Say hello to River Watch of #Colorado

Screen shot from the River Watch of Colorado website (https://coloradoriverwatch.org) January 17, 2019.

From the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (Tanya Ishikawa) via The Telluride Daily Planet:

Local volunteers sample waterways throughout the year

Once a month you can find Ethan Funk kneeling down at the edge of Red Mountain Creek with a few bottles at his side. The bottles start out empty, but within a few moments they are filled with water tinted red from the high level of iron in it. After taking temperature readings of the water and air, he gathers up his supplies and heads back to his 2003 Toyota Tacoma truck, where he places the samples in the flatbed, records the time and temperatures, sets the paperwork aside, turns on the engine, and heads back down the mountain towards Ouray.

But Funk is not heading home yet. Before returning, he will visit five more streamside sites to gather more water samples. Then, he will head back to his lab in the back of his office, where he will analyze some samples for pH/alkalinity and hardness levels. Others he will package up to send to a laboratory in Denver, where they will be tested for heavy metals.

He is a citizen scientist for the River Watch program. Though he modestly claims not to be a water expert, the electrical engineer by day and radio DJ by evening has been volunteering to sample water in local creeks and rivers for nearly 13 years. The hydrological data Funk has gathered over the years adds up to thousands of points of data that help characterize water quality in Ouray County.

“I’m not doing this for people today. I’m doing this for people 100 years from now,” Funk said. “If we had information like this from 100 years ago, we would know how much of an impact that all the mining in our area has had on the watershed. But, we don’t, so we have to make estimates. With the data from the samples I take, now people 100 years in the future will understand what has happened to their water quality.”

Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

“Real people doing real science for a real purpose” is the tagline for the statewide River Watch program, which has multiple purposes. Its mission is “to work with voluntary stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and utilize this high quality data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado’s waters. This data is also used in the Clean Water Act decision-making process,” according to the group’s website (http://coloradoriverwatch.org).

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Barb Horn started River Watch in 1989, modeled after monthly water sampling programs on Clear Creek and the Eagle River. Both streams were impacted by heavy metals flowing from shut down mines and tailings, which became EPA Superfund sites. Regulators, as well as stakeholders, needed a way to monitor the success of the cleanups.

“The Idarado Mine had just been declared a CERCLA (superfund) site, and I found ways to start River Watch,” recalled Horn, who is part of a five-person team that oversees the program throughout the state.

Starting with five school groups collecting samples at five sites on the Yampa River in 1989, the program grew to include more than 1,200 sampling sites called stations on 700 rivers across the state. Though all of those stations provided samples at some point, not all are actively being sampled today, due to a shortage of volunteers.

The national nonprofit Earth Force, in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), operates the program. Neither group has the funds to pay hundreds of people to monitor water quality monthly at more than 1,000 sites. CPW uses a mix of federal funds and Colorado Lottery funds to finance the program’s organization, database, heavy metals analysis, shipping cost and other administration.

“Volunteer monitoring produces data that is not free, but cheap,” Horn said.

Besides volunteer time, producing data from the hundreds of water samples each month takes additional time. While volunteers enter pH/alkalinity and hardness monthly numbers every month, data for the heavy metals takes up to six months for professionals to enter into the database.

“There’s a funny disconnect in this world right now: wanting all this accountability and wanting all this clean air and water, but not understanding that it costs money to get it,” she said. “What each taxpayer is paying to have clean water via the Clean Water Act is practically nothing.”

Horn describes the results of River Watch monitoring as baseline data — similar to when a person goes in for a physical at the doctor’s office.

“We are doing the same thing for our rivers and that kind of monitoring takes a lot of time. It’s not glamorous. We’re not putting out fires. We want to know what preexisting conditions are,” she said. “The public believes that somebody is doing that but it’s expensive. The limited budgets that agencies have get used up for those (metaphorical) fires.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment implements the Clean Water Act in Colorado and does water quality monitoring. Due to limited funds, the agency cannot monitor the whole state every year, so they divide the state into four sections that align with major river basins. They have funds to monitor between 40-60 sites annually, 10 or so are monitored every year, the others every five years. When each site is monitored, data is gathered four to six times per year, not monthly.

River Watch data is much more comprehensive and long-term for rivers where the program consistently has volunteers.

