“Want an expert overview on the #COWaterPlan?” — @ConservationCO/@wradv #ColoradoRiver

August 2, 2014

USGS: Streamflow Increasing in Eastern #MissouriRiver Basin, Decreasing Elsewhere

July 29, 2014
Missouri River Basin

Missouri River Basin

Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey (Parker Norton/Marisa Lubeck):

Video footage of an interview with lead USGS scientist Parker Norton is available online.

Streamflow in the eastern portions of the Missouri River watershed has increased over the past 52 years, whereas other parts have seen downward trends.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists recently studied data from 227 streamgages in the Missouri River watershed that had continuous records for 1960 through 2011. The scientists found that almost half of the streamgages showed either an upward or downward trend in mean annual flow since 1960, while the rest showed no trend.

The study is relevant on a large scale because the Missouri River is the longest river in the United States, with a watershed that includes mountainous to prairie topography in all or parts of 10 states and small parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.

“The Missouri River and its tributaries are valuable for agriculture, energy, recreation and municipal water supplies,” said USGS hydrologist Parker Norton. “Understanding streamflow throughout the watershed can help guide management of these critical water resources.”

According to the study, streamflow has increased in the eastern part of the watershed, including eastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. Annual flows have decreased in the western headwaters area of the Missouri River in Montana and Wyoming, and in the southern part of the basin associated with the Kansas River watershed.

Climate changes that affect how and where moisture is delivered to the continent may be causing some of these trends in the Missouri River Basin. Although the USGS scientists did not conduct a complete analysis of the causes, they noted that increased streamflow over broad regions occurred despite the increasing use of water. Decreased streamflow in some areas could also be related to climate change factors, or to groundwater pumping.

The USGS report can be accessed online.

More Missouri River Basin coverage here.


The Last Drop: America’s Breadbasket Faces Dire Water Crisis — NBC News

July 15, 2014
Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

From NBCNews.com (Brian Brown):

The scope of this mounting crisis is difficult to overstate: The High Plains of Texas are swiftly running out of groundwater supplied by one of the world’s largest aquifers – the Ogallala. A study by Texas Tech University has predicted that if groundwater production goes unabated, vast portions of several counties in the southern High Plains will soon have little water left in the aquifer to be of any practical value.

The Ogallala Aquifer spreads across eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, covering 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles. It’s the fountain of life not only for much of the Texas Panhandle, but also for the entire American Breadbasket of the Great Plains, a highly-sophisticated, amazingly-productive agricultural region that literally helps feed the world.

This catastrophic depletion is primarily manmade. By the early eighties, automated center-pivot irrigation devices were in wide use – those familiar spidery-armed wings processing in a circle atop wheeled tripods. This super-sized sprinkler system allowed farmers to water crops more regularly and effectively, which both significantly increased crop yields and precipitously drained the Ogallala.

Compounding the drawdown has been the nature of the Ogallala itself. Created 10 million years ago, this buried fossil water is–in many places—not recharged by precipitation or surface water. When it’s gone, it’s gone for centuries…

“The depletion of the Ogallala is an internationally important crisis,” says Burke Griggs, Ph.D., consulting professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “How individual states manage the depletion of that aquifer will obviously have international consequences.”[...]

“We’re headed for a brick wall at 100 miles per hour,” says James Mahan, Bruce Spinhirne’s father-in-law and a plant physiologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service lab in Lubbock. “And, really, the effects of climate change are branches hitting the windshield along the way.”

From NBCNews.com (Brian Brown):

Last August, in a still-echoing blockbuster study, Dave Steward, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Kansas State University, informed the $15 billion Kansas agricultural economy that it was on a fast track to oblivion. The reason: The precipitous, calamitous withdrawal rates of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Ogallala is little known outside this part of the world, but it’s the primary source of irrigation not just for all of western Kansas, but the entire Great Plains. This gigantic, soaked subterranean sponge – fossil water created 10 million years ago – touches eight states, stretching from Texas all the way up to South Dakota, across 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles.

The Ogallala supports a highly-sophisticated and amazingly-productive agricultural region critical to the world’s food supply. With the global population increasing, and as other vital aquifers suffer equally dramatic declines, scientists acknowledge that if the farmers here cannot meet ever-growing food demands, billions could starve.

