In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs today, September 29th, at 1:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. This release change is calculated to be the minimum release required to maintain the minimum target base flow.
Last month’s federal declaration of an emergency water shortage on the Colorado River barely caused a ripple. But it should have made big waves.
The once-mighty Colorado, which provides water for 40 million people across seven U.S. states as well as half of Denver’s water, is in serious trouble. Choked by chronic overuse, a 22-year drought and the effects of climate change, the river’s flow has declined by nearly 20% this century.
The first-ever emergency declaration, triggered by historically low water levels in the Colorado’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, means that multiple states face a forced reduction of their water allocation. Under existing agreements, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year will see their shares of Colorado River water drop by 18%, 7% and 5%, respectively.
“This is a big deal but not unexpected,” said Tom Cech, co-director of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s One World One Water Center. “The Colorado’s flows have been steadily getting worse for years, and the last time Lake Mead was full was in 1983.”
Seen through a historical lens, this disaster has been a century in the making. Cech said that’s because the original multistate agreement outlining various states’ rights to Colorado River water use, signed in 1922, was hopelessly optimistic. It badly overestimated the total amount of water flow, with the result that the West has been living beyond its means ever since.
Add to this already-flawed formula the impact of climate change; extensive and often inefficient irrigation practices within urban and agricultural settings; and massive population growth, and Cech said it becomes easy to see how things have gone so wrong.
The numbers are sobering. The Colorado River supports 15 million more people today than it did just 29 years ago. And the fast-warming climate means up to 10% of the water in America’s vast Western reservoirs simply evaporates off of their surfaces each year.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Mead is just 35% full.
Reversing the course
Cech said that while the federal designation won’t directly affect Denver and Colorado in the near term, the state should get ready for more rigorous outdoor watering management policies and restrictions in the future.
“Given our semi-arid climate, we simply use too much water for lawn and landscape irrigation,” he said.
The question of how to slow or even reverse dramatic water losses is a hot topic in statehouses, especially since the decline has happened faster than expected. Some states have already taken proactive measures.
Over the past two decades, Nevada has implemented stout conservation efforts such as watering restrictions, removal of decorative grass and paying residents to replace lawns. These actions have reduced Southern Nevada’s Colorado River water usage by 23% since 2002, even as the population increased by nearly 800,000 residents.
Closer to home, Cech suggested checking out the water management programs of agencies such as Denver Water and Aurora Water, which for years have led the way in reducing per-capita water use.
“There are a number of concrete actions both cities and individuals can take,” he said. “For example, using native xeriscape plants, reducing lawn sizes, installing better irrigation systems and improving soil management.
“All of these measures will help reduce urban water use.”
Our shared future
While domestic conservation can help, approximately 70% of Colorado River water goes to sustaining crops, rather than serving the direct water needs of people in urban areas.
“The most effective programs will ultimately focus heavily on reducing outdoor irrigation,” Cech said.
And that’s the tricky part. So far, individual states have had to make only minor compromises, but a continued water shortage over the next few years could necessitate some deeply painful and unpopular decisions, Cech said.
Should the West’s shrinking reservoirs, for example, start to approach “dead pool” status (meaning they can no longer generate electricity), legislators would have no choice but to implement disruptive policy changes and large-scale water reductions. That would impact thousands of livelihoods that rely on irrigation water and potentially transform the whole agricultural landscape.
Such a grim scenario, once unthinkable, is now firmly on the table, Cech said.
Ultimately, Cech emphasized that the only way out of this crisis will be to tackle its root causes by focusing on conservation, reducing planet-warming emissions and changing how we live and eat.
Synopsis: A transition from ENSO neutral to La Niña is favored in the next couple of months, with a 70-80% chance of La Niña during the Northern Hemisphere winter 2021-22.
In the last month, ENSO-neutral continued with near-to-below average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) persisting in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. In the last week, all of the Niña index values ranged from -0.2oC to -0.3oC. Negative subsurface temperature anomalies (averaged from 180-100oW) remained steady in August, reflecting below-average temperatures that extended from the surface to ~250m depth in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Low-level wind anomalies were easterly over the western Pacific Ocean, while upper-level wind anomalies were westerly over the western and east-centralPacific. Tropical convection was suppressed near and west of the Date Line and enhanced over Indonesia. Given these conditions, the ocean-atmosphere system reflected ENSO-neutral, but is edging toward La Niña.
The IRI/CPC plume average of forecasts for the Niño-3.4 SST region from the last month favored borderline or weak La Niña during the fall and winter 2021-22. The forecaster consensus this month, however, favors the latest predictions from the NCEP CFSv2 and the North American Multi-Model Ensemble, which suggest higher chances for the emergence of La Niña. At this time, forecasters anticipate La Niña to be of weak strength (seasonal average Niño-3.4 index values between -0.5oC to – 0.9oC). In summary, a transition from ENSO-neutral to La Niña is favored in the next couple of months, with a 70-80% chance of La Niña during the Northern Hemisphere winter 2021-22 (click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chances in each 3-month period).
The fund set up to help protect the Yampa River has exceeded its endowment goal two years ahead of expectations, fund managers announced Wednesday.
Annual grants are awarded through the fund, which launched in 2019, for projects aimed at protecting the Yampa River, especially considering the hotter, drier climate and lower river flows. The fund’s total is now estimated to be $5.3 million by 2023, surpassing the original goal of $4.75 million.
The fund held its first grant cycle in February 2020. Over the past three years, more than 100 donors have contributed to the fund, including an anonymous donor who gave $1 million this summer. The fund has so far awarded $400,000 in grants to projects throughout the Yampa Valley, which have supported water releases during times of low flows, environmental restoration projects and agricultural infrastructure improvements…
A partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the entire Yampa River Basin collaborated to create the board that governs the Yampa River Fund.
Extreme heat, ongoing drought and wildfires plague much of the western contiguous U.S. during July
The July 2021 contiguous U.S. temperature was 75.5°F, 1.9°F above the 20th-century average, tying with 1954 and 2003 for 13th warmest in the 127-year record. For the year-to-date, the national temperature was 53.0°F, 1.8°F above average, ranking 14th warmest on record.
The July precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 3.36 inches, 0.58 inch above average, and sixth-wettest in the 127-year period of record. The year-to-date precipitation total for the Lower 48 was 18.00 inches, 0.09 inch below average, ranking in the middle one-third of the historical record.
This monthly summary fromNOAA National Center for Environmental Information is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia, and the public to support informed decision-making.
Temperatures were above average to record warm across the West, much of the northern Plains and portions of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada each had their warmest July on record with five additional states across the West and northern Plains having a top-10 warm month.
Temperatures were below average across portions of the southern and central Plains, Midwest, Southeast and Northeast.
A ridge of high pressure across the western U.S and a trough across the eastern U.S. for most of July kept the temperatures well-above average across the West and more moderate across the central and eastern states. This pattern remained in place for the duration of the month. An eastward shift in the ridge mid-month allowed the southwestern monsoon to kick off.
The Alaska average July temperature was 53.7°F, 1.0°F above the long-term mean and ranked in the warmest third of the historical record for the state.
Areas that experienced above-average precipitation across western Alaska during July also had temperatures that were below average.
Above-average temperatures occurred across much of the eastern half of Alaska and across the Aleutians.
The Alaskan wildfire season, to-date, is well-below average.
Precipitation was above average across much of the Northeast, Southeast, and South; portions of the Midwest, Ohio Valley, and Great Lakes; and much of the Southwest. New York and Massachusetts had their wettest July on record with nine additional states across the Northeast, South and Southwest experiencing a top-10 wettest July.
The Southwest monsoon season began in earnest during the second half of July, bringing some rainfall to the drought-stricken region. Portions of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona saw some improvement in the drought intensity, but still remain entrenched in drought.
Much of the West, particularly the Northwest, remained entrenched in exceptional drought conditions, which was reflected in very high wildfire activity throughout the month.
Precipitation was below average across much of the Northwest, Northern Tier and portions of the central Plains, Midwest and central Appalachians. Minnesota ranked second driest while Washington ranked fourth driest.
Hurricane Elsa formed in the Atlantic Ocean in early July and made landfall in Cuba before reemerging in the Gulf of Mexico and making landfall as a tropical storm in Florida.
Elsa brought flooding, tornadoes and damage to portions of Georgia and the Carolinas as well as flooding in parts of the Northeast. At least 17 were injured and one fatality was reported.
