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Small streams and wetlands are key parts of river networks – here’s why they need protection

Biscuit Brook, a popular fly fishing spot in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Ellen Wohl, CC BY-ND
Biscuit Brook, a popular fly fishing spot in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Ellen Wohl, CC BY-ND

By Ellen Wohl, Colorado State University

The Trump administration is proposing to redefine a key term in the Clean Water Act: “Waters of the United States.” This deceptively simple phrase describes which streams, lakes, wetlands and other water bodies qualify for federal protection under the law.

Government regulators, landowners, conservationists and other groups have struggled to agree on what it means for more than 30 years. Those who support a broad definition believe the federal government has a broad role in protecting waters – even if they are small, isolated, or present only during wet seasons. Others say that approach infringes on private property rights, and want to limit which waters count.

I study rivers, and served on a committee that reviewed the science supporting the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule. This measure, which defined waters of the United States broadly, is what the Trump administration wants to rewrite.

The Trump proposal goes completely against scientists’ understanding of how rivers work. In my view, the proposed changes will strip rivers of their ability to provide water clean enough to support life, and will enhance the spiral of increasingly damaging floods that is already occurring nationwide. To understand why, it’s worth looking closely at how connected smaller bodies of waters act as both buffers and filters for larger rivers and streams.

Ephemeral channels like upper Antelope Creek in Arizona flow only after rain or snowfall, but are important parts of larger river systems. Ellen Wohl, CC BY-ND
Ephemeral channels like upper Antelope Creek in Arizona flow only after rain or snowfall, but are important parts of larger river systems. Ellen Wohl, CC BY-ND

Parts of a whole

The fact that something is unseen does not make it unimportant. Think of your own circulatory system. You can see some veins in your hands and arms, and feel the pulse in your carotid artery with your finger. But you can’t see the capillaries – tiny channels that support vital processes. Nutrients, oxygen and carbon dioxide move between your blood and the fluids surrounding the cells of your body, passing through the capillaries.

And just because something is abundant does not reduce each single unit’s value. For example, when we look at a tree we tend to see a mass of leaves. The tree won’t suffer much if some leaves are damaged, especially if they can regrow. But if it loses all of its leaves, the tree will likely die.

These systems resemble maps of river networks, like the small tributary rivers that feed into great rivers such as the Mississippi or the Columbia. Capillaries feed small veins that flow into larger veins in the human body, and leaves feed twigs that sprout from larger branches and the trunk.

A conservation biologist explains how the wetlands and backwaters of Oregon’s Willamette River system were critical to rescuing the Oregon chub, one of this valley’s most endangered fishes, from near extinction.

Microbes at work

Comparing these analogs to rivers also is apt in another way. A river is an ecosystem, and some of its most important components can’t be seen.

Small channels in a river network are points of entry for most of the materials that move through it, and also sites where potentially harmful materials can be biologically processed. The unseen portions of a river below the streambed function like a human’s liver by filtering out these harmful materials. In fact, this metaphor applies to headwater streams in general. Without the liver, toxins would accumulate until the organism dies.

As an illustration, consider how rivers process nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are essential for plant and animal life but also have become widespread pollutants. Fossil fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers have increased the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus circulating in air, water and soil. When they accumulate in rivers, lakes and bays, excess nutrients can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen from the water, killing fish and other aquatic animals and creating “dead zones.” Excess nitrogen in drinking water is also a serious human health threat.

River ecosystems are full of microbes in unseen places, such as under the roots of trees growing along the channel; in sediments immediately beneath the streambed; and in the mucky ooze of silt, clay, and decomposing leaves trapped upstream from logs in the channel. Microbes can efficiently remove nutrients from water, taking them up in their tissues and in turn serving as food for insects, and then fish, birds, otters and so on. They are found mainly in and around smaller channels that make up an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the total length of any river network.

Map of the Missouri River basin showing its network of tributaries. Missouri River Water Trail, CC BY-ND
Map of the Missouri River basin showing its network of tributaries. Missouri River Water Trail, CC BY-ND

Water does not necessarily move very efficiently through these small channels. It may pond temporarily above a small logjam, or linger in an eddy. Where a large boulder obstructs the stream flow, some of the water is forced down into the streambed, where it moves slowly through sediments before welling back up into the channel. But that’s good. Microbes thrive in these slower zones, and where the movement of dissolved nutrients slows for even a matter of minutes, they can remove nutrients from the water.

Flood control and habitat

Other critical processes, such as flood control, take place in small upstream river channels. When rain concentrates in a river fed by numerous small streams, and surrounded by bottomland forests and floodplain wetlands, it moves more slowly across the landscape than if it were running off over land. This process reduces flood peaks and allows more water to percolate down into the ground. Disconnect the small streams from their floodplains, or pave and plow the small channels, and rain will move quickly from uplands into the larger channels, causing damaging floods.

These networks also provide critical habitat for many species. Streams that are dry much of the year, and wetlands with no surface flow into or out of them, are just as important to the health of a river network as streams that flow year-round.

Marvelously adapted organisms in dry streams wait for periods when life-giving water flows in. When the water comes, these creatures burst into action, with microbes removing nitrate just as in perennially flowing streams. Amphibians move down from forests to temporarily flooded vernal wetlands to breed. Tiny fish, such as brassy minnows, have waited out the dry season in pools that hold water year-round. When flowing water connects the pools, the minnows speed through breeding and laying eggs that then grow into mature fish in a short period of time.

The Arikaree River in eastern Colorado is an intermittent stream that supports brassy minnow, a species of concern in the state. Ellen Wohl, CC BY-NC
The Arikaree River in eastern Colorado is an intermittent stream that supports brassy minnow, a species of concern in the state. Ellen Wohl, CC BY-NC

Scientific sleuthing with chemical tracers has shown that wetlands with no visible surface connection to other water bodies are in fact connected via unseen subterranean pathways used by water and microbes. A river network is not simply a gutter. It is an ecosystem, and all the parts, unseen or seen, matter. I believe the current proposal to alter the Clean Water Act will fundamentally damage rivers’ ability to support all life – including us.

Ellen Wohl is a Professor of Geosciences at Colorado State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

California’s dream has turned into water nightmares

A new book looks at the Golden State’s history to understand its current water crisis.

Aerial view of the California Aqueduct. Source: Adobe Stock
Aerial view of the California Aqueduct. Source: Adobe Stock

By Sean McCoy

My mother grew up on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Bakersfield in the 1960s. When I was little, she told me stories about the Basques who sheared their sheep, and described a childhood spent wandering among the family’s fruit and nut trees. It was a bucolic picture of California’s Central Valley, the type of picturesque image that journalist Mark Arax, in his sprawling new treatise on water and agriculture in the Golden State, is quick to undermine: Today, small family farms are vanishing, agribusiness is expanding, the earth is sinking, aquifers are emptying, rivers run dry, and laborers toil for a pittance.

In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax roams the state and plumbs its history to reveal the causes and consequences of its current water crisis. He reports on farms and the pipelines that supply them, interviewing fieldworkers and billionaire landowners, and interjecting tales of his family’s own agricultural forays and failures. His scope is impressive: He describes the cultivation of specialized grapes with the same clarity and finesse with which he unravels the state’s great mass of dams, aqueducts and complicated water rights. The result clearly depicts “the grandest hydraulic engineering feat known to man” — “one of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history.”

