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
Click here to view the story map from Platte Basin Timelapse. Here’s the preface:
The flood event of 2019 was historic and devastating for parts of Nebraska and the Midwest.
Platte Basin Timelapse team members Grant Reiner, Carlee Koehler, Ethan Freese, and Mariah Lundgren traveled to parts of the state to explore questions they had about this historic weather event. What happens to wildlife during these big weather events? How were people affected by the floodwaters? What does this mean for the birds that nest on the river? How many PBT cameras survived? These are our stories.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
A victory for wildlife and Colorado water, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, and the Governors of Nebraska and Wyoming signed a Cooperative Agreement to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (Program) with $156 million.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board has played a major role in this Program’s creation and ongoing efforts, including policy and financial support.
“This collaborative program supports the recovery of four threatened and endangered species by improving and maintaining habitat in the Platte River in Nebraska while allowing for continued water use in Colorado,” said Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We look forward to continuing our role in the upcoming years of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.”
“The commitment by the states and the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue the program’s innovative approach to species recovery and Endangered Species Act compliance is a win-win for the future of Colorado’s citizens and the environment,” said Governor Polis.
The Program was set to expire at the end of 2019. However, with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the Department of Natural Resources; and other state, federal, and non-governmental partners; a bill supported by the entire Congressional delegation from Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming was passed and signed by the President before the New Year.
Together with its water users, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is celebrating the Program’s more than a decade record of success. As the Program enters into its next 13 years, it has momentum to continue to recover threatened and endangered species, which provides assurance for future water use in Colorado.
The Colorado River Compact and water infrastructure projects will be among the items discussed at the annual Four States Irrigation Council meeting held Wednesday through Friday in Fort Collins.
the Four States Irrigation Council is a group of irrigators, irrigation and water districts, ditch companies and others looking to discuss water-delivery and irrigation-related issues affecting the Four States region, which encompasses Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Exhibitors at the event will showcase some of the latest innovations and provide attendees with up-to-date information on new products and services. Awards will also be presented.
Membership in the Four States Irrigation Council is open to anyone and free of dues or fees. Someone can become a member by attending the annual meeting or visiting 4-states-irrigation.org and requesting to be added to mailing list.
More information about the meeting is also available on the website.
Here’s the release from the Department of Interior (Brock Merrill):
Secretary of the Interior, along with Governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, commit an additional $156 million for recovering threatened and endangered species in the Platte River Basin
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed an amendment to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement, along with the governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, committing resources to extend the program through Dec. 31, 2032. The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program utilizes federal- and state-provided financial resources, water and scientific monitoring and research to support and protect four threatened and endangered species that inhabit areas of the Central and Lower Platte rivers in Nebraska while allowing for continued water and hydropower project operations in the Platte River basin.
“This program is truly an important partnership that has been successful because of the broad collaboration between federal and state representatives, water and power users and conservation groups,” said Secretary Bernhardt. “All of these stakeholders working together to help recover imperiled species is critical as new water and power projects are continued and developed in the Platte River Basin.”
The program provides compliance for four species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for new and existing water-related projects in the Platte River Basin. Examples of existing water related projects include the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado Big-Thompson Project on the South Platte River in Colorado and the North Platte Project in Wyoming and Nebraska.
“Programs like the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program are critical to ensuring that Reclamation is able to deliver water and power in an environmentally and economically sound manner,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman “This program is a true success story of how stakeholders and government from across state lines can work together for the common good.”
The program began in 2007 and is managed by a governance committee comprised of representatives from Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, water users, environmental groups and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program has brought together three states, environmental groups, water users, and two federal agencies to forge a common goal of balancing existing use with an eye towards recovery for four threatened and endangered species,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon. “This program has ensured that Wyoming continues existing water uses in the South and North Platte River Basins while making measurable contributions to species recovery.”
“The signing of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement Amendment marks the celebration of more than a decade of success,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “The commitment by the states and the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue the program’s innovative approach to species recovery and Endangered Species Act compliance is a win-win for the future of Colorado’s citizens and the environment. We look forward to the next 13 years working with our partners to lead in this national model of collaboration.”
“Agriculture is Nebraska’s number one industry. Extending the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program gives Nebraska’s ag producers certainty around water and land use in the coming years,” said Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. “We appreciate the collaboration we enjoy with the other states who are party to this agreement, and we look forward to working with them in the coming years.”
The estimated total value of federal and state contributions to the program during the first extension is $156 million. The U.S. Department of the Interior will provide one half of the funding necessary for the extension, which will be matched by states through contributions of non-federal funding and water from state-sponsored projects that is provided for the benefit of target threatened and endangered species.
The people of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska got an early Christmas present from the U.S. Senate on Thursday, and it has Don Ament breathing a sigh of relief.
Ament has said he was delighted to hear that the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill Thursday to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program as part of the year-end spending package. The bill was introduced by Colorado Senators Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R). The bill was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this week and will now go to the president’s desk to be signed into law…
The first increment of the program is set to expire on at the end of this year; Senate Bill 990 extends the program by an additional 13 years. PRRIP is a cooperative agreement among the governors of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Secretary of the Interior to achieve Endangered Species Act compliance on the Platte River.
Ament, who represents Colorado’s governor on the four-entity board that oversees the program, has been concerned since April about whether PRRIP would be extended. That’s when Bennet and Gardner, along with U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), introduced the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Extension Act.
Since then, however, Washington, D.C., has been somewhat distracted by political conflict between Republicans and Democrats, making any kind of bipartisanship seem to be impossible. That has had Ament concerned that funding for the program would lapse after Dec. 31, leaving the program’s future in doubt…
In addition to addressing protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, PRRIP has allowed the three states and the Department of Interior to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation involving the Endangered Species Act. According to a statement released by the U.S. Interior Department, “The program has provided a level of certainty to water users in the Platte River drainage that litigation would not have afforded.”
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
Governor Mark Gordon has sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue requesting a Disaster Designation for five Wyoming counties where agriculture producers were impacted by powerful early-season snowstorms.
The request covers Laramie, Goshen, Platte, Park and Big Horn counties. The scale, severity and timing of freezing and snow events that occurred in October were devastating to crops, particularly sugar beets. While producers did their best to maximize their harvest, damage from the storms was severe.
A copy of the Governor’s letter can be viewed here.
A wet 2019 delayed construction work throughout Nebraska, including a Platte River Recovery Implementation Program water project southwest of Elm Creek.
At Tuesday’s PRRIP Governance Committee meeting in Kearney, program civil engineer Kevin Werbylo said the completion date for the project on the south side of the Platte River was moved from May 1 to Aug. 1 to Oct. 15.
“Given the conditions the contractor had to deal with, they did a nice job and the engineers did a nice job,” Werbylo said.
The project fits program goals to reduce depletions to Central Platte target flows and to protect, restore or maintain land used as habitat by threatened and endangered species — least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes.
The basinwide plan allows entities in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming with federal licenses, permits and/or funding to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Department of Interior is the other major participant.
The Elm Creek project will help meet an immediate goal to reduce by 120,000 acre-feet the annual depletions to target river flows set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the protected species. Water held in shallow detention cells on the broad-scale site will seep into the groundwater that eventually reaches the adjacent Platte River.
Platte water will be diverted into Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s Phelps Canal at times when flows exceed targets. According to PRRIP 1995-2017 data, that most commonly occurs in December and January.
A new pipeline built as part of the project links the canal to the 416-acre site where earthen berms up to 6 feet tall create eight shallow cells to temporarily hold water at depths of 12 inches or less.
Werbylo said the project budget is $4.3 million and there is $480,000 left to pay.
Dirt work needs to settle and vegetation is being established, he said, so it will be late spring to mid-summer 2020 before any water deliveries are made to the broad-scale project site.
PRRIP Executive Director Jason Farnsworth told the Hub that even if the original construction schedule had allowed the project’s use this fall, there would have been no diversions because of already high groundwater.
