Probably the most feasible option for bringing water from the Mississippi River basin would be to transfer water from Lake Sakakawea, a huge lake on the Missouri River in North Dakota, to the middle Rio Grande. The distance from Lake Sakakawea to the middle Rio Grande is approximately 1,000 miles. More importantly, it’s located at an elevation of 1,800 feet above sea level which greatly reduces pumping requirements.
A recent study done by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources suggests that water supply in the middle Rio Grande will decrease by about 30% over the next 50 years. That deficiency is approximately 300,000 acre-feet per year…Transferring 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Missouri River during six months of high flow each year, requires a flow of 830 cubic feet per second, similar to today’s flow in the Rio Grande at Albuquerque. This is far too much water for a pipe – it requires a canal 25 feet wide and eight feet deep. To pump this water, 650,000 horsepower or 500 megawatts of power will be needed. This is roughly half the power generated by a single unit at a nuclear power plant…
Transporting water from North Dakota to New Mexico would involve a canal that passes through or near seven states; North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Bringing water from Louisiana to the Colorado River will require passing through or near Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Each of these states face serious water shortages. It is inconceivable to imagine that each of them won’t demand a proportionate share of water passing over or near their lands.
We must recognize that multistate interbasin transfers quickly become impractical when factoring in the water demands for all participants. The volumes of water in the Missouri River, Atchafalaya River and other North American rivers are large, but they are nowhere near sufficient to meet the demands of the arid West. We simply need to learn to live with what we’ve got, accept the fact that future shortages are inevitable, and then manage this most precious resource wisely and equitably.
Bruce Thomson, Ph.D., P.E., is a research professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and in the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico.
This summer, as seven states and Mexico push to meet a Tuesday [August 16, 2022] deadline to agree on plans to shore up the Colorado River and its shriveling reservoirs, retired engineer Don Siefkes of San Leandro, California, wrote a letter to The Desert Sun with what he said was a solution to the West’s water woes: build an aqueduct from the Old River Control Structure to Lake Powell, 1,489 miles west, to refill the Colorado River system with Mississippi River water.
“Citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi south of the Old River Control Structure don’t need all that water. All it does is cause flooding and massive tax expenditures to repair and strengthen dikes,” wrote Siefkes.”New Orleans has a problem with that much water anyway, so let’s divert 250,000 gallons/second to Lake Powell, which currently has a shortage of 5.5 trillion gallons. This would take 254 days to fill.”
Engineers said the pipeline idea is technically feasible. But water expertssaid it would likely take at least 30 years to clear legal hurdles to such a plan. And biologists and environmental attorneys said New Orleans and the Louisiana coast, along with the interior swamplands, need every drop of muddy Mississippi water. The massive river, with tributaries from Montana to Ohio, is a national artery for shipping goods out to sea. And contrary to Siefkes’ claims, experts said, the silty river flows provide sediment critical to shore up the rapidly disappearing Louisiana coast and barrier islands chewed to bits by hurricanes and sea rise. Scientists estimate a football field’s worth of Louisiana coast is lost every 60 to 90 minutes. Major projects to restore the coast and save brown pelicans and other endangered species are now underway, and Mississippi sediment delivery is at the heart of them…
Nonetheless, Siefkes’ trans-basin pipeline proposal went viral, receiving nearly half a million views. It’s one of dozens of letters the paper has received proposing or vehemently opposing schemes to fix the crashing Colorado River system, which provides water to nearly 40 million people and farms in seven western states. Fueled by Google and other search engines, more than 3.2 million people have read the letters, an unprecedented number for the regional publication’s opinion content…
The bigger obstacles are fiscal, legal, environmental and most of all, political.
“The engineering is feasible. Absolutely. You could build a pipeline from the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers. Would it be expensive? Yes. Do we have the political will? Absolutely not,” said Meena Westford, executive director of Colorado River resource policy for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “I think that societally, we want to be more flexible. We want to have more sustainable infrastructure. So moving water that far away to supplement the Colorado River, I don’t think is viable. But it’s doable. You could do it.”
In fact, she and others noted, many such ideas have been studied since the 1940s. Most recently, in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation produced a report laying out a potentially grim future for the Colorado River, and had experts evaluate 14 big ideas commonly touted as potential solutions. The concepts fell into a few large categories: pipe Mississippi or Missouri River water to the eastern side of the Rockies or to Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, bring icebergs in bags, on container ships or via trucks to Southern California, pump water from the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest to California via a subterranean pipeline on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, or replenish the headwaters of the Green River, the main stem of the Colorado River, with water from tributaries.
The Bureau of Reclamation will continue its celebration of its 120th Anniversary with a ribbon cutting ceremony for the completion of the Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam Fish Passage Project on July 26, 2022. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will co-host the ribbon cutting ceremony located on Joe’s Island near Glendive, Montana.
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Northwestern Division Commander Colonel Geoff Van Epps and the Omaha District Commander Colonel Mark Himes will attend the ceremony to commemorate Reclamation’s 120th year of providing water to the West and to celebrate the success of this, three-year, $44 million fish bypass construction project. The success of the project is due, in part, to the joint efforts and contributions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation to improve the fish passage structure for the endangered pallid sturgeon and other native species around the Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam.
Construction on the fish bypass channel began in April 2019 and was completed with the removal of the cofferdam on April 9, 2022. The 2.1-mile-long channel was constructed as part of the Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam Fish Passage Project that was designed to address fish passage concerns associated with the diversion dam.
President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes a $200 million investment in the National Fish Passage Program over the next five years to conserve fish habitat and advance projects like this one.
“We are excited to celebrate the success of this interagency project and recognize Reclamation’s major contributions to reclaiming America’s 17 Western states over the last 120 years,” said Brent Esplin, Missouri Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Regional Director. “In addition to bolstering conservation efforts of the prehistoric pallid sturgeon, Reclamation is committed to continuing the effective operation of the Lower Yellowstone Project for local irrigators who help feed the nation.”
In 1990, the pallid sturgeon was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation worked in partnership to determine the effects of the Lower Yellowstone Project on the endangered species. Two primary issues were identified; fish entrainment into the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District’s main irrigation canal and fish not being able to successfully pass over the Intake Diversion Dam to upstream spawning reaches. A new screened canal headworks structure was completed in 2012 that addressed the fish entrainment issue. The new weir in conjunction with the completed fish bypass channel will provide passage for the endangered fish and open approximately 165 river miles of potential spawning and larval drift habitat in the Yellowstone River.
While this portion of the project is complete, construction in the area is ongoing. The contractor, Ames Construction Inc., is still actively working on Joe’s Island to restore construction roads back to natural vegetation. The contractor will rehabilitate sections of Road 551, located off State Highway 16, and Canal Road, both on the north side of the Yellowstone River at Intake, Montana. Joe’s Island is expected to remain closed through the Fall of 2022 when all construction related activities will be complete.
“This is a momentous occasion more than ten years in the making,” said Col. Geoff Van Epps, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwestern Division. “The collaboration on this project presented unique challenges and opportunities to meet conservation and recovery responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act while continuing to serve the needs of stakeholders that use the river. The professionalism and mutual respect of all involved provided a healthy, dynamic work climate in which to operate to achieve common goals and objectives.”
The Lower Yellowstone Project is a 58,000-acre irrigation project located in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The project is operated and maintained by the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District Board of Control under contract with Reclamation. The project includes the intake diversion dam, a screened headworks structure, 71 miles of main canal, 225 miles of laterals and 118 miles of drains, three pumping plants on the main canal, four supplemental pumps on the Yellowstone River and one supplemental pump on the Missouri River.
Media representatives interested in attending the ceremony should RSVP to Brittany Jones at (406) 247-7611 or email@example.com, no later than Friday, July 22. For media unable to attend, photos, videos and a news release will be available following the ceremony.
Unprecedented precipitation and flooding clobbered Yellowstone National Park starting Sunday, destroying bridges, making roads impassable, stranding scores of people and wreaking untold havoc on infrastructure within Northwest Wyoming’s tourism engine. The scope of the damage prompted park officials to close all park entrances Monday.
A U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the Lamar River near the Tower Ranger Station tells the tale of the remarkable weather event. The tributary to the Yellowstone River on Monday topped 18,000 cubic feet of water per second, which surpassed the previous daily record by nearly 50%. The Lamar rose so high that its peak water level, 17 feet over the riverbed, surpassed the gauge’s “operational limit” by 2 feet, and the water level was 5 feet higher than during any other time in 82 years of record keeping.
“It’s down to 15.5 feet right now, so at least it’s coming down,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Straub said Monday morning.
The weather calamity comes on the heels of an exceptionally dry winter, Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Eric Larsen said. There was a record-low April 1 snowpack in the Yellowstone River headwaters, but that snow stuck around because of a wet, cool spring. Sunday and Monday’s torrential rains melted much of that snow, and the combined precipitation overwhelmed the waterways coursing through and surrounding the park.
“All the streamflows that would have been running over the last month, it’s all coming off right now, quickly,” Larsen said.
Flows are setting new hydrological high-water records in the Yellowstone River headwaters and well downstream into Montana.
“The Corwin Springs gauge on the Yellowstone, which is just upstream of my house, hit like 52,000 CFS, which is way higher than it’s ever been before,” Larsen said.
“It wiped out the Carbella bridge,” he said of the raging Yellowstone River.
Infrastructure in Yellowstone took such a beating that the National Park Service took the extraordinary step of shutting down all entrances into the park midmorning Monday. Park gates won’t open to inbound traffic Tuesday or Wednesday, officials announced in a press release.
“Due to record flooding events in the park and more precipitation in the forecast, we have made the decision to close Yellowstone to all inbound visitation,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement. “We will not know the timing of the park’s reopening until flood waters subside and we’re able to assess the damage throughout the park. It is likely that the northern loop will be closed for a substantial amount of time.”
The community of Gardiner, Montana — home to many Yellowstone headquarters staffers — was “currently isolated,” as of Sholly’s midday statement: “We are working with the county and State of Montana to provide necessary support to residents, who are currently without water and power in some areas.”
Evacuations took place within the park and in locations just outside.
The Cooke City-Silver Gate Volunteer Fire Department reported that there was “major flooding” in those two neighboring communities and that the Bannock Bridge in Cooke City is “gone.”
Silvergate was evacuated at 3 a.m. Monday, a host for the Beartooth Cafe told WyoFile.
There were also overnight evacuations in the Roosevelt area, according to Yellowstone visitors who posted online.
Yellowstone’s southern loop fared better initially, but was still being evacuated over the course of Monday, Sholly said in the statement. That’s due, he said, to “predictions of higher flood levels” and “concerns with water and wastewater systems.”
The rain that fell in Yellowstone Sunday and Monday sailed past daily records, Straub said. A rain gauge on the Gibbon River near Norris Junction tallied 1.63 inches of precipitation by 9 a.m. Tuesday. A site on the north side of Yellowstone Lake recorded up 1.75 inches, beating the old daily record, 0.43 inches, by more than 400%, he said.
“Single day observations over an inch are very rare,” Straub said. “We were already getting snowmelt, and add this 1 to 2 inches of rainfall and it started flowing fast into the valleys.”
Northwest Wyoming was forecasting “periodic showers” into Tuesday, he said. Those rains could drop “a tenth or two-tenths” of precipitation at a time, but should abate by Tuesday evening.
In the meantime, Straud cautioned area travelers to make good choices.
“Keep away from any flooded roads,” he said, “and don’t go around barriers.”
It’s all but assured there will be longer-term impacts to commerce and business in Yellowstone, said Mike Keller, general manager for the park’s largest concessionaire, Xanterra.
“The road between Mammoth and Gardiner is pretty much gone in several places,” Keller said. “It’s completely eroded, plus into the hillside beyond. There are some roads in this park that are not going to reopen for a period of time.”
All of Xanterra’s guests in the park are in the process of being evacuated. Employees, for now, are being allowed to stay.
“We’ve closed everything in the park through Thursday night,” Keller said Monday afternoon. “We’re hoping to start opening things back up Friday, but the rivers still haven’t peaked yet.”
Mike Koshmrl reports from Jackson on state politics and Wyoming’s natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
Severe flooding due to unprecedented heavy rain on snow is forcing the closure and evacuation of Yellowstone National Park.
Mudslides, rockslides and flooding are wiping out roads and bridges across the region.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):
April is typically when thousands of irrigators on the North Platte River — particularly along its tributaries — begin to divert spring runoff onto hayfields and crops, kicking off what they hope will be a productive growing season. Today, however, those with junior water rights are under new orders to curtail those critical early springtime diversions — a rare scenario that could prove costly for many farmers and ranchers in the state.
“When the water is coming, you’ve got one shot at it,” Upper North Platte Water Users Association Chairman Chris Williams said. Watching spring runoff flow downstream without tapping it is counterintuitive and frustrating for any ag producer, he added. “It has the potential to dry acres up.”
The “call,” or order, to restrict water diversions among North Platte River users with junior rights was initiated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the first week of April. The order, which is enforced by the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, is set to expire at the end of the month. Water rights are prioritized based on a “first in time, first in right” doctrine. Those who gain rights to use water first have “senior” rights over those who gain water rights after them.
It’s unlikely the BOR will recommend extending the call, even if hydrological conditions and forecasts for the seven-reservoir North Platte River water storage system do not improve, according to Lyle Myler, acting manager for the Wyoming Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation.
“Our hope is that the curtailment of [junior] water rights will allow us to receive our share that’s allotted to us under our 1904 water rights, or as much as we can get,” Myler said.
Water users with junior rights on the Tongue River and its tributaries in northeast Wyoming are also on notice for similar, legally enforceable water conservation measures, following a call from Montana. Though no actual water diversion curtailment orders have resulted so far, those users will remain on notice until Montana officials remove the call, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.