This engineering feat is at the center of the book’s most urgent questions. Despite recurring drought and a rapidly changing climate, each year the Central Valley produces another bountiful harvest. “How much was magic? How much was plunder?” Arax asks. The region accounts for over a third of the country’s vegetables, over two-thirds of our nuts and fruit; it boasts a million acres of almonds alone. Stewart Resnick of The Wonderful Company, the biggest grower of them all, shuttles 400,000 acre-feet of water per year to his 15 million trees, mostly almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and citrus. (The city of Los Angeles, for perspective, consumes 587,000 acre-feet annually.)

The bounty is largely plunder, of course, not magic. The plunder is as embedded in the state as the dream that made it possible. Arax traces this history from the Spanish colonial subjugation of Indigenous peoples to the conquering of the territory by U.S. forces, to the excavation of mountains for gold, to Los Angeles’ theft of the Owens River, to urban sprawl and suburban tracts — an unending cycle of supply and demand. Restraint was never an option. “No society in history has gone to greater lengths to deny its fundamental nature than California,” he writes. “California, for a century and two-thirds now, keeps forgetting its arrangement with drought and flood.”

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California Mark Arax 576 pages, hardcover: $30 Knopf, 2019.
The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California Mark Arax 576 pages, hardcover: $30 Knopf, 2019.

Time and again in The Dreamt Land, we watch farmers ignore the certainty of drought, planting “to the absolute extreme of what the water could serve.” When farms in Tulare and Kern counties exhausted their local rivers, they drained the San Joaquin, which also proved insufficient. Such excessive planting and pumping, paired with the natural pendulum of flood and drought, perpetuated the fast disappearance of water. This “gave rise to both the need and ambition of a system”: the immense Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which mine Northern California’s rivers and redistribute water to the Central Valley and the urban centers of the south.

Both projects were largely constructed between the late 1930s and early 1970s and designed to allow farmers to grow in both wet and dry years. But “the System,” as Arax methodically shows, was based on the flawed, idealized theory of an average year of weather; it presumed to deliver a constant, predictable supply, as if wild variations in precipitation did not exist or could be evened out by mathematics.

In reality, “the actual water captured and delivered (by the System) fell short of the normal or far beyond it.” When it fell short, which happened frequently, farmers were forced to confront the nearly 2 million-acre-foot difference. When the floods arrived, they again forgot the dry years and sowed new fields. Cities did the same and boomed. Then true drought set in, as it always does, and everyone scrambled to survive: The cities grabbed from the System; the government supplied subsidies to farmers; some farmers dug new wells and watched the ground sink beneath them; still others fallowed their land and sold their water to the highest bidder. As climate change accelerates, the cycles of drought and flood and the severity of their effects have only been exacerbated.

These are the stories of a people who refuse to face the limits of their landscape, whose attempts at control end up dirtying their own beds, and whose production, for now, is remarkably inflated. “Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley — (California) made for infinite invention.” This multitude is both the source of the state’s bounty and the substance of its myth. The California Dream is the American Dream with a dash of rouge and citrus — just as tantalizing, just as exclusive. Arax throws back the curtains, but a deeper question endures: Does his audience rise and respond, or do they remain asleep?

Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona and the editor of Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands.

This story originally appeared on High Country News on December 9, 2019 and is republished here by permission.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Video story: California’s vanishing lake (full length)

 


By Lindsay Fendt and This American Land

Water conservation in California’s southern desert is causing an environmental disaster as the Salton Sea quickly shrinks.

This video story was produced for The Water Desk by public television’s “This American Land.” Reporter: Lindsay Fendt. Producer and Editor: Dave Timko

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Video: The vanishing vaquita

Water Desk Grantee Publication

This story was supported by the Water Desk’s grant programs.

Learn more about our grants for journalists

Read more grantee stories »

The United Nations says that a million species across the planet are at risk of going extinct, including one-third of the world’s marine mammals. The vaquita, a small porpoise that lives in our backyard in the salty waters of the Upper Gulf of California, is poised to lead the way. Its total population is currently estimated at 12. We take you to San Felipe, Mexico and onto the waters of the Upper Gulf to see firsthand the efforts being made to save this creature and explore why, despite years of warnings about its fate, the vaquita population continues to decline.

Producer/Editor: Vanessa Barchfield

Shooter/Editor: Nate Huffman

This story was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

See the complete multimedia feature story on Arizona Public Media’s website.

Meet the veteran insider who’s shepherding Gov. Newsom’s plan to bring climate resilience to California water

WESTERN WATER Q&A: Former journalist Nancy Vogel explains how the draft California Water Resilience Portfolio came together and why it’s expected to guide future state decisions

Nancy Vogel, director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program, highlights key points in the draft Water Resilience Portfolio last month for the Water Education Foundation's 2020 Water Leaders class.
Nancy Vogel, director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program, highlights key points in the draft Water Resilience Portfolio last month for the Water Education Foundation’s 2020 Water Leaders class. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

By Gary Pitzer

Shortly after taking office in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on state agencies to deliver a Water Resilience Portfolio to meet California’s urgent challenges — unsafe drinking water, flood and drought risks from a changing climate, severely depleted groundwater aquifers and native fish populations threatened with extinction.

Within days, he appointed Nancy Vogel, a former journalist and veteran water communicator, as director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program to help shepherd the monumental task of compiling all the information necessary for the portfolio. The three state agencies tasked with preparing the document delivered the draft Water Resilience Portfolio Jan. 3. The document, which Vogel said will help guide policy and investment decisions related to water resilience, is nearing the end of its comment period, which goes through Friday, Feb. 7.

In an interview with Western Water, Vogel acknowledged that every governor seeks to put their stamp on solving the state’s water resource issues. The hope with the Water Resilience Portfolio, she said, is that it can be a catalyst for progress because California’s next drought or flood is never far away and the time to act is now.

Western Water: How would you describe the purpose of the portfolio?

NANCY VOGEL: It’s a high-level policy planning document, much like the Water Action Plan was for the Brown administration. It sets forth our priorities and it’s the blueprint for state agencies working on water. I’ve been impressed with just how much time and energy people have put into providing us input and making sure that it’s on the scale we need.

WW: You have been presenting the portfolio around the state. What’s the response been?

VOGEL: Its generally positive. People say they feel as if they’ve been heard. A lot of people say ‘I can see my comments reflected in the Portfolio, but I’m going to send you another set of comments because I have a quibble with this or that or you forgot X, Y or Z,’ and that’s a good opportunity for us to take another look.

WW: The Sierra Club wrote that the document ‘suffers from an unprioritized list of actions and is ultimately a restatement of water policy depending heavily on a few large-scale and outdated water fixes.’ How do you respond to that?

VOGEL: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I do not think the draft portfolio depends on a few big projects. Our approach is diversified, as a portfolio should be. As for the criticism that this is a restatement, we have momentum coming out of the 2012-2016 drought and we want to continue to make progress without massive new mandates on local water districts or attempts at drastic reforms that would unleash uncertainty and stall progress.

WW: What’s the relevance of the portfolio to the average Californian?

