Localized climate change contributed to ancient depopulation — Washington State University

December 5, 2014

From Washington State University (Eric Sorensen):

Washington State University researchers have detailed the role of localized climate change in one of the great mysteries of North American archaeology: the depopulation of southwest Colorado by ancestral Pueblo people in the late 1200s.

In the process, they address one of the mysteries of modern-day climate change: How will humans react?

Writing in Nature Communications, WSU archaeologist Tim Kohler and post-doctoral researcher Kyle Bocinsky use tree-ring data, the growth requirements of traditional maize crops and a suite of computer programs to make a finely scaled map of ideal Southwest growing regions for the past 2,000 years.

Their data paint a narrative of some 40,000 people leaving the Mesa Verde area of southwest Colorado as drought plagued the niche in which they grew maize, their main food source. Meanwhile, the Pajarito Plateau of the northern Rio Grande saw a large population spike.

The plateau “also happens to be the place where you would want to move if you were doing rain-fed maize agriculture, the same type of agriculture that people practiced for centuries up in southwest Colorado,” said Bocinsky, who built the data-crunching programs while earning a WSU Ph.D. with support from a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

People try to ‘keep on keeping on’

The dramatic changes in the Southwest took place near the end of the Medieval Warm Period, the warmest in the Northern Hemisphere for the last 2,000 years. The period had a smaller temperature change than we’re seeing now, and its impact on the Southwest is unclear. But it is clear the Southwest went through a major change.

“At a very local scale, people have been dealing with climate fluctuations of several degrees centigrade throughout history,” said Bocinsky. “So we need to understand how people deal with these local changes to generate predictions and help guide us in dealing with more widespread changes of that nature.”

Bocinsky, the paper’s lead author, said the study is particularly significant for modern-day subsistence farmers of maize, or corn, the world’s largest food staple.

“People are generally going to try and find ways to keep on keeping on, to do what they’ve been doing before changing their technological strategy,” he said. “That was something extremely interesting to me out of this project.”

Tree rings yield precipitation, temperature info

To get a more granular look at the changing climate of the Southwest, Bocinsky and Kohler used more than 200 tree-ring chronologies, which use the annual rings of ancient trees to reconstruct the area’s climate patterns over time. Pines at lower elevations will have their growth limited by rainfall, making their rings good indicators of precipitation. High-elevation trees get good rain but are susceptible to cold, making them good indicators of temperature.

The shifting patterns of rainfall and temperature let Bocinsky and Kohler isolate to a few square kilometers the areas that would receive just under a foot of rainfall a year, the minimum needed for ancestral maize varieties still farmed by contemporary Pueblo people.

The area in what is now southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park ended up being one of the best places to grow maize, with good conditions more than 90 percent of the time. The Pajarito Plateau ended up being highly suitable as well, with slopes that would shed cold air and precipitation levels suited to rain-fed agriculture.

Large disparities in small areas

Such big climate differences in such a small area illustrates how some areas could be hit harder than others by the extremes of global climate change, said Bocinsky. He said it is telling that, when the Pueblo people moved, they moved to where they could preserve their farming techniques. He said that could be important to keep in mind as farmers, particularly subsistence farmers on marginal lands, face localized climate impacts in the future.

“When we are looking for ways to alleviate human suffering, we should keep in mind that people are going to be looking for places to move where they can keep doing their type of maize agriculture, keep growing the same type of wheat or rice in the same ways,” he said. “It’s when those niches really start shrinking on the landscape that we start having a major problem, because you’ve got a lot of people who are used to doing something in one way and they can no longer do it that way.”


Water Diversions, Part One — Pagosa Daily Post #COwaterplan

December 4, 2014

San Juan River from Wolf Creek Pass

San Juan River from Wolf Creek Pass


From the Pagosa Daily Post (Bill Hudson):

We’re lucky here in Colorado. When we grow weary of ordinary, everyday political controversies — federal immigration policy, perhaps, or governments collecting personal data on private citizens, or another federally mandated standardized test foisted on our children, or more locally, streets and roads slowly crumbling into asphalt dust — we always have one big controversy that can serve as a welcome diversion:

Water.

