Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke)
The Bureau of Reclamation has awarded a total of $37.2 million for 11 salinity control projects in Colorado and Wyoming through its Basinwide and Basin States Salinity Control Programs. When the salinity control features are installed, these projects will prevent approximately 23,426 tons of salt each year from entering the Colorado River.
“The projects, when complete, will help provide higher quality water to municipal and agricultural water users in Arizona, Nevada, and California, preventing economic damages,” said Kib Jacobson, program manager for Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program.
Economic damages caused by high salinity in the Colorado River water often means reduced crop yields for farmers, growing a more salt-tolerant but lower-value crop, or extra expenditure of water to remove salt from the soil. High salinity can also shorten the useful life of household appliances and increase water treatment and facility management costs.
These projects were selected through a competitive process, open to the public. Reclamation solicits, selects and awards grants through funding opportunity announcements to projects sponsored by non-federal entities that control salt loading in the Upper Colorado River Basin. One of the primary selection criteria is the lowest cost per ton of salt controlled. The average cost per ton of salt for those awarded this year is $60.22. This is comparable to average cost per ton of salt of the 2017 FOA that averaged $58 per ton of salt.
Project proposals often include funding from other sources, and this year an additional $8.7 million in funding will go toward the salinity control projects selected, for a total of $45.9 million.
Reclamation will distribute the $37.2 million over the next 3 to 5 years: $33.7 million for projects in western Colorado and $3.4 million in southwestern Wyoming.
To learn more about the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program and Reclamation’s Basinwide and Basin States Salinity Control Programs, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/progact/salinity. To learn more about the funding opportunity announcement process, visit grants.gov.
The U.S. Supreme Court kicks off its new term next month with a unique “original jurisdiction” water dispute—the likes of which could become more common as the climate changes.
The justices are set to hear Texas v. New Mexico, virtually, on their first day of oral arguments Oct. 5. Original jurisdiction cases go straight to the high court, rather than working their way through lower benches first…
“The tradition has been the justices are not enthusiastic about hearing these cases because they involve such highly technical issues,” said University of Maryland law professor Robert Percival, who tracks environmental issues at the high court…
What’s on deck in Texas v. New Mexico?
Set for argument next month, Texas v. New Mexico involves the 1949 Pecos River Compact, which governs how the two states share water from the Pecos River, which runs more than 900 miles from northern New Mexico to western Texas.
The Supreme Court must decide whether a “river master” in charge of annual calculations gave New Mexico too much credit for water deliveries to Texas during a period of heavy rains and flooding from a major storm in 2014—when New Mexico stored water for its neighbor but ultimately lost some of it to evaporation.
The United States will argue as a friend-of-the-court supporting New Mexico in the case. The Bureau of Reclamation runs the New Mexico reservoir that held the water.
Does the case have broader impacts?
The dispute is an example of increasingly familiar situations in which decades-old water compacts don’t adequately account for population growth, economic shifts, and decreased rainfall and water storage capabilities, K&L Gates attorneys said in a recent analysis.
“As a result, these interstate compacts appear to be sometimes causing more disagreement than resolution,” attorneys Molly K. Barker, Natalie J. Reid, and Alyssa A. Moir wrote.
The Pecos River case will test the justices’ willingness to read water compacts strictly or flexibly, and to account for extreme weather and other changing circumstances, Craig said.
“It’s going to be interesting for seeing how the court tries to interpret these very old compacts in these situations that weren’t part of the bargain that states were initially striking,” she said…
What about future water disputes at the Supreme Court?
Two other interstate water cases are brewing before special masters, and could land on the Supreme Court’s calendar in a future term.
Texas is going up against both New Mexico and Colorado in a dispute over the Rio Grande Compact and how it treats groundwater that’s connected to the river. Mississippi and Tennessee are also fighting about groundwater in a closely watched case involving the states’ rights to a shared aquifer.
The cases are of particular interest as climate change affects water availability, University of Maryland’s Percival said.
“As climate change increases droughts and makes surface water increasingly scarce,” he said, “groundwater is where cities and states are increasingly turning for their water resources.”
For the West this summer, the news about water was grim. In some parts of California, it didn’t rain for over 100 days. In western Colorado, the ground was so dry that runoff at first evaporated into the air. And in New Mexico and Nevada, the rains never came.
Bill Hasencamp is the manager of California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides treated water to 19 million people. What was most unfortunate, he said, was that, “the upper Colorado Basin had a 100 percent snowpack, yet runoff was only 54 percent of normal.” In 2018, a variation happened – light snow and little runoff, which doesn’t bode well for the future.
What everyone wants to know, though, is who loses most if severe drought becomes the norm…
What makes the Western Slope of Colorado most vulnerable to drought is a pact among seven states signed in 1922. It bound the states to give priority in a water crisis to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, potentially leaving the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming high and dry.
A crisis could be approaching. The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River are both below 50 percent of capacity. If drought causes even more drastic drops, the Bureau of Reclamation could step in to prioritize the making of electricity by the hydro plants at lakes Mead and Powell. No one knows what BuRec would do, but it would call the shots and end current arrangements.
Before that happened, California could “call” for the water it is owed — 4.4 million acre-feet annually. In that case, Wockner said, ranches and farms would be forced to go dry before city residents suffered.
For now, California has avoided flexing its muscle to get its fair share of the Colorado River. To stop the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to “dead pool” where power generation fails, California acts as if serious drought never ended. Since 2000, when the punishing drought began, California has cut annual water consumption by 30 percent, using both carrot and stick.
California charges the highest water rates in the West and also pays for efficiency. Under a program called Cash for Grass, “A good size lawn removal can net a homeowner $30,000,” said Rebecca Kimitch, who works for the Metropolitan Water District.
The state also invests in smarter irrigation, piping leaky ditches in the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River’s biggest irrigator. And it invests in desalinization plants and reuses some of its water via a program that was first derided as “toilet-to-tap.” More recently, statewide laws restrict personal daily consumption to a measly 55 gallons, declining to 50 gallons by 2030.
As for the Upper Basin, states continue to push not for water conservation but for more dams and reservoirs that would drain water from the basin, such as the proposed St. George, Utah, Diversion from Lake Powell. John Fleck, Director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico said, “it’s not a binary question of: Is there enough water? The way we need to think is that the system is at risk, and every time you take more water you create risks for existing users.”
Meanwhile, California is king of the Colorado River and wants you to know it.
“We’ll never give up that right – our first priority among all Colorado River water users — and never say we’ll give up that right,” Hassencamp told me. “ That’s our fallback position, though we’ll set it aside for now and try to work out a solution.”
For Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, this is a clear warning. As Hassencamp put it: “We recognize the pie is shrinking for good.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.
Risk of severe water shortages in the seven-state Colorado River Basin have risen dramatically since April with new forecasts indicating that lakes Powell and Mead could hit crisis levels much sooner than previously expected.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the change in the forecast is noteworthy.
“We’re dealing with more uncertainty than we thought,” she said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for managing the two storage vessels and monitoring the mountain snowpack and runoff that feeds them every year.
As recently as April, when the last forecast came out, inflows to Lake Powell were projected to be roughly 75 percent of average this year. The latest report, however, indicates inflows will be just 55 percent of average.
In just five months, the risk that reservoir levels could fall low enough by 2025 to threaten power generation and the ability to release physical water to downstream users has risen 12 percent, according to Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, a hydrologist and water modeling expert, runs the modeling team for Reclamation’s Lower Basin operations.
The 21-year stretch of drought in the Colorado River Basin has made the system extremely vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, Jerla said.
“In this system, one year of poor hydrology can influence the ways these reservoirs are impacted for multiple years into the future,” she said.
Reclamation officials stopped short of saying how states should respond to the dire water supply predictions.
Seven U.S. states share water from the Colorado River Basin. These include Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Mexico also relies on the river’s flows.
The two regions in the U.S. are governed separately, with the Upper Basin states overseen by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Lower Basin overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation.
The river is a major source of water in Colorado, where it supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and irrigation water for ranches, fruit orchards and corn fields on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains.
Brad Wind is general manager of Northern Water. It serves cities and farms from Boulder to Greeley and is one of the largest water providers in the state. Wind said the rising risk levels aren’t that surprising.
But, he said, to help the drought-stressed system regain some semblance of balance will require much more work. “We can’t walk away from this.”
Last year, for the first time in history, the seven states agreed to adopt a basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan. The Lower Basin component of that plan is now complete and requires cutbacks in water use as levels in the reservoirs fall and reach certain elevations. Arizona has already had to cut back its water use in 2020 as a result of the agreement, and Mead’s levels have risen as a result of these actions and other conservation programs. Now at 44 percent full, the reservoir is the highest it’s been in six years, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
But the Upper Basin, though it has agreed to big-picture elements of an Upper Basin plan, has more work to do to define how a major piece of that plan involving large-scale water conservation, called demand management, would work.
Rebecca Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency managing the demand management study process in Colorado. She also serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, representing Colorado. In a written statement, she said the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan has provided additional security for the system and that the study will move forward even as conditions on the river worsen.
“Colorado will continue to track the hydrologic conditions, and work collaboratively with the other basin states,” she wrote.
With the new forecast, however, pressure to cut back water use is rising.
Since 2000, lakes Powell and Mead have lost nearly half of their stored water supplies. Back then the system was nearly full, at 94 percent, according to Reclamation. This year the two reservoirs are collectively projected to end what’s known as the water year, on Sept. 30, at just 53 of capacity.
Climate change and warmer temperatures continue to rob the river of its flows. In fact, water flowing into Lake Powell during that 20-year period was above average just four out of the past 19 years, according to Reclamation.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
As most of western Colorado is in an extreme drought, most of eastern Colorado is experiencing moderate to severe drought. While earlier in the summer southern Colorado was experiencing the driest conditions, the driest conditions now take up the western half of the state. The dryness extends into the Denver metro area and creeps to the east in the southernmost part of the state.
Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, explained that drought in Summit County started slowly this spring, then progressed to an extreme drought quickly. She explained that Summit County saw a dry fall and while winter saw a decent snowpack, the dry spring meant that the soil moisture was fairly dry going into the summer, which increased the wildfire danger. The U.S. Drought Monitor summary noted that topsoil moisture Sept. 13 was rated very short to short in Colorado.
Huse said that Summit County entered abnormally dry conditions by the end of May. The northern tip of the county went into a moderate drought toward the end of July. In mid-August, the area north of Dillon entered a severe drought. By Aug. 18, the whole county was in a severe drought with extreme drought in the north end of the county and the county was fully enveloped in extreme drought Aug. 25.
“It went fast, we just never got any rain,” Huse said. “That happens a lot of times with drought. You start to see a lot of impacts at once because they’re like, ‘I can go another month if we get some rain’ or ‘I can go two more weeks,’ but then finally there’s just no rain.”
In August, the Dillon weather station recorded 0.62 inches of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service almanac. The station records 1.93 inches in a normal year. So far in September there have been 0.41 inches of precipitation recorded at the station, while 1.02 inches is normal. However, September has seen 3 inches of snow so far, 2.5 inches above normal, which Huse said helped conditions.
Despite dry conditions, Huse noted that the reservoirs are still in good shape.
“What saved the reservoir storage was … the good snowpack of 2018-19,” Huse said.
Huse explained that the 2018-19 snowpack helped keep the reservoir full this year as this last winter, the snowpack barely reached average. Currently, Huse said that reservoir storage for the Colorado River Basin is 101% of average and at 86% capacity. As of Sept. 16, the Dillon reservoir is 95% full, according to Denver Water. Huse explained that parts of the Blue River are normal, such as the high reaches.
Last month was the hottest, driest August on record for western Colorado, according to Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center. He was one of three expert panelists who spoke at the third Yampa Basin Rendezvous discussion Thursday, which focused on changes in temperatures and precipitation amid what they described as a rapidly changing climate.
Routt County isn’t the only place topping charts. In its 2020 State of the Climate report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said the year is gearing up to be the planet’s second-warmest year in 141 years of temperature records. The warmest year thus far was 2016.
According to Schumacher, “These changes are going to affect the water cycle and everything that depends on it, which is pretty much everything.”
Among the most pressing threats climate change poses to Routt County are higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, increased risk of wildfires, more severe droughts and more extreme weather, according to a 2018 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory. These would cause residual impacts to the local economy that depends on the ecosystem for everything from tourism to farming and to public health and safety, the report adds…
Unprecedented drought conditions pose serious risks to the Yampa Valley, from natural ecosystems to the people who depend on the health of those ecosystems. Ranchers have had an especially hard time this summer as they struggle to water their crops. For the second time ever, water managers placed a call on the main stretch of the Yampa River in August, meaning certain water users had to stop or curb their usage.
Longtime Steamboat Springs rancher Adonna Allen said her senior water rights meant she was not as affected by the call as some of her neighbors, but the dry summer has caused problems for everyone in agriculture.
Those growing hay have seen anywhere from 25% to 45% reductions in yields, Allen said. To make up for the loss, Allen had to convert pastures her family normally uses for grazing their cattle into hay fields, pastures she has not touched in 10 years…
Among the most devastating effects of hot, arid conditions for Colorado has been the propensity for large wildfires. The Pine Gulch Fire, sparked by lightning July 31 near Grand Junction, is the state’s largest wildfire in Colorado history. As of Friday, it was more than 139,000 acres in size and 95% contained, following about six weeks of firefighting efforts.
The Middle Fork Fire, 10 miles north of Steamboat, had grown to 5,445 acres Friday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It continues to spread, fueled by gusting winds and dry weather.
Even after the flames are extinguished, such massive wildfires pose long-term hazards, such as flash flooding, mudslides and debris flow…
Snowpack across Colorado has been thinning since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with losses as much as 60% at some measurement sites. Scientists from Colorado State University and the University of New Hampshire project further reductions in snowpack by the end of the century, with losses as high as 30% in some areas.
That said, the northern mountains, including the area of Steamboat Resort, are less vulnerable to decreases in snowpack than southern parts of Colorado, Schumacher said. This is because the weather patterns that can deliver large snowfall are more dependable than farther south, where he described winters as either “boom or bust.”
Tourists in Colorado’s high country might want to snap a lot pictures while they can. Researchers predict that climate change will reduce the number of aspens that make fall color in the Rocky Mountains so captivating.
In Colorado, nothing says fall like a drive in the high country to see the bright orange and yellow leaves of the aspen trees shimmering against a crisp, blue sky. People flock to the mountains not only to see the vibrant colors, but they can hear them, too.
“When the wind blows, they kind of rattle or shake. So it’s sort of a multisensory experience,” says Dr. Jelena Vukomanovic, assistant professor in the North Carolina State University Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management.
Vukomanovich and her team of researchers just released a study looking at how the iconic trees in the Colorado landscape will fare in a warming world. Unfortunately for aspens, the future is already here.
Vukomanovich told H2O Radio that scientists are already starting to see declines in aspen trees in recent years because of more drought and warming temperatures but that climatologists aren’t sure that, as the Colorado climate warms, if it will be drier or wetter. Vukomanovich says it’s not clear if the Front Range will “go with the Southwest or the Northwest in terms of changes.” For that reason, she modeled three scenarios: if climate does not change from historical conditions observed from 1980 to 2010; under a 4-degree temperature increase with 15 percent less precipitation; and with a 4-degree decline and 15 percent more precipitation.
NC State News explains that overall, they found that aspen are expected to decline in all three climate scenarios. In the two warmer scenarios, the losses were more than two times greater overall, and aspen loss was even greater in the visible areas from the scenic byways. And, even if current conditions continue, there would be declines in the trees. At elevations between 6500 to 9000 feet where aspen are most abundant, they saw consistent decreases across all three scenarios. At the highest elevations above 9000 feet they saw lower declines, and they think that means the trees will shift to higher elevations as warming occurs.
After weeks of increasingly intense drought, a few areas of improvement appeared in the latest conditions reported for Colorado by the National Drought Mitigation Center.
In north central Colorado, recently expanded extreme drought receded from Larimer and Gilpin counties, along with the eastern portion of Jackson County and parts of Clear Creek, Park, Chaffee and Jefferson counties, to be replaced with severe conditions. A pocket of extreme drought in Washington and Yuma counties was similarly replaced.
Severe drought in eastern Larimer and northwest Weld counties gave way to moderate conditions, as it did in Bent and Otero counties.
Drought remained stable elsewhere in the state, leaving most of western Colorado in extreme conditions.
Despite a mix of rain and snow last week for much of the state, topsoil moisture was rated 72 percent short or very short…
Overall, one percent of the state is abnormally dry, unchanged from the prior week. Moderate conditions increased from seven to 10 percent, while severe drought increased from 37 to 39 percent. Extreme drought dropped from 54 to 40 percent of the state…
A small area of exceptional drought – the worst category – that developed three weeks ago remains in central Kiowa County, representing less than one percent of the state’s area.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Southwestern Water Conservation District (“District”), based in Durango, Colorado, is seeking candidates for the General Manager position. The District was created by Colorado statute in 1941 to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of the water of the San Juan and Dolores River basins for the welfare of the District, and to safeguard for Colorado all waters of the basin to which the state is entitled. The District encompasses all of La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan, San Miguel and Dolores counties and parts of Montrose, Hinsdale and Mineral counties. The District has a nine-member board of directors with an appointee from each board of county commissioners.
The General Manager serves as the chief executive and management official of the organization reporting directly to the District’s Board of Directors. The General Manager is responsible for all business operations (administrative, financial, technical and external affairs) and manages a small team of staff and contractors. The General Manager must be able to lead the team, delegate, and play to the strengths of others, and must possess strong oral and written communication skills and be capable of clearly communicating difficult issues with candor. The General Manager works collaboratively to bring together groups of diverse interests in complicated and sometimes contentious matters, and is expected to offer creative solutions to the Board that take into consideration the varying water-related priorities and perspectives of the District’s diverse constituency. The General Manager represents the District’s broad range of constituents and priorities at conferences, speaking engagements and on local, statewide, and national matters, as directed by the Board.
All application materials should be submitted electronically (PDF preferred) to email@example.com by Friday, September 25, 2020 at 5:00 PM. Applicants are encouraged to apply promptly and are responsible for ensuring that application materials are received by the District before the closing date and time listed above.
At the most recent Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) meeting held on Sept. 10, the board of directors agreed to sign a new contract with SGM, an engineering and consulting firm based out of Durango, regarding the rebuilding of the Snowball water treatment plant.
Engineer Chad Hill spoke before the board on behalf of SGM. He outlined the company’s plans and ideas for rebuilding the Snowball water treatment plant.
Part of SGM’s plan includes a pretreatment study of the plant, which is already underway and should be done by the new year, according to Hill. Following the pretreatment phase, SGM will perform a pilot study on the plant. The pilot study is expected to start the last week of April and run through the first week of June or “longer if we need it to,” according to Hill.
