The Colorado River Indian Tribes will receive $209,000 for irrigation canal projects, Congressman Paul Gosar announced Tuesday. The federal funds were awarded by the U.S. Department of the Interior to help CRIT pay for canal lining. The project is intended to help stop water seepage from the canal.
CRIT relies on the Colorado River as its primary source of water, and water conserved with help the Tribes meet existing demand during times of drought, Gosar said. The project will line nearly 4,000 feet of the earthen canal with a membrane covered in sprayed concrete. The stretch of canal has been identified as having the most significant seepage rate of all 232 miles of canals in the Colorado River Irrigation Project, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
“We must do all we can do to preserve the life of the Colorado River,” said CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores in a news release. “Improvements to the Colorado River Irrigation Project, like this canal lining, are desperately needed. No one can afford to waste water in these times of drought.”
She said CRIT would commit an equal share of the money needed to improve the efficiency of the irrigation project. The total cost of the project is $443,229.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Mary Guiden):
Colorado’s water supply is under threat from climate change and population growth. Limiting outdoor use is an increasingly popular approach to conserving water, yet to implement effective conservation policies, utilities managers need a better understanding of local outdoor water consumption.
That’s what led Colorado State University’s Melissa McHale, an associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, to explore what drives outdoor water consumption in an area projected to undergo significant population growth in the years to come.
McHale teamed up with scientists from the U.S. Forest Service and Denver Urban Field Station – a research and practice unit of the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station – and a water conservation specialist from Fort Collins Utilities.
Among the findings, McHale said trees can provide long-term benefits even if they need to be watered directly when they are first planted.
“Other modeling analyses have highlighted the benefits of tree shade,” she said. “But very rarely do we have real data that help us specifically create management decisions and policies that support the world we live in, and the balance we need to achieve.”
The research team found that residential properties with a higher ratio of vegetation cover to lot size tended toward less water consumption. McHale said that discovery was surprising.
“In semi-arid cities, tree cover is directly linked to land surface temperature,” she explained. “It’s a real positive result for us along the Front Range, because mature tree canopy may mean that people use less water outdoors.”
McHale said it would be ideal if people could use less water while also cooling the landscape with tree cover.
“But I’m not sure so far, the way we’re developing the land, if we’re providing opportunities in the best way we can,” she said.
Wealthier households and properties with small lots use more water outside, according to the study. These conditions are prevalent in current development patterns along the Front Range in Colorado.
“We need to make sure we provide enough space, in the right locations, for mature tree canopy to grow in these new developments,” McHale said.
Additional research from other semi-arid cities, like Salt Lake City, has shown that planting non-native trees may be better for reducing water consumption in such areas.
Local policies may hinder conservation efforts
McHale also said that subdivision homeowner associations may be setting and enforcing guidelines that encourage more outdoor water use. Most newer neighborhoods with houses built in close proximity to each other are governed by HOAs, and the research team wants to delve deeper into this question in future research.
Shaunie Rasmussen, research associate in the CSU Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and a co-author on the study, said with urbanization taking place so quickly, it’s imperative to get trees planted, to make sure they’re mature as people move into new houses along the Front Range.
“It’s important to establish this tree cover and to take advantage of the benefits of trees,” she said. “Based on our research, trees can be a water-saving resource.”
Rasmussen graduated from CSU in July 2020 with a master’s degree in ecosystem sustainability, a recently established program through the Warner College of Natural Resources, and is now based at the Denver Urban Field Station.
McHale said this research project aims to strengthen and expand upon the university’s land-grant mission.
“We’ve been really trying, as a university, to reinvent the way we engage with our communities,” she explained.
Teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service, which has played a central role in pushing the field of urban ecology nationally, was a natural fit. The City of Fort Collins has already made use of the research findings from other collaborative research projects with McHale’s lab, and included those results in planning documents and budget requests for city managers.
“That’s the essence of engaged research,” said McHale. “You learn something different by working together and the outcomes are more impactful. We’re all in this together.”
McHale was recently selected to be a member of Denver’s Sustainability Advisory Council, which was originally created in 2010 by Mayor John Hickenlooper, and continues today under Mayor Michael Hancock.
A large upslope storm led to above average March precipitation in eastern Colorado, eastern Utah and southeastern Wyoming. Drought conditions east of the Continental Divide generally improved by one category and many river basins in these areas have near normal seasonal runoff forecasts. March was dry for much of the Upper Colorado River and Great Basins, drought conditions persisted and seasonal runoff forecasts are below to much-below normal.
Precipitation was a mix of much-above normal and below normal during March. Western US Seasonal Precipitation Much-above normal precipitation in eastern Colorado, southeastern and central Wyoming and eastern Utah was driven largely driven by a large upslope storm in Colorado in mid-March. Below normal precipitation fell in many areas of Utah, including the Wasatch and western Uinta Mountains, western and northern Wyoming and the Colorado Rocky Mountains west of the Continental Divide.
Regional temperatures during March were mostly near average. Western US Seasonal Precipitation There was a slight southwest to northeast gradient in regional temperatures with March temperature slightly below normal in southwestern Utah and slightly above normal in northeastern Wyoming. This pattern in monthly temperatures is the opposite from what was observed in November 2020 and February 2021.
April 1st snowpack conditions were a mix of above and below normal in Colorado and Wyoming and generally below normal in Utah. Western US Seasonal Precipitation There was below normal snowpack in southwestern Colorado, near normal in northern Colorado and above normal conditions in the Rio Grande and Arkansas River basins. Western US Seasonal Precipitation Except for the northeastern Uinta Mountains, where conditions were near normal, Utah snowpack was below normal. Snowpack in eastern Wyoming benefitted from a large upslope storm in mid-March and was above average on April 1st. Snowpack conditions in other areas of Wyoming were generally near normal.
Seasonal streamflow volume forecasts for April 1st by NOAA CBRFC were below normal to much-below normal for the entire Upper Colorado (25 – 80% normal) and Great Basins (10 – 75%). Western US Seasonal Precipitation Low seasonal streamflow forecasts are due to below average snowpack for most basins and extremely low soil moisture. Because of very low soil moisture across the region, the 2021 runoff will be an inefficient runoff. Regionally, the lowest seasonal runoff forecasts are for Utah river basins (Duchesne, Provo, Virgin and Weber) and the highest are for river basins in Colorado and Wyoming east of the Continental Divide. (Forecast by basin_040121) Western US Seasonal Precipitation Major reservoirs of the Upper Colorado River Basin are forecasted to have below normal inflow for Fontanelle (59%), Flaming Gorge (54%), Blue Mesa (65%), McPhee (44%), Navajo (54%) and Lake Powell (45%). Streamflow during March was much below normal for much of the region and record low monthly streamflow was observed for the siteas along the American Fork, Bear, Dolores, Sevier, Virgin and Weber Rivers in Utah Western US Seasonal Precipitation and the Animas, Dolores, Mancos, Roaring Fork, and San Miguel Rivers in Colorado. Western US Seasonal Precipitation
Drought conditions continue to cover nearly the entire Intermountain West Western US Seasonal Precipitation with 44% of the region in extreme (D3) or exceptional (D4) drought, but there was a one category improvement of drought conditions in eastern Colorado and Wyoming. Drought conditions did not change in Utah during March; 90% of the state is still in D3 or D4 drought. A strong upslope storm on March 13-14th dropped several inches of SWE across a wide swath of Colorado east of the Continental Divide and eastern Wyoming. At the beginning of March, D3 or D4 drought covered 60% of Colorado, but by the end of March, only 30% of the state was in D3-D4 drought.
Weak La Niña conditions still exist in the eastern Pacific Ocean, but neutral conditions are expected to return during spring. Western US Seasonal Precipitation Seasonal predictions of climate from NOAA suggest there will be an increased probability for above average temperatures Western US Seasonal Precipitation and below average precipitation Western US Seasonal Precipitation at one and three month timescales for the entire region. The increased probability of above average temperatures and below average precipitation will likely cause drought conditions in the Intermountain West to persist and perhaps worsen.
Significant March weather event. A significant upslope snowstorm hit the Front Range of Colorado and southern Wyoming on March 13-14th. Snowfall totals from Colorado Springs to Cheyenne Wyoming and west to the Continental Divide ranged from 18 – 40”. Denver International Airport reported 27.1”, making this storm the 4th largest snowfall in Denver since 1881. Cheyenne recorded a 36” storm total; 22.7” fell on 3/14 which broke the daily snowfall record for Cheyenne. The highest storm totals occurred in southeast Wyoming’s Snowy Range at 7,900 feet where 52.5” fell and in the foothills north and west of Fort Collins at Buckhorn Mountain where 48.5” was recorded. The storm closed Denver International Airport and 2,800 flights were canceled on March 13-15. Parts of Interstates 25 and 70 in Colorado and I-80 in Wyoming were also closed on 3/13-14. Approximately 25,000 customers lost power in northern Colorado as a result of the storm. Nearly all of Colorado and Wyoming were in drought prior to the storm, with large areas of both states in extreme drought. The storm did not bring an end to drought, but significantly improved drought conditions east of the Continental Divide in Colorado and in southern Wyoming.
FromThe Washington Post (Diana Leonard and Becky Bolinger):
California and the West are falling deeper into drought and, with summer approaching, that portends another severe fire season.
As a disappointing wet season comes to a close and hope for spring rain fades, conditions are worse now than they were at this time last year, with exceptional and extreme drought now found throughout the region.
In California, that doesn’t bode well, given that last year’s more moderate rainfall deficits, combined with extreme heat waves, ushered in a record-setting fire year. It brought 5 of the 6 largest fires in modern state history, 10,488 destroyed structures and 33 fatalities. Some 4.2 million acres were torched.
More frequent drought, hotter summers and warmer and drier autumns, tied to climate change, are stacking the deck for large and destructive fires during the heart of the fire season. And this year, a lack of rain in spring could mean fires arrive early in some areas…
…despite a significant late-January storm [in California], the 2021 winter and spring months have failed to deliver even normal precipitation, and much of April is forecast to be very dry. In fact, the current water year is now tied for the third driest on record…
For the last two wet seasons, a persistent ridge of high pressure in the central and eastern Pacific has diverted most storms out of the state. In Northern California, many of the wettest, forested regions have missed over 20 inches of precipitation in that time period…
Statewide mountain snowpack, currently at less than 50 percent of normal, is expected to melt off early, leaving Sierra forests prone to burn earlier and hotter…
Drought deepens across the West, and fire risk follows
Large wildfires in the West are driven by a complex relationship between shorter-term weather and longer-term climate variability. The West’s descent into the current severe and widespread drought began in the fall of 2019, when a dry pattern emerged over Oregon, northern California, central Nevada and into parts of Idaho, Utah and Colorado. The hot and dry summer of 2020 quickly followed, which brought devastating fires to California and the Pacific Northwest, and set the stage for Colorado’s biggest wildfire season on record beginning in August and continuing through October…
This concerning situation continues: Not only is drought persisting over the same areas, it’s expanding to areas that weren’t as dry in the winter. Extremely warm and dry conditions from October to March extended across California and Oregon, and eastward across Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and entering Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico…
Combining this longer-term climate signal with expected weather as we move into summer dictates the location of greatest fire risk. Based on low snowpack and early snowmelt already occurring in Arizona and New Mexico, and expected early snowmelt around the Four Corners, the risk for significant wildfires is high in Arizona and New Mexico, and is extending into southern Utah and southern Colorado. That risk moves northward as the summer continues into central Nevada, Utah and western Colorado, but should be reduced to the south if monsoon rains arrive as expected.
Adequate native water supplies coupled with improved Front Range soil moisture from March snowstorms prompted the Northern Water Board of Directors to increase its 2021 quota allocation for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project to 70 percent.
The Board unanimously approved the allocation at its meeting Thursday, April 8, 2021, with several board members participating remotely because of the ongoing pandemic. The Board also directed Northern Water staff to update them in May and June to determine whether an additional allocation would be advisable during the peak demand season.
Emily Carbone, Water Resources Specialist at Northern Water, outlined snowpack and forecasted streamflows, and the Board also heard about the available native water supplies in regional reservoirs. In addition, the Board heard a presentation about the potential water resources impacts caused by the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. Public input was also considered.
The Board has been setting C-BT quota since 1957 and 70 percent is the most common quota declared. It was also the quota set for the 2019 water delivery season, while the 2020 quota was set at 80 percent. The quota reflects the amount of water to be delivered through the C-BT Project.
The quota increases available C-BT Project water supplies by 62,000 acre-feet from the initial 50 percent quota made available in November. Water from the C-BT Project supplements other sources for 33 cities and towns, 120 agricultural irrigation companies, various industries and other water users within Northern Water’s 1.6 million-acre service area. According to recent census figures, more than 1 million residents now live inside Northern Water’s boundaries. Learn more about the C-BT quota.
The companies have been slow to make emissions reductions pledges, and have worked to undercut climate and environmental legislation.
Top U.S. meat and dairy companies, along with livestock and agricultural lobbying groups, have spent millions campaigning against climate action and sowing doubt about the links between animal agriculture and climate change, according to new research from New York University.
The study, published this week in the journal Climatic Change, also said the world’s biggest meat and dairy companies aren’t doing enough to curb their greenhouse gas emissions, with only a handful making pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“These companies are some of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change,” said Oliver Lazarus, one of the study’s three authors, now a doctoral student at Harvard University. “They’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money downplaying the link between animal agriculture and climate change.”
A report given to the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) on March 29 was approved by the board, leading to future considerations to be considered for the district’s West Fork reservoir and canal water rights.
The report, crafted by Wilson Water Group (WWG), reviewed the district’s water rights portfolio and other storage studies to “understand opportunities and limitations” based on original decrees, previous diligence efforts and other storage locations.
WWG was hired by the SJWCD via a board decision at a Sept. 21, 2020, meeting for a cost of $19,050.
According to the report, not only were studies done for alternative uses for the West Fork reservoir and canal water rights of the district, but analyses were done to estimate water available to the San Juan River Headwaters Project reservoir water rights and to a junior storage right.
Currently, the district has a West Fork canal water right that is specifically 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) of conditional water that includes decreed uses of irrigation, industrial and municipal.
The report notes that this right will be abandoned by the water court if not used or perfected at the time the San Juan River Headwaters Project facilities are constructed.
The SJWCD also has a water right associated with the second enlargement of the Dutton Ditch, the report describes.
This water right is 20 cfs that in- cludes decreed uses of irrigation, municipal and domestic.
This right will also be abandoned by the water court if not used or perfected at the time the San Juan River Headwaters Project facilities are constructed, the report notes.