‘Calls’ and climate
A call on a river or drainage system is a legal mechanism to order water conservation actions to help ensure minimum, legally required flows to users with senior rights to divert water — typically for irrigation. It can also apply to groundwater wells that pump from a drainage for municipal or industrial uses. In the event of a potential water shortage, those with junior rights can be ordered to forgo diverting water to help ensure that senior-rights holders downstream get their full allotment.
The BOR and water management authorities in Wyoming and Montana all cited low snowpack, persistent drought conditions and forecasts for lower-than-average precipitation for initiating the water conservation measures and notices.
“The Tongue River Basin has been experiencing drought conditions over the past year with below average winter snowpack and streamflow conditions,” according to an April 7 statement from the Wyoming SEO. “The North Platte River system has experienced multiple years of drought resulting in low reservoir storage carryover.”
The conditions are consistent with climate trends that have pushed the statewide annual mean temperature upward by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit from 1920 to 2020, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. The climate trend is also altering hydrological conditions in the state, such as lower snowpack and an earlier spring runoff season.
Despite current conditions and forecasts for lower-than-normal precipitation, however, it’s too early to know what spring may have in store, Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said. If heavy spring snow and rain events do materialize, it could negate the need to curtail water diversions, he added.
The climate conditions contributing to the calls in Wyoming are likely to continue to force water managers to cooperate on conservation measures throughout the West, according to Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zachary Frankel.
“As our precipitation shifts from snow to rain, it is causing havoc on our water supplies, and that’s going to continue in coming years and decades,” Frankel said. “Although some climate model runs show increased precipitation — meaning more rain — it’s not likely to increase our total water supplies because of additional challenges from decreased soil moisture and a range of other challenges on the water demand side.”
The BOR initiated the call on the North Platte River during the first week of April based on measurements and forecasts that indicate the seven-reservoir storage system might fill to only 950,000 acre-feet of water during this year’s “water season.” That’s below the Modified North Platte Decree’s call-triggering minimum of 1.1 million acre feet. The order applies to those with post 1904 water rights from the Wyoming-Colorado border to Guernsey Reservoir.
In a separate action, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation issued a call on the Tongue River and its tributaries in Wyoming on April 1. The call is necessary to ensure that the Tongue River Reservoir in Montana fills this summer, and to otherwise hold Wyoming to account for legal obligations under the Yellowstone River Compact, according to Montana NRC Commissioner Anna Pakenham Stevenson.
Gebhart responded by notifying those with post-1950 water rights — junior rights — on the Tongue River and its tributaries that they may be ordered to curtail diversions at some point this summer. However, Gebhart and the agency’s Division II management that oversees the Tongue River drainage took issue with Montana’s initial assertions regarding forecasts for flows in the Tongue River.
Although both states acknowledged critical “data gaps,” the water storage and snowpack assessments initially cited by Montana should never have resulted in a call on the Tongue River, according to Gebhart. At the time, snowpack measurements for the drainage area measured more than 90% of the annual average. On April 19, it increased to 99%, according to a Natural Resources Conservation Service report.
Montana issued similar calls on the Tongue River in 2015 and 2016 based on more dire assessments than those cited this year, Gebhart said. But no orders to limit water diversions were necessary in response to either of those calls.
For now, both Wyoming and Montana continue to measure snowpack, water volumes and forecasts in the Tongue and greater Yellowstone River systems — hopeful that it might not be necessary to order irrigators to curtail normal irrigation practices, Gebhart said.
Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily covering the energy industry in Wyoming. He served as MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Journalism Fellow, John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, communications director for Wyoming Outdoor Council and WyoFile editor-in-chief. He lives in Casper. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327, firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DBleizeffer.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced today that 17 Tribes in eight states will receive $3 million to support water management projects. The Native American Affairs Technical Assistance to Tribes Program supports Tribes through projects including water need studies, water quality data collection and assessments, and water measurement studies.
“Reclamation is committed to working with Tribes and Tribal organizations as they develop, manage and protect their water resources,” said Acting Commissioner David Palumbo. “This funding will help Tribes and Tribal Nations as they address the long-term drought and meet their critical water needs.”
This program provides Tribes financial assistance to implement projects to support their water management projects. This investment will complement the funding provided by Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s investments to support Tribal communities and ensure they have the resources they need to bolster climate resilience and develop their water resources.
The Native American Affairs Technical Assistance Program is one part of how Reclamation is responding to drought and climate change across the West as part of the White House Interagency Drought Relief Working Group, part of the National Climate Task Force created by President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The working group, chaired by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, is working to build upon existing resources and coordinate across the federal government, working in partnership with state, local, and Tribal governments to address the needs of communities suffering from drought-related impacts.
The funding will be provided to the Tribes as grants or cooperative agreements. The projects selected are:
Fort McDowell Pumping System Replacement, $200,000 (Arizona)
Fort Mojave Tribe Irrigation Pump Replacement, $200,000 (Arizona)
San Carlos Apache Water Metering Project, $200,000 (Arizona)
Big Valley Band Planning for Water Recycling/Reuse, $199,563 (California)
Leaders from Nebraska’s irrigation and natural resources districts cast the plan as a crucial step to preserve as much of the state’s water supply as possible. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts identified it as a top priority, arguing that not moving forward would eventually cost Nebraska billions as farms, cities and other water users struggle with shortages…
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said cutbacks on the river would force water regulators to release more water from Lake McConaughy, a major reservoir of the North Platte River, which converges with the South Platte River to form the Platte River.
Riley said the reduced flows would also affect power generation in the state, force farmers to retire productive farmland and hurt municipal water supplies within the river basin. Nebraska also relies on the river at some of its public power stations, including a coal-powered facility that uses water for cooling…
Elizabeth Elliott, director of Lincoln’s Transportation and Utilities agency, said Lincoln relies on the Platte River to supplement the water it draws from wells. She said water from the South Platte River provides about 7% of the city’s water…
John Winkler, general manager of the Omaha-based Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, said reducing the river flows would cut into the water supply in his area, which is a part the Platte River basin. Winkler said construction costs will rise quickly with inflation the longer the state waits to approve the project…
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, who introduced the bill on the governor’s behalf, said forging ahead with the canal could help Nebraska “put the strongest foot forward” in any negotiations. But he said the canal proposal wasn’t intended as a bargaining chip and argued the state ought to move forward with the project.
Electric power generation from the Missouri River’s six upstream dams fell below average in 2021, forcing the federal agency that sells the power to buy electricity on the open market to fulfill contracts — a cost that may ultimately be passed on to ratepayers in a half-dozen states.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages dams and reservoirs along the 2,341-mile river. Mike Swenson, a Corps engineer in Omaha, Nebraska, said Thursday that energy production from the dams in the Dakotas, Montana and Nebraska was below average because water was kept in reservoirs to make up for drought conditions.
Energy production totaled 8.6 billion kilowatts of electricity in 2021, down from 10.1 billion kilowatts in 2020. A billion kilowatt-hours of power is enough to supply about 86,000 homes for a year.
The dams have generated an average of about 9.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity since 1967, including a high of 14.6 billion kilowatts in 1997. During the driest years this century, power plant output dwindled below 5 billion kilowatt-hours in 2007 and 2008, the Corps said.
The agency bought $18 million of electricity on the open market in fiscal 2021 that ended Sept. 30, data show.
The cost to individual ratepayers likely would be minimal, Meiman said.
Purchasing power to fulfill contracts is not unusual. The Western Area Power Administration has spent $1.5 billion since 2000 to fulfill contracts due to shallow river levels caused by drought, Meiman said.
Oahe Dam near Pierre, South Dakota, which holds Lake Oahe, and Garrison Dam, which creates Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, are typically the biggest power producers in the Missouri River system.
Swenson said Oahe Dam generated 2.4 billion kilowatt-hours last year, down from the long-term average of 2.7 kilowatt-hours. Garrison Dam generated 2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, down from long-term average of 2.3 billion kilowatt-hours, he said.
The Corps is charged with finding a balance between upstream states, which want water held in reservoirs to support fish reproduction and recreation, and downstream states, which want more water released from the dams, mainly to support barge traffic…
The water storage level of the six upstream reservoirs is about 48 million acre-feet at present, or about 15% below the ideal level, Swenson said.
The coal-bed methane gas boom that dotted northeast Wyoming with rigs and workers in the 2000s and left a legacy of bankruptcies and orphaned wells will also have lingering impacts on groundwater for up to 144 years, according to a new study by the Wyoming State Geological Survey.
Some sandstone aquifers in the Powder River Basin have declined by more than 100 feet due to the industry’s preferred method of pumping large volumes of water from coal seams to release the microbial-formed coal-bed methane gas, according the study, “Groundwater Level Recovery in the Sandstones of the Lower Tertiary Aquifer System of the Powder River Basin, Wyoming.”
The industry has pumped about 1 million acre-feet of water from coal seams since 2001 and discharged it onto the surface, partially depleting coal aquifers as well as associated sandstone aquifers. That’s enough water to fill Alcova Reservoir to maximum capacity more than five times.
“The calculated times of recovery, which vary from 20-144 years with a mean value of 52 years, probably represent best-case estimates because the calculations assume that environmental and hydrological conditions will largely remain unchanged from those of the last decade,” the study states.
“Furthermore,” the study continues, “slowing recovery rates commonly observed in some coal seam aquifers may impede the return to predevelopment water levels in the proximal sandstones.”
The most severely drawn down aquifers are within 20 miles of the Powder River, both north and south of Interstate 90, study co-author Karl Taboga said. That’s also the area where much of the remaining active coal-bed methane wells are located. While the geographic coverage of the monitoring wells used to measure water tables is limited, it’s believed the industry’s impact to aquifers elsewhere in the Powder River Basin is less severe.
“It appears to be localized,” Taboga said. “In a couple of cases, a little farther east in the Powder River, you may have a site that has a significant groundwater decline, but five or six miles away you have another site where you’re not seeing a significant decline.”
Ongoing groundwater monitoring in the Powder River Basin provides “a unique opportunity to study long-term groundwater changes,” State Geologist and WSGA Director Erin Campbell said in a press statement. “Understanding how subsurface systems relate to groundwater recovery allow us to best plan future development.”
But there are perhaps even more critical lessons to learn, according to longtime critics of the industry’s dewatering practice.
“The big question is: Will we learn the lesson that we live in a high desert and pumping and dumping and wasting water is the height of greed and ignorance?” the Powder River Basin Resource Council’s former Executive Director Jill Morrison said.
Landowner group: The state was warned
The massive dewatering of groundwater resources has been a point of contention since the beginning of the coal-bed methane gas play in the Powder River Basin in the mid-1990s. In some cases, it sapped water from wells used for livestock and drinking water for homes. While the practice of discharging the water on the surface provided new stock watering ponds for ranchers, it also flooded critical grazing areas and loaded the surface with salts, wreaking havoc on native grasses.
The Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council pressured the state to minimize pumping groundwater and discharging it on the surface. Instead, it urged the state to insist on forcing operators to reinject the water “in a staged fashion.”
But the state didn’t take any actions to limit groundwater pumping and surface discharge until 2007 as the development began to decline.
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“These aquifers took eons to establish and [coal-bed methane] development has significantly dewatered them in less than two decades,” Morrison said Wednesday, adding that she is “not at all surprised” by the report’s findings. “You can’t pump this gigantic volume of water out of aquifers that took eons to be created, and then expect that it’s going to regenerate.”
The diminished aquifers and long-term recovery rates represent potentially higher costs for rural landowners and agricultural operations to access groundwater, as well as municipalities that might rely on groundwater resources in the future, Morrison said.
Many in the Powder River Basin have already felt those types of impacts, Morrison added.
“The state said industry is responsible and they just have to drill you another water well that’s deeper,” Morrison said. “But that didn’t solve the problem because that [deeper] water isn’t as good, it costs more to pump and they didn’t pay for the extra electricity charges.”
For years, hydrologists have speculated at the potential rate that both coal and sandstone aquifers might replenish. Early estimates included a rate of 1 inch per year, Morrison said. The new WSGS study estimates a faster rate and notes that recovery rates will vary widely depending on geology.
“Typically, groundwater levels in the affected sandstone aquifers briefly rise by several feet for a few months after [coal-bed methane gas] production ceases,” according to the study. “But this rapid recovery frequently decreases to one foot or less annually after a year or two.”
Recharge and climate change
Climate change may also play a significant role in the rate of aquifer recovery in the Powder River Basin.
The WSGS study notes that its estimated recovery rates “represent best-case estimates because the calculations assume that environmental and hydrological conditions will largely remain unchanged from those of the last decade.”
But Wyoming’s precipitation and snowmelt dynamics are quickly changing due to human-caused climate change, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. While much of Wyoming could see more overall precipitation, less of it will come in the form of snow that drives annual springtime melt.
However, since 2000, the Powder and Tongue River Basins have experienced their longest and deepest droughts compared to the last 100 years, based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index, University of Wyoming Department of Geology and Geophysics professor J.J. Shinker said.
“The increase in temperatures coincides with prolonged and deepening regional drought conditions and the trend of increasing temperatures (globally and regionally) is likely to continue well into the projected recovery timeframe,” Shinker told WyoFile via email.
Wyoming’s evolving climate conditions make it extremely difficult to predict aquifer recharge cycles, Shinker said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week’s contribution is from Michael Poland, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
Bicycles as a means of military transport in the U.S. Army was suggested by Lt. James Moss, an officer in the 25th Infantry, following the example of some European armies. Bicycles offered several advantages over horses—they didn’t require food or water, didn’t make as much noise, and could be repaired if they broke down. His proposal to test the concept was approved by Army leadership, so Lt. Moss began training volunteers from the 25th Infantry Regiment.