Elsa was the earliest fifth-named storm on record.
Alaska received near-average precipitation during July, but regional amounts varied greatly. Precipitation was above average across much of western Alaska and below average across eastern Alaska.
Kotzebue had its wettest July and month on record while Nome and Bethel each had their wettest July since the 1920s.
According to the August 3 U.S. Drought Monitor, approximately 46 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, down from about 47 percent at the end of June. Drought intensified and/or expanded across portions of the northern Plains, northern Rockies, Northwest and from the Great Basin to the Pacific Coast.
Drought also emerged across portions of Alaska and intensified across Maui in Hawaii. Drought severity lessened across the Northeast, Great Lakes and portions of the Southwest and central Rockies. Nearly 90 percent of the 11 states across the western U.S. are experiencing some level of drought.
Year-to-date (January-July 2021)
January-July temperatures were above average across the West, northern and central Plains, Great Lakes, Northeast, mid-Atlantic and portions of the Southeast. California, Oregon and Nevada each had their fourth-warmest year-to-date period on record with 11 additional states across the West, northern Plains, Northeast and Southeast experiencing a top-10 warmest January-July.
Temperatures were below average across portions of the South.
The Alaska statewide average temperature for this year-to-date period was 27.1°F, 1.3°F above average and ranked in the middle one-third of the record. Temperatures were above average across much of Bristol Bay, Northwest Gulf and the Aleutian regions with near-average temperatures present across much of the rest of the state.
Precipitation was above average from the southern and central Plains to the Midwest and into portions of the Southeast. Mississippi ranked sixth wettest for the first seven months of the year.
Precipitation was below average from the West Coast to the western Great Lakes. Minnesota and North Dakota each ranked third driest while Montana ranked fourth driest on record.
Precipitation across Alaska ranked in the wettest third of the historical record.
Other Notable Events
Wildfire activity exploded across the drought-stricken portions of the West, especially the Northwest, during July. As of July 31, 37,650 fires have burned through 2,982,960 acres during the first seven months of 2021. This is nearly 1 million more acres than were consumed by this time last year and about 1 million fewer acres burned than the 2011-2020 year-to-date average.
With multiple large fires burning across the West, forecasts for worsening conditions and a potential shortage of resources, on July 14, the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group raised the national Preparedness Level (PL) to the highest category — level 5. This is the earliest PL5 issued in the past 10 years.
As of July 31, the largest fire across the U.S., the Bootleg Fire, located in Oregon, has consumed more than 413,000 acres and was 56 percent contained.
The second largest fire in the U.S., the Dixie Fire, located in northern California, burned more than 240,000 acres and was 24 percent contained.
Heavy smoke from these and many other fires across the western U.S. and Canada contributed to low air quality across the U.S. during July.
Governor Mark Gordon is convening a Colorado River Working Group that will meet regularly to discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The action comes in response to drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins that have led the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to announce drawdowns from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in order to maintain minimum levels at Lake Powell. At this time no restrictions on Wyoming water users are proposed.
The group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors of the Green and Little Snake River Basins, including agricultural, municipal, industrial and environmental interests. It will discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. The Working Group is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019. More information about the Colorado River Working Group’s inaugural public meeting will become available soon.
“The West finds itself facing unprecedented drought conditions and Wyoming must be prepared to address the potential future impacts of water shortages,” Governor Gordon said. “It is important that local perspectives on issues that impact our water users and the State are heard and included in the process. I want to ensure that representatives of key water use sectors are able to provide input on this crisis, which is challenging us today and may last for years.”
In its 24-Month Study released [July 16, 2021], Reclamation confirms continual declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. The results show that drought response releases from key Reclamation reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin — including Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah — will be necessary starting this summer.
Based on Reclamation’s announcement, 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir will be released to protect storage elevations in Lake Powell. These releases will be staged July through October and will likely result in Flaming Gorge water elevation dropping an additional 3.5 feet by mid-autumn. No Wyoming water rights are tied to the water being released, so no Wyoming water right holders will be affected.
Today’s announcement from Reclamation underscores that water supply throughout the West is becoming less reliable, especially in the Colorado River Basin. The Governor is committed to ensuring that Wyoming’s water users are protected under the state’s apportionments provided for under the 1922 Colorado River and 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compacts. The Governor is also committed to continuing collaboration on water management and operation solutions which provide overall water supply reliability and certainty, as well as meeting Compact and Treaty obligations and maintaining environmental commitments, all of which make the system work for all who depend on the Colorado River.
Knowing the increasing risks, Wyoming has planned ahead. In 2019, Wyoming signed onto the Drought Contingency Plan alongside the other Colorado River Basin States and the Department of Interior. This plan helps protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, which is an important insurance policy for Wyoming to bolster the State’s ability to maintain and develop its water uses while also satisfying its compact obligations. The drought response releases are part of the plan’s overall strategy to help prevent curtailment triggers under the 1922 Compact.
In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Tuesday, July 13th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Water releases increase to Blue River but not enough for commercial rafting
Dillon Reservoir is now 100% full, according to Denver Water, which manages the reservoir.
Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, said it’s normal for the reservoir to be full this time of year, but he noted that the reason it’s full despite an ongoing drought is because the water is carefully managed, and much less water was released from the reservoir to the Blue River than in an average year…
Elder said this was a year where the reservoir started out lower than normal and less water flowed in from the melting snowpack…
Elder noted that Denver Water is bringing much less water through the Roberts Tunnel than it typically would because of good moisture levels in the South Platte Basin, which is at 96% of normal, and water conservation by consumers on the Front Range…
While more water is being released into the Blue River now — 184 cubic feet per second as of Wednesday afternoon compared with 100 cfs prior to Monday — it’s still not enough for rafting this year. Elder said a flow of 500 cfs is needed for rafting, but the maximum outflow this year will likely only get to about 250 cfs.
The main reason water levels are low this year is because the snowpack was below average. According to a measurement site at Copper Mountain, the 2021 snowpack peaked at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent, or the amount of water held in the snowpack. That’s nearly 5 inches less than the 17.3 inch median for the site, which is based on 30 years of data.
Recent rain has helped slightly but isn’t as much of a determining factor as snowpack…
Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, said stream flows in Summit County overall are below normal compared with historic levels. Huse said all streams in Summit County are below normal and that Straight Creek is running much below normal — 13 cfs Wednesday near Dillon compared with an average of 55 cfs for the same date. Recent precipitation levels have been above normal, but it hasn’t made much of a difference, Huse said…
In the past 30 days, the Dillon weather station has recorded 1.69 inches of precipitation — 50% above the normal 1.13 inches in the same time period. And in the past four months, precipitation is slightly above normal. Huse said that while precipitation is above normal, the difference is less than an inch, and with dry soil conditions, it doesn’t make much of a dent in the water supply.
Huse noted that while Summit County’s drought conditions have improved, the northern half of the county is still in a severe drought.
Almost half the country’s population is facing dry conditions. Soils are parched. Mountain snowpacks produce less water. Wildfire risk is already extreme. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is headed to its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s.
The past year has been the driest or second driest in most Southwestern states since record-keeping began in 1895. Farms and cities have begun imposing water restrictions, but Western states are facing a threat that goes deeper than a single bad year. The hotter climate is shrinking water supplies, no matter what the weather brings.
Warming temperatures make it less likely for a raindrop or snowflake to reach a reservoir due to increased evaporation. As a result, the people who manage the West’s complex water systems are realizing that with climate change, they can no longer rely on the past to predict the future.
That’s creating a fundamental threat to the way Western water systems operate, because they were built around the idea that the climate would remain constant. Historical climate data such as river flows and rainfall totals told engineers how big to build reservoirs and canals. The data also told them how much water was available to divide up among cities and farms.
Climate change is putting that system under increasing stress, shrinking water supplies for tens of millions of people and for the farmland that produces most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Water cutbacks are reverberating through California’s $50 billion agricultural industry, which employs tens of thousands of people in many small towns.
Southwestern states recently negotiated a temporary agreement to use less water as reservoirs keep falling. But tough conversations remain about how the West and its complex system of water rights will adapt to a future for which it wasn’t designed.
“We can really no longer look at the past and say: The amount of water we’ve had in the last 100 years is what we can expect in the future,” says Eric Kuhn, an author who worked on water policy for decades at the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “That is no longer true because of climate change.”