“A significant physical limitation to development of the Dutton Ditch Second Enlargement water right is the location; there is not reliable wa- ter supply available on these smaller tributaries except during the runoff period primarily in May and June,” the report reads.
Additionally, the district has a 50 cfs conditional water right at the San Juan River Headwaters Project pumping station, the report indicates.
“This right cannot be diverted if the San Juan River at Pagosa Springs streamflow gage shows flow less than 100 cfs from March 1 to August 31 or less than 60 cfs from September 1 to February 29,” the report states. “Besides the potential cost versus benefit imbalance of pumping water for potential storage at this location, the water available in many years can be significantly limited by the stipulated flow requirements at the San Juan River at Pagosa Springs streamflow gage.”
The SJWCD also has 1.1 cfs of absolute water rights associated with shares in the Park Ditch Company at the Park Ditch, the report notes.
This water right notes that the Park Ditch must be the location to divert water to store in the San Juan River Headwaters project, among other stipulations.
According to the report, the district has storage water rights at the West Fork reservoir, which is about 24,000 acre feet in conditional water rights.
“The stipulation subordinating the West Fork Reservoir storage rights to upstream water rights senior to a December 31, 2013 is significant; as it essentially changes the water right appropriation date to January 1, 2014 as to any water rights located upstream,” the report reads. “The requirement to move the water right downstream of Boot- jack Ranch to a likely off-channel reservoir site is not as limiting, because permitting an on-channel reservoir at any location on the San Juan River would be a significant challenge. The uses under the storage right may be limiting, as it does not include the authorization to release water to the San Juan River to meeting environmental or recre- ational needs.”
The SJWCD also has 6,300 acre- feet of conditional storage rights at the San Juan River Headwaters proj- ect site and another 4,700 acre-feet on first fill and 11,000 acre-feet on refill of conditional storage rights.
“Artificially introduced” wolves are not welcome in Archuleta County, according to the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC).
At a work session held by the BoCC on April 6, the board discussed a trio of statewide concerns, including its opposition to the reintroduction of Canadian gray wolves within the county.
Commissioner Alvin Schaaf expressed his concerns and dissatisfaction with the recent approval of Colorado Proposition 114, Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative, that was passed in November 2020.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow when our citizens, the majority voted no on this topic and it’s still getting shoved down our throats just because there’s more population in the greater Denver area,” Schaaf said.
Later that day, the BoCC approved Resolution 2021-26, reaffirming the county’s opposition to the reintroduction of the wolves and specifically designating Archuleta County as a wolf reintroduction sanctuary…
“They’re already here. I don’t know why we’re reintroducing something that already exists,” Schaaf added.
Resolution 2021-26 highlights how the proposition was approved by voters “in only five western slope counties, including Pitkin, Summit, San Miguel, San Juan and La Plata Counties.”
At the work session, Schaaf stated, “It seems like a constant attack on the rural way of life and the ability of the American people to make a living and provide food.”
“A lot of people that live in the highly populated areas don’t understand the rural lifestyle,” Maez added. “I think in the populated areas, they need to teach them where their food comes from.”
The resolution declares Archuleta County “to be a Wolf Reintroduction Sanctuary County, allowing only for the natural migration and repopulation of Gray Wolves without the competi- tion from artificially introduced wolves.”
Water forecasting agencies in Colorado have released their April streamflow predictions, confirming what many already knew: Drought and dry soils will diminish rivers this spring.
“The main story of this water supply outlook season is the effect of last year’s drought going into winter,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey. “We are anticipating significantly lower runoff compared with the snowpack because we entered winter with such dry conditions that the soils are going to have to soak up a ton of moisture before it actually makes it through the system into the river.”
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and NRCS both released streamflow forecasts this week for the months of April through July. This is the second year in a row parched soils will rob rivers of their water.
If soils were not so dry, streamflow predictions would track closely with snowpack. But this year, in many areas streamflows are predicted to be down by 15% to 20% compared with the snowpack, and streamflow for all river basins in the state are predicted to be below average.
NRCS relies heavily on data from SNOTEL (short for snow telemetry) sites for its water supply forecasts. These automated sensors collect snow and weather data from remote, mountainous areas around the state. At the beginning of the month, the snow-water equivalent, which is a measure of how much water is contained in the snowpack, was 90% of average for the Colorado River headwaters, which includes the Roaring Fork River basin. Warm weather the first few days of the month had dropped that number to 78% by Wednesday.
According to NRCS models, streamflow for the Roaring Fork River, measured at its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs will be 70% of average. The CBRFC model predicts just 68% of average. Throughout the Colorado headwaters, streamflow predictions range from 57% to 77% of average.
According to CBRFC hydrologist Cody Moser, most river basins in Colorado were in the bottom five driest years for soil moisture going into the winter and some places, like the San Juan River basin in the southwest corner of the state, had record low soil moisture.
“We had poor soil moisture entering the season,” Moser said. “We also have below normal snow, so a lot of things are working against a good runoff season.”
The Lake Powell inflow forecast, at 3.2 million acre-feet, is just 45% of normal and a 2% decrease from the CBRFC March forecast.
Another tricky year for Ruedi
Tim Miller, a hydrologist at the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Ruedi Reservoir, said predicting inflow into the reservoir from the Fryingpan River and surrounding tributaries is like “looking out into the crystal ball.”
It’s Miller’s job to release enough water from the reservoir to make room for the inflow. Filling it to capacity — roughly 102,000 acre-feet — requires precision and can be tricky. Last year Miller missed the mark by about 5,000 acre-feet, leaving reservoir levels a bit low. It was because streamflow forecasts didn’t fully account for the spring’s lack of precipitation, warmer-than-normal temperatures and dry soils, he said.
“We were over-forecasting until right at the very end,” Miller said. “It wasn’t until the end of May and early June that we realized we just weren’t going to get that volume. Last year, because of those forecasts, I was releasing quite a bit more water at this time because I was expecting a bigger inflow.”
This year, Miller said he plans on releasing just the minimum needed to meet the instream flow needs of the lower Fryingpan until he knows there will be enough runoff to fill the reservoir. Much of the water stored in Ruedi is either “fish water,” released for the benefit of endangered fish downstream or contract water, which has been sold by the bureau to cover the costs of building and operating the reservoir. Many different entities and water providers, including Ute Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, own some of this contract water.
The reservoir has a decent chance of filling this year, Miller said, but there is another factor that could negatively impact those chances. Ruedi is currently 57% full, down from where it was at this time last year, about 66% full, according to Miller.
“Ruedi is lower starting out than what it would have been starting out last year, so that’s going to be an issue,” Miller said. “There are just a lot of things to juggle.”
The bureau is predicting about 112,000 acre-feet of runoff for the upper Fryingpan River basin this year, but about half that will be taken through the Boustead Tunnel system to the Front Range, Miller said.
So how might low runoff affect local water providers and users? For starters, the city of Aspen is still in Stage 2 drought restrictions, a carry-over from last August. That means restrictions on washing sidewalks and vehicles, and outdoor watering. One of the biggest water uses in Aspen is outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping.
“We are going to do our damnedest to make sure people are responsible,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city of Aspen.
Hunter said he has been talking with other local water managers about creating a valley-wide unified message about the drought, to target residents and visitors alike. The next city drought response committee meeting is April 23.
Despite the bleak streamflow outlook, weather is still a big unknown. Late spring storms and summer monsoon season — which mostly failed to materialize in 2020 — could begin to turn things around.
“We are just going to be prepared,” Hunter said. “We need to be adaptable. It may get worse, it may get better, it may stay the same.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 9 edition of The Aspen Times.
Spring runoff in Colorado is usually marked by swelling muddy waterways, but this season things may look a little different.
“We know the soils under the snowpack are so dry that it basically has to absorb so much of that, like a sponge, before it transmits it through to a river channel,” said Karl Wetlaufer, Assistant Supervisor for the USDA-NRCS Colorado Snow Survey.
On [April 7, 2021], Wetlaufer and fellow hydrologist Mike Ardisan made the trek up to Berthoud Pass, one of Colorado’s 115 SNOTEL sites, to look at snowpack data.
“When you look at our data, our annual precipitation will commonly be different than our snowpack, that’s because we start officially measuring this on Oct. 1. In this year, it was a really dry October so there’s an even bigger difference between the snowpack and precipitation value.”
At Berthoud Pass, one of the highest SNOTEL sites and where Grand County and Clear Creek County meet, the snow depth measured just over 50 inches in most spots. The calculations determined that was equal to about 16 inches of water.
“We’re definitely anticipating significantly lower stream flow runoff, especially compared to our observed snowpack and were actually seeing a net decrease in snowpack even over the last week since April 1.”
The data plays an important role when it comes to our water resources. Coming off a dry summer followed by a dry winter, the melting snow that normally floods our waterways will head straight for the dry soil, impacting reservoirs and recreation.
“With those dry soils, streamflow runoff could be … 20% less compared to percent of normal,” said Wetlaufer.
The latest streamflow forecast ranges from 40-50% below normal (average) in southwest Colorado, to just 10-15% below normal in the South Platte and Arkansas Basins.
Experts predict many areas will face water restrictions this summer.
When we talk about snowpack, we’re talking about the snow that’s been gradually accumulating in the mountains near the headwaters of our major river systems.
The water in that snow would ideally melt off slowly during the spring months so we have water in our reservoirs for the summer. It also alleviates wildfire danger.
But at this point, there are three concerning issues with our current snowpack.
For one, it appears that the snowpack peaked almost a week early. April 7 is the average date for the snowpack to reach its peak and start the runoff season. The data shows that it reached its highest point around April 1st. Usually, the earlier it peaks, the earlier it melts.
The second concern is the amount of snowpack. At its peak on April 1, statewide snowpack was 6% below average. Last year it was 7% above average. That’s 13% less snow this season.
And the third concern is how fast its already melting. The snowpack is now down to 20% below average just 7 days after peaking. It didn’t get down that low last year until the final week of April.
The amount of water in the snow throughout the Yampa River watershed has started declining, indicating that snowmelt is well underway and potentially foreshadowing a summer of low flows in the river.
This measurement, called snow water equivalent inches, generally starts increasing in October and continues to grow until April when the snow starts melting. This point is often referred to as a peak, but it is too early to tell if the snowpack has peaked yet this season.
Last Saturday, this measurement reached 16.5 inches, the highest it has been all season, but has since declined to 14.5 inches on Wednesday, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. If 16.5 inches ends up being the peak for this season, it will have peaked seven days earlier and with about 3.4 inches less water than the 30-year median peak…
It’s too early to consider this the peak because it could still snow more, which has happened in previous years. In 2018, snow water equivalency appeared to peak on April 1 at 17 inches, but a snowstorm days later resulted in that year’s peak being 19.7 inches, just shy of the 20.1-inch 30-year median…
Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he wouldn’t say it is a concern at this point but is definitely something to keep an eye on.
It is relatively normal to see things starting to melt at this time of year, he said. What remains to be seen for Domonkos is how much precipitation will come this spring and early summer…
There have been worse years. In 2012, snow equivalency peaked in early March at just 14.3 inches. Still, Romero-Heaney said these low snow years seem to be happening with more frequency…
The river is warmer simply because there is less water to be heated up. When heat from the sun is more concentrated in less water, it can have severe affects on the river’s aquatic life. The city is already working with partners to be able to release more water into the river this summer, something they have started to do nearly every year…
Getting moisture in mid-May to mid-June would be particularly fruitful for producers and set them up for a productive season, especially because most of the grasses that grow in this region are cool-season grasses, Hagenbuch said. These grasses will keep growing if they have water, but when that dries up, so will the grass.
FromInside Climate News (Bob Berwyn and Judy Fahys):
Critical April 1 snowpack readings once again spell trouble, and new studies show the warming climate is lengthening dry spells and shrinking the snowpack, even in winter.
Lack of monsoon rainfall last summer and spotty snowfall this winter combined to worsen the Western drought dramatically in the past year, and spring snowmelt won’t bring much relief. Critical April 1 measurements of snow accumulations from mountain ranges across the region show that most streams and rivers will once again flow well below average levels this year, stressing ecosystems and farms and depleting key reservoirs that are already at dangerously low levels.
As the climate warms, it’s likely that drought conditions will worsen and persist across much of the West. Dry spells between downpours and blizzards are getting longer, and snowpack in the mountains is starting to melt during winter, new research shows. The warming atmosphere may also be suppressing critical summer rains from the western monsoon.
A year ago, when California and Colorado experienced their worst fire seasons on record, drought conditions spanned about half the West, and no areas experienced “extreme” or “exceptional” conditions. But going into this year’s dry season, about 90 percent of the region is now in drought, with 40 percent in those two most severe categories.
At the end of last month, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed exceptional drought spreading across roughly half of Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, and extending up to northern Colorado. Utah was persistently dry from January 2020 through January of this year, with some welcome snow piling up in just the last few weeks, but too little and too late to stop the state’s steady drying. California’s snowpack is about half of average, according to that state’s April 1 snow survey…
Forecasters expect this year’s annual flow into Lake Powell, a key Colorado River reservoir that helps distribute water to 40 million people and vast croplands, will only be around 45 percent of normal.
Other forecasters see little chance for drought-busting storms in April, the last full month of the western wet season. Off the West Coast, a bulge of warm and dry air known as the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” that shifts storms northward is forming in the same general area where it contributed to the extreme drought California experienced from 2012 to 2016. As a result, the outlook for the rest of the month in the state is trending toward “extremely dry.”
This year’s parched conditions aren’t surprising to climate scientists who study the region. Nearly all recent research suggests that the West is experiencing what climatologists call aridification—decades of drying with rare relief from occasional wet years.
Research published this week by the American Geophysical Union analyzed daily temperature and precipitation readings collected between 1976 and 2019 from 337 weather stations spread from North Dakota and Texas to the West Coast.
The analysis showed that, across the West, the longest dry spells between measurable precipitation are increasing by 2.4 days per decade, while precipitation is declining about 0.09 inches and temperatures are increasing at 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit every 10 years.
Hardest hit is the Desert Southwest, where average dry spells increased by 50 percent—from 31 to 48 days—during the 45-year study period, and total annual precipitation declined by 0.75 inches per decade.
