered near Hoover Dam called on Utah to do just that, and pressed for a moratorium on other projects that would divert water from the river.
This wasn’t simply people from other states ganging up on Utah, either. One of the most strident speakers was Zach Frankel from the Utah Rivers Council, who blistered the officials in his state who were backing the pipeline for St. George.
“While the Lower Basin is going on a diet of cutting its water use, we should not allow the Upper Basin to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet of water waste,” Frankel said.
Well put, neighbor.
The Utah pipeline would suck 86,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Powell to St. George, where it would be used to grow crops, maintain the grass lawns that are common in the area and to expand development.
Not only is this pipeline unconscionable given the dwindling water supply of lakes Powell and Mead, but the water would be going to a community whose residents are water hogs already. As Frankel pointed out, water usage in Washington County, the home of St. George, averages 306 gallons per person per day — about three times the usage in more water-conscious places like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Plus, to give some perspective to the amount of water involved in the project, consider that Nevada’s entire annual allotment from Lake Mead is 300,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of ground 1 foot deep, or about 326,000 gallons of water.)
That allotment is all but sure to get a haircut soon, with the looming water shortage declaration by the feds. We’ll lose about 21,000 acre-feet total in mandatory and voluntary cuts. But since Nevada has learned to live with less, we currently use only 256,000 acre-feet per year, meaning we’ll still fall below the 279,000 acre-feet we’ll have after the cutbacks.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Meanwhile, though, there’s no indication that years of dwindling flow in the Colorado River will reverse themselves anytime soon. To the contrary, long-range forecasts of snowmelt and rain runoff in the Colorado River watershed suggest that what’s happening now shouldn’t be considered a drought but rather a normal condition.
With Lake Mead at just 36% capacity and shrinking, it’s important to note that the Utah pipeline project isn’t the only one of its type. There are more than a dozen proposed dams and diversions upstream of Southern Nevada in the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.
That was another point of emphasis from the group of stakeholders last week at Lake Mead, which included business operators, agricultural interests, Native American advocates and more. They urged all Southwestern states to recognize that their own water projects would affect the entire region and the millions of Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
“No flow, no future,” said Brea Chiodini, tour boat operator and member of the Laughlin-Bullhead City River Flow Committee.
Putting a moratorium on every current project might be extreme, but at the very least the criteria for approval should be stiffened to reflect the upcoming shortage and the long-term outlook.
One thing is crystal clear, though: The Utah pipeline needs to be shelved. The upcoming water shortage declaration gives officials in the Beehive State an opportunity to terminate the project and save face. If they don’t act on their own, though, it’s a no-brainer that federal officials should put a stake in the heart of this horrible proposal.
It is simply madness that as the Colorado River reaches its lowest levels in recorded history that we’d be proposing a new water diversion upstream,” Frankel said. “At some point, we have to put our foot down and stop this madness.”
Again, a voice of reason from Utah. Frankel’s fellow state residents should listen to him.
China, the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution, opened a national carbon emissions trading market on Friday, a long-awaited step aimed at fighting climate change.
The market turns the power to pollute into an allowance that can be bought and sold, and is part of an array of policies that the Chinese government is putting in place as it tries to demonstrate its commitment to significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the coming decades…
These markets work by limiting the amount of carbon dioxide that companies can release, creating competition to encourage them to become more energy efficient and adopt clean technology.
Companies that cut their carbon output can sell their unused pollution allowances; those that exceed their emissions allowance may have to buy more permits or pay fines.
By auctioning allowances and progressively cutting the volume of pollution that companies are allowed to release, governments can push companies into a race to adopt carbon-cutting technologies.
Emissions trading can be a more efficient and flexible tool for cutting emissions than top-down administrative measures, Zhao Yingmin, a Chinese vice minister for the environment, said at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday.
“It can place responsibility for containing greenhouse gas emissions on businesses, and can also provide an economic incentive mechanism for carbon mitigation,” he said…
To make the market work, regulators must accurately measure emissions from factories and plants, then ensure that those polluters do not cheat by hiding or manipulating emissions data…
But that can be challenging in China, with its sprawling industrial base and relatively poor regulation. A firm from Inner Mongolia, a region of northern China, that is participating in the new market was already fined this month for falsifying carbon emissions data.
