A look at the current southwestern Colorado #drought #ColoradoRiver

Colorado Drought Monitor February 24, 2015
Colorado Drought Monitor February 24, 2015

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Years of drought and overgrazing have dried out the fields in southwestern La Plata County. Dust easily blows away in the wind.

Last year, from March until May, dust storms caused problems for students, drivers and farmers, and without enough precipitation, the dirty storms could return…

The area from Breen into New Mexico and west of Black Ridge to the La Plata County line was hit hard last year by dust, said Sterling Moss, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango.

The recent snowfall earlier this week dumped about a foot of snow near Breen and Kline, and more snow is expected to accumulate this weekend.

“This is a huge blessing, but we are still way far from being out of the woods,” said Trent Taylor, owner of Blue Horizons Farm Inc.

The entire river basin, which includes the Dolores, Animas, San Juan and San Miguel rivers, would need to receive 218 percent of historical snowfall to get back on track, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

“I don’t think we’ll make it to normal snowpack this year,” he said.

A long dry spell in January and February left local conservationists and farmers nervous. In mid-February, Moss dug down to test soil moisture as wind dried the field of winter wheat all around him.

In southwestern La Plata County, snow should have blanketed the field near County Road 119 for weeks. But instead, Moss didn’t even find enough moisture in the soil to support the wheat through harvest.

“I’ve never seen a February like that,” Taylor said.

The newly fallen snow could ease the situation. If it melts slowly, it can soak deeper into the soil than rain does.

But re-establishing healthy fields is key to preventing dust storms through the spring winds.

Moss and his office have been working with landowners to plant grass in areas dedicated to conservation reserves to keep the top soil from blowing away. These areas are dedicated to wildlife habitat, and landowners receive a government subsidy for not working the land. This helps farmers survive in the worst drought years, Taylor said.

But it has been challenging.

“A lot of grass has been planted that hasn’t been established yet,” Moss said.

The stands of grass are key to keeping valuable topsoil in place. An inch of topsoil can take 100 years to accumulate, he said.

But without precipitation at the right time, the grasses won’t grow. This year, Moss might recommend planting grass or another cover crop in mid-summer in hopes the monsoons will come.

In the past few years, fall rains have brought most of the moisture for the year.

Leaving the stems from last year’s crop in place also can prevent wind and rain erosion and keep the soil cooler, said Abdel Berrada, a soil scientist with Colorado State University.

This stubble helps conserve soil, but it also provides habitat for pests, like cut worms that may require herbicide, Taylor said.

Planting trees as wind breaks or setting up snow fences can help keep the dust down. But trees can’t thrive when there’s very little water…

“Growing plants on bare bones soil with little to no water can be an uphill challenge,” said Darrin Parmenter, county extension agent for Colorado State University.

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low Graph February 25, 2015 via the NRCS
San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low Graph February 25, 2015 via the NRCS

Localized climate change contributed to ancient depopulation — Washington State University

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

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:


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.

Reclamation: On this day in 1940, the Mancos Project in Colorado water approved. #ColoradoRiver

The EPA has finished mercury-decontamination efforts at the Red Arrow Gold Corp. mill site on Grand Ave. in Mancos

Jackson Gulch Reservoir: “The bureau used to be a friend. Not anymore.” — Dee Graf

Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR
Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR

From The Mancos Times (Mary Shinn):

The Mancos Water Conservancy District board on Thursday weighed the consequences of taking ownership of Jackson Gulch Reservoir, the dam, the canal system and the land it sits on from the federal government.

If the district worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to take ownership, the district would have to take over all the contracting and inspections…

The Bureau of Reclamation currently budgets $160,000 a year to manage the irrigation project, and and $150,000 a year for recreational use of the lake.

Kennedy estimates that if the district did all the work the bureau does for irrigation and water management, it would cost $20,000 to $40,000 because the district wouldn’t have as much administrative overhead. The district doesn’t plan to cover any of Mancos’ state parks expenses if the board pursues the transfer of ownership.

A major question the board members tried to address at the Thursday workshop was: What value does the Bureau of Reclamation add to the project?

They determined it isn’t a reliable source of funding…

If the district took ownership of the project, it would still be subject to some state inspections for dam safety.

Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation does regular inspections, but the district is responsible for maintenance or replacement. For example, the district paid $3 million for the recent rehabilitation project.

There is one exception to the maintenance rule. The Bureau of Reclamation would step in if the dam started to experience a failure. But the agency would also send the district a bill for half the cost, and it would be due in three years…

At an initial meeting about the transfer with James Hess, a bureau representative from Washington, Hess said the transfer process can take years.

Only 27 other water projects in the nation have been fully transferred from the federal government to a local organization.

More Jackson Gulch Reservoir coverage here.

Montezuma County: Non-hazardous waste from the Red Arrow Mill to local landfill?

Red Arrow Mill site Mancos via The Durango Herald
Red Arrow Mill site Mancos via The Durango Herald

From the Cortez Journal (Mary Shinn):

The Montezuma County landfill has taken a proactive measure to help save taxpayers any unnecessary expense when disposing of nonhazardous waste from the Red Arrow mill in Mancos.

Landfill manager Deb Barton recently requested clarification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about accepting any non-hazardous waste from the federal Superfund site. Acting as a concerned citizen, Barton said she sought the clarification in order to help lower waste disposal transportation costs associated with the cleanup effort.

“Why pay an extra 50, 60 or 70 miles of transportation when we’re basically 20 miles from Mancos?” she asked. “If this will reduce the cost to taxpayers, isn’t that my responsibility as a citizen?”

“The EPA is going to tear down everything at the mill, and they would like to keep any non-hazardous material as close as possible,” she said.

After an environmental investigation by state authorities, the EPA issued a temporary 60-day permit for the landfill on Feb. 28. Barton said state and federal laws prohibit the landfill from accepting anything but non-hazardous and non-liquid waste only.

“We’ve been certified to meet EPA standards,” said Barton. “Does that mean they can bring the material to me willy-nilly? No. They have to prove that it is non-hazardous.”

Barton said a certified EPA lab report stating the waste was not hazardous would have to be produced before receiving any non-hazardous waste from Red Arrow. Any mercury tainted waste from the milling site must be less than 0.2 parts per million, and any lead or arsenic polluted material must be less than 5 parts per million, she said.

“The EPA will test everything that comes out of the milling site, because they don’t want another Superfund site along the way,” Barton said. “The EPA would not allow any waste to come that doesn’t meet their standards, so I’m not going to screw the pooch either.”

Because of the EPA lab results, Barton said she remained confident that no hazardous material would ever enter the local landfill. She added that nearby archeological sites, ranchers and ordinary citizens also have nothing to fear.

“If the waste doesn’t have that EPA lab report, then it will be going someplace else,” Barton said. “I’m not going to take any hazardous material.”

More Montezuma County coverage here.