Bill K. Smith, an author of the study from the University of Arizona who studies how drought in the Southwest affects plants, said those trends have accelerated since 2000. The new study and other research shows that changes in the timing and intensity of rainfall are likely to disrupt plant communities, he said. Species that grow quickly after an intense downpour and can survive dry spells in dormancy are likely to replace those needing a steadier supply of moisture…
More Winter Snowmelt Could Disrupt Ecosystems and Water Management
One reason that less moisture is trickling down from mountains to arid landscapes below is that more snow is melting during winter, when it should be piling up, as shown in another recent study published in Nature Climate Change. That research, led by Keith Musselman, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the first to compile a long-term data record from 1,065 automated weather stations in the Western United States and Canada.
One-third of those stations showed that snowmelt is increasing throughout the winter, but especially in November and March. This year, the winter snowpack in Colorado was already in steep decline on April 6, when it’s typically at its peak.
The findings show that the Western snowpack is more sensitive to warming than suggested by the commonly used measurement of the snow’s water content, Musselman said, and more winter snowmelt will complicate water resource planning. Water managers around the West have historically relied on the April 1 snowpack measurements to decide how much water to store or release from reservoirs, and how much will be available for seasonal irrigation.
The findings bolster projections that global warming will disrupt the water cycle that’s been relatively stable for at least the past few hundred years, said snow scientist Jeff Deems, part of the research team at the Western Water Assessment.
“At a basic level, this study helps quantify something you suspected, anecdotally,” he said. “We’ve grown up in a world in which snowpack has been a reliable reservoir, but it’s not that way anymore.”
The research shows that the widely used measurements from snow-sensing stations and manual surveys don’t tell the whole story of how global warming is changing the snowpack, he added.
“We can’t rely on history anymore to tell us what is up there,” said Deems, cofounder of a company that does aerial snow measurements. Keeping up with the rapid changes warming is making to the water cycle requires more emphasis on broad-scale measurements of snow from planes and satellites, he said.
The April 1 snowpack readings worked well in the past, Musselman said, but when you add in new and rapidly changing factors like winter snowmelt, “you’re eroding your predictive capacity.”
Big Impacts Trickle Down From Winter Melting
Early snowmelt can raise winter soil moisture, which could “prime the pump for an extreme response, something like a rain-on-snow flood event,” Musselman said. Wetter cold season soils may also emit more carbon dioxide, and increasing winter runoff can wash more pollution into rivers, worsening water quality, he added.
In Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows, Jessica Lundquist, with the Mountain Hydrology Research Group at the University of Washington, found that 2017 storms that delivered record-setting snowfall to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains also brought rain and extreme cold temperatures, which formed ice layers within the snowpack that left a “bathtub ring of damage” to trees encased by the ice. Similar frozen layers in the snowpack can also make it harder for animals like bighorn sheep to find food.
From The Department of Interior (Deb Haaland and Tom Vilsack):
In response to worsening drought conditions in the West, including in areas like the Klamath River Basin, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack released the following statement:
“Water is a sacred resource essential to feeding families, growing crops, sustaining wildlife and the environment, and powering agricultural businesses. Unfortunately, drought conditions in the West continue to worsen, including in areas like the Klamath River Basin, leading to the potential for historically low water allocations. The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture recognize the urgency of this crisis and its impacts on farmers, Tribes, and communities, and are committed to an all-hands-on-deck approach that both minimizes the impacts of the drought and develops a long-term plan to facilitate conservation and economic growth. Our agencies are actively working with Oregon, California and other western states to coordinate resources and identify immediate financial and technical assistance for impacted irrigators and Tribes. We are also committed to robust and continued engagement with state, local, and Tribal governments to develop longer term measures to respond to climate change and improve water security.”
It’s become so common, perhaps you’ve stopped noticing how often your local weather forecast is “above normal.” It’s noted during extreme heat in the summer, when mild temperatures persist through the winter, or when nights don’t cool down like they used to.
But on May 4, the hotter Earth will officially become the new normal.
That’s when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) releases its once-a-decade update to “climate normals.” They are the 30-year averages for temperature and precipitation that local meteorologists rely on as the baseline for their forecasts. To be sure, some updates will be minuscule. But the fastest-warming places will see a real bump in their averages that could make some forecasts seem confusing and pose a challenge to meteorologists…
The current “normals” are from 1981-2010, based on data collected by thousands of monitoring stations around the country operated by the National Weather Service. The NOAA update will shift the time frame for those averages later, to the period from 1991 to 2020. The decade from 2011-2020 is one of the hottest on record in the U.S.
“It was a very substantial upward trend in temperature, especially along the West Coast, in the South and along the East Coast,” says Mike Palecki, with NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
There were exceptions; some places in the North Central part of the U.S. actually cooled a bit. But globally, the decade ending in 2020 was the hottest decade recorded since 1880…
Since the mid-20th century, Earth has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pace of that warming has picked up in recent decades. Scientists warn that humans must keep global temperatures from rising more than about 3 degrees Fahrenheit in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change…
This year, to help businesses better prepare, NOAA for the first time will also put out 15-year averages using more recent temperature and precipitation data. It’s one of many ways the agency is helping people keep pace with a climate “normal” that just keeps changing.
The Cold Wave that occurred across the central United States in mid-February has preliminary damage losses in excess of $10 billion. Texas experienced the majority of these losses, with costly impacts occurring in more than a dozen additional states. This event is the most costly winter storm event on record for the U.S., surpassing losses associated with the Superstorm of 1993.
During March, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 45.5°F, 4.0°F above the 20th-century average. This ranked in the warmest third of the 127-year period of record. The year-to-date (January-March) average contiguous U.S. temperature was 36.9°F, 1.8°F above average, also ranking in the warmest third of the record. The March precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 2.45 inches, 0.06 inch below average, and ranked in the middle third of the 127-year period of record. The year-to-date precipitation total was 6.55 inches, 0.41 inch above average, ranking in the middle third of the January-March record.
This monthly summary from NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia and the public to support informed decision-making.
Above-average temperatures were observed from the Northwest to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and into the Northeast. Temperatures across North Dakota were fourth warmest on record. Below-average temperatures were present across parts of the West Coast during March.
The Alaska March temperature was 7.2°F, 3.6°F below the long-term average. This ranked in the coldest third of the 97-year period of record for the state and was the coldest March since 2017. On average, the coldest departures from average occurred across south-central Alaska while much of the North Slope was near average. Bering Sea ice extent was 81 percent of average for March, which contributed to above-average temperatures across the Aleutians.
Above-average precipitation was observed from the central U.S. to the Tennessee Valley and Gulf Coast in March. Nebraska precipitation ranked second wettest for the month. Below-average precipitation occurred across the Northwest, northern Plains, Northeast, as well as portions of the Southeast, Deep South and West. Montana and North Dakota ranked second driest on record for the month.
Precipitation across Alaska during March was much above average across western and northwestern Alaska as well as south of the Brooks Range. Juneau reported its snowiest March since 2007.
According to the March 30 U.S. Drought Monitor report, nearly 44 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, down from 46.6 percent at the beginning of March. Drought conditions intensified and expanded across portions of the Northeast, Texas, northern Plains and California. Drought intensity and/or coverage lessened across parts of the central Rockies and central Plains as well as across Puerto Rico and was eliminated in Hawaii.
Above-average temperatures were present across the Northern Tier and Northeast as well as portions of the West and Southeast. Despite the broad extent of warmth seen during March across the Lower 48, temperatures over the first three months of the year were near average across a wide portion of the U.S. This was in large part due to the cold weather experienced during February. Below-average temperatures occurred across portions of the South.
The Alaska January-March temperature was 6.3°F, 0.4°F above the long-term average, ranking in the middle third of the record for the state. Above-average temperatures occurred across Bristol Bay and the Aleutians during the first three months of 2021 with the remainder of the state experiencing near-average conditions.
Above-average precipitation stretched from the central Plains to the East Coast during January-March. Nebraska ranked second wettest on record. Dry conditions were present across much of the West, northern Plains, Great Lakes, Northeast and parts of the South and Southeast. North Dakota ranked driest on record for this three-month period.
For more detailed climate information, check out our comprehensive March 2021 U.S. Climate report scheduled for release on April 13, 2021.
Here’s the release from the NRCS Colorado (Brian Domonkos):
Several low-pressure systems moved across the state bringing heavy snow accumulations to the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies during March. Precipitation in March ranged from a high of 126 percent of average in the South Platte River Basin to as low of 86 percent of average in the combined Yampa-White-North Platte River Basins. NRCS Hydrologist Joel Atwood notes, “Generally storms in March improved snowpack across the state with the greatest gains in eastern river basins. Despite these storms, warmer temperature in the mountains have already begun melting the snowpack.” Snowpack as of April 8th ranges from a low of 71 percent of median in the combined San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan river basin to a high of 92 percent of median in the South Platte River Basin.
Statewide reservoir storage only increased by a percentage point over last month. Currently, the only river basin in the state holding above average reservoir storage is the combined Yampa-White river basins. On the low end, the combined San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan and the Arkansas river basins have 59 and 69 percent of average reservoir storage, respectively.
A drought that was well in place as the snowpack began to accumulate has had little relief with recent precipitation as all basins in the state continue to maintain below average water year-to-date precipitation. Before the water year, an exceptionally warm and dry summer and fall has resulted in extremely dry soils. NRCS Hydrologist Atwood continued to comment that “A combination of dry soils and below normal water year-to-date precipitation will likely moderate the runoff produced from snowmelt, producing lower volumes than would commonly be observed with a similar snowpack.”
The lowest streamflow forecasts in the state are rivers draining the Southern San Juan Mountains and the Gunnison River Basin. The average streamflow volume forecasts in these basins range from 36 to 77 percent of average. With recent storms, the Arkansas River Basin now has the best water supply outlook in the state, where streamflow volume forecasts range from 83 to 109 percent of average.
In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, April 9th, 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.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor April 6, 2021.
West Drought Monitor April 6, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor April 6, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor April 6, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A cold front moving across the eastern half of the country last week brought showers and thunderstorms and left record-breaking cold temperatures in its wake. Meanwhile, dry conditions and warmer than normal temperatures continued in the West with many locations setting daily record high temperatures. The overall effect was a general deterioration of conditions across the Lower 48 as moisture deficits continued to build in the West and in locations in the eastern half of the country that missed out on the heaviest rainfall. Improvements were minimal and limited to parts of the Midwest and Southern Plains…
High temperatures in Nebraska and the Dakotas reached the upper 70s to mid-80s last week. With values of about 20 to 30 degrees above normal, many locations set daily records. These warm temperatures combined with low relative humidity and gusty winds to increase fire danger across the region. North and South Dakota declared fire emergencies due to ongoing drought conditions and increased wildfire activity. Severe (D2) and extreme (D3) drought expanded in both states as precipitation deficits continued to grow and increased evaporative demand dried out soils and stressed vegetation. USDA reports that, as of April 4, 92% of North Dakota’s topsoil and 68% of South Dakota’s topsoil was rated short to very short, indicating that soil moisture supplies are significantly less than what is required for normal crop growth development. In North Dakota, county Extension agents report that producers are starting to de-stock livestock herds by culling cows and grain farmers are very concerned about the lack of moisture. Photos show soil drift due to the dry conditions and high winds…
As the wet season begins to wind down in the West, widespread extreme (D3) to exceptional (D4) drought continues across much of the Southwest. Another week of warm, dry weather didn’t help. High temperatures ranged from 4 degrees above normal in the Northwest to 15 degrees above normal in the Southwest while little to no precipitation fell across much of the region. Where exceptions occurred, in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies, totals generally weren’t enough to overcome shortages. In eastern Washington, abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) expanded as precipitation deficits continued to increase, drying out soils. Conditions also deteriorated in Oregon. Most notably, D3 expanded and D4 was introduced in south central Oregon in response to record low water-year-to-date total precipitation, streamflow and soil moisture. It’s worth noting that since the U.S. Drought Monitor began in 2000, this is only the second time that D4 has occurred in the state (last occurrence in summer and fall of 2003). In California, the April 1 snow survey showed that snow water content in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was at 59% of average and the state, as a whole, received about 50% of its average precipitation for the water year. Two consecutive dry years have left reservoirs about half full. These precipitation deficits, combined with high temperatures, have reduced streamflow, dried out soils, and stressed vegetation. Changes to this week’s map include an expansion of D3 in northern California and western Nevada and an expansion of D2 (severe drought) and D3 in southern California. D1 expanded in northwest Wyoming and southeast Montana to reflect below normal precipitation over the water year and its effect on soil moisture and streamflow. Eastern Montana also saw deteriorating conditions with an expansion of D2 and D3. Here, the lack of precipitation over the last 2 to 3 months has dried out soils and stressed vegetation. USDA reports that, as of April 4, 76% of the state’s topsoil was rated short to very short indicating that soil moisture supplies are significantly less than what is required for normal crop growth development…
Showers and thunderstorms impacted the Lower Mississippi and Tennessee valleys last week, resulting in improvements to abnormally dry (D0) areas in Mississippi. Having missed out on the heaviest rainfall, drought and abnormal dryness generally expanded in the western part of the region. In Texas, degradations occurred throughout the state in response to rainfall deficits, increased evaporative demand and vegetation health. Most notable is an expansion of D3 (extreme) and D4 (exceptional) drought in the long-term drought area in the western part of the state. In Oklahoma, this week’s map shows broad expansions of D0 and D1 (moderate drought). Warm, dry weather combined with gusty winds increased evaporative demand, drying out soils and vegetation. The only improvements this week occurred in the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma. Despite the lack of rain last week, a reassessment of indicators shows that conditions have started to recover…
The National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center forecast for the next 5 days (April 8 through the 12) forecasts heavy rain and the potential for thunderstorms for the central U.S. As the storm system pushes eastward, chances increase for heavy rain and thunderstorms across the Upper Midwest, south-central, and southeastern U.S. In the Northwest, a storm moving in from the Pacific will bring colder than normal temperatures with snow likely falling in the Cascades and Northern Rockies and rain at lower elevations. In the Southwest and southern High Plains, warm, dry weather combined with gusty winds is expected to persist, leading to the potential continuation of dangerous fire weather conditions. Moving into next week, the Climate Prediction Center six- to 10-day outlook (valid April 12 through April 16) favors above normal temperatures across the West, Northeast and Southeast, with the largest probabilities centered over the Great Basin and New England. Below normal temperatures are most likely across the Great Plains, Mississippi Valley and Alaska. The greatest probabilities of above normal precipitation are across the Southern Plains, Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
Here’s the release from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Charles Poling):
Climate change will drive more drought, heat waves, floods, and low river flows in seven western states
In the vast Colorado River basin, climate change is driving extreme, interconnected events among earth-system elements such as weather and water. These events are becoming both more frequent and more intense and are best studied together, rather than in isolation, according to new research.