I attended a couple of diversionary discussions last month in Pagosa Springs, on the subject of Colorado water. The first discussion took place on November 17 at the Ross Aragon Community Center, in the South Conference Room, and was hosted by the Southwest Basin Roundtable.

The second meeting — related in a somewhat diversionary way — involved the elected board members of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and resulted, after considerable discussion, in a closed-door executive session. More about that later… we’ll start with a summary of the Roundtable meeting .. which, interestingly enough, was attended by not a single member of the PAWSD board…

The November 17 meeting was sparsely attended — about 24 people, mostly members of various water boards or commissions — even though the subject matter may ultimately prove relatively momentous: namely, the impending Colorado Water Plan, and more specifically the portion of that plan known as the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan. We started the meeting by going around the room and introducing ourselves. I was struck by a comment from one of the non-governmental attendees.

“I’m Donna Formwalt, Pagosa Springs. We’re ranchers here. And I’m very interested in the water takeover by the Forest Service.”

The Colorado Water Plan is an initiative of Governor Hickenlooper’s office, begun as the result of an executive order issued in May 2013. A press release posted on the Governor’s website states:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to begin work on a draft Colorado Water Plan that will support agriculture in rural Colorado and align state policy to the state’s water values.

“Colorado deserves a plan for its water future use that aligns the state’s many and varied water efforts and streamlines the regulatory processes,” Hickenlooper said. “We started this effort more than two years ago and are pleased to see another major step forward. We look forward to continuing to tap Colorado’s collaborative and innovative spirit to address our water challenges.”

But as Ms. Formwalt hinted with her comment about the Forest Service, Colorado’s innovative and collaborative spirit will be challenged, in the coming months and years, by officials serving non-Colorado governments. The U.S. Forest Service, for one. And the governments of the “Lower Basin States” for another.

Are we preparing well enough for that conflict?

From the Colorado Water Plan website:

Colorado’s Water Plan will provide a path forward for providing Coloradans with the water we need while supporting healthy watersheds and the environment, robust recreation and tourism economies, vibrant and sustainable cities, and viable and productive agriculture.

Of course, no one — not even Governor Hickenlooper — can actually “provide Coloradans with the water we need.” Only Mother Nature can actually provide water, last I looked. But what the Governor and the Colorado Water Conservation Board mean to provide is a generally accepted plan for portioning out the limited water Mother Nature provides, in a state where supposedly conflicting interests want to preserve the status quo. History has taught us, you can preserve the status quo for only so long — and then people start fighting.

In the case of an ever-more-precious resource like water, the key battles might be between Rural Colorado and Urban Colorado, or they might be between this state where so many American rivers find their source — Colorado — and the several states where those rivers end up in water taps, a thousand miles away.

The Colorado Water Plan is, I assume, an attempt to keep both types of battles from getting too nasty.

The Southwest Basin — a geographic area defined by the Colorado Water Conservation Board — is located in the southwest corner of Colorado and covers an area of approximately 10,169 square miles. The largest cities are Durango (pop. 15,213) and Cortez (pop. 8,328). The region also includes three ski areas: Telluride, Wolf Creek, and Durango Mountain Resort.

A good deal of water flows through the Southwest Basin, and a good number of people want to get their hands on a share of it — including the people who will likely move into the region over the next 30 years or so. The Southwest Basin is projected to increase in municipal and industrial (M&I) water demand between 17,000 acre feet (AF) and 27,000 AF by 2050, according to Roundtable projections.

From the Roundtable web page:

Southwest Basin’s Major Projects and Programs
Dry Gulch Reservoir
Animas-La Plata Project
Long Hollow Reservoir
La Plata Archuleta Water District

It’s confounding, how that Dry Gulch Reservoir keeps showing up… like a bad penny.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here. More Dry Gulch Reservoir coverage here.