“If we sample monthly, think of it as if we are writing a ‘War and Peace’ novel. If the state health department sampled at 40 sites two times a year, while we sample at 600 stations monthly, it’s like they are writing the abridged version of ‘War and Peace’ that you use to cram for the test. But they actually sample each site only twice in five years, which is like ripping a page out of that book and only having that much information,” she explained.

All River Watch data is public information available on its website, as well as on the Colorado Data Sharing Network (coloradowaterdate.org) and National Water Quality Portal (waterqualitydata.us). The data is also delivered to the state Water Quality Control Division annually.

In Ouray County, River Watch data has helped organizations like the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the nonprofit Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) make decisions about which reclamation and water quality improvement projects to pursue. It has also helped them analyze and understand the success of projects.

“Water quality data will become more and more important as climate change worsens,” Horn added.

Besides gathering this significant data, the other primary goal of River Watch is to give people hands-on science experiences, and an understanding of the value and function of Colorado’s river and water ecosystems. That’s why the program originated with teachers volunteering to do the sampling with their classes. Currently, teacher-led groups are estimated to make up approximately 80 percent of the sampling volunteers. The remaining 20 percent are a mix of individuals and adult groups.

Some volunteers have been sampling for the program for up to three decades, while others only last a couple years. Some have one site to sample, but others like Funk have six or more. The time commitment is usually about 15 minutes at each site, plus driving time. Both can take longer during the winter, when snow makes the roads more difficult to navigate and some riversides are only accessible by snowshoes. Sometimes it is even necessary to break through ice to get samples.

It typically takes around 30 minutes to analyze and record the pH/alkalinity and hardness data for each site; the paperwork, computer input and shipping of samples can take an additional 30-plus minutes for each site. A volunteer responsible for one site commits to around two hours a month, while those doing four or six sites pledge six-plus hours. Other annual requirements include a multi-day training, a half-day of demonstrating procedures with Horn, and sampling for habitat and possibly microinvertabrates, plus an extra sample of nutrients quarterly.

“It’s a rigorous program that produces high quality data. Field and lab methods align with the health department’s, so data is comparable. When River Watch goals match a volunteer’s interests, they get really excited about making an impact,” Horn said. “Volunteers are happy to be a cog in this big wheel that delivers data to organizations that can use it to make a difference.”

In Ouray County, Funk was preceded by student volunteers led by a Ouray High School science teacher. The other four sites in Ouray County, all downstream on the Uncompahgre River, started out with volunteers from Ridgway High School. Volunteers from the UWP took over the sites almost a decade ago, including Dudley and Sharon Case, most recently.

The Cases had previously volunteered to sample and test water for 10 years with their Sierra Club group in Illinois. For the past five years, the retired couple could be seen once a month, driving in their Jeep through Ridgway en route to Pa-Co-Chu Puk, north of the Ridgway Reservoir. They methodically stopped at spots along the Uncompahgre River. They found their way through willows, down boulders, under bridges and over mud and snow to get to the river banks — he with a handful of water bottles and she with a clipboard and thermometer.

“I was volunteering with the UWP river cleanups and plantings in Ridgway, and I mentioned to Agnieszka (the former UWP coordinator) that Sharon and I might be interested in River Watch,” said Dudley, who added that curiosity was the driving force behind his volunteering

“I had heard so much about the mines and mining in the San Juans that I was curious to find out how the mining had and was still effecting the Uncompahgre River each year,” he explained. “I am hoping that future generations will be able to use the data I have collected over my five years of doing it to help eventually clean up the mines and thus the river. I might have volunteered longer if we hadn’t decided to move away.”

UWP is currently looking for volunteers to take over the four sites that are no longer sampled by the Cases. For more information, visit coloradoriverwatch.org. If you’re interested in volunteering in Ouray, Montrose or San Miguel counties, email uwpcoordinator@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: Tanya Ishikawa is a public relations professional for the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership.

Flood, fire preparations could save U.S. billions of dollars — @CUBoulderNews #ActOnClimate

Air search for flood victims September 2013 via Pediment Publishing

Here’s the release from the University of Colorado (Daniel Strain):

Communities that act now to protect themselves from future hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires can save themselves as much as $11 for every $1 that they initially invest, according to recent research.

The findings are part of an update to “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves.” This landmark report was first published in 2005 by the National Institute of Building Sciences and was led by CU Boulder’s Keith Porter, who also spearheaded the most recent findings.

The report examines how homeowners, developers and municipalities might save lives and money in the long term by implementing a variety of mitigation efforts before a disaster strikes. That might mean raising houses above floodplains or strengthening office buildings against earthquakes.