The Bicycle Corps pedaled into action for the first time in early August 1896, starting with a four-day, 126-mile ride in the vicinity of Missoula, Montana. This might not sound spectacular, given that Ironman Triathlon bicycle legs cover about the same distance, but remember, this was 1896. The roads were not paved, and the one-speed bicycles, custom built by A.G. Spalding & Co. of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, each weighted over 30 pounds. Importantly, unlike the Ironman, the soldiers also had to carry food, utensils, weapons, ammunition, clothes, repair parts and tools, bedrolls, and tents—well over 100 pounds all told!
After a few days of rest, the Bicycle Corps began their next expedition on August 15—to Yellowstone National Park and Fort Yellowstone, a journey of over 300 miles that took just over 8 days.
After 2 days of rest and reprovisioning at Fort Yellowstone, the Corps set out on a tour of the Park on August 25, stopping at Lower Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin (where they observed Old Faithful, Giantess, and Castle Geysers all erupting at the same time), West Thumb, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its waterfalls, returning to Mammoth Hot Springs on August 29. After 2 additional days of rest, during which the iconic photo and several others were taken, the soldiers headed back to Fort Missoula, riding in on September 8—a total journey of nearly 800 miles.
As part of his official report, Lt. Moss recorded that the trip through Yellowstone included 132 miles completed in 19 hours of actual bicycling. The slowest pace was between Upper Geyser Basin and West Thumb, when the soldiers had to cross the Continental Divide—twice! The fastest time was between Fort Yellowstone and Norris Geyser Basin.
Although there are no records of what the soldiers themselves thought, Lt. Moss recorded that “The soldiers were delighted with the trip…thought the sights grand…and seemed to be in the best of spirits the whole time.” Moss also remarked on “the moral effect of the seething water, the roaring of the geysers and the sulphuric fumes.”
Even the Yellowstone journey was just a warmup. In 1897, Moss organized 20 soldiers of the 25th Infantry on a 40-day, 1,900-mile ride from Fort Missoula to St. Louis. A planned ride to San Francisco the following year was canceled owing to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, and the 25th Infantry was deployed to the Philippines.
Although never based in Yellowstone National Park, Buffalo Soldiers had a profound and lasting impact on the early national parks. Serving under perhaps the first Black officer, Charles Young, they were rangers and interpreters in places like Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, helping tourists and even blazing trails—for example, to the summit of Mount Whitney.
The next time you drive—or cycle!—around Yellowstone National Park, think of the challenging conditions that faced the intrepid Buffalo Soldier bicyclists of the 25th Infantry Regiment, who completed a tour of the park after riding from Missoula and carrying their own provisions, spare parts, and equipment. And the challenges were not purely physical and logistical—of course, they also faced discrimination and were paid less than their white counterparts. But wherever they went, the men of the 25th distinguished themselves, with one Montana newspaper editor remarking, “The prejudice against the…soldiers seems to be without foundation for if the 25th Infantry is an example of the [Black] regiments there is no exaggeration in the statement that there are no better troops in the service.”
The 8 cyclists of the Yellowstone expedition were Sgt. Dalbert P. Green, Cpl. John G. Williams, Pvt. John Findley, Pvt. Frank L. Johnson, Pvt. William Proctor, Pvt. William Haynes, Pvt. Elwood Forman, and Musician William W. Brown.
For more information on the exploits of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps, see:
 Following the Civil War, Congress passed legislation to reorganize the military and included these regiments of Afro-Americans, many of whom were among the approximately 180,000 African Americans who previously served in the Union Army. From 1867 to the early 1890s, these regiments served at a variety of posts in the southwestern United States and the Great Plains regions. It was from one of these regiments, the 10th Cavalry, that the nickname Buffalo Soldier was born. Indigenous tribes of the American plains who fought against these soldiers allegedly referred to the black cavalry troops as “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled a bison’s coat, and because of their fierce nature of fighting. The nickname soon became synonymous with all African-American regiments formed in 1866.
Drought isn’t a new thing in the West, but right now, much of the region is gripped in a historic drought. An unusually dry year coupled with record-breaking heat waves has strained water resources in the West this year. In fact, water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River basin for the first time ever in mid-August. There are a lot of ideas for how to relieve the drought and ease its impacts—some more feasible than others. But when you think about water in the West, you have to think about scarcity too.
“You’re really thinking about, well, why is it scarce? Is it too little supply? Or is it too much demand? And in the case of water, it’s both, right?” said Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming (UW). “You have a drought, and that is going to restrict the supply of water. And you have an increase in demand because people are moving more and more to the Rocky Mountain region, moving more and more to the west coast.”
And as Shogren pointed out, a lot of people move to the West and expect to keep parts of their lifestyles from where they came from, like lawns of lush green grass. But those require a lot of water. And Shogren said we have to think about all the different demands.
“And since we have a lot of demand for water in Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas. We have a lot of demand for water in agriculture production, whether it’s crops, or whether it’s nuts, or whether it’s wine,” he said. “And on the supply side, the question is, ‘Who gets what water? And why?'”
He added property rights over water are different by state and deciding how water rights are allocated and how they can be used gets tricky fast…
And with climate change intensifying extreme weather like droughts and flooding, there’s one potential solution that would help solve both problems. Dr. Tom Minckley said it involves moving water.
“We could say, ‘Oh, well, the western states are in drought. So we could take water from, say, the Mississippi or the Missouri River, and when it floods, we could capture that floodwater, and then basically return it to the head of the watershed,'” he said.
Dr. Minckley is a Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He studies water in the West and how it’s managed. He said piping water from a flooded place to a place in drought is an idea that’s becoming much more popular. State governments already transfer water between some states in the west…
But because of Wyoming’s high elevation, moving water here from almost anywhere else would mean fighting gravity. It would require a lot of energy because water is actually quite heavy. Not to mention the logistics of where a pipeline would even go and how much it would cost – water is valued by the acre-foot.
“On average, it’s about $2,000 per acre-foot. And some of the Colorado River water in the state of Colorado is running for $85,000 an acre-foot. So, like, there’s these crazy, really big numbers out there,” said Minckley. “And the question is if we start moving water from where it is to where we want it to be, how do we pay for it?”
The idea has been researched and despite its growing popularity, the Bureau of Reclamation found its implementation highly unlikely because of the cost and logistics.
Another idea that’s been floated is cloud seeding…
[Bart] Geerts said farming communities in the High Plains have financially supported seeding operations in thunderstorms for decades, but it can be really hard to prove that kind of seeding actually worked. But, he said it is a lot easier to demonstrate that it worked when they seed winter clouds. Which can be more useful in the High Plains anyway.
Because there’s natural variability between the years, you can’t pinpoint exactly how much more snowfall there was due to seeding and they work with averages. Geerts said a common belief is that cloud seeding keeps moisture from falling in other places where it’s needed.
“It’s really not understood. There is that possibility but in general, these wintertime clouds are not very efficient,” he said. “Essentially water vapor condenses, you extract it, make it into snow, and thereby you reduce the downstream amount of water vapor to some extent. But that amount is so, so small, so insignificant compared to the total water vapor content.”
But Geerts added on the flip side of that, some of the seeding materials may float downwind and increase snowfall on the next mountain range.
“So it can work either way. We don’t really have an answer,” he said.
It seems like a lot of ideas and conversations about this topic end with that – “we don’t really have an answer.” But as droughts intensify, driven by climate change, those conversations continue to happen. And some may lead to more viable solutions.
A new report details global warming’s impact on Yellowstone Park, changes that have begun to fundamentally alter its famed ecosystem and threaten everything from its forests to Old Faithful geyser. Such troubling shifts are occurring in national parks across the U.S. West.
In 1872, when Yellowstone was designated as the first national park in the United States, Congress decreed that it be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, and sale and … set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Yet today, Yellowstone — which stretches 3,472 square miles across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — is facing a threat that no national park designation can protect against: rising temperatures.
Since 1950, the iconic park has experienced a host of changes caused by human-driven global warming, including decreased snowpack, shorter winters and longer summers, and a growing risk of wildfires. These changes, as well as projected changes as the planet continues to warm this century, are laid out in a just-released climate assessment that was years in the making. The report examines the impacts of climate change not only in the park, but also in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — an area 10 times the size of the park itself.
The climate assessment says that temperatures in the park are now as high or higher as during any period in the last 20,000 years and are very likely the warmest in the past 800,000 years. Since 1950, Yellowstone has experienced an average temperature increase of 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most pronounced warming taking place at elevations above 5,000 feet.
Today, the report says, Yellowstone’s spring thaw starts several weeks sooner, and peak annual stream runoff is eight days earlier than in 1950. The region’s agricultural growing season is nearly two weeks longer than it was 70 years ago. Since 1950, snowfall has declined in the Greater Yellowstone Area in January and March by 53 percent and 43 percent respectively, and snowfall in September has virtually disappeared, dropping by 96 percent. Annual snowfall has declined by nearly two feet since 1950.
Because of steady warming, precipitation that once fell as snow now increasingly comes as rain. Annual precipitation could increase by 9 to 15 percent by the end of the century, the assessment says. But with snowpack decreasing and temperatures and evaporation increasing, future conditions are expected to be drier, stressing vegetation and increasing the risk of wildfires. Extreme weather is already more common, and blazes like Yellowstone’s massive 1988 fires — which burned 800,000 acres — are a growing seasonal worry.
The assessment’s future projections are even bleaker. If heat-trapping emissions are not reduced, towns and cities in the Greater Yellowstone Area — including Bozeman, Montana and Jackson, Pinedale, and Cody, Wyoming — could experience 40 to 60 more days per year when temperatures exceed 90 degrees F. And under current greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Area could increase by 5 to 10 degrees F by 2100, causing upheaval in the ecosystem, including shifts in forest composition.
At the heart of the issues facing the Greater Yellowstone Area is water, and the report warns that communities around the park — including ranchers, farmers, businesses and homeowners — must devise plans to deal with the growing prospect of drought, declining snowpack and seasonal shifts in water availability.
“Climate is going to challenge our economies and the health of all people who live here,” said Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University paleoclimatologist and co-author of the report. She hopes “to engage residents and political leaders about local consequences and develop lists of habitats most at-risk and the specific indicators of human health that need to be studied,” like the connection between the increase in wildfires and respiratory illness. Sounding the alarm isn’t new, but the authors of the Yellowstone report hope their approach, and the body of evidence presented, will convince those skeptical about climate change to accept that it’s real and intensifying.
The report describes a scenario that is now all too common across the American West and in the region’s renowned national parks, from Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Zion in Utah, to Olympic in Washington state. Record warming and extreme drought mean there is not enough fall and winter moisture, leading to steadily declining mountain snowpack. Many iconic venues may soon lose the very features they were named for. Most striking is Glacier National Park in Montana, where, since the late 19th century, the number of the park’s glaciers has declined from 150 to 26. The remaining glaciers are expected to disappear this century.
In Joshua Tree National Park in California’s Mojave Desert, extreme heat — coupled with a prolonged drought — has wreaked havoc on the eponymous species. Because of drought and wildfire, the park is poised to lose 80 percent of its renowned Joshua trees by 2070.
Swaths of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado have suffered massive die-offs of white pine and spruce as warming-related bark-beetle infestations have killed an estimated 834 million trees across the state. And in Yosemite National Park in California, the rate of warming has doubled since 1950 to 3.4 degrees F per century. Yosemite is experiencing 88 more frost-free days than it did in 1907. The park’s snowpack is dwindling. Its remnant glaciers are fast disappearing. And wildfires are becoming more common. In 2018, the park was closed for several weeks because of dense smoke from a fire on its border. The National Park Service says that temperatures could soar by 6.7 to 10.3 degrees F from 2000 to 2100, with profound impacts on the Yosemite ecosystem.
The Yellowstone assessment paints a detailed portrait of the past, present and future impacts of climate-related changes.
“This is one of the first ecosystem-scale climate assessments of its kind,” said co-author Charles Drimal, water program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “It sets a benchmark for how the climate has changed since the 1950s and what we are likely to experience 40 to 60 years from now in terms of temperature, precipitation, stream flow, growing season and snowpack.” Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Montana State University and the University of Wyoming were the lead scientists on the report.
The report’s study of snowpack and its link to water offer the biggest takeaways for Westerners who might question how or why they’re impacted. Rocky Mountain snowmelt provides between 60 to 80 percent of streamflow in the West, and hotter temperatures mean reduced snowfall and less water for cities as far afield as Los Angeles. For the millions of people living in cities across the West, many of whom are reliant on runoff from the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, these trends jeopardize already insufficient supplies. The dangers are starkly evident this summer, as years of drought and soaring temperatures have left the West facing a perilous wildfire season and water shortages, from Colorado to California.
“All that snow becomes water that goes into the three major watersheds of the West — some of it goes as far as L.A. — and that comes together in the southern edge of Yellowstone National Park,” said Bryan Shuman, a report co-author and geologist at the University of Wyoming. “Looking at projections going forward, that snowpack disappears.”
The Yellowstone, Snake and Green rivers all have headwaters in the Greater Yellowstone Area, feeding major tributaries for the Missouri, Columbia and Colorado rivers that are vital for agriculture, recreation, energy production and homes. Regional agriculture — potatoes, hay, alfalfa — and cattle ranching depend on late-season irrigation, and less snow and more rain equals less water in hot summer months.
Then there are the rapidly growing tourism and hospitality industries that rely on Yellowstone’s world-class rivers and ski areas for angling and black diamond runs. Fishing is now regularly restricted because of high water temperatures that stress fish.
“Even mineral and energy resource extraction need to be part of this discussion,” said Whitlock, referring to Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, heavily reliant on large amounts of water. Industry may be the slowest to evolve, but it’s among the most at-risk, she said.
Many locals do quietly acknowledge the reality of what’s happening, she said, but community buy-in remains tough in this culture war hotspot, where many farmers and ranchers have long opposed government land intervention.