Here’s the release from the Department of Agriculture:
Agricultural producers reported they were not able to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres in 2019, according to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This marks the most prevented plant acres reported since USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) began releasing the report in 2007 and 17.49 million acres more than reported at this time last year.
Of those prevented plant acres, more than 73 percent were in 12 Midwestern states, where heavy rainfall and flooding this year has prevented many producers from planting mostly corn, soybeans and wheat.
“Agricultural producers across the country are facing significant challenges and tough decisions on their farms and ranches,” USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said. “We know these are challenging times for farmers, and we have worked to improve flexibility of our programs to assist producers prevented from planting.”
USDA supported planting of cover crops on fields where farmers were not able to plant because of their benefits in preventing soil erosion, protecting water quality and boosting soil health. The report showed where producers planted 2.71 million acres of cover crops so far in 2019, compared with 2.14 million acres at this time in 2018 and 1.88 million at this time in 2017.
To help make cover crops a more viable option, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) adjusted the haying and grazing date of cover crops, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service held signups in select states that offered producers assistance in planting cover crops. Meanwhile, USDA added other flexibilities to help impacted producers, including adjusting the deadline to file acreage reports in select states.
About the Report
This data report aggregates information from crop acreage reports as of August 1, 2019, which producers file with FSA to maintain program eligibility and to calculate losses for various disaster assistance programs. The crop acreage data report outlines the number of acres planted, prevented from planting, and failed by crop, county and state. To find more information, view the Aug. 12 report.
Because some producers have not completed their filing and data are still being processed, FSA will make available subsequent data reports in September, October, November, December and January. You can find reports from 2007 to the present on FSA’s Crop Acreage Data webpage.
To receive FSA program benefits, producers are required to submit crop acreage reports annually regarding all cropland uses on their farm. This report includes data for producers who had already filed for all deadlines in 2019, including the mid-July deadlines, which are for spring-seeded crops in many locations.
Other Prevented Planting Indicators
In addition to acreage reports filed with FSA, producers with crop insurance coverage for prevented planting file claims with their insurance providers. These claims are provided to RMA and may differ from the prevented planted acres reported to FSA. More information on prevented plant coverage is available on the RMA website.
Official USDA estimates of total acres planted, harvested and to be harvested, yield, and production are available from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service at http://nass.usda.gov.
Governor Mark Gordon, members of the executive branch, and representatives from multiple state agencies are mobilizing in an effort to provide assistance to farmers affected by a catastrophic irrigation tunnel collapse in Goshen County.
The Governor signed an Executive Order for a Declaration of Emergency today, allowing him to deploy state resources to Goshen County as needed. The collapse occurred early in the morning of July 17 along the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal west of Lingle and caused a large breach of the canal wall. The disaster inundated farmland near the breach and has left more than 100,000 acres of cropland in Wyoming and Nebraska without water during a critical period for growers. Goshen County Commissioners issued a Local Disaster Declaration earlier today.
“This is a serious emergency and we recognize addressing an issue of this magnitude will take coordination, especially because it affects so many Wyoming and Nebraska farmers,” Governor Mark Gordon said. “We are working with an understanding of the urgency of the situation, along with a need to proceed carefully. Wyoming is united in its effort to find the right way to help the Goshen Irrigation District get up and running.”
After visiting the site on Friday, the Governor and members of the executive branch met Monday morning to analyze ways to provide state support to Goshen County and the Goshen Irrigation District. The Governor’s office is assembling resources to engage federal partners and is working with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security and the State Engineer’s Office to explore potential options for resources and assistance.
State officials and representatives from Governor Gordon’s office will attend a stakeholder’s meeting organized by the Goshen Irrigation District scheduled for 2 pm Wednesday, July 24, at the Eastern Wyoming College auditorium. The meeting is open to the public and will include a discussion of the collapse and a possible timeline for repairs to the tunnel and ditch.
From the Goshen County Commissioners via The Torrington Telegram:
The Goshen County Board of Commissioners has officially declared the collapse of an irrigation tunnel along the Fort Laramie-Gering Irrigation Canal as a local disaster.
In a declaration issued Monday morning, July 22, the county stated that “extensive damage was caused to private property and the loss of irrigation water will result in an extensive loss of agricultural crops to the farmers of Goshen County within the disaster area.”
The declaration, signed by Chairman Wally Wolski, vowed to seek emergency funds from any and all sources.
“All locally available public and private resources available to mitigate and alleviate the effects of this disaster have been insufficient to meet the needs of the situation,” the declaration said. “The Chairman of the Goshen County Board of Commissioners has declared a State of Emergency on behalf of Goshen County, and will execute for and on behalf of Goshen County Commission the expenditure of emergency funds from all available sources, the invoking of mutual aid agreements, and the requesting of assistance from the State of Wyoming.”
The Goshen Irrigation District has organized a stakeholder’s meeting to discuss the Fort-Laramie Gering irrigation tunnel collapse, repairing the tunnel and the ditch, and the timeframe of the repairs. The meeting will be held Wednesday, July 24, 2 p.m. at the Eastern Wyoming College auditorium.
The GID issued a press release on Friday, July 19, to ask people to stay away from the collapse to allow the GID and various contractors space to make the necessary repairs. The collapse occurred in a remote section of the canal, with only a one-lane road to get in or out of the site.
“Goshen Irrigation District and Gering-Fort Laramie District are asking for all patrons to please observe all road closure signs near the tunnel and canal breach,” the release said. “There will be large equipment and contractors in and out of that site every day of the week and for extended hours. Please, for your safety, do not impede the work that needs to be done.”
The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) is a multi-state effort that began in 1997, when the governors of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska joined with the U.S. Secretary of Interior to sign the “Cooperative Agreement for Platte River Research and Other Efforts Relating to Endangered Species Habitat along the Central Platte River, Nebraska.”
Based on the novel idea that a collaborative approach would prevent years of courtroom battles over limited water supplies and individual river species, the PRRIP works to accommodate the habitat needs of these threatened and endangered bird species by increasing stream flows in the central Platte River during relevant time periods. While these species require habitat in central Nebraska for survival, their habitat is created and maintained through a dynamic river system that begins with water from Colorado and Wyoming. The program also enhances, restores and protects habitat, and does so in a manner to accommodate new water-related activities. This is a good program but due to expire this year.
Wyoming Senator Barrasso (R) and Colorado Representative Neguse (D) each took leadership positions on this issue, sponsoring complementary bills in the Senate (S.990) and House (H.R. 3237), that propose to extend the program. Audubon Rockies and Audubon Nebraska thanked the entire Colorado Congressional Delegation for their unanimous, bipartisan support for these bills. Our offices also thanked Wyoming’s Senator Enzi for supporting the Senate bill, and Representative Cheney recently joined other western co-sponsors of the House bill. Additionally, all Colorado and Wyoming Audubon chapters sent letters thanking their respective congressional delegations for their unanimous, bipartisan of a strong stewardship program.
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
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.
Meanwhile click here to enjoy the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards winners.
Birds make fascinating subjects, as the winners and honorable mentions of this year’s contest, our 10th, make clear. They’re at once beautiful and resilient, complex and comical. It’s no wonder why we love them so.
The images that won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards, presented in association with Nature’s Best Photography, are as impressive as ever, but attentive readers might notice a few more images than usual. That’s because we’ve added two awards. The Plants for Birds category is inspired by Audubon’s Plants for Birds program, supported by Coleman and Susan Burke, which provides resources for choosing and finding plants native to zip codes in the United States. This category poses a new challenge to photographers: Don’t just capture an incredible moment—make sure it also features a bird and plant native to the location in which the photo was taken, in order to highlight the critical role native habitat plays in supporting bird life. And in the spirit of Kevin Fisher, Audubon’s longtime creative director who recently retired, the Fisher Prize recognizes a creative approach to photographing birds that blends originality with technical expertise. It honors a photograph selected from all of the submissions that pushes the bounds of traditional bird photography.