Hoover (Boulder) Dam photo credit Ansel Adams circa 1942 via Wikipedia.
Glen Canyon Dam
Climate amplifying bad luck
Like a run-of-the-mill streak of bad luck, droughts are normal in the West. Now, climate change is exacerbating their effects.
“Over the last 22 years or so, there’s been quite a bit of bad luck because precipitation totals have on average been low,” says Park Williams, associate professor of hydroclimatology at UCLA. “But the effect of that bad luck has been really amplified because of warmer temperatures.”
A hotter atmosphere is thirstier, drawing water out of plants and soils and into the air. Snowpacks melt earlier, which in turn boosts that evaporation, because without the reflective surface that snow creates, soils heat up faster. And when soils are dry, they act like a sponge. They need to soak up more moisture before they’re saturated enough for the water to run off into rivers and streams.
Studies show that since 2000, about half the reduction in the Colorado River’s flow has been due to warmer temperatures. For every degree Celsius of warming, the river’s flow is expected to shrink by 9%, according to another study.
In New Mexico last week, a couple in Santa Fe was weighing whether to build a house on the 20-acre lot they had purchased. Among the questions perplexing them was how the warming and drying climate might marginalize their asset.
Relatively few people were asking such questions a decade ago. Now they are. Most people remain more concerned about making the next mortgage payment or a dozen other concerns, but climate change has ceased to be a future worry. It’s right outside the door, evident in the rising heat, the larger and more frequent wildfires, and the news of broader and exceptional “drought.”
One aspect of the warming that has been widely if mostly anecdotally observed has been the melting of snow in winter months. Less snow has been making it to spring—and that means less water flowing in rivers come summer.
“New paper out on widespread increased snow melt during the winter in the US West by well-known scientists,” tweeted Brad Udall, who is himself something of a well-known climate and water scientist affiliated with Colorado State University.
“These papers never have good news, alas. Meanwhile #coloradoriver runoff currently forecast at 45% despite 80% snowpack.”
In the paper, “Winter melt trends portend widespread declines in snow water resources,” four researchers—three from Colorado—compared records of 1,065 snow-measurement stations in the West between the Mexico border and continuing northward into the Alaskan Arctic since the 1970s.
Melting before April 1 has increased at almost half of the stations by an average 3.5% per decade.
“Historically, water managers use the date of April 1 to distinguish between winter and spring, but this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred as melt increases during the winter,” said Noah Molotch, a study co-author and associate professor of geography and fellow at INSTAAR.
The mountains have often been described as the water tower of the West, akin to the tanks that stand over many small communities. The snow melts rapidly during spring, of course, but then slowly melts well into summer. Now, there’s less snow to melt. The tank on the hill has less water.
“That slow trickle of meltwater that reliably occurs over the dry season is something that we have built our entire water infrastructure on in the West,” Keith Musselman, of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, told CU Boulder Today, an arm of the University of Colorado.
This causes my mind to wander to the Colorado mountain town of Red Cliff, a place of roughly 300 people located at an elevation of 8,600 feet not far from the Continental Divide. One of the life-time residents there, a “powder man” in several of the local mines, observed that the snowpack normally grew until St. Patrick’s Day, then began to shrink. The snow depth could rise again with new snow, but only temporarily. With warming winters, I wonder when the snowpack at Red Cliff now ceases to rise. Might it now be early March?
This is from the April 18, 2021, issue of Big Pivots. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com
Authors of the new study point out that this shift in melting could affect wildfire season and agriculture irrigation needs. They also note that their findings are consistent with what climate models suggest will continue to happen.
One feature of this incremental warming has been early runoff, with peaks roughly two weeks earlier in this century.
In Steamboat Springs, the Pilot reported on April 7 that the snow-water equivalent going into April stood at 14.5 inches, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. If that stays as the peak, the 2020-21 winter will have peaked seven days earlier and with about 3.4 inches less water than the 30-year median peak. “The thawing has begun earlier than we would like,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resource manager for the city of Steamboat Springs.
Maybe it will snow in May—a lot. I remember the spring of 1983 when I was working in Winter Park. A a so-so ski season was followed by an exceptional spring. We barely saw the sun. It seemed to snow every day. And then when the snow melted, the gush took water managers downstream at Glen Canyon Dam by surprise, almost toppling that massive plug that creates the playground of Lake Powell.
Now Powell and its companion behemoth in the desert Southwest, Lake Mead, have struggled in the 21st century. The two reservoirs, largest in America, have a capacity for 54.5 million acre-feet. They’re not close to half full—and they’re likely to decline more this year. Too many years have been like 2020.
Nearly all the water flowing in the Colorado River originates in the headwater states, most of all Colorado, and mostly as snow. In 2020, the snowpack in the upper basin was 114% of average. That snowpack yielded only 55% of average runoff.
Let’s wrap our minds around those numbers again: snowpack 114% of average and runoff 55% of average. Wow.
This year, the snowpack is nowhere near as good. “Current conditions resemble 2002, 2012, and 2013 and the beginning of 2018, four of the five driest years on record,” said the Bureau of Reclamation in an April 15 report. As Udall noted in his tweet, the Bureau projects flows 45% of average into Powell.
As KUNC and other news outlets have reported, this marginal runoff will almost certainly mean that water levels in Lake Mead, the reservoir outside Las Vegas, will drop below the critical threshold of 1,075 feet. As per an agreement among the seven states in the Colorado River Basin in 2019 and also Mexico, this means there will be further cuts in deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. California could also see its river allocation restricted if the declines continue.
Have Colorado and other states in the Southwest come to terms with the new reality? Yes—and no. A bit of history is worth visiting.
Eric Kuhn and John Fleck, in “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” demonstrated how willfully those who created the framework of compacts and water-delivery infrastructure in the Colorado River ignored available evidence that the river might not well deliver the quantities they wanted to assume. They assumed upwards of 20 million acre-feet. In fact, in the 21st century, the river has been delivering an average 12.5 million.
The science that framers of the Colorado River Compact ignored when they gathered in Santa Fe in 1922 was that of substantial periods of lesser flows in the 19th century. Congress had better evidence yet—but again ignored it when approving the compact in 1929.
Further scientific research has yielded confirmation of decades-long periods of low flows, the megadroughts of a thousand years ago.
Not until the 1960s was there a grudging appreciation for limits. And not until 2007 was there more explicit acknowledgment of the need for revised assumptions.
We’re now in the midst of that acknowledgement. In the 2019 agreement among the basin states, commonly called the “Drought Contingency Plan,” Arizona took the biggest cut, but California got creative, too. That agreement might just as easily have been called the “Buying Time Agreement,” because that is essentially what it did, providing interim measures while a greater vision was assembled to be implemented in 2026. Work is just now beginning on that next iteration.
In 2019, when I interviewed Udall, he said he objected to the word “drought” in the title of the plan. It suggests a temporary condition. He and others have been producing evidence that roughly half the runoff decline has been the result of warming caused by accumulated greenhouse gases. The higher temperatures result in increased evaporation, sublimation, and transpiration. Other researchers have reached much the same conclusion. In a 2019 paper, Udall and Jonathan Overpeck chose to call it a “hot drought.”
Others in the Colorado River Basin have similarly been parsing their vocabulary.
“The drying trend” is the new abnormal—it is not a drought,” Kuhn tweeted this morning.
James Eklund points to increasing temperatures of 1.5° F globally since his great-grandparents began ranching in western Colorado in 1888. Eklund, a former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, among other postings, uses the phrase “aridification,” the gradual change of a region from a wetter to a drier climate.
He also coined a word, “spongeification,” in a 5,000-word essay published in the April 15 issue of The Water Report. By this, he means the process by which dry soils and depleted groundwater aquifers soak up the runoff that does materialize.
Eklund, in an e-mail, told me that he intentionally used the word drought sparingly “because we’re not in a drought (which implies that we might rebound next year).”
It had snowed hard in metro Denver the day he wrote me, and he made note of that snow (which wasn’t nearly so heavy in the Colorado River Basin).
“Despite the snow out the window (and thank heavens for it!), the water year in Colorado and in the Colorado River Basin is going to be challenging at best and perhaps seriously disruptive,” he wrote. “Despite all the coverage and hyperbole, I do not see the current water apparatus (of which I consider myself a part) moving quickly enough to confront the challenge climate change presents to our water systems.