The current Snowball plant was built in 1984 and, according to PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey, is currently functioning properly. However, in a phone interview, Ramsey added that, “its like an old car, at some point we’re going to be spending more money than its worth to keep it running.”
Ramsey indicated that a main reason for rebuilding the plant is to expand its size.
At the meeting, Hill reassured board members that the project will be getting the “focus and at- tention that it deserves.”
If asked where in the United States is most vulnerable to drought, you might point to those states in the West currently suffering under hot and dry conditions and raging wildfires. However, according to a new NOAA-funded assessment, what makes a state vulnerable is driven by more than just a lack of rain: it’s a combination of how susceptible a state is to drought and whether it’s prepared for impacts. And the most and least vulnerable states could surprise you.
These maps show each state’s overall drought vulnerability (red) and how it ranks in the three individual categories that make up the score: sensitivity (blue), exposure (yellow-orange), and ability to adapt (purple). Darker colors show higher overall drought vulnerability and a greater degree of factors that increase the state’s vulnerability.
Sensitivity is the likelihood of negative economic impacts, which is based on the percentage of agricultural land, number of cattle, how much the state relies on hydropower, and recreational lakes. The exposure score reflects how often a state experiences drought and what assets, like the number of people and freshwater ecosystems, are at risk when it occurs. The ability to adapt score ranks how well the state can cope with and recover from drought, which depends on whether the state has a drought plan, how equipped it is to irrigate its land, and whether it is financially strong overall.
By this scoring system, the most vulnerable states are Oklahoma, Montana, and Iowa, while Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California are least vulnerable to drought. Oklahoma gets its high vulnerability score from having an outdated drought plan and limited irrigation (low ability to adapt), as well as extensive agricultural activities and cattle ranching (high sensitivity). Despite facing recurring multi-year droughts (relatively high exposure), California ranks very low in drought vulnerability. Thanks to a strong economy and well-developed adaptation measures, it’s better prepared for an extreme drought when it occurs than most other states.
On the East Coast, the region is generally less vulnerable than other areas, given its wetter climate and lack of farming—except for New Jersey. As the most densely populated state in the country (very high exposure), it gets the region’s highest vulnerability score.
By breaking down drought vulnerability into three components, this assessment can help decision makers identify what makes their state vulnerable for better planning. And, as the study shows, even states that receive lots of rain can still be vulnerable.
Though drought is one of the costliest natural hazards in the United States, there are actions states can take to become more resilient.
This research was led by Johanna Engström, Keighobad Jafarzadegan, and Hamid Moradkhani from the University of Alabama and funded in part by NOAA’s Climate Program Office through its Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projection (MAPP) program. The MAPP Program enhances our capability to understand, predict, and project variability and long-term changes in Earth’s climate system.
Hoover Dam, straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, holds back the waters of the Colorado River in Lake Mead. In 2016, Lake Mead declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. Source: Bureau of Reclamation
Seen from the air, Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
FromThe Associated Press (Sam Metz) via The Durango Herald:
After a relatively dry summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released models this week suggesting looming shortages in Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored – are more likely than previously projected.
Compared with an average year, only 55% of Colorado River water is flowing from the Rocky Mountains down to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona line. Because of the below-average runoff, government scientists say the reservoirs are 12% more likely to fall to critically low levels by 2025 than they projected in the spring.
“This is a pretty significant increase over what was projected in April due to the declining runoff this year,” hydrologist Carly Jerla said.
The forecast could complicate already-fraught negotiations between Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico over future shares of the river that supply their cities and farms. Those talks will draw up new agreements by 2026 about use of the river that’s under siege from climate change and prolonged drought.
Some urban and agricultural water users have been forced to conserve water to secure the river long term, but it remains overtapped. And as cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas keep growing, the region is only getting thirstier.
“We know that warmer temperatures have contributed to the drought of the last 21 years, and we know that they have exacerbated it,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said.
Unlike the 24-month projections that the agency uses to allocate water to the seven states and Mexico, the models released Tuesday simulate various weather and usage patterns to help water users prepare for different scenarios.
Scientists use what’s called the Colorado River Simulation System to project future levels of the two reservoirs. They employed “stress testing” techniques based on river flows since 1988 to determine potential shortages if drought conditions persist.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico agreed to cuts for the first time under a drought contingency plan signed last year. The water level in Lake Mead sits at 1,083 feet. When projections drop below 1,075 feet, Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by the plan.
Stress test models suggest a 32% chance Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet by 2022 and a 77% chance by 2025. The model’s median estimates indicate Lake Mead will drop by 35 feet by 2026.
The water level in Lake Powell is at 3,598 feet, and estimates suggest it could drop by 50 feet by 2026.
In a reflection of long-simmering mistrust of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County is opposing the organization’s proposed tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Pitkin County commissioners in a special meeting Tuesday passed a resolution that said that without an identified use for the revenue, a tax increase is irresponsible and not in the best interests of county citizens.
The ballot question tells voters in the 15-county district that the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation. But commissioners said the language was flawed and too ambiguous.
“It’s not that we don’t support the efforts of the water district, it’s not that we don’t support protecting water on the Western Slope,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “It’s just that I would like more clarification, more specification in the ballot language as to the benefits to the Pitkin County taxpayers.”
The resolution opposing the River District tax hike passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child voting against it. Both said they would like to hear from members of the public and the River District before making a decision.
River District general manager Andy Mueller wasn’t happy with the way the meeting was noticed or that the draft resolution wasn’t included in the packet materials for the public to see. In a last-minute request to postpone Tuesday’s vote, Mueller asked commissioners in a Monday night email for an opportunity to engage in direct communications with Pitkin’s five-member Board of County Commissioners about the ballot measure.
The BOCC did not take any public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. In order to vote on the resolution, the BOCC came out of Tuesday’s work session and went into a “special meeting.”
“The fact that they refused to allow public comment and input, and that they held it during a really strangely noticed meeting is really disturbing,” said Mueller, who learned Monday about the county’s resolution to oppose the tax measure. “The public in Pitkin County deserves a hell of a lot better.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said the BOCC discussed in August all the different questions on the ballot this year and whether the elected officials should bring in presenters both pro and con.
“The board decided at that time that we didn’t think it was necessary and there was enough information out there for us to make a decision rather than put time on the schedule, which we frankly don’t have, to allow these groups to come in and present,” McNicholas Kury said. “I know the River District would have liked the opportunity to present. (Pitkin County Attorney) John Ely sits on that board, and he’s given us the accurate picture. He’s been fair in his summaries.”
In July, the River District decided to move ahead with Ballot Issue 7A, which will ask voters to raise its property taxes from a quarter mill to a half mill. That works out to an increase of $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value, and will raise nearly $5 million annually.
According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy for Pitkin County’s median home value would increase from $18.93 per year to $40.28. Pitkin County’s median home value, at $1.13 million, is the highest in the 15-county district. The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which was created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.
Ely, the Pitkin County representative on the River District board, was the lone “no” vote against the ballot measure in July, saying that the district’s fiscal implementation plan — where it outlines how the tax money could be allocated — is not directly tied to the ballot language, so there’s no commitment on how exactly the money will be spent.
On Tuesday, Ely told the BOCC that environmentally minded Pitkin County has been a proponent of enhancing streamflows and improving riparian ecosystems, while the River District has been more “traditional” in seeking ways to develop the Western Slope’s water, meaning dam and reservoir projects.
“The district has not been aligned with many Pitkin County directives,” he said.
After learning of Tuesday afternoon’s impending vote on the resolution, environmental groups American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, which support 7A, scrambled to rally their members in an attempt to stop, or at least postpone, the vote.
“Pitkin County representatives need to understand that this issue is bigger than them,” Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, wrote in an email. “The most progressive communities and the most conservative communities, conservation organizations, agricultural associations, ranchers, water providers, business leadership, etc. are putting their differences aside and coming together to do what needs to be done for the Colorado River. None of us are getting everything we want nor are we going to agree on everything in the future — but we know we have to do something now.”
Other counties, including Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Delta, have passed resolutions supporting the River District’s ballot measure.
Pitkin County’s opposition to a River District tax increase is just the latest in the historically antagonistic relationship between the two entities, a dynamic that Poschman noted Tuesday.
“I know maybe there’s a necessary and justified amount of suspicion and mistrust that the money could be spent against our interests, because we do have a misalignment with Pitkin County and the River District,” he said.
Some of that mistrust can be traced to a River District-led project that included conditional water rights for 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River. The water rights for what is known as the West Divide Project were tied to three dams and reservoirs, including a dam just downstream from Redstone, which would have created the 129,000-acre-foot Osgood Reservoir.
The River District abandoned these conditional water rights in 2011 after being sued in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory is still raw for some.
“The timescale is still fresh in the minds of those people up the Crystal,” said Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar.
The River District and Pitkin County have also been on opposing sides of designating the upper Crystal as “Wild & Scenic.” The River District has opposed the federal designation, saying it would end water-development opportunities in the valley, but Pitkin County still supports the move.
Competing water studies
The county is also going its own way on an analysis of water needs in the Crystal Valley. It recently hired hydrologist Kristina Wynne of Englewood-based water consultants Bishop-Brogden Associates to study backup water-supply options for Crystal River water users instead of relying on a study already underway by the River District and Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District.
2018’s summer drought revealed a water shortage on the Crystal that may not leave enough for both agricultural users and residential subdivisions. Irrigators south of Carbondale placed a call on the river, meaning that upstream junior water rights holders — including some homes that use wells — would have to stop using water so the downstream senior irrigators could get their full amount.
The River District, which often advocates for the interests of agricultural water users, was awarded state grant money to study the issue.
Mueller maintains that his organization is no longer the dam builders of yore and emphasizes his desire for collaboration. Last week, he told members of the Crystal River Caucus that the River District will commit to not damming the mainstem of the Crystal and will emphasize solutions to the water shortage other than storage.
“I recognize our district has a lot of trust-building to do in the valley,” he said. “I think, frankly, the River District has evolved and realized that damming anything on the Crystal is not a good idea.”
But it’s a hard sell for some in Pitkin County.
“It’s pretty alarming we didn’t get a heads up from the River District,” said Kury, the county commissioner, regarding the district’s Crystal River study. “We’ve had to fight the River District before. We were taken off guard by the outreach to our constituents about shutting off their wells. I have some hesitancy in that relationship.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A growing coalition is getting behind a Colorado River District tax-hike proposal intended to bolster its struggling balance sheet and strengthen its role in advocating for Western Slope water interests and helping fund projects.
However, opposition to the measure also emerged this week from Pitkin County commissioners, after their representative on the district board also was the only board member to have voted against the tax proposal. And while some other counties in the district have been formally endorsing the measure, so far there’s no indication that Mesa County commissioners will follow suit.
Pitkin County traditionally has been one of the largest sources of tax revenues within the 15-county district because of its high property values. As for Mesa County, it has by far the largest population and largest number of voters that will help decide the fate of the proposal.
The district board has placed a measure on the November ballot to boost the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The district’s levy is now capped at 0.252 mills and its effective current rate is 0.235 mills.
The move would raise the district’s annual revenue by an estimated $4.9 million and cost an additional $1.90 per $100,000 in residential property value. For business property, it would cost another $7.70 per $100,000 in assessed valuation…
The river district measure also proposes relieving the district from TABOR’s limits on how much revenue it can collect and spend in any year. The district still would have to go to voters for any further hike in its tax rate.
It is proposing to use just 14% of the new revenues the tax measure would raise to address its financial troubles. It plans to use the rest to partner with others on projects focused on agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, conservation and efficiency.
BACKERS LAUNCH CAMPAIGN
This week, supporters of the measure launched their campaign to support the district proposal, Question 7A.
“Water access is non-negotiable in the West,” Kathy Hall, chair for the Friends of the Colorado River District campaign group, said in a news release. “Nothing is as central to our area as water. Question 7A will ensure that Western Slope water gets used on the Western Slope instead of being diverted to the Front Range or the West Coast states.”
Among others stepping up to support the measure are Club 20, local peach farmer Bruce Talbott, local rancher Carlyle Currier, Moffat County rancher and former river district board member T. Wright Dickinson, and groups ranging from American Rivers to Business for Water Stewardship.
Matt Rice with American Rivers said during a Zoom meeting of supporters of the measure that the Colorado River is at risk due to factors such as drought and demand from cities outside the river basin and Lower Colorado River Basin states…
He said the tax proposal is critically important, as evidenced by the diversity of support.
“We have conservationists standing next to ranchers standing next to water providers to get this done. It’s never ever been more important,” he said…
COUNTY SUPPORT SOUGHT
Some county commissions within the river district — among them Garfield, Delta and Summit counties — have endorsed the tax measure, and supporters are continuing to pursue endorsements from other counties.
Steve Acquafresca, who serves on the river district board as the Mesa commissioners’ appointee to it, said he and the district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, recently visited with Mesa commissioners. He said he didn’t specifically ask for an endorsement of the measure, but asked them to speak out on it individually if they favor it…
The tax measure’s ballot language includes a clause Acquafresca requested, saying Mesa commissioners had said they wouldn’t consider backing the measure without it. The language commits the district not to use any of the new tax revenue to pay for fallowing of agricultural fields. Temporary, voluntary, compensated fallowing is being considered as one means of Colorado cutting its water demand to bolster water storage by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell during drought, to help ensure they can meet their delivery obligations to downstream states and Mexico…
Acquafresca said with Mesa County being particularly politically conservative, a lot of local residents are tax-averse and probably a fairly constant number of people are going to vote against any tax proposal. But he thinks some Mesa County residents are listening to the river district’s concerns about the greater competition for and threats to water resources at a time when the river district’s revenues and staff are shrinking.
Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor September 15, 2020.
West Drought Monitor September 15, 2020.
Colorado Drought Monitor September 15, 2020.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
Dozens of dangerous and sometimes deadly wildfires continued to burn across the West, with the greatest concentration of blazes affecting the parched Pacific Coast States. By mid-September, 16 active fires in California, Oregon, and Washington had scorched at least 100,000 acres of vegetation, along with two in Colorado. At least a dozen active wildfires had destroyed more than 100 structures, while some three dozen fatalities have been reported, with several individuals still unaccounted for. Farther east, periods of heavy rain (and high-elevation snow) occurred across portions of the Rockies, Plains, and Midwest, boosting topsoil moisture and benefiting drought-stressed rangeland and pastures. However, excessive rain fell in some areas, including parts of Texas, sparking local flooding. In conjunction with the heavy precipitation, a sharp, early-season cold snap delivered record-setting low temperatures across the Plains, Rockies, and upper Midwest, while summer-like heat lingered along and near the Pacific Coast. Meanwhile, heavy showers associated with Tropical Storm Sally—later a hurricane—spread across Florida’s peninsula during the weekend of September 12-13. Excessive rain fell in southern portions of the state, including the Florida Keys. Later, as a Category 2 hurricane, Sally made landfall on September 16 near Gulf Shores, Alabama, around 4:45 am CDT, with sustained winds near 105 mph. Sally dumped historic and catastrophic amounts of rain in southern Alabama and western Florida. In addition, high winds caused extensive damage and power outages along and near the Gulf Coast, while a significant coastal storm surge occurred along and to the east of the landfall location. Once inland, Sally exhibited rapid weakening but continued to spark heavy rainfall and flash flooding…
Mixed signals were apparent in drought-affected sections of the High Plains, as drought impacts were only slightly ameliorated by recent rain and snow. Still, topsoil moisture improved dramatically in Nebraska, from 73 to 45% very short to short, during the week ending September 13. Even with the precipitation, topsoil moisture on September 13 was rated 72% very short to short in Colorado. In addition, Colorado led the nation—among major production states—in very poor to poor ratings for sorghum (39%) and corn (33%). Wyoming led the region with rangeland and pastures rated 78% very poor to poor…
Dry weather dominated the Far West, including California, the Great Basin, the northern Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest, leading to extensive drought intensification as wildfires continued to burn hundreds of thousands of acres and degrade air quality. However, temperatures fell from record-setting levels that had been achieved earlier in the month. During the heat wave, which peaked amid the previous drought-monitoring period, September 6 was the hottest day ever recorded in California locations such as Woodland Hills (121°F), Paso Robles (117°F), and San Luis Obispo (117°F). Many other communities from California to the Southwest reported record-high September temperatures. The list of September records set or tied on the 6th included 120°F in Needles, California; 117°F in Riverside, California; 112°F in Gilroy and Lancaster, California; 110°F in Kingman, Arizona, and Stockton, California; 109°F in Sacramento, California; 105°F in Hanksville, Utah; 99°F in Cedar City, Utah; and 91°F in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Intense heat persisted through September 7 in the San Francisco Bay area, where Gilroy again reached 112°F. Richmond, California, noted its highest-ever temperature (107°F) on the 7th, tying September 15, 1971. By September 13, USDA topsoil moisture was rated at least 60% very short to short in every Western State except Arizona. Rangeland and pastures rated very poor to poor ranged from 35% in Nevada and Utah to 82% in Oregon. A new patch of exceptional drought (D4) was introduced along the Nevada-Utah border. Extreme drought (D3) was expanded in several areas, including western Oregon. However, the eastern edge of the West, mainly from Wyoming to New Mexico, received some much-needed precipitation. In some cases, however, the rain and snow merely staved off further drought intensification. Still, September 7-8 snowfall in Wyoming totaled 7.5 inches in Casper and 4.7 inches in Lander. Alamosa, Colorado, received an incredible 13.6 inches of snow from September 8-10, breaking a monthly record originally set when 10.0 inches fell on September 27-28, 1936…
During the drought-monitoring period, drenching rainfall struck parts of Texas. Abilene, Texas, measured a daily-record sum of 3.80 inches on September 9. Abilene’s 3-day (September 9-11) rainfall reached 4.89 inches, with more than 10 inches reported in a few nearby locations. Aggressive improvements were introduced in the hardest-hit areas, which extended northward into Oklahoma. During the week ending September 13, topsoil moisture in Texas improved from 64 to 44% very short to short. Oklahoma’s topsoil moisture rated very short to short improved from 49 to 29%. Farther east, however, patchy dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) existed, particularly in Mississippi, where topsoil moisture rated very short to short stood at 48% on September 13. During the first half of September, rainfall in Mississippi totaled 0.22 inch (13% of normal) in Meridian and 0.03 inch (2%) in Vicksburg…
Former Hurricane Sally will drift northeastward, crossing the Carolinas on Friday. Storm-total rainfall in southern Alabama and western Florida could reach 10 to 20 inches, with isolated amounts near 35 inches. Well inland, rainfall could total 4 to 10 inches from east-central Alabama into portions of the Carolinas and southeastern Virginia. Meanwhile, Sally’s storm-surge and wind-related impacts will continue to subside. Most of the remainder of the country will experience dry weather during the next 5 days, although a series of cold fronts will deliver some precipitation from the Pacific Northwest to northern sections of the Rockies and High Plains. Parts of southern Texas will also receive rain. Elsewhere, a surge of cool air will affect much of the South, East, and Midwest, while generally warm weather will cover the West. However, by week’s end and early next week, warmth will replace previously cool conditions across the northern Plains and upper Midwest.