Steward’s study predicted that nearly 70 percent of the portion of the Ogallala beneath western Kansas will be gone in 50 years. He’s not the kind of person to shout these results; he speaks slowly and carefully. Yet, he has the evident intensity of one who’s serving a greater purpose. “We need to make sure our grandkids and our great grandkids have the capacity to feed themselves,” he says.

Now the chief executive of the state, himself from a farming family, is using Steward’s report as a call to action.

“One of the things we [have] to get over … is this tragedy of the commons problem with the Ogallala,” says Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican who at age 29 was the youngest agriculture secretary in state history. “It’s a big common body of water. It’s why the oceans get overfished … You have a common good and then nobody is responsible for it.”

“That’s one of the key policy issues that you have to get around,” Brownback says in his roomy, towering office at the capitol in Topeka. “Everyone has to take care of this water.”

In that spirit, a tiny legion of farmers and landowners in the northwest corner of Kansas, where the Rockies begin their rise, have just begun year two of what could be one of the most influential social experiments of this century.

The group is only 125 in number but controls 63,000 acres of prime farmland in Sheridan County. Collectively, voluntarily, they have enacted a new, stringent five-year water conservation target, backed by the force of law and significant punishments.

The Local Enhanced Management Act, or LEMA, is the first measure of its kind in the United States. Specifically, the farmers are limiting themselves to a total of 55 inches of irrigated water over five years – an average of 11 inches per year…

“So now we have the high morality of the need to protect the ecosphere. But it’s legal to rip the tops off mountains. It’s legal to drill in the Arctic. It’s legal to drill in the Gulf. It’s legal to build pipelines. It’s legal to send carbon into the dumping ground called an atmosphere. So we’ve not yet reconciled the high moral with the legal.” [Wes Jackson]

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.


USGS: Reservoirs Affect the Movement of Carbon in Large Rivers of the Central and Western United States

June 16, 2014

Missouri River Basin

Missouri River Basin


Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey:

A recent study conducted by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Biogeosciences found that a combination of climate and human activities (diversion and reservoirs) controls the movement of carbon in two large western river basins, the Colorado and the Missouri Rivers.

Rivers move large amounts of carbon downstream to the oceans. Developing a better understanding of the factors that control the transport of carbon in rivers is an important component of global carbon cycling research.

The study is a product of the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis and the USGS Land Carbon program.

Different downstream patterns were found between the two river systems. The amount of carbon steadily increased down the Missouri River from headwaters to its confluence with the Mississippi River, but decreased in the lower Colorado River. The differences were attributed to less precipitation, greater evaporation, and the diversion of water for human activities on the Colorado River.

For upstream/headwater sites on both rivers, carbon fluxes varied along with seasonal precipitation and temperature changes. There was also greater variability in the amount of carbon at upstream sites, likely because of seasonal inputs of organic material to the rivers. Reservoirs disrupted the connection between the watershed and the river, causing carbon amounts downstream of dams to be less variable in time and less responsive to seasonal temperature and precipitation changes.

The study presents estimates of changes in the amount of carbon moving down the Colorado and Missouri Rivers and provides new insights into aquatic carbon cycling in arid and semi-arid regions of the central and western U.S, where freshwater carbon cycling studies have been less common. This work is part of an ongoing effort to directly address the importance of freshwater ecosystems in the context of the broader carbon cycle. In the future, changing hydrology and warming temperatures will increase the importance of reservoirs in carbon cycling, and may lead to an increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions that contribute to global warming, but may also increase the amount of carbon buried in sediments.

More USGS coverage here.


World Resources Institute: World’s 18 Most Water-Stressed Rivers #ColoradoRiver

March 20, 2014

watertressbymostpopulousriverbasinsviaworldresourceinstitute

From the World Resources Institute (Andrew Maddocks/Paul Reig):

The world’s 100 most-populated river basins are indispensable resources for billions of people, companies, farms, and ecosystems. But many of these river basins are also increasingly at risk. As water demand from irrigated agriculture, industrialization, and domestic users explodes, major rivers on several continents are becoming so depleted that they sometimes fail to reach their ocean destinations. Add climate change, nutrient and chemical pollution, and physical alterations like dams and other infrastructure development to the mix and it’s clear that many communities rely on water resources that face an increasingly risky future.