Nancy Vogel, a former journalist, is director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program.
Nancy Vogel, a former journalist, is director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

VOGEL: We all need water and food and want our grandkids to experience spring-run chinook salmon and snow geese. Nobody wants a California where fellow residents lose their homes to flood or tap water to drought. It takes a lot of planning and investment to maintain water supplies and natural systems in a state with such big geographic and timing imbalances in its water resources. This is a document that tries to steer state resources and efforts toward helping the very diverse regions of California be ready for more extreme conditions — drought and flood — and to be able to supply water to communities, the economy and the environment into the future despite climate change and increasing population.

WW: How does the portfolio address the land use changes that are anticipated to occur as a result of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act?

VOGEL: The draft portfolio acknowledges that local planners face changes in their tax rolls, workforce and land uses, and the state can help local governments anticipate and adjust to those changes with funding and resources for planning. Land uses will change in some places, and that’s going to have a ripple effect on communities and county budgets.

Nancy Vogel
Age: 52
Education: Bachelor of Science, Conservation and Resource Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Master of Arts, University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Previous jobs: Director of communications at the Resources Legacy Fund, from July 2017 to May 2019. Deputy secretary for communications at the California Natural Resources Agency from 2015 to 2017. Assistant director for public affairs at the Department of Water Resources from 2012 to 2015. Principal consultant for the California State Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes from 2008 to 2012. Staff writer for the Los Angeles Times from 2000 to 2008 and The Sacramento Bee from 1991 to 2000, where water was part of her assignment.
Fun Fact: One of Vogel’s favorite places is the Knight Foundry in Sutter Creek in the Sierra foothills, a water-powered foundry that was a Gold Rush cradle of innovation – and is still operating, thanks to dedicated volunteers.

WW: The portfolio says a new emphasis on cooperation across state agencies and with regional groups and leaders is needed. How does that occur?

VOGEL: Our approach to the draft Portfolio embodies cooperation — we asked for extensive input. We wanted to hear about local concerns and what water managers think the state can best do to support them as they address those concerns. I think it’s a mindset. Sometimes people forget how much [Integrated Regional Water Management] has accomplished in terms of the way we look at collaboration on a watershed scale. And it’s easy to focus on the things that IRWM isn’t doing or isn’t doing as well as we’d like. But we’re in a much different place now in 2020 than we were in 2000 because of IRWM and we want to build on that. There are lots of other ways for regions to collaborate on a watershed scale and we’re open to that and we want to support that too. But we don’t want to take everything that’s been accomplished and all those human relationships forged in the planning efforts under IRWM — we don’t want to just toss that aside and start over. We want to build on that. And we need to improve the way we coordinate at the state level, too.

WW: How do you make sure this just doesn’t end up another book on a shelf and that there is follow through?

VOGEL: That will take sustained, high-level focus from Secretaries [Wade] Crowfoot, [Jared] Blumenfeld and [Karen] Ross [from Natural Resources, Cal EPA and Food and Agriculture, respectively] and I know they’re committed to that. We also task ourselves with doing an annual update on progress, in which the public will hold us accountable for what we’ve accomplished and have yet to accomplish. We get the resources, the right people in the right places, and we make progress.

WW: How did your experience in journalism prepare you for this task and to be an advocate for this portfolio?

Vogel answers questions from members of the Water Leaders class.
Vogel answers questions from members of the Water Leaders class. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

VOGEL: A journalist learns to listen and to absorb information quickly and to organize it. We had a lot of information coming in quickly as we began to prepare the portfolio and I think my experience with organizing information in a way that I could then disseminate to people who needed to make decisions helped. Journalists get to interview everybody who cares about an issue and so they end up with a unique perspective on a problem that’s valuable. And I felt like I got to do that in some ways as the person who was herding cats on the portfolio. I got to hear everybody’s concerns and that was a privilege. It’s hard to do justice to all the experience and knowledge and often conflicting but heartfelt values reflected in the input we got. We did our best. It was a team effort across the departments and the agencies. It’s been a lot of hours but so worthwhile. I just want to improve the document now and make it the best it can be.

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef Know someone else who wants to stay connected with water in the West? Encourage them to sign up for Western Water, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

This story originally appeared on Western Water on Feb. 6, 2020.

Is renewable energy’s future dammed?

A proposed hydroelectric project on the Little Colorado River shows the tricky trade-offs in transitioning from fossil fuels.

The Little Colorado River in Northern Arizona. Photo by Adobe Stock.

By Nick Bowlin, High Country News

Just outside Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, a year-round, mineral-rich spring turns the Little Colorado River a vivid turquoise. This final stretch, about 10 miles from the river’s confluence with its larger relative, is one of the West’s spectacular waterways, with bright water flowing below steep red-rock cliffs. But the view will change dramatically if a Phoenix-based company builds a proposed hydropower project. The two dams could alter the flow, discolor the water and flood a Hopi cultural site.

The project remains a long shot: It needs the approval of the Navajo Nation, whose leaders have been publicly skeptical. It also has to contend with varying river flows and the protected humpback chub, plus a remote location that will require building extensive transmission lines. The river’s beauty makes this particular project stand out, but it’s just one of a number of proposed hydropower projects around the West. 

California duck curve graphic

The structure of today’s energy market helps explain hydropower’s appeal, even for dubious projects like this one. As it stands, renewables struggle to match power supply to common patterns of demand (as revealed by solar energy’s “duck curve”). The result is a renewable energy bottleneck. If the U.S. is to meet global climate goals, an enormous, rapid shift away from fossil fuels is needed. This creates what one recent academic paper calls “green vs. green trade-offs,” exemplified in the West by the recent trend of proposed hydropower dams. Such projects destroy waterways and harm ecosystems — but they could also help purge the grid of fossil fuels.

Solar power works only during the day, and wind is inconsistent. To meet peak power demand, which tends to spike at night, utilities rely on coal, nuclear and — increasingly — natural gas. In order to rapidly increase and decrease supply to meet real-time demand, gas plants must run all the time. This limits the amount of solar and wind power the grid can accommodate, thereby prolonging fossil fuel use. States are already producing more solar and wind power than their grids can take. 

The capacity to store the day’s excess solar and wind power for nightly use would solve the problem. Battery storage, while advancing fast, is years away from being both advanced enough to replace gas plants and fully integrated into power production, according to Suzanne Stradling, a University of New Mexico Ph.D. student who is studying the renewable transition. If we could meet peak power without natural gas, she said, “there’s no limit to the amount of solar we could bring onto the grid.”

But how do you manage without gas power? Coal is a greater pollutant, and nuclear waste is politically — as well as environmentally — toxic. That leaves hydropower. Like gas, hydropower can ramp up power generation almost instantly. Pumped storage dams, which are essentially enormous batteries, could meet peak power demand, allowing solar and wind energy to chase gas and coal from the grid. Fourteen of the 15 dams proposed in the West this year are designed for pumped storage, according to federal data. But many face obstacles similar to those confronting the Little Colorado project. 

Some proposed Western dams would use existing infrastructure, not natural systems like the Little Colorado River. There is a move to transform an abandoned iron mine outside Joshua Tree National Park into a massive hydropower plant, for example, while Los Angeles wants to convert Hoover Dam into a pumped storage facility. But by the time new projects are permitted and built, “things in the energy industry are going to look entirely different,” Stradling said. This uncertainty can make it hard to attract investors. And in another region-wide trend, several multi-state transmission projects — the kind that will bring Wyoming’s excess wind power to other states — are already underway. Recent expansions to California’s energy imbalance market are another important step toward a true regional market. A more unified grid, combined with better battery storage, will reduce the need for hydropower projects.