The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for September 22 – 26 calls for the likelihood of cooler-than-normal conditions in most areas along and east of a line from central Texas to Lake Ontario, while above-normal temperatures will dominate the Plains, West, and upper Midwest. Meanwhile, wetter-than-normal weather in the Four Corners region, Deep South Texas, and the Pacific Northwest should contrast with near- or below-normal precipitation across the remainder of the country.
The Warming Meadows experiment near Crested Butte began in 1991 and soon the wildflowers started fading. The more challenging question was happening underground—and what are the implications for planetary warming?
An experiment called Warming Meadows ended a year ago. For 29 years, day and night during every season, shoulder-high electric infrared radiators directed heat downward to warm the top 6 inches of soil on half the 10 plots staked out between two stands of evergreens. This is on a ridge overlooking the East River, five miles from the Crested Butte ski area.
Unique at its launch in January 1991, the experiment at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was the world’s first attempt to foretell the effects of global warming on the natural environment by the mid-21st century. It accomplished that. Anybody who treasures the shimmer and glow of mid-summer’s pageantry of wildflowers in Colorado’s high country should be alarmed.
The experiment assumed increased temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Those temperatures will almost certainly occur by the middle of this century given the continuing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet altogether has already warmed 1.2 degrees C since the start of the industrial era, in some places—including higher elevations, and those inland and at higher latitudes—more; and other places less. Given a doubling of emissions, according to a study published in the Reviews of Geophysics, we can expect temperature increases of between 2.6 and 4.1 degrees C (4.1 to 8.1 degrees F).
Summer’s broad smile will dull with these rising temperatures as the broad-leafed forbs that produce the rainbow of wildflowers give way to more muted sagebrush. This is a story that Warming Meadows from its location at 9,400 feet in elevation has told quickly, vividly.
From the beginning, John Harte, the scientist who conceived of Warming Meadows in the waning days of the administration of Ronald Reagan understood there was a deeper story, the interplay of atmosphere and soil.
Soil holds 4 or 5 times as much carbon as both the atmosphere and living vegetation. The first comparison is especially important, he explains. “It tells us that small (by percent) changes in soil carbon can result in big changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. For example, a 25% loss of soil carbon results in a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
Changes in vegetation carbon are not as likely to result in atmospheric changes as are possible changes in soil carbon. “We should look to the soil for potentially very large effects.”
The question, in other words, is whether the warming climate causes more carbon to be transferred from the soil to the atmosphere in coming decades as sagebrush replaces the forbs? If so, that could in turn accelerate warming.
Understanding this feedback is crucial to creating global climate models that can help predict what will happen in mountains, not just in Colorado, but across the planet.
The laboratory itself is at a one-time silver mining camp called Gothic.
Never robust with mineral wealth, Gothic was decaying back into the wilderness in 1919 when visited by a biology professor from a nearby college then called Colorado State Normal School. It’s now called Western Colorado University.
Enchanted by the diversity of ecosystems, the professor, Dr. John Johnson, returned with students. In 1928, what is now called the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was established. Professors and students from across the continent have been returning ever since to conduct studies from these old mining shacks now supplemented over the decades by other, still modest offices and dormitories. They call the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory by its acronym, RMBL. It’s pronounced like the sound of distant thunder: rumble.
At any one time, about 200 experiments are underway at RMBL. One study launched in 1962 was of the yellow-bellied marmot, and it has been followed by 225 since then. At the start of the 21st century, researchers noted that the marmots were emerging from hibernation 38 days earlier than they had about a quarter-century before. None of the studies, though, have gained the same attention as Warming Meadows.
The greenhouse effect
Harte, a physicist turned ecologist from the University of California, Berkeley, wrote his first paper about global warming in 1970. By the 1980s, he had begun pondering the future effects of greenhouse-gas emissions and land-use changes.
“Predicting future climate entails more than just knowing about the physics of heat and light, air and water,” Harte wrote in “Ecosystem Consequences of Soil Warming,” a 2019 book with chapters by multiple authors.
“Ecosystems are a big player as well,” he wrote.
In his chapter, Harte describes the importance of what goes on underground and also feedback effects.
“Vegetation influences the physical stage on which climate plays out, and microorganisms regulate the gases that control energy flow in the atmosphere. And vegetation and microorganisms are controlled not only by climate, but by each other as well.
In this truly complex system, as ecosystems are altered by climate, the climate is in turn altered. These feedback effects can only be understood and reliably incorporated into climate models if we first understand how ecosystems respond to climate change.”
This “need to unravel this complexity, to characterize climate-ecosystem feedbacks” motivated Harte in 1988 to start assembling Warming Meadows. At Gothic he chose land tilting southward on a ridge maybe a football field away from the road to Crested Butte. Being on the ridge was important to prevent delayed runoff of snowmelt. In this small area he laid out 10 plots. Half were to be heated, and half not.
How to heat the plots? Harte hit upon the mechanism while at dinner in an outdoor restaurant in San Francisco. There he noticed the overhead heat lamps that repelled the chill fog of evening. Searching through farm equipment catalogues, he settled on a product from Pennsylvania designed to warm piglets and chickens during winter.
Harte decided to heat the ground a steady 2 degrees Celsius, with no variation for seasons, hoping to mimic “the relatively constant infrared flux from the great big heater in the sky, otherwise known as incremental greenhouse gases.” The heat dried the surface soil 15% to 20%, moisture being an important part of this investigation of global warming effects.
All 10 plots had a mixture of woody shrub, or sagebrush, and forbs, the latter being broad-leafed herbaceous plants. Think of sunflowers, primrose, and mountain bluebells. All plots had four times as many forbs as sagebrush covering the ground when the experiment began.
The ratios were nearly upside down by year 27 of Warming Meadows: Shrub production had become three times greater than that of forbs.
The plots thicken
Warming Meadows also documented another effect of warming temperatures. Replacement of leafy green plants to woody shrubs causes a shift in the albedo. Snow reflects light more, while a black rock absorbs the sun’s energy. Woody shrubs absorb more energy than the wildflowers, the equivalent of a 10-watt light bulb per square meter averaged over night and day during the growing season. That’s double the incremental energy absorbed as a result of the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Effects of increased heat were not uniform across the plants, however. Shallow-rooted plants in the heated plots showed greatly reduced growth and symptoms of moisture stress. Deep-rooted plants showed only a weak response to the heat. This, Harte wrote in the book, suggests “changes in community composition as the planet warms.”
It gets more complex. The increased heat from the lamps accelerated the runoff of snow, lengthened the growing season and, in some cases, emboldened pathogens and herbivores. This effect was not universal, though. Some pests actually did better in cooler or later-melting plots, not so well with the incremental heat.
Even by 2014, Harte had concluded that Warming Meadows provided “a realistic preview of real global warming.”
Crucial, he went on to say, was the nature of the experiment: heated plots paired with unheated plots. Without the artificial stimulation, it would have been impossible to say exactly what caused the changes in the subalpine meadows above Gothic. Many other things are at work, including acid deposition from distant coal-fired power plants, more intrusion from cross-country skiers, plus dust blown from deserts of the Southwest. Also, there could be natural cycles in the dominance patterns of vegetation. The duality of the plots, heated and unheated, made clear the effect of temperature increases during coming decades.
Meanwhile, in Washington
Harte was and remains friends with Tim Wirth. They both were, and still are, part-time residents of Crested Butte. Harte says his friendship with Wirth was only incidental as he worked out the design for Warming Meadows in 1988 even as Wirth was busy in Washington D.C. trying to draw national attention to the threat of global warming.
In his role as a U.S. senator from Colorado, Wirth helped with the staging of testimony in June 1988 by James Hansen from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. With sweat dripping from his brow, Hansen said there was a “high degree of confidence that greenhouse gas emissions and global warming were incontrovertibly related. “It is already happening now,” he said.
Hansen’s testimony was the No. 2 story in the New York Times the next day. The lead story was that a new law had failed to stem the flow of immigrants from Mexico.
People in Colorado mountain towns that summer took note of Hansen’s testimony, because it was a hot summer, by mountain standards. Yet the threat of global warming, like Washington D.C., still seemed distant.
The threat of warming is less distant now, if overshadowed for much of this year by concerns that a stray cough from an unmasked stranger could send you to the hospital—that is, until the wildfires arrived with their suggestion that this will become the new normal.
But for places like Crested Butte, there’s good reason to wonder whether tourism, like the mining that preceded it, will in time wane. Since the 1990s, its summer tourism has bustled with greater liveliness than its ski economy. It self-promotes, not without good cause, as the wildflower capitol of Colorado. One of its signature pre-covid events was a wildflower festival.
Can sagebrush ecosystems be celebrated as readily? Today, as you drive the 29 miles downvalley along the East River to Gunnison, dropping 500 feet in elevation, the montane ecosystem gives away to high desert. The annual precipitation decreases by more than half. Where Crested Butte is surrounded by wildflowers, Gunnison is in a sea of sagebrush. That is likely Crested Butte’s future.
The subterranean dance
But as much as Harte hoped to predict above-ground impacts, he was just as attentive to what was happening underground.
“Climate change can alter the quantities of carbon sequestered in plants and soil, resulting in feedbacks that either enhance or retard the anthropogenic buildup of atmosphere carbon dioxide,” Harte explains in Ecosystem Consequences of Soil Warming.
“Such feedbacks are especially likely in montane and high-latitude ecosystems where soils are carbon rich, vegetation is sensitive to climate variables, such as snowmelt date and length of growing season, and climate change is expected to be large due to snow albedo feedback.”
From 1991 forward, he was trying to discern the implications for atmospheric carbon in this dance with the subterranean. For 28 consecutive years, twice each summer, he took 4 soil carbon measurements in each of the 5 heated and each of the 5 control plots, resulting in a unique and accurate record of changes in soil carbon.
The measurements were to depths of 10 cm and occasionally to 25 cm. Those areas nearest the surface have the most carbon, he points out.
“We found a 25% loss of soil carbon going to the atmosphere as CO2, which, on a large spatial scale, would translate to a huge incremental warming,” he says.
Harte hoped for a still-longer run at Gothic with Warming Meadows. Continued warming until 2050 could, he pointed out, predict climate effects in that ecosystem to the end of the century. But the costs, if not staggering, at about $15,000 a year, including $6,000 for electricity (produced mostly at coal-burning power plants), persuaded funders it was time to move on.
“It led the way for a type of research that is now very common,” says Ian Billick, director of RMBL who first arrived in Gothic as an undergraduate student in 1988. The experiment cannot perfectly foretell the effects of warming on other regions, says Billick, but the intense study can “provide insights, even if not perfectly, that help us think about the entire world.”
By way of example, he points to work on human diseases that often start with fruit flies or mice. “Not because they are perfect models for humans, but because they are way easier and cheaper to start with. We can’t study everything about everywhere, so places like Gothic serve as starting points that serve as a model for understanding all of the Earth’s ecosystems,” he says.
Seeking mountain patterns
Six years ago, a new effort was launched in the hopes of finding patterns in mountainous places across the world, to better detect general trends in the effects of warming on species loss, on diversity, and ecosystem function. It’s called WaRM, which stands for Warming and (species) Removal in Mountains (some acronyms come easier than others).
Among the 11 cold-weather sites in the WaRM network around the globe is Kluane Lake, in the Yukon Territory. The chief investigator at that site, Jennie R. McLaren, who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, observes on her website that woody shrubs are replacing grasses in both tundra ecosystems and in the Chihuahua Desert where she lives.
In July 2019, after the power was cut off to the warmed meadows, a small backhoe trundled up the trail to excavate narrow pits 1.5 meters deep. Several dozen scientists then gathered for a month to collect samples of 30 to 40 plant species and 30,000 or so microorganisms.
“Essentially we had to destroy the [Warming Meadows plots], but it’s really important because half the carbon is stored below 20 cm,” explained Stephanie Kivlin when I talked with her a month later.
“Putting this all together will be really interesting, but this will take time,” said Kivlin, who teaches at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
The core question motivating these pits was whether the soil carbon at this greater depth responded differently than that closer to the surface. Sensors had all along kept track of heat and soil moisture relatively close to the surface.
A secondary and related question is whether rising temperatures above ground alter interaction among the species living underground.
Better climate models
Researchers hope this second phase of Warming Meadows, the underground work, may yield a high-profile paper, perhaps in Science, the prestigious journal. The goal, says Kivlin, is to “understand how ecosystems are going to respond to warming. That includes plants above ground, plants below ground, and all the carbon and nutrients and microorganisms, including the carbon that plants are picking up from the atmosphere and putting into their roots. We want to understand how the entire ecosystem responds.”
Classen taught middle school for three years while working weekends in a soil laboratory before returning as a student to earn a Ph.D. “It was such a neat mashup of ecology and chemistry,” she says. Unlike the layperson, she understands something about “all these crazy microorganisms” that are part of the web of life. Now directing the Aiken Forest Science Laboratory at the University of Vermont, she wonders about things about which most of us have absolutely no notion. For example, how will those tens of thousands of microorganisms in the soil react to warming temperatures? Another one is whether the microorganisms absorb the atmospheric carbon through the roots of plants? Or will they emit more carbon themselves? “I spend all my time thinking about this,” says Classen.
This post-Warming Meadows study, she says, will almost certainly be used to build better climate-change models. Billick, the RMBL director, agrees. “This will be the first good estimate of deep soil carbon response to warming,” he says.
So, as you take your next hike out into the backcountry, consider that what lies underfoot may be just as interesting and important as what you see above ground. As for those wildflowers, try to imagine sagebrush as being just as beautiful. Not the easiest thing to do, but try.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine focused on climate change, energy and water in Colorado. For a free e-mail subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303.463.8630.
Click here to register and for all the inside skinny:
Topic: Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar: Zooming in on West Slope Water
Monday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “West Slope Water 101.” This session will cover how water rights are deployed in irrigation, drinking water and recreation. Transmountain diversions will be described as will be the importance of water rights associated with irrigation in the Grand Valley and the Shoshone Hydropower Plant.
Tuesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Water Works: the Colorado River District in Action.” Learn how the Colorado River District overcomes challenges with its partners and constituents to protect the water security of western Colorado while promoting better water use and protection of the environment with projects across the district.
Wednesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Heating Up the Talk About Why River Flows are Down.” Rising temperatures are robbing the Colorado River system of flows. Drought, aridification of the West and reduced river flows are driving down Lakes Powell and Mead while impacting local water use at the same time. A panel of speakers will review the current science, the on-the-ground impacts and how two major water providers are planning for a new normal
Thursday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Of Primary Importance: The Secondary Economic Impacts of Demand Management.” The River District and its partners in the Water Bank Workgroup commissioned a study of how demand management of water, meaning not using it and sending it to Lake Powell, would impact communities if water were to become a “cash crop.” Spending patterns could change. How would demand management impact our mainstreet economies? How would it change spending at rural businesses such as local diners and mechanics?
Water restrictions will be implemented for residents of Fort Collins following extreme drought conditions and wildfires which have the area facing a potential water shortage, the city announced on its website.
The water use restrictions will take effect Oct. 1 and will remain in effect until the order is lifted by the city manager…
Ongoing drought conditions, the Cameron Peak Fire burning near Walden and an infrastructure repair project known as Horsetooth Outlet Project (HOP) have the city facing a projected water shortage unless action is taken, the city said.
Typically, utilities receives about 50% of its water from Colorado-Big Thompson shares via Horsetooth Reservoir and 50% from the Cache la Poudre River. During HOP, utilities will have limited access to water supplies in Horsetooth and will rely more heavily on the Poudre River.
If conditions during HOP – like continued drought or poor water quality due to the Cameron Peak Fire – prevent or limit the ability to deliver water from the Poudre River, a temporary backup pump system will convey water from a different Horsetooth Reservoir outlet to the Utilities Water Treatment Facility.
The capacity of this backup system is expected to supply only average utilities winter water demands, which does not include irrigation or other seasonal outdoor uses.
Lawn watering will not be allowed beginning Oct. 1. Trees, gardens for food production and other landscapes may be watered by hand or drip systems only. There are also restrictions on vehicle washing, power washing and street sweeping, among other things.
From email from the Center for Colorado River Basin studies:
Long-range planning of the water supply provided by the Colorado River requires realistic assessments of the impact of a continuation of the current drought that began in 2000, the impact of potentially extreme future droughts, and the long-term and progressive decline in watershed runoff that is caused by a warming climate.
In this white paper, we’ve developed methods to make quantitative estimates of likely future conditions, thereby providing an approximate answer to the question, “How dry might future conditions in the Colorado River watershed become?” Our analysis is guided by the principle that what has happened in the past might happen again in the future. When viewed from the perspective of past flows reconstructed from tree-rings, or future flows projected from climate models, significantly more severe droughts are not only plausible, but increasingly likely, recognizing that hotter and drier conditions are making matters worse.
We identified the magnitude and duration of the most severe droughts of the past 600 years. Three past droughts stand out in the record of prior flows. We use the term millennium drought to refer to the period between 2000 and 2018—mean flow of 12.44 million acre feet/year (maf/yr) for 19 years; 2.3 maf/yr less than the long term mean of 14.76 maf/yr computed from the 1906-2018 natural flow record. The mid-20th century drought was the period between 1953 and 1977—mean flow of 12.89 maf/yr for 25 years; 1.9 maf/yr less than the long term mean. Both of these are plausible scenarios of future droughts, because they have occurred in the recent past and indeed may be continuing today. We use the term paleo tree-ring drought to refer to the period between 1576 and 1600 that is based on tree ring estimates of streamflow—mean flow of 11.76 maf/yr for 25 years; 3 maf/yr less than the long term mean.
Our results demonstrate that planning in which the 1988-2018 period containing the current drought is used as a stress test might not consider drought scenarios that are sufficiently extreme. The future might be far drier than managers currently anticipate.
An additional aspect of our research is that we developed and implemented a scheme for incorporation of our estimates of future drought at Lees Ferry into the Colorado River Simulation System (CRSS).
In the paper:
Details of three drought scenarios that would severely test the operational rules, and planning and management strategies of the Colorado River system.
An example of the stresses that a severe sustained drought would place on the Colorado River possibly lowering pool elevations of Lake Powell to levels less than needed to produce hydropower.