Eklund’s essay makes the case for stepped up implementation of demand management, as I understand it, a way for ranchers and farmers in places like Colorado to lease their water. Whatever the techniques, there must be responses sufficient to the shifting climate.
Then there is conservation. The Las Vegas Sun this week lent its cautious support for a bill in the Nevada Legislature that proposes to make removal of ornamental grass mandatory – not voluntary, a response to incentives, as has already resulted in the uprooting of more than 200 million square feet of grass lawns. If the only time we set foot on grass is to mow it, what real purpose does it serve?
I see a greater role for landscape architects in our future. Dumping gravel on a yard, one of the common solutions to water scarcity that I have seen in Las Vegas and Santa Fe – and, actually, in my own relatively verdant neighborhood in suburban Denver—just doesn’t cut it.
But back to drought, a word that falls short, at least given our current meaning of it. I think we need a better word or phrase that conveys what happens better than “drought.”
Once we can come up with a better word or phrase, we’ll more readily get to work on adaptations necessary with this shifting climate that will change and then change and change again.
Click here to read the paper (Jonathan Overpeck and Bradley Udall). Here’s an excerpt:
Discussions of droughts and their impacts often center on the lack of precipitation, just as assessments of hydrologic impacts under a changing climate most often focus on how average precipitation in a given locale is likely to change in the future. Within climate science, however, focus has begun to include the growing role warming temperatures are playing as a potent driver of greater aridity: hotter climate extremes; drier soil conditions; more severe drought; and the impacts of hydrologic stress on rivers, forests, agriculture, and other systems. This shift in the hydrologic paradigm is most clear in the American Southwest, where declining flows in the region’s two most important rivers, the Colorado (Fig. 1) and Rio Grande, have been attributed in part to increasing temperatures caused by human activities, most notably the burning of fossil fuels. Warmer summers are also likely to reduce flows in the Columbia River, as well as in rivers along the Sierra Nevada in California. Now, an important study documents how warming is also causing flow declines in the northern Rocky Mountains and in the largest river basin in the United States, the Missouri. This work further highlights the mechanisms behind the temperature-driven river flow declines and places more focus on how anthropogenic climate warming is progressively increasing the risk of hot drought and more arid conditions across an expanding swath of the United States.
An earlier version of this writing appeared in Archaeology Southwest Magazine, Volume 33, Nos. 1 & 2. Like many landscapes throughout the American Southwest, Hopi people maintain a cultural connection with the region now designated as part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). From a Hopi perspective, we believe that it is our ancestors who, […]
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 31.6 inches of snow water equivalent as of 2 p.m. on March 31.
That amount is 101 percent of the March 31 median for this site.
The average snow water equivalent for this date at the Wolf Creek summit is 31.2 inches.
The Wolf Creek summit is the only location in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins that is over 100 percent of the March 31 median in terms of snowpack.
Craig Cotten, Division 3 Engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources, started off the symposium on March 20 with a brief update on the current state of the Rio Grande Basin and some forecasts for 2021.
After the most recent snowstorms, snowpack in major drainages in Colorado now ranges from 105% in the Upper Rio Grande Basin to just 82% in the combined San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan basins. Statewide the snow water equivalent or the amount of water in the state’s snow, is at 92% of median.
Cotten was quick to caution everyone that while this is an optimistic note, stream flows in the basin remain below average. The immediate forecast for March through May 2021 is for above average temperatures and below average precipitation. Neither are the best news for water users.
Water scarcity, exportation threats and aquifer depletion were the topics of the day, as well as working toward sustainable practices to meet the challenges of an over-appropriated water system.
Water management has always been a challenge in this arid region. In the past communities across the San Luis Valley recognized these threats and worked together to protect the water.
Dan Birch of the Consensus Building Institute led an interactive session with attendees underlining the importance of the connections we make with each other. The San Luis Valley has a history of rallying to address water threats. Given the potential of another water export plan, the valley needs to rally together again.
Panelists: Representative Jeni Arndt, Colorado State House; George Whitten, San Juan Ranch, Saguache; James Henderson, 711 Ranch, La Jara; Kelsea MacIlroy, CSU; and Armando Valdez, Valdez Land & Livestock, Capulin. They shared viewpoints and discussed the challenges of water use in the valley.
In addition to water scarcity, aquifer depletion, and exportation threats, panelists touched upon the uncertain future for agricultural water users and the economic component of water. Water rights are also property rights and an emphasis on self-determination was evident in panelists’ comments.
Panelists agreed that connections with each other are important. We need to help each other understand the problems we are facing and problem-solve together.
Ken Salazar, former Secretary of the Interior and Co-Founder of the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center at Adams State University, called to mind the history of the valley facing export threats and solutions found over the years to continue to protect the water through legislation and conservation. In introducing the keynote speaker he called on attendees to focus on their love of the Rio Grande, lifeblood of water in the valley, when facing the challenges ahead.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, tied together an overview of statewide initiatives in water and forest health, the importance of conservation for outdoor recreation, as well as agricultural communities. They seek to improve the situation for all water users here in the San Luis Valley.
The symposium built on a deep history of innovation and water sharing, leaders, new and established, working to shepherd the culture and communities of the valley into a sustainable relationship with water. Weaving together challenges like climate change, growing pressure to the water supply, and renewed water exports with love for land and water and the desire to care for it.
The San Luis Valley has a history of sustainable water practices, connecting culture and the communities of the Valley. Working together, sharing a sense of place, is the path forward to ensure our collective future.
Rio de la Vista, Director, Salazar Rio Grande Del Norte Center closed the symposium: “The conversation will continue.”
The Salazar Center works to engage and advance education and the conservation of land and water along with the rich historic and cultural attributes at the headwaters of the Rio Grande.Find them at email@example.com.
Among the provision of the American Rescue Plan Act are additional COVID-19 relief amounting to $500 million in assistance for clean and drinking water customers. Additional support for critical water and sewer investments is also included in the measure, according to a joint press release by NAWCA and AWMA.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, said President Biden will sign the bill on Friday, in a report by NBC News.
In a joint statement, Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies applauded the inclusion of funding for the water and wastewater industry.
“The public water sector is grateful to the U.S. Senate for including $500 million in additional assistance to low-income water customers in the American Rescue Plan Act,” the statement read. “This makes clear that Congress recognizes the critical role of public drinking water and clean water services and the increased strain many households are facing in paying their water bills as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn.”
Additionally, the relief package makes water and sewer infrastructure needs eligible to access $350 billion through the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. The funding for low-income water assistance comes in addition to the initial $638 million provided in the December 2020 FY21 Consolidated Appropriations Act, reported NBC.
In addition to the funding for clean and drinking water assistance, the bill includes direct payments and child tax credits. It will also provide:
$14 billion for vaccine distribution;
$49 billion for Covid-19 testing, contact tracing and personal protective equipment; and
Last year was difficult. And while 2021 presents some optimism for a better world, the intense challenges we face remain—COVID-19 and other public health crises, growing drought and climate change, and racial injustice. Each of these intersect with water.
More than 90% of climate stress is experienced through the water cycle—drought, extreme weather and flooding, wildfire, and more. These issues were starkly illustrated in 2020 with the wildfires in the West and the drying of several western habitats. Audubon’s own science shows that climate change is by far the biggest threat to the birds that we love. We can’t ignore the relationship between water and climate—and the dangers climate change presents to our communities, often in inequitable ways. Solutions to these problems will require elected officials to catch up to what most Americans already know: we need to prioritize our water future with bold action and funding.
In 2021, our job is to galvanize a heightened focus on water to advance solutions that improve the lives of people and birds in the West. Our commitment to collaborating with water users, tribes, farmers, water and land managers, and other stakeholders allows us to identify solutions that align habitat protection and restoration with improved water supplies for communities. And with your support, we can better protect and restore the Colorado, Gila, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, and other rivers in the arid West as well as unique saline lake ecosystems such as Great Salt Lake and the Salton Sea.
The Colorado River Compact was signed 99 years ago, and the year ahead kicks off a new round of negotiations about the future of the river. This moment gives all of us opportunities to lean into the lessons learned from management of the Colorado River and its water and bring environmental priorities forward. Of course, the past two decades have required more adaptation and mitigation because of dwindling water resources amidst long-term drought. As the arid West continues to deal with climate change, our laws and management will need to adapt.