“We found that concurrent extreme hydroclimate events, such as high temperatures and unseasonable rain that quickly melt mountain snowpack to cause downstream floods, are projected to increase and intensify within several critical regions of the Colorado River basin,” said Katrina Bennett, a hydrologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the paper in the journal Water. “Concurrent extreme events of more than one kind, rather than isolated events of a single type, will be the ones that actually harm people, society, and the economy.”
Another example of concurrent hydroclimate events might be low precipitation accompanied by high temperatures, which cause drought as an impact. Other factors such as low soil moisture or wildfire burn scars on steep slopes contribute to impacts.
“You never have just a big precipitation event that causes a big flood,” Bennett said. “It results from a combination of impacts, such as fire, topography, and whether it was a wet or dry summer. That’s the way we need to start thinking about these events.”
The Los Alamos study looked heat waves, drought, flooding, and low flows in climate scenarios taken from six earth-system models for the entire Colorado River basin. The basin spans portions of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California.
Using indicators such as maximum temperature, maximum precipitation, dry days, maximum and minimum streamflow, maximum and minimum soil moisture, and maximum evapotranspiration, the team ran the models for a historical period (1970-1999) and a projected future period (2070-2099). They studied the difference between the two periods (future minus historical) for events at four time scales: daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual.
Overall, precipitation across the Colorado increased by 2.1 millimeters between the future and historical periods, with some models showing increases in precipitation and some showing decreases. Nonetheless, the team found that in all cases, precipitation changes still drove an increase in concurrent extreme events.
Unsurprisingly, temperature increased across all six models and was an even stronger catalyst of events. Consistently across the entire basin, the study found an average temperature rise of 5.5 degrees Celsius between the future and historical periods.
In every scenario, the number and magnitude of each type of extreme event increased on average across the Colorado River Basin for the future period compared to the historical period. These numbers were given as a statistical expression of the change in frequency between the historical and future period, not as a count of discrete events.
Those increases have significant social, economic, and environmental implications for the entire region, which is a major economic engine for the United States. The study identified four critical watersheds in the Colorado basin — the Blue River basin, Uncompahgre, East Taylor, Salt/Verde watersheds — that are home to important water infrastructures, water resources, and hydrological research that would be particularly vulnerable to extreme events in the future.
More than 40 million people depend on the Colorado River basin for water, and it directly supports $1.4 trillion in agricultural and commercial activity — roughly 1/13 of the U.S. economy, according to 2014 figures.
In Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, flooding, drought, freezing events, wildfire, severe storms, and winter storms have cost approximately $40 billion between 1980–2020.
The Paper: “Concurrent Changes in Extreme Hydroclimate Events in the Colorado River Basin,” Katrina E. Bennett (corresponding author), Carl Talsma, and Riccardo Boero, in Water 2021, 13, 978, April 1, 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13070978
The Funding: This work was funded by the Early Career Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
For the second time in less than a year, state health officials plan to ask lawmakers to fast-track permitting authority over hundreds of miles of streams left unprotected after a 2020 Trump Administration rollback of federal Clean Water Act rules.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move comes just weeks after a federal court denied Colorado’s effort to prevent the new federal rules from taking effect.
The CDPHE is holding work group sessions and seeking public comment on a proposed bill that is likely to be introduced in the next two weeks, officials said. The CDPHE declined to comment for this article.
Last May Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won a temporary injunction against the new rules, which would have taken effect in June 2020. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision last month.
As a result, the rules are set to take effect in Colorado April 23. Though many expect the Biden Administration to alter the new rules, once again, state health officials say an interim rule is needed to ensure the state has the permitting authority and the funds needed to protect streams.
Major water interests, such as the nonpartisan Colorado Water Congress, are closely watching the latest legislative effort.
Colorado Water Congress Executive Director Doug Kemper said right now there is too much uncertainty around which streams and which activities will be overseen by federal and state agencies.
“It’s a big deal right now because you don’t really know what activity is covered and what is exempted,” said Kemper. His group has not taken a position on the CDPHE’s initiative, in part because a formal bill has yet to be introduced.
Environmentalists said it’s important that the state moves quickly to assume the permitting authority to protect streams and to allow millions of dollars in construction, dam and road projects to be properly reviewed and permitted.
Industry groups, however, believe new legislation isn’t required right now because the state has some discretion to act already and because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees much of the work on federally protected streams, also has some discretionary authority to review and issue permits.
“We’re concerned that the focus is solely on legislative options,” said John Kolanz, an attorney who represents the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. He believes the state could make changes to its own rules, rather than enacting a new law.
“We don’t think it’s advisable to rush through legislation and a complicated rulemaking by the end of the year,” Kolanz said during a public work group meeting hosted by the CDPHE Monday.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who tracks water quality regulation, disagreed, saying the CDPHE must be given new legal authority quickly in order to adequately monitor and fund stream protection work over the next one to two years.
“The biggest part of this legislation is getting some fees so that the [Colorado Water Quality Control] division can do its job and go out and see what’s happening on the ground,” Kassen said Monday.
At issue is what’s known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The rule was designed to classify which streams are subject to federal rules and which activities must obtain permits from the Army Corps to ensure those streams are protected even when they are disturbed by home and road building, construction of new storm water systems, and other activities.
But WOTUS has been contested in courts for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
It has also been difficult to administer because the U.S. is home to such a wide variety of waterways.
In the East and Midwest massive rivers are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new federal rule only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, are regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states are no longer protected under the law.
If the CDPHE’s new legislative effort succeeds, it would give state health officials the authority to issue so-called dredge-and-fill permits on stream segments no longer protected by the federal law.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Another small but important piece of the giant puzzle that Holy Cross Energy has set out to solve was revealed Tuesday.
The electrical cooperative serving members in the Vail-Aspen-Rifle area has agreed to purchase electricity from a solar and battery storage project being built by Ameresco Inc. Near Glenwood Springs, on the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College, the company will install solar panels capable of generating a maximum of 4.5 megawatts of electricity.
Adjacent to the solar panels it will operate battery storage with a capacity of 5 megawatts (or 15 megawatt hours). Batteries will be charged with electricity generated by the solar panels.
The batteries can be tapped to supply electricity during times of peak demand on a daily basis. In the Vail-Aspen area, peak demand typically occurs in evening hours, with the strongest demand during winter months.
The lithium-iron-phosphate batteries can also augment Holy Cross’s electrical generation during times of disruption, such as caused by wildfires or storms.
“That battery and local generation is an important part of the infrastructure that is real important to creating a resilient energy system for the future,” said Steve Buening, the vice president for power supply and programs at Holy Cross.
The battery storage will be able to have 5 megawatts of power vs. 15 megawatt-hour of capacity. Beuning compares the 5 megawatts to what happens when you press on the gas pedal of an internal-combustion car, while the mega-watt hour is how much the gas tank can hold.
With 45,000 members, Holy Cross is among the larger of Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives. As of 2018 it was responsible for 2.2% of electrical sales in the state.
Holy Cross has been assembling disparate pieces of infrastructure, some in and among the communities it services, others hundreds of miles away, as it pursues a goal of completely decarbonizing its electrical supply by 2030.
In addition to the new solar-plus-storage complex near Glenwood Springs, Holy Cross plans a 5-megawatt solar farm on McCain Flats, near the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring.
Complementing this local generation will be electricity generated for Holy Cross at the Arriba wind farm, to be constructed during the next year along Interstate 70 near the eponymously named town 120 miles southeast of Denver. The wind farm will have 100 megawatts of capacity, enough to supply roughly a third of demand by Holy Cross members.
In storage, Holy Cross has something of the same approach, a mixture of local and smaller and elsewhere and larger.
Directors of Holy Cross in 2020 adopted a plan that lays out potential strategies, including pumped-storage hydro. Water in pumped-storage projects is released to generate electricity to meet peak demands, then pumped uphill again when electricity is more abundant and hence cheaper.
It’s not new technology. Colorado has two such projects, the larger and older being near Georgetown. There, the Cabin Creek project uses a 1,200 feet vertical drop between two reservoirs to generate a maximum of 324 megawatts. The system went on-line in 1967 but has been upgraded since then.
Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross, has spoken about the value of small pumped-storage hydro projects in the Aspen-Vail area, perhaps combined with larger capacity pumped-storage projects elsewhere.
Why the battery storage now for Holy Cross instead of waiting for prices to tumble further. Prices of battery storage have dropped about 80% in the last decade and are projected to decline even more, from $137 per kilowatt-hour to as low as $100 by 2023, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Holy Cross decided that the prices were already good enough.
“One thing that may be holding back investment in utility-scale energy storage is concerns about being an early adopter at higher prices than in the future if battery prices continue their downward trend,” says Buening.
That being noted, the savings are good enough already to yield lower costs of electricity for Holy Cross members.
“We were ready to go ahead,” he says.
Xcel is also planning 275 megawatts of battery storage as it closes two coal-fired power units at Pueblo in the next several years. In a recent filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the utility plans even more in the years beyond 2024. It’s Colorado’s largest utility with 52.5% of Colorado’s electrical sales for 2018.
Photo at top is rendering of the solar-plus-storage project at the Spring Valley Campus near Glenwood Springs.
City of Steamboat Springs officials know the municipality’s primary fresh water supply is increasingly at risk from potential wildfire danger in the Fish Creek watershed, so work will continue this summer to boost water supply redundancy.
The city along with Mount Werner Water District are proceeding with construction of enhanced and expanded “infiltration galleries,” or shallow wells that are filled by ground water near the Yampa River, to increase the volume of secondary water supply intake. Water collected through the Yampa well field, which is located near where Walton Creek meets the Yampa River, is piped to the nearby Yampa Water Treatment Plant
Frank Alfone, water district general manager, said the district’s work should be complete by Dec. 1 for a third shallow well and new raw water transmission line located about a quarter mile south of the district’s two existing wells. The additional well will push intake capacity for 2022 from 1.8 million gallons per day to 2.8 million.
The Yampa Water Treatment Plant, built in 1972, has about half the capacity of the primary Fish Creek Filtration Plant. The Yampa plant was updated in 2018 to be able to process more gallons per day and is used primarily to process water for the outdoor watering season from June through September, Alfone said.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, city water resources manager, said the city will open up bids in 2022 for construction of four additional Yampa River shallow wells to increase the overall intake capacity in the location to 3.5 million gallons per day, which would be available by 2023.
The secondary water intake improvements are part of the city’s updated Water Supply Master Plan, completed in 2019, and a key component of the overall supply plan is the updated Water Conservation Plan approved in May, Romero-Heaney said. The goal of the 10-year Water Conservation Plan is to reduce the amount of water used per household by 10%…
[Romero-Heaney] said the city accomplished six key water conservation measures in 2020. Steamboat Springs City Council and the district adopted regulations that permanently limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. three days per week based on the last digit of a street address. The city replaced 619 feet of aging and possibly leaking water lines, fixed five water main breaks and replaced irrigated sod in front of City Hall with a low water use demonstration garden.
The city updated the water distribution infrastructure master plan to prioritize water line replacements to mitigate leaks and water loss…
The updated conservation plan, posted on the city’s Water Conservation webpage, notes the city is actively engaged in meeting a variety of challenges to ensure a reliable water supply. Those challenges include drought, wildfire, need for more water treatment capacity, uncertainty of Colorado River Compact call, aging infrastructure, low flows in Fish Creek, growth in the west Steamboat Springs area and the uncertainty of climate change that has increased the statewide annual average temperatures by 2.5 degrees through the past 50 years…
The plan looks to preserve the health of Fish Creek and the Yampa River and protect drinking water supplies while reducing the use of chemicals and the energy intensive carbon footprint of treating fresh water and waste water. The plan also factors in the water requirements of the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to the city each year.
Steamboat’s primary source of treated water comes from snowmelt from the 22-square-mile Fish Creek watershed. Those supplies are stored in Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs and treated at the Fish Creek Filtration Plant.
Questions about the water conservation plan can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
FromThe Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via The Denver Post:
Rainstorms grew more erratic and droughts much longer across most of the U.S. West over the past half-century as climate change warmed the planet, according to a sweeping government study released Tuesday that concludes the situation is worsening.
The most dramatic changes were recorded in the desert Southwest, where the average dry period between rainstorms grew from about 30 days in the 1970s to 45 days between storms now, said Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson.
The consequences of the intense dry periods that pummeled areas of the West in recent years were severe — more intense and dangerous wildfires, parched croplands and not enough vegetation to support livestock and wildlife. And the problem appears to be accelerating, with rainstorms becoming more unpredictable and more areas showing longer intervals between storms since the turn of the century compared to prior decades, the study concludes.
High Plains Drought Monitor March 30, 2021.
West Drought Monitor March 30, 2021.
The study comes with almost two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. beset by abnormally dry conditions. Warm temperatures forecast for the next several months could make it the worst spring drought in almost a decade, affecting roughly 74 million people across the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said…
Climate scientists are calling what’s happening in the West a continuation of a “megadrought” that started in 1999.
While previous research documented a decline in total rainfall for much of the West, the work by Biederman and colleagues put more focus on when that rain occurs. That has significant implications for how much water is available for agriculture and plants such as grasses that have shallow roots and need a steadier supply of moisture than large trees.
“Once the growing season starts, the total amount of rainfall is important. But if it comes in just a few large storms, with really long dry periods in between, that can have really detrimental consequences,” Biederman said in an interview.
The total amount of rain in a year doesn’t matter to plants — especially if rains come mostly in heavy bursts with large run-off — but consistent moisture is what keeps them alive, said UCLA meteorologist Daniel Swain, who writes a weather blog about the West and was not part of the study.
The new findings were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Researchers led by University of Arizona climate scientist Fangyue Zhang compiled daily readings going back to 1976 from 337 weather stations across the western U.S. and analyzed rainfall and drought data to identify the changing patterns…
The rainfall study is in line with data that shows climate change already is affecting the planet…
“Climate models project that the American Southwest is very likely to experience more frequent and more severe droughts,” said William Anderegg, a University of Utah biologist and climate scientist. “This study and other recent work demonstrates that this dry down has already begun.”
The weather station data that was used in the study represents “the gold standard’ for an accurate understanding of changes being driven by climate change, said Christopher Field, an earth systems scientist and director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Unrelenting drought and years of rising temperatures due to climate change are pushing the long-overallocated Colorado River into new territory, setting the stage for the largest mandatory water cutbacks to date.
Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has declined dramatically over the past two decades and now stands at just 40% of its full capacity. This summer, it’s projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam.