An examination of whether the declining streamflow trend in the 20th century is due to the anomalous wet period from 1906-1929.
Separate sidebar analyses on historical flow in the Colorado River, natural flow losses below Hoover Dam, the estimation of streamflow in the absence of human influence, details of the unusual Early 20th century pluvial period from 1906-1929, and the effects of climate related forest change on runoff.
Click here to go to the Western Water Assessment Intermountain West Climate Dashboard (scroll down for the latest briefing):
Latest Briefing – September 15, 2020 (UT, WY, CO)
Record hot temperatures and near-record to record low precipitation during August led to a major degradation of drought conditions. D3 drought expanded to cover nearly 80% of Utah, 50% of Colorado and 20% of Wyoming. D4 drought emerged in central Utah and eastern Colorado. Two large wildfires burned in Colorado during August and are now the 1st and 5th largest wildfires in state history. La Niña conditions currently exist in the eastern Pacific Ocean and there is a 75% chance of La Niña conditions continuing through the fall and winter.
Throughout most of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, August precipitation was less than 50% of normal Western US Seasonal Precipitation. Nearly all of Utah and half of Wyoming received less than 25% of normal precipitation. A significant portion of Utah received less than 5% of normal precipitation. The northern Front Range of Colorado, and north-central Wyoming received 50 – 90% of normal precipitation and four locations throughout the region received above-average precipitation from isolated storms.
Temperatures were above normal for the entire region during August Western US Seasonal Precipitation. Regionally, Utah experienced the warmest conditions with temperatures 4 – 6 degrees above normal for much of the state and portions of eastern and central Utah saw temperatures that were 6 – 8 degrees above normal. Temperatures were generally 2 – 4 degrees above normal in Colorado and Wyoming. Temperatures were 4 – 6 degrees above normal in western Colorado and along the Front Range. The hottest August temperatures on record were observed in nearly half of the Intermountain West, including Denver, Grand Junction and Salt Lake City Western US Seasonal Precipitation.
Streamflow in nearly all river basins in Colorado and Utah were below normal during August Western US Seasonal Precipitation. August streamflow for much of Wyoming was near-normal (25 – 75th percentile), but basins in southern and western Wyoming were below normal (< 25th percentile). Despite low regional runoff volumes in 2020 and persistent drought, reservoir storage remains relatively high. Statewide, reservoirs in Utah are at 67% capacity and 109% of average levels and reservoirs in Colorado are 51% full and 83% of average storage levels. In Wyoming, current reservoir storage levels are general above average. Storage on large reservoirs in the Colorado River basin is variable with Flaming Gorge Reservoir relatively full (86% capacity, 100% of average), Navajo Reservoir slightly below normal (71% capacity, 86% of average) and Lake Powell half-empty (48% capacity, 63% of average).
A record hot August and extremely low precipitation caused a significant worsening of drought conditions throughout the region during August. D3 drought expanded across the entire region, especially in Utah (D3 covers 80% of state) and Colorado (D3 covers 50% of state) Western US Seasonal Precipitation. In Wyoming, D3 drought expanded to cover 21% of the state; western Wyoming is the only portion of the region not experiencing drought conditions. D4, the worst category of drought, emerged in central Utah and eastern Colorado. There was a one category improvement in drought conditions in central and southeastern Colorado; these two areas are now in D1 drought.
A La Niña Advisory was issued by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center on September 10th. La Niña conditions currently exist and there is a 75% probability of La Niña conditions continuing through fall and winter. As of early September, sea surface temperatures and atmospheric variables indicate La Niña conditions and the majority of Pacific Ocean temperature forecasts project a continuation of La Niña conditions through fall and early winter Western US Seasonal Precipitation. The official CPC/IRI ENSO forecast is calling for a 75% chance of La Niña conditions during fall and winter. By spring, there is an increasing probability of neutral ENSO conditions Western US Seasonal Precipitation. On a shorter timescale, the NOAA monthly climate outlooks show an increased probability for above average temperatures and below average precipitation for most of the region. The NOAA seasonal climate outlook (3 month timescale) indicates a higher probability for above average temperatures for the entire region and below average precipitation for Colorado and Utah.
Significant August weather event. Record heat, low precipitation, worsening drought and large wildfires were all significant events on a regional scale during August. August was the hottest on record for the entire southwestern United States, including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico Western US Seasonal Precipitation. August 2020 was the driest on record for Utah and the fifth driest on record for Colorado and Wyoming. Hot and dry conditions during August caused rapid degradation of drought conditions and extreme drought (D3) now covers approximately half of the three state region. Several significant wildfires began burning in Colorado during August. The Pine Gulch fire, north of Grand Junction, CO, is 95% contained (9/10/20) but burned 139,000 acres and is the largest wildfire in state history. The Cameron Peak fire has burned 102,000 acres as of 9/10/20 and is currently the fifth largest fire in state history. Up to 14” of snow fell on the fire on 9/8/20, but the fire is only 4% contained (9/10/20) and still remains a threat as warm conditions return to the region.
FACE:Hazards offers a look into how much Colorado might have to fork out to respond to future natural hazards, and how communities could work now to avoid going broke later
As Colorado experiences a record-breaking wildfire season amid accelerating population growth and statewide drought, many are asking: How can we be resilient in the face of inevitable disaster?
It’s a dense question. To find an answer, the Colorado Water Conservation Board teamed up with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and a handful of other state agencies to create the Future Avoidance Cost Explorer. The Federal Emergency Management Agency joined the effort as part of its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and contracting company Lynker helped with data analysis as well as creating an interactive website. Just a year after the project started, the technical report and the website were published this spring.
Also known as FACE:Hazards, the dashboard explores the economic cost of natural hazards under a variety of different potential scenarios as they might look in 2050. Users can explore varying degrees of climate change and population growth, dive into the economics of one specific economic sector like agriculture or recreation, differences between geographic regions, and peruse the impacts different programs have on disaster resilience.
The price tags estimated for these scenarios are likely lower than they would be in real life, according to Megan Holcomb, senior climate specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board and technical lead for the project. This is in large part due to incomplete data; not every county collects the same degree of data on the same economic sectors, for example, so the project could only do analysis when data from every county lined up. Additionally, the data is at a county-level scale, so while it gives a good picture of the state as a whole, cities and towns will need their own assessments for better accuracy.
“We don’t know what parts of economies will be impacted the hardest sometimes,” Holcomb said. “We don’t know where in the state the most serious wildfires are going to happen, we don’t know how that’s going to affect recreation or tourism afterwards. A lot of disasters, by their very nature, are unpredictable … but we just know that these disasters will happen more frequently, and back to back or in conjunction with others.”
Despite its shortcomings, Holcomb says the dashboard and its accompanying technical report can start to fill a much-needed role for decision-makers.
“The Catch-22 of planning far into the future is that’s not how the decision-making process works, and not how funding works,” Holcomb said. “It’s very challenging, but we have to start somewhere.”
While the project could have just been presented as a technical report to legislators, Steve Boand, state hazard mitigation officer and a project adviser, said the team decided from the get-go to make the data more accessible. Not only does this benefit lawmakers who likely don’t have the time to parse pages and pages of data, it also helps communicate the issue in a way that starts a conversation with the agencies like the Office of Emergency Management.
“The goal is for local communities to ask, ‘What do you mean, this is going to cost $300 milion a year, how does that work?’” Boand said. “The general economic impact from fire, drought and flood can be staggering.”
Of the $997,000 dedicated to the project, 75% came from FEMA, with the remainder funded through the state. Ryan Pietramali, recovery division director for FEMA Region 8, which includes Colorado, noted that this is the nation’s first project to take such a thorough look at the practical impacts of disaster planning.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation is launching a prize competition to improve short-term streamflow forecasts. Evolving data science such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and high-performance computing are starting to be used in streamflow forecasting. The Streamflow Forecast Rodeo competition seeks to spur innovation using these technologies.
Reclamation is making up to $500,000 available through this prize competition.
“Streamflow forecasts are integral to managing water,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Finding improvements to forecasting will allow water managers to better operate their facilities for high flows, mitigate drought impacts and maximize hydropower generation.”
This competition delivers on the Department of the Interior and Reclamation’s commitment to improve water availability. It also supports the goals of the President’s memo on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West.
The competition will begin with a “pre-season” in August, followed by a year of real-time forecasting beginning October 1, 2020. The pre-season will allow competitors to build and refine their forecast methods. The real-time forecasting competition will have solvers forecast streamflow for the next 10 days, updated daily at multiple locations across the West, for the duration of the competition.
Reclamation is partnering with the CEATI International’s Hydropower Operations and Planning Interest Group, NASA Tournament Lab and Topcoder on this crowdsourcing competition. Partnering with CEATI HOPIG includes a companion project that will provide benchmarks against which the competitors will be evaluated, as well as scoring of solver forecasts by RTI International. Other CEATI HOPIG members making contributions include Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, Tennessee Valley Authority, Hydro-Quebec, and Southern Company. To learn more about this competition, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/research/challenges/streamflowrodeo.html.
Reclamation conducts prize competitions to spur innovation by engaging a non-traditional, problem-solver community. Through prize competitions, Reclamation complements traditional design research to target the most persistent science and technology challenges. It has awarded more than $1,000,000 in prizes through 22 competitions in the past 6 years. Please visit Reclamation’s Water Prize Competition Center to learn more.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced that Reclamation will invest $3.3 million in 21 projects for WaterSMART Internal Applied Science Tools that build technical capacity within Reclamation.
“Information gained from these applied science tools will allow Reclamation and our partners to use best-available science for optimal water management under variable hydrologic conditions,” Commissioner Burman said. “The projects announced today will help inform specific water management decisions throughout the West.”
A project will assist New Mexico and reservoirs throughout the West. It will receive $199,764 to implement a known model to simulate regional climate and physical processes to estimate daily, monthly and annual evaporation across Elephant Butte Reservoir. These estimates will be compared to alternative estimates. The results will be used by the Albuquerque Area Office to support operations, to facilitate method comparison and identify future planning, operational and research needs on the topic. It will help with the development of alternative evaporation estimation techniques, production of daily evaporation time series at a reservoir and a broadening of weather prediction modeling capabilities.
Another project in Arizona will receive $200,000 to enhance precipitation and soil monitoring information in the Aravaipa watershed northeast of Tucson. Currently, there are only two weather stations within the watershed. The project includes the installation of two stations to monitor precipitation and soil moisture, which will better inform the Natural Resources Conservation Service forecasting models and United States Geological Survey surface water models. The work proposed in this project will help Reclamation and local partners predict flood risk, drought, erosion, and water quality concerns and better plan mitigation of these water management issues.
A third project will receive $120,000 to do predictive modeling to generate maps of invasive quagga and zebra mussel risk. The results will allow Reclamation to dedicate limited resources to high-risk locations and prepare facilities for potential control costs.
Applied Science Tools are part of the WaterSMART Program. Through WaterSMART, Reclamation works cooperatively with states, tribes and local entities as they plan for and implement actions to increase water supply reliability through investments to modernize existing infrastructure and attention to local water conflicts. Visit http://www.usbr.gov/watersmart to learn more.
Click here to go to the Bureau of Reclamation website for all the details:
Over the next 5 years, the models indicate continued drought and an increased chance of potential water shortages by 2025
Projections of future conditions of the Colorado River system are updated at least twice annually in January and August. The modeling approach and assumptions are included below along with the results of the most recent projection.
The most recent projection of future Colorado River system conditions was produced in August of 2020.
In response to a cool forecast and increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Wednesday, September 16th, 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.
Now environmental and water quality experts are bracing for more substantial impacts on the Poudre River and the people who depend on it for drinking water, farming, industry and recreation. Degraded water quality, enhanced flood risk and threats to aquatic wildlife are all distinct possibilities as the blaze takes its toll on a delicate, far-branching river ecosystem that had largely recovered from the impacts of the High Park Fire.
The coming weeks and months will bring more news about what the Cameron Peak Fire will mean for the Poudre River. Until then, some staff of the agencies that monitor the river are in a similar position to the rest of us: Stuck in an anxious waiting game as the blaze continues, temperatures warm up and many details about the fire remain obscured in the ever-present haze.
“There are still so many uncertainties,” said Jen Kovecses, executive director of the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed. “We’re certain about how big the fire is, but we’re not certain about its intensity on the landscape and what it will look like. That’s going to be the missing puzzle piece that we need to understand the full suite of post-fire impacts from this event.”
The aftermath of the High Park Fire offers a glimpse, albeit not an ironclad preview, of some impacts that could come from the Cameron Peak Fire. It all starts with the fire burning away the carpet of leaves, twigs, branches and other vegetation on the forest floor, known as “duff.”
“The fire can consume both the forest canopy and the material on the ground, which is a big problem, because now we have bare soil exposed,” said Pete Robichaud, a research engineer with USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. “That forest floor duff layer is like a big sponge. It absorbs the water when it rains, it allows the water to percolate slowly into the soil — it’s great. Well, now the fire removes that, and when the rain comes, there’s no sponge.”
The other problem is smoke, which can seep into the forest floor and cling to soil particles as it cools and condenses, making them hydrophobic — or water repellent.
The two forces combined can leave the soil vulnerable to even a mild afternoon thunderstorm. Water reverbs off the forest floor and travels downslope to the river, dragging soil, sediment and ash along for the ride.
That’s what happened after High Park, which infamously turned the Poudre black in summer 2012.
“Without the ability to soak up water and temper the intensity of rain events, the system overall became a much flashier system,” said Jill Oropeza, director of sciences for Fort Collins Utilities’ Water Quality Services Division. “You’d see water levels rise really quickly; you’d see material from the hillslopes move into the river channel really quickly, and then the quality would change really quickly as well. You just had tons and tons of ash and sediment that got mobilized into the stream channel and then eventually conveyed downstream.”
The district’s new, $27 million-plus wastewater treatment facility is nearing the end of its finishing touches after a three-year construction process. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new plant is tentatively set for Thursday.
Financed by a mill levy approved by the SWSD’s voters in May 2016, the facility was completed in March, whereupon the old plant was retrofitted to work in tandem with the new plant. Now, both facilities are online and working as designed, according to Hamby.
Some $23.3 million in bonds were sold for the project; the additional $4 million for the retrofitting of the old wastewater plant was financed through development-fee revenue from Snowmass construction projects, the district manager said.
In a tour of the new plant last week, Hamby beamed with pride as he described the reasons for the new plant, the complicated construction process of integrating the two plants and how SWSD employees accomplished retrofitting the old plant themselves…
While the plant took three years to build, the actual work started in 2013 when SGM, the Glenwood Springs-based company of consulting engineers, began talking to SWSD about new regulations that had recently been passed in 2012 in Colorado to reduce nutrient pollution in lakes, rivers and streams.
Regulation 85 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulates nutrient discharges such as nitrogen and phosphorus and requires wastewater treatment plants to reduce both substances in the water that they discharge.
In the beginning, SGM and SWSD considered retrofitting the existing SWSD wastewater plant that was originally constructed in 1968 after the Snowmass ski area opened and then modified since then with additional construction.
A challenge for SWSD and the design and construction companies working on the new plant was the fact that the existing wastewater plant had to remain in operation while the new one was being constructed in order for Snowmass to meet current water regulations.
Because of this, the project was built in phases over the three-year period.
“Both plants have to be run in tandem to make this work, so we first had to build this new plant and put it online,” explained Hamby.
“Once it was constructed, we took the old plant offline, retrofitting it with new equipment, but we also had to remove a lot of the equipment that was over there. Our own people did the retrofitting work so it is really extraordinary to me that the people that maintain the plant also took responsibility to build basically a new plant inside,” he said.
Topic: Ditch and Irrigation Infrastructure Assessment; Bookcliff, South Side and Mt. Sopris Conservation Districts
Date: Friday, September 18th, 2020 12:00 pm – 12:50 pm
Presenter: Wendy Ryan, Colorado River Engineering and Sara Dunn, Attorney, and Director of Bookcliff Conservation District
Background: In 2019, the Bookcliff, South Side and Mt. Sopris Conservation Districts initiated a voluntary inventory of ditch systems within the Middle Colorado Watershed. The inventory is wrapping up and has produced some interesting and valuable results.
What You’ll Learn:
* Why the Conservation Districts are conducting the ditch and irrigation infrastructure inventory and assessment.
* How the inventory process is being conducted and what is being assessed.
* How the project is being funded.
* What information the assessments are providing that helps producers protect their water rights and improve infrastructure.
* What the Water Plan Technical Update findings are regarding Middle Colorado agricultural water supplies, demands and shortages.
* How the results will be integrated into the Middle Colorado Integrated Water Management Plan.
Register in advance for this webinar:
From the Weminuche Audubon Society (Jean Zimhelt) via The Pagosa Springs Sun:
Please join the Weminuche Audubon Society on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 6:30 p.m. for our monthly chapter meeting.
This remote meeting will take place on Zoom. Please check the events list on our website, http://www.weminucheaudubon.org, for a link to the online meeting. All interested parties are welcome.
The topic of this month’s meeting will be the importance of wetlands, particularly those in our Pagosa Springs area. Eighty percent of all wildlife species use wetlands or riparian habitats at some point in their life cycle.
According to the EPA, “More than half of our original wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses.”
Geothermal sources in Pagosa Springs have created unique, warm-water wetlands and con- tribute to the rich diversity of birds we see along the Riverwalk in town.
Our presenter for the evening will be Randy McCormick. Prior to moving to Pagosa Springs, McCormick served as environmental manager at the National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, Fla., mandated to protect 110,000 acres of coastal wetlands in the western Everglades. He is a board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society and an active member in Pagosa Wetland Partners, a group of citizens committed to preserving important area wetlands habitats. Find out how you can be involved in this mission.
Many communities in the West are growing, and in some places that’s putting pressure on already scarce water supplies.
That’s the case in northern Colorado, where a proposed set of reservoirs promises to allow small suburbs to keep getting bigger. The project, called the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), has stirred up a familiar debate over how the West grows, and whether water should be a limiting factor.
NISP — with its two new reservoirs, and network of pipelines across a broad sweep of Northern Colorado — is close to being fully permitted, which would pave the way to begin construction of the infrastructure project to satisfy the needs of 15 fast-growing Front Range municipalities and water providers. The project promises to give those communities water to build new homes and businesses — without buying it from farmers.