WRI’s Aqueduct project recently evaluated, mapped, and scored stresses on water supplies in the 100 river basins with the highest populations, 100 largest river basins, and 180 nations. We found that 18 river basins— flowing through countries with a collective $US 27 trillion in GDP —face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the water naturally available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn annually—leaving businesses, farms, and communities vulnerable to scarcity…

Decision-makers in many of world’s water-stressed basins have attempted to put management plans in place—with mixed results. The United States’ Colorado River is a prime example of a plan that, while well-intentioned, may ultimately be unsustainable. Starting in Colorado and running 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River is the 14th most stressed among the world’s most populated river basins, and the sixth most stressed if ranked by size. More than 30 million people depend on it for water. The seven states receiving its water comprised 19 percent of the United States’ total GDP in 2010.

Because of its naturally arid setting—and due to its large and growing number of users and resulting high level of baseline water stress—the Colorado has become one of the most physically and legally managed rivers in the world. It is also under serious duress, exacerbated by a decades-long drought. This imbalance between supply and demand means that the river often runs dry before it reaches the Pacific Ocean—posing significant problems for wildlife, ecosystems, and communities that depend on it.

The Colorado River is an example of a basin where natural water stress is already severe. The complex web of infrastructure and governance structures around the river was, in a sense, created to ensure predictable, steady water supplies in a stressed region. On the other hand, that same development has driven increasing demands for limited supplies. Aqueduct’s country and river basin rankings deliberately do not include the effects of such extensive management, instead focusing on objective measures of underlying hydrological conditions. But the overall picture is clear: Even the most-established, iron-clad management systems start to crumble under increasing scarcity and stress…

What Is Water Stress?

Water stress is the ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable supply in an area. In high-stress areas, 40 percent or more of the available supply is withdrawn every year. In extremely high-stress areas, that number goes up to 80 percent or higher. A higher percentage means more water users are competing for limited supplies. See the high and extremely high-stress areas highlighted in red and dark red on the maps.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.


The Nature Conservancy passes 1 million preserved acre mark in Montana

December 31, 2013
The Nature Conservancy has been involved in protecting a million acres in Montana, including lands along the Rocky Mountain Front such as the Rappold ranch near Dupuyer, where conservation easements restrict development. / Courtesy photo/Dave Hanna

The Nature Conservancy has been involved in protecting a million acres in Montana, including lands along the Rocky Mountain Front such as the Rappold ranch near Dupuyer, where conservation easements restrict development. / Courtesy photo/Dave Hanna

From the Great Falls Tribune (Karl Puckett):

…combined with another recent easement on the Rocky Mountain Front, this one 14,000 acres, it put the The Nature Conservancy over a million acres of land protected in Montana. That’s about an acre protected for every resident.

“To me it’s unbelievable we’ve reached that size,” said Dave Carr, a Nature Conservancy program manager in Helena and a 24-year employee. “That’s a very large amount of land we have helped protect and conserve, and many of those lands are what I call working lands. They’re still being used. They just won’t be subdivided.”

It took 35 years for TNC to reach the million-acre milestone, which the group announced earlier this month. The largest conservation organization in the world, TNC opened its doors in Big Sky Country in 1978 when it secured its first conservation easement in the Blackfoot River Valley, one of the state’s first private conservation easements, Carr said.

Today, the organization has had a hand in protecting 1,004,308 acres of land statewide, from ranches in the Rocky Mountain foothills of northcentral Montana in grizzly bear habitat to unbroken native prairie on the northeastern plains to forested land in the river valleys of western Montana.

Lands TNC works to protect often are privately owned ranches that feature native habitat and wildlife, but the aim isn’t to end agricultural uses.

“We very much like to see lands stay in some productive use,” Carr said. “We feel that for long-term conservation, if the community is not part of that decision or doesn’t buy into that, it won’t be lasting.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Conservation easements are tailored to the needs of the landowner, but generally speaking they restrict development rights and preclude subdivisions, drainage of wetlands, plowing of native prairie and commercial gravel pits.

Easements The Nature Conservancy works on allow the landowner to continue to ranch. In some cases, harvesting timber to manage trees for beetle kill or fire hazards is allowed.