The reservoir near Las Vegas is approaching a threshold that is expected to trigger a first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government for next year, leading to substantial cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Arizona is in line for the biggest reductions under a 2019 agreement that aims to reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows.
The river has been slipping closer to a shortage for years, and the drought has deepened over the past year, shrinking the flow of streams that feed the river in its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. The soils across the watershed remain parched and will soak up some of the melting snow this spring and summer. The amount of water that flows into Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona state line over the next four months is projected to be only about 45% of the long-term average and among the lowest totals in years.
April 1, 2021 streamflow forecast Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Legend for streamflow forecast.
With the reservoirs continuing to drop, the expected cuts next year will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third…
Managers of Arizona’s water agencies say they have detailed plans in place to deal with the reductions in water supplies over the next five years, even if the drought continues to worsen. These initial steps to cope with shortages are playing out while the seven states that depend on the river prepare for difficult talks on post-2026 rules, negotiating a plan for adapting to a river that’s yielding less as the watershed grows progressively warmer with climate change…
Officials who manage Arizona’s 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which runs from Lake Havasu to Tucson, have known since plans were first drawn up for the system that they hold the lowest priority and could face cuts in a shortage…
Representatives of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin signed the set of agreements known as the Drought Contingency Plan nearly three years ago in a ceremony at Hoover Dam. Under one of the agreements, Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up the level of Lake Mead, while California would participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to fall.
Under a separate deal, Mexico agreed to help by leaving some of its water in Lake Mead.
The deals lay out shortage tiers based on Mead’s levels. The federal government’s latest projections show the lake level will sit below the threshold elevation of 1,075 feet at the beginning ofnext year, triggering what’s called a Tier One shortage.
For Arizona, that means a cut of 512,000 acre-feet or about a third of the CAP’s supply…
The Colorado River’s flow has shrunk during one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists say the West is experiencing a megadrought and one that’s worsened by humanity’s heating of the planet.
The drought over the past year has hit especially hard in the Colorado River watershed. Last spring and summer, months of extreme heat combined with the lack of monsoon rains baked the soils dry and shrank the amount of runoff, sapping the river and its tributaries.
This winter, the storms that rolled across the Rockies brought some snow, but not nearly enough to brighten the picture. The snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin now stands at 75% of the median for this time of year…
The upshot, as climate researcher Jeff Lukas puts it, is that “the exceptionally low soil moisture will turn a blah snowpack into a terrible runoff year.”
The effects will ripple downstream to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which hold supplies for cities, farming districts and tribes across the Southwest.
The country’s two largest reservoirs are both headed for record lows. The last time Lake Mead reached a record low level was in 2016. The latest projections from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Mead could fall below that mark as soon as July. Lake Powell is now just 36% full, and estimates show it could decline to a record low around March 2022.
Pushback against a “meatless day” proclaimed by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last month was predictably vigorous. It was part of the “war on rural Colorado,” said a state senator who runs a cattle-feeding operation. Twenty-six of Colorado’s 64 counties adopted “meat-in” proclamations. Governors from the adjoining states of Wyoming and Nebraska even gleefully designated an “eat-meat” day.
Afterward, Polis’s press aides pointed to the hundreds of do-good proclamations the governor issues each year, and the governor quickly declared his beef brisket the rival of any in Colorado.
But this proclamation differed from those affirming truck drivers, bat awareness and breakfast burritos. It called for broad change. Using the language of a “MeatOut” Day proclamation written by an animal rights group, his statement cited the benefits of a plant-based diet in reducing our carbon footprint, preserving ecosystems and preventing animal cruelty. It also noted the growing alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs.
In the 1880s, when my great-grandparents homesteaded in eastern Colorado, they grazed cattle on the short-grass prairie. Ranchers still do. Once off the range, though, our beef production is best understood as an industrial process. The foundation is grain.
In his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates explains the modern pyramid of protein: A chicken eats two calories’ worth of grain to give us one calorie of poultry. For cattle, it’s six calories of feed to produce one calorie of beef. I’ve stood in rows of corn tassels 12 feet high at maturity, the growth boosted by luxuriant applications of fertilizer. I’ve pinched my nose while driving past feedlots large enough for 80,000 or more head. I’ve heard the bellow of cows minutes away from the knife at slaughterhouses.
Denver no longer has slaughterhouses but still prides itself on its livestock heritage. The annual Western Stock Show puts cowboy hats in high-end restaurants and strip joints alike. Cattle represent 50% of Colorado’s $7 billion agriculture economy, and livestock altogether 70%. After Polis’s proclamation, livestock producers debated boycotting Denver’s Stock Show for other venues — perhaps Oklahoma.
Even a legislator from one of metro Denver’s poorer neighborhoods objected to Polis’s proclamation, pointing out that nutritious vegetarian options aren’t available to many of her constituents.
But it’s not just low-income areas that lack meal choices. Fast-food franchises in big cities and small towns all cater to the lowest-common denominator, their high-volume enterprises predicated on cheap meat, especially beef. The consequences are that we now have bulbous bellies and too many heart attacks. We struggle to live with restraint.
The meaty issue here is not about meat vs. no-meat. Rather, it’s about scale and processes. What have we sacrificed in pursuit of volume?
Credit the ranchers who graze cattle holistically in an attempt to replicate the once-vast herds of bison. But also note that grass-fed beef needs buyers. Most holistically raised cows get further fattened on grain. That’s where the market is.
There’s also the looming issue of cows contributing to climate change, as highly polluting methane comes out of both ends of cattle. Gates, always the technologist, insists that innovation can reduce the carbon output of agriculture by reducing our yen for real beef. He put his money where my mouth is by investing in a vegetarian product called the Impossible Burger. Last week I had one. It fooled me. I thought it was beef.
Meanwhile, the urban-rural divide remains starkly real and evident in voting and development patterns. While cities struggle to contain their growth, many small towns struggle to hang on. Ironically, the economies of most of these at-risk rural towns are premised on industrial-scale agriculture.
Rural Colorado never has liked Polis, a savvy businessman from the exurbs of Boulder who favors market solutions. He had barely warmed his gubernatorial seat when handmade signs began showing up on rural country roads asking “Why does Polis hate…” You fill in the blank.
This meatless proclamation was tone-deaf. It could have narrowly affirmed meatless alternatives rather than decried meat. Denial and anger will not prevail, though. I’m reminded of when coal producers, 10 and 15 years ago, were fighting the future of renewables instead of figuring out their place in the world to come.
Though most of us may continue to eat beef, some of us have already begun to shift away. Polis was perhaps the unwitting messenger of that truth — that cows in the West are no longer sacred.
Here’s the release from the University of Colorado (Kelsey Simpkins):
More snow is melting during winter across the West, a concerning trend that could impact everything from ski conditions to fire danger and agriculture, according to a new CU Boulder analysis of 40 years of data.
Researchers found that since the late 1970s, winter’s boundary with spring has been slowly disappearing, with one-third of 1,065 snow measurement stations from the Mexican border to the Alaskan Arctic recording increasing winter snowmelt. While stations with significant melt increases have recorded them mostly in November and March, the researchers found that melt is increasing in all cold season months—from October to March.
Their new findings, published [April 5, 2021] in Nature Climate Change, have important implications for water resource planning and may indicate fewer pristine powder days and crustier snow for skiers.
“Particularly in cold mountain environments, snow accumulates over the winter—it grows and grows—and gets to a point where it reaches a maximum depth, before melt starts in the spring,” said Keith Musselman, lead author on the study and research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU Boulder.
But the new research found that melt before April 1 has increased at almost half of more than 600 stations in western North America, by an average of 3.5% per decade.
“Historically, water managers use the date of April 1 to distinguish winter and spring, but this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred as melt increases during the winter,” said Noah Molotch, co-author on the study, associate professor of geography and fellow at INSTAAR.
Snow is the primary source of water and streamflow in western North America and provides water to 1 billion people globally. In the West, snowy mountains act like water towers, reserving water up high until it melts, making it available to lower elevations that need it during the summer, like a natural drip irrigation system.
“That slow trickle of meltwater that reliably occurs over the dry season is something that we have built our entire water infrastructure on in the West,” said Musselman. “We rely very heavily on that water that comes down our rivers and streams in the warm season of July and August.”
More winter snowmelt is effectively shifting the timing of water entering the system, turning that natural drip irrigation system on more frequently in the winter, shifting it away from the summer, he said.
This is a big concern for water resource management and drought prediction in the West, which depends heavily on late winter snowpack levels in March and April. This shift in water delivery timing could also affect wildfire seasons and agricultural irrigation needs.
Wetter soils in the winter also have ecological implications. One, the wet soils have no more capacity to soak up additional water during spring melt or rainstorms, which can increase flash flooding. Wetter winter soils also keep microbes awake and unfrozen during a time they might otherwise lay dormant. This affects the timing of nutrient availability, water quality and can increase carbon dioxide emissions.
An underutilized data source
Across the western U.S., hundreds of thin, fluid-filled metal pillows are carefully tucked away on the ground and out of sight from outdoor enthusiasts. These sensors are part of an extensive network of long-running manual and automated snow observation stations, which you may have even used data from when looking up how much snow is on your favorite snowshoeing or Nordic skiing trail.
This new study is the first to compile data from all 1,065 automated stations in western North America, providing valuable statistical insight into how mountain snow is changing.
And by using automated, continuously recording snowpack stations instead of manual, monthly observations, the new research shows that winter melt trends are very widespread—at three-times the number of stations with snowpack declines, according to Musselman.
Snowpack is typically measured by calculating how much water will be produced when it melts, known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is affected by how much snow falls from the sky in a given season. But because winter snowpack melt is influenced more by temperature than by precipitation, it is a better indicator of climate warming over time.
“These automated stations can be really helpful to understand potential climate change impacts on our resources,” said Musselman. “Their observations are consistent with what our climate models are suggesting will continue to happen.”
Other authors on this publication include Nans Addor at the University of Exeter and Julie Vano at the Aspen Global Change Institute.
Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Kim Kaplan):
Dry periods between rainstorms have become longer and annual rainfall has become more erratic across most of the western United States during the past 50 years, according to a study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of Arizona.
Against the backdrop of steadily warming temperatures and decreasing total yearly rainfall, rain has been falling in fewer and sometimes larger storms, with longer dry intervals between. Total yearly rainfall has decreased by an average of four inches over the last half century, while the longest dry period in each year increased from 20 to 32 days across the West, explained co-senior author Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the ARS Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.
“The greatest changes in drought length have taken place in the desert Southwest. The average dry period between storms in the 1970s was about 30 days; now that has grown to 45 days,” Biederman said.
Extreme droughts are also occurring more often in the majority of the West according to historical weather data as there has been an increase in the year-to-year variation of both total rainfall amounts and the duration of dry periods.
Biederman emphasized the growing fluctuations in drought and rain patterns as the most significant change.
“Consistency of rainfall, or the lack of it, is often more important than the total amount of rain when it comes to forage continuing to grow for livestock and wildlife, for dryland farmers to produce crops, and for the mitigation of wildfire risks,” Biederman said.
The rate of increasing variability of rainfall within each year and between years also appears to be accelerating, with greater portions of the West showing longer drought intervals since 2000 compared to previous years.
Notable exceptions to these drought patterns were seen in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and the Northern Plains region of Montana, Wyoming, and the most western parts of North and South Dakota. In these regions, the researchers found some increases in total annual rainfall and decreases in drought intervals. Together, these changes support what models have predicted as a consequence of climate change: a northward shift in the mid-latitude jet stream, which brings moisture from the Pacific Ocean to the western United States, according to Biederman.
A critical aspect of this study is the use of actual rainfall data from 337 weather stations spread across the western United States. Biederman contrasted this with the more common use of “gridded” data, which relies on interpolations between reporting stations and tends to smooth out some of the variability revealed by this work.
“Fangyue Zhang, lead author of the manuscript and a post-doctoral researcher on our team, did the hard, painstaking work of compiling and analyzing data from more than 300 weather stations with complete daily records to reveal these changing drought and rainfall patterns,” Biederman said.
“We were surprised to find widespread changes in precipitation have already occurred across large regions of the West. For regions such as the desert Southwest, where changes clearly indicate a trend towards longer, more erratic droughts, research is urgently needed to help mitigate detrimental impacts on ecosystem carbon uptake, forage availability, wildfire activity, and water availability for people,” said co-senior author William K. Smith, assistant professor, University of Arizona.
This research was published in Geophysical Research Letters.
FromThe Tri-State Livestock News (Ruth Wiechmann) via The Fence Post:
The United States Drought Monitor continues to indicate a critical lack of moisture for much of the Great Plains. March snowstorms brought a bit of relief to some areas but forecasted warmer and drier than normal conditions for the foreseeable future stand poised to suck the soil dry again.
Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist at North Dakota State University, says that it is unusual for North Dakota to be so dry this time of year.
“This extreme level of drought is unusual,” he said. “Our Drought Severity and Coverage Index is sitting at 331 right now, the highest on record since 2000. This does make it look like we are in the worst drought, but we are just looking at one facet of the data in the DSCI. We also need to consider the accumulated impact of drought over time. Based on the accumulated DSCI the current conditions follow the drought of 2002-05, 2017-18, 2008-09, 2012-13, and 2006-07. However, we have to keep in mind that the growing season has just started and the impact will accumulate.”
Akyuz is concerned for the long term, with 47 percent of the state experiencing Extreme Drought (D3) and 100 percent of North Dakota in Moderate Drought (D1) or higher according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. He said that the lack of the usual snow cover through the past winter is significant…
It’s a perfect storm, and it’s turning into dust storms across the area. Akyuz said that extension agents across North Dakota sent him photos following recent wind storms clocking gusts up to 79 miles per hour that are reminiscent of the photos of dirt drifts from the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a drought that compares with the ‘Dirty Thirties,’” he said. “There was no significant precipitation to mitigate that drought for a decade. The 1930 drought was finally over in 1941 with precipitation that year adding up to the wettest growing season on record for North Dakota. We’re not there yet but I don’t see a significant change in weather patterns coming soon.”
Akyuz said that in spite of their severity, current conditions do not match the intensity of Exceptional Drought (D4) conditions seen in 2006 and 2017, nor the extended periods of drought seen in the 1950s and in the six-year drought spanning 1987-1992…
A mid-March snowstorm brought some relief to areas of southern South Dakota, much of Wyoming and Nebraska, but Tony Bergantino, climatologist at the University of Wyoming, is concerned that the benefit could be short lived…
While Wyoming tends to be on the dry side, and Bergantino says that drought is certainly not unprecedented, he sees current conditions and predictions for the coming months pointing to below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures.