We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all 2,253 entrants, hailing from all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and 10 Canadian provinces and territories. Your dedication to appreciating, celebrating, and sharing the wonder of birds and the landscapes they inhabit inspires us now and throughout the year.
In the first publicly released independent review of a 637-page modeling report and 113-page application for a “produced water” discharge permit, consultants hired by four conservation groups let loose on the science in Aethon studies describing methods and results as “misleading,” “very odd,” “questionable and unrealistic,” “surprising,” and “unwarranted and wrong,” among other things.
Aetheon and Burlington Resources seek permission from the BLM to expand the Moneta Divide oil and gas field by 4,250 wells and need a DEQ permit to discharge up to 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids at a rate of 8.27 million gallons a day. The effluent from oil and gas wells would flow through Alkali and Badwater creeks, into Boysen Reservoir in Boysen State Park and into the federally protected Class I flows of the Wind River — the source of Thermopolis’ drinking water.
“The draft permit violates the Clean Water Act, the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act, and the Department [of Environmental Quality’s] rules and regulations implementing those laws,” the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, National Audubon Society and Natural Resource Defense Council wrote the DEQ. “The discharge of produced water from this facility has damaged and continues to damage surface waters of the state and threatens downstream communities with undisclosed health risks,” reads the groups’ cover letter, signed by representatives in Lander, Sheridan, Washington, D.C. and Livermore, Colorado.
They urged the state regulatory agency to encourage the Texas-based energy company “to consider other, less environmental damaging alternatives to the discharge.” In the meantime, “the permit should be denied,” the letter reads.
Yet in the arid West, new water can be valuable, if it is properly treated. “Water resources in the West are a topic of great importance and these issues are currently being studie[d] by a multitude of governmental agencies and research institutes,” wrote Peter Jones, a consulting geochemist from Houston, Texas. He reviewed the Aethon proposal and made the seven-page review available to WyoFile.
“As planned, the Moneta Divide development will be on the forefront of technology and may well be a model for how produced water may be converted into a valuable resource,” he wrote.
Here’s a report on the flooding in Nebraska from Peter Salter writing for The Lincoln Journal Star. Click through and read the whole article and check out the various videos. Here’s an excerpt:
From their offices in Lincoln early Thursday, hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey were monitoring the final few moments of a stream gauge more than 200 miles away, on the Niobrara River.
It was hinting at something catastrophic.
“We were watching it from here, and it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” said Jason Lambrecht. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”
The gauge had been ripped away by the wall of water released when the 90-year-old Spencer Dam failed under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. But its last readings allowed Lambrecht to measure the size of the surge.
Earlier, the Niobrara had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gauge height. After it broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. It wasn’t a gradual increase, either…
And in its wake, three Nebraska counties would learn how that much moving water can become immediately destructive and potentially deadly. How it can cause instant pain and long-term suffering. How it can harm not only those in its path, but those living miles away.
First, the wave swept away a section of U.S. 281, a nearby riverside saloon and at least one home, possibly occupied. And it continued downstream, barreling toward the town of Niobrara — and its mouth at the Missouri River — about 40 miles away.
Knox County: ‘It’s crazy’
The service station owners thought they were ready for the coming water.
They’d taken the tire machine and other equipment away. They brought the important paperwork home. They put their ’68 Camaro up on the lift. They moved the rest of what they could to higher ground, filling the rafters with inventory.
And the couple had a huge inventory. Vic’s Service has anchored the west edge of Niobrara for 25 years, and had enough hydraulic fittings and plumbing pieces to serve as a kind of farmer’s supply store, said Ruth Janak, who co-owns the station with her husband, Victor.
They checked on their business Wednesday, and found it already swamped with 4 feet of water, her desk upturned, pop machines on their sides. A mess, but nothing they couldn’t handle.
“We thought, when the water recedes, we’ll be able to get in and clean all that up,” she said.
They returned Thursday, and found most of it missing.
“Our main building, the one we did our business at, it’s gone. The gas pumps are gone. We lost the propane tank. So many tools are gone,” Janak said Friday. “Where’s all that stuff at? It’s crazy.”
Later, she would find a jug of hydraulic fluid — and someone else’s pontoon boat — on what remained of the town’s golf course. But their main building, and much of what it contained, had likely tumbled downstream.
Theirs wasn’t the only missing building. The wall of water had brutalized Niobrara’s west side, a low-lying commercial district, and the part of town closest to the river.
Jody Stark, the chair of the village board, listed the other casualties. Several buildings from a hay business? Gone. A state Department of Transportation garage? Gone. A Knox County road shop? Gone. The Mormon Bridge on Nebraska 12? Stark has video of the deck floating away. The Country Cafe? Still standing, but it had been nearly swallowed by water and ice, with maybe a foot of the roof visible at one point.
“A lot of buildings washed away,” he said. “They were pretty much swept right down the river and they’re in the Missouri somewhere.”
The good news? Almost all of the 300 or so residents of Niobrara live on higher ground, and weren’t directly hurt by the floodwaters…
Still, his town was struggling. The flooding compromised the town’s two wells, leaving its residents without a water supply, and the fire department was going door-to-door, filling containers. Getting in and out of town was also difficult; by Friday, the Standing Bear Bridge to South Dakota had reopened, and there was one passable gravel road south of town. Nebraska 14, the main route south out of Niobrara, was so strewn with ice it was only open for emergency travel.
The damage was unprecedented, Stark said, and worse than they had originally expected. But that was before they’d heard the Spencer Dam had failed and even more water was headed their way…
The Spencer Dam was a flow-through hydroelectric dam, with garage-type doors that let water through, and Becker said it wasn’t known whether the doors had been open or closed at the time. They disappeared downstream, he said.
Its breach triggered immediate and long-term problems. It swept away a Holt County house just downstream, and authorities were still searching for its owner.
“On March 14th at around 5 in the morning the dam on the niobrara river south of Spencer NE was overtaken by flooding and ice jams. 2 days prior to this there was significant snow melting. 1 day prior there was all day rain measuring 1-1.5 inches. The ground was still frozen from recent below normal temperatures. All that water broke loose ice chunks the size of cars and trucks. The dam was no match for this extreme force. The dam and the dike were both destroyed. The water then washed out Hwy 281 and flooding many communities downstream.” — Birkel Dirtwork
And the force of the flow severed the supply of water to the north, in Boyd County. Many of its 2,000 residents relied on the pipeline from Holt County that was buried beneath the river. Now that it’s gone, they don’t have the water they need for drinking, for livestock, for flushing.
They received a truckload of bottled water Friday, enough to last maybe a day, said Doug Fox, Boyd County’s emergency management coordinator. They need more…
And Boyd County was struggling to stay connected with the rest of the state. The failure of Spencer Dam took out a pair of routes over the Niobrara River, and the only ways out of Boyd County were north into South Dakota or west into Keya Paha County, Fox said.
Water is a contradiction for Western Nebraska. It’s both seemingly abundant, yet simultaneously finite and scarce.
A new film by a local award-winning documentary filmmaker explores this contradiction and tells the story of water in the Panhandle, from the founding of the numerous irrigation and natural resources districts that line the North Platte valley, to the legal fights surrounding the regulation, distribution and control of that water.
Insight Creative Independent Productions Executive Producer and Director Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water,” was originally designed to be a web series, and viewers will get a first peek at it when the film premiers at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering on Saturday, March 2, at 1 p.m. The screening of the documentary is in conjunction with The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street the Water/Ways” exhibit, which is open now until April 13 at Legacy.
“Everyone knows how to use YouTube, and they’ve gotten used to web series,” McMillan said. “They’re used to watching short pieces.”
In essence, each of the segments of the film is a self-contained documentary which covers a different facet of the story of our water, she said.