There’s a lot to be gained from that kind of forward thinking, said Porter, a research professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.

“Natural hazard mitigation saves,” Porter said. “Mitigation can be a costly decision, but this study should help people to make a more informed choice about how to save their property and their wellbeing.”

His research shows that communities in the United States stand to save billions of dollars by making sure that new structures meet, or exceed, the International Building Code—a set of widely-adopted recommendations for designing safe buildings. Such measures could also prevent an estimated 600 deaths and one million injuries at the same time.

Porter and his colleagues released their findings this week at the Building Innovation 2019 conference in Washington, D.C.

Staying safe
The report comes after a record-breaking wildfire season in California. This year, one blaze alone—the Camp Fire—killed more than 80 people and consumed roughly 14,000 homes in the northern part of the state.

It also matters for Colorado, where large numbers of residents are vulnerable to wildfires and flooding. Wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Colorado in 2018—one of the worst fire years on record for the state. Historic flash floods in September 2013 destroyed or damaged thousands of homes across the Front Range.

More stringent codes can limit some of the biggest losses from such events, Porter said. Most states and communities in the U.S. have requirements for how buildings weather natural hazards. But research suggest that they may not go far enough, and many older buildings still fall short of these codes.

Porter pointed to the case of existing codes that require homes to sit a foot above the 100-year flood level…

“That doesn’t make your house floodproof. There’s still a significant chance that a flood would be higher than that,” Porter said. “It’s actually cost-effective in many places to build up to 5 feet above the base flood elevation.”

Saving money
To put numbers on the benefits from such mitigation efforts, Porter and his colleagues turned to a wide range of data to write their 2005 report. That includes records from past disasters and computer simulations that test how buildings might respond to future floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.

What they found in the most recent update was staggering: While the benefits vary from place to place, communities in the U.S. on average may save $11 in the decades ahead for every $1 they spend now to meet current building codes. Going beyond those codes, too, can bring an extra $4 for every $1 spent.

Those gains come in a variety of forms. When buildings are built to better withstand earthquakes, for example, more stores stay open after a big tremor and fewer people go to the hospital for injuries.

The new round of numbers, together with a related report published last year, were also the first to look at the benefits that come from safeguarding buildings against wildfires. According to the team’s calculations, communities living at the edges of forests can save $4 for every $1 they spend to plan ahead for flames. Common recommendations include creating “defensible” spaces free of brush and other flammable material around homes.

“As we saw from the California wildfires last year, that’s crucial,” Porter said. “If you don’t build for fire resistance, you run a much higher risk of having your home burn down.”

He acknowledges that those sorts of measures can be costly in the short term. But Porter hopes that his group’s findings will motivate governments and other entities to do more to help home and business owners plan for the inevitable.

“You can spend money up front to better prepare for a disaster, and that should save you in the long run,” Porter said.

The West’s Great River Hits Its Limits: Will the #ColoradoRiver Run Dry? — Yale360 #COriver #aridification

Grand River Ditch

Here’s Part I of a series about the Colorado River from Jim Robbins writing for Yale360. Click through and read the whole article (and enjoy the beautiful photographs). Here’s an excerpt:

As the Southwest faces rapid growth and unrelenting drought, the Colorado River is in crisis, with too many demands on its diminishing flow. Now those who depend on the river must confront the hard reality that their supply of Colorado water may be cut off.

The Never Summer Mountains tower over the the valley to the west. Cut across the face of these glacier-etched peaks is the Grand Ditch, an incision visible just above the timber line. The ditch collects water as the snow melts and, because it is higher in elevation than La Poudre Pass, funnels it 14 miles back across the Continental Divide, where it empties it into the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre River, which flows on to alfalfa and row crop farmers in eastern Colorado. Hand dug in the late 19th century with shovels and picks by Japanese crews, it was the first trans-basin diversion of the Colorado.

Many more trans-basin diversions of water from the west side of the divide to the east would follow. That’s because 80 percent of the water that falls as snow in the Rockies here drains to the west, while 80 percent of the population resides on the east side of the divide.

The Colorado River gathers momentum in western Colorado, sea-green and picking up a good deal of steam in its confluence with the Fraser, Eagle, and Gunnison rivers. As it leaves Colorado and flows through Utah, it joins forces with the Green River, a major tributary, which has its origins in the dwindling glaciers atop Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the second largest glacier field in the lower 48 states.