“I’m hoping for more moisture,” he said, “But it looks like we could see something similar to the 2012 drought or the dry years in the early 2000s. One thing that helped us in 2012 early on was that we were coming off a year of really good snowpack which helped fill the reservoirs. So we were in better shape going into 2012. 2020 was not good at all so we have a double whammy going into 2021.”
Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University’s Extension state climatologist in Aberdeen, said that parts of the northern tier of South Dakota counties have seen no measurable precipitation in March, when moisture amounts normally start to increase in the state.
The blizzard that dumped snow along the Front Range in March helped Colorado nearly reach its average snowpack for the winter, federal data shows.
But last year’s historically dry weather means that streams are likely to run lower than normal, potentially restricting the amount of water some consumers can use, experts said Thursday…
State snowpack levels were at 93 percent of the average for the state as of April 1, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service…
That figure was higher in 2020 when the snowpack was above average for the same date. Still, a dry spring and hot summer made it one of the driest years on record and created drought conditions that sparked some of the worst fires in state history.
The outlook for snowfall at the beginning of the year looked dismal. But a string of strong snowstorms, including March’s blizzard, pushed state numbers back on track. Areas east of the Continental Divide had above average snowpack, but the Colorado River Basin on the west was below average.
Scientists can use the snowpack to predict the amount of water that will run through streams and river channels, said Ben Livneh, an assistant professor in civil engineering at CU Boulder. Although the snow will help with the drought, those streams are still expected to run below average, he said.
A major factor of this is the soil, he said, which has remained dry since last year. As the snow melts down the mountains, the water will first have to replenish the soil before it continues toward the reservoirs…
Forecasts don’t predict substantial precipitation before most of the snow melts this summer, Livneh said. But there is still the potential for recovery.
“The next couple of weeks is really critical,” he said. “If we can build more substantial snowpack, a longer lasting snowpack, that would actually help us a lot.”
A federal judge has thrown out a legal action from multiple environmental organizations seeking to halt the expansion of a key Denver Water storage facility, citing no legal authority to address the challenge.
“This decision is an important step,” said Todd Hartman, a spokesperson for Denver Water. “We will continue working earnestly through Boulder’s land-use process and look forward to beginning work on a project critical to water security for 1½ million people and to our many partners on the West Slope and Front Range.”
The expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is intended to provide additional water storage and safeguard against future shortfalls during droughts. The utility currently serves customers in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. In July 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the design and construction of the reservoir’s expansion. The project would add 77,000 acre-feet of water storage and 131 feet to the dam’s height for the utility’s “North System” of water delivery.
FERC’s approval was necessary because Denver Water has a hydropower license through the agency, and it provided the utility with a two-year window to start construction.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a petition in U.S. District Court for Colorado against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to rescind those agencies’ previous authorizations for the project. They argued the agencies inadequately considered the environmental impact of expansion…
…Denver Water pointed out that under federal law, appellate courts, not district-level trial courts, are responsible for hearing challenges to FERC approvals. By challenging the environmental review process that led to the project’s go-ahead, the government argued, the environmental organizations raised issues “inescapably intertwined with FERC’s licensing process.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello agreed that the groups’ challenge was indeed wrapped up in the FERC approval.
“[W]here a party does not challenge a FERC order itself, but challenges another agency order that is inextricably linked to the FERC order, the FPA’s exclusive-jurisdiction provision applies and precludes this Court from exercising jurisdiction,” she wrote in dismissing the case.
The Daily Camera reports that Boulder County’s approval is the final step for the expansion project.
The city of Greeley is clear to move ahead with the acquisition of an aquifer containing 1.2 million acre-feet of water as a new source of raw water after opponents of the project fell short of the required number of signatures to force a special election.
Save Greeley’s Water, which formed in opposition to the Terry Ranch Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, needed to collect 2,192 signatures by Thursday to require city council to reconsider an ordinance change that was required to make the Terry Ranch deal viable, or turn it over to a citywide referendum. On Thursday afternoon, they turned in just 2,028 signatures, falling at least 164 signatures short, according to City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead.
With the referendum effort’s failure, the city will move ahead on the purchase, which will supplement Greeley’s existing water resources…
City leaders and water experts have promoted the deal as a way to secure Greeley’s water future, meeting the needs of more than 260,000 people by the year 2065, according to projections from the state demographer. In drought years, city leaders plan to draw from the aquifer, allowing them to build wells as necessary and preventing steep water rate hikes. In wet years, the city plans to inject water into the aquifer for future use, not only saving the water for when it’s needed, but preventing evaporation…
The city’s next steps are to complete the purchase and refine the infrastructure design and phased implementation plan of Terry Ranch.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Emergency Flood Loan Completed for St. Vrain Creek and Left Hand Lake
More than seven years after the devastating floods of September 2013, the final project supported by a Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Emergency Flood Loan Program — the St. Vrain and Left Hand Lake No. 4 Repair — has been completed.
In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, CWCB awarded more than $23 million in interest-free and no-payment bridge loans to affected water suppliers for repairing damaged infrastructure. Lake No. 4, located along the St. Vrain Creek was filled with floodwater and debris, eventually causing its embankment dam to collapse. The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District received a loan of up to $4.5 million to repair the dam and construct a new emergency spillway to prevent damage in any similar flood event.
The 2013 Emergency Flood Loan Program served as a model for the current Wildfire Impact Emergency Loan Program created in response to the 2020 wildfire season. The Wildfire Impact Emergency Loan Program has already authorized more than $9 million in low interest loans.
Click here for all the inside skinny from Northern Water:
Spring Water Users Meeting
Tuesday, April 6, 2021, 8 a.m. to noon, virtual meeting via Zoom
Each spring Northern Water meets with Colorado-Big Thompson Project allottees and water users to preview the upcoming water delivery and irrigation season, learn about current water and snowpack conditions, runoff and streamflow predictions, progress on future water projects and more. After a discussion of the region’s water outlook, attendees will be able to offer input about the 2021 C-BT quota. This year, attendees also will be able to learn about project updates, as well as Northern Water’s response to the East Troublesome fire in Grand County.
A link to the Zoom meeting will be distributed in the days before the session to those who register.
Almost half of the United States is currently experiencing some level of drought, and it is expected to worsen in upcoming months. Experts say the dry conditions could put a strain on water supplies and have important effects on the environment, such as increasing susceptibility to fire this summer.
The map above, built with data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, depicts areas of drought in the continental U.S. on March 23, 2021. It is based on measurements of climate, soil, and water conditions from more than 350 federal, state, and local observers around the country. NASA provides experimental measurements and models to this monitoring effort.
The hardest hit areas are in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, where severe to exceptional drought developed in 2020 and persisted through winter. A weak summer monsoon season and ongoing La Niña conditions have stifled precipitation. La Niña is characterized by cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The associated weather patterns can push the jet stream north and cause it to curve, diverting storms and precipitation away from the region.
The map below shows surface soil moisture as of March 29, 2021, as measured by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellites. The colors depict the wetness percentile; that is, how the levels of soil moisture compare to long-term records for the month. Blue areas have more abundant water than usual, and orange and red areas have less. The darkest reds represent dry conditions that should occur only 2 percent of the time (about once every 50 years).
In California, many of the state’s reservoirs are currently below historical averages due to an absence of strong winter storms and below-average snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. As of March 2, the state closed out its fifth consecutive month with below-average rain and snow.
The current event fits the pattern of a long megadrought episode over the past two decades. A recent study showed 2000-2018 has been the driest period in the U.S. Southwest since the late 1500s.
“The larger megadrought and this event are certainly not independent of one another,” said Andrew Badger, an author of the study and researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “While the megadrought period is primarily focused on the southwest U.S., the current drought outlook also has a larger spatial extent as it extends farther east towards the Great Plains.”
The map below shows shallow groundwater storage as of March 29, 2021, as measured by the GRACE-FO satellites. The colors depict how the amount of groundwater compares to long-term records (1948-2010). Groundwater in aquifers is an important resource for crop irrigation and drinking water, and it also can sustain streams during dry periods. Groundwater takes months to rebound from drought, though, as it has to be slowly and steadily replenished by surface moisture that seeps down through soil and rock to the water table.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in its spring outlook that warmer-than-average temperatures this spring, below-average precipitation, and low soil moisture could lead drought conditions to expand in the Great Plains and southern Florida. Winter wheat crops already took a hit from a severe cold outbreak in February.
“As with any extreme event, pinning down the root causes can be challenging. The important thing to remember is the underlying conditions of the megadrought that are present now were present for the 2012-2013 drought,” said Badger. “These conditions can prime the surface for drought events to become more extreme when the right atmospheric conditions arise.”
NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using GRACE data from the National Drought Mitigation Center and data from the United States Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Story by Kasha Patel.
Further west, an area of exceptional drought moved to extreme conditions across parts of Montezuma, La Plata and Archuleta counties.
Across much of western Colorado, exceptional and extreme conditions continue to dominate as it has for months. Exceptional drought remains in areas of Montezuma, La Plata, Archuleta, San Miguel, Montrose, Mesa, Delta, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Grand and Eagle counties. Most of the remainder of those counties are in exceptional drought.
Extreme drought is also present across southern Las Animas, southwest Baca, and central Kiowa counties.
Recent heavy snowfall brought snow water content close to average as of mid-March across most of Colorado despite the ongoing areas of significant drought.
Overall, 15 percent of the state is in exceptional drought, unchanged from the prior week. Extreme drought is also unchanged at 17 percent, while severe conditions remain steady at 30 percent. Moderate drought increased from 30 to 31 percent, while abnormally dry conditions increased from seven to eight percent. None of Colorado is free from drought. Percentages do not total 100 due to rounding.
One year ago, 32 percent of the state was drought-free, with an additional 20 percent experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Moderate drought was impacting 44 percent of the state, with three percent in severe drought.
Just over 4.6 million people in Colorado are in drought-impacted areas, unchanged from last week.
High Plains Drought Monitor March 30, 2021.
West Drought Monitor March 30, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor March 30, 2021.
US Drought Monitor one week change map ending March 30, 2021.
Can technology save the Colorado River? A growing number of entrepreneurs and investors think so. To that end, the Denver-based Colorado River Basin Fund is raising $5 million to help promising new water technology companies bring their wares to market.
“We want to nurture startups that need access to money,” said Will Sarni, a general partner in the fund. “That’s where we think we can be part of the solution.”
Worldwide dozens of investment funds target water, through stocks in publicly traded utilities and direct investments in existing technology and infrastructure companies, among others. Just like some mutual funds focus on gold stocks or energy stocks, there are funds that focus on water stocks, such as the Invesco S&P Global Water Index.
But Sarni says that the newly formed Colorado River Basin Fund is the first private investment initiative focused on one place, the Colorado River.
The launch of the new investment fund comes as concern over the Colorado River intensifies. The river is mired in a 20-year drought which has caused its flows to decline by more than 16 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those declines are expected to continue as the climate warms and mountain snow packs shrink.
Lon Johnson, a general partner in the new fund, said it is focused not on profiteering off the sale of water rights, but in finding technical solutions to keep the seven-state Colorado River system viable.
“Often when you think about investment into the West, your mind would go to the exploitive side. How do we profit off this crisis? That is not what this is about,” Johnson said. “What we’re seeking to do is identify the technologies that address scarcity and water quality within the basin. And then help them commercialize and scale.”
Researchers and entrepreneurs are pursuing dozens of technologies that could help the river become more sustainable even as population demands grow and climate change threatens to further reduce flows.
Sarni said the Colorado River Basin Fund will focus largely on satellite and digital technologies that will help farmers use their water more efficiently and help smart homes do the same.
Sarni and Johnson join a growing group of investors and accelerators hoping to speed the creation of new solutions by backing promising startups. Among these is an international initiative called Imagine H20, which has raised more than $500 million to date, according to its website, to help fund new technologies tackling worldwide scarcity and water quality issues.
And several young water technology companies are already in the market, including Boss DeFrost, a Denver-based company whose device allows restaurants to dramatically slash the amount of water they use to thaw meat and other foods.
In Montrose there is the Delta Brick and Climate Company, which is dredging reservoirs and using the clay to make bricks. The brick ovens eventually will be fired with methane captured from leaking coal mines. The strategy frees up space in reservoirs, allowing them to store more water. And by removing methane from the atmosphere, the company plans to generate carbon credits that can be sold, generating revenue in addition to that generated from the sale of bricks. Chris Caskey is founder of the three-year-old startup and has won small government grants to fund operations thus far.
He said he’s been frustrated by the traditional investment community, which often requires entrepreneurs to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed capital before it will formally invest, and which can impose aggressive timelines on products to allow investors to cash out quickly.
But Johnson said he and Sarni have years of experience working in the water sector and that they are aware of the challenges.
“We believe traditional ‘tech’ investors aren’t always a natural fit for water entrepreneurs because those investors may have unrealistic expectations for growth and scale, and then ultimately on the investment return,” Johnson said. “The water sector is fragmented, and growth takes time and skill…our investment strategies and how we intend to work with companies after we invest will reflect this.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
It’s important to note that a shortage means a reduction in the Colorado River supply available to Arizona. While we may have less water coming to Arizona from the Colorado River in 2022, the river will continue to be a vital source of water for generations to come.
In 2021, the river is currently operating in a “Tier Zero” status, requiring the state to contribute 192,000 acre-feet of Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-foot annual entitlement to Lake Mead. This contribution is coming entirely from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) system.
Based on the current hydrology, it is likely that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will elevate the shortage level to a “Tier 1” in 2022. This would require Arizona to reduce uses by a total of 512,000 acre-feet, again, borne almost entirely by the CAP system. While significant, the high priority CAP water supply for cities and tribes is not affected due to the implementation of agreements among Arizona water users.
We are prepared for Tier 1 reductions because Arizona water users have been working collaboratively for many years to protect our Colorado River water supply.
Specifically, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin and the U.S., and the Republic of Mexico, developed plans for managing the Colorado River, known in the U.S. as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), which lasts until 2026. Arizona prepared a unique and innovative way to implement the plan in Arizona through its DCP Steering Committee.
The DCP Steering Committee, which included more than 40 representatives of tribes, cities, agriculture, developers, environmental organizations, and elected officials, worked collectively to share the risks and benefits of the DCP. Arizona’s DCP implementation plan represents the best of Arizona water management: collaboration, cooperation, and innovation.