Glade Reservoir is the proposed body of water that would fill a bathtub-shaped valley north of Fort Collins that currently acts as a straight stretch of Highway 287…
Glade would be one of the Western U.S.’s biggest new reservoirs to come online in the past couple decades. With a more than $1 billion price tag, a project of this size and scale has those who live near the new reservoir and along pipeline routes concerned…
Northern Water, the quasi-governmental agency that moves water through tunnels, canals and reservoirs across a broad swath of Northern Colorado, is pushing for NISP’s construction on behalf of 15 other water providers, mostly small suburbs that have ambitions to grow. The communities of Dacono, Firestone, Eaton, Lafayette, Windsor and Severance are all participants in the project, among others…
NISP is getting close to the end of a federal, state and local permitting process. Since first formally submitting for permits in 2004, the project has jumped through regulatory hurdles like a federal environmental impact statement, a water quality certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and a 1041 permit from Larimer County. The 1041 permit gives local governments in Colorado some oversight authority on large infrastructure projects within their boundaries…
[The Larimer County] voted to recommend the 1041 permit to the board of county commissioners, which then approved on a 2-1 vote the permit for the project…
The town of Erie, a rapidly growing community in Boulder County about a half hour from Boulder and north Denver, would be the largest recipient of NISP water…
After more than 15 years of permitting, countless hours of negotiation over the project’s mitigation plans, and millions of dollars spent on studies, surveys and outreach, the agency pushing for NISP, Northern Water, says it has made significant changes to the planned project in order to help the already overtaxed Poudre River. Opponents say the project will only hurt, not help.
The Cache la Poudre River, where NISP would draw water for its largest reservoir, is often referred to as a “working river.” It provides drinking water for cities and irrigation water for farms. During the summer months it’s popular with kayakers, tubers and anglers. It’s also home to fish, birds and other wildlife…
The project still needs one more federal approval from the Army Corps of Engineers before it’s considered to be fully permitted, and ready to head into design and construction phases.
La Niña conditions were present in August, and there’s a 75% chance they’ll hang around through the winter. NOAA has issued a La Niña Advisory. Just how did we arrive at this conclusion, and what does a La Niña winter portend? Read on to find out!
Checking the boxes
Let’s revisit our La Niña decision tree.
The answer to the first question, “Is the monthly Niño3.4 sea surface temperature anomaly equal to or less than -0.5°C?” is an easy “yes.” August’s value was -0.6°C according to our most consistent sea surface temperature dataset, the ERSSTv5 (though that is not the only SST dataset we monitor). For a quick refresher, the Niño3.4 sea surface temperature anomaly is the difference from the long-term average temperature of the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the Niño3.4 region. In this case, the long-term average is 1986-2015.
The second step is “Do you think it will stay more than half a degree cooler than average for the next several months?” and again, the answer is “yes.” Most of the dynamical computer models predict that the sea surface temperature will remain below the La Niña threshold of -0.5°C through the winter.
Now, on to the critical third step: “Is the atmosphere showing signs of a response to the cooler-than-average sea surface?” Another “yes!” La Niña intensifies the contrast between the warm far western Pacific and much cooler eastern Pacific, and so La Niña’s atmospheric response is a strengthening of the Walker circulation. This large-scale circulation pattern is characterized by air rising over the very warm waters of the far western Pacific and Indonesia, traveling eastward high in the atmosphere, sinking over the eastern Pacific, and traveling back westward near the surface. (Creating the trade winds—more on those in last month’s post.)
When the Walker circulation is stronger than average, the trade winds are stronger, which we observed in the end of August and early September. More rising air over the far western Pacific means lower air pressure, while descending air over the eastern Pacific means higher air pressure; the contrast between these two arms of the Walker circulation is measured using the Southern Oscillation Index and the Equatorial Southern Oscillation Index. Both indexes were positive in August, at 1.1 and 1.0 respectively. These values, which are in the top 20% of the 1950–present record, indicate a stronger-than-average Walker circulation.
La Niña impacts
La Niña’s altered atmospheric circulation over the Pacific Ocean affects global weather and climate. While every ENSO event (and every winter!) is different, La Niña can make certain outcomes more likely. This includes more rain than average through Indonesia, cooler and wetter weather in southern Africa, and drier weather in southeastern China, among other impacts.
One important global impact of La Niña is its effect on the Atlantic hurricane season. La Niña reduces wind shear—the change in winds between the surface and the upper levels of the atmosphere—allowing hurricanes to grow. The likelihood of La Niña was factored into NOAA’s August outlook for the Atlantic hurricane season, which favored an “extremely active” season. As of September 8th, we have seen 17 named storms so far this season, and the forecast is for a total of 19-25 named storms (the hurricane season ends on Nov. 30th).
La Niña affects US weather through its impact on the Asia-North Pacific jet stream, which is retracted to the west during a La Niña winter and often shifted northward of its average position. Tom wrote a great explanation of the La Niña/jet stream mechanics and impacts here. Generally, La Niña winters in the southern tier of the US tend to be warmer and drier, while the northern tier and Canada tend to be colder. Official seasonal outlooks are available from the Climate Prediction Center, and Nat will be writing about CPC’s winter outlook for the blog in November.
We have a bunch of information on La Niña impacts here on the ENSO Blog! In the early stages of our last La Niña, 2018–2019, Tom mapped out the temperature and precipitation during every La Niña winter on record. Also, guest posts have covered La Niña’s effect on snow in the US, a potential link with tornado season, and how La Niña can interact with other climate variability patterns. And of course, we’ll be here every month, updating you on how ENSO conditions are evolving.
August 2020 will be remembered for its extreme heat and violent weather: The U.S. endured heat waves, hurricanes, a devastating derecho and raging wildfires out West.
Meteorological summer — June through August’s end — was a standout: It ranked 4th hottest and in the driest one-third of all summers in the historical record.
Here are more highlights from NOAA’s latest monthly U.S. climate report:
Climate by the numbers
The average temperature for August across the contiguous U.S. was 74.7 degrees F (2.6 degrees above the 20th-century average) and ranked third-hottest August on record.
Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each had their warmest August on record. In particular, Phoenix, Arizona, had its hottest month ever recorded, with an average temperature of 99.1 degrees F.
Also on August 16, Death Valley in California reported a high temperature of 130 degrees F. If verified, this temperature would be the hottest August temperature on record for the U.S.
The average August precipitation for the contiguous U.S. was 2.35 inches (0.27 of an inch below average), which put the month in the driest third of the 126-year record.
Arizona, Nebraska and Utah ranked driest on record for August, while New Mexico and Iowa ranked second and third driest on record, respectively.
Year to date & meteorological summer
The average U.S. temperature for the year to date (YTD, January through August) was 56.3 degrees F, 2.4 degrees above the 20th-century average. It ended as the 7th-warmest in the YTD record.
The contiguous U.S. has seen 21.64 inches of precipitation for the YTD (0.93 of an inch above the long-term average), placing it in the wettest third of record.
For meteorological summer (June through August), the average temperature for the contiguous U.S. was 73.6 degrees F — 2.2 degrees above the average. Summer 2020 ended with the ranking of 4th-hottest summer on record.
The precipitation total for summer was 7.99 inches (0.33 of an inch below average), which ranked in the driest third of the record.
More notable climate and extreme events
Two Atlantic hurricanes made landfall.
Hurricane Isaias struck North Carolina on August 4 and quickly accelerated up the East Coast, bringing widespread damage and power outages across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27 in southwest Louisiana with 150-mph winds. Laura tied the 1856 Louisiana hurricane for having the strongest land-falling winds on record for the state.
Wildfires blazed. Numerous wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres across the West. Lightning from unusual summer thunderstorms sparked the second-,third-, and fourth-largest fires on record in California, while the Pine Gulch Fire, near Grand Junction, Colorado, became the state’s largest wildfire in state history.
A devastating derecho swept through. On August 10, a line of severe thunderstorms with widespread winds of more than 100 mph, known as a derecho, raced 700 miles across the central U.S. from Iowa to Ohio and brought significant damage to crops and infrastructure.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western water in-depth: Major science report that highlights scientific shortcomings and opportunities in the basin could aid water managers as they rewrite river’s operating rules
Practically every drop of water that flows through the meadows, canyons and plains of the Colorado River Basin has reams of science attached to it. Snowpack, streamflow and tree ring data all influence the crucial decisions that guide water management of the iconic Western river every day.
Dizzying in its scope, detail and complexity, the scientific information on the Basin’s climate and hydrology has been largely scattered in hundreds of studies and reports. Some studies may conflict with others, or at least appear to. That’s problematic for a river that’s a lifeline for 40 million people and more than 4 million acres of irrigated farmland.
From the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah to the urban centers of Arizona, Nevada and California in the Lower Basin, water managers depend on that science to guide their decisions. More than ever, as those managers grapple with a hotter, drier Colorado River Basin and growing demand for a shrinking resource, they need an accessible scientific handbook as they get ready to draft a new set of rules for managing the river.
A new report synthesizes that science and puts it into context. Titled Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science, the report released earlier this year draws from about 800 peer-reviewed studies and agency reports on crucial topics – weather, streamflow, historical hydrology and climate change – to help navigate the future of river management. It doesn’t provide answers but offers a technical manual of sorts for a river system so vital to the Southwestern United States and Mexico.
“It’s attempting to create that two-way dialogue, but to do so in a way that water managers aren’t having to go and read 20 different reports,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which helped fund the report. “It’s a fabulous tool in that [it] is one guiding document to look at if you want to increase your understanding.”
Written by a veteran cadre of more than a dozen scientists and engineers, it pulls no punches in describing a river system in peril.
“The average conditions, over time and across the basin, suggest a (barely) sufficient supply and, by smoothing out the variability, mask existing and prospective shortages,” says the report, produced through the Western Water Assessment, an interdisciplinary research program based at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The report notes that the ultimate aim of integrating new research into practice is to produce more accurate short- and mid-term forecasts of runoff and more meaningful long-term projections of expected water supply.
“The future is and always has been uncertain,” said Jeff Lukas, research integration specialist with the Western Water Assessment and co-lead author of the report. “Now, at a time in which the Basin’s water supply and depletions are in delicate balance at best, system storage is half-full, and climate change is increasingly impacting hydrology, these forecasts and projections have become even more critical.”
Improving Forecasting Tools
Funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and its partners in the seven Western states that depend on the river, the report emphasizes the need to improve hydrologic forecasts, projections and predictive tools in the Colorado River Basin, all the while acknowledging the need for resilience.
“There is not now, and likely never will be, perfect weather and climate data,” the report says. “Producers of climate information need to communicate, and users should be cognizant of, the strengths and weaknesses of the data they choose and how climate data choices influence their conclusions.”
Terry Fulp, regional director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region, said the report emphasizes that Colorado River Basin hydrology is increasingly volatile and must be planned for accordingly.
“This made it very clear that we can’t rely on the 100-year record,” he said. “You can’t just look at the past and assume it’s replicated in the future. We all knew that, but it is good to have the body of science conclude that, too.”
Brad Udall, a senior climate and water research scientist at Colorado State University who was a technical reviewer for the report, said that while it covers an amazing breadth of material, it has key advice for water managers.
“At the broadest level, the take-home message is, a tremendous amount of science has been done in the Basin,” he said, “and while it may not give us the answers that tell us what to do, it strongly suggests we need to be prepared for a very different kind of future that’s hotter and drier.”
The past 40 years have seen a substantial warming trend, the report says, noting that the period since 2000 has been about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average and likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.
Authors of the State of the Science report note they did not evaluate current Basin water management, address ecosystem needs or provide recommendations. Instead, they concentrated on assessing the chain of data and models that provide an understanding of the Basin’s hydrology, while recognizing how the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and its increasing complexity parallel the growing uncertainties about how future climate will affect hydrology. Absent a dramatic increase in rain and snow, the Basin’s runoff and water supply are increasingly being affected by warmth.
With temperature, there is “a very clear signal and that trend … is significant enough that people have a fair amount of confidence it is impacting the hydrology in the Basin,” said lead co-author Liz Payton, Western Water Assessment’s Colorado River Basin assessment specialist.
Those effects were evident this year as a warm spring quickly erased what had been a robust snowpack leading up to April 1.
“I’m still stunned by the 100 percent snowpack and the 52 percent runoff,” Udall said. “That’s just mind-boggling.”
Adding the Climate Change Factor
The State of the Science report comes at an important time. Fresh from completing unprecedented Drought Contingency Plans in 2019, key players in managing the river will next turn their attention to updating and renegotiating the river’s 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines, which expire in 2026. Crafted in the early stages of a two-decade drought, the 2007 guidelines along with the subsequent Drought Contingency Plans are a testament to managing the Basin’s extreme volatility.
Coming to terms on a new set of guidelines, including their length, will differ from 2007 because the last set of guidelines was based on limited modeling data that didn’t fully incorporate climate change projections, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
While it is hard to predict specifically how the science report will inform the renegotiations, its recurring themes of increased temperatures, reduced streamflow and variable precipitation “will almost certainly arise in the context of the modeling efforts undertaken in the renegotiation,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
New revelations about Colorado River Basin science appear with increasing frequency. In a lengthy July thread on Twitter, Udall noted the growing footprint of climate change in the Basin and how the expected pace of warming, which some models project could be as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, would greatly amplify the impacts seen in 2020. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey this year said warmer temperatures by 2050 could reduce the amount of water flowing in the river by as much as 30 percent.
“All of this has a name: aridification,” Udall wrote on Twitter. “Get used to it.”
The State of the Science report helps water managers understand key subjects, such as what climate monitoring is revealing and where uncertainty and errors exist.
Report contributor Carly Jerla, who manages Reclamation’s Modeling & Research Group, called it a “no-nonsense” scientific platform with a clear message. “We know we can’t just let history repeat itself,” she said. “This report clearly lays out that something else has to be done.”
Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the report provides a “one-stop shop” for busy river managers.
“Of all the many hats water managers wear, we are not researchers and we are not innovators,” she said. “It’s difficult to have an eye on all of the things we are doing related to species and policy and water supply planning and also be able to comb through the various sources of new hydrologic or climate change data.”
Like many, Pellegrino would prefer a consistent pattern of climate and water supply projections from which to base management decisions.
“It’s really hard for somebody who wants predictability to acknowledge there is going to be wide range of variability that’s going to persist for a very long time,” she said. “But that’s where we are.”
The State of the Science report stems from the 2017 Colorado River Hydrology Research Symposium aimed at giving water resource managers a better understanding of new hydrologic research initiatives, and giving researchers a better understanding of the Basin water system and the tools used by managers. Together, they explored how research could help improve those tools. That was crucial because research not fully grounded in the particulars of the managed system can produce alarming results. Hasencamp recalled one study that gave Lake Mead an even chance of going dry by 2021, a finding that dumbfounded water managers.
“We all looked at it and said, ‘What assumptions are they making?’” he said. “This is not very good science because they didn’t talk to the people who are actually running the system and managing it.”
Reaching Consensus on Science
The historical record illustrates the dramatic swerves in Colorado River Basin hydrology. Some years the snow never stops. Other times, unseasonable warmth and dryness dominates as officials nervously watch lake levels plummet in the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Scientists devote their careers to figuring how forecasts and projections can improve. On the ground, life can be more stressful for water resource practitioners charged with providing a reliable water supply. Report authors acknowledge the conundrum.
“Given the stakes involved, it is reasonable that Colorado River Basin planners and managers desire greater certainty in water supply forecasts and long-term projections,” the report’s authors wrote. “They need some sense of the likelihood of hydrologic shifts, especially shifts to the dry side.”
One area of possible improvement is the 24-month water supply forecasting system that is partly based on assumptions of average monthly inflows to the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, said Payton.
“That’s a significant reach because if there is a lot or not as much inflow as the monthly average, you could shift Lake Mead above or below one of the important thresholds” that determine how much water agencies can draw from the river, she said. “If Mead is right at a shortage threshold and you have underestimated the inflow, you may end up declaring a shortage when you didn’t have to.”
Improvements in forecasting are needed from months to years to even decades out, said Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“Obviously, the long-term time scale is probably the most relevant for policy decisions, but the short and mid-terms are just as important,” she said. “The question is, if we knew next year was going to repeat the hydrology we saw in 2002, the driest year on record, would we make different water management decisions? I think the answer to that is yes at all time scales.”
Faced with uncertainty, Pellegrino believes the prudent approach is to be “eyes wide open” to the implications of the wide range of variability.
“Instead of identifying the hydrology that’s problematic or exact streamflow record that’s correct, spend your efforts coming up with the benchmarks for your water management community or basin that really mean something,” she said.
Making Better Decisions
For an area such as Las Vegas, that means preparing for more heat and dryness. Pellegrino said her agency has calculated that the creeping temperature rise could increase per capita water use by nine gallons a day by 2035.
Outcomes like that mean agencies should prepare for as many scenarios as possible, aiming for maximum flexibility, “like a dimmer switch,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy. Waiting too long to act could be costly.
“We should consider this time before a full-blown crisis as a gift,” she said. “We are on ‘water time,’ and developing new water management tools takes years. We should not squander this time now, because we will never have a perfect picture of what the next year or two holds. Trying to develop these kinds of tools in the middle of the crisis will create chaos, social and economic impacts and unintended consequences. It is much more effective to have the tools ready to deploy before they are needed.”
Fulp, Reclamation’s regional director, said the report helps reframe the basis for near-term planning and gives a glimpse of what to expect further out, uncertainty and all.
“You’re talking about looking at hundreds, if not thousands of different futures and seeing what the statistics tell us,” he said. “Is one decision better under a lot of scenarios or is it only better under a few scenarios?”
The flow of scientific data about the Colorado River Basin will continue. Some reports will generate more response than others. Amid that, the depth and breadth of the Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science stands out.
“We hear about so many studies with dire predictions for the Colorado River but I think the bigger meta message is we have this great collaboration among water agencies to gather more information about the past, present and future of climate hydrology to make better decisions and planning,” said Lukas, with Western Water Assessment. “That’s the story I like to emphasize.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: email@example.com, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
FromColorado Public Radio (Paolo Zialcita and Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Last month was the hottest August on record since Colorado started tracking temperatures in 1895. Now a map released weekly by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows over half the state is experiencing extreme drought, exacerbated by intense heat…
Fifty-five percent of Colorado is undergoing a D3 drought, the second-highest level. Widespread D3 drought can mean that wildfires continue to burn, outdoor recreational activities have to be reduced, or in some cases, low reservoir levels and mandatory water use restrictions.
This drought has been a long time coming, according to assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger.
“This has been a situation that has been unfolding basically since the beginning of the water year, which is back to last October, when we started to see lack of monsoon moisture last late summer,” Bolinger said. “What happens to that map from here on out, really depends on how many more storms can we get like we got this week.”
Bolinger said it might be a surprise to some people that drought conditions have worsened since Colorado experienced weather whiplash this week, as snow and freezing temperatures swept across the state after weeks of dangerous fire conditions.
She explained that the latest drought report is based off of data collected Tuesday morning, before the snow started to roll in. She does expect that the storm brought some welcome relief, but said it won’t solve Colorado’s drought.