With your advocacy, we can advance Audubon’s Western Water policy priorities with considerations for inclusive and equitable provisions. We can leverage opportunities for federal legislation and appropriations to address drought in the West, WaterSMART improvements, Farm Bill funding, and more in the context of declining water flows due to climate change impacts. We can advance investments in natural infrastructure and climate resiliency (i.e. floodplain restoration, natural water storage solutions, wildfire mitigation programs). We can improve river health, protect water quality, and support funding for agencies focused on water resources and habitats through state policy improvements. And in priority areas, we will work on-the-ground and with partners to protect and restore bird habitat and improve water flows.
For urgent attention to solutions that last, we need diverse and inclusive voices at the table and in decision-making. Audubon has spent years working to improve our equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts, and 2020 gave us real urgency to address the disproportionate impacts that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color face, including water security. In 2021, Audubon’s Western Water team will better support tribal communities, when asked for help, because tribes should be able to actively participate in decisions about water management, ensure that their water needs are met, and realize the full benefits of their water rights. And we’ll better evaluate what communities are most impacted by our conservation actions, and build collaborative partnerships to increase bird habitat and equitable access for people.
Birds connect us. Water is our great unifier too. Join us in taking urgent local, state, and national actions in the year ahead. Sign up, spread the word, and stay connected at http://audubon.org/westernwater.
Farmers and ranchers throughout the state can call/text (970) 988-0043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to resources and a team to work with you to address short and long-term drought conditions.
In the spring of 2020, FIS Worldpay, a payment-processing company, sent more than 200 of its Durango, Colorado-based employees home to work remotely, in order to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even when pandemic-avoidance measures were loosened over the summer and many workplaces filled back up, the 81,000-square-foot building remained dark. Then, in November, the Jacksonville, Florida-based company announced that the staff would continue to work remotely, and that the Durango building — the largest of its kind in town — would close for good.
This phenomenon — one-time cubicle workers becoming full-time telecommuters, liberated from corporate headquarters — deprived Durango of one of its largest private employers and has driven up office vacancy rates nationwide. Yet at the same time, it is also fueling housing booms in so-called “Zoom towns,” Durango included, as the born-again remote workers seek out more desirable areas.
Zoom towns are scattered across the United States, but the most popular ones seem to be small- to mid-sized, amenity-rich communities, with plenty of public land nearby, from Bend, Oregon, to Flagstaff, Arizona, along with a whole bunch of best-place-to-live-list towns. In most cases, their real estate markets were already overheated. But they exploded in the wake of the pandemic’s first wave, driving home prices to astronomical levels and putting homeownership even further out of reach for the typical working-class person.
The telecommuter-migration is just one of many reasons behind the current real estate craze. Rock-bottom interest rates have also contributed, along with wealthy investors seeking refuges during tumultuous times. “It’s clear that many buyers are being driven out of large cities by both COVID-19 and civil unrest,” wrote the authors of the Jackson Hole Report, regarding the recent uptick in homes priced over $3 million. “Most have been contemplating a move for some time, and felt that now was the right time.”
The Zoom economy has come at Durango from two directions. The housing market went berserk in the third quarter of 2020, and the median home price shot up to about twice the amount that a median-income earner could afford. Meanwhile, economic development officials are trying to figure out what to do with a giant, empty office building. One option: Convert it into affordable housing.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at email@example.com.
The incoming Biden administration has announced its nomination for Secretary of the Department of the Interior: U.S. Representative Deb Haaland, a Native American from New Mexico who would replace Trump administration appointee David Bernhardt, a Coloradan termed “the ultimate swamp monster” by environmental groups.
Haaland’s nomination is undeniably historic. If confirmed, she’d be the first Native American to head the very federal agency that since 1849 has been managing — and often mismanaging — the U.S. relationship with the nation’s tribes. “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland said in a tweet. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Haaland was born and raised in a military family in the Southwestern United States; she’s a member of the Laguna Pueblo people, who have lived on the land that is now the state of New Mexico for over 800 years. Her work experience spans everything from owning her own small salsa company to law school to tribal management, which led to her political involvement on a local and national level. She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, where she quickly distinguished herself on several important House committees, including Armed Services, Natural Resources and Oversight.
David Bernhardt grew up in Rifle; he worked in state conservative politics and, later, for a lobbyist firm in Denver before being picked by the second Bush administration to work in the Department of the Interior. When that position ended in 2009, Bernhardt went directly back to that Colorado lobbying firm as the chairman of its natural resources law practice, where his clients included Halliburton, Cobalt International Energy and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and farmers fighting fish lovers in California. He de-listed himself as a lobbyist in 2016 so as not to appear to violate Trump’s then-ban on lobbyists joining his administration, which is the sort of situation for which the term “technicality” was coined. After several positions related to the Trump DOI, he was nominated to Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke, whose scandals involving the egregious private use of public funds eventually brought about his resignation, and promoted to Secretary in 2019. Aside from moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Bernhardt’s tenure perhaps has been most notable for being Trump’s “designated survivor” during the 2020 State of the Union address, an achievement he earned by being picked last in Trump’s political kickball game…
Policies and Practices
Bernhardt, as his client base might suggest, was decidedly pro-business in his work in natural resources, a “drill, baby, drill” guy. He worked both in and out of government on many of the same issues despite claims to the contrary — mainly, the prioritization of the agribusiness, oil, gas and mining industries over any credible environmental concerns. While he claimed at a confirmation hearing that he “implemented an incredibly robust screening process” to guard against conflicts of interest, Bernhardt was found by the General Accounting Office to have twice broken federal law; this finding was later overturned by Trump’s own Interior Department, with no sense of irony whatsoever.
Haaland, in contrast, is well known for working on behalf of both indigenous populations and the natural environment. An example of both: In 2016, she went to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to join tribal leadership in opposing the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Haaland was able to not only bring support from New Mexico labor unions, according to the Washington Post, but also homemade tortillas and green chile stew.
That’s the difference between the two Americas today, illustrated in consecutive Interior secretaries: One brings warm homemade soup to a grassroots organization supporting the protection of the land and all that lives upon it. The other might as well drive a coal-burning Hummer with a bumpersticker that reads “MY MONEY > YOUR FISH.”
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor December 15, 2020.
West Drought Monitor December 15, 2020.