The Chinese government initially said the market could cover steel making, cement and other industries, as well as power plants. But it narrowed the scope to cover only coal and gas plants that supply power and heat — a sector that has fewer players and is easier to monitor. Other industries may be brought into the market in coming years…
Even so, China’s coal and gas power sector is so large that the scheme already covers around a tenth of total global carbon dioxide emissions. Some 2,225 power plant operators — many of them subunits of China’s state-owned power conglomerates — were selected to trade on the platform run by the Shanghai Environment and Energy Exchange.
Until now, the biggest carbon emissions market has been Europe’s, followed by one in California. Eventually, these and other emissions trading initiatives may link up, creating a potential global market. For now, though, international investors or financial firms will not be allowed to buy into China’s carbon market…
most experts expect it will take years before China’s program matures into an effective tool for curbing emissions.
Participating power plants have received free pollution permits to get them used to reporting data and trading. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment, which operates the scheme, has said it may introduce auctions for permits later on.
China’s trading program does not put a fixed ceiling on the carbon dioxide that a power producer can release; instead, it sets a limit on the amount of carbon for each unit of power generated. That looser approach means companies face less pressure to cut pollution, at least to begin with.
But the scheme could grow sharper teeth over time, especially if China brings in an emissions cap and steeper fines for exceeding pollution limits.
It’s been said we no longer have fire seasons; we have fire years.
We all remember a year ago when fires ravaged our state and smoke choked the Colorado skies, leading to some of the most unhealthy air quality in the world and making the atmosphere glow red. Many of us remember checking in on friends and family, preparing go-bags in case the unthinkable happened, and watching flames tear through communities and places that had once been peaceful locations for recreation and communal gathering.
The same pattern has begun again.
What might not have been immediately obvious is that those fires have had long-term and damaging impacts on our natural infrastructure — watersheds, rivers, and waterways — hurting native fish populations, sending water quality to dangerously low levels, and weakening local economies. And, before Colorado has even begun to recover from last year’s devastating fire season — which saw the three largest fires in state history — fires have already started this year on the West Slope, forcing evacuations, road closures, and more. The recovery efforts and specter of last year’s blazes are still present as we begin to grapple with another intense and potentially catastrophic year. One bad fire season perpetuates another, and the cycle continues.
Of course, fire is a natural part of a healthy forest ecosystem, and serves an ecological purpose; however, fire severity and frequency has been exacerbated by a combination of historical fire suppression and climate change. Today’s fires behave differently — and more destructively — than the type of fire that’s critical to forests’ ecosystems. This is why drought resilience and preparedness coupled with thoughtful wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration are all essential to prioritize; and why we’re grateful for the upwards of $65 million put towards these issues by the Colorado General Assembly and signed by Governor Polis this year. Moreover, at a recent convening of the Western Governors’ Association, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris reinforced the need for — and their support of — greater resilience to climate change, drought, and wildfire. Local, state, and federal lawmakers are increasingly recognizing the urgency of our climate, drought, and fire crises, and understand the urgent need to work together now to address it.
Impacts Far and Wide to Our Rivers and Water
The effects of wildfires go well beyond the local burn scar; they impact entire watersheds and ecosystems, often for years. For example, the recent string of mudslides along the I-70 corridor in Glenwood Canyon and elsewhere throughout the state are the direct result of fire-damaged soil that can’t soak up heavy rains fast enough. The lack of tree root structure combined with dry soil leads to mudslides, causing infrastructure damage and, at its worst, loss of life.
Within streams, rivers, and riparian areas, the debris left behind by fires can impact water quality and fish health. Ash and debris flow into nearby waterways following fires, and often overwhelm water treatment plants, fill reservoirs with sediment, or lead to the need for costly repairs and maintenance. Around 80% of the United States’ freshwater supply flows from forested areas, which means forest fires will leave burn scars, ash, and other contaminants in watersheds, runoff from which will ultimately make its way into water treatment centers that send water to our homes.