“We’re still going to have areas that are in that bad drought and if we don’t have more storms that continue to put improvements on — so if we go back to our warm, dry pattern — the benefit of this storm is going to be pretty limited,” Bolinger said.
In her estimation, Colorado’s dry year and everything that’s occurred, including massive wildfires covering large parts of the state in smoke, are a direct result of climate change.
Interview [with State Climatologist Russ Schumacher] Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Henry Zimmerman: Let’s start with this snow. How rare is it to see snow this early in September?
Russ Schumacher: It’s really rare. In Fort Collins, it’s the earliest we’ve ever had measurable snowfall in September, with records at our weather station on the CSU campus going back to the late 1800s.
Some places have had earlier snow like Denver a couple of times. But this is remarkable because we’ve seen it, not just a local snow here along the Front Range, but the snow has swept all the way down through southern Colorado. It’s really kind of all the numbers we look at — it’s pretty unbelievable, we have a history of snow in September, but never this early and never this much.
Over the past few weeks, did we break any records in terms of heat?
We broke a lot of records.
Most of the stations here on the northern Front Range, here in Fort Collins we had our latest 99, we didn’t quite make it to 100, but it was our latest 99 we have ever seen, the previous record was set last year on September 2.
Denver saw its latest 100. We had the highest temperature ever recorded in September in Colorado in La Junta, in southeast Colorado on Sunday. And so all sorts of heat records statewide, and then this really abrupt shift to the cold and the snow.
When we talk about extreme weather, I think we also have to talk about climate change. Record breaking fires, extreme heat one day, snow the next, is this an example of climate change?
So I think the extreme heat we’ve seen, not just here in Colorado but across the Southwest over the last month and a half, there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s been made worse as a result of the climate being warmer. And just warmer and drier summers across the Southwest has been something that climate scientists have suggested was likely, and I think we’re seeing that this summer.
Now the shift from the extreme heat to extreme cold within the matter of a couple of days, connecting the dots there is more complicated. There are potential reasons why these extreme shifts might become more common in a warmer climate. One being that essentially, we’ve built this huge dome of high pressure and heat over the West this summer, and if we go back to a roller-coaster analogy, what we may be doing is essentially making that roller coaster a little bit steeper, and thus when the low pressure systems that bring the cold air around it, might be diving down a steeper down-slope here into Colorado, and really increasing those rapid changes.
But this is an active research topic that a lot of people are looking at to try and understand what to expect from these kinds of shifts in a warmer climate. But the bigger story of the extreme heat across the West very much has a fingerprint of climate change on it.
What do you expect to come in the next several years in terms of extreme weather?
These kind of seasonal predictions or multi-year predictions are always hard to make.
I don’t think the summer monsoon rains have been permanently shut off or anything like that. So we’ll have wet years and wet summers again, not every year will be like this year. But that being said, what we expect in a warmer climate is that what we thought was a hot year in the past may become more of an average year going forward.
And there are probably more extremes on the horizon, maybe ones that we haven’t even come to fully understand yet.
In response to a cooler forecast and increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Saturday, September 12th, 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 has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html
Click here to read the update (Megan Holcomb, Tracy Kosloff):
As of August 25th, dry conditions cover 100% of the state with 91.6% of Colorado in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought categories. The Water Availability Task Force and drought‐plan‐activated Agriculture and Drought Task Forces continue to respond to challenging multi‐hazard conditions around the state. In lieu of the widely valued 2018 in‐person southwestern drought tour, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Department of Agriculture, and Colorado State University Water Center are co‐ leading a “Virtual Drought Tour.” This multimedia outreach effort aims to capture direct reports from producers and communities significantly impacted by drought. The primary audience for anecdotal reports, stories, questions, and suggestions are the three interagency drought teams (listed above) and state legislators. Ag Task Force representatives across the state may also record local interviews where possible and safe.
For the first time this year, the August 25th U.S. Drought Monitor, logged abnormally dry or drought conditions in 100% of the state. D4 (exceptional) drought conditions returned and continue to hold in Kiowa county. D3 (extreme) conditions now cover 36.47% of the state; D2 (severe drought) covers 54.69%; D1 (moderate drought) covers 7.25%; and D0 (abnormally dry) covers only 1.2% of the state (stats from Sept 1 monitor).
The 90‐day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) (June 6 to Sept 6) continues to show deeply below average moisture for the far majority of Colorado with deeper shortfalls more prevalent in the northwest quadrant of the state.
El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions continue to show borderline La Niña conditions, with the atmospheric response at weak La Niña or neutral. Sea surface temperature outlooks continue with 60% chance of La Niña this fall and 55% change through winter.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center’s three month outlook maps continue to show very high confidence for above average temperatures Sept through Nov., with highest confidence over the four‐corners region and a 40% probability of below average precipitation Sept. through Nov. for Colorado.
Compared to last month’s (Aug 1st) map, the VegDri Index shows notable deeping of severe and extreme vegetation drought conditions statewide. VegDri is a satellite derived product that looks at how well plants are photosynthesizing.
Statewide reservoir storage is at 53% capacity which is 85% of average for Sept 1st. Last year at this time, reservoirs were at 73% capacity and 114% of average.
In a joint letter Tuesday, water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement of Record of Decision regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the Seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
If the approval process for the Lake Powell Pipeline is not halted so concerns can be addressed, the letter states it may result in “multi-year litigation” that could also complicate future interstate cooperation concerning use of the Colorado River…
Despite a potential threat of litigation if their concerns are not resolved, Brock Belnap, an assistant general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said Thursday the water district hopes issues can be resolved without too much disturbance to the pipeline’s timetable.
“We appreciate that they express they want to resolve the issues they may have and we are pledging likewise to work with them to address the issue they may have in regard to the Law of the River in the Colorado River,” Belnap said…
An example of the issues some of the other states have is that Washington County is geographically located in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Belnap said, and the compacts state that water rights cannot be transferred from the one basin to the other. However, Utah is counted among the Upper Colorado River Basin States, and the compacts also say each state has a right to develop its allocated portion of the Colorado River within its boundaries, he said…
The government received more than 10,000 public comments on an environmental impact report for the proposed pipeline before Tuesday’s deadline, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Marlon Duke said. The Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, is expected to issue a final report, which could bring the project a step closer to approval.
Although the proposal isolates Utah from the other states that rely on the river, it’s committed to bringing water it’s entitled to tap to those who need it, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
He said the project has been under review for about 20 years, and many other projects have gone through federal review while states worked through unresolved issues…
Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, attended the meeting and asked if the committee planned to halt the project due to the concerns expressed by the other states in Tuesday’s letter.
Utah’s largest new water diversion in Colorado River Basin ignites a modern water war, results in veiled threat of litigation by other states.
In a stunning letter to the Secretary of Interior, a coalition of state water agencies, large water suppliers, and Governors’ representatives of Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are asking that Utah’s controversial Lake Powell Pipeline be placed on hold.
The shocking move demonstrates how out of touch the Utah Division of Water Resources and its lobbying partners have been in understanding the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River and of the Pipeline’s impact to the water supplies of seven states. The letter notes:
“As Governors’ representatives of the Colorado River Basin States of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming, we write to respectfully request that your office refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) or Record of Decision (ROD) regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior (Interior) are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
The strong letter of opposition was signed by representatives of the Colorado River Board of California, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Colorado River Commission of Nevada and the State of Wyoming.
They joined scores of groups and many hundreds of people across seven states submitting comments of opposition to the Lake Powell Pipeline to the Provo Office of the Bureau of Reclamation for the DEIS. The project drew criticism across the American West because the Colorado River has dropped dramatically with reservoir levels at 50% of capacity in an era of water cuts and climate change.
This is a historic first for 6 of the 7 Colorado River Basin States to reprimand another state on what they see as:
“Serious legal concerns relating to the 1922 and 1948 Compacts, including the accounting of the Lake Powell Pipeline diversion and other operational issues under the Law of the River.”
Utah ignited the water war with other Colorado River Basin states by pushing the Lake Powell Pipeline even without a demonstrable need for the water. Utah water officials justified the Pipeline with a high municipal water use of over 300 gallons per person per day, while other cities like Las Vegas, Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix have water use between 120 and 150 gpcd, or less.
In a separate letter, the Southern Nevada Water Authority noted:
“What the Utah Board of Water Resources characterizes as extreme conservation efforts and impractical conservation, are actually commonly applied in an efficient and effective manner in many other communities.”
“This project is water hoarding at its finest. Utah wants to cash in on its ‘water entitlement’ under the Colorado River Compact so badly that it is willing to upset the fragile balance of a basin that supports 40 million people, recreational and agricultural economies, tribal lands and cultures, and irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems.” — said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians
“Secretary Bernhardt should listen to the six Colorado River states that just asked him to delay any decision regarding the Utah’s unnecessary and harmful proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. All six states, especially Arizona, would be hurt by Utah’s attempted water grab from the drought- stricken Colorado River.” — said Douglas Wolf, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity
“It is not often where grassroots groups and government water buffaloes are aligned on bad water projects, but the Lake Powell Pipeline is such a boondoggle that opposition is now widespread. We hope St. George finally begins to follow the lead of communities like Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and others that have implemented world-class conservation programs.” — said Kyle Roerink, Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network
A coalition of groups also submitted extensive comments opposing the embattled Lake Powell Pipeline. The coalition has requested the Bureau of Reclamation explore other less expensive and environmentally destructive means for meeting the water needs of residents of Washington County in southwest Utah. This is also an Alternative identified as missing from the DEIS in the letter sent to the Secretary of the Interior by the 6 State Coalition. The 224 page letter can be found HERE.
The letter was submitted by Utah Rivers Council, Save the Colorado, WildEarth Guardians, Great Basin Water Network, Living Rivers, Glen Canyon Institute, Utah Audubon Council, SUWA, Conserve Southwest Utah, Citizen’s Water Advocacy Group of Arizona, Sunrise Movement of Las Vegas, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, San Diego Coast Keeper and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. It details flaws in Reclamation’s environmental review including challenging the basis and need for the project itself, the lack of examining more cost-effective and less destructive alternatives, and its failure to analyze and mitigate the environmental harms that would arise if the project goes forward.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is one of the projects identified by the Trump Administration–in its June 4, 2020, Executive Order No. 13927–to be fast tracked through the environmental review process.
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Rob Viehl):
Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use on the Fryingpan River and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River
The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be considering an offer from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acting through its Colorado River Water Projects Enterprise (“District”) of a short-term lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water that the District holds in Ruedi Reservoir for instream flow (“ISF”) use. The proposal is to use the released water to supplement winter flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from January 1, 2021 – March 31, 2021; and from April 1 – December 31, 2021, to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. The Board will consider this proposal at its September 16-17, 2020 virtual meeting. The agenda for this Board meeting can be found at:
Consideration of this proposal initiates the 120-day period for Board review pursuant to Rule 6b. of the Board’s Rules Concerning the Colorado Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program (“ISF Rules”), which became effective on March 2, 2009. No formal Board action will be taken at this time.
Information concerning the ISF Rules and water acquisitions can be found here.
The following information concerning the proposed lease of water is provided pursuant to ISF
Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 acre-feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 139D6C0101
Contract Use: Municipal use in Colorado River Basin; includes “use of water by . . . piscatorial users, including delivery of water to supplement streamflow. . . .”
Contract Amount: 4,683.5 acre-feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet.
Proposed Reach of Stream:
Fryingpan River: From the confluence with Rocky Ford Creek, adjacent to the outlet of Ruedi Reservoir, downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River, a distance of approximately 14.4 miles.
15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River: From the confluence with the headgate of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company (lat 39 06 06N long 108 20 48W) downstream to its confluence with the Gunnison River.
Purpose of the Acquisition and Proposed Season of Use:
The leased water would be used to supplement the existing 39 cfs ISF water right in the Fryingpan River to preserve the natural environment, and used at rates up to 70 cfs to meet the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife flow recommendations to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The leased water would be used to also supplement the existing ISF water rights in the 15-Mile Reach to preserve the natural environment from July 1 – September 30, 2019, and to provide water at rates above the existing decreed ISF rates to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in that reach to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree from April 1 –December 31, 2019.
Water stored in Ruedi Reservoir will be released to the Fryingpan River during the winter time period. The existing instream flow water right is decreed for 39 cfs from November 1 – April 30. The objective of the lease would be to maintain Fryingpan River flows at a rate of 70 cfs to prevent the formation of anchor ice at times when temperatures and low flows could otherwise combine to create anchor ice, which adversely impacts aquatic macroinvertebrates and trout fry.
The 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River provides critical habitat for two species of endangered fish: the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. This reach is sensitive to water depletions because of its location downstream of several large diversions. It provides spawning habitat for these endangered fish species as well as high-quality habitat for adult fish. Due to development on the Colorado River, this reach has experienced declining flows and significant dewatering during the late summer months, and at times, there are shortages in the springtime. As a result, the USFWS has issued flow recommendations for the 15-Mile Reach since 1989 to protect instream habitat for the endangered fish.
Available information concerning the purpose of the acquisition and the degree of preservation and improvement of the natural environment, and available scientific data is available at:
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources:
The Department of Natural Resources released the names of a 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group (Work Group) whose objective is to explore ways to strengthen current Colorado water anti-speculation law. The Work Group arose out of passage of Senate Bill 20-048 sponsored by Senators Donovan and Coram and Representatives Roberts and Catlin and signed by Governor Polis on March 11, 2021.
“I’m encouraged by the participation in the Work Group, which represents diverse stakeholders from all across the state,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, who appointed the Work Group members. “Our goal is to have a transparent and thoughtful process over the next year.”
Senate Bill 20-048 requires the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to convene a work group to explore ways to strengthen current anti-speculation law and to report to the water resources review committee by August 15, 2021, regarding any recommended changes. Colorado water law prohibits speculation by requiring water to be used for a beneficial purpose.
The Work Group will be co-chaired by Kevin Rein, State Engineer, and Scott Steinbrecher, Assistant Deputy Attorney General. Meetings will be noticed to the public via the Colorado Water Conservation Board website and will be open to the public. Meeting summaries will be posted publicly, and opportunities will be available for the public to review and comment on the recommendations of the Work Group before the written report is finalized.
The Work Group membership consists of:
Kevin Rein (Co-Chair), State Engineer, Division of Water Resources
Scott Steinbrecher (Co-Chair), Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Attorney General’s Office
Tracy Kosloff, Deputy State Engineer, Division of Water Resources
Erin Light, Division 6 Engineer, Division of Water Resources
Lauren Ris, Deputy Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Amy Ostdiek, Deputy Section Chief, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Alex Funk, Agricultural Water Resource Specialist, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr., Colorado Supreme Court Justice (ret.)
Joe Bernal, Bernal Farms
Daris Jutten, Lazy K Bar Land and Cattle Co.
Joe Frank, General Manager, Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District
Larry Clever, General Manager, Ute Water Conservancy District
Alex Davis, Water Resources Division Manager, Aurora Water
Peggy Montaño, Trout Raley
Peter Fleming, General Counsel to the Colorado River District
Adam Reeves, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel LLP
Drew Peternell, Colorado Director, Trout Unlimited
Kate Ryan, Senior Attorney, Colorado Water Trust
The first meeting of the Work Group will be held virtually this fall.
Intense wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington state, spurring mass evacuations and leaving charred towns in their wake. A regional heat wave is keeping temperatures high and humidity low, creating difficult conditions for firefighters. These five articles from The Conversation’s archive explain what’s driving Western fires and how they’re affecting residents.
1. Welcome to the Pyrocene Age
Many factors have combined to create conditions for today’s epic wildfires, including climate change, land use patterns and decades of fire suppression.
Arizona State University emeritus professor Stephen Pyne, a historian of fire, argues that Earth may be “entering a fire age comparable to the ice ages of the Pleistocene, complete with the pyric equivalent of ice sheets, pluvial lakes, periglacial outwash plains, mass extinctions and sea level changes. It’s an epoch in which fire is both prime mover and principal expression.”
This transition reflects how humans interact with the land and how they use fire, Pyne writes. Humans believed that they could contain fire on the land, as they did in factories. Meanwhile, they burned more fossil fuels, adding to combustion sources. Today, Pyne writes, “The climate is unhinged. When flame returns, as it must, it comes as wildfire.”
2. Climate change’s fingerprint
While climate change isn’t the only driver of Western fires, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, sees its influence clearly. Typically, lightning, power lines or poorly doused campfires ignite these conflagrations – but climate change is making the U.S. west hotter and dryer, and thus more prone to burn.
Water “acts as the air conditioner of the planet,” Trenberth explains. “In the absence of water, the excess heat effects accumulate on land both by drying everything out and wilting plants, and by raising temperatures. In turn, this leads to heat waves and increased risk of wildfire.”
Because scientists can estimate how much extra heat climate change is adding to the atmosphere, its role in creating conditions for wildfires is clear, Trenberth argues. Researchers who study climate and fire have observed these trends playing out in the West, with longer fire seasons and more destructive fires since the 1980s.
3. Treating wildfires like earthquakes
Californians have lived for decades with the risk of earthquakes. Now, in the view of University of California Santa Barbara scholars Max Moritz, Naomi Tague and Sarah Anderson, they need to think about wildfire risk in the same way.
This means taking long-term steps, such as limiting development in the wildland-urban interface, where homes and businesses adjoin fire-prone undeveloped areas; retrofiting homes to make them more fire-resistant; and improving evacuation planning and warming systems.
As wildfire smoke turns Western skies orange and red, millions of people face serious health risks from inhaling it, even many who are far from active fires. Wood smoke is a complex mixture of gases and large and small particles that can cause eye and throat irritation and lung inflammation. It also can worsen asthma, cardiovascular problems – and possibly even the impacts of COVID-19, warns Luke Montrose, assistant professor of community and environmental health at Boise State University.
If you’re downwind from a wildfire, Montrose offers this advice: Pay attention to local air alerts; avoid being outdoors or engaging in strenuous exercise; use a window air conditioner and a portable air purifier to create a clean, cool space; and skip activities that can add to indoor air pollution, such as burning candles or lighting gas stoves.
As insurers drop policyholders in fire-prone areas, the main alternative is a state-backed insurance pool that provides basic coverage at a high price as a last resort. To address this squeeze, Shrimali recommends separating wildfire coverage from general property insurance and requiring all California homeowners to purchase it. He also calls for risk-based pricing, so that owners pay more if they choose to build or buy in fire-prone areas.
“Insurance is not a substitute for fire prevention policies or investments in wildfire response, but it is one necessary tool for managing the state’s serious wildfire risks,” Shrimali writes.
Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor September 8, 2020.
West Drought Monitor September 8, 2020.