The hour and fifteen minute feature is the product of more than three solid years of work, with much of the footage and information gathered over a greater period of time. McMillen said that her father, Udell Hughes Sr., helped her with much of the technical research for the film. It also contains material gathered during production of McMillen’s last major project, “River of Time: Wyoming’s Evolving North Platte River,” a half-hour program which premiered on Wyoming PBS in November 2012.
“We’ve been sort of building up towards this film,” she said. “A lot of my historical research was actually done at Legacy of the Plains.”
The film contains interviews with managers of irrigation districts, farmers, UNL researchers and footage from public hearings concerning water issues.
“I knew that I needed to talk about the Ogallala Aquifer, but it took me a while to understand that issue,” McMillen said.
So she consulted UNL research hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, who is known as “Mr. Water.” Goeke researched the aquifer and arguably knows more about the water under our feet than any other human being.
McMillen said she was surprised by how candid Goeke.
“He gave me courage to address issues that probably weren’t very popular and won’t be very popular,” she said. “We have sucked so much water out of the aquifer and I’ve been watching the Pumpkin Creek battle for years, but lost track of it.”
The challenge for McMillen was to tie together the surface water and ground water portions of the story.
And it was a lawsuit over the little western Nebraska stream that became a big State Supreme Court case.
In 2009 The Spear T Ranch settled with more than a dozen upstream ranchers and farmers in a dispute between irrigators feuding over water in Pumpkin Creek.
“I was thinking about Pumpkin Creek, but I didn’t have any visuals,” she said. “I’d filmed a meeting of farmers years ago, but the camera went south on me and there was no way I could recover the footage.”
Then synchronicity struck. McMillen’s bookkeeper was from the Spear T Ranch, and the family over time had saved all of the newspaper clippings about the fight.
“That helped me tie it all together,” McMillen said. “You just have to be able to listen and when you hear something say ‘What was that?’”
And the hunger for investigative work is what fuels most of her projects.
“I have to tell myself to stop, take notes and check things out,” she said. “I hear stories all the time and I’d love to go chase them, but I have to be responsible and pay my bills.”
McMillen said a lot of the project has been self-funded because she couldn’t kick the habit once a lead seemed promising.
Newspapers also provided McMillen a window into the issues. As the “first draft of history,” clippings are featured at prominent portions of the film.
“The Star-Herald is in a lot of these stories that I brought back from the past,” she said. “There was so much information that really help me understand what was going on at the time.”
Another portion of the film is spent exploring contamination concerns, especially the 2015 fight against a Colorado company who sought permission to use an abandoned oil well in Sioux County as a wastewater disposal site. Sioux County landowners eventually won their appeal and state lawmakers reformed the process in which permits are granted.
“I documented almost everything, and there is a lot of that in there, along with newspaper clippings” she said. “The physical thing is really important, because I couldn’t have told any of this story without the work of reporters from back in the 1800s on to the present day.”
And those are the little things, McMillen said.
“I saw articles where they hung effigies of law makers because they were going to shut the water off,” she said. “There’s always a fight about water. One guy will say ‘I was here first,’ and another guy will say, ‘hey I need that.’ And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to have all of it.”
And over the course of making the film McMillen said that she’s learned that there needs to be change to protect and preserve not only the Valley’s greatest gift, but the way of life for Farmers and Ranchers who live here.
“We’re going to have to look beyond what we’re calling ‘traditional practices,’” she said. “We can continue on the same track that we have been. We can’t keep expanding and still be able to sustain that.”
It was her discussions with farmers that drove home the point for her.
“I think we need to look at it as growing food,” she said. “I would like us to grow more food that doesn’t have to be shipped, because we’re going to have to address climate change and reverse it.”
And at the same time, caution needs to be exercised when employing solutions, she said.
“What we think are the solutions are not always the best way of doing things,” she said. “We can’t just blindly forge ahead just because we think it’s a good idea. At the time we’re looking at sustainable energy, we’re also wanting to put it in places that will never be the same.
“We need to work within the infrastructure we already have and not go to condemning land so that we can use it for transmission lines or wind farms. There is plenty of space for that without tearing up areas that can’t be returned to their natural state.”
The Ogallala Aquifer underlies parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. From wheat and cows to corn and cotton, the regional economy depends almost exclusively on agriculture irrigated by Ogallala groundwater. But according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), producers are extracting water faster than it is being replenished, which means that parts of the Ogallala Aquifer should be considered a nonrenewable resource.
This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward.
In the early twentieth century, farmers converted large stretches of the Great Plains from grassland to cropland. Drought and stress on the soils led to the 1930s Dust Bowl. Better soil conservation and irrigation techniques tamed the dust and boosted the regional economy. In 2007, the market value from the Ogallala region’s agricultural products totaled roughly $35 billion. However, well outputs in the central and southern parts of the aquifer are declining due to excessive pumping, and prolonged droughts have parched the area, bringing back Dust Bowl-style storms, according to the NCA4. Global warming is likely to make droughts across the Ogallala region longer lasting and more intense over the next 50 years.
The Agriculture chapter of NCA4 describes the risks and opportunities for resilience across the Ogallala region:
“Recent advances in precision irrigation technologies, improved understanding of the impacts of different dryland and irrigation management strategies on crop productivity, and the adoption of weather-based irrigation scheduling tools as well as drought-tolerant crop varieties have increased the ability to cope with projected heat stress and drought conditions under climate change. However, current extraction for irrigation far exceeds recharge in this aquifer, and climate change places additional pressure on this critical water resource.”
In 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers released the Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study, which detailed for the first time (in any official capacity) the cost and opportunity related to the construction of a 360-mile concrete aqueduct beginning at the Missouri River in the Northeastern part of Kansas and ending in Utica – traveling nearly three-quarters of the way across the state. This aqueduct would deliver approximately 3.4 million acre-ft (AF) of water annually (1 acre-ft = 325,851 gallons) to parched farmers and communities. In turn, the canal would require 15 pumping stations in order to rise nearly 1,750 ft in altitude to reach its ultimate, Utica reservoir.
The cost? $18 billion up-front with an estimated $1 billion in annual ongoing expenses ($400 million in operational costs and $600 million in interest).
The costs are exorbitant – resulting in a $470/AF price of new water for farmers who, according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Agriculture, currently pay approximately $47/AF for off-farm purchased water. Can an agricultural industry with shrinking margins due to increased competition and international trade tariffs handle a 10x increase in water prices?
And yet, there remains something romantic about the Great Kansas Aqueduct. Arizona has its 336-mile Central Arizona Project; California has its 701-mile State Water Project; why shouldn’t Kansas have its Great Kansas Aqueduct? After all, as the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition has stated, “With sedimentation reducing water storage in the East, and the Ogallala being rapidly depleted in the West, Kansas stands to lose more than 37 percent of its water in 50 counties across the state by 2062, or an annual shortfall of 1.86 million acre-feet.”
Thirty-six years after this project was first conceived in full, though, shovels and backhoes remain in their sheds as the Ogallala aquifer drops nearly two feet per year in some counties due to groundwater over pumping. If groundwater withdrawals continue at current rates, most of southwest Kansas will exhaust its water reserves within 25 to 50 years. One tends to think that in times of yesteryear, individuals would have begun construction on this project in February of 1982, begging for forgiveness later. But the time of unbridled infrastructure construction has passed and Kansas continues to stress its water resources.
As one sits and considers the need for the Great Kansas Aqueduct, three questions come to mind: 1) does the Great Kansas Aqueduct solve a problem? Yes – it would increase water supplies for Western Kansas. 2) would it solve the problem for generations? Yes – it would likely be operational for decades. And 3) would it be cost-effective? Unfortunately, not. While the volume of water delivered to Western Kansas may increase, very few people would actually be able to afford it. In fact, the $18 billion estimated to build the Great Kansas Aqueduct does not even include the legal, economic, and ethical costs inherent to initiating eminent domain and forcibly removing people in the way of the canal off of their land.