Southwest Roundtable to hold 4 meetings about their basin implementation plan #COWaterPlan

November 12, 2014
Basin roundtable boundaries

Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Durango Herald:

Four meetings on the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan, part of a statewide effort to resolve water shortages, to be unveiled next month, start next week.

Members of the public can learn about draft plans and offer opinions to water authorities.

The Southwest basin contains nine subbasins from the San Juan River to the Dolores and San Miguel rivers.

The meetings are scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the Ross Aragon Community Center, 451 Hot Springs Blvd., in Pagosa Springs; Nov. 19 at the Pine River Senior Center, 111 West South St., in Bayfield; Dec. 1 at the Mancos Community Center, 117 N. Main St., in Mancos; and Dec. 9 at the Placerville School House, 400 Front St., in Placerville.

Further information is available from Ann Oliver at 903-9361 or Carrie Lile at 259-5322.


Telluride: New Pandora treatment plant awaiting final state approvals to go online

November 3, 2014

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Mary Slosson):

The Pandora Water Treatment Plant valves were opened up on Oct. 24 and everything worked, Telluride Public Works Director Paul Ruud said. The plant will not plug into the municipal water supply until a few remaining state certifications are completed, he added. Those final approvals from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will probably be finalized in the new two weeks, Ruud said. Town officials were obligated to have the plant functional by a Nov. 1. deadline.

But the plant works, a fact that Ruud and members of the Telluride Town Council and town staff have heralded this week.

“We’re quite pleased after 20-some years of working on it, we finally have a functional water plant,” Ruud said. “It’s been quite an undertaking. We’re happy to be at the place we are now.”

The facility, located off Bridal Veil Road on the east end of the box canyon, has been under construction for three years. The plant can produce one million gallons of water per day, and has the capacity to be expanded to double that – two million gallons of water per day – if the need ever arises in the future, Ruud said.

“It is our expectation that once the Pandora Water Plant comes online and is functioning as it is designed… we will basically be in a very good position with water for the foreseeable future, possibly the next 50 years,” Ruud said.

City planners realized 20 years ago that neither Corner Creek nor Mill Creek would be sufficient sources of water, Ruud said, especially if the region went into a drought scenario.

“We’re very, very fortunate that our elected officials 20 years ago got the ball rolling. Projects this big take 20 years to accomplish. They had a lot of foresight to start thinking about this way back when,” Ruud added. “For a small town like ourselves, that’s a fairly ambitious undertaking.”

They began working to acquire water rights in the Bridal Veil Basin and converting those rights to municipal water rights. But that effort sometimes caused delays.

After voters approved a $10 million bond in 2005 to fund the construction of the project, it stalled for years as the town and Idarado Mining Company, which owns much of the land and infrastructure involved, tussled over water rights.

Work on the project finally began in earnest in the summer of 2011. In 2013 the town had to add around $4.7 million to the project after a budgetary shortfall.

Now the town will be able to take water out of Blue Lake, Lewis Lake or even Bridal Veil Creek.

The San Miguel Power Association has agreed to purchase electricity generated by a hydropower generator in the treatment plant, Ruud added, so the facility can also contribute to the electrical grid.

“It’s very, very exciting. Anytime a community can take care of some of their really, really important infrastructure needs, it’s a tremendous milestone for the community,” Ruud said.

More infrastructure coverage here.


Valley Floor sewer lagoons to get makeover — The Telluride Daily Planet

October 13, 2014
Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Mary Slosson):

Town Council approved a restoration project Tuesday that will transform two man-made sewage lagoons on the Valley Floor into new wetlands.

The two artificial ponds, located in the open Valley Floor space adjacent to the southwest corner of the Pearl Property, are believed to have been excavated in the 1960s with the intent to use as sewage treatment lagoons. They were never used and almost immediately filled with water, officials said. As a result, they were eventually left alone to grow as wild as they could.

“We look at this as a naturalizing of what was obviously a mechanical, man-made and never used excavation, the spoils of which isolated it from the wetland ecosystem,” said Angela Dye, chair of the Open Space Commission. “This project will integrate it into the wetland system we have up there now.”