The plan shares resources and mitigates the impacts of shortage reductions. In the plan, some are committing to leaving extra water in Lake Mead to reduce future risks, while others are sharing water with the most severely impacted of the state’s water users, central Arizona agriculture Together these efforts reduce the pain of the near-term reductions while addressing risks of future shortages. The result is the Arizona water community is prepared, even in the midst of a decades-long drought.
The actions taken by Arizona’s water-community stakeholders, legislature and by Governor Ducey manage the immediate risk to supplies on the Colorado River, providing time while we develop new rules and programs to sustain the river after 2026.
As we face the prospect of a hotter and drier future, we are confident that with our long history of successful collaboration among our diverse stakeholders – agriculture, tribes, cities, environment, and industry, we will continue to find innovative and effective solutions to sustain Arizona’s Colorado River supply.
As the state tries to reform its relationship to drilling, an expensive task awaits.
When an oil or gas well reaches the end of its lifespan, it must be plugged. If it isn’t, the well might leak toxic chemicals into groundwater and spew methane, carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere for years on end.
But plugging a well is no simple task: Cement must be pumped down into it to block the opening, and the tubes connecting it to tanks or pipelines must be removed, along with all the other onsite equipment. Then the top of the well has to be chopped off near the surface and plugged again, and the area around the rig must be cleaned up.
There are nearly 60,000 unplugged wells in Colorado in need of this treatment — each costing $140,000 on average, according to the Carbon Tracker, a climate think tank, in a new report that analyzes oil and gas permitting data. Plugging this many wells will cost a lot —more than $8 billion, the report found.
Companies that drill wells in Colorado are legally required to pay for plugging them. They must also put forward financial assurances in the form of bonds, which the state can call on to pay for the plugging. These bonds are meant to incentivize cleanup and to protect the state, in case a company is unable to pay. But as it stands today, Colorado has only about $185 million in bonds from industry — just 2% of the estimated cleanup bill, according to the new study. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) assumes an average cost of $82,500 per well — lower than the Carbon Tracker’s figure, which factors in issues like well depth. But even using the state’s more conservative number, the overall cleanup would cost nearly $5 billion, of which the money currently available from energy companies would cover less than 5%.
This situation is the product of more than 150 years of energy extraction. Now, with the oil and gas industry looking less robust every year and reeling in the wake of the pandemic, the state of Colorado and its people could be on the hook for billions in cleanup costs. Meanwhile, unplugged wells persist as environmental hazards. This spring, Colorado will try to tackle the problem; state energy regulators have been tasked with reforming the policies governing well cleanup and financial commitments from industry.
“The system has put the state at risk, and it needs to change,” said Josh Joswick, an organizer with the environmental group Earthworks. “Now we have a government that wants to do something about it.”
THE FIRST WESTERN OIL WELL broke ground in Colorado in 1860. Drilling has been an important part of the state’s economy ever since; as of 2019, Colorado ranked in the sixth and seventh in the nation for oil and natural gas production, respectively.
When it comes to cleanup, Colorado uses a tiered system known as blanket bonding. Small operators can pay ahead with bonds on single wells. Drillers with more than 100 wells statewide pay a fixed reclamation fee of $100,000, regardless of the number of wells. A similar system also applies to wells on federal public land in the state. Large companies pay a single $150,000 bond, which covers unlimited federal public land wells throughout the country. There are about 7,400 public-land wells capable of producing oil or gas in Colorado, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
When a driller walks away or cannot pay for cleanup, the well enters the state’s Orphan Well Program, which works to identify and plug these wells. There are about 200 wells in the program right now, according to the state. But a closer look at state data reveals a large number of wells at risk. Nearly half of the state’s unplugged wells are stripper wells — low-producing operations with small profit margins often at the end of their lifespans. These wells are particularly vulnerable to shifts in oil prices. That means they change hands often. “This is a common tactic in the oil and gas industry: Spinning off liabilities to progressively weaker companies, until the final owner goes bankrupt and none of the previous owners are on the hook for cleanup,” said Clark Williams-Derry, a finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
There are also inactive wells: Nearly 10% of the state’s wells have not produced oil or gas in at least two years, according to a Carbon Tracker analysis of state permitting data. Unlike some of the neighboring oil states, Colorado requires that companies pay a single bond on each inactive well of this sort. This costs either $10,000 or $20,000, depending on the depth of the well. In theory, these payments protect the state, in case the well owner goes bankrupt. But in Colorado, it’s still far cheaper for energy companies to pay the cost of that single, unused well — and the small annual premium payments on the bond — than to actually plug it. “Colorado clearly makes it cheaper to idle a well than to clean it up,” Williams-Derry said.
In Colorado, just two companies are responsible for nearly 70% of the bonds for currently inactive wells. One is Noble Energy Inc., which was purchased by the global oil giant Chevron in October 2020. The other is Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Kerr-McGee was responsible for the 2017 home explosion in Firestone, Colorado, that killed two people. Last year, the COGCC fined the company more than $18 million for the accident, by far the largest fine in state history. Both companies still own large numbers of wells in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, the prolific oil and gas formation beneath central and eastern Colorado. And the mass desertion of wells is not hypothetical: In fall of 2019, a small company called Petroshare Corporation went bankrupt and left about 90 wells for the state to cleanup. That alone will cost Colorado millions of dollars. Last summer, when California’s largest oil driller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it left billions in debt and more than 17,000 unplugged wells.
The oil and gas industry is already mired in a years-long decline that raises doubts about its ability to meet cleanup costs. In six out of the past seven years, energy has been either the worst- or second-worst-performing sector on the S&P 500. And the economic fallout from COVID-19 has only accelerated the decline. Oil prices hit record lows in 2020. The industry’s debt approached record levels, and thousands of oilfield workers lost their jobs, Colorado Public Radio reported. Many companies went bankrupt, including 12 drilling companies and six oilfield service companies in Colorado, according to Haynes and Boone LLP, a law firm that tracks industry trends.
IN 2019, A NEW LAW completely overhauled the state’s relationship to oil and gas. This spring, Colorado oil and gas regulators are tasked with reforming the financial requirements for well plugging. It’s a big deal, especially in an oil state like Colorado: The law gives local governments more control over oil and gas development, and it rewrote the mission of the COGCC, the state’s energy regulator. The COGCC has subsequently banned the burning off or releasing of natural gas, a routine drilling practice, and instituted a broad range of wildlife and public health protection policies. Recently, it voted for the nation’s largest setback rule, which requires oil and gas operations to stay at least 2,000 feet from homes and schools.
The deep divide between the true cost of cleanup and what industry has so far ponied up is not news to Colorado regulators. In a 2017 letter to lawmakers, the COGCC estimated that the average costs of plugging wells and cleaning up the drilling site “exceed available financial assurance by a factor of fourteen.” With this new rulemaking process, Colorado has a chance to make up this gap.
How to handle this looming liability remains an open question, said John Messner, a COGCC Commissioner. The rulemaking process is still in its early stages and will take months. The commission is asking stakeholders of all kinds — industry, local governments, environmental groups and more — to submit suggestions and opinions to the commission. There are several different methods for how best to reform the process, Messner said. That might involve leaving the current structure in place, while increasing the bond amounts, including on individual well bonds. It might mean a revamped tiered system, where more prolific producers pay more, or a different fee structure based on the number of drilled wells. Messner mentioned the option of a bond pool, where companies pay into a communal cleanup fund and, at least in theory, provide industry-wide insurance to guard against companies defaulting on cleanup obligations. Messner stressed that no formal decisions have been made and that the final rule could involve some combination of these and other tools.
I asked Messner about balancing the pressing need to increase cleanup requirements with the possibility of companies walking away from their wells if the cost to operate in Colorado spikes. “It’s a real risk,” Messner said. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association expressed a similar concern in an email to HCN.
“When it comes to financial assurance for current or future wells, we need to ensure that the potential solution doesn’t create an even bigger problem by raising the cost of doing business in Colorado for small businesses,” said COGA President Dan Haley in a statement. “Regulatory changes in the past two years alone are costing oil and gas businesses an extra $200 million a year. For our state to stay competitive, regulators and lawmakers need to be cognizant of that growing tally and the rising cost of doing business.”
But as it stands today, oil and gas companies aren’t realistically paying anywhere near the true cost of cleaning up their drilling sites. And with the industry’s murky financial future, experts predict more and more sales of risky wells to less-wealthy operators, until the state could end stuck with the final cost.
“It’s like a game of hot potato,” Williams-Derry said, “except that when the potato goes off, it’s the public who loses.”
Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2009, Wyoming was riding high on coal. It supplied the coal that provided roughly half the nation’s power generation. The trains out of the Powder River Basin were almost non-stop, delivering the sub-bituminous low-sulphur coal from Wyoming’s subterranean to plants as far as Florida.
The Sierra Club had mounted a campaign in which it made fun of coal as a “dirty fuel.” One striking video had a lively young couple in the upper bunk delighting in the company of one another, and in the lower bunk a more pudgy young man fondling lumps of coal.
Still, when I visited Gillette, the center of the Powder River Basin, in April 2009 for a story that was published in Planning magazine, I heard no evidence of great worry.
Renewables? Nice, but …
Since 2008, coal production in Wyoming has declined by about half. Employment in the mines fell 40% over the decade ending in 2020.
The Casper Star-Tribune reports more disturbing news yet for Wyoming’s coal economy. Coal production in last year’s final quarter dropped by over 20% across the Powder River Basin. And recently, in a span of less than three months, two mines in the basin announced plans to close.
A trio of bills introduced into the Wyoming Legislature seeks to stem this decline. The argument underlying the proposed laws is that coal-fired generation must remain to ensure grid reliability.
One bill soon to be given to Gov. Mark Gordon for his signing before becoming law takes sharp aim at Colorado legislators 100 miles to the south along Interstate 25. House Bill 207 earmarks $1.2 million for use by Wyoming’s governor and attorney general to potentially sue other states restricting the import or use of Wyoming coal.
The central nexus for this not-so-friendly fire is Laramie River Station, a coal-fired power plant located near Wheatland, which is 70 miles north of Cheyenne. Basin Electric Power Cooperative operates the 3-unit plant and had 42.27% ownership in 2018. Metro Denver-based Tri-State Generation & Transmission had 27.1% ownership.
One unit sends power eastward, and power from the other two units is distributed in the Western grid—some of this to the 8 electrical cooperatives in Wyoming who are members of Tri-State, but more of it south into Colorado.
This was published in the March 31, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine, and updated to reflect news from this morning. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com
The bill was approved by the Wyoming House last week and by the Wyoming Senate on Wednesday afternoon. The Wyoming House Thursday morning concurred with the $1.2 million allocation by the Senate in a 36-24 vote.
The authorization is described by a University of Chicago Law School professor who specializes in electricity and the grid as a “waste of money.”
Two other bills appear to be directed at PacifCorp, the largest utility in Wyoming. Last year PacifCorp announced plans to close 2 of its coal-burning units at the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs and the two remaining units of the Naughton plant near Kemmerer. It also operates the giant but aging Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock.
House Bill 166 would require utilities to take additional steps before they can receive approval from state regulators to retire aging coal or natural gas plants. That includes proving evidence that closing of the coal or natural gas plant would not threaten power reliability and would deliver “significant cost savings.”
House Bill 155 would task state regulators with analyzing how closing a coal or natural gas plant could affect grid reliability in Wyoming and nationwide before permission can be granted for retirement.
Wyoming State Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, a freshman legislator from Wheatland and a sponsor of H.B. 207, explained his reasoning for why Wyoming needs more money allocated for lawsuits. In a recent legislative hearing, he cited Colorado’s 2019 legislation, although he didn’t get the details quite right. He said that Colorado requires Tri-State to meet 80% renewables by 2034. (Tri-State wasn’t required, but it has agreed to reduce its emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels).
“We can’t hold an 80% renewable portfolio with current technology,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Big Pivots. “And this isn’t a wind or solar battle we’re talking about. This is a power technology issue that we are having a problem with, where if we don’t have a way to produce reliable energy, then we are finding ourselves in a place where we’re going to see lives potentially lost. And so out of that came House Bill 207.”
The legal argument described by Haroldson is that Colorado’s decision about its power generation mix within Colorado constitutes a violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution when it has repercussions on power providers outside Colorado. He cited the precedent of North Dakota suing Minnesota over Minnesota’s requirements governing electrical power that extended to imported power.
A U.S. District Court in 2016 struck down Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act limiting electricity from coal-fired sources from North Dakota because of violation of the dormant Commerce Clause provision of the U.S. Constitution. The case is somewhat complicated but was dissected in this review by a law school professor in this 2018 posting on Energy Central.
Joshua Macey, an assistant professor at the Chicago Law School who specializes in energy law, is skeptical that Wyoming is spending its money wisely.
“I don’t see any possible way that Wyoming is going to recover the money, that (a lawsuit) will succeed,” he told Big Pivots. “It is a waste of money.”
Macey says he is intimately familiar about the court case in which North Dakota prevailed against Minnesota. An article that he co-authored called “The Federal Power Act’s Bright Line,” which was published in February by the Harvard Law Review, discusses that case at length.
In the Minnesota case, the law was written sloppily and there was the additional complication that Minnesota and North Dakota are both within the Midwest Independent System Operator system. Neither is the case with Wyoming vs. Colorado, if it comes to that.
Under the Commerce Clause, Colorado cannot say it will use only that electricity that is produced in Colorado. It can, however, say that it has environmental goals and that how the electricity is created must conform with Colorado’s laws.
Grid reliability is another tenet of the Wyoming bill.
In the Wyoming legislative committee, Haroldson said the technology capable of protecting the grid’s reliability has not been delivered and removing coal plants will impair that reliability.
Wyoming’s message to Colorado, he said, should be: “Hold on, let’s get some technology in place. Let’s do, let’s figure out carbon capture and those types of things, so we can produce clean, effective power that’s going to bring generation to the Front Range, that’s going to help make sure that we have a reliable power grid and do it in a way that’s intelligent.”
For Tri-State to meet its voluntary commitment to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 in Colorado, it must reduce imports from Wyoming. But the market for energy generation is already pushing Tri-State that way.
On Tuesday, Tri-State said that it was taking no position on HB-207.
“As an interstate power supplier operating across four states, we recognize and respect that each state has its own values on, approaches to and concerns about energy and environmental policy, and its own jurisdiction over utility facilities and resources,” said Mark Stutz, public relations specialist for Tri-State in an e-mailed statement.
The Colorado Attorney General’s office declined to comment.