Colorado Drought Monitor December 15, 2020.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor week saw some modest improvements in drought conditions across portions of the Southwest, southern Great Plains, South, lower Midwest, and portions of the Northeast. Drought-related conditions deteriorated in southern California, the southern Great Basin, Texas, Minnesota, and parts of New England. In California, storm activity during the weekend delivered beneficial rain and snow to areas of central and northern California; however, the southern part of the state remained dry. Since January 1, areas of California—including portions of the eastern Sierra and Sacramento Valley—have received less than 25% of normal precipitation. The impact of both short- and long-term dryness in parts of California has been affecting the cattle ranching industry with numerous drought impact reports describing severe impacts to pasture and rangeland conditions as well as reports of ranchers having to sell livestock. Fortunately, another round of storms is expected to impact northern California this week bringing valley rains and mountain snows to the region. In the southern Great Basin, record dryness during the past 6-month period led to expansion of areas of Exceptional Drought (D4) in the eastern Sierra Nevada and southern Nevada. In the Southwest, both Arizona and New Mexico received light rains across parts of the lower deserts as well as some mountain snowfall in northern Arizona and northern New Mexico, providing a much-needed boost to soil moisture levels. Elsewhere, above-normal precipitation during the past 30-to-60-day period and snowfall this week in northern portions of the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma Panhandle, led to removal of areas of drought. Further to the south in the Hill Country and South Texas Plains, drought intensified in response to persistent warm and dry conditions as well as mounting precipitation deficits ranging from 2-to-8+ inches during the past 90-day period. Conversely, areas along the coastal plains of northeastern Texas received 1-to-2+ inch accumulations during the past week leading to widespread improvements on the map. In the Midwest, wetter-than-normal conditions during the past 30-to-60-day period led to minor improvements on the map in central Illinois and northern Indiana. Likewise, portions of western New York saw improvement on the map in response to recent storm activity…
On this week’s map, areas of the region—including southwestern Kansas and northeastern Wyoming—saw modest improvements including reduction in areas of Severe Drought (D2) in Wyoming and areas of Moderate Drought (D1) in southwestern Kansas where recent snowfalls have helped to improve local conditions. Average temperatures for the week were near to slightly above normal across most of the region with eastern portions of the region observing the greatest positive temperature anomalies ranging from 3-to-12 deg F above normal. According to the NOAA NOHRSC, the Upper Midwest Region was only 16.4% covered in snow (a reduction from 30.3% last month) with an average depth of 0.2 inches and a maximum depth of 30.5 inches. Field reports from the USDA NASS North Dakota Crop Progress and Condition Report (Nov. 30) yielded winter wheat conditions rated as 4% very poor, 5% poor, 50% fair, 39% good, and 2% excellent…
During the past week, areas of the West received much needed rain and snow over the weekend with mountain snow observed in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, ranges of central/eastern Nevada, the Uinta Mountains, and across areas of the Rockies from Montana to New Mexico. Snowfall accumulations ranged from 6-to-24+ inches in the higher elevations. In the California mountains, the current statewide soil water equivalent (SWE) for the date (Dec. 14) is 47% of normal—up 11% since last week. The current regional breakdown (percentage of normal SWE) is as follows: Northern Sierra/Trinity–46%, Central Sierra–53%, and Southern Sierra–29%. In other areas of the West, the drainage basins (6-Digit HUCs) across the Four Corners states continued to observe well below-normal SWE except for the Rio Grande Headwaters (115% of normal) and the Upper Arkansas (103% of normal) basins of Colorado. In the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, basins across the Cascades of Oregon/Washington as well as central/eastern Montana are near normal to above normal. On the map, areas of Severe Drought (D2) and Extreme Drought (D3) expanded in southern California where precipitation during the past 90-day period has generally been <25% of normal. These areas largely have missed recent storm events that have impacted central and northern portions of the state. In southern Nevada, areas of Exceptional Drought (D4) expanded in Clark County where McCarran International Airport (through Dec. 1) logged its driest 6-month period (June 1 to November 30) on record with only a trace of precipitation observed for the period. In Arizona, areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded in southwestern Arizona where Parker, Arizona along the lower Colorado River has observed no precipitation since June 1—making it the driest 6-month (June 1 to November 30) on record. Elsewhere in the state, some minor improvements were made in central Arizona and northeastern Arizona on the Navajo Nation where precipitation during the past week brought some minor improvements in soil moisture. In northern New Mexico, some minor improvements were made on the map in the Sangre de Cristo Range near Taos where soil moisture levels improved (according to NASA SPoRT) and snowfall during the past week bumped a few SNOTEL stations (Gallegos Peak, Tolby) above normal levels for the date. In southeastern Idaho, areas of Moderate Drought (D1) were reduced in response to several SNOTEL sites (Prairie, Camas Creek Divide) reporting above-normal SWE…
On this week’s map, areas of drought intensified and expanded in the Hill Country and South Texas Plains where warm and dry conditions continued this week. In these areas, 90-day precipitation deficits ranged from 2-to-8 inches, and current soil moisture levels were below normal according to the NASA SPoRT soil moisture monitoring products. According to Water Data for Texas (Dec. 16), monitored water supply reservoirs are currently 79.9% full—with reservoirs in the eastern half of the state ~80–90% full while reservoirs in the western half of the state were generally <40% full. In the far northern portions of the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma Panhandle, conditions improved on the map in response to short-term precipitation including snowfall observed during the past week with accumulations ranging from 1-to-8+, according to NOAA NOHRSC. In eastern portions of Texas, northwestern Louisiana, and southeastern Oklahoma, precipitation during the past week (1-to-3 inches) led to improvements in areas of Moderate Drought (D1). Average temperatures for the week were below normal (1-to-4 deg F) in the northern Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma Panhandle, and central Oklahoma while other areas in the region were 2-to-10+ deg F above normal…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for light-to-moderate liquid accumulations ranging from 1 to 2+ inches across portions of the South with the heaviest totals expected along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle. Likewise, similar accumulations are expected in the Mid-Atlantic and across southeastern portions of New England where a major winter storm is expected to impact the region starting on Wednesday with a wintry mix of rain, freezing rain, and snow. Areas from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts are expected to receive significant snowfall accumulations ranging from 6 to 20+ inches with New York City and Boston potentially receiving more than a foot of snow. Across much of the Midwest, the Plains, Texas, the Southwest, and southern portions of California and the Great Basin, dry condition are forecasted. Elsewhere in the West, a series of storms is expected to impact an area from Washington state through northern California and eastward through the northern Great Basin and central/northern Rockies. Coastal areas are expecting heavy rainfall accumulations while further inland snowfall accumulations in the higher elevations of the Cascades and northern Rockies of Idaho and northwestern Montana could see 1-to-2 feet of snow. The CPC 6–10-day Outlook calls for a moderate probability of above-normal precipitation across most of the eastern tier of the conterminous U.S., the Upper Midwest, and across much of Alaska where probabilities are higher. Elsewhere, the outlooks call for a low-to-moderate probability of below-normal precipitation across much of the conterminous U.S.—including much of the Midwest and Plains states, the Four Corners states, and California. In terms of temperature, there is a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures across nearly the entire conterminous U.S. except for the Southeast where normal temperatures are expected…
Click here to read the discussion and to check out their graphical figures:
EL NIÑO/SOUTHERN OSCILLATION (ENSO) DIAGNOSTIC DISCUSSION issued-by CLIMATE PREDICTION CENTER/NCEP/NWS and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society 10 December 2020 ENSO Alert System Status: La Niña Advisory
Synopsis: La Niña is likely to continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2020-21 (~95% chance during January-March), with a potential transition during the spring 2021 (~50% chance of Neutral during April-June).
La Niña persisted during November, as indicated by well below-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) extending from the Date Line to the eastern Pacific Ocean. Most of the weekly indices fluctuated through the month, with the westernmost Niño regions Niño-4 and Niño-3.4 ending up around -1.0oC. The negative equatorial subsurface temperature anomalies (averaged from 180°-100°W) weakened slightly last month, but continued to reflect below-average temperatures from the surface to 200m depth in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The atmospheric circulation over the tropical Pacific Ocean remained consistent with La Niña. Over the western and central tropical Pacific Ocean, low-level wind anomalies were easterly and upper-level wind anomalies were westerly. Tropical convection continued to be suppressed from the western Pacific to the Date Line. Also,both the Southern Oscillation and Equatorial Southern Oscillation indices were positive. Overall, the coupled ocean-atmosphere system indicates the continuation of La Niña.
A majority of the models in the IRI/CPC plume predict La Niña (Niño-3.4 index less than -0.5°C) to persist through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2020-21 and to weaken through the spring. Supported by the latest forecasts from several models, the forecaster consensus is for a moderate strength La Niña (Niño-3.4 index values between -1.0oC and -1.5oC) during the peak November-January season. In summary, La Niña is likely to continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2020-21 (~95% chance for January-March), with a potential transition during the spring 2021 (~50% chance of Neutral during Apr-Jun; click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chances in each 3-month period).
La Niña is anticipated to affect climate across the United States during the upcoming months. The 3-month seasonal temperature and precipitation outlooks will be updated on Thursday December 17th.
According to the U.S. Depart- ment of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snow pack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 10.8 inches of snow water equivalent as of 9 a.m. on Dec. 2.
The median snow water equivalent amount for today’s date is 8.8 inches.
The amount of 10.8 inches of snow water equivalent is 145 percent of the Dec. 2 median for this site.
Last week’s reading showed that the Wolf Creek summit had 10.6 inches of snow water equivalent.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins were at 82 percent of the Dec. 2 median in terms of snow pack.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Juan River was flowing below the average rate at 45.4 cfs as of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
Based on 84 years of water records, the average flow rate for this date is 78 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 2008 at 253 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 29 cfs, recorded in 1968.
FromThe Tri-Lakes Tribune (Ben Ferrell) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
At its Nov. 16 meeting, the Board of Trustees approved a contract to perform the drilling and casing of a new water well for the town’s water system.
The new well, Well No. 10, will be based in the Arapahoe Basin and will be a depth of approximately 1,100 to 1,800 feet, depending on the determination of where the best draw of water would be. Public Works Director Tom Tharnish said the town’s present water consultant managed the bidding process since the contract required a specialized scope of drilling. The winning bid came in at $624,975 and was awarded to Layne Christensen Co.
Tharnish said the company, operating under a different name prior, had performed work on the town’s older wells in the past and was surprised three bids came back from the invitation.He said he expected one or two.