Colorado Drought Monitor September 8, 2020.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
on in most of the central Great Plains and from the High Plains to the Pacific Coast. Conditions took a dramatic turn across the Rockies and Plains as the valid period ended, with hot and dry conditions suddenly replaced by much colder weather, and snow in some areas. A number of sites from the central Rockies into the northern Plains saw temperatures drop from around 90 degrees F Labor Day to near freezing with light snow the next morning. Denver, CO went from temperatures averaging 15 degrees above normal on September 6 to 30 degrees below normal for September 8, with an inch of snowfall reported. East Rapid City, SD appears to have set a national all-time record by going from over 100 degrees F (102) to reporting measurable snow in a span of 2 days. The colder and wetter weather that developed just as the period ended had little impact on drought conditions in most areas, given the hot, dry, and windy conditions that preceded it. Wildfires continued to scorch and spread rapidly across parts of California, with some quickly breaking out and expanding in part of the Rockies as well. Denver, CO went from reporting reduced visibility due to wildfire smoke on Labor Day, to reduced visibility from falling snow the next morning. Elsewhere, several inches of precipitation across interior northeastern Texas, in a swath from eastern Iowa to central Illinois, across Ohio, and in parts of Arkansas brought significant drought relief, and lesser amounts in adjacent areas brought more limited improvement, as did moderate precipitation in parts of the northern Rockies and adjacent Plains…
The dramatic change to cold and wet (often snowy) conditions late in the period only brought notable improvement to southwestern North Dakota and part of interior southeast Colorado. Elsewhere, a few tenths of an inch of precipitation fell on the central Dakotas, scattered parts of Nebraska, and much of Wyoming, but given the hot and dry weather that prevailed until the end of the period, no areas experienced notable improvement. In fact, sizeable parts of northern North Dakota, the southern half of Wyoming, central and western Colorado, and Nebraska deteriorated. As a result, a large area of extreme drought (D3) now covers central and western Colorado and the central tier of Wyoming. Smaller areas of D3 are in north-central Wyoming and part of the Colorado Plains, with a small area of exceptional D4 drought persisting in the latter area. Conditions generally improve moving north and east of the D2 to D3 regions in the central Rockies and west-central Plains, though some severe to extreme drought expanded across central Nebraska while D2 to D3 persisted adjacent to Iowa…
Another dry and, until the end of the period, hot week led to broad areas of drought intensification. The most widespread deteriorations were noted across Utah, Arizona, and to a lesser extent New Mexico. Exceptional D4 drought was introduced in central Utah, and a large area of extreme drought now envelops most of Utah, Arizona, northern and eastern New Mexico, and farther northwest through much of Oregon and adjacent California. Only parts of southwestern California, western Washington, central and southern Idaho, and adjacent areas remain free of abnormal dryness and drought. Fires continued to rage in portions of California, now having scorched over 2,000,000 acres in the state. Less than 30,000 acres were consumed by fire in 2019 through early September…
Heavy rain soaked a large area across northeastern Texas, dramatically easing or ending drought and abnormal dryness. Some 2-category improvements were noted in the wettest areas. Heavy precipitation was less widespread in Arkansas and some adjacent areas, reducing the extent of abnormal dryness there. Across western Texas and farther east in Mississippi, dryness and drought expanded and intensified. Much of western Texas is now in extreme drought, with a small area of exceptional D4 drought in the interior Big Bend area. Parts of this region have received only a few tenths of an inch of precipitation since early August. Farther east, moderate drought was introduced in part of interior northeastern Mississippi where less than half of normal rainfall was recorded during the last 60 days…
During the next 5 days (September 10-14), WPC’s QPF forecasts little or no precipitation (and thus persisting or intensifying drought) across the northern Plains and most areas from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, save higher elevations in New Mexico and southern Colorado (0.5 to 1.5 inch). Similarly, light precipitation at best is expected across southern half of the Mississippi Valley and the western Ohio Valley. The heaviest precipitation (2 to 4 inches) is expected in a broad swath from southwestern Oklahoma through much of the Rio Grande Valley. Farther north, between 1.5 and 2.5 inches are expected from northern Missouri northeastward into western Wisconsin – part of a broader area expecting over 0.5 inch through much of central and western Texas, the central Great Plains, the Upper Mississippi Valley, and most of the Great Lakes region. Moderate precipitation, from 0.5 to 1.5 inches, should cover most of New England, New York, and the dry portions of Pennsylvania. Similar amounts are expected in the Southeast from Alabama eastward, with heavier amounts (1.0 to locally 2.5 inches) forecast in the Carolinas. From the central Gulf Coast through most of the eastern U.S., near-normal daytime temperatures should average a few degrees above normal at night. Temperatures should average a few degrees below normal from the southeastern Rockies through most of the central and southern Plains and the Great Lakes region, but near- to somewhat above-normal across most of the northwestern quarter of the country.
The Climate Prediction Center’s 6-10 day outlook (September 15-19) favors above-normal rainfall from the Ohio Valley, Middle Mississippi Valley, and central Texas eastward to the Atlantic Coast. Wet weather is also expected in the Northwest while odds again favor subnormal precipitation in much of the Great Basin, Four Corners States, and northern half of the Plains. In addition, surplus moisture is expected along the southern tier of Alaska, but subnormal precipitation is anticipated in the northern reaches of the state. Portions of central and southwestern Texas, plus eastern Alaska, should record below-normal temperatures while the near- to above-normal readings prevail elsewhere.
Bottled water company Nestlé is seeking permission to extend its operations in Colorado’s Chaffee County, a move that is generating significant community opposition.
Nestlé Waters North America first won permission to export spring water from Chaffee County in 2009, building a pipeline and trucking the water to Denver where it is packaged.
The company hopes to renew its original 10-year permit to tap Ruby Mountain Springs near Buena Vista, which expired last fall. The water is sold under the Arrowhead brand.
Chaffee County Commissioners are expected to take up the matter at an Oct. 20 hearing.
Nestlé Natural Resources Manager Larry Lawrence declined an interview request, but in an email said the company strives to maintain environmentally sensitive operations and that extending the permit would create no new stress on the springs.
Separately company officials have said repeatedly that preserving water resources is key to their ability to continue selling water. The beverage maker has 25 plants in the United States, including the one in Colorado.
In the meantime, local activists have collected more than 1,200 signatures on Change.org opposing the permit extension.
Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water, with 300-plus members, said the permit renewal poses an ongoing threat to local water supplies due to chronic drought and climate change. Activists also say that Nestlé donations of bottled water to local nonprofits increases the county’s recycling costs, and that Nestlé has not followed through on some of the commitments it made to the county, including taking steps to preserve important property along the Arkansas River near the springs.
“We believe we are an environmentally sensitive county,” said Francie Bomer, one of the activists leading the effort to cancel the permit.
“We don’t like plastic and we don’t believe the benefit to the county is equal to the value of the water Nestlé is taking out,” Bomer said.
The conflict comes as bottled water manufacturers across the U.S and Canada face mounting criticism over their use of groundwater. Five states, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, are moving to ban or sharply limit the industry.
Earlier this year Nestlé opted to sell its Canadian operations, exiting a country in which local opposition had grown strong, according to published reports.
Under its Chaffee County permit, Nestlé is required to monitor water levels in the Ruby Mountain Springs and to replace any water it takes under a replacement plan overseen by the Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.
Such plans are often required under state law, and are designed to ensure water users downstream of diversion sites with more senior water rights aren’t harmed by upstream diversions.
Manager of the Upper Arkansas Water District, Terry Scanga, said the replacement plan relies on water from Turquoise Lake in Leadville, which fully covers any water removed from Chaffee County by Nestlé. Scanga said the district has no plans to contest the permit renewal.
Nestlé is required to monitor water levels and habitat conditions as part of its agreement with the county. In its 2019 annual report, the company said it extracted 89 acre-feet of spring water, 5.6 percent of the 1,573 acre-feet of overall flow measured. An acre-foot is equal to nearly 326,000 gallons.
If its permit is renewed, the company estimates annual production would grow at 2 percent annually, but would still be well below the amount to which it is legally entitled.
In addition, ongoing monitoring by the company shows that the spring recovers quickly as water is extracted and that no harm to habitat has been noted since 2010.
“To date, spring water production has been well below the permit limitations and at no time over the last decade of monitoring has stress to the spring system resulted in conditions where pumping was required to be reduced, either to meet criteria under the permit or due to observations that indicated operations were negatively impacting upstream or downstream users or the ecological and biological systems,” the report states.
Bomer is skeptical of those reports because they have not been independently verified by outside experts.
Earlier this year, in advance of the permit renewal effort, the county hired experts to evaluate Nestlé monitoring data, according to Chaffee County Attorney Jennifer Davis.
Whether Chaffee County will become another bottled water hot spot in the international battle isn’t clear yet.
“We are a tiny county. Are we part of that bigger effort? No. We’re just trying to protect our resources so they will be here when we need them,” Bomer said. “But if we contribute to to that effort, that would be okay.”
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.
As fires spread into Washington, Oregon and Montana, the arrival of the Santa Ana winds means more conflagrations for California.
Over Labor Day weekend, the fire storms that plagued California and Colorado in August blew up into an unprecedented siege of wildfires across half a dozen western states. Fire scientists and incident commanders warn that a series of almost unheard of events over the weekend—mass evacuations with military aircraft, entire towns torched, megafires blazing in multiple states at the same time—may become commonplace as the West warms.
“The incidence of these extreme events, which are basically outliers, will become more common,” said Robert Gray, a forest fire ecologist in British Columbia.
When September arrived, the eyes of most fire watchers were on California, which was beginning to make progress against its second, third and fourth largest fires on record, all of which ignited in rare August lightning storms that unleashed hundreds of fires across the state. Then the holiday weekend kicked off with a new blaze, the Creek Fire, igniting on Friday night. Over the following four days, the new fire exploded to 144,000 acres to become California’s latest megafire.
In a days-long series of airlifts, National Guard helicopters rescued nearly 400 campers and hikers surrounded by the fire at Mammoth Pool Reservoir Area, China Peak and Lake Edison in the Sierra National Forest, about 170 miles east of San Jose. At one point pilots resorted to using night vision goggles to try and see through the thick smoke that was thwarting their attempts to land. Combat veterans piloting the choppers said the missions were the most difficult they had ever flown.
By Tuesday morning, the new fire had prompted the evacuation of thousands of people in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.
The Creek Fire helped California break its annual record for the amount of land burning in one year of wildfires, with 2.2 million acres scorched by Labor Day. But the state’s most deadly and destructive months for wildfires are still to come. That peak fire season got a head start on Tuesday when the Santa Ana winds that have driven most of the state’s most infamous conflagrations arrived weeks earlier than usual.
“This is crazy. We haven’t even got into the October and November fire season and we’ve broken the all-time record,” Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova told CNN. “It concerns us because we need to get these firefighters off these lines and get them breaks from battling these wildfires.”
California fire crews are catching anything but a break, as more than two dozen major fires burn across the state, including one that forced 15 firefighters attempting to save a ranger station in the Los Padres National Forest just north of Santa Barbara to deploy their fire shelters—small, silver tents that are a wildland firefighter’s last chance to survive a fire burning them over. The blaze, the Dolan Fire, left one firefighter critically burned, two others in serious condition and the ranger station in cinders.
Fires Spread Across the West to Washington, Oregon and Montana
But California isn’t the only state where the explosion of wildfires threatened firefighters or communities over the holiday weekend. In Montana, three other firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters while battling the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman over the weekend. Those firefighters escaped the flames with smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, but extreme fire behavior had destroyed at least 28 homes in Bridger Canyon.
Farther west, a fast-moving firestorm on Monday destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Malden, a farming town with about 300 residents in eastern Washington about 30 miles from Spokane. The fire station, post office, library and town hall all burned along with most of the town’s houses.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” said Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers in a statement Tuesday. “The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime. I just hope we don’t find the fire took more than homes and buildings. I pray everyone got out in time.”
When the smoke from the latest conflagrations finally clears, Malden will not be the only community facing such devastation.
The town of Blue River (Oregon) has sustained catastrophic damage,” said Lane County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky at an emergency session of the Lane County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday morning. “According to one fire responder, it appears that at least 80 to 100 houses in Blue River were lost.
“We expect that other homes and businesses within the fire area have burned. And we should expect loss of life from this fire.”
Mill City, a tourist destination in Santiam Canyon that was filled with visitors over the weekend, was overrun by the firestorm Monday night and nearby communities including Detroit, Lyons, Mehama, Gates and Idanha were evacuated as multiple wildfires ignited in the canyon.
Then, on Tuesday evening, the Glendower Fire, a brush fire that ignited that morning outside Ashland, Oregon, burned up the Interstate 5 corridor into the towns of Talent and Phoenix, where the wildfire turned into an urban firestorm that ripped into Medford, a city of nearly 85,000 residents.
A scorching heat wave drove much of the West into extreme fire danger. Over the weekend, Los Angeles County reached 121 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever recorded there. And in Washington’s Okanogan and Douglas counties on Monday, high temperatures and strong winds helped the Cold Spring Fire run more than 20 miles and jump the Columbia River.
In a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington reported that 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday alone—more than in any of the previous 12 fire seasons.
Colliding Fire Cycles Max Out the West’s Firefighting Resources
For incident commanders and fire scientists, the vast portion of the country in which large fires are burning simultaneously is just as unusual and troubling as the size, speed and severity of the conflagrations.
“It’s not just the size of the fires, but the distribution,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of California, Los Angeles. “There are big fires burning throughout the West at the same time. Right now the fire resources are completely maxed out.”
Typically, one western ecosystem’s peak fire season occurs at a different time of year than others. Arizona and New Mexico see the most wildfires in late spring and early summer, whereas California’s busiest fire season runs from late summer through the fall. Such staggering of regional fire activity also often occurs in longer time frames, with bad fire years in one area usually matched by slow years elsewhere.
When one area’s fire season ebbed as another picked up, firefighting resources could be redistributed accordingly. But with destructive conflagrations burning all along the Pacific coast, north to Montana and east across Utah and Colorado, federal firefighting resources are stretched thin.
The nation has been at its highest wildfire alert level for the last three weeks, and on Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center identified 15 new large fires. On Wednesday, NIFC listed 18 more large fires, for a total of 85 large, uncontained conflagrations across the West.
“Most aspects of what’s going on right now are not typical,” Swain said. “Anyone who works in fire is overwhelmed.”
Swain saw the fires that ignited throughout the Pacific Northwest over the holiday weekend as particularly troubling.
“The entire Cascade Range, they’re just on fire, north to south,” he said on Monday as he looked over maps and satellite imagery. “I count at least 14 new fires burning in timber in the last 12 hours. That’s just me eyeballing smoke plumes. Some of these look like they are tens of thousands of acres since last night.”
“I’m sick, the amount of new fires today is unreal,” Washington state fire meteorologist Josh Clark tweeted Monday night. “Early estimates figure 288K acres burned today across the state. Numerous homes and property destroyed, 30K+ without power. Every one of these was 100% human-caused and therefore 100% preventable.”
In Colorado, hot, dry, windy conditions led the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins to more than triple in size over the holiday weekend, to more than 102,596 acres. But, after much of the state endured weekend temperatures in the high 90s, and Denver reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, temperatures plummeted on Monday night and snow fell over much of the Colorado high country.
It was “the earliest accumulating snow ever observed in over 130 years of records!” tweeted assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger after the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins measured 0.3 inches of snow Tuesday morning. Although the snow staunched the growth of some fires in Colorado and Utah, such volatile weather swings, which are predicted to increase in many areas due to climate change, will often increase the incidence of wildfires as pulses of moisture lead to the rapid growth of grasses and other fine fuels that quickly dry to the point of combustion when hot, dry weather returns.
Five inches of heavy snow fell on the Cameron Peak fire, although incident commanders there and at fires in Utah that also received snow say that won’t slow the blazes for long if hot, dry conditions return.
As the Santa Anas Arrive, No Relief for California
California, as it moves into its peak fire season, is unlikely to see any of the kind of relief Colorado received over the weekend. Instead, the ongoing drought and relentless heatwave are compounding already primed fire conditions.
While most of the fires that plagued California in August were in lower elevation and coastal forests, the Creek Fire is pushing into mountain forests where 163 million trees have died since 2010 due to drought and insect infestation, providing ample fuel for the new fires.
“The fire is burning through areas of peak tree mortality,” Swain said. “It’s heavy fuel and currently it is probably drier than it has ever been.”
Many of those forests are far thicker than trees than they would have been historically, he added, as natural wildfires that would have thinned them out every decade or so have been extinguished for more than a century, leaving the woodlands filled with trees crowded closer together than they would normally grow.
“There’s just a lot of fuel in there and it’s explosively dry,” he said.
Summer holiday weekends usually see spikes of wildfire ignitions, as the public heads out to recreate around flammable landscapes. That’s particularly true of California, where well over 90 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans in one way or another.
One of the most dangerous fires to ignite in California over the Labor Day weekend—the El Dorado fire—grew to more than 10,000 acres in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles after the explosive device an expecting couple used to create blue smoke for their gender reveal party accidentally ignited the blaze.
Another compounding factor in the wildfires has been the cutoff of electricity. PG&E, the California utility whose power lines have caused numerous fires, including the deadliest in state history, announced Monday that it would cut power to about 172,000 customers in 22 California counties to avoid sparking more blazes. High winds and wildfires in Oregon left nearly 100,000 people there without electricity.
But the greatest wildfire threat in California arrived after the holiday, around noon on Tuesday, when the first of the annual Santa Ana winds arrived to push the record acreage burning in California into the vast forests of dead, dry timber. The winds have already led to new evacuations of towns west of the massive and rapidly spreading Creek Fire.
The Tuesday winds drove another California fire, the Bear Fire, to grow by some 250,000 acres in just 24 hours. By Wednesday morning it was threatening the town of Oroville, which just three years earlier was evacuated when too much rain nearly cause the Oroville dam to fail.
“The stage is set,” Swain said. “This autumn looks like it will be warmer than average and drier than average. I just don’t see any mitigating factors as far as fire in California until winter.”
The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted [August 3, 2020] morning after a trio of water providers announced the release of up to 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to support irrigators in the Yampa River Valley and endangered fish.
The latest call was placed on the Yampa River on Aug. 25. The first call was in the late summer of 2018, also after an uncommonly hot, dry summer. The release of the water has ended the immediate need for water administration, allowing irrigators who had been legally prevented from taking water to resume diversions.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has begun releasing 500 acre-feet of its water, and the Colorado River District is releasing another 750 acre-feet of water that it controls from the reservoir near Hayden.
A third organization, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, will use money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to support the upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s contract for additional water in Elkhead in 2020. The Colorado Water Trust also has raised private funds to support a potential release of 250 acre-feet of water to provide in-channel flows for endangered fish species in the Yampa.