In Wyoming, Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council described the allocation as a wrong-headed move for Wyoming. “It’s a chunk of change in a state strapped for cash and with limited opportunity for creating the change that bill sponsors want.
“$1.2 million may not seem like a lot of money in some places, but in Wyoming it is. It’s more than some agencies have for a whole year,” said Anderson, the staff attorney.
Wyoming’s government already is well staffed with attorneys versed in coal issues. This money will go to private sector legal firms, who tend to be costly, she said. “And what does it give Wyoming, if anything, in return?” she asked.
The bill passed on third reading in the Wyoming Senate on a 26-4 vote on Wednesday afternoon.
Tri-State’s opportunities, challenges
Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State, said at a February forum organized by the Sierra Club that Tri-State plans to cease taking power from Laramie River by 2033 and a coal plant in Arizona called Springerville by 2038.
“Those aren’t commitments,” he hastened to add, but the outcome of a single snapshot under a certain set of assumptions. Cost of power is at the bottom of it.
“The economics dictate that you can’t continue to operate some of the lowest-priced coal plants in the country,” he said.
In 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute studied Tri-State’s coal-burning fleet and found that only Laramie River was delivering power at a rate better than what could be had from renewables.
In his Sierra Club-Zoomed presentation, Highley also emphasized the relatively low cost of coal from Laramie River, likely a consequence of its relative proximity to the strip mines of the Powder River Basin two hours to the north.
It’s a coal plant with one of the lowest operating costs in the nation, he said.
Laramie River delivers coal-fired power at 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. This compares with an average 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour for both wind and solar in the 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects that Tri-State plans in the next few years. But wind itself sometimes approaches 1 cent per kilowatt-hour, and solar is routinely less than 2 cents, he added.
Tri-State supplies customers in Nebraska via the power lines from Laramie River connected directly to the Eastern Interconnection Grid. That grid, in the Great Plains, is laden heavily with cheap wind.
“Laramie River on that side sometimes has trouble running because there is so much wind available and it’s at such a good price that even one of the lowest priced coal plants in the nation has trouble competing,” he said, referring to Laramie River.
Reliability—the core argument in the Wyoming bills—is another matter.
First, a note about the reliability of coal plants. The fuel is consistent, but they have their problems, as can be seen at Comanche 3, the relatively new coal plant at Pueblo, which was down for repairs during much of 2020.
Highley addressed reliability in his Sierra Club appearance.
“I cannot leave this subject without talking about reliability, because we can only move as fast as we can reliably make power. It’s job one for us. If we fall down on that job, literally public health and safety and lives that could be lost are on the line. We have to keep that our first and foremost priority.”
Coal, he said, does have reliability.
“What does a coal project have? it has a 30-day supply of coal on the ground at the plant site.”
As for battery storage – the lithium-ion technology hasn’t arrived yet to meet the needs of a very-low-carbon future.
“The battery that a utility can buy today lasts somewhere from 2 to 4 hours. A 6-hour battery is pretty much of a stretch,” Highley said.
He cited an example from this winter. “We had a period in Colorado when we had about 3 days of gray skies and no wind,” he said. “Those would be very difficult days for us if we didn’t have fossil fuels in the mix today.”
Batteries can help, but they need to provide storage for 24 to 48 hours, he went on to say. Too, while costs have declined, they need to continue to decrease.
“We are looking for the storage technology that is better than lithium-ion batteries and has a scalability that would be suitable for—finally— a former coal plant such as the Craig site. We think this is one of the best (sites) in the Western grid for mass storage at utility scale,” he said.
Tri-State has been working with the Electric Power Research Institute on a $100 million low-carbon research initiative in the hope of securing energy storage technology needed to fill in the gaps of renewables. Leading contenders, said Highley, are hydrogen and ammonia. Tri-State hopes to have that technology in place by 2030, when it takes the last of the Craig units off line.
Can natural gas fill the void? Perhaps. That is what Colorado Springs Utilities sees as it closes its coal plants. Highley said Tri-State is considering it—and he doesn’t see a concern about creating infrastructure that becomes an expensive stranded asset.
“When we retire Craig Unit 3, we need something that can run for those 3 or 4 days a winter—primarily winter—when we’re not getting wind and solar input. That gas plant is the plan. It runs a very small percentage of the time, and we still achieve 80% even when burning natural gas for reliability.”
Highley said Tri-State is looking at an internal-combustion type of natural gas plant introduced by General Electric. That’s the same plant that Colorado Springs plans to use.
But the plant may not necessarily have to burn natural gas. If hydrogen technology can be developed, renewable energy can be created to produce hydrogen, which can be stored and then burned as needed to fill in the gaps of storage.
While the Front Range was blessed with much needed snow in March, the state’s snowpack has not climbed back up to average on the Western Slope and drought conditions are likely to persist.
As a result of those forecasts, Colorado Springs Utilities expects to rely heavily on its reservoirs this summer, said Patrick Wells, general manager of water resources and demand management for the utility.
But water restrictions aren’t expected beyond its permanent Water-wise Rules that limit outdoor irrigation to three days a week, he said Thursday. The rules also prohibit outdoor watering from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from May 1 to Oct. 15…
While wet storms brought Colorado Springs twice its average snowfall for March, the city remains 5½ inches of precipitation behind what it should have received over the past 12 months, said Peter Goble, climatologist and drought specialist with the Colorado Climate Center.
Conditions on the Western Slope in the Colorado River watershed — which supplies municipal water supplies and farms from Colorado to California — are also dry, with the amount of water in the snow at 85% to 89% of average, according the National Resources Conservation Service. The snowpack is not nearly enough to break the drought conditions, Goble said…
The dry, thirsty soils are expected to soak up snowpack, cutting expected runoff down to 50% to 70% of average, Goble said. The runoff expectations are important to Colorado Springs because it relies in part on Western Slope water…
The three-month outlook though June doesn’t offer much hope, with increased chances of below normal precipitation and above average temperatures, said Brad Rippey, a drought monitor author with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Snowmass picked up the most snowfall among Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas in March with 68 inches, according to Skico’s records. That’s a foot above the ski area’s average snowfall of 56 inches for the month…
Snowmass received snow on 20 of 31 days for the month, including dumps of 8 inches on March 13 and another 11 inches on March 14. There was a surprise dump of 8.5 inches on March 29…
While the snowfall during March was impressive, it wasn’t up to par with really big years. In March 2019, for example, Snowmass reaped 96 inches. The ski area’s record for the month was 119 inches in 1995…
Even with above average snowfall in March, the Roaring Fork River basin is still struggling to bounce back from a dry start to winter. As of March 31, snowpack on Independence Pass was 91 percent of the 41-year median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which operates automated snow telemetry sites. That is up from 84 percent of median at the beginning of the month.
McClure Pass was at 84 percent of median snowpack while Schofield Pass was at 86 percent. The North Lost Trail site near Marble fared better with snowpack at 97 percent of average.
In the Fryingpan Valley, snowpack was close to the median for April 1.
The weather over the next few weeks will be crucial in determining runoff in western Colorado. The Colorado River District’s website said snowpack in the region typically peaks between April 8-10. While it usually snows more after that, the snowfall is more than offset by melting from warmer weather later in the month…
The implications go beyond water availability for irrigation. Reservoirs that are popular sites for boating and other recreation might not fill to capacity.
“Ruedi Reservoir is forecasted not to fill this year,” Langenhuizen said.
…Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has declared a state of emergency due to the massive encroachment of drought impacting all the state’s more than 54 million acres.
The U.S. Drought Monitor puts 90% of Utah in the category of “extreme drought” and says that more than 2.7 million people in the state are impacted. Southern Utah recently elevated its drought to exceptional — an even worse category…
Most of the state is sitting at between 75% and 80% of average snowpack for this water year, which officially ended Thursday.
On its face, that doesn’t sound necessarily that scary.
But Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey, said it is more complicated than that…
The summer of 2020 was the driest ever logged in Utah and Nevada since record keeping began 126 years ago…
Those dry soils will absorb much of what is already predicted to be a poor performing runoff at anywhere between 25% and 75% of average…
Heather Patno, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the drought is impacting states across the Upper Colorado River Basin…
While the upper basin will be able to meet its downstream water delivery obligations to lower basin states like Nevada and California, Lake Powell will be sitting at critical elevation levels…
The good news, she stressed, is that there has been a smattering of water years over the last two decades in which Lake Powell rose by 50 feet or more.
In 2019, for example, basin-wide snowpack was at 145% of average, she said, and other generous water years helped boost Powell levels…
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in March warned that nearly half the country is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions in what could be the most significant spring drought since 2013 impacting an estimated 74 million people.
In fact, its seasonal drought outlook into June 30 of this year projects that most of California and all of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico will have drought that persists…
Utah’s ranchers and farmers are already taking steps to brace for a financially debilitating season in the agriculture industry.
Farmers who normally plant corn, which demands a lot of water, switched to spring grain that can be harvested in 60 to 90 days.
Other farmers have cut back their farming acreage by 30% or even half.
The problem is that corn yields greater revenue per acre and many fields will go fallow…
With snowpack below average across the state — southwest Utah is sitting barely north of 50% — that becomes a problem for Utah when 95% of its water comes from snow, Clayton said.
I do want to clarify a couple of the statements made by people quoted in his article. I think that it is important to point out that the Windy Gap Connectivity Channel is not a drainage ditch, as John Fielder was quoted saying. Instead it is a multi-million-dollar stream channel designed by hydrologists and stream biologists to optimize habitat for macroinvertebrate and trout life and the riparian zone on both sides of the river.
The existing stream channel is at the bottom of a muddy reservoir with no ability to sustain any of these environmental values. A new stream channel around the reservoir will reconnect the disappearing aquatic species below the dam with the healthy species above the reservoir. When Fielder states that this new stream reach will not restore wildlife, he could not be more wrong.
The article ended with quotes from Gary Wockner that I feel need a reality check. His suggested solutions to Colorado’s water shortage should be taken with a grain of salt.
His first suggestion was to dry up agricultural land. Doing so has played a major role in damaging the Fraser and Upper Colorado rivers. Ranches that used to divert water from those rivers returned most of that water to those rivers. When Front Range cities bought that agricultural water and took it from the basin of origin to those cities, all of those return flows were lost to the river.
“Buy and Dry” has been bad for our headwaters rivers and for our cultural heritage of ranching. My friends in the ranching business don’t need the target put on their back, and our rivers can’t afford to lose any more return flows.
Gary also proposed ramping up conservation as an important solution to our water shortage. While I applaud this idea, I also know that it is only a piece of the puzzle in the water shortage problem. Every city in the West knows how important of a role conservation plays, and every city in the West has concluded that conservation will not solve their water shortage problems alone.
Conservation, however, is under-utilized here in Colorado and we do need to pick up the pace to help preserve our rivers and the environment that depends on them. We just can’t rely on conservation alone.
Gary’s final point was to stop all growth, stating that he will applaud the sanity of anyone that can accomplish this. I don’t find much reality in this possibility, but if he feels that there is, then I would like to see him use his talents to work toward that goal. This would allow him to work on solving most of Colorado’s problems with the exception maybe of the economy.
There are no easy answers to water issues in the West. We have to consider all possible solutions and avoid the trap of single-minded thinking. Protecting our rivers will require cooperation from every entity that has an impact on our rivers.
This is the reason that Colorado wrote a state Water Plan. If we allow that plan to guide us, conservation organizations, municipalities and the agricultural community will work together to assure that water is distributed equitably. If we decide instead to fight each other over water, all of us will come out losing.
Kirk Klancke is the president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, “an environmental organization with lots of members who like to fish.”
The first U.S. Drought Monitor issued over the winter was on December 22, 2020. As shown on the first map below, drought and dryness covered almost all of the Great Plains and West when winter began, except for parts of the Pacific Northwest and Southern Plains. The epicenter of the drought was the Southwest into the Central Rockies and W. Texas. East of the Plains, drought and dryness persisted in the Midwest, Northeast, and a few pockets in the South, but the intensity was much less than the West.
The last U.S. Drought Monitor issued over the winter was on March 16, 2021. In general, drought across the U.S. didn’t change that much, which is a troubling sign for areas that depend on winter precipitation for water supplies, agriculture, and recreation. It could also lead to another bad fire season. Conditions in the Central Plains improved, but the Northern Plains worsened. Conditions in the West slightly improved but are still dire. East of the Plains, areas of Moderate Drought (D1) and Abnormal Dryness (D0) could worsen this spring if normal rains don’t develop.
Percent of Normal Precipitation/Departure from Normal Precipitation
As shown on the two maps below, the only drought areas that greatly benefitted from winter precipitation were the Central Plains and parts of the Rockies, and much of that precipitation was from the mid-March storm that dropped feet of snow in CO and WY and inches of rain in KS and NE. Much of the precipitation east of the Plains fell on areas that weren’t in drought. The Southwest and CA remained drier than normal. Two areas that have worsened towards the end of winter: the Northern Plains and S. TX.
Departure from Normal Temperature
Temperatures were generally colder than normal over the winter for parts of the Midwest all the way to the West Coast. That’s not surprising after the bitter cold that hit Texas and other parts of the U.S. in February. One notable outlier: it was warmer (and drier) in the Northern Plains.
U.S. Drought Monitor Change Map
The greatest areas of drought degradation that took place over the winter were the Northern Plains, South/Southeast TX, the Upper Midwest, and FL. However, the Upper Midwest and FL only moved into Abnormal Dryness (D0). The Northern Plains and S. TX, on the other hand, are dealing with Extreme (D3) and Exceptional (D4) Drought, respectively. The greatest areas of improvements were the Central U.S. (where the big March storm hit) and W. TX. Scattered areas in the West also saw improvements but remain in intense drought.
Snow Drought in the West 2020-21
Much of the West began the winter in drought, and the snowfall in 2020-21 didn’t do much to help conditions. The only areas that had average to above-average snow water equivalent (SWE) as of March 19 (the last day of winter), were parts of the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, and the areas in CO and WY hit by the March blizzard. Some weak-to-moderate storms occurred in February and March in the Sierra Nevada, but it wasn’t enough. Similarly, snowpack improved in parts of OR, UT, CO, and WY in March, but SWE deficits were quite large prior to these improvements. Most of Alaska remained free of snow drought with the exception of the Koyukuk River Basin in north-central Alaska that drains part of the south slope of the Brooks Range.
Ski Areas in Drought
The ski resorts map below, found on the Recreation and Tourist Attractions By Sector page on the new U.S. Drought Portal, shows that 437 resorts are in drought areas, according to the March 18, 2021 U.S. Drought Monitor.