Three other Native water settlements currently await congressional approval. They arise from federal legal decisions recognizing that many tribes in the West hold water rights that largely pre-date — and therefore override — the water rights of non-Native settlers.
Many tribal nations are currently asserting those rights as a way to ensure economic vitality, affirm sovereignty and provide basic services that some communities lack. In many places, however, Native water rights have yet to be quantified, making them difficult to enforce. Settlement is usually the preferred remedy; it’s cheaper, faster and less adversarial than a lawsuit, and can include funding for things like pipelines or treatment plants. With settlements, “the tribes are able to craft solutions that work for them and that can be more flexible than anything that could be achieved through litigation,” says Kate Hoover, a principal attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice water rights unit.
Once negotiations are complete, Congress has to confirm the settlements. Here are the three introduced in the Senate this session:
THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement allocates 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year from the Central Arizona Project to the 2,300-member Hualapai Nation. It also authorizes federal spending for a water pipeline to Peach Springs, the reservation’s main residential community, and Grand Canyon West, an economically important tourist destination featuring a horseshoe-shaped “skywalk” jutting out over the canyon.
Subsequent legal decisions confirmed that so-called “reserved water” could also be used for livestock, drinking water and even commercial purposes. That’s crucial for this settlement, because the Hualapai Nation plans to use a portion of their water to expand Grand Canyon West — and their economy. “We have done everything possible to provide jobs and income to our people in order to lift them out of poverty — but the lack of a secure and replenishable water supply on our Reservation is our major obstacle to achieving economic self-sufficiency,” wrote Damon Clarke, chairman of the Hualapai Nation, in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement affirms the Navajo Nation’s right to 81,500 acre-feet of water each year — enough to serve about 160,000 households — from the Utah portion of the San Juan River, a Colorado River tributary. In addition, it would establish funds for treating and transporting drinking water.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: In many Native water rights settlements, tribes agree to give up a portion of the water to which they’re entitled — often allowing other groups to continue using that water, which might otherwise have been cut off — in return for expensive water projects, typically built by a federal agency.
The Navajo Utah settlement is different: It would transfer money directly to the tribe for water infrastructure. During a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in December, Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, explained why the tribe, rather than the U.S. government, should lead the work: “It’s important as a sovereign nation that we are able to do that — employ our people, use our laws — in order to build and construct any kind of construction that may take place.”
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Kansas, like much of the West, is prone to drought. This settlement would help the Kickapoo deal with dry periods by allowing the tribe to store more than 18,000 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that has yet to be built, but that has been contemplated for at least 40 years. A dispute over how to acquire the private land that the reservoir would flood led to a 2006 lawsuit, and, eventually, to settlement negotiations, which concluded in 2016.
Experts say it’s not unusual for settlements to take years or even decades to complete, and that securing congressional approval requires balance. “Ultimately, these settlements are political instruments,” says Steven Moore, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and an advisor to the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. “You really have to work these settlements out so that it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News.
This article was published in the June 22, 2018 print edition of High Country News.
From the Kansas News Service. (Ben Kuebrich) via the Hillsboro Free Press:
Great Canal of Kansas
Clayton Scott also uses the latest water technology on his farm in Big Bow. Yet he said that just using water carefully won’t be enough.
He thinks any pumping limits severe enough to preserve the aquifer would dramatically cut back the region’s harvest. That would push up local grain prices, and without cheap grain, livestock feed yards would close, and meatpacking plants would follow.
At its core, the western Kansas economy is built on irrigation.
A 2015 study calculated that losses in irrigation could cost some 240,000 Kansans their jobs and wipe out $18.3 billion of yearly economic activity, or about 10 percent of the state economy.
Scott and others in the region have their eyes on a more drastic solution to the water problem. Kansas could invest in a 360-mile series of canals and pumping stations to bring in water from the Missouri River.
He knows it sounds extreme, but Arizona has already built a similarly sized aqueduct. The Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River and there’s been extensive research into building a similar canal across Kansas.
“Arizona looked at their situation and decided, ‘We have no other choice,’ ” Scott said. “They estimate almost a trillion dollars of benefit to the economy of Arizona.”
Arizona’s aqueduct has always been controversial. The federally funded canal remains at the center of multi-state disputes of water usage.
Experts say that a generation later, the legal and regulatory hurdles of building a long-distance canal through Kansas only look more daunting.
Water from the Colorado River is channeled through Arizona, much the way some people think it should be diverted from the Missouri River across Kansas.
Still, Kansas and surrounding states have been considering aqueducts for a long time. A 1982 study came up with a plan to bring water from the Missouri River to a reservoir near Utica, Kansas, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, though, losing the Ogallala seemed like a distant prospect.
In 2011, while western Kansas was in a drought and farmers struggled to pump enough water to keep their crops alive, the Missouri River was flooding. Scott says that sparked renewed interest in a canal.
“It’s a long-term solution,” Scott said. “We can harvest the high flows of water off of the eastern rivers and bring them out here into the western High Plains, offset the droughts … and bring things into more of a balance.”
In 2015, the Kansas Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-assessed that 1982 study. The agencies estimated that, depending on the capacity of the canal, it would now cost between $5 billion and $20 billion to build.
Because the water would have to be pumped uphill as it goes west, it could take more than $500 million a year in energy costs alone, for the largest-capacity canal. With interest costs from construction, the yearly tab could exceed $1.5 billion.
At the time, the head of the water office said, “this thing we studied is unlikely to happen.” The costs would simply run too steep.
A canal project would have other barriers. Although the Missouri river sometimes floods, it also experiences lows, and levels would have to be maintained to permit barge traffic. There would also be challenges displacing people in the path of the aqueduct. While a highway can be redirected to avoid a town, a canal’s path is more constrained by topography.
At the same time, environmental issues could come both from taking water from the Missouri and in the path of any aqueduct. Upstream and downstream states on the waterway already tangle over how to manage the water. An effort to siphon away water would further complicate the situation.
Scott knows the project would be massive, and massively controversial, but that’s why he’s talking about it now—before the Ogallala runs dry.
An uncertain future
At a conference in April, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said public support for an aqueduct is unlikely unless farmers show first that there’s no other way to water their crops.
“Until we can show people that we are utilizing every drop of water in the best way possible, no one outside of this region is going to invest in a water transfer project,” McClaskey said.
Clayton Scott says he isn’t looking for the rest of Kansas to bail out the farmers out west.
Scott imagines the canal would be a federal project, similar to Arizona’s aqueduct. Water users would repay the costs of construction and maintenance through a water use fee.
He also contends that an aqueduct could help a broader region.
Scott says an aqueduct could extend out to Colorado’s Front Range to supply booming cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs that draw water off of the dwindling Colorado River. If they drank from Kansas’ aqueduct instead, that would leave more water to trickle down the Colorado, which extends out into water-starved southern California.
A canal, advocates contend, could supply water at a fraction of the price that southern California farmers pay now and help alleviate shortages in that region.
Scott’s interest in water transfer is common in southwest Kansas but far from universal. For example, Roth isn’t convinced.
“It’s impractical and it’s one heck of a distraction,” Roth said. “Right now we need to concentrate on local conservation with what we do have, what we can do right now.”
Ray Luhman, Northwest Water district manager, thinks the state should consider all options, including channeling water across the state.
“The conversation needs to be had,” Luhman said. “But to, let’s say, mortgage your future on a project maybe 20 to 30 years from completion? We also need to look to something in the interim.”
Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics.
When early explorers Zebulon Pike and Francisco de Coronado came upon the High Plains, they described it as a desert — an impossible region to farm.
Irrigation changed that. It allowed residents to pull water from the Ogallala Aquifer, and grow crops nearly anywhere. The first irrigation wells in Kansas were drilled east of Garden City in 1908.