Sometimes The Nature Conservancy purchases the easements from landowners, other times they are donated. The recent 14,571-acre easement on the Rocky Mountain Front that helped push the group past the million-acre mark was an anonymous donation.

Meeting rising costs is a challenge for ranching families, and landowners, particularly those on the Rocky Mountain Front and Blackfoot River Valley, are using easements as a planning tool to keep the family ranch in business, Carr said. Money they received from The Nature Conservancy, for example, can be used to buy adjacent lands…

Almost half of TNC’s protected acreage falls within western Montana, in a geographic region called the Crown of the Continent, but some 200,000 acres (including TNC’s partnership with other land trusts, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and The Conservation Fund) is now conserved along the Rocky Mountain Front and another 66,000 acres is located on northern Montana prairies. Another 320,000 acres won’t be developed in southwest Montana.

More conservation easement coverage here.


Pipeline from the Missouri River to supplement #ColoradoRiver Basin supplies?

November 12, 2013

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

“We created the largest artificial watershed in the world,” says Pat Mulroy, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a wholesaler that supplies Las Vegas.

Water from the Colorado River is piped across deserts, channeled through mountains, and — after being treated in local sewage plants — winds up in rivers that flow to the southern ends of the country:

  • Some of New Mexico’s share goes into the Rio Grande, eventually flowing south and east through Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • What Denver returns to nature flows into the South Platte, a tributary of the Missouri River.
  • The coastal cities of Southern California dump a good bit of their diversion into the Pacific Ocean.

None of these water bodies is the logical end of the line for the Colorado River, whose natural terminus is a delta at the northern crook of the Gulf of California. A delta that is, ironically, all dried up…

The river’s web, if some have their way, could become even larger. John Kaufman, the man who proposed the Missouri River pipeline, wants to see the artificial boundaries expand. Kaufman is the general manager of Leavenworth Water, which serves 50,000 people in a town that welcomed Lewis and Clark in 1804 during the duo’s westward exploration.

The identity of the pipeline’s proponent, who was anonymous during the Bureau of Reclamation study and is for the first time being named in the media, is important because of where he lives — outside of the natural Colorado River Basin, or in the extended web.

In Kaufman’s vision, Kansas becomes a hydrological keystone for the West, facilitating water transfers that could affect at least 10 states and Mexico.

“We’d hopscotch water across Kansas and sell it to communities in the state,” Kaufman told me during a phone interview last month, explaining the benefit to his home territory. Construction of the pipeline would also supply jobs to Leavenworth, where the intake facilities would be located. At least one groundwater district in western Kansas is advocating for a similar concept, a Missouri River pipeline to the High Plains to compensate for declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, an essential source for irrigation. Kaufman has presented his idea to state and local officials several times this year.

Once the water flows past Kansas, “it’s a horse trade,” Kaufman said. Water delivered to the Front Range would be earmarked for the South Platte River Basin, which includes Denver. (The South Platte, remember, is part of the Missouri River Basin.) A pipeline would close the circle, sending South Platte water, via the Missouri, back uphill. Of course a few drops of the Colorado would be in the pipe, too.

“It’s a reuse project, really,” said Kaufman, who serves on Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s Missouri River advisory committee…

Then there are the swaps. Front Range cities get roughly 72 percent of their supplies from the Colorado River, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the Front Range Water Council. If water from the Missouri were imported, then some of the trans-Rocky diversions could remain within the Colorado River Basin.

Kaufman’s idea — he calls it the Eisenhower Pipeline, in honor of the sponsor of the interstate highway system, which got its start in Kansas — was included in the Bureau of Reclamation’s final report, but top federal officials distanced themselves from the project, once word leaked a few days before the report’s official release last December.

“In my view, [water import] solutions are impractical and not feasible,” said Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior at the time. The study actually gave the pipeline high marks for technical feasibility, but the $US 8.6 billion price tag and the high energy costs pushed the pipeline to the bottom of the pile. Conservation was the big winner, deemed to be significantly cheaper and able to deliver more water.

Kaufman knows the scheme is expensive, which is why he says that he needs financial buy-in from the states in the Colorado’s Lower Basin and cooperative agreements among all the Basin states in order to shuffle water supplies.

“It’s not about providing water to the Front Range,” he said. “It’s about providing water to the West.”

More Missouri River Basin coverage here and here.


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