Rocky Mountain NP glacier loss a threat to water supply — the Fort Collins Coloradoan

Tyndall Glacier Rocky Mountain National Park via the
Tyndall Glacier Rocky Mountain National Park via the

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacey Marmaduke):

Rocky Mountain National Park’s glaciers are shrinking away.

And that’s a big problem — not only for the park’s scenic splendor, but also for Colorado communities that rely on water from the Poudre, Colorado and Big Thompson rivers, which are fed by meltwater from dozens of glaciers and glacierlike features strewn about the park.

For decades, Mother Nature has protected them from unfavorable conditions, but as the park’s temperatures climb and the promise of heavy winter snowfall grows more uncertain, the park’s glaciers and glacierlike features have slowly and unsteadily started to shrink.

A single decade of prolonged drought and warm summers could spell the beginning of the end for RMNP’s glaciers, according to one park ecologist. It’s already happened in California, where about a decade of drought and warming temperatures have pushed Yosemite National Park’s glaciers to near extinction.

“It’s sad to say, but most mountain glaciers are predicted to be gone by the end of the century,” said Dan McGrath, a Colorado State University research scientist. “I find it hard to believe (Rocky Mountain’s glaciers) could survive given the predicted warming and likely changes in precipitation.”

RMNP glaciers have always yo-yoed in size, partially melting in summer heat and regaining mass from winter flakes. The park has 30 glaciers, according to USGS topographic maps, but some of them technically aren’t glaciers anymore. Between the 1990s and 2005, the glaciers started to shrink at an increasing rate — perhaps faster than “at any other time in the historic record,” according to a 2007 Portland State University study.

And the park’s glaciers don’t have a lot of wiggle room. Its glaciers are tiny compared to well-known glaciers in Alaska, Greenland and elsewhere. RMNP’s biggest glacier is about 31 acres, the size of six Old Town Squares, and the smallest is smaller than two football fields, according to the 2007 study.

Scientists have no idea how the park’s glaciers have changed in volume over time and have only a limited record of how they’ve changed in area. McGrath wants to fix that.

He’s conducting a two-year study to find out how the glaciers have changed in area and volume since 2005 using historic maps, climate records, photographs and present-day measurements to fill the gaps in scientific understanding of the glaciers.

McGrath and his team are focusing mostly on the well-known Andrews and Tyndall glaciers but will monitor about 10 other glaciers along the Front Range. They’ll use electromagnetic waves to measure snow accumulation and ice thickness of the glaciers. With cutting-edge laser technology, they’ll create unprecedented 3D models of the glaciers. And they’re setting up timelapse cameras near stakes planted in the glaciers to study the timing of their shrinkage.

McGrath has discovered that Andrews and Tyndall glaciers are roughly the same size they were in 2005. They grew in 2010 and 2011 because of heavy snowfall but shrunk after that.

To get a better understanding of the glaciers’ timelines, McGrath will pore over climate models to see what’s in store for temperature and precipitation in the park’s higher elevations. It’s clear that warming will continue, but climate models are less certain about how precipitation will change over time in the Rocky Mountains.

Preliminary results from an ongoing study by Glenn Patterson, a CSU geosciences Ph.D. candidate, and Steven Fassnacht, a CSU snow hydrology professor, suggest that snowfall has decreased more in the park’s higher elevations than its lower areas.

Warming temperatures will melt more of the glaciers in summer, but warming temperatures’ larger impact could come in autumn and spring. A bump of a few degrees when temperatures are near the freezing point can turn snow into rain.

“Of all the things I’m worried about for glacier health, it’s that threshold,” McGrath said. “It can be 30 degrees and you get snow, or it can be 34 degrees and you might be getting only rain. That is going to dramatically alter both the behavior of the glacier and the mass balance. That’s universal.”

The final piece: McGrath’s team will study how glacier melt influences rivers, measuring streamflow and collecting water samples to see how much water glaciers contribute to rivers.

Downstream impacts are worth studying because the Colorado, Big Thompson and Poudre rivers are fed largely by snowmelt and groundwater. The park’s year-round snowfields have particularly important downstream impacts, and the snowfields behave a lot like glaciers.

Even a small loss in the snow and ice that feed Northern Colorado rivers would be a huge blow to Fort Collins and other nearby communities that rely on their water. The gradual melting of perennial snowfields bolsters late summer and fall streamflow, said Paul McLaughlin, an ecologist at the park’s Continental Divide Research Learning Center, and our water storage system depends on those established patterns. Changing water volumes and temperatures can irreparably damage delicate river ecosystems.

The strange thing about these glaciers is they shouldn’t really be here.

The park gets too warm in summer and not enough snow falls on them naturally, McGrath said. But most of the glaciers live in cirques that protect them from the summer sun, and aggressive winds shuttle snow across the Continental Divide, dumping between 5 and 10 times more snow on the glaciers than they would get from the sky alone.

“There’s something of a climate disconnect,” McLaughlin said. “In these systems where the glaciers have already retreated to these shady areas, there’s kind of a time lag in which the glaciers may persist even though the temperatures are getting warmer. But at some point in the future, we would expect they’ll reach a tipping point where they would quickly disappear.”


McLaughlin said the best-case scenario for the glaciers would be a future with less greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have the opportunity as humans to manage the amount of carbon dioxide we’re producing and putting into the atmosphere,” he said. “That will have an effect on our climate moving forward, and perhaps on the lifespan of our glaciers.”

RMNP: Sprague Lake dam repair slated for 2017

Sprague Lake via Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sprague Lake via Rocky Mountain National Park.

From the Associated Press via the Fort Collins Coloradoan:

Crews will repair and upgrade an aging dam at a popular lake in Rocky Mountain National Park next year.

The National Park Service said Tuesday the work at Sprague Lake Dam will be done in the fall of 2017, and parts of the trail around the lake will be closed.

The half-mile trail is wheelchair-accessible and affords sweeping mountain views. The lake is popular with anglers and picnickers and is open year-round.

Repair work will include improvements to the spillway, raising the dam slightly in some areas and reinforcing the lake side of the dam to prevent erosion.

The park had 4.1 million visitors last year and is on pace to exceed that this year. The park does not track visitor numbers to Sprague Lake.

Why #ClimateChange May Spell Trouble For Rocky Mountain National Park Lakes — #Colorado Public Radio

Loch Vale photo via
Loch Vale photo via

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

A U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who also works with Colorado State University, [Jill] Baron has spent much of her professional life collecting data and writing research papers on the Loch Vale Watershed, which includes two glaciers, lakes and streams inside Rocky Mountain National Park…

Back in 1982, Baron set up instruments at the Loch Vale Watershed to measure weather and stream flows. When she first started, she said climate change wasn’t front and center.
“It was acid rain. I think the sheer excitement of discovery got a lot of people into studying acid rain,” she said.

But instead of acid rain, she found nitrogen was falling out of the sky into the park. It was causing changes to the ecosystem.

Over the decades Baron has become a small-but-mighty character in the ecology world. An inch over 5 feet tall, she none the less has chosen a branch of science that’s physically demanding. It takes a lot of work to collect field samples every week. She’s even enlisted her two kids.

The long-term data she’s gathered at Loch Vale Watershed is highly valued because it’s been gathered over such a long period of time. Most recently, the Watershed contributed data to a 2015 scientific paper on global lakes and climate change. It found lakes are warming faster compared to air or ocean temperatures. The paper projected a 20 percent boost in lake algae around the globe in the next century.

“When you warm the water, it makes it easier for algae and bacteria to take up nutrients. So you get more nutrient cycling, you get more productivity,” said Baron.

RMNP, Roosevelt Forest scars slow to heal from fire, flood — Fort Collins Coloradoan

High Park Fire June 14, 2012
High Park Fire June 14, 2012

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Stephen Meyers):

Scorched by the High Park Fire and washed out by the historic 2013 flood, Poudre Canyon’s once popular Young Gulch Trail remains closed to Northern Colorado hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.

The one-two fire-flood punch has left scars that haven’t yet healed and outdoor lovers with fewer places to play, which has frustrated some recreational groups.

The natural disasters scoured away the first half-mile of the Young Gulch Trail, one of the most popular trails in the Poudre Canyon.

It is one of about 20 Northern Colorado recreation areas still closed nearly three years after the flood wiped out trails, roads and fishing access in Roosevelt National Forest, Rocky Mountain National Park and Big Thompson Canyon.

The damage is so severe, some areas may never reopen.

“I think people understand that this was a pretty dramatic change to our landscape,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman said. “This is a long rebuilding process.”

Long and expensive.

While a $329,000 project has begun to rebuild Young Gulch Trail, the best case scenario is for the trail to reopen in late 2017. A more realistic goal is 2018.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates it will take $6.3 million to rebuild the recreation areas damaged on Roosevelt National Forest’s Canyon Lakes Ranger District west of Fort Collins.

The deluge caused approximately $10 million of damage in Rocky Mountain National Park, which bounced back from the flood and 2013 government shutdown to post back-to-back record visitation totals in 2014 and 2015. The park is on pace this year to beat its 2015 visitation record of 4.1 million visitors. But the park may take a massive hit to visitation this fall when repairs begin on flood-ravaged U.S. Highway 34 in Big Thompson Canyon, the gateway to the popular park.

As the U.S. Forest Service’s budget continues to dwindle, Canyon Lakes Ranger District must rely even more on Northern Colorado volunteers