The Ogallala is a massive, underground sponge, spanning from South Dakota and Wyoming, down through the High Plains to west Texas and New Mexico. Over 27,000 of the total 35,000 wells with active water rights in Kansas overlie the Ogallala, with 87 percent used for irrigation.
But decades of pumping water out, with little return, has taken its toll.
After 110 years of drilling and draining, the world’s largest aquifer is drying up.
The Ogallala is the primary source of water for western Kansas farms, ranches and some communities, but projections indicate several areas that will go dry within 25 to 50 years at current usage rates. Some regions in Haskell County may have a decade or less…
The Ogallala Aquifer Summit was organized by Colorado State University’s Ogallala Water CAP Program — a coordinated agriculture project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The summit brought together scientists, government agents and producers from the eight states situated over the Ogallala to discuss shared challenges and current initiatives to preserve the aquifer.
Conversations between states had a rocky start, partly because they were spurred out of litigation regarding the Republican River basin along the Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas borders. The conflict led to monthly meetings of the Republican River Compact Administration — comprised of one member from each state — to change the approach and improve water management.
“No offense to those that are here, but I’m just excited to come to an interstate water conference that doesn’t have more lawyers than it does farmers and ranchers,” Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said to applause from the summit crowd.
Nebraska Natural Resources Program Director Jesse Bradley and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown joined McClaskey for the first panel of the summit, discussing the cultivation of interstate conversations.
Brown joked that the whole problem was Nebraska’s fault — Nebraska native Frank Zybach invented center pivot irrigation while living in Colorado — and Bradley fired back that ‘you always blame the upstream state.’
She credits interstate conversations regarding the Republican River as a critical factor for changing the tone of the discussion. Instead of fighting over the water, the group is now working together to preserve water.
“The biggest way we learned this lesson is from the complete 180 we’ve done on the Republican River discussions,” McClaskey said. “In July 2014, we started meeting month-to-month and created a true, long-term agreement, and are using those lessons to expand to all the states.
“Now, I would call my colleagues from Nebraska and Colorado friends, which may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a lot easier to solve a problem with a friend than with an enemy.”
Groundwater levels during 2017, on average, rose slightly or nearly broke even in western Kansas but fell in the Wichita area, according to preliminary data compiled by the Kansas Geological Survey. This was a reversal from 2016 when overall groundwater levels dropped in western Kansas and increased significantly near Wichita.
The KGS — based at the University of Kansas — and the Division of Water Resources (DWR) of the Kansas Department of Agriculture annually measure levels in about 1,400 water wells in western and central Kansas. The collected data are used to monitor the condition and long-term trends of the High Plains aquifer, the state’s most valuable groundwater resource, as well as smaller deep and shallow aquifers.
The High Plains aquifer is a network of water-bearing rocks that underlies parts of eight states and, in Kansas, comprises three individual aquifers—the far-reaching Ogallala aquifer that makes up the majority of the High Plains aquifer, the Equus Beds around Wichita and Hutchinson, and the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in the center of the state. Ninety percent of the measured wells draw from these three aquifers.
Water level changes or stability in the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas correspond primarily with the amount of water withdrawn for irrigation, which in turn is influenced by the rate and timing of precipitation.
“Much of the western border of Kansas and eastern Colorado saw above normal precipitation patterns in 2017, especially through most of the growing season,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “As a consequence, water levels were at or above the 2016 levels in much of the region.”
Water level increases in western Kansas mainly occur when the levels in wells rebound as pumping slows. Recharge — water seeping down from the surface — is negligible in western Kansas. In central Kansas, where the aquifer is shallower and average precipitation is higher, recharge can make a difference.
“For areas that have higher local recharge capabilities, such as along and north of the Arkansas River in the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifer, precipitation generally influences both pumping and recharge,” Wilson said. “There you can get large swings in declines and rises from year to year.”
The 2017 growing season around the Equus Beds was fairly dry, which led to low recharge and higher withdrawal for irrigation, industry and municipal water supplies. Consequently, the Equus Beds declined nearly 2 feet. The Great Bend Prairie aquifer, which encompasses Great Bend, Kinsley, Greensburg and Pratt, fared better with an increase of about a quarter of a foot.
Most of the wells in the network monitored by the KGS and DWR are within the boundaries of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs), which are organized and governed by area landowners and local water users to address water-resource issues.
In Southwest Kansas GMD 3, average levels dropped just 0.05 feet, the lowest decline there since since the state began administrating the water-level program in 1996. In comparison, the average level fell a total of 23 feet over the previous 10 years.
“Water levels were notably higher in Morton County and along and north of the Arkansas River,” Wilson said. “Still, there were localized areas in the GMD that experienced declines of 1 to 3 feet.”
Even with better overall measurement results in the region for the year, the aquifer is nearly depleted in places.
Wells monitored in GMD 3 are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer except in a few areas where they draw from the deeper Dakota aquifer. The district includes all or part of Grant, Haskell, Gray, Finney, Stanton, Ford, Morton, Stevens, Seward, Hamilton, Kearny and Meade counties.
Another rare water-related event in the region occurred in the summer of 2017 when the Arkansas River flowed in Garden City. The river there has been mainly dry for decades due to high water use and less river flow from Colorado. When there is surface water in the river, it interacts with groundwater in an adjacent shallow alluvial aquifer.
Western Kansas GMD 1 experienced a slight drop of 0.19 feet in 2017 following a 0.55 feet in 2016. Although decreases there have been less drastic than farther south, annual levels have risen only twice since 1996. The GMD includes portions of Wallace, Greeley, Wichita, Scott and Lane counties, where the majority of wells are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer.
Northwest Kansas GMD 4 had an average increase in water levels of 0.33 feet after falling slightly in all but two year since 1996. GMD 4 covers Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan and parts of Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Graham, Wallace, Logan and Gove counties. Groundwater there is pumped almost exclusively from the Ogallala aquifer and shallow alluvial sources associated with streams.
Big Bend GMD 5 had an average increase of 0.26 feet following an increase of 0.88 feet in 2016. Since 1996, annual levels there rose nine times and fell 13 times. The GMD is centered on the Great Bend Prairie aquifer underlying Stafford and Pratt counties and parts of Barton, Pawnee, Edwards, Kiowa, Reno and Rice counties.
Equus Beds GMD 2, a major source of water for Wichita, Hutchinson and surrounding towns experienced a decline of 1.93 feet, which followed an increase of 2.08 feet in 2016. Since 1996, annual levels there rose nine times and dropped 13 times. The GMD covers portions of Reno, Sedgwick, Harvey and McPherson counties.
“Even with the big declines in GMD 2, this is one of the best years we’ve seen in quite a long time,” Wilson said.
The KGS measures approximately 570 wells in western Kansas each January, and DWR staff from field offices in Stockton, Garden City and Stafford measure about 220, 224 and 360 wells in western and central Kansas, respectively. Most of the wells, spread over 48 counties, are used for irrigation and have been measured for decades.
Measurements are taken primarily in January when water levels are least likely to fluctuate due to irrigation. Infrequently, however, later-than-normal pumping during dry conditions may affect measurement results.
The results are provisional and subject to revision based on additional analysis. Data by well will be available in late February at http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Magellan/WaterLevels/index.html.
The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. The university’s mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. The KU News Service is the central public relations office for the Lawrence campus.
I had the time today to tour Water Line: A Creative Exchange at the Metropolitan State University of Denver Center for Visual Art. Make some time to go see the artwork if you haven’t already. The exhibit closes next Saturday.
Morgan Conservation District’s 62nd annual meeting will be held on February 9th.
It will be held at the Fort Morgan Home Plate Restaurant, 19873 U.S. Hwy. 34. Breakfast will be at 8 a.m. and the meeting will start at 9 a.m. The cost of the meeting will be $25 in advance, and that will cover the annual meeting, annual membership in Morgan Conservation District, and free breakfast that morning.