Meanwhile, other hydropower projects are coming online. A $1 billion pumped storage dam will begin construction in Montana next year, and another hydropower project has been approved in California’s San Diego County. Both are near transmission lines and will help decarbonize Western grids.

But what sort of future are we committing ourselves to by building these dams? This question occupies University of Wyoming professor Tara Righetti. The infrastructure we build now, she said, will lock us into certain futures, while denying others. The enduring difficulty of accounting for 20th century infrastructure is apparent in behemoths like Glen Canyon Dam and the push for dam removal on the Snake River in southeastern Washington. Even after battery technology improves and the power grid supplies Nevada with Wyoming wind on a cloudy day, hydro storage dams will still exist. For there is a cost to not building them — our continued reliance on existing energy infrastructure and natural gas plants to keep the lights turned on.

“All power sources have an impact,” she said. “If there’s a human imperative to address climate change, that means finding the right spot to make these trade-offs.”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at nickbowlin@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor

This story was originally published at High Country News on Nov. 1, 2019.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Who should pay for water conservation in the West? Water managers wade into discussion

Seen from the air, Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Courtesy Photo.
Seen from the air, Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Courtesy Photo.

By Heather Sackett

LAS VEGAS — Water managers from throughout the Colorado River Basin took the stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference earlier this month to talk about conserving water in the face of the twin threats to the river: increasing demand and climate change.

The state of Colorado is currently exploring a water-use-reduction program that is largely designed to pay farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope to voluntarily conserve water. While there’s still debate whether such a program should be implemented, the first question many ask is how to pay for such a program. In recent months, some water managers have come up with innovative ways to fund the controversial water-use-reduction plan — known as demand management — that wouldn’t rely entirely on taxpayers.

The drought contingency plan, which water leaders inked at last year’s annual CRWUA meeting, set up a reserve account of 500,000 acre-feet of water that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — could use to store water in Lake Powell as an insurance policy against dwindling reservoir levels.

In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition DD, which is projected to funnel roughly $16 million a year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB, by taxing sports betting. Demand management is one of the two things money from Proposition DD could fund (the other is Water Plan grants).

However, it’s widely accepted that $16 million is not enough to fund either of those things in their entirety. Demand management needs other sources of money.

Although the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District still isn’t convinced that a demand-management program is the right approach for the Western Slope, general manager Andy Mueller told the Las Vegas crowd that the Upper Basin has to reduce its water consumption — and explore creative solutions to accomplish that.

“I often talk about the Lower Basin overuse and how that’s driving the problem, and I will say they in the Lower Basin need to fix that problem,” Mueller said. “I will also say we in the Upper Basin … need to reduce our use. The science is pretty clear. Water we all thought was there even 15 years ago is not going be there. You can’t have water for the environment and the people if we are not reducing consumptive use throughout the basin.”

General Manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District Andy Mueller speaks at the district’s annual seminar in 2018. Mueller told the audience the Upper Basin needs to reduce its consumptive use at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
General Manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District Andy Mueller speaks at the district’s annual seminar in 2018. Mueller told the audience the Upper Basin needs to reduce its consumptive use at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Who should pay?

So, if nearly all water users on the Colorado River, including those in the Lower Basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — would stand to benefit from a demand-management program, who should pay for it?

Not Colorado taxpayers, Mueller said, at least not entirely.

“Eighty million (dollars) a year would need to be out there in payments to get the appropriate amount of water in Lake Powell,” he said. “That cost to taxpayers is too high. So you turn to: Who else benefits from us creating a storage account in Lake Powell?”

One answer: power providers in both the Upper and Lower Basin states, who all need Lake Powell to remain above 3,525 feet, the minimum level required to continue generating hydropower.

For example, the Western Area Power Administration sells hydropower generated at Glen Canyon Dam and other federal dams along the Colorado River to local communities, including Aspen and Glenwood Springs. In all, WAPA sells hydropower from the Colorado River system to about 200 customers, including municipalities, rural electric cooperatives, federal and state agencies, irrigation districts and Native American tribes.

Mueller thinks adding a small demand-management surcharge to customers’ bills is something that should be explored,

“Power customers should share in the costs of us storing for demand management,” he said.

Another potential source of funds could be nonprofit environmental groups, since sending more water downstream to Lake Powell would also benefit stream health. The federal government, whose Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, also has a role to play, Mueller said.

But no matter where the money comes from, Mueller said it must be channeled through the CWCB in a heavily regulated market to prevent speculation by private buyers.

“We have been very clear it needs to be a guided market if it’s going to happen, with lots of thoughtful, proactive rules to prevent lots of serious consequences,” he said.

This field in lower Woody Creek is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state of Colorado is exploring how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
This field in lower Woody Creek is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state of Colorado is exploring how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

State-led exploration

The CWCB currently has a workgroup devoted to exploring how to fund demand management. The group has met twice so far, but CWCB facilitator Anna Mauss said the two biggest questions the group is grappling with are these: how much water is needed and what would the cost be. The workgroup, she said, will dive deeper into funding strategies at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.

“We are baby-stepping into this, trying to be diligent,” Mauss said. “It’s really just looking at scenarios at this point.”

The state is also encouraging innovative ideas from the private sector. The CWCB recently awarded $72,000 to 10.10.10, a Colorado Nonprofit Development Center project that aims to tackle “wicked problems” in water and climate. Under the program, 10 entrepreneurs will, over 10 days, attempt to tackle 10 systemic issues that are not adequately addressed by government, organizations or institutions.

“Yes, we are looking at demand management, and it could be one of the wicked problems we address,” said Jeffrey Nathanson, president of 10.10.10.

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farmland in the Grand Valley. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
Water from the Colorado River irrigates farmland in the Grand Valley. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Platform for payment?

While some people work on finding sources of funding, others are already creating a platform to pay irrigators once the money is in place. Southwest Colorado water managers Steven Ruddell and David Stiller think a reverse auction to compensate water users for using less is the best way to go.

A reverse auction, which features many sellers (farmers and ranchers) and one buyer (the state of Colorado through the CWCB), would allow water-rights holders to set the lowest price they are willing to accept to voluntarily send their water downstream. According to Ruddell and Stiller’s paper on the subject, a reverse auction would remove paying for demand management from a political process and move it into a market-based process that lets water-rights holders bid the fair-market value of their water. It would also keep costs down for the CWCB.

Ruddell and Stiller presented their reverse-auction idea at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University last month.

“We’ve tried to bite off a small piece of demand management by suggesting we use an auction that people are familiar with,” Ruddell said. “It’s used to determine the value of something, especially in the ag world.”

There are still many questions surrounding how a demand-management program might be paid for.

“There are all sorts of options,” Mueller said. “We shouldn’t just focus on raising taxes in our state.”

This story originally appeared on Aspen Journalism on Jan. 30, 2019.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Dec. 30, 2019 edition of The Aspen Times.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

State looking to oppose White River storage project in water court

The view looking downstream at the proposed site for the reservoir and dam on the White River. Colorado's top water engineers are looking to oppose the project in water court because of their concerns that it is speculative. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.
The view looking downstream at the proposed site for the reservoir and dam on the White River. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to oppose the project in water court because of their concerns that it is speculative. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.