The land in the Greater Yellowstone Area, comprising 34,000 square miles, is among the last, largely intact temperate ecosystems in the United States and includes two national parks (Grand Teton in Wyoming is the other), five national forests, and half a dozen tribal nations. It’s also home to 10,000 hydrothermal features, including 500 geysers. Recent research has shown that in periods of extreme heat and drought, geysers such as Yellowstone’s renowned Old Faithful have shut down entirely.
The current conditions do have some historical precedent. In the last 10,000 years, Yellowstone has experienced periods of dryness equal to or greater than present, said Whitlock.
“That’s a lens to look at the past,” said Shuman, who once trekked the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail to get a sense of the land. “If you add just a few degrees, you fundamentally alter things. When you walk across these high mountains, you can see they used to be covered in glaciers. It’s like walking in the ruins of Ancient Rome. That Ice Age world was only 5- to 7-degrees F colder than the pre-industrial era.”
“The water in those mountains is the water supply of the West and it’s drying up,” said Shuman.
In Yellowstone, the threat to human health and livelihoods may be the strongest incentive to take steps to soften the blows from climate change.
“Water is the thing everyone is most concerned about, and in general, people are receptive,” said Shuman. “Our economic future depends on adjusting.”
Just how the residents of the Greater Yellowstone Area will adapt is an open question, but researchers say that acknowledging the myriad problems that are now daily realities for many, from ranchers to anglers, is the first step toward a productive dialogue.
As the West experiences a growth surge, Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent, writes in the report that “the strength of local and regional economies” hangs in the balance if no steps are taken to rein in global warming.
Said Whitlock of Montana State, “When you think about the temperature curve that looks like a hockey stick, my parents pretty much lived on the flat part of the curve, I’m on the base, and my grandkids are going to be on the steep part. Our trajectory depends on what we do about greenhouse gases now. By 2040, 2050, we can flatten the curve. But the business-as-usual trajectory, 10 to 11 degrees of warming in Yellowstone and much of the West — what we do in the next decade is critical.”
The Greater Yellowstone Area includes both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as surrounding national forests and federal land. National Park Service
Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Pixabay via NOAA
In Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Pixabay via NOAA
Yellowstone Falls photo credit Abby Howe via the Department of Interior.
A new assessment of climate change in the two national parks and surrounding forests and ranchland warns of the potential for significant changes as the region continues to heat up.
Since 1950, average temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Area have risen 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.3 C), and potentially more importantly, the region has lost a quarter of its annual snowfall. With the region projected to warm 5-6 F by 2061-2080, compared with the average from 1986-2005, and by as much as 10-11 F by the end of the century, the high country around Yellowstone is poised to lose its snow altogether.
The loss of snow there has repercussions for a vast range of ecosystems and wildlife, as well as cities and farms downstream that rely on rivers that start in these mountains.
Broad impact on wildlife and ecosystems
The Greater Yellowstone Area comprises 22 million acres in northwest Wyoming and portions of Montana and Idaho. In addition to geysers and hot springs, it’s home to the southernmost range of grizzly bear populations in North America and some of the longest intact wildlife migrations, including the seasonal traverses of elk, pronghorn, mule deer and bison.
The area also represents the one point where the three major river basins of the western U.S. converge. The rivers of the Snake-Columbia basin, Green-Colorado basin, and Missouri River Basin all begin as snow on the Continental Divide as it weaves across Yellowstone’s peaks and plateaus.
How climate change alters the Greater Yellowstone Area is, therefore, a question with implications far beyond the impact on Yellowstone’s declining cutthroat trout population and disruptions to the food supplies critical for the region’s recovering grizzly population. By altering the water supply, it also shapes the fate of major Western reservoirs and their dependent cities and farms hundreds of miles downstream.
We wanted to create a common baseline for discussion among the region’s many voices, from the Indigenous nations who have lived in these landscapes for over 10,000 years to the federal agencies mandated to care for the region’s public lands. What information would ranchers and outfitters, skiers and energy producers need to know to begin planning for the future?
Shifting from snow to rain
Standing at the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Station and looking up at the snow on the Grand Teton, over 13,000 feet above sea level, I cannot help but think that the transition away from snow is the most striking outcome that the assessment anticipates – and the most dire.
Today the average winter snowline – the level where almost all winter precipitation falls as snow – is at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. By the end of the century, warming is forecast to raise it to at least 10,000 feet, the top of Jackson Hole’s famous ski areas.
The climate assessment uses projections of future climates based on a scenario that assumes countries substantially reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. When we looked at scenarios in which global emissions continue at a high rate instead, the differences by the end of century compared with today became stark. Not even the highest peaks would regularly receive snow.
In interviews with people across the region, nearly everyone agreed that the challenge ahead is directly connected to water. As a member of one of the regional tribes noted, “Water is a big concern for everybody.”
Precipitation may increase slightly as the region warms, but less of it will fall as snow. More of it will fall in spring and autumn, while summers will become drier than they have been, our assessment found.
The timing of the spring runoff, when winter snow melts and feeds into streams and rivers, has already shifted ahead by about eight days since 1950. The shift means a longer, drier late summer when drought can turn the landscape brown – or black as the wildfire season becomes longer and hotter.
The outcomes will affect wildlife migrations dependent on the “green wave” of new leaves that rises up the mountain slopes each spring. Low streamflow and warm water in late summer will threaten the survival of coldwater fisheries, like the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and Yellowstone’s unique species like the western glacier stonefly, which depends on the meltwater from mountain glaciers.
Preparing for a warming future
These outcomes will vary somewhat from location to location, but no area will be untouched.
We hope the climate assessment will help communities anticipate the complex impacts ahead and start planning for the future.
As the report indicates, that future will depend on choices made now and in the coming years. Federal and state policy choices will determine whether the world will see optimistic scenarios or scenarios where adaption becomes more difficult. The Yellowstone region, one of the coldest parts of the U.S., will face changes, but actions now can help avoid the worst. High-elevation mountain towns like Jackson, Wyoming, which today rarely experience 90 F, may face a couple of weeks of such heat by the end of the century – or they may face two months of it, depending in large part on those decisions.
The assessment underscores the need for discussion. What choices do we want to make?
A controversial water dispute in Laramie County that got held up last year because of the pandemic will see its day in court June 9-11 in Cheyenne.
17 ranch families are pushing back on a permit application by three members of the Lerwick family to drill eight high-pressure wells north of Cheyenne. These wells would appropriate 1.6 billion gallons of ground water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a water source that’s already gone dry in several other Western states.
Attorney Reba Epler owns a ranch in the area and said this case is crucial for establishing a more modern approach to water management in Wyoming…
The wells would use 4700-acre feet of water or the equivalent used by a town of about 10,000 people. Epler said her dad remembers fishing on some creeks that no longer flow in the area. Most local creeks have gone dry.
“Horse Creek is probably the last flowing creek in Laramie County,” Epler said. “And that creek sustains so much agriculture and so much wildlife, so many birds and fish and it is quite a magnificent creek and it is sustained by the base flow of the groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer.”
Epler said granting permits on these wells would endanger Horse Creek.
Click here to read the report. Here are the key points:
Extreme Summer Heat Amplifies Impacts of the Northern Plains Drought
Drought conditions continue to persist across the Missouri River Basin, most severely affecting North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Excessively early summer heat is now an added concern on top of the dry conditions that have been an issue since the fall of 2020. Record-high temperatures dominated the Northern Plains from June 3-5, with 100+°F temperatures in areas of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Drought impacts in the areas with extreme to exceptional drought are affecting many sectors through increased wildfire activity, decreased livestock forage and water availability, increased livestock heat-stress, reduced rural water supply and quality, reduced recreation and tourism, increased mental stress, decreased air quality, and ecological impacts due to reduced water levels. The recent extreme heat made drought impacts worse by increasing fire risk, inhibiting plant growth, and enabling harmful algae blooms.
In the short-term, extreme summer heat is expected to return from June 18-24, with the peak of the heat occurring on June 18-22 when temperatures could reach the upper 90s°F to low 100s°F. Beyond the upcoming extreme heat, NOAA’s summer outlook (June-August) for the Northern Plains is currently leaning towards above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation for much of the region throughout the rest of this summer.
The extreme summer heat will continue to worsen drought issues by further increasing fire risk, limiting water supply for livestock and societal uses, intensifying water quality issues, and continuing to cause stress on farmers, ranchers, recreationists, vulnerable or disadvantaged populations, and others affected by the drought.
Here’s the release from Farmers.gov (Joanna Pope):
Nebraska isn’t known as a destination for celebrities, but for wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers, Nebraska had a visit from a few “A-list” celebrities recently – just in time for American Wetlands Month.
Haven for Migrating Birds
Trumbull Basin, a wetland located in Adams County in central Nebraska, was graced with the presence of four Whooping Cranes who stopped at the wetland during their migration north.
The Whooping Crane is one of the world’s most endangered species. There are currently just over 800 of these birds on earth.
Trumbull Basin, the wetland where these rare birds called home for 11 days, is in the heart of a unique geographic area known as the Rainwater Basin.
The Rainwater Basin is a complex of wetlands covering portions of south-central Nebraska. The area is also part of the migration route known as the Central Flyway. In spring, birds that have wintered on the Gulf Coast and across Texas and Mexico funnel into this 150-mile-wide area over central Nebraska that contains thousands of wetlands.
The wetlands provide habitat for migrating birds. Despite being critical to migrating and local wildlife species, the Rainwater Basin wetlands have been greatly reduced from their historic numbers.
Restoring the Basin
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Nebraska works closely with the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, a non-government organization that works with landowners who voluntarily restore wetlands on their land. The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, in cooperation with NRCS, helped restore the Trumbull Basin wetland.
“Seeing Whooping Cranes use one of the wetlands that a group of Nebraska landowners worked so hard to restore is extremely exciting and also really gratifying,” said Andy Bishop, coordinator for the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture.
At 465 acres Trumbull Basin is one of the largest privately owned wetlands in the Rainwater Basin. This wetland was restored through the former Wetlands Reserve Program, a voluntary NRCS conservation program that helped landowners protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. Landowners can do this now with Wetland Reserve Easements through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Across the country, more than 5 million acres have been enrolled in easements.
When this project was initiated back in the late 1990s, there were five landowners who each owned a portion of Trumbull Basin. Initially this project started with the goal to better manage irrigation water to improve cropping potential, but the landowners soon realized there wasn’t much they could do to improve the area’s cropping capability. The alternative to farming such a wet area was to work with NRCS to restore the wetland through WRP.
“Our programs are a great tool for farmers to explore when a piece of their operation isn’t meeting their needs, and they want to find a different way to manage their land,” said Jeff Vander Wilt, acting state conservationist for NRCS in Nebraska. “In the case of Trumbull Basin, this resulted in converting poorly producing cropland into critical habitat for one of the world’s most endangered species.”
An Ideal Wetland Habitat
Restoration was an incremental process beginning in 1999, with the last tract enrolled into WRP in 2006. Thanks to the landowners working with conservation agencies, including NRCS, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Nebraska Game and Parks, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trumbull Basin was restored.
The restoration required removing 66,000 cubic yards of sediment from the wetland, filling a large concentration pit, and removing nearly 1.5 miles of berms surrounding the wetland. This work restored how the wetland originally functioned in the landscape, by allowing water to flow back into the wetland where it could provide habitat, prevent flooding, improve water quality, and recharge ground water.
Since the wetland was restored, additional steps have been taken to ensure it continues to function. A management plan was developed that included grazing, prescribed burns, herbicide treatments, and tree cutting. The continued management of Trumbull Basin has helped maintain this site as ideal wetland habitat.
“Seeing wildlife use this wetland 15 years after it was first restored is extremely rewarding,” said Andy. “It shows we’re doing something right by helping landowners create and manage the type of habitat these extremely rare animals need to make their long journey.”
In the Southwest and Central Plains of Western North America, climate change is expected to increase drought severity in the coming decades. These regions nevertheless experienced extended Medieval-era droughts that were more persistent than any historical event, providing crucial targets in the paleoclimate record for benchmarking the severity of future drought risks. We use an empirical drought reconstruction and three soil moisture metrics from 17 state-of-the-art general circulation models to show that these models project significantly drier conditions in the later half of the 21st century compared to the 20th century and earlier paleoclimatic intervals. This desiccation is consistent across most of the models and moisture balance variables, indicating a coherent and robust drying response to warming despite the diversity of models and metrics analyzed. Notably, future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE) in both moderate (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) future emissions scenarios, leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium.
Millennial-length hydroclimate reconstructions over Western North America (1–4) feature notable periods of extensive and persistent Medieval-era droughts. Such “megadrought” events exceeded the duration of any drought observed during the historical record and had profound impacts on regional societies and ecosystems (2, 5, 6). These past droughts illustrate the relatively narrow view of hydroclimate variability captured by the observational record, even as recent extreme events (7–9) highlighted concerns that global warming may be contributing to contemporary droughts (10, 11) and will amplify drought severity in the future (11–15). A comprehensive understanding of global warming and 21st century drought therefore requires placing projected hydroclimate trends within the context of drought variability over much longer time scales (16, 17). This would also allow us to establish the potential risk (that is, likelihood of occurrence) of future conditions matching or exceeding the severest droughts of the last millennium.
Quantitatively comparing 21st century drought projections from general circulation models (GCMs) to the paleo-record is nevertheless a significant technical challenge. Most GCMs provide soil moisture diagnostics, but their land surface models often vary widely in terms of parameterizations and complexity (for example, soil layering and vegetation). There are few large-scale soil moisture measurements that can be easily compared to modeled soil moisture, and none for intervals longer than the satellite record. Instead, drought is typically monitored in the real world using offline models or indices that can be estimated from more widely measured data, such as temperature and precipitation.