A follow-up contract to perform the tie-in of Well No. 10 to water treatment plant No. 4 and 5 will be presented to the board after the start of next year, since the new well will be located right outside the plant, Tharnish said.
Mayor Don Wilson asked if Well No. 10 would serve as a replacement for Well No. 9, which is presently offline due to the levels of radium detected and undergoing radium removal.
Tharnish said he hopes to have No. 10 operational and producing in March or April of next year and it would serve as the replacement to Well No. 9’s water production until No. 9 is back online that following fall.
This is the first of 15 major projects for the town’s water system which will be funded through the town’s recent Certificate of Participation issued.
The contract was approved 5-1 with Trustee Jamy Unruh having lost her connection to the virtual meeting and unable to vote.
La Niña strengthened over October, with both the tropical Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere clearly reflecting La Niña conditions. Forecasters estimate at least a 95% chance La Niña will last through the winter, with a 65% chance of it hanging on through the spring.
The October sea surface temperature anomaly (departure from the long-term average) in the Niño 3.4 region of tropical Pacific was -1.3°C according to the ERSSTv5 dataset, substantially cooler than the La Niña threshold of -0.5°C. This is the eighth-strongest negative October value in the ERSSTv5 record, which dates back to 1950. I’ll talk more about feats of strength (vis-à-vis La Niña, that is) later.
Let’s count our chickens
First, we’ll check in with the tropical Pacific ocean-atmosphere system. One of the ways we monitor the atmospheric response to ENSO is through satellite images of the amount of thermal radiation leaving the Earth’s surface. Clouds block this outgoing long-wave radiation, so when the satellites see less outgoing long-wave radiation than average, it means more clouds and rain than average. Conversely, when the satellite picks up more OLR, the skies are clearer than average.
During La Niña, we’d expect to see less rain than average over the central tropical Pacific and more rain over Indonesia—the strengthened Walker circulation, La Niña’s atmospheric response. The OLR map for October 2020 shows this pattern clearly.
Another component of the strengthened Walker circulation is stronger Pacific trade winds, the near-surface winds that blow from east to west near the equator, and stronger west-to-east winds high up in the atmosphere. Both strengthened wind patterns were observed during October, providing more evidence that the ocean-atmosphere coupling we expect during both phases of ENSO is present.
As Michelle discussed just a couple of weeks ago, this coupling is a feedback mechanism that strengthens ENSO. In the case of La Niña, cooler-than-average waters in the tropical Pacific mean the difference between the warm western Pacific and the cooler central Pacific is greater than average. This greater difference leads to the stronger Walker circulation, and the stronger trade winds further cool the surface water in the central Pacific and also pile up warm water in the west. For more details on this feedback, and a whiff of fresh-baked bread, check out Michelle’s post.
Eggs in baskets
Several computer models are suggesting that this La Niña is likely to be a stronger event, with a Niño 3.4 anomaly during November–January cooler than -1.5°C.
The substantial atmospheric coupling supports these predictions, as does the amount of cooler water under the surface. These cooler subsurface waters, which are also evidence of the coupled system, will provide a source of cooler-than-average water for the surface over the next few months. October’s average subsurface temperature was the 7th-coolest October since 1979.
The Climate Prediction Center is now providing a probabilistic outlook for the strength of El Niño and La Niña events. Tom described this new technique in a blog post a little while back—it’s too much to get into here, so please check out his post for the details. While forecast probabilities are provided for every season, it is the November–January season that has the largest chance (54%) of Niño-3.4 being below -1.5°C. This would make it a strong event; of the 23 La Niña events since 1950, seven have had maximum Niño 3.4 cooler than -1.5°C.
What came first
As we’ve observed in a few earlier posts about this La Niña, it appears to be relatively rare in our observed record (starting in 1950) for La Niña to develop following a neutral or slightly warm winter like we had in 2019–2020. I got curious about this, so I thought I’d exercise my newfound Python skills a bit and look at the data. (Python is a computer programming language. I’m not a snake wrangler…yet!)
It turns out that the previous La Niña events we’ve observed so far (dots below the blue line) have all been preceded by either El Niño or La Niña. 2020 stands out, following a winter where tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures were slightly warm, but not quite El Niño. Since we only have about 70 years of observations, it’s hard to say exactly how unusual this is—we’d need to do more studies with climate models to find out, but that’s a lot for my monthly ENSO Blog post, to say nothing of my Python skills!
When the conditions come home to roost
We pay so much attention to ENSO because it affects global weather and climate; a stronger La Niña event means these effects are more likely. We’ve already seen hints of some of the weather and climate patterns we’d expect during La Niña. The most obvious one of these is the extraordinarily active Atlantic hurricane season. La Niña leads to reduced shear (the change in wind from the surface to the upper levels) in the atmosphere over the Atlantic, allowing hurricanes to grow and strengthen.
Although October is a little early for clear La Niña impacts, global precipitation and temperature patterns during the month did give some hints of a La Niña effect, including more rain in Indonesia, drier conditions in southeastern China and the U.S. Southwest, and cooler weather in Canada and into the U.S. Northern Plains. I wrote about potential impacts in more detail last month, so check that out if you missed it.
Nat will cover the winter outlook for North America in his post later this month. And of course, we’ll be here, brooding over La Niña and keeping you up-to-date.
They turned out in big numbers and overwhelmingly supported the former vice president. Young voters of color played a critical role in battleground states.
…young voters between 18 and 29 will have played a critical role in his election, turning out in force and favoring the former vice president over President Trump by 61 percent to 36 percent, according to an analysis by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning at Tufts University.
The Center concluded that those young voters, and particularly young people of color and women, may have helped put Biden over the edge in crucial battleground states, based on an analysis of votes counted by midday Friday.
The Tufts’ center estimated the youth share of the vote in the 2020 election at 17 percent, compared to 16 percent in the 2016 presidential election and 13 percent in the 2018 midterms, based on the 2020 VoteCast from the Associated Press, the National Election Pool exit poll from Edison Research and its own analyses of census population data. That figure could change as more data becomes available and the election comes to a close.
The center, a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement, also projected that once all votes are counted, youth turnout may rise to 53 to 56 percent, compared to 46 percent in the 2016 election and 36 percent in the 2018 midterms. That would represent the highest youth voter turnout since at least 1984.
Young Black, Asian and Latino voters supported Biden over Trump by margins of 77, 72 and 49 points respectively. By comparison, young white voters supported Biden over Trump by a margin of only 6 points. Support for the two candidates also divided along gender-based lines within racial and ethnic groups, with young white women preferring Biden over Trump by a 13-point margin, while young white men preferred Trump over Biden by a 6-point margin.
The center’s analysis also found substantial pro-Biden youth voter turnout in key battleground states, including in closely-watched Georgia, where youth comprised 21 percent of the vote and gave Biden a 19-point edge over Trump. Specifically, young Black voters, who favored Biden over Trump by an 82-point margin, “put Georgia in play,” the center said in its analysis.
The law enforcement community is among those who have failed to understand the true nature and danger of far-right extremists. Over several decades, the FBI and other federal authorities have only intermittently paid attention to far-right extremists. In recent years, they have again acknowledged the extent of the threat. But it’s not clear how long their attention will last.
1. Some have white supremacist views, but others don’t
When asked to condemn white supremacists and extremists at the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump floundered, then said, “Give me a name.” His Democratic challenger Joe Biden offered, “The Proud Boys.”
Not all far-right extremists are militant white supremacists.
White supremacy, the belief in white racial superiority and dominance, is a major theme of many far-right believers. Some, like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, are extremely hardcore hate groups.
Others, who at times identify themselves with the term “alt-right,” often mix racism, anti-Semitism and claims of white victimization in a less militant way. In addition, there are what some experts have called the “alt-lite,” like the Proud Boys, who are less violent and disavow overt white supremacy even as they promote white power by glorifying white civilization and demonizing nonwhite people including Muslims and many immigrants.
2. They live in cities and towns across the nation and even the globe
Far-right extremists are in communities all across America.
The KKK, often thought of as centered in the South, has chapters from coast to coast. The same is true of other far-right extremist groups, as illustrated by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map.
3. Many are well-organized, educated and social-media savvy
Far-right extremists include people who write books, wear sport coats and have advanced degrees. For instance, in 1978 a physics professor turned neo-Nazi wrote a book that has been called the “bible of the racist right.” Other leaders of the movement have attended elite universities.