Water will continue to be released from Elkhead Reservoir, as necessary, through September. Rain, snow and cloud cover could suppress demand.
Irrigators, fish feeling the heat
A statement from the River District and Tri-State emphasized the intention of helping irrigators.
“Agriculture producers in the western U.S. currently are being hit with the triple threat of drought, low prices and pandemic restrictions, so anything we can do to ease the burden of farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley is something we are willing and honored to do,” said Duane Highley, CEO at Tri-State, the operator of coal-fired power plants near Craig.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the River District, echoed that theme.
“We hope these actions help alleviate the depth and severity of ranchers being curtailed and allow some of them to turn their pumps back on to grow more forage before winter,” he said.
“It was a crazy hot and dry summer,” said Andy Schultheiss, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “There was just nothing left in the river — or, at least, very, very little.”
Schultheiss said the trust was interested in preserving habitat for fish and other species in the river, including fish in the lower reaches of the Yampa that are on the endangered species list. In August, the organization also contracted to release 500 acre-feet of water from the Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, to ensure flows through Steamboat Springs.
Impact of the releases was reflected Thursday afternoon at stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. The river above the confluence of Elkhead Creek was running 102 cubic feet per second. Bolstered by the reservoir releases, however, it was running 125 cfs downstream at Maybell. It was 95 cfs at Deer Lodge, located 115 river miles downstream from Elkhead Reservoir at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, below several agricultural diversions.
A warming climate of recent decades and the weather of the past year probably both played a role in 2020’s second-ever Yampa call.
“August likely will end in the top 10 hottest and driest on record in the Yampa basin,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said during an Aug. 25 webinar. “You see warmer-than-average temperatures everywhere except a couple of pockets in North Park.”
Many areas were 4 to 6 degrees above average, and some pockets were even hotter. Fall and winter temperatures are more variable, which summer’s are much less so, said Schumacher. “Having 5 or 6 to 8 degrees above average in summer is quite remarkable,” he said.
The River District’s Mueller nodded to this broader context.
“As drought and low flows promise to persist, today’s cooperative actions could help us learn and plan for an uncertain water future,” he said.
Regulation is new reality
What sets the Yampa River apart from other rivers in Colorado is its storied tradition: a river without administration. The contrast may be most stark with the South Platte, which drains the heavily populated towns and cities and still abundant farms on the northern Front Range. There, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that every drop is measured, ensuring that diverters are taking only as much water as to which they have rights.
The Yampa has typically met the needs of all diverters, including those of irrigators, who are responsible for nearly all the water consumed in the Yampa River basin on an annual basis. Diverters were on an honor system to take no more than their allocated share of water.
Putting a call on a river requires the sorting out of water rights under Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right hierarchy. Those with mostly older — and, therefore, senior rights — have first dibs but only to the amount they are allocated.
The call placed on the river Aug. 25 was triggered by agriculture users lower on the river, at Lilly Park near Dinosaur National Monument. They were failing to get the river’s native flows to which they were entitled within their priority of 1963.
To honor the seniority of those water rights, Erin Light, the division engineer, initiated a call on the river to ensure that the more senior right would get delivery of the water.
Those affected were all water users upstream, even to the headwaters, with junior or more recent allocations. Junior water users are cut off to the amount necessary to satisfy the call, which could be partially or completely, as per the needs of the downstream user with the senior but unsatisfied allocation.
Light last year announced that all water diverters must install headgates and measuring devices, to allow withdrawals to be controlled and measured. Some have done so, others have been given extensions and some others have failed to comply, she said. Those without headgates and measuring devices — even if they have a more senior water right — risk being cut off entirely when a call occurs.
This push to measure diversions began at least a decade ago, after Light arrived in the Yampa Valley. One of those she persuaded was Jay Fetcher, who ranches along the Elk River, northwest of Steamboat Springs. He remembers some grumbling. The informal method had always worked. Now he’s glad he can prove he’s taking his allocated water — and no more.
“Once we changed, we realized that it was a real plus,” Fetcher said. “We knew what we were doing with our water, and we could justify (our diversions), not only to ourselves, but to Erin and the state.”
Jim Pokrandt, the director of community affairs for the River District, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest,” Pokrandt said, “to foster a solution that recognizes the reality, that doesn’t put agriculture out of business, while we are on the pathway to better water administration.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 7 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Here’s an in-depth report from (Bruce Finley) writing in The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
A hundred miles from Colorado’s Front Range house-building boom, field scientist Delia Malone dug her fingers into spongy high-mountain wetlands at the edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
She found, about 15 inches underground, partially decayed roots, twigs and the cold moisture of a fen. These structures form over thousands of years and store water that seeps down from melting snow.
Malone has been digging about 20 holes a day, surveying fens for the U.S. Forest Service, to better understand nature’s water-storage systems — which sustain vegetation and stream flows that 40 million people across the Colorado River Basin rely on in the face of increasing aridity.
Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to flood these wetland fens and replace natural storage with a man-made system: a $500 million dam and a reservoir that may require changing wilderness boundaries.
The cities each own rights to 10,000 acre-feet a year of the water that flows out of the wilderness and would pump what the reservoir traps, minus evaporation, through tunnels under mountains to other reservoirs and, finally, to pipes that deliver steady flows from urban faucets, toilets, showers and sprinkler systems…
Fens play a key role ensuring that streams and rivers still flow after winter snow melts. And as climate warming leads to earlier melting and depletes surface water in the Colorado River, natural wetlands increasingly are seen as essential to help life hang on. The benefits stood out this summer as the West endured record heat, wildfires and drought…
Yet Front Range developers’ desire for more water is intensifying. Across the mountains at construction sites on high dusty plains, roads and power lines have been installed, heavy dirt-movers beep and carpenters thwack atop roofs.
Local governments already have approved permits allowing house-building at a pace that in some areas is projected to nearly double water consumption.
Colorado Springs officials issued 3,982 permits for new single family homes last year, 18% higher than the average over the previous five years, according to data provided to The Denver Post. They estimated the current population around 476,000 will reach 723,000 “at build-out” around 2070. This requires 136,000 to 159,000 acre-feet of water a year, city projections show, up from 70,766 acre-feet in 2019.
Aurora officials estimated their population of 380,000 will reach 573,986 by 2050. They’ve approved entire new communities, such as the 620-acre Painted Prairie with more than 3,100 housing units in the “aerotropolis” that Denver leaders have promoted near Denver International Airport, and projected current water consumption of 49,811 acre-feet a year will increase to 85,000 acre-feet and even as much as 130,158 acre-feet in a high-growth, rapid-warming scenario…
To make a new dam and reservoir more palatable, the cities are exploring unprecedented “mitigation” of digging up and physically removing the underground fens, then hauling them and transplanting them elsewhere to restore damaged wetlands. An experiment on a ranch south of Leadville, officials said, is proving that this could help offset losses of Homestake Creek wetlands.
This would challenge a federal policy laid out in 1999 at Interior Department regional headquarters in Denver that classifies fens as “irreplaceable.” The policy says “onsite or in-kind replacement of peat wetlands is not thought possible” and that “concentrated efforts will be made to encourage relocation of proposed reservoirs… that might impact fens, when practicable.”
Covered by grasses and shrubs, water-laden fens blanket the Homestake Valley — wetlands filled with porous peat soils that receive minerals and nutrients in groundwater. Moving such wetlands, if attempted, would require massive hauling of soil blocks combined with the delicate precision of an organ transplant to retain ecological functioning…
Some environmental groups are preparing for legal combat should the cities seek required state, county and federal permits. Others haven’t weighed in. Conservation Colorado leaders declined to comment on this water push.
Transplanting fens as mitigation to try to restore wetlands elsewhere “for our convenience” is impossible, WildEarth Guardians attorney Jen Pelz said. “Fens and other sensitive high-elevation wetlands are quite beautiful and mysterious, more art than science, not something we can re-engineer.”
Dams and diversions proposed in recent years around the West “are just as destructive as those built a century ago, and building dams today is actually more irresponsible because we know that dams disconnect aquatic and riparian habitat, cause species extinction, disrupt ecosystem function, dry rivers and harm native cultures and communities,” she said.
“We need to start removing dams, not building more. This project is one of many where water managers are looking to cash in on their undeveloped rights or entitlements at the expense of people and the environment. … It’s time to draw a line in the sand.”
These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.
A view, from the Alternative A dam site, of the Homestake Creek valley. The triangle shape in the distance is the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
One of four potential dam sites on lower Homestake Creek, about four miles above U.S. 24, between Minturn and Leadville. From this location, the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir higher up the creek can be seen. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism
The six Colorado River Basin states that do not have the letters “U-T-A-H” in their names just sent a remarkable letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt with a plea – don’t let the rush toward federal approval of Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline blow up the Colorado River Basin’s framework of collaborative rather than confrontational problem solving:
The six-state letter, the product of intense discussions in recent weeks among the states (including the one with “U-T-A-H” in its name) takes great pains to point to an important historical norm in Colorado Basin governance – states don’t mess in other states’ internal water use decisions. But in asking to move Upper Basin water to a Lower Basin community, Utah has crossed a line that the other states simply couldn’t let pass.
Farmington residents are being asked to voluntarily cut back on their water usage by 10% amid ongoing drought conditions.
The Farmington City Council approved a resolution enacting a stage one water shortage advisory on a 3-0 vote. The meeting was broadcast on Zoom and a recording will be available online at http://fmtn.org/AgendaCenter.
Community Works Director David Sypher said the city has struggled to keep Lake Farmington full.
“We are taking keeping our lake 100% full a little more seriously than we have in the past,” he said, explaining that the city not only provides water to its residents but also delivers water to other water systems.
Lake Farmington was approximately 98% full on Sept. 3, but has been dropping at a rate of 0.15 to 0.3% daily and, as of the meeting on Sept. 8, Sypher said the lake was 97.15% full.
A storm brought precipitation to the region as the City Council discussed the water shortage advisory, but Sypher said current forecasts are calling for 30 to 50% of normal precipitation in the upcoming months and the most liberal projections are anticipating moderate drought.
In a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the EPA’s founding, Wheeler said the agency was moving back toward an approach that had long promoted economic growth as well as a healthy environment and drawn bipartisan support.
“Unfortunately, in the past decade or so, some members of former administrations and progressives in Congress have elevated single issue advocacy – in many cases focused just on climate change – to virtue-signal to foreign capitals, over the interests of communities within their own country,” he said.
Environmental groups and former EPA chiefs from both parties have accused Wheeler and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, of undermining the agency’s mission by weakening or eliminating dozens of regulations intended to protect air and water quality, reduce climate change and protect endangered species.
“EPA was founded to protect people—you, me and our families—but the Trump administration has turned it into an agency to protect polluters.” said Gina McCarthy, who led the agency during the Obama administration and now is president of the NRDC Action Fund, the political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Under President Donald Trump, EPA has raised the bar for requiring environmental reviews of highway and pipeline construction; reduced limits and reporting requirements for methane emissions; rolled back vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards; slashed the number of protected streams and wetlands; and repealed federal limits on carbon emissions from power plants.
Courts have blocked some of the changes, but others have taken effect.
In his remarks, Wheeler said that if Trump is re-elected EPA would support “community-driven environmentalism” that emphasizes on-the-ground results such as faster cleanup of Superfund toxic waste dumps and abandoned industrial sites that could be used for new businesses.
He pledged to require cost-benefit analyses for proposed rules and to make public the scientific justification for regulations, saying it would “bring much needed sunlight into our regulatory process” and saying opponents “want decisions to be made behind closed doors.”
Critics say a science “transparency” policy EPA is considering would hamper development of health and safety regulations by preventing consideration of studies with confidential information about patients and businesses.
Wheeler spoke at the Richard Nixon library in Yorba Linda, California. The Republican president established the EPA in 1970 amid public revulsion over smog-choked skies and waterways so laced with toxins they were unfit for swimming or fishing. Some of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, were enacted during his administration.
Ranchers were left with a backlog of cattle earlier this year when meatpacking plants had to close or slow production due to COVID-19 outbreaks among employees and public health orders forced restaurants to shut down indoor dining.
They are now facing the compounding challenge of a drought, which is decreasing the amount of available hay and forcing more tough choices about herd management.
“We had cattle that we would generally sell in like February and March, and that market kind of fell apart right then,” said Brackett Pollard, the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association local president who owns a ranch in Silt.
Pollard was finally able to sell some of his cattle in mid-July.
According to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, there have been eight outbreaks in meatpacking plants in Colorado that have led to more than 500 COVID-19 cases. That includes 316 cases at a JBS facility in Greeley. The facility had to close April 15 to 24. There have been nearly 40,000 meatpacking workers infected nationwide.
COVID-19 impacts at meatpacking plants, as well as market uncertainty as demand fell off from restaurants and schools, meant that commercial feedlots — where ranchers send cows before they are slaughtered — were packed and unwilling to buy additional cattle, according to ranchers interviewed for this story and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
So Pollard, like many other ranchers, didn’t have any other choice but to keep his yearling cattle that would have been sold or slaughtered earlier in the year.
That meant he had to take land that he would normally use for growing hay and repurpose it to pasture these yearling cattle, which are between 1 and 2 years old. Cattle are typically slaughtered when they are between 18 and 24 months old.
The change in operations could affect him in the long run.
“We not only do have to keep them because there was nowhere to go with them, and then all of a sudden we find ourselves in the middle of a drought,” Pollard said, noting that he was running low on hay to feed his cattle. “We basically got to the point where we had to get rid of them, whatever price was being offered.”
Pollard said he sold his cattle at their current market value, but if COVID-19 hadn’t happened, he probably would have received $200 more per head.
Beef prices rose, but cattle selling prices went down
On July 22, the USDA released the Boxed Beef and Fed Cattle Price Spread Investigation Report, which investigates the nationwide surge in retail beef prices. Between late March and early April, a large number of workers at meat-processing plants got sick, which by mid-April led to facility closures and slowdowns that reduced beef production.
The weekly number of slaughters nationwide fell from more than 684,000 head at the end of March to under 439,000 at the end of April, a decrease of 36%.
“This reduced demand for cattle may have contributed to lower fed cattle prices,” according to the report’s summary of impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Feedlot placements by producers and feeders were 22% lower in April than in 2019.”
Consumers began stocking up on beef in grocery stores in March when public health orders closing restaurants to indoor dining were first introduced. Demand from restaurants fell off dramatically, and many producers struggled to quickly shift away from restaurants and toward grocery stores, according to the report.
Consumers continued stocking up in April, as news of plant closures and fears of beef shortages spread, further driving up the cost of groceries.
The weekly average choice boxed beef cutout price — which measures the value of a beef carcass based on prices paid by end users — rose from about $255 per 100 pounds at the beginning of April to more than $459 by the second week of May.
In the meantime, packers purchased fewer fed cattle and dropped cattle prices because of the meatpacking-plant closures or production slowdowns. Fed cattle prices decreased by 18% between early April and early May.
The gap between the selling price of fed cattle to packers and the retail price of boxed beef increased from $66 per 100 pounds in early April to $279 in the third week of May, a 323% increase, the largest spread since 2001, according to the report. The gap started to narrow in June, from $279 per 100 pounds in the middle of May to $119 in the beginning of June.
Working through packer issues
According to Bill Fales, a Carbondale rancher, the gap between what ranchers are getting for their cattle and what consumers are paying for beef illustrates the problem with “packer consolidation,” or fewer meatpacking firms controlling more of the marketplace.
“It really showed the problem with the kind of conventional beef system because people who had cattle ready to be slaughtered got just slammed,” Fales said. “If they could get them killed, the price they were selling for went way down, (and) the packers started paying way less and charging way more on the other side of the plant — to the consumers.”
Fales wasn’t impacted by the drop in selling prices, he said, because his cattle are part of a program called Country Natural Beef.
Country Natural Beef is an Oregon-based cooperative of nearly 100 family ranches located in 13 Western states and engaged to produce beef from vegetarian fed cattle. The co-op, which works mainly with the grocery chain Whole Foods, sets its prices in January for the fiscal year.
Fales said at the outset of the pandemic, he experienced a slowdown in the amount of cattle he could send for processing. But as Whole Foods’ shelves were emptying in April, the grocery chain began asking for more beef. The cooperative was able to shift cattle to different processors to keep up with the demand, Fales said.
Amy Daley and Nicholas Krick are partners in Daley’s family-owned ranch in New Castle that also is part of the Country Natural Beef network, and they also sell beef products through their own business, nickandamysfarm.com. Like Fales, they were able to maintain their selling prices but still were left with an excess of cattle.
“We ended up reducing the amount of head that had been scheduled to go in to be processed, which left a lot of our animals still in the feedlot or unable to be processed,” Krick said. “We’re spending more money for that feed when they should be a beef product.”
Krick said they still have a backlog of cattle but are getting back on schedule.
Dry weather challenges ranchers
Perhaps most worrying to ranchers is the drought. This summer’s windy, dry conditions have made it difficult to grow hay, which is used to feed the cattle over the winter.
The National Drought Mitigation Center’s map and data released Sept. 1 show an extreme drought in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
For the first time since 2013, the entire state is experiencing some level of drought. About 54% of Colorado is experiencing severe drought, and more than 35% extreme drought.
When drought is considered severe, snowpack and surface water levels are low and river flow is reduced, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. When the drought becomes extreme, which is a worse condition, wildfire risk increases, pasture conditions worsen and reservoirs are extremely low. At any stage, drought forces farmers to reduce planting and ranchers to sell cattle.
Fales was cutting hay near Catherine Store in Carbondale, a few miles from his ranch. This year’s drought didn’t allow the hay to grow as high as usual.
“I used to think that one of the advantages of ranching here is we had a really stable climate,” Fales said. “I’ve been ranching here since 1973 — I’ve never seen less hay production than this year.”
Fales, who was hoping for a better second hay cutting, said his first cutting is down 40% from what he would normally harvest. “I’m going to have to sell cows because I just don’t have enough hay and it’s too expensive to buy to feed to cattle,” Fales said.
The hay shortage will probably lead to a surge in production costs for ranchers.
“We’re going to be having to make some decisions this fall, going into reducing herd numbers or buying hay — and from where we are getting that hay,” Daley said.
When a drought occurs, Pollard said, the increase in hay prices usually leads to a decrease in production and a surge in prices paid by consumers if demand remains the same.
For ranchers, he said, spring was the cattle-raising season, so many weren’t selling cattle yet.
“Now comes October,” he said, “(and) if the market hasn’t rebounded by then, there’s a real chance it could be very difficult for young ranchers or farmers, or those who have a lot of debt.”
This story ran in The Aspen Times in print and online on Sept. 7 and online in the Vail Daily on Sept. 7.