In healthy forests, natural infrastructure acts as a filter for sediment and other pollutants that could otherwise wash downstream. In burn scars, where foliage and root systems are either gone or struggling to come back, this nature-based filtration system no longer exists. This puts even more pressure on towns and municipalities to treat contaminated water. (Following the 2002 Hayman Fire over 175,000 trees were planted in the South Platte River watershed to bolster natural infrastructure in the basin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and the water quality remains below average.)
Fish, too, are dramatically impacted by fires both during and after the acute burn period. When a fire burns near a riverbed, heat causes the water temperatures to rise, oftentimes past the point that fish can reproduce or even survive. Changes to water chemistry during and after fires can cause devastating algal blooms and make the aquatic environment’s pH inhospitable to other life. A scientist studying the aftermath of a fire in alpine lakes discovered that the area’s fish had five times the amount of mercury as fish that weren’t affected by fire. And, the sediment runoff damages fish habitats and hurts the fishes’ ability to feed or reproduce. In 2018, following the 416 Fire, scientists estimated that around 80% of the Animas River’s fish population died off due to flooding and debris.
When fish are impacted by wildfires, the people, industries, and communities that rely on healthy fish populations also suffer. This summer, Colorado Parks and Wildlife asked anglers not to fish along a 120-mile stretch of the Colorado River due to high temperatures, low flows, and sediment runoff from wildfires, all of which are making it more difficult for fish to survive.
Prolonged drought only leads to a greater chance of fire, with dry forests and blistering temperatures. Governor Polis recently declared a State of Emergency in Western Colorado as the area enters its second consecutive year of “exceptional” drought — the highest classification given by the U.S. Drought Monitor — and a long-term megadrought continues to grip the entire Western United States.
What can we do to protect our rivers?
Understanding that fires, rivers, and communities exist within a connected ecosystem is the first step to mitigating the long-term impacts of drought and wildfire. The fires that hurt our towns, agricultural land, and favorite recreation areas also harm our rivers, watersheds, wetlands, and wildlife.
To ensure Colorado is ready to meet the challenges to our rivers and waterways posed by more severe and intense wildfires, we need to:
Work to ensure the Colorado Water Plan 2022 update reflects the need for an inter-connected understanding and management of watersheds, forests, and ecosystems. All of us need clean and reliable water, and for that we need healthy watersheds. Environmental priorities should be considered in every section of the Water Plan, as all other water needs are direct
ly related to water flowing from resilient, healthy, natural systems.
Educate ourselves and our friends, family, and community members about fire safety; and use that knowledge to work conscientiously on our own actions and impacts to reduce the risk of fire in our neighborhood watersheds.
Prioritize funding and continue to urge state, local, and federal lawmakers to increase funding and capacity for wildfire mitigation, prevention, and research and resilience to climate change, ensuring that state programs have the money necessary to develop and implement new strategies to address our ever-expanding wildfire seasons.
Things might seem dire, and they are. We must take action. There are steps we can take right now to reduce the risks wildfires pose to Colorado’s rivers. One such step is visiting the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s website and providing comments on the upcoming 2022 Water Plan update to ensure that environmental needs are met and that the Water Plan treats forests and rivers as the intertwined ecosystem they are.
This need for action and availability of solutions should increase our urgency and inspire us to work diligently towards resilience to climate change to ensure the health of our waters and watersheds now and into the future.
The Calwood Fire approaches Boulder, CO. Photo credit: Malachi Brooks via Water for Colorado
Smoke from the East Troublesome fire looms over Granby Reservoir. Photo credit: Evan Wise via Water for Colorado
Bent lodgepole pine in some areas revealed intensity of the wind. Photo/National Park Service via Big Pivots
Photo credit: Sylvan Fire Information Facebook page
This sign along the highway between Craig and Dinosaur, in northwestern Colorado, tells of a fire in 1988 that burned 15,000 acres, then the most in Colorado’s recorded history. The Cameron Peak Fire in 2020 burned nearly 209,000 acres. Photo credit: Allen Best via Big Pivots
Governor Jared Polis today signed an Executive Order memorializing a verbal disaster declaration from June 23, 2021, for the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County. The Executive Order enables State agencies to coordinate for fire suppression, response, consequence management, and recovery efforts.