The now sediment-laden Colorado (“too thick to drink, too thin to plow” was the adage about such rivers) gets reddish here, and earns its name – Colorado means “reddish.” It heads in a southwestern direction through the slick rock of Utah and northern Arizona, including its spectacular run through the nearly 280-mile-long Grand Canyon, and then on to Las Vegas where it makes a sharp turn south, first forming the border of Nevada and Arizona and then the border of California and Arizona until it reaches the Mexican border. There the Morelos Dam — half of it in Mexico and half in the United States — captures the last drops of the Colorado’s flow, and sends it off to Mexican farmers to irrigate alfalfa, cotton, and asparagus, and to supply Mexicali, Tecate, and other cities and towns with water.

While there are verdant farm fields south of the border here, it comes at a cost. The expansive Colorado River Delta — once a bird- and wildlife-rich oasis nourished by the river that Aldo Leopold described as a land of “a hundred green lagoons” — goes begging for water. And there is not a drop left to flow to the historic finish line at the Gulf of California, into which, long ago, the Colorado used to empty.

Credit: Wikipedia.org

Nature, in fact, has been given short shrift all along the 1,450-mile-long Colorado. In order to support human life in the desert and near-desert through which it runs, the river is one of the most heavily engineered waterways in the world. Along its route, water is stored and siphoned, routed and piped, with a multi-billion dollar plumbing system — a “Cadillac Desert,” as Marc Reisner put it in the title of his landmark 1986 book. There are 15 large dams on the main stem of the river, and hundreds more on the tributaries.

The era of tapping the Colorado River, though, is coming to a close. This muddy river is one of the most contentious in the country — and growing more so by the day. It serves some 40 million people, and far more of its water is promised to users than flows between its banks — even in the best water years. And millions more people are projected to be added to the population served by the Colorado by 2050.

The hard lesson being learned is that even with the Colorado’s elaborate plumbing system, nature cannot be defied. If the over-allocation of the river weren’t problem enough, its best flow years appear to be behind it. The Colorado River Basin has been locked in the grip of a nearly unrelenting drought since 2000, and the two great water savings accounts on the river — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — are at all-time lows. An officially announced crisis could be at hand in the coming months…

Most of the water in the Colorado comes from snow that falls in the Rockies and is slowly released, a natural reservoir that disperses its bounty gradually, over months. But since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has been locked in what experts say is a long-term drought exacerbated by climate change, the most severe drought in the last 1,250 years, tree ring data shows. Snowfall since 2000 has been sketchy — last year it was just two-thirds of normal, tied for its record low. With warmer temperatures, more of the precipitation arrives as rain, which quickly runs off rather than being stored as mountain snow. Many water experts are deeply worried about the growing shortage of water from this combination of over-allocation and diminishing supply.

There is tree ring data to show that multi-decadal mega-droughts have occurred before, one that lasted, during Roman Empire times, for more than half a century. The term drought, though, implies that someday the water shortage will be over. Some scientists believe a long-term, climate change-driven aridification may be taking place, a permanent drying of the West. That renders the uncertainty of water flow in the Colorado off the charts. While not ruling out all hope, experts have abandoned terms like “concerned” and “worrisome” and routinely use words like “dire” and “scary.”

“These conditions could mean a hell of a lot less water in the river,” said Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist at the University of Michigan who has extensively studied the impacts of climate on the flow of the Colorado. “We’ve seen declines in flow of 20 percent, but it could get up to 50 percent or worse later in this century.”

Even in rock-ribbed conservative areas, those who use the water of the Colorado say they are already seeing things they have never seen before — this year state officials in Colorado cut off lower-priority irrigators on the Yampa River, a tributary of the Green, and recreation had to be halted, for example — and have grudgingly come to believe “there is something going on with the climate.”

#Snowpack news: The #ColoradoRiver and tributary streamflow likely won’t recover this water year #COriver #aridification

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Jeff Lukas, who authored the [Western Water Assessment] briefing, says water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed should brace themselves for diminished streams and the decreasing likelihood of filling the reservoirs left depleted at the end of 2018.

That dire prognosis comes even as much of the southern Rocky Mountains have seen a regular stream of snow storms this winter.

“The snowpack conditions for Colorado and much of the intermountain West don’t look too bad,” Lukas says. “They range from ‘meh’ to ‘OK.’”