If you do not RSVP in advance, and show up on the day of the meeting, please be advised that the cost will be the same, however breakfast will not be free, due to our needing to order the food in advance. Our keynote speakers, Bill Hammerich and Andrew Neuhart.
Bill Hammerich has served as the CEO of Colorado Livestock Association (CLA) for the past fourteen years. He grew up on a cattle and farming operation in Western Colorado and he attended CSU where he graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics. Following graduation, he began working with Monfort of Colorado, then Farr Feeders and was with the Sparks Companies before joining CLA in 2002.
His time spent in the cattle feeding industry provided him not only with an understanding of how to feed cattle, but also the importance of protecting and sustaining the environment in which one operates.
Bill and his wife Sabrina live in Severance, Colorado and have two grown children, Justin and Jessica, and four grandsons.
Andrew Neuhart completed both a B.S. in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. in Watershed Science at CSU. After spending two years assisting in precision farming studies in the San Luis Valley for the USDA Soil, Plant and Nutrient Research team, Andrew went to work for the State of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division. For 9 years with the WQCD, Andrew led a Permitting Unit for discharge permits under the Clean Water Act, for both industrial and domestic wastewater treatment facilities. Working for Brown and Caldwell over the last 4 years, Andrew assists clients with regulatory issues under the Clean Water Act, and has been working with the Ag Task Force, part of the Colorado Monitoring Framework, to get the word out regarding nutrient regulations and their impacts to agricultural operations.
Mr. Hammerich and Mr. Neuhart will be speaking about Regulation 85.
Regulation 85 establishes requirements for organizations holding a NPDES permit and with the potential to discharge either nitrogen or phosphorus to begin planning for nutrient treatment based on treatment technology and monitoring both effluents and streams for nitrogen and phosphorus.
The data from these efforts is designed to better characterize nutrient sources, characterize nutrient conditions and effects around the state and to help inform future regulatory decisions regarding nutrients. Please come to the meeting and learn more from our very knowledgeable keynote speakers!
Please RSVP as soon as possible to Angela at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-427-3362. Space is limited.
Here’s the abstract from the USGS (Steven M. Peterson, Amanda T. Flynn, and Jonathan P. Traylor):
The High Plains aquifer is a nationally important water resource underlying about 175,000 square miles in parts of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Droughts across much of the Northern High Plains from 2001 to 2007 have combined with recent (2004) legislative mandates to elevate concerns regarding future availability of groundwater and the need for additional information to support science-based water-resource management. To address these needs, the U.S. Geological Survey began the High Plains Groundwater Availability Study to provide a tool for water-resource managers and other stakeholders to assess the status and availability of groundwater resources.
A transient groundwater-flow model was constructed using the U.S. Geological Survey modular three-dimensional finite-difference groundwater-flow model with Newton-Rhapson solver (MODFLOW–NWT). The model uses an orthogonal grid of 565 rows and 795 columns, and each grid cell measures 3,281 feet per side, with one variably thick vertical layer, simulated as unconfined. Groundwater flow was simulated for two distinct periods: (1) the period before substantial groundwater withdrawals, or before about 1940, and (2) the period of increasing groundwater withdrawals from May 1940 through April 2009. A soil-water-balance model was used to estimate recharge from precipitation and groundwater withdrawals for irrigation. The soil-water-balance model uses spatially distributed soil and landscape properties with daily weather data and estimated historical land-cover maps to calculate spatial and temporal variations in potential recharge. Mean annual recharge estimated for 1940–49, early in the history of groundwater development, and 2000–2009, late in the history of groundwater development, was 3.3 and 3.5 inches per year, respectively.
Primary model calibration was completed using statistical techniques through parameter estimation using the parameter estimation suite of software with Tikhonov regularization. Calibration targets for the groundwater model included 343,067 groundwater levels measured in wells and 10,820 estimated monthly stream base flows at streamgages. A total of 1,312 parameters were adjusted during calibration to improve the match between calibration targets and simulated equivalents. Comparison of calibration targets to simulated equivalents indicated that, at the regional scale, the model correctly reproduced groundwater levels and stream base flows for 1940–2009. This comparison indicates that the model can be used to examine the likely response of the aquifer system to potential future stresses.
Mean calibrated recharge for 1940–49 and 2000–2009 was smaller than that estimated with the soil-water-balance model. This indicated that although the general spatial patterns of recharge estimated with the soil-water-balance model were approximately correct at the regional scale of the Northern High Plains aquifer, the soil-water-balance model had overestimated recharge, and adjustments were needed to decrease recharge to improve the match of the groundwater model to calibration targets. The largest components of the simulated groundwater budgets were recharge from precipitation, recharge from canal seepage, outflows to evapotranspiration, and outflows to stream base flow. Simulated outflows to irrigation wells increased from 7 percent of total outflows in 1940–49 to 38 percent of 1970–79 total outflows and 49 percent of 2000–2009 total outflows.
“All the (protected) species and all the habitat are in Nebraska,” he said.
The Central Platte Valley is the target area for least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes, while pallid sturgeon are in the Lower Platte River.
All the water options for a proposed program extension, which will focus on reducing river depletions by another 40,000 [acre-feet] or more, are in Nebraska to be as close as possible to the target habitat.
Fassett said that with a major reservoir project now off the table, new projects will include groundwater recharge, facilities to hold water for retimed releases and water leasing.
He noted Tuesday at the annual convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations that initial water projects were completed by all three states toward meeting the program’s first-increment goal to reduce river depletions by 130,000-150,000 [acre-feet].
However, more recent projects and those being considered for the future are only in Nebraska. “There is hydrologic logic about that,” Fassett said, because projects hundreds of miles from the target habitat are not as effective.
Nebraska’s benefits include regulatory stability the program provides for the Platte Basin. Projects in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming that must comply with the federal Endangered Species Act can do so through the program instead of individually, he said.
Another issue for Nebraska is its own demands to enhance water in the river. Fassett said state laws for the overappropriated area of the Platte Basin west of Elm Creek require “moving the train backward” to mitigate new water uses since 2007.
HB15-1167 is up for hearing tomorrow in the House Agriculture, Livestock, & Natural Resources committee. The bill is the brainchild of J. Paul Brown representing District 59 down in southwestern Colorado. It would direct the CWCB to study the feasibility of new mainstem storage on the South Platte River downstream from Greeley. It also directs the CWCB to utilize existing studies of the possibility of pumping water from the Missouri River Basin back to Colorado. I suppose he’s talking about the USACE’s alternative to Aaron Million’s pipeline from the Green River or the Kansas Aqueduct project.
The bill calls out the Narrows Dam Project (650,000 AF) that was authorized by the US Congress but never built for a number of reasons, most of which would be faced by any new mainstem project.
Senator Sonnenberg shows up as the Senate sponsor.
Here’s what Representative Brown had to say on the subject in the Pagosa Daily Post:
My time in the legislature is challenging and exciting. I am working hard on my bills as well as keeping up on my committee bills and the bills that come to the floor. I actually have a little advantage over other legislators in that my apartment is half a block from the Capitol, so all of my time, when I am not sleeping, showering, or attending receptions, is spent reading and preparing for action on bills.
My number one issue is water storage and primarily storage in the South Platte drainage in Colorado. Why on the South Platte? Because that is the one drainage on the eastern side of Colorado that regularly has water that leaves the state that can legally be stored and used in Colorado. When I was in the legislature in 2011 and 2012 I started paying attention to the water in the South Platte Basin that was leaving the state. There were two years in particular where over 1,000,000 acre feet per year were wasted, another where 600,000 acre feet left the state, and even today there is excess water running out of the state that could be used to augment other water needs in Colorado. If we could store that water, it would help to satisfy the demand on the Front Range and relieve the need to send water from the Western Slope to the more populated Eastern side of the Continental Divide.