Far-right extremists were early users of the internet and now thrive on social media platforms, which they use to agitate, recruit and organize. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville revealed how effectively they could reach large groups and mobilize them into action.
But far-right extremists were here long before Trump.
The history of white power extremism dates back to slave patrols and the post-Civil War rise of the KKK. In the 1920s, the KKK had millions of members. The following decade saw the rise of Nazi sympathizers, including 15,000 uniformed “Silver Shirts” and a 20,000 person pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939.
While adapting to the times, far-right extremism has continued into the present. It’s not dependent on Trump, and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence.
5. They pose a widespread and dire threat, with some seeking civil war
Thinking of these extremists as loners risks missing the complexity of their networks, which brought as many as 13 alleged plotters together in the planning to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
Together, these misconceptions about far-right extremist individuals and groups can lead Americans to underestimate the dire threat they pose to the public. Understanding them, by contrast, can help people and experts alike address the danger, as the election – and its aftermath – unfolds.
Many western cities have been able to shrink their total water use in recent decades, even as their populations grew. That’s the finding of a new study published in the journal Water last week. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with lead author Brian Richter about how simple water conservation measures could be a cost-effective way to combat shortages in the Colorado River Basin.
How is this possible? How can water use drop while the population grows?
The explanation of that is that they have found ways to encourage people, to incentivize people, to use less water per person on average. What we found across the board in the western Cities that we surveyed—we looked at 20 different cities—we found their average rate of growth from 2000 to 2015 was about 21 percent, yet their average rate of reduction in their water use was 19 percent…
So how are they pulling this off, what’s happening that makes their water use per individual go down?
There were two things that really jumped out for us…. One, outdoor landscaping. It’s not uncommon for western cities to use half or more of their water outdoors, irrigating lawns, big commercial landscape areas and that sort of thing. That was the place the cities saw some of the biggest declines in use, because a lot of them had been financially incentivizing homeowners and businesses to reduce their outdoor irrigation…. The other big part of the story was indoors, on toilets… Back in 1992, we passed the Federal Energy Act—Energy Act, not Water Act. What was interesting about that was the framers, the architects of that energy act recognized that the movement of water, the cleaning of water to get it ready and make it potable for our use, was a very large portion of U.S. energy use. They said, if we can reduce water use, then we’re also going to reduce energy use…. What the Energy Act said was any new toilets sold in the United States from that day forward were going to have to be high efficiency ones. Overnight, the new toilets being sold were using half of the water that they did previously.
In 2019, the United States produced 30-times more solar power and more than triple the amount of wind energy than it did in 2010, according to a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center. The project, “Renewables on the Rise 2020,” documents the growth of five key clean energy technologies during the past decade: solar power, wind power, battery storage, energy efficiency and electric vehicles.
In addition to the growth in renewable energy, utility-scale battery storage increased 20-fold since 2010, energy consumption per person declined thanks to improvements in energy efficiency, and more than one million electric vehicles were sold in the United States.
“People have always reaped the benefits of sun and wind, first to grow food, then to move ships… and now, to power the 21st century,” said Susan Rakov, chair of Environment America Research and Policy Center’s Clean Energy program. “Today nearly 50 million American homes rely on clean, renewable energy from the sun and wind. These technologies have risen to the occasion. They are transforming our energy landscape, and our future.”
Along with a national overview, the report highlights states that have made the most progress in adopting solar and wind energy, increasing battery storage capacity, improving energy efficiency, and transitioning to electric vehicles.
“America’s growth in clean energy is primarily the result of states taking action,” said Emma Searson, 100% Renewable Campaign director with Environment America Research & Policy Center. “Forward looking policies designed to tap into each state’s vast renewable resources are creating a virtuous cycle of technological advancements, falling costs and greater deployment.”
California, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada and Texas added the most solar energy between 2010 and 2019, while the Mid- and Southwest states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois saw the most wind energy growth. In Kansas and Oklahoma, wind generation grew almost seven-fold during that time.
The New England states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts led the pack on efficiency improvements. In addition to taking first place for solar energy growth by a wide margin, California also ranked No. 1 for electric vehicle charging stations and sales (followed by New York, Washington, Florida and Texas). The Golden State was also top for growth in battery storage (followed by Illinois, Texas, Hawaii and West Virginia), thanks in part to strong policy leadership in the state.
As the owners of the largest coal-burning power plant in the West map out the details of closing in the next two years, the Navajo Nation has taken its next step in its energy development by starting operations at a new 27-megawatt solar farm not far from the source of the coal that fuels Navajo Generating Station. The Kayenta solar project, owned by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and operated by First solar, is the first large-scale solar energy facility on the reservation. The electricity is sold to the Salt River Project for distribution. The project’s 120,000 photovoltaic panels sit on 200 acres and are mounted on single-axis trackers that follow the movement of the sun. It provides enough electricity to power approximately 7,700 households. The tribe entered a lease agreement with NTUA in 2015 for the location, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in April 2016, followed by six months of construction that started last September. The $60 million facility was built using a construction loan from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation.
Colorado Green, located between Springfield and Lamar, was Colorado’s first, large wind farm. Photo/Allen Best
This summer was a time of reckoning about race in every sector of American life, and many of us are scrambling to respond in appropriate ways — including the environmental movement I’m a part of.
We would like to forget, but the environmental movement has racist roots. One of the founders of the National Park Service was Madison Grant, whose eugenicist views inspired Hitler, and the conservation heroes, John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, both routinely disparaged Native Americans.
Trying to heal that legacy, environmental organizations for decades have talked about how to build diverse staffs, promote parks and public lands for everyone, and seriously address environmental issues in poor neighborhoods or communities of color.
Thirty years ago, the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project wrote a letter to the “Big 10” national environmental groups outlining all the ways the movement was failing communities of color and calling for change. It was an alert that some groups took seriously. Others issued a bland statement about diversity and inclusion on their websites. Since then, change has been slight and slow.
I share this observation after working in the environmental world for over 25 years, and before that as a park ranger and outdoor instructor. But as a Chicano from northern New Mexico, who grew up in a rough inner-city neighborhood in Denver, I am an anomaly.
I got into this work because I care about wild places, not as a diversity campaigner. But it’s hard to ignore. When I returned to New Mexico in the mid-‘90s to take a job with a river group in Taos, I may have been the only Chicano in the entire state working as a full-time environmental advocate. Some called me the “Chicano poster child.”
As an executive director or on staff with other organizations, I was similarly the “only” or the “first.” The same was true during my years rangering and teaching. I stick with it because I care, and I continue working for change from inside the mainstream. I relish the privilege of access to the public commons of national parks and wilderness areas and outdoor recreation, even as I recognize that many Americans of color do not have that access.
Trust me; it’s harder than it looks being the only brown face in the room or even on a trail. Being the first to break this or that barrier, and always having to explain to someone what it’s like can get tiring.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been asked to represent Chicano perspectives, or even all people of color, in a meeting. But it often ends up feeling like a half-hearted PC gesture for appearance sake or to satisfy a funder. Attitudes are fixed and systems in place, and once I walk out of the room I think my words are usually forgotten and it’s back to business as usual.
Despite years of experience and knowledge, a few years ago I was fired from a job with one of those big national organizations because I was “not a good fit.” For whatever best intentions this group may have had, I believe they wanted the credibility of a local ethnic face, but in the end the person behind it who did not think or act like them was a threat to the order.
It’s been a life of straddling worlds, hiding part of who I really am to try to fit in and often feeling like an outsider – and I’m not the only one.
At the same time, I sometimes feel a nagging sense of survivor’s guilt because I escaped a rough life on the streets, and am not out there in solidarity, protesting for change and getting tear-gassed and arrested. I was roughed-up by cops enough in my youth that I don’t need any more, but that does not assuage this internal conflict.
But whether you are black, brown or white, the exceptional privilege of being part of a big green group and having access to the sanity of outdoor spaces carries a responsibility to help change the status quo, to speak up for those who are not part of the mainstream dialog, to advocate for equitable access to the outdoors, and yes, to rattle a few cages.
Even though the evolution has been agonizingly slow, it seems that finally, some mainstream organizations are willing to listen and learn. This seems to be a moment of change — may the momentum last.
Denver photo courtesy of Michael Levine-Clark, Flickr Creative Commons.
A forested lava dome in the midst of the Valle Grande, the largest meadow in the Valles Caldera National Preserve