Snowpack in river basins that feed the Colorado River range from 75 percent to 105 percent of normal. The entire Upper Colorado River Basin’s snowpack is sitting at about 90 percent of normal for this time of year.

So with an ‘OK’ snowpack in the mountains we should be in the clear, right? Not necessarily. If you’re just looking at snowpack to gauge how well a winter is going — you’re doing it wrong, according to Lukas.

The record hot and dry conditions throughout 2018 sapped the ground of its moisture. Leading into this winter, “that puts us in a deep hole,” Lukas says.

Put another way, throughout the southwest, we’re living in a drought hangover. And it’s going to take a lot more snow to pull us out of it.

Lake Powell, the first major reservoir the Colorado River hits on its journey throughout the southwest, is currently projected to see 64 percent of its average inflow. That translates to a one-year deficit of more than 5 million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to supply roughly one to two households for a year.

“That’s not as bad as what happened last year, but it’s pretty close,” Lukas says. “That’s going to just drain the big reservoirs — [Lakes] Powell and Mead — even further.”

The latest briefing is hot off the presses from the Western Water Assessment #snowpack

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 15, 2019 via the NRCS.

Click here to read the briefing (scroll down):

Latest Briefing – January 14, 2019 (UT, WY, CO)

  • With below-normal or near-normal snowpack conditions and very low antecedent soil moisture, NOAA’s January 1 forecasts call for much-below-average (50-70%) or below-average (70-90%) spring-summer runoff across nearly all of the region’s basins. Unless there is significant improvement in snowpack conditions, most of the basins in Colorado and Utah that saw very low runoff in 2018 will face another year of hydrological drought.
  • After a mostly dry December, and a somewhat better start to January, snowpack conditions are overall slightly below normal for the region and for each state. As of January 14, most basins in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are reporting between 85-105% of normal SWE Western US Seasonal Precipitation. Southwestern Colorado is still the driest area with 75-80% of normal SWE, though this is improved from mid-December. The SNOTEL basin average for the Upper Colorado River Basin is at 90% of normal.
  • NOAA CBRFC’s official January 1 seasonal runoff forecasts, along with those of the neighboring RFCs, call for much-below-average (50-70%) or below-average (70-89%) spring-summer runoff for the vast majority of forecast points in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Near-average (90-110%) runoff is forecasted for several points in north-central Colorado, and in the Arkansas Basin. The CBRFC January 1 forecast for Lake Powell April-July inflows is for 64% of average (4.55 MAF). The outlook for forecasted flow across the region is worse than the snowpack conditions alone would indicate, which mainly reflects the very low antecedent soil moisture in fall 2018 in most basins. (NRCS did not produce January 1 runoff forecasts due to staffing constraints.)
  • December was generally drier than normal across the region, aside from well-above-average precipitation in parts of central Utah, southwestern Colorado, and northeastern Wyoming Western US Seasonal Precipitation, with near-normal temperatures prevailing over the region Western US Seasonal Precipitation. In the first two weeks of January, a series of storms have left wetter-than-normal conditions over southern and central Colorado, southeastern Utah, and central and northeastern Wyoming, with dry conditions elsewhere.
  • Since early December, drought conditions have seen little change across the region WY Drought Monitor. The area of exceptional drought (D4) in the Four Corners region saw a smidgen of improvement. Abnormally dry (D0) conditions expanded slightly in northeastern Colorado after the very dry December there.
  • El Niño-ish? ENSO indicators have almost reached the multi-month thresholds for declaration of El Niño conditions, though the warm anomalies in the tropical Pacific have weakened in the last month ENSO Nino Regions Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies. If an El Niño event does officially and finally emerge, as is still likely, it will be weak and unlikely to persist past the spring. The CPC seasonal precipitation outlooks for the January-March 3-mo precip forecast, 1.5-mo lead and February-April 3-mo precip forecast, 1.5-mo lead periods still show slightly enhanced chances for above-normal precipitation for Colorado and adjoining states, consistent with historical tendencies during El Niño events.
  • Registration is open for the 2019 Governor’s Ag Forum

    Photo credit: Allen Best

    Click here for all the inside skinny:

    Registration Includes:

  • Pre-Forum Reception at Governor’s Mansion
  • Continental Breakfast
  • Breaks (light snacks and beverages)
  • Lunch
  • Access to presentations
  • Forum Directory
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  • Questions? Contact us: info@governorsagforum.com