By Heather Sackett

Craig, Colorado — After years of their questions and concerns not being met, Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to formally oppose the water rights associated with a proposed reservoir project in northwest Colorado.

In November, the Colorado Division of Water Resources filed a motion to intervene in the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s application for a 90,000-acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River. The state DWR is now waiting for a judge to determine whether it will be allowed to file a statement of opposition in the case.

For more than 4½ years, state engineers have expressed concerns that the conservancy district has not proven there is a need for the water, which would be stored in the proposed White River reservoir and dam project between Rangely and Meeker. The issue is whether Rio Blanco has shown that it can and will put to beneficial use the water rights it applied for in 2014. It remains unclear whether the town of Rangely needs the water.

“And throughout this case, the Engineers have consistently maintained that RBWCD must demonstrate that its claimed water right is not speculative,” the motion reads. “Although RBWCD has addressed some of the Engineers’ concerns in the past six months, the Engineers maintain that RBWCD has not met its burden.”

State Engineer Kevin Rein said his office had been trying to resolve its concerns with Rio Blanco’s claims to water informally and doesn’t take filing a motion to intervene lightly.

“We are very aware of the influence we can have on the process and costs and delays, so we don’t just frivolously file a statement of opposition every time we have some issue with a case,” Rein said. “We believe there are issues that need to be fixed in this water-court application in order for it to go forward.”

One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.
One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.

Rio Blanco declines comment

The White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, would store anywhere from 44,000 to 2.92 million acre-feet of water. The water would be stored either in a reservoir formed by a dam across the main stem of the White River — this scale of project proposal is now rare in Colorado — or in an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, just north of the river. Water would have to be pumped from the river uphill and into the off-channel reservoir.

Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.

Rio Blanco says Kenney Reservoir is silting in at a rate of 300 acre-feet per year, threatening the future of Rangely’s water supply and flatwater recreation, and a new off-channel reservoir on the White River could help solve this problem.

Deirdre Macnab, seen here on her 13,000-acre 4M Ranch between Rangely and Meeker, is the current sole opposer in the water court case for the White River storage project. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to intervene in the case because they say the project applicant has not proven there is a need for the water. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.
Deirdre Macnab, seen here on her 13,000-acre 4M Ranch between Rangely and Meeker, is the current sole opposer in the water court case for the White River storage project. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to intervene in the case because they say the project applicant has not proven there is a need for the water. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism.

Opposition

If a water-court judge grants the motion to intervene, the state will become the second opposer in the case. Currently, the only other remaining opposer is 4M Ranch, owned by Deirdre Macnab.

Tucked between rolling hills of arid, sagebrush-covered rangeland, the proposed reservoir and dam site abut her 13,000-acre property along the White River.

Macnab, who bought the beef and hay operation nearly five years ago, is on the board of the conservation group White River Alliance, as well as the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable. Macnab said the main reason she opposes the reservoir project is because of the state’s concerns.

“If we felt that there was a clear purpose and need that would benefit the public, then we would, in fact, be supportive of this,” Macnab said. “But the fact that the experts are saying there does not appear to be a clear purpose and need means that this would be a real travesty and waste of taxpayer money. It’s something we will continue to oppose until that changes.”

A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has been using state funds, and their own, to study two dam options for this area between Meeker and Rangely on the White River. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has been using state funds, and their own, to study two dam options for this area between Meeker and Rangely on the White River. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Additional concerns

State engineers are also concerned about the vagueness of the revised amounts of water for various uses that Rio Blanco says it needs.

In a 2018 report, Division 6 engineer Erin Light questioned Rio Blanco’s claims that it needed water for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale and irrigation uses. In response, Rio Blanco dropped those claims but almost doubled the need for municipal and industrial use for the town of Rangely and added a new demand for recreation.

The conservancy district also set the amount of water for environmental needs for threatened and endangered species at between 3,000 and 42,000 acre-feet despite its acknowledgement that the actual amount needed for this use was unknown. Rio Blanco then added a new demand for a sediment pool of 3,000 to 24,000 acre-feet and an insurance pool of up to 3,000 acre-feet but did not describe either of these uses.

“Thus, despite removing its claims for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale, which originally accounted for over half the demand for the claimed water right, the total demands for water identified by RBWCD actually increased to 24,000-100,000 acre-feet,” the motion to intervene reads.

Grant money

Since 2013, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has given roughly $850,000 in grant money to Rio Blanco to study the White River storage project, including a $350,000 Colorado Water Plan grant in 2018. According to CWCB communications director Sara Leonard, Rio Blanco has so far spent about 60% of these most recent grant funds.

Leonard said that DWR’s motion to intervene was not a surprise to the CWCB, that the two state agencies with seemingly differing views on the project have met and that the CWCB is aware of the state engineers’ concerns.

“The grants that have been awarded to the applicant to date have all been with the intention of helping the District with the evaluation process,” Leonard wrote in an email. “In other words, the motion has not changed the scope of the ongoing work in the grant.”

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 toward investigating the feasibility of the storage project.

“We are not advocates and we are not opposers,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of River District community affairs and chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “It’s a regional question that our constituents need to figure out.”

This story originally appeared on Aspen Journalism on Jan. 20, 2020.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of The Craig Daily Press.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Atmospheric river storms can drive costly flooding – and climate change is making them stronger

Rescue workers sift through debris after a mudslide that destroyed three homes on a hillside in Sausalito, Calif., Feb. 14, 2019, during an atmospheric river storm. AP Photo/Michael Short
Rescue workers sift through debris after a mudslide that destroyed three homes on a hillside in Sausalito, Calif., Feb. 14, 2019, during an atmospheric river storm. AP Photo/Michael Short

By Tom Corringham, University of California San Diego

Ask people to name the world’s largest river, and most will probably guess that it’s the Amazon, the Nile or the Mississippi. In fact, some of Earth’s largest rivers are in the sky – and they can produce powerful storms, like the one currently tracking from Texas to eastern Canada.

Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow bands of moisture in the atmosphere that extend from the tropics to higher latitudes. These rivers in the sky can transport 15 times the volume of the Mississippi River. When that moisture reaches the coast and moves inland, it rises over the mountains, generating rain and snowfall and sometimes causing extreme flooding.

Atmospheric rivers are an important water source for the U.S. West. NOAA
Atmospheric rivers are an important water source for the U.S. West. NOAA

In the past 20 years, as observation networks have improved, scientists have learned more about these important weather phenomena. Atmospheric rivers occur globally, affecting the west coasts of the world’s major land masses, including Portugal, western Europe, Chile and South Africa. So-called “Pineapple Express” storms that carry moisture from Hawaii to the U.S. west coast are just one of their many flavors.

My research combines economics and atmospheric science to measure damage from severe weather events. Recently I led a team of researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Army Corps of Engineers in the first systematic analysis of damages from atmospheric rivers due to extreme flooding. We found that while many of these events are benign, the largest of them cause most of the flooding damage in the western U.S. And atmospheric rivers are predicted to grow longer, wetter and wider in a warming climate.

Rivers in the sky

On Feb. 27, 2019, an atmospheric river propelled a plume of water vapor 350 miles wide and 1,600 miles long through the sky from the tropical North Pacific Ocean to the coast of Northern California.

Just north of San Francisco Bay, in Sonoma County’s famed wine country, the storm dumped over 21 inches of rain. The Russian River crested at 45.4 feet – 13.4 feet above flood stage.

For the fifth time in four decades, the town of Guerneville was submerged under the murky brown floodwaters of the lower Russian River. Damages in Sonoma County alone were estimated at over US$100 million.

Events like these have drawn attention in recent years, but atmospheric rivers are not new. They have meandered through the sky for millions of years, transporting water vapor from the equator toward the poles.

In the 1960s meteorologists coined the phrase “Pineapple Express” to describe storm tracks that originated near Hawaii and carried warm water vapor to the coast of North America. By the late 1990s atmospheric scientists had found that over 90% of the world’s moisture from the tropics and subtropics was transported to higher latitudes by similar systems, which they named “atmospheric rivers.”

In dry conditions, atmospheric rivers can replenish water supplies and quench dangerous wildfires. In wet conditions, they can cause damaging floods and debris flows, wreaking havoc on local economies.

After an atmospheric river event that caused severe flooding in Chile, sediment washed down from hillsides into the Itata River can be seen flowing up to 50 kilometers from the coast. NASA Earth Observatory
After an atmospheric river event that caused severe flooding in Chile, sediment washed down from hillsides into the Itata River can be seen flowing up to 50 kilometers from the coast. NASA Earth Observatory

Helpful and harmful

Researchers have known for some time that flooding due to atmospheric rivers could cost a lot of money, but until our study no one had quantified these damages. We used a catalog of atmospheric river events compiled by Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, and matched it to 40 years of flood insurance records and 20 years of National Weather Service damage estimates.

We found that atmospheric rivers caused an average of $1.1 billion in flood damages yearly in the western U.S. More than 80% of all flooding damages in the West in the years we studied were associated with atmospheric rivers. In some areas, such as coastal northern California, these systems caused over 99% of damages.

Our data showed that in an average year, about 40 atmospheric rivers made landfall along the Pacific coast somewhere between Baja California and British Columbia. Most of these events were benign: About half caused no insured losses, and these storms replenished the region’s water supply.

But there were a number of exceptions. We used a recently developed atmospheric river classification scale that ranks the storms from 1 to 5, similar to systems for categorizing hurricanes and tornadoes. There was a clear link between these categories and observed damages.

Atmospheric River category 1 (AR1) and AR2 storms caused estimated damages under $1 million. AR4 and AR5 storms caused median damages in the 10s and 100s of millions of dollars respectively. The most damaging AR4s and AR5s generated impacts of over $1 billion per storm. These billion-dollar storms occurred every three to four years.

A moister atmosphere means worse storms

Our most significant finding was an exponential relationship between the intensity of atmospheric rivers and the flood damages they caused. Each increase in the scale from 1 to 5 was associated with a 10-fold increase in damages.

Several recent studies have modeled how atmospheric rivers will change in the coming decades. The mechanism is simple: Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet. This causes more water to evaporate from oceans and lakes, and increased moisture in the air makes storm systems grow stronger.

Like hurricanes, atmospheric rivers are projected to grow longer, wider and wetter in a warming climate. Our finding that damages increase exponentially with intensity suggests that even modest increases in atmospheric river intensity could lead to significantly larger economic impacts.

Scientists have developed a scale for categorizing atmospheric rivers that reflect both their replenishing capacities and their dangerous effects.

Better forecasting is critical

I believe that improving atmospheric forecasting systems should be a priority for adapting to a changing climate. Better understanding of atmospheric rivers’ intensity, duration and landfall locations can provide valuable information to residents and emergency responders.

It also is important to discourage new construction in high-risk areas and help people move to safer locations after major disasters, rather than rebuilding in place.

Finally, our study underlines the need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. These storms will keep coming, and they’re getting stronger. In my view, stabilizing the global climate system is the only long-term way to minimize economic damage and risk to vulnerable communities.

[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]

Tom Corringham, Postdoctoral Scholar in Climate, Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography, University of California San Diego

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Degrees of warming: Rising temperatures, shorter winters and a declining snowpack are impacting Aspen’s snow-dependent culture

A snowcat sits on grass just days before Snowmass Ski Area opened this winter. As temperatures warm, ski resorts could face shorter seasons, less snowpack and more challenges making artificial snow. This year, it snowed heavily just before SkiCo opened Aspen Mountain and Snowmass the weekend before Thanksgiving. Photo by Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism
A snowcat sits on grass just days before Snowmass Ski Area opened this winter. As temperatures warm, ski resorts could face shorter seasons, less snowpack and more challenges making artificial snow. This year, it snowed heavily just before SkiCo opened Aspen Mountain and Snowmass the weekend before Thanksgiving. Photo by Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

By Catherine Lutz 

ASPEN — Approaching Labor Day weekend of 1961, many Aspenites who had plans to go camping or enjoy outdoor concerts watched in trepidation as monsoon rains didn’t let up for two days. Then, that Friday night, the damp chill turned rain to snow — large, wet snowflakes fell overnight and for the next two days, thoroughly coating the green, late-summer landscape. Tree limbs bent and snapped, the music tent started to rip under the weight of the snow, motorists were stranded when Independence Pass closed and the power went out in the city for two days. 

“It was a hell of a mess,” said lifelong Aspenite Jim Markalunas. 

The mayor called Markalunas and asked him to reboot the defunct hydroelectric plant he had previously run while the regional electric utility struggled to restore the downed lines.  

He managed to restore power to Aspen, and by the time residents woke up to a cold, sunny Labor Day morning, 27 inches of snow had fallen in town, a record that still stands, according to Markalunas, author of “An Aspen Weather Guide” and “Aspen Memories.” 

Now 89, Markalunas also has tales of being surrounded by massive snowbanks as a 6-year-old in the 1930s and worrying about roofs collapsing from the heavy-snow years of the 1980s. 

 “Big snow years are oh-be-joyful for the (Aspen Skiing Company) and skiers but made for a lot of hard work for people maintaining the streets and intakes and such,” he recalled.

Aspen Ski Corp president D.R.C. Brown stands in front of a nearly bare Little Nell ski run during the dismal ski season of 1976-’77. After this season, SkiCo invested in snowmaking technology to make up for what Mother Nature doesn’t always deliver. Photo by Aspen Historical Society, Cassatt Collection
Aspen Ski Corp president D.R.C. Brown stands in front of a nearly bare Little Nell ski run during the dismal ski season of 1976-’77. After this season, SkiCo invested in snowmaking technology to make up for what Mother Nature doesn’t always deliver. Photo by Aspen Historical Society, Cassatt Collection

Markalunas remembers lean years, too, most notably the winter of 1976-77. That ski season didn’t start until January and recorded just 86 inches of snow all winter. It also spurred massive investments in technologies to battle drought impacts, such as snowmaking and cloud-seeding.

 Markalunas likes to say that Aspen’s weather is “consistently inconsistent.” But he started noticing a difference in patterns in the 1980s — in particular, less-frequent below-zero temperatures. 

“The trend is we just don’t have the super-cold weather we used to have,” he said, pointing to weather data he has compiled from water department records showing that Aspen has hit a low of less than minus 20 just once since 1997.

“It seems as though the weather pendulum swings more extremely than in years of old,” Markalunas writes in “An Aspen Weather Guide.” “Storms are more violent but less frequent. The weather appears to be more volatile than in past years. … Unless we act to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, ski racks on SUVs might become useless accessories here.”

Markalunas’ observations are supported by other data, analyses and studies that paint a picture of a changing local climate. Pitkin County is warming, the number of frost-free days is increasing and snowpack is declining — all of which have myriad impacts on recreation, the ecosystem, wildlife, streamflow, water availability, droughts and wildfires. One of the most notable impacts is on the underpinning of modern Aspen’s economy: snow and skiing.

Officials at Aspen Skiing Company, or SkiCo, have been aware of changing temperatures and snowfall for some time. Like others, the biggest change that Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, has seen in his 30-year career is more variability.

 “It’s a feast of riches or famine, and you have to deal with that,” he said.

The start of this ski season has been a feast, with above average snowpack across the state.

It’s getting warmer

Pitkin County’s average temperature has been rising at a rate of 0.4 degrees per decade since 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2018, the average temperature throughout the year in Pitkin County was 39.5 degrees — 2.9 degrees warmer than the mean temperature during the baseline period of 1950-75.

Pitkin County’s average temperature each year since 1950 has risen, at a rate of .4 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, compared to the mean (gray line) temperature during the 1950-1975 baseline period. The Climate at a Glance tool, from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, can be used to plot historical temperature or precipitation data in a time series from a global to a city level. Graphic by NOAA.

Pitkin County’s average temperature each year since 1950 has risen, at a rate of .4 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, compared to the mean (gray line) temperature during the 1950-1975 baseline period. The Climate at a Glance tool, from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, can be used to plot historical temperature or precipitation data in a time series from a global to a city level.

More-dramatic changes are happening in the cold-season months. Temperatures are rising almost half a degree per decade between November and April, compared with about one-quarter of a degree the other half of the year.

March is by far the fastest-warming month, heating up at a rate of 1 degree per decade since the 1950s. The average temperature of 34.4 degrees in March 2017, when Aspen hosted the World Cup ski racing finals, was a record 9.4 degrees higher than the 1950-75 baseline temperature. 

The race venue on the lower half of the mountain lost several inches of snow surface per day, Burkley said. The only reason there was enough snow to race on was extra early-season snowmaking that at the time was considered excessive.

Markalunas’ theory of fewer really cold days shows in this data as well. Average annual low temperatures have risen in Pitkin County and appear to be accelerating — average minimum temperatures were more than 5 degrees higher than the baseline during three of the past five winters.

Low temperatures in the winter months in Pitkin County are rising faster than average yearly temperature — at a rate of .5 degrees per decade. The average low from November through April was 12.4 degrees from 1950-1975; it reached a record high of 18.1 degrees in the winter of 2016-17. Graphic by NOAA.

Low temperatures in the winter months in Pitkin County are rising faster than average yearly temperature — at a rate of .5 degrees per decade. The average low from November through April was 12.4 degrees from 1950-1975; it reached a record high of 18.1 degrees in the winter of 2016-17.

“Even since 1980, there has been a pretty sharp annual average temperature increase over time,” said Elise Osenga, research and education coordinator for the nonprofit Aspen Global Change Institute, or AGCI. “Even just a couple degrees difference is a notable difference in annual average temperatures — especially if you are a seasonal-sensitive plant or animal.”

2014 report by AGCI notes that rising low temperatures, particularly in early winter, can affect the ability to make snow on the ski mountains, an activity typically limited to November and December. This hasn’t impacted SkiCo much yet, according to Burkley. Snowmaking now is about twice as efficient as it was two decades ago, thanks to automation and improved technology. 

SkiCo also has plans to expand snowmaking to the top of Aspen Mountain next season, which Burkley said will be key to Thanksgiving openings as the upper part of the mountain often doesn’t have enough natural snow in November. 

Zooming out, a recent Washington Post feature found that Pitkin County and much of the Colorado Rockies are warming faster than other places. Pitkin County’s average temperatures have risen 2.34 degrees since 1895, at the height of the Industrial Revolution; the average across the United States is 1.8 degrees. In fact, western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise a large “hot spot” that warns of greater climate shifts to come.

Freezing? Not so much 

 One critical trend related to rising temperatures — in particular, rising low temperatures — is an increase in the number of frost-free days, which AGCI counts as consecutive days of above-freezing temperatures from the last freeze of spring to the first time it dips below 32 degrees after that. Like temperature, the number of frost-free days has risen sharply in recent decades.

Since the 1980s, there’s now an additional month each year without freezing temperatures in Aspen, according to AGCI’s analysis. The actual number of days above freezing varies widely from year to year, but there is a clear upward trajectory, as seen in the Forest Health Index, which is produced by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies with help from AGCI. 

 “When it’s not freezing, there won’t be snow to accumulate,” said AGCI executive director John Katzenberger. “And those adaptations like making snow will be more important but will be more curtailed by when temperatures are sufficiently cold to make the snow.”

A shorter freezing season could also reduce snowpack if more precipitation comes as rain instead of snow and shorten the end of the ski season if snow melts faster and earlier.

“(Climate change is) impacting us, but so far we’ve been able to adapt,” said Burkley. “There’s a lot of long-term capital planning, though: expanding snowmaking, higher snowmaking, water storage, and possibly adjusting operational times and dates.”

Higher temperatures mean less snow

Changes are, of course, also being felt beyond ski-area boundaries. In the summer of 1994, big-mountain skier Chris Davenport first skied 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain, named for the massive snowfield that historically stretched across a wide bowl below its summit. 

 “In the next decade or so, it seemed like that permanent summer snow was getting smaller and smaller, until one summer in the mid-2000s, it was totally gone,” said Davenport. “It’s a direct effect of warming — even if it’s a few degrees, that snowfield couldn’t hang on.”

Winter snow might still linger into the summer months on Snowmass, Davenport said, but most years, the formerly year-round snowfield is gone by mid-July.

A skier hikes toward the 12,392-foot summit of Aspen Highlands in December 2017, during a low-snow winter. The ridge leading to Highland Bowl is usually covered with snow, even early in the winter. Photo by Catherine Lutz.
A skier hikes toward the 12,392-foot summit of Aspen Highlands in December 2017, during a low-snow winter. The ridge leading to Highland Bowl is usually covered with snow, even early in the winter. Photo by Catherine Lutz.

A skier hikes toward the 12,392-foot summit of Aspen Highlands in December 2017, during a low-snow winter. The ridge leading to Highland Bowl is usually covered with snow, even early in the winter.

The waning snowfield on Snowmass Mountain is representative of a larger trend. Summer snow covering the Northern Hemisphere receded from 10.28 million square miles at its peak in 1979 to a low of 3.69 million miles in 2013, according to Climate Central’s website WXshift.com. Not only does that impact water supplies, but less snow cover means more sunlight absorbed by Earth, driving a feedback loop of further temperature increases.

Snowfall has also decreased in many parts of the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, although no significant trends in precipitation have been found in the Aspen area or Colorado in general. Some climate models predict more precipitation in the future, but rising temperatures could mean that precipitation comes more often as rain rather than snow.

 In Pitkin County, as in the American West and other mountain drainages around the world, snowpack is arguably the most consequential climate-change indicator. Mountain snowpack not only determines availability of snow for recreation but also how much water will be available for all manner of natural and human uses. In Colorado, including the Roaring Fork River valley, snowpack —  usually measured by the amount of water in the snow, known as snow water equivalent, or SWE — is generally variable and can range widely from year to year. But this, too, has become more extreme in recent years. 

“We’ve observed these huge year-to-year shifts,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Colorado Snow Survey, which collects and manages snowpack data. “So that does feel like a trend: Over the last 15 years, things seem to be much more erratic, with more extreme years on both high and low ends.”

 The scientific community considers the April 1 snowpack the peak of the water year. Only once  since 2010 has the Roaring Fork basin’s snowpack on April 1 been measured between 85% and 115% of normal, said Wetlaufer. That range was more common in earlier periods.

Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted recent large swings in Roaring Fork basin snowpack data from the USDA’s National Water & Climate Center. The past 10 years show higher peaks and valleys than the longer-term record. Courtesy of Karl Wetlaufer

Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted recent large swings in Roaring Fork basin snowpack data from the USDA’s National Water & Climate Center. The past 10 years show higher peaks and valleys than the longer-term record.

The last two winters feature some of the wildest snowpack swings — and the most extreme weather events. From October 2017 to September 2018, snowpack peaked at 72% of normal; the following snow season, it peaked at 144%. 

The low-snow season resulted in such tinder-dry conditions that the Lake Christine fire, the most threatening fire in recent valley history, burned for months in the summer of 2018. That was followed by a winter capped off with an unprecedented avalanche cycle, the result of a steady buildup of the snowpack on a weak base layer, ultimately unleashed by a massive storm cycle that was fueled by warm atmospheric rivers from the Pacific Ocean.

Besides more variability, some recent scientific analyses, including this map produced by the EPA and AGCI’s 2014 report, have found that Colorado’s snowpack is decreasing. A study published by Peter Goble and Nolan Doesken of Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center found that central Colorado’s snowpack is diminishing by an average of .49 inches of SWE per decade, which was the most of the four regions studied. This calculation includes measurements taken at a station near Independence Pass. 

A half-inch of SWE can equate to 7.5 to 10 inches of snowfall, Goble said, which over 100 years could mean 75 to 100 fewer inches of snow — about one-third of the roughly 300 inches that fall on average on the Aspen Snowmass slopes.

 “Considering that loss may accelerate, those numbers look a little threatening to the local lifestyle,” said Goble.

Recent research also accounts for factors such as dust on snow, likely to be more frequent in the future given the increasing aridity of areas west of Colorado and more human disruption of those areas. Dust on snow, similar to rain on snow, melts the snowpack more quickly.

Scientists agree that the main factor contributing to a declining snowpack is not less snowfall but warmer temperatures due to increased greenhouse-gas emissions. And because temperatures are expected to continue to rise — the amount depends on how much emissions are curbed — snowpack around Aspen and elsewhere will continue to decline.

Still, Goble is hopeful.

 “When you look at the projections and how winters might change, it’s not a totally hopeless situation,” he said. “We still have control over our future. If this is a problem humans take seriously and we see a lot of action on a large scale over the next couple decades, it will make the outlook for the back half of the century a lot brighter than if it was business as usual.” 

AGCI’s 2006 report for the city of Aspen, on the other hand, painted a dire scenario for future skiers (as well as downstream water users) with continued warming, including the potential for shorter ski seasons and substantially reduced snow cover.

Aspen Mountain will still be skiable in 2030 under all emissions scenarios, the report concluded, but “by 2100 the base area of Aspen Mountain has essentially lost a skiable snowpack, with the exception of the lowest greenhouse-gas concentrations.”

In all future emissions scenarios, the AGCI report found that Aspen Mountain’s base snowpack will start to accumulate later in the fall and melt earlier in the spring due to warming temperatures. Snow depths at all elevations are projected to be reduced throughout the season. In the worst-case scenario, the ski season will be 10 weeks shorter by 2100 and “snow depth goes to near zero for the entire lower two-thirds of the mountain.” That’s everything below the base of the Ajax Express chair.

 “Under these scenarios, some of our seasons are shortened and our terrain could be reduced,” Burkley said. “We would be in download situations more frequently. We would build and concentrate snowmaking at higher elevations. We might have more hike-to or hike-out terrain.  We would build lifts to access areas that have more consistent snowpack.”

Burkley said with existing infrastructure, SkiCo can offer lift-served, high-elevation skiing on three mountains. The proposed 180-acre Pandora expansion on top of Aspen Mountain also would expand into terrain that “will probably have the best snow in the future.”

A machine blows artificial snow at the top of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain in Dec. 2017. SkiCo is building out snowmaking infrastructure as one way to adapt to a changing climate, but that, too, relies on sufficient water in local streams and cold enough temperatures. Photo by Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism
A machine blows artificial snow at the top of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain in Dec. 2017. SkiCo is building out snowmaking infrastructure as one way to adapt to a changing climate, but that, too, relies on sufficient water in local streams and cold enough temperatures. Photo by Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism

A machine blows artificial snow at the top of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain in Dec. 2017. SkiCo is building out snowmaking infrastructure as one way to adapt to a changing climate, but that, too, relies on sufficient water in local streams and cold enough temperatures.

Even as SkiCo relies more on snowmaking, Burkley acknowledges minimum streamflow requirements could be an additional challenge. There could be a time when natural snowpack declines to the point that there won’t be enough water in local streams to make all the snow it needs, in which case the company might have to decide to shut down one or more of its four mountains and focus efforts on what remains open.

SkiCo is also increasing its focus on summer operations, including Snowmass Bike Park. For now, this helps ensure a return on expensive infrastructure; later, it could help make up for shorter winters.

Ironically, the Aspen Snowmass ski areas could actually benefit in the short term from climate change. They’re situated at higher elevations with colder temperatures than many other resorts, especially those outside of Colorado, and could see increased visitation as lower-elevation ski areas become less viable.

Clearly, Aspen isn’t the only ski resort facing an existential crisis. Ski areas across the country are recognizing the challenges that climate change poses to their viability, and that’s provoking a shift in industry thinking.

“In recent memory, climate was an uncomfortable conversation. Resorts said it was politicized science,” said big-mountain skier Davenport, who is now a climate activist and board member of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters, or POW. “Now everyone’s on board.” 

The scale of action is bigger than resorts switching to renewable energy or lobbying for climate-friendly policies in Washington, D.C., as SkiCo has been doing for years. Three of the largest industry groups — Outdoor Industry Association, Snowsports Industries America and National Ski Areas Association — recently formed the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership to provide leadership and inspire action on climate change. Using POW’s playbook, SIA launched United by Winter, a climate-advocacy platform for its members. And POW is now on the radar of elected officials in every state where the outdoor industry has a presence.

“It used to be inconvenient for outdoor companies to talk about climate change, but now the opposite is true: If you’re not having that conversation, consumers aren’t buying from you,” Davenport said. “Look how we’ve changed the conversation.”     

This story was originally published by Aspen Journalism on December 18, 2019.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with Aspen Public Radio on coverage of environmental issues. A conversation about this story aired on Dec. 19.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

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