One common metric is the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) (18), widely used for drought monitoring and as a target variable for proxy-based reconstructions (1, 2). PDSI is a locally normalized index of soil moisture availability, calculated from the balance of moisture supply (precipitation) and demand (evapotranspiration). Because PDSI is normalized on the basis of local average moisture conditions, it can be used to compare variability and trends in drought across regions. Average moisture conditions (relative to a defined baseline) are denoted by PDSI = 0; negative PDSI values indicate drier than average conditions (droughts), and positive PDSI values indicate wetter than normal conditions (pluvials). PDSI is easily calculated from GCMs using variables from the atmosphere portion of the model (for example, precipitation, temperature, and humidity) and can be compared directly to observations. However, whereas recent work has demonstrated that PDSI is able to accurately reflect the surface moisture balance in GCMs (19), other studies have highlighted concerns that PDSI may overestimate 21st century drying because of its relatively simple soil moisture accounting and lack of direct CO2 effects that are expected to reduce evaporative losses (12, 20, 21). We circumvent these concerns by using a more physically based version of PDSI (13) (based on the Penman-Monteith potential evapotranspiration formulation) in conjunction with soil moisture from the GCMs to demonstrate robust drought responses to climate change in the Central Plains (105°W–92°W, 32°N–46°N) and the Southwest (125°W–105°W, 32°N–41°N) regions of Western North America.
We calculate summer season [June-July-August (JJA)] PDSI and integrated soil moisture from the surface to ~30-cm (SM-30cm) and ~2- to 3-m (SM-2m) depths from 17 GCMs (tables S1 and S2) in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) database (22). We focus our analyses and presentation on the RCP 8.5 “business-as-usual” high emissions scenario, designed to yield an approximate top-of-atmosphere radiative imbalance of +8.5 W m−2 by 2100. We also conduct the same analyses for a more moderate emissions scenario (RCP 4.5).
Over the calibration interval (1931–1990), the PDSI distributions from the models are statistically indistinguishable from the North American Drought Atlas (NADA) (two-sided Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p ≥ 0.05), although there are some significant deviations in some models during other historical intervals. North American drought variability during the historical period in both models and observations is driven primarily by ocean-atmosphere teleconnections, internal variability in the climate system that is likely to not be either consistent across models or congruent in time between the observations and models, and so such disagreements are unsurprising. In the multimodel mean, all three moisture balance metrics show markedly consistent drying during the later half of the 21st century (2050–2099) (Fig. 1; see figs. S1 to S4 for individual models). Drying in the Southwest is more severe (RCP 8.5: PDSI = −2.31, SM-30cm = −2.08, SM-2m = −2.98) than that over the Central Plains (RCP 8.5: PDSI = −1.89, SM-30cm = −1.20, SM-2m = −1.17). In both regions, the consistent cross-model drying trends are driven primarily by the forced response to increased greenhouse gas concentrations (13), rather than by any fundamental shift in ocean-atmosphere dynamics [indeed, there is a wide disparity across models regarding the strength and fidelity of the simulated teleconnections over North America (23)]. In the Southwest, this forcing manifests as both a reduction in cold season precipitation (24) and an increase in potential evapotranspiration (that is, evaporative demand increases in a warmer atmosphere) (13, 25) acting in concert to reduce soil moisture. Even though cold season precipitation is actually expected to increase over parts of California in our Southwest region (24, 26), the increase in evaporative demand is still sufficient to drive a net reduction in soil moisture. Over the Central Plains, precipitation responses during the spring and summer seasons (the main seasons of moisture supply) are less consistent across models, and the drying is driven primarily by the increased evaporative demand. Indeed, this increase in potential evapotranspiration is one of the dominant drivers of global drought trends in the late 21st century, and previous work with the CMIP5 archive demonstrated that the increased evaporative demand is likely to be sufficient to overcome precipitation increases in many regions (13). In the more moderate emissions scenario (RCP 4.5), both the Southwest (RCP 4.5: PDSI = −1.49, SM-30cm = −1.63, SM-2m = −2.39) and Central Plains (RCP 4.5: PDSI = −1.21, SM-30cm = −0.89, SM-2m = −1.17) still experience significant, although more modest, drying into the future, as expected (fig. S5).
In both regions, the model-derived PDSI closely tracks the two soil moisture metrics (figs. S6 and S7), correlating significantly for most models and model intervals (figs. S8 and S9). Over the historical simulation, average model correlations (Pearson’s r) between PDSI and SM-30cm are +0.86 and +0.85 for the Central Plains and Southwest, respectively. Correlations weaken very slightly for PDSI and SM-2m: +0.84 (Central Plains) and +0.83 (Southwest). The correlations remain strong into the 21st century, even as PDSI and the soil moisture variables occasionally diverge in terms of long-term trends. There is no evidence, however, for systematic differences between the PDSI and modeled soil moisture across the model ensemble. For example, whereas the PDSI trends are drier than the soil moisture condition over the Southwest in the ACCESS1-0 model, PDSI is actually less dry than the soil moisture in the MIROC-ESM and NorESM1-M simulations over the same region (fig. S7). These outlier observations, showing no consistent bias, in conjunction with the fact that the overall comparison between PDSI and modeled soil moisture is markedly consistent, provide mutually consistent support for the characterization of surface moisture balance by these metrics in the model projections.
For estimates of observed drought variability over the last millennium (1000–2005), we use data from the NADA, a tree-ring based reconstruction of JJA PDSI. Comparisons between the NADA and model moisture are shown in the bottom panels of Fig. 1. In the NADA, both the Central Plains (Fig. 2) and Southwest (Fig. 3) are drier during the Medieval megadrought interval (1100–1300 CE) than either the Little Ice Age (1501–1849) or historical periods (1850–2005). For nearly all models, the 21st century projections under the RCP 8.5 scenario reveal dramatic shifts toward drier conditions. Most models (indicated with a red dot) are significantly drier (one-sided Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p ≤ 0.05) in the latter part of the 21st century (2050–2099) than during their modeled historical intervals (1850–2005). Strikingly, shifts in projected drying are similarly significant in most models when measured against the driest and most extreme megadrought period of the NADA from 1100 to 1300 CE (gray dots). Results are similar for the more moderate RCP 4.5 emissions scenario (figs. S10 and S11), which still indicates widespread drying, albeit at a reduced magnitude for many models. Although there is some spread across the models and metrics, only two models project wetter conditions in RCP 8.5. In the Central Plains, SM-2m is wetter in ACCESS1-3, with little change in SM-30cm and slightly wetter conditions in PDSI. In the Southwest, CanESM2 projects markedly wetter SM-2m conditions; PDSI in the same model is slightly wetter, whereas SM-30cm is significantly drier.
When the RCP 8.5 multimodel ensemble is pooled together (Fig. 4), projected changes in the Central Plains and Southwest (2050–2099 CE) for all three moisture balance metrics are significantly drier compared to both the modern model interval (1850–2005 CE) and 1100–1300 CE in the NADA (one-sided Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p ≤ 0.05). In the case of SM-2m in the Southwest, the density function is somewhat flattened, with an elongated right (wet) tail. This distortion arises from the disproportionate contribution to the density function from the wetting in the five CanESM2 ensemble members. Even with this contribution, however, the SM-2m drying in the multimodel ensemble is still significant. Results are nearly identical for the pooled RCP 4.5 multimodel ensemble (fig. S12), which still indicates a significantly drier late 21st century compared to either the historical interval or Medieval megadrought period.
With this shift in the full hydroclimate distribution, the risk of decadal or multidecadal drought occurrences increases substantially. We calculated the risk (17) of decadal or multidecadal drought occurrences for two periods in our multimodel ensemble: 1950–2000 and 2050–2099 (Fig. 5). During the historical period, the risk of a multidecadal megadrought is quite small: <12% for both regions and all moisture metrics. Under RCP 8.5, however, there is ≥80% chance of a multidecadal drought during 2050–2099 for PDSI and SM-30cm in the Central Plains and for all three moisture metrics in the Southwest. Drought risk is reduced slightly in RCP 4.5 (fig. S13), with largest reductions in multidecadal drought risk over the Central Plains. Ultimately, the consistency of our results suggests an exceptionally high risk of a multidecadal megadrought occurring over the Central Plains and Southwest regions during the late 21st century, a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent megadroughts that characterized the Medieval era.
Within the body of literature investigating North American hydroclimate, analyses of drought variability in the historical and paleoclimate records are often separate from discussions of global warming–induced changes in future hydroclimate. This disconnection has traditionally made it difficult to place future drought projections within the context of observed and reconstructed natural hydroclimate variability. Here, we have demonstrated that the mean state of drought in the late 21st century over the Central Plains and Southwest will likely exceed even the most severe megadrought periods of the Medieval era in both high and moderate future emissions scenarios, representing an unprecedented fundamental climate shift with respect to the last millennium. Notably, the drying in our assessment is robust across models and moisture balance metrics. Our analysis thus contrasts sharply with the recent emphasis on uncertainty about drought projections for these regions (21, 27), including the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report (28).
Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America, conditions that may present a substantial challenge to adaptation. Human populations in this region, and their associated water resources demands, have been increasing rapidly in recent decades, and these trends are expected to continue for years to come (29). Future droughts will occur in a significantly warmer world with higher temperatures than recent historical events, conditions that are likely to be a major added stress on both natural ecosystems (30) and agriculture (31). And, perhaps most importantly for adaptation, recent years have witnessed the widespread depletion of nonrenewable groundwater reservoirs (32, 33), resources that have allowed people to mitigate the impacts of naturally occurring droughts. In some cases, these losses have even exceeded the capacity of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two major surface reservoirs in the region (34, 35). Combined with the likelihood of a much drier future and increased demand, the loss of groundwater and higher temperatures will likely exacerbate the impacts of future droughts, presenting a major adaptation challenge for managing ecological and anthropogenic water needs in the region.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Estimates of drought variability over the historical period and the last millennium used the latest version of the NADA (1), a tree ring–based reconstruction of summer season (JJA) PDSI. All statistics were based on regional PDSI averages over the Central Plains (105°W–92°W, 32°N–46°N) and the Southwest (125°W–105°W, 32°N–41°N). We restricted our analysis to 1000–2005 CE; before 1000 CE, the quality of the reconstruction in these regions declines.
The 21st century drought projections used output from GCM simulations in the CMIP5 database (22) (table S1). All models represent one or more continuous ensemble members from the historical (1850–2005 CE) and RCP 4.5 (15 models available) and 8.5 (17 models available) emissions scenarios (2006–2099 CE). We used the same methodology as in (13) to calculate model PDSI for the full interval (1850–2099 CE), using the Penman-Monteith formulation of potential evapotranspiration. The baseline period for calibrating and standardizing the model PDSI anomalies was 1931–1990 CE, the same baseline period as the NADA PDSI. Negative model PDSI values therefore indicate drier conditions than the average for 1931–1990.
To augment the model PDSI calculations and comparisons with observed drought variability in the NADA, we also calculated standardized soil moisture metrics from the GCMs for two depths: ~30 cm (SM-30cm) and ~2 to 3 m (SM-2m) (table S2). For these soil moisture metrics, the total soil moisture from the surface was integrated to these depths and averaged over JJA. At each grid cell, we then standardized SM-30cm and SM-2m to match the same mean and interannual SD for the model PDSI over 1931–1990. This allows for direct comparison of variability and trends between model PDSI and model soil moisture and between the model metrics (PDSI, SM-30cm, and SM-2m) and the NADA (PDSI) while still independently preserving any low-frequency variability or trends in the soil moisture that may be distinct from the PDSI calculation. The soil moisture standardization does not impose any artificial constraints that would force the three metrics to agree in terms of variability or future trends, allowing SM-30cm and SM-2m to be used as indicators of drought largely independent of PDSI.
Risk of decadal and multidecadal megadrought occurrence in the multimodel ensemble is estimated from 1000 Monte Carlo realizations of each moisture balance metric (PDSI, SM-30cm, and SM-2m), as in (17). This method entails estimating the mean and SD of a given drought index (for example, PDSI or soil moisture) over a reference period (1901–2000), then subtracting that mean and SD from the full record (1850–2100) to produce a modified z score. The differences between the reference mean and SD are then used to conduct (white noise) Monte Carlo simulations of the future (2050–2100) to emulate the statistics of that era. The fraction of Monte Carlo realizations exhibiting a decadal or multidecadal drought are then calculated from each Monte Carlo simulation of each experiment in both regions considered here. Finally, these risks from each model are averaged together to yield the overall risk estimates reported here. Additional details on the methodology can be found in (17).
Fig. S1. For the individual models, ensemble mean soil moisture balance (PDSI, SM-30cm, and SM-2m) for 2050–2099: ACCESS1.0, ACCESS1.3, BCC-CSM1.1, and CanESM2.
Fig. S2. Same as fig. S1, but for CCSM4, CESM1-BGC, CESM-CAM5, and CNRM-CM5.
Fig. S3. Same as fig. S1, but for GFDL-CM3, GFDL-ESM2G, GFDL-ESM2M, and GISS-E2-R.
Fig. S4. Same as fig. S1, but for INMCM4.0,MIROC-ESM, MIROC-ESM-CHEM, NorESM1-M, and NorESM1-ME models.
Fig. S5. Same as Fig. 1, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S6. Regional average moisture balance time series (historical + RCP 8.5) from the first ensemble member of each model over the Central Plains.
Fig. S7. Same as fig. S6, but for the Southwest.
Fig. S8. Pearson’s correlation coefficients for three time intervals from the models over the Central Plains: PDSI versus SM-30cm, PDSI versus SM-2m, and SM-30cm versus SM-2m.
Fig. S9. Same as fig. S8, but for the Southwest.
Fig. S10. Same as Fig. 2, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S11. Same as Fig. 3, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S12. Same as Fig. 4, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S13. Same as Fig. 5, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Table S1. Continuous model ensembles from the CMIP5 experiments (1850–2099, historical + RCP8.5 scenario) used in this analysis, including the modeling center or group that supplied the output, the number of ensemble members, and the approximate spatial resolution.