The restoration project is expected to take two to three weeks and is budgeted at $116,500. Town officials hope to complete the project this fall, when they say the construction would least impact wildlife that calls the ponds home.

In fact, that wildlife is one of the reasons that planners decided to incorporate some of the ponds’ already existing standing water into the final wetland restoration design, instead of reverting the plots back to their native state and removing the standing water altogether.

“There was a desire to keep the pond, and it wasn’t purely for aesthetic reasons,” said Town of Telluride Program Director Lance McDonald, summarizing planning discussions leading up to the restoration proposal.

“There is a lot of wildlife that use the standing water. There is not a lot of standing water on the floor,” McDonald said. “The diversity of animals is quite high here: raccoons, muskrats, fox, geese, ducks. This was an opportunity to have a place for those species on the Valley Floor even though it’s not a natural feature.”

Dye said that the restored sewer ponds would become an environmental education opportunity, with student groups able to observe the waterfowl, mammals and wildlife that flock to the area.

The restoration project will remove the land beam between the lagoons that was created during the original pond excavation to create one uniform body of water, and then use that soil to create wetland benches in the water. The project will also reintroduce native vegetation to the area using samples and seeds from the immediate wetland areas.

A total of 34,800 square feet of new wetlands will be rehabilitated, creating a seamless natural environment from the Pearl Property to the rest of the Valley Floor.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.


McPhee Reservoir update: “…inflow from the Dolores River is helping us tremendously” — Vern Harrell

October 3, 2014


From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Recent rains are filling McPhee Reservoir, improving its outlook for next season.The reservoir’s elevation is 4½ feet higher than this time last year, reports Vern Harrell, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer.

“This latest storm produced 1,676 acre-feet of storage,” he said. “Irrigation outflow is pretty much done, and the inflow from the Dolores River is helping us tremendously.”

Carryover storage as of Oct. 1, 2014, is at 34,185 acre-feet, compared with 21,943 acre-feet for the same day last year, an increase of 12,242 acre-feet.

Last year, farmers suffered shortages, receiving just 25 percent of their normal water allocation because of poor snowpack and early hot weather.

This year, farmers from Dove Creek to Towaoc received 90-100 percent of their allocation, and monsoon rains reduced overall irrigation demand.

“It turned out to be a good water year,” Harrell said.

On Sept. 29, the Dolores River hit a record peak of 1,060 cubic feet per second — up from 100 cfs the day before — because of a massive rainfall event in the San Juan Mountains over the weekend. The previous record on that day was 626 cfs in 1927. On Oct. 1, the river at Dolores was flowing at 456 cfs, a boatable level.

Also this fall, significant upgrades to McPhee’s irrigation infrastructure will begin. The Bureau and the Dolores Water Conservancy District secured $4.5 million in funding for the improvements.

Automated pumping stations at Fairview, Pleasant View, Ruin Canyon, Cahone, and Dove Creek are all slated for upgrades, said DWCD engineer Ken Curtis.

The majority of the funding ($4 million) for the upgrades comes from revenues generated at the Glen Canyon hydro-electric power plant. DWCD pitched in $465,000.

“The Colorado Basin Power funds were used to pay for new reservoir projects, but there are no more of those, so now it distributes the money for upgrades and maintenance of existing facilities,” Curtis said.

The Fairview Pumping plant, which feeds off the Dove Creek canal, will receive the first overhaul at a cost of $1.6 million.

“The $500,000 needed for installation came in and construction is slated to begin in November,” Harrell said.

Now that the farming season is over, three variable-speed pumps and their 500-horsepower motors will be replaced, along with electronics and transformers.

The Fairview station delivers irrigation water through underground pipelines to 8,000 acres of farmland southwest of Yellow Jacket…

A wet fall and some carryover storage is a good sign for boaters as well. Officials say the reservoir needs an above-average winter snowpack to fill.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here.


NWS Grand Junction photo: New snow in the San Juan Mountains

September 28, 2014

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