For the past many years I have been learning all I can about water, water law, water compacts with other states, and everything else related to water that I could possibly learn. I started at a young age when my parents were paid to measure the water at the Colorado/New Mexico state line on the La Plata River South of Hesperus, Colorado. On most early mornings before I caught the bus for school I would measure the amount of water in the river. That information was then relayed to the water authorities in both states where ditches were closed or opened depending on their priority. I have monitored Governor Hickenlooper‚s „water plan‰ and have attended as many Water Roundtable meetings as I could possibly make. I have attended the Colorado Water Congress meetings amongst the most knowledgeable water lawyers and providers in Colorado.
I still have much to learn.
Everywhere I go I have asked folks about storage on the South Platte. The more I have learned, the more it became evident that all of the information needed to make good decisions on where and how to store water was scattered in many different places. I decided that it was necessary to pull all of that information together and that the easiest way to do so is to run a bill. That bill is HB15- 1167. It will be heard in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee upon adjournment on the 18th of February.
Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey (Parker Norton/Marisa Lubeck):
Video footage of an interview with lead USGS scientist Parker Norton is available online.
Streamflow in the eastern portions of the Missouri River watershed has increased over the past 52 years, whereas other parts have seen downward trends.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists recently studied data from 227 streamgages in the Missouri River watershed that had continuous records for 1960 through 2011. The scientists found that almost half of the streamgages showed either an upward or downward trend in mean annual flow since 1960, while the rest showed no trend.
The study is relevant on a large scale because the Missouri River is the longest river in the United States, with a watershed that includes mountainous to prairie topography in all or parts of 10 states and small parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.
“The Missouri River and its tributaries are valuable for agriculture, energy, recreation and municipal water supplies,” said USGS hydrologist Parker Norton. “Understanding streamflow throughout the watershed can help guide management of these critical water resources.”
According to the study, streamflow has increased in the eastern part of the watershed, including eastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. Annual flows have decreased in the western headwaters area of the Missouri River in Montana and Wyoming, and in the southern part of the basin associated with the Kansas River watershed.
Climate changes that affect how and where moisture is delivered to the continent may be causing some of these trends in the Missouri River Basin. Although the USGS scientists did not conduct a complete analysis of the causes, they noted that increased streamflow over broad regions occurred despite the increasing use of water. Decreased streamflow in some areas could also be related to climate change factors, or to groundwater pumping.
The scope of this mounting crisis is difficult to overstate: The High Plains of Texas are swiftly running out of groundwater supplied by one of the world’s largest aquifers – the Ogallala. A study by Texas Tech University has predicted that if groundwater production goes unabated, vast portions of several counties in the southern High Plains will soon have little water left in the aquifer to be of any practical value.
The Ogallala Aquifer spreads across eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, covering 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles. It’s the fountain of life not only for much of the Texas Panhandle, but also for the entire American Breadbasket of the Great Plains, a highly-sophisticated, amazingly-productive agricultural region that literally helps feed the world.
This catastrophic depletion is primarily manmade. By the early eighties, automated center-pivot irrigation devices were in wide use – those familiar spidery-armed wings processing in a circle atop wheeled tripods. This super-sized sprinkler system allowed farmers to water crops more regularly and effectively, which both significantly increased crop yields and precipitously drained the Ogallala.
Compounding the drawdown has been the nature of the Ogallala itself. Created 10 million years ago, this buried fossil water is–in many places—not recharged by precipitation or surface water. When it’s gone, it’s gone for centuries…
“The depletion of the Ogallala is an internationally important crisis,” says Burke Griggs, Ph.D., consulting professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “How individual states manage the depletion of that aquifer will obviously have international consequences.”[…]
“We’re headed for a brick wall at 100 miles per hour,” says James Mahan, Bruce Spinhirne’s father-in-law and a plant physiologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service lab in Lubbock. “And, really, the effects of climate change are branches hitting the windshield along the way.”
Last August, in a still-echoing blockbuster study, Dave Steward, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Kansas State University, informed the $15 billion Kansas agricultural economy that it was on a fast track to oblivion. The reason: The precipitous, calamitous withdrawal rates of the Ogallala Aquifer.
The Ogallala is little known outside this part of the world, but it’s the primary source of irrigation not just for all of western Kansas, but the entire Great Plains. This gigantic, soaked subterranean sponge – fossil water created 10 million years ago – touches eight states, stretching from Texas all the way up to South Dakota, across 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles.
The Ogallala supports a highly-sophisticated and amazingly-productive agricultural region critical to the world’s food supply. With the global population increasing, and as other vital aquifers suffer equally dramatic declines, scientists acknowledge that if the farmers here cannot meet ever-growing food demands, billions could starve.
Steward’s study predicted that nearly 70 percent of the portion of the Ogallala beneath western Kansas will be gone in 50 years. He’s not the kind of person to shout these results; he speaks slowly and carefully. Yet, he has the evident intensity of one who’s serving a greater purpose. “We need to make sure our grandkids and our great grandkids have the capacity to feed themselves,” he says.
Now the chief executive of the state, himself from a farming family, is using Steward’s report as a call to action.
“One of the things we [have] to get over … is this tragedy of the commons problem with the Ogallala,” says Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican who at age 29 was the youngest agriculture secretary in state history. “It’s a big common body of water. It’s why the oceans get overfished … You have a common good and then nobody is responsible for it.”
“That’s one of the key policy issues that you have to get around,” Brownback says in his roomy, towering office at the capitol in Topeka. “Everyone has to take care of this water.”
In that spirit, a tiny legion of farmers and landowners in the northwest corner of Kansas, where the Rockies begin their rise, have just begun year two of what could be one of the most influential social experiments of this century.
The group is only 125 in number but controls 63,000 acres of prime farmland in Sheridan County. Collectively, voluntarily, they have enacted a new, stringent five-year water conservation target, backed by the force of law and significant punishments.
The Local Enhanced Management Act, or LEMA, is the first measure of its kind in the United States. Specifically, the farmers are limiting themselves to a total of 55 inches of irrigated water over five years – an average of 11 inches per year…
“So now we have the high morality of the need to protect the ecosphere. But it’s legal to rip the tops off mountains. It’s legal to drill in the Arctic. It’s legal to drill in the Gulf. It’s legal to build pipelines. It’s legal to send carbon into the dumping ground called an atmosphere. So we’ve not yet reconciled the high moral with the legal.” [Wes Jackson]
Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey:
A recent study conducted by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Biogeosciences found that a combination of climate and human activities (diversion and reservoirs) controls the movement of carbon in two large western river basins, the Colorado and the Missouri Rivers.
Rivers move large amounts of carbon downstream to the oceans. Developing a better understanding of the factors that control the transport of carbon in rivers is an important component of global carbon cycling research.
The study is a product of the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis and the USGS Land Carbon program.
Different downstream patterns were found between the two river systems. The amount of carbon steadily increased down the Missouri River from headwaters to its confluence with the Mississippi River, but decreased in the lower Colorado River. The differences were attributed to less precipitation, greater evaporation, and the diversion of water for human activities on the Colorado River.
For upstream/headwater sites on both rivers, carbon fluxes varied along with seasonal precipitation and temperature changes. There was also greater variability in the amount of carbon at upstream sites, likely because of seasonal inputs of organic material to the rivers. Reservoirs disrupted the connection between the watershed and the river, causing carbon amounts downstream of dams to be less variable in time and less responsive to seasonal temperature and precipitation changes.
The study presents estimates of changes in the amount of carbon moving down the Colorado and Missouri Rivers and provides new insights into aquatic carbon cycling in arid and semi-arid regions of the central and western U.S, where freshwater carbon cycling studies have been less common. This work is part of an ongoing effort to directly address the importance of freshwater ecosystems in the context of the broader carbon cycle. In the future, changing hydrology and warming temperatures will increase the importance of reservoirs in carbon cycling, and may lead to an increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions that contribute to global warming, but may also increase the amount of carbon buried in sediments.