Table S2. The number of soil layers integrated for our CMIP5 soil moisture metrics (SM-30cm and SM-2m), and the approximate depth of the bottom soil layer.
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.
Wyoming’s Powder, Bighorn and North Platte rivers serve as headwaters of the Missouri River. They begin as trickles in the mountains and rush down into bottomlands as they gain volume. Once, all three ran full with a buffet of warm- and cool-water fish, from the prehistoric, armor-plated shovelnose sturgeon to the shimmery goldeye.
That’s where their similarities end.
Today, the Powder River remains one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the West. The Bighorn River has several dams, but still retains some of its native species. The North Platte River, on the other hand, has been fundamentally altered. What pollution didn’t kill was largely extirpated by dams and irrigation projects…
It’s no surprise then, that the uninterrupted Powder River still retains the same suite of native fish as it had millennia ago. Sauger, plains minnow, sturgeon chub and many other species swim in its waters. The North Platte, meanwhile, transformed slowly over the course of the mid-to-late 1900s into a thriving cold-water fishery with trophy brown and rainbow trout.
But biologists see a future where at least some of those native fish can be restored not only to the Bighorn River, where species have been lost or are struggling, but also to the lower stretches of the North Platte…
Sauger once ran up and down the North Platte River in such abundance that historical records show they were a major food source for soldiers stationed at Fort Laramie. Sauger are a bit smaller than their nonnative but more popular cousin the walleye, and have telltale black spots on their dorsal fins, said David Zafft, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s fisheries management coordinator…
But where sauger struggled in the Platte, they held on in the undammed and relatively untouched Powder River. They can also be found in sections of the Wind River, and have maintained strongholds in the Bighorn River — the same stream by a different name — largely downstream of Worland…
If you wondered what a swimming dinosaur might have resembled, take a look at the shovelnose sturgeon.
The ancient fish is covered in armored plates and has a giant forked tail and long nose used to scoot sand away from river bottoms to find food. Wyoming’s state record is only 10 pounds — big but not notable for a fish in the state — but that record catch measured an impressive 44 inches long…
Unfortunately, the shovelnose sturgeon went the same way as the sauger in the North Platte River. It needs long expanses of uninterrupted running water to spawn and survive, something the Platte lacked once it was developed into a series of reservoirs.
They are doing well in the Powder River, but were largely extirpated from the Bighorn River until reintroduction efforts in the mid-90s, Zafft said. Shovelnose sturgeon were stocked almost every year between 1996 and 2020, when the final batch poured in…
One of the largest channel catfish recorded in the state in its native range came from a fish survey in Glendo Reservoir. Biologists estimated it weighed between 25 and 30 pounds, but an exact measurement proved impossible because it was too big for the scale.
Channel catfish are often associated with southern states, but they were also abundant in the Platte, Powder and Bighorn. Like the others, channel catfish were gone from the Platte by the mid-1900s, but unlike other species, they are now thriving in places like Glendo Reservoir, Zafft said.
There, fisheries biologists have been stocking about 20,000 a year, with another 8,000 stocked in the North Platte River above Glendo. These catfish are not completely the original, though. Native channel catfish are part of a harder-to-obtain northern strain, and biologists have been reintroducing a southern strain imported from Arkansas.
Channel catfish are still sustainably reproducing in the Bighorn and Powder rivers, and are, according to Zafft, one of the state’s “most underutilized game fish.”
Somewhere in the slow-moving expanses of the Powder River near the Montana border is a nongame fish that looks like a herring.
The goldeye — a member of the mooneye family — has a compressed body, keeled belly and giant eyes.
They’re not classified as game fish, but they’re aggressive and “fight like crazy,” said Zafft. They also grow to be up to 15 inches long.
They’re gone now from the North Platte, and likely won’t be reintroduced. Biologists say they couldn’t naturally reproduce anymore because of the system of dams and reservoirs.
But goldeye are another fish that still thrives in the strange Powder River system.
Average temperatures are rising in the Greater Yellowstone Area, resulting in less snow, earlier runoff and major economic implications in the western headwaters region, according to a newly released climate study. The changes threaten to upset traditional land uses and commerce for a region that has seen its population more than double in the past 50 years.
“Temperature increases will bring warmer days and nights, warmer winters, and hotter summers in the coming decades,” according to the draft climate and water assessment for the region. “These warmer conditions will affect water supplies, natural and managed ecosystems, economies, and human and community well-being in the [Greater Yellowstone Area].”
It’s the first major climate assessment to focus on the Greater Yellowstone Region, which the National Park Service describes as “one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth.” The region is the ancestral home to more than a dozen Native American tribes, a diversity of wildlife, hydrothermal features and, of course, the nation’s first national park.
According to the study:
Average temperatures are projected to increase 0.31°F per decade.
Snowpack is shrinking between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation.
Drier conditions will make the region more prone to fire.
Mature whitebark pine trees are dying off.
The region is more prone to invasive species outbreaks.
Changes in the timing and rate of snowmelt are affecting fish spawning and the health of aquatic systems.
Changes in grassland habitats are altering bison migratory patterns.
Rising temperatures are affecting food availability for songbirds.
The assessment has implications for a large portion of Wyoming beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Region, said Bryan Shuman, director of the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center at the AMK Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, a lead author of the report.
Audubon works to protect wildlife like birds and their habitats.
As part of an agreement between Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas, this water transfer would help meet the state’s delivery obligations within the Republican River Compact.
But over the years, water from the Platte River has heavily been used by municipalities and agriculture.
This has led to the compact being short on water deliveries for quite some time.
The state also has an agreement with other neighboring states to balance this overused water supply through the Endangered Species Act, which began about 30 years after the river compact, and through the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program that aims to add water back to the river…
A diversion of the already short water supply to the Republican could create a ripple effect.
“Overall, taking water from one basin that is already water short and transferring it to another basin that’s water short.. that doesn’t really give us a long term solution. It doesn’t provide certainty for water users and it potentially has ecological impacts for both river basins,” said Mosier.
Taddicken said almost 70% of the water from the Platte River is gone before it even makes it to Nebraska and an interbasin transfer would heavily impact the its supply.
“This water removed from the Platte actually leaves the basin which is a real problem. Moving water around irrigation canals and things like that, eventually a lot of that water seeps back into the groundwater and back to the Platte River. This kind of a transfer takes it out completely,” said Taddicken.
He said farmers in the Platte River Valley should be really concerned if the transfer goes through…
Streamflow also helps to create multiple channels and varying depths which attract many wildlife species, especially birds.
“Sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, piping plovers and other birds.. they use those sand bars for protection. That’s where they like to nest and roost, so that’s really important. Stream flow makes that happen,” stated Mosier, “there’s also an important connection between streams on the Platte River and wetlands. Those wetlands are where a lot of birds and other wildlife find their protein sources.”
Taddicken said we’ve made a lot of compromises for wildlife already as the width of the Platte River has slowly declined and vegetation has taken over where the waters don’t extend.
The impact then extends its reach to the economy, with less sandhill cranes coming to the area that could impact tourists traveling to Central Nebraska.
Invasive species making their way into Kansas is also a concern.
Back in 2018, former Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer wrote a letter objecting to the transfer due to the risk of invasive species.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
A new report shows extreme drought throughout the Bighorn Mountains.
The latest data from the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center shows most of Wyoming is experiencing some level of drought. That ranges from moderate drought in the south and some eastern parts of the state to severe drought in the central region.
Interim Director of the Wyoming Water Resources Data System and State Climate Office Tony Bergantino said there is extreme drought in Sheridan, Johnson, Natrona, Washakie and Hot Springs counties.
“Precipitation pretty much just turned off. We had high winds and warm temperatures that just got things going dry really quick. Reports of soil moisture being really depleted up there,” Bergantino said of the factors that contributed to the drought.
Bergantino said that extreme drought is the highest level the state has seen since October 2018. According to the Drought Monitor, the impacts of D3, or extreme drought, is inadequate surface water for ranching and farming and a poor snow pack.
Bergantino said one of the first fires of the season occurred in Johnson County and there have been subsequent fires in the area. The snowpack had looked good early in the year and into May, but the weather shifted.
Even if rain does pick back up, it won’t be enough to reverse the damage, he said…
He said the agriculture industry will be the most impacted by the drought. The west and northwestern parts of the state are the only areas showing no signs of drought, and Bergantino said that’s because of precipitation they had early on.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the abstract:
Across the Upper Missouri River Basin, the recent drought of 2000 to 2010, known as the “turn-of-the-century drought,” was likely more severe than any in the instrumental record including the Dust Bowl drought. However, until now, adequate proxy records needed to better understand this event with regard to long-term variability have been lacking. Here we examine 1,200 y of streamflow from a network of 17 new tree-ring–based reconstructions for gages across the upper Missouri basin and an independent reconstruction of warm-season regional temperature in order to place the recent drought in a long-term climate context. We find that temperature has increasingly influenced the severity of drought events by decreasing runoff efficiency in the basin since the late 20th century (1980s) onward. The occurrence of extreme heat, higher evapotranspiration, and associated low-flow conditions across the basin has increased substantially over the 20th and 21st centuries, and recent warming aligns with increasing drought severities that rival or exceed any estimated over the last 12 centuries. Future warming is anticipated to cause increasingly severe droughts by enhancing water deficits that could prove challenging for water management.
In much of the western United States (hereafter “the West”), water demand (i.e., the combination of atmospheric demands, ecological requirements, and consumptive use) is approaching or has exceeded supply, making the threat of future drought an increasing concern for water managers. Prolonged drought can disrupt agricultural systems and economies, challenge river system control and navigation, and complicate management of sensitive ecological resources. Recently, ample evidence has emerged to suggest that the severity of several regional 21st-century droughts has exceeded the severity of historical drought events; these recent extreme droughts include the 2011 to 2016 California drought and the 2000 to 2015 drought in the Colorado River basin.
Conspicuously absent thus far from investigations of recent droughts has been the Missouri River, the longest river in North America draining the largest independent river basin in the United States. Similar to California and the Upper Colorado River Basin, parts of the early 21st century have been remarkably dry across the Upper Missouri River Basin (UMRB). In fact, our assessment of streamflow for the UMRB suggests that the widespread drought period of 2000 to 2010, termed the “turn-of-the-century drought” by Cook et al., was a period of observationally unprecedented and sustained hydrologic drought likely surpassing even the drought of the Dust Bowl period.
Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures are now likely higher than they have been in the last 1,200 y, and the unique combination of recent anomalously high temperatures and severe droughts across much of the West has led numerous researchers to revisit the role of temperature in changing the timing and efficiency of runoff in the new millennium. Evidence suggests that across much of the West atmospheric moisture demands due to warming are reducing the effectiveness of precipitation in generating streamflow and ultimately surface-water supplies.
The waters of the Upper Missouri River originate predominantly in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, where high-elevation catchments capture and store large volumes of water as winter snowpack that are later released as spring and early summer snowmelt. This mountain water is an important component of the total annual flow of the Missouri, accounting for roughly 30% of the annual discharge delivered to the Mississippi River on average, but ranging between 14% to more than 50% from year to year, most of which is delivered during the critical warm-season months (May through September). Across much of the UMRB, cool-season (October through May) precipitation stored as winter snowpack has historically been the primary driver of streamflow, with observed April 1 snow-water equivalent (SWE) usually accounting for at least half of the variability in observed streamflow from the primary headwaters regions. However, since the 1950s, warming spring temperatures have increasingly driven regional snowpack declines that have intensified since the 1980s. By 2006, these declines amounted to a low snowpack anomaly of unusual severity relative to the last 800 y and spanned the snow-dominated watersheds of the interior West. A recent reassessment of snowpack declines across the West by Mote et al. suggests continued temperature-driven snowpack declines through 2016 totaling a volumetric storage loss of between 25 and 50 km3, which is comparable to the storage capacity of Lake Mead, the United States’ largest reservoir.
Here we examine the extended record (ca. 800 to 2010 CE) of streamflow and the influence of temperature on drought through the Medieval Climate Anomaly, with a focus on the recent turn-of-the-century drought in the UMRB. The role of increasing temperature on streamflow and basin-wide drought is examined in the UMRB over the last 1,200 y by analyzing a basin-wide composite streamflow record developed from a network of 17 tree-ring–based reconstructions of streamflow for major gages in the UMRB (Fig. 1) and an independent runoff-season (March through August) regional temperature reconstruction. We also explore the hydrologic implications (e.g., drought severity and spatial extent) and climatic drivers (temperature and precipitation) of the observed changes in streamflow across the UMRB and characterize shifts in the likelihood of extreme flow levels and reductions in runoff efficiency across the basin.
For the first decade of the century, the Upper Missouri River Basin was the driest it’s been in 1,200 years, even more parched than during the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a new study says.
The drop in water level at the mouth of the Missouri — the country’s longest river — was due to rising temperatures linked to climate change that reduced the amount of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains in Montana and North Dakota, scientists found.
The basin has continued to experience droughts this decade — in 2012, 2013 and 2017 — but their severity in comparison with historic drought is unknown. The “Turn-Of-The-Century Drought” study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused only on the 10 years after 2000.
“In terms of the most severe flow deficits, the driest years of the Turn-Of-The-Century-Drought in the [Upper Missouri River Basin] appear unmatched over the last 1,200 years,” the study said. “Only a single event in the late 13th century rivaled the greatest deficits of this most recent event.”
Researchers familiar with drought of this magnitude in the dry Southwest were surprised to find it in the Midwest…
“These findings show that the upper Missouri Basin is reflecting some of the same changes that we see elsewhere across North America, including the increased occurrence of hot drought” that’s more severe than usual, [Erika] Wise said.
The study is the latest to show how human-influenced climate change threatens to reshape the landscape by making naturally occurring drought far more severe.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
HPRCC Staff Conduct Climate Summary Workshop for Tribes in the Region
As part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded tribal resilience project, HPRCC staff developed and conducted the “Lower Missouri River Tribes Resilience Training Climate Summary Workshop” in mid-March for tribal environmental professionals from nine tribes in EPA Region 7: Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. The workshop was one in a series of workshops that are part of a larger project aiming to increase tribal resilience to climate change and extremes. While the workshop was supposed to take place on the Winnebago Reservation in Sloan, IA, the workshop ended up being conducted remotely via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The workshop began with a series of presentations that introduced participants to basic climate concepts, the climate of the region, including trends and projections, and the process for creating a climate summary. Much of the rest of the workshop was hands-on, as participants had the opportunity to explore tools and obtain data on general climate conditions, drought and vegetation, stream- flow and snowpack, and climate outlooks.
In June, a small team of PBT interns set out for the highest point in the Platte Basin watershed.
We had big intentions of catching 5-star media to fill in cracks for the Grays Peak scene in the upcoming PBT documentary featuring Mike and Pete’s 55-day, 1,300-mile journey across the watershed.
Grays Peak is the highest point in the Platte Basin watershed. The mountain, located west of Denver in the Front Range of Colorado, is ranked as the tenth-highest summit of the Rocky Mountains of North America. With the top reaching an elevation of 14,278 feet, it may be considered to some as quite a commitment to reach the top.
The beginning of the trip went as intended. We had the car loaded with all of our equipment and prepared a schedule that would allow us enough time to focus on what we needed to do, or so we thought.
After incidents of altitude sickness, a split hiking boot, bird invasions, and a major bear spray accident, we all accepted our humorous situation of what the trip turned into. We came back with quite the story for the rest of the PBT team. Nevertheless, we agreed the trip had been a successful one and after arriving back in Lincoln, made the best out of what we managed to capture.
A year after flooding battered the Missouri River’s levee system, inundating towns and farmland and causing multiple closures to the nation’s interstate highway system, early forecasts warn that more of the same could be on the way: above-normal rainfall, greater than normal spring runoff. A USA TODAY Network analysis delves into records of an aging system of nearly a thousand levees where nobody knows how many were damaged last year or how many were repaired…
The forecast is a veritable index of meteorological plagues: above-normal rainfall; greater than normal spring runoff; thoroughly saturated soils; and an aging system of nearly a thousand levees where nobody knows how many were damaged last year and in previous floods or how many were repaired.
The 855 levee systems throughout the Missouri River basin protect at least half a million people and more than $92 billion in property. Yet a USA TODAY Network analysis of Army Corps of Engineers’ records found at least 144 levee systems haven’t been fully repaired and that only 231 show an inspection date.
Of those, nearly half were rated “unacceptable,” which means something could prevent the levee from performing as intended or a serious deficiency was not corrected. Only 3.5% were deemed acceptable; the rest were found to be “minimally acceptable.”
Only 231 of the levee systems show any inspection date. For 38, the most recent inspection date was more than five years ago.
In the Army Corps’ Kansas City district, for example, about 70 projects, spanning 119 levees that requested repair assistance, are eligible for funding, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be ready if the waters rise like they did last year.
“Some of them have been repaired, but from a total system perspective, I don’t think any of them are whole,” said Jud Kneuvean, the district’s chief of emergency management, who expects full levee rehabilitation and repair to take at least another year.
In the meantime, the extent and impacts of flooding will depend on when and where the rain falls…
The 2,300-mile Missouri River begins in southwestern Montana, where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers converge near the community of Three Forks, before gathering water from 10 states and parts of two Canadian provinces to become the “Big Muddy,” North America’s longest river.
In recent years, more rainfall has been pouring into the Missouri River basin, raising questions about whether climate change is bringing worsening floods more often. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dating back to 1895 shows record-setting rainfalls in the area occurring more often. Last year, for example, was the wettest on record in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
All that water adds to the challenge faced by Corps policymakers, who juggle sometimes conflicting priorities that include maintaining navigation; managing the reservoir system to prevent flooding; providing farmers with irrigation and hydropower; protecting endangered species; and preserving recreational opportunities.
While the priority is protecting human life and safety, the Corps’ decision-making sometimes puts special interest groups at odds, and the agency remains embroiled in controversy over whether the engineering of the river exacerbates flooding.
Things came to a head last year when a bomb cyclone in March melted all the snow in Nebraska and Iowa at once and dumped tremendous rain, swelling not just the Missouri, but the Elkhorn, Platte, James and Big Sioux rivers.
The Niobrara River in Nebraska breached the Spencer Dam on March 14, sending a wall of water downstream and into the Gavins Point reservoir near Yankton, South Dakota. At the peak, water flowed into the reservoir at 180,000 cubic feet per second — nine times more than the normal average for March. Meanwhile water was coursing into the rivers downstream of the dam and the effects of all that water were felt in nearly every community downstream.
Two other big rain events occurred in May and September. When the Corps’ Kansas City district deactivated its emergency operations center in December, it had been open for 279 days, the longest period on record…
Construction of the higher levee is in the administrative and planning stages, with actual construction activity set for fall.
Most of the Missouri’s levees fall into one of two categories: either federally built and locally operated or locally built and operated. The Corps inspects — and helps pay to repair — only the levees maintained to federal standards that participate in the federal flood program.
That exception means no one has a full list of damaged levees still in need of repair.
The number of levees that aren’t regularly inspected doesn’t surprise Neal Grigg, an engineering professor at Colorado State University who chaired a Corps-appointed review panel after 2011 flooding.
In an ideal management system, every levee “would be under the responsibility of some authority that was responsible and had enough money and good management capability to do that,” Grigg said.
But that’s not realistic, he added, noting that the Corps has tried through a task force to get some organization to the levee systems along the river, but it’s problematic, in part, because there are so many conflicting interests.
A host of agencies are cooperating to repair levees, but the progress is slow, said Missouri farmer Morris Heitman, who serves on the Missouri River Flood Task Force Levee Repair Working Group.
In addition to the Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Missouri, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and a large number of local levee districts all work to repair levees.
“We’re trying to dance with different agencies,” Heitman told the University of Missouri Extension. “All these agencies have their own requirements and parameters, and we’re trying to coordinate those to build a secure system against the river.”
Fixes to the 144 levee systems listed in disrepair in the Corps’ Omaha and Kansas City districts are in various stages of completion, and some aren’t expected to be done for more than a year.
In the Omaha district that includes Nebraska and Iowa, “pretty much all of the levees were damaged in one way or another,” said the corps’ Matt Krajewski.
While almost all of the district’s levees that qualify for federal aid have been restored to pre-2019 flood heights, Krajewski said they don’t offer the same level of “risk reduction” because they need final touches such as sod cover and drainage structures to protect against erosion. The Corps hopes to complete those repairs this summer.
In the meantime, the Corps is working to prepare its flood storage capacity by releasing more water than normal from its dams.
“We’re being really aggressive with our releases and trying to maintain our full flood storage,” said Eileen Williamson, a Corps spokeswoman for the Northwestern region.
But the projections for spring runoff don’t look good and may limit how much the Corps can do.
In February, the runoff was twice the normal average, said Kevin Grode, with the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management district.
The James River, a tributary that flows out of South Dakota, has experienced flooding since March 13 last year and that flooding is forecast to continue. Moderate flooding is expected along the Big and Little Sioux Rivers in South Dakota and Iowa, and possibly in Montana’s Milk River basin. A risk of minor to moderate flooding is forecast from Nebraska City to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in St. Louis.
But it’s not just the spring runoff that’s a problem, Grode said. The forecast also calls for “above average runoff for every month in 2020.”
John Remus, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Water Management Division, said during a March briefing that if those projections are realized, “the 2020 runoff will be the ninth highest runoff in 122 years of record keeping.”
In March, a three-man team with Montana’s Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest set off on horseback for a 35-mile, five-day journey into the wild North Fork of the Sun River, a tributary of the Missouri River.
They rode horses for the first 12 miles. When they reached a foot of snow, they switched to skis and took turns breaking trail.
Greeted by a half inch of new snow each morning, higher and higher they skied, encountering snow depths of 19 inches, then 2 feet, 9 inches and finally, 3 feet, 3 inches.
At each elevation, aluminum tubes with non-stick coating were stuck into the snow to collect core samples used to measure the depth and water content of the snowpack.
“The numbers are used for everything from dam control along the Missouri River to regulating the locks on the barges of the Mississippi,” said Ian Bardwell, the forest’s wilderness and trails manager, who led the snow survey expedition. “It just depends on what level you are looking at it from.”
As of Wednesday, mountain snowpack in the Missouri River basin in Montana was 112% of normal, said Lucas Zukiewicz, a water supply specialist with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montana.
In 2018, Montana’s April snowpack was 150% of normal, then 7 to 9 inches of rain over six days drenched the Rocky Mountain Front, inundating communities in its shadow. The Corps was forced to release water from the Fort Peck Dam spillway, a rarity, as a result of surging flows. Had that same thing happened last year, flooding in states downstream would have been even worse.
“With the way things are changing with our climate,” said Arin Peters, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Great Falls, Montana, “it’s probably a matter of time before something combines to create a big catastrophe downstream.”
Yet for this year, there may be some good news downstream from the Montana snowpack, at the Gavins Point Dam in Yankton.
Gavins Point is what’s known as a reregulation dam, its purpose to even the Missouri’s flow from the reservoirs upstream. Because Gavins Point wasn’t designed to hold floodwater, its gates had to be opened last year, sending a surge downstream after Nebraska and parts of South Dakota were hit with rain and the bomb cyclone.
In November and December, Gavins Point was still releasing water at a rate of 80,000 cubic feet per second — more than five times the average flow, and something that had never happened before, said Tom Curran, the dam’s project manager.
The good news? Releasing all that water through the winter left the mainstem dam system drained to its multipurpose zone, where it has capacity to absorb runoff while also fulfilling its other functions, including recreation and downstream barge traffic.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jennifer Dimas):
The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches to addressing the region’s significant water-related challenges.
“Tackling Tough Question” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers will share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations?” and “How do locally led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”
“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short and long term.”
Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in six Ogallala-region states. They are all engaged in collaborative research and outreach for sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.
Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of the event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.
The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers; irrigation company and commodity group representatives; students and academics; local and state policy makers; groundwater management district leaders; crop consultants; agricultural lenders; state and federal agency staff; and others, including new and returning summit participants.
“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, center director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce groundwater use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”
The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11 a.m. Central Time (10 a.m. MDT) on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.
Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time (11 p.m. MDT).
This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the release from the Kansas Water Office (Katie Patterson-Ingels, Amy Kremen):
8-State Conversation to Highlight Actions & Programs Benefitting the Aquifer, Ag, and Ogallala communities
The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches being implemented to address the region’s significant water-related challenges.
“Tackling Tough Questions,” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations” and “how do locally-led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”
“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short- and long-term.”
Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in 6 Ogallala-region states, engaged in collaborative research and outreach aimed at sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.
Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of this event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many other individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.
The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers, irrigation company and commodity group representatives, students and academics, local and state policy makers, groundwater management district leaders, crop consultants, agricultural lenders, state and federal agency staff, and others, including new and returning summit participants.
“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, Center Director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce ground water use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”
The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.
Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time.
This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crops need water. And in the central United States, the increasing scarcity of water resources is becoming a threat to the nation’s food production.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas, has analyzed a pilot program intended to conserve water in the agriculture-dependent region. His article “The Effectiveness of a Water Right Retirement Program at Conserving Water,” co-written with fellow KU economics professor Dietrich Earnhart, is published in the current issue of Land Economics.
“Residential water use is mostly problematic in California, and not so much here in Kansas. However, people don’t realize that residential use is tiny compared to agricultural use,” Tsvetanov said.
“I don’t want to discourage efforts to conserve water use among residential households. But if we want to really make a difference, it’s the agricultural sector that needs to change its practices.”
That’s the impetus behind the Kansas Water Right Transition Assistance Program (WTAP).
“If you’re a farmer, you need water to irrigate. If you don’t irrigate, you don’t get to sell your crops, and you lose money. So the state says if you reduce the amount of water you use, it’s actually going to pay you. So it’s essentially compensating you to irrigate less,” he said.
But this is not a day-to-day solution. The state recompenses farmers to permanently retire their water rights. The five-year pilot program that began in 2008 offers up to $2,000 for every acre-foot retired.
This benefits the High Plains Aquifer, the world’s largest freshwater aquifer system, which is located beneath much of the Great Plains. Around 21 million acre-feet of water is withdrawn from this system, primarily for agricultural purposes.
Tsvetanov and Earnhart’s work distinguishes the effectiveness between two target areas: creek sub-basins and high-priority areas. Their study (which is the first to directly estimate the effects of water right retirement) found WTAP resulted in no reduction of usage in the creek areas but substantial reduction in the high-priority areas.
“Our first thought was, ‘That’s not what we expected,’” Tsvetanov said.
“The creeks are the geographic majority of what’s being covered by the policy. The high-priority areas are called that for a reason — they’ve been struggling for many years. Our best guess is that farmers there were more primed to respond to the policy because there is awareness things are not looking good, and something needs to be done. So as soon as a policy became available which compensated them for the reduction of water use, they were quicker to take advantage of it.”
Of the eight states sitting atop the High Plains Aquifer, Texas is the worst in terms of water depletion volume. However, Kansas suffers from the fastest rate of depletion during the past half-century.
“Things are quite dire,” Tsvetanov said. “The western part of Kansas is more arid, so they don’t get as much precipitation as we do here in the east. Something needs to change in the long run, and this is just the first step.”
Tsvetanov initially was studying solar adoption while doing his postdoctoral work at Yale University in Connecticut. When visiting KU for a job interview, he assumed the sunny quality of the Wheat State would be a great fit for his research. He soon realized that few policies incentivized the adoption of solar.
“At that point, I thought, ‘I can’t really adapt solar research to the state of Kansas because there’s not much going on here.’ And then I started getting more interested in water scarcity because this truly is a big local issue,” he said.
A native of Bulgaria who was raised in India (as a member of a diplomat’s family), Tsvetanov is now in his fifth year at KU. He studies energy and environmental economics, specifically how individual household choices factor into energy efficiency and renewable resources.
The state of Kansas spent $2.9 million in the half decade that the WTAP pilot program ran. Roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water rights were permanently retired.
“Maybe it’s a start, but it’s not something you would expect to stabilize the depletion,” Tsvetanov said. “This is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially what we need is some alternative source of income for those people living out there, aside from irrigation-intensive agriculture.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, plans to release water from Lake McConaughy to benefit downstream habitat used by threatened and endangered species.
Releases will start Monday and may continue through March 15…
USFWS, PRRIP and Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District staff will coordinate the releases, monitor weather and runoff conditions, and be prepared to scale back or end releases if required to minimize the risk of exceeding flood stage.
Current expectations include:
Environmental account water traveling down the North Platte channel below Lake McConaughy will be increased by approximately 300 cubic feet per second to 700 cfs.
– The river will remain well below the designated flood stage of 6 feet at the city of North Platte.
– Flows downstream of North Platte are expected to be significantly below flood stage.
– Flows at Grand Island should be approximately 700 cfs, or less than 6 inches higher than current flows.
– In the Overton to Grand Island stretch, the river stage is expected to be less than 1 foot above normal levels for this time of year.
Click here to download the paper. Here’s the executive summary:
The Northern High Plains aquifer underlies about 93,000 square miles of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming and is the largest subregion of the nationally important High Plains aquifer. Irrigation, primarily using groundwater, has supported agricultural production since before 1940, resulting in nearly $50 billion in sales in 2012. In 2010, the High Plains aquifer had the largest groundwater withdrawals of any major aquifer system in the United States. Nearly one-half of those withdrawals were from the Northern High Plains aquifer, which has little hydrologic interaction with parts of the aquifer farther south. Land-surface elevation ranges from more than 7,400 feet (ft) near the western edge to less than 1,100 ft near the eastern edge. Major stream primarily flow west to east and include the Big Blue River, Elkhorn River, Loup River, Niobrara River, Republican River and Platte River with its two forks—the North Platte River and South Platte River. Population in the Northern High Plain aquifer area is sparse with only 2 cities having a population greater than 30,000.
Droughts across much of the area from 2001 to 2007, combined with recent (2004–18) legislation, have heightened concerns regarding future groundwater availability and highlighted the need for science-based water-resource management. Groundwater models with the capability to provide forecasts of groundwater availability and related stream base flows from the Northern High Plains aquifer were published recently (2016) and were used to analyze groundwater availability. Stream base flows are generally the dominant component of total streamflow in the Northern High Plains aquifer, and total streamflows or shortages thereof define conjunctive management triggers, at least in Nebraska. Groundwater availability was evaluated through comparison of aquifer-scale water budgets compared for periods before and after major groundwater development and across selected future forecasts. Groundwater-level declines and the forecast amount of groundwater in storage in the aquifer also were examined.
Aquifer losses to irrigation withdrawals increased greatly from 1940 to 2009 and were the largest average 2000–9 outflow (49 percent of total).
Basin to basin groundwater flows were not a large part of basin water budgets.
Development of irrigated land and associated withdrawals were not uniform across the Northern High Plains aquifer, and different parts of the Northern High Plains aquifer responded differently to agricultural development.
For the Northern High Plains aquifer, areas with high recharge and low evapotranspiration had the most streamflow, and most streams only remove water from the aquifer.
Results of a baseline future forecast indicated that groundwater levels declined overall, indicating an overdraft of the aquifer when climate was about average and agricultural development was held at the same state as 2009.
Results of two human stresses future forecasts indicated that increases of 13 percent or 23 percent in agricultural development, mostly near areas of previous development, caused increases in groundwater pumping of 8 percent or 11 percent, and resulted in continued groundwater-level declines, at rates 0.3 or 0.5 million acre-feet per year larger than the baseline forecast.
Results of environmental stresses forecasts (generated from two downscalings of global climate model outputs) compared with the baseline forecast indicated that even though annual precipitation was nearly the same, differences in temperature and a redistribution of precipitation from the spring to the growing season (from about May 1 through September 30), created a large (12–15 percent) decrease in recharge to the aquifer.
For the two environmental stresses forecasts, temperature and precipitation were distributed about the same among basins of the Northern High Plains aquifer, but the amounts were different.
Peterson, S.M., Traylor, J.P., and Guira, M., 2020, Groundwater availability of the Northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1864, 57 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1864.
The Trump administration is proposing to redefine a key term in the Clean Water Act: “Waters of the United States.” This deceptively simple phrase describes which streams, lakes, wetlands and other water bodies qualify for federal protection under the law.
Government regulators, landowners, conservationists and other groups have struggled to agree on what it means for more than 30 years. Those who support a broad definition believe the federal government has a broad role in protecting waters – even if they are small, isolated, or present only during wet seasons. Others say that approach infringes on private property rights, and want to limit which waters count.
The Trump proposal goes completely against scientists’ understanding of how rivers work. In my view, the proposed changes will strip rivers of their ability to provide water clean enough to support life, and will enhance the spiral of increasingly damaging floods that is already occurring nationwide. To understand why, it’s worth looking closely at how connected smaller bodies of waters act as both buffers and filters for larger rivers and streams.
Parts of a whole
The fact that something is unseen does not make it unimportant. Think of your own circulatory system. You can see some veins in your hands and arms, and feel the pulse in your carotid artery with your finger. But you can’t see the capillaries – tiny channels that support vital processes. Nutrients, oxygen and carbon dioxide move between your blood and the fluids surrounding the cells of your body, passing through the capillaries.
And just because something is abundant does not reduce each single unit’s value. For example, when we look at a tree we tend to see a mass of leaves. The tree won’t suffer much if some leaves are damaged, especially if they can regrow. But if it loses all of its leaves, the tree will likely die.
These systems resemble maps of river networks, like the small tributary rivers that feed into great rivers such as the Mississippi or the Columbia. Capillaries feed small veins that flow into larger veins in the human body, and leaves feed twigs that sprout from larger branches and the trunk.
Microbes at work
Comparing these analogs to rivers also is apt in another way. A river is an ecosystem, and some of its most important components can’t be seen.
Small channels in a river network are points of entry for most of the materials that move through it, and also sites where potentially harmful materials can be biologically processed. The unseen portions of a river below the streambed function like a human’s liver by filtering out these harmful materials. In fact, this metaphor applies to headwater streams in general. Without the liver, toxins would accumulate until the organism dies.
As an illustration, consider how rivers process nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are essential for plant and animal life but also have become widespread pollutants. Fossil fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers have increased the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus circulating in air, water and soil. When they accumulate in rivers, lakes and bays, excess nutrients can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen from the water, killing fish and other aquatic animals and creating “dead zones.” Excess nitrogen in drinking water is also a serious human health threat.
River ecosystems are full of microbes in unseen places, such as under the roots of trees growing along the channel; in sediments immediately beneath the streambed; and in the mucky ooze of silt, clay, and decomposing leaves trapped upstream from logs in the channel. Microbes can efficiently remove nutrients from water, taking them up in their tissues and in turn serving as food for insects, and then fish, birds, otters and so on. They are found mainly in and around smaller channels that make up an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the total length of any river network.
Water does not necessarily move very efficiently through these small channels. It may pond temporarily above a small logjam, or linger in an eddy. Where a large boulder obstructs the stream flow, some of the water is forced down into the streambed, where it moves slowly through sediments before welling back up into the channel. But that’s good. Microbes thrive in these slower zones, and where the movement of dissolved nutrients slows for even a matter of minutes, they can remove nutrients from the water.
Flood control and habitat
Other critical processes, such as flood control, take place in small upstream river channels. When rain concentrates in a river fed by numerous small streams, and surrounded by bottomland forests and floodplain wetlands, it moves more slowly across the landscape than if it were running off over land. This process reduces flood peaks and allows more water to percolate down into the ground. Disconnect the small streams from their floodplains, or pave and plow the small channels, and rain will move quickly from uplands into the larger channels, causing damaging floods.
These networks also provide critical habitat for many species. Streams that are dry much of the year, and wetlands with no surface flow into or out of them, are just as important to the health of a river network as streams that flow year-round.
Marvelously adapted organisms in dry streams wait for periods when life-giving water flows in. When the water comes, these creatures burst into action, with microbes removing nitrate just as in perennially flowing streams. Amphibians move down from forests to temporarily flooded vernal wetlands to breed. Tiny fish, such as brassy minnows, have waited out the dry season in pools that hold water year-round. When flowing water connects the pools, the minnows speed through breeding and laying eggs that then grow into mature fish in a short period of time.
Scientific sleuthing with chemical tracers has shown that wetlands with no visible surface connection to other water bodies are in fact connected via unseen subterranean pathways used by water and microbes. A river network is not simply a gutter. It is an ecosystem, and all the parts, unseen or seen, matter. I believe the current proposal to alter the Clean Water Act will fundamentally damage rivers’ ability to support all life – including us.
Here’s the release from Reclamation (Marlon Duke):
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman initiated the first annual allocation of $120 million from the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund for Indian water rights settlements. The allocation will provide important funding for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project in northern New Mexico and water projects on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana.
“This funding represents an investment in vital water infrastructure for tribal communities,” said Commissioner Burman. “Reclamation remains focused on meeting our Indian water rights settlement commitments and helping to fulfill the Department of the Interior’s Indian trust responsibilities.”
Specific amounts under this allocation include:
Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project – $100 million. The Navajo Gallup Water Supply project is a key element of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Settlement on the San Juan River in New Mexico. Construction of the project is well underway, with the first project water deliveries anticipated before the end of 2020. When fully complete, the project will provide reliable municipal, industrial, and domestic water supplies from the San Juan River to 43 Chapters of the Navajo Nation; the city of Gallup, New Mexico; the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry; and the southwest portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation.
Blackfeet Settlement – $20 million. The “Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act” authorizes Reclamation to plan, design and construct facilities to supply domestic water and support irrigation—including developing new water infrastructure on the Blackfeet Reservation, located in northwestern Montana. Under the Settlement Act, Reclamation will plan, design and construct the Blackfeet Regional Water System, which at full buildout will serve an estimated 25,000 reservation residents in the communities of Browning, Heart Butte, Babb, East Glacier, and Blackfoot, as well as rural farms and ranches.
Today’s allocation is in accordance with the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11), which established the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund, detailed how funding is to be deposited into the fund, and described the way the fund is to be expended.
After a year of anxious waiting, scientists and researchers who’ve helped build one of the most successful species recovery programs in the nation have gotten a 13-year extension to finish their work.
The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program began operating in 2007 with the bi-partisan backing of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then it has created some 15,000 acres of new habitat for stressed birds and fish, and added nearly 120,000 acre-feet of new annual water to the Platte River in central Nebraska. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons.
The region is critical because it serves as a major stopping point for migrating birds, including the whooping crane, the least tern and the piping plover.
In addition to helping fish, birds and the river, the program also allowed dozens of water agencies, irrigation districts and others to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act, which can prevent them from building and sometimes operating reservoirs, dams and other diversions if the activity is deemed harmful to at-risk species.
Last year it wasn’t clear that three new governors, three state congressional delegations, and a fractious Congress could come together to re-authorize the program.
Jo Jo La, an endangered species expert who tracks the program for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said everyone was grateful that politicians united to push the federal legislation, and the new operating agreement, through. It was signed by President Trump at the end of December.
“Our program was fortunate to have the leaders it had,” La said.
But it wasn’t just politicians who were responsible for the program’s extension, said Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Kearney, Neb.-based program.
It was the diversity among the group’s members that was also key, he said. “Everyone from The Nature Conservancy to the Audubon Society to irrigation districts in the North Platte Basin supported this. You don’t often see an irrigation district sending a support letter for an endangered species recovery program. That’s how broad the support was.”
Of the $156 million allocated, Colorado is providing $24.9 million in cash and another $6.2 million in water, Wyoming is providing $3.1 million in cash and $12.5 million in water, Nebraska is providing $31.25 million in land and water, and the U.S. Department of Interior is providing $78 million in cash, according to PRRIP documents.
With their marching orders in hand, researchers and scientists can now focus on completing the program so that at the end of this 13-year extension it will become fully operational.
Early results have won accolades from Wyoming to Washington, D.C. The CWCB’s La said congressional testimony routinely described it as one of the “marquee” recovery programs in the nation, largely because, even though it isn’t finished, species are coming back in a major way.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the endangered whooping crane, least tern and pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover, were in danger of becoming extinct, with the river’s channels and flows so altered by dams and diversions that it could no longer support the species’ nesting, breeding and migratory habitats.
Today the picture is much different.
Still ahead is the work to acquire more water and land, and research to understand how to help the rare pallid sturgeon recover. Thus far it has not responded to recovery efforts, in part because it is extremely difficult to locate.
The idea is to ensure there is enough water and habitat to keep the birds and fish healthy once the program enters its long-term operating phase.
“The intent is to spend the next 13 years working on identifying the amount of water and land that is necessary to go into [the final operating phase]. The focus will be less on acquiring and learning, and more on operating and managing,” Farnsworth said.
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.
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
Least Tern. Photo credit Doug German via Audubon.
Platte River Recovery Implementation Program target species (L to R), Piping plover, Least tern, Whooping crane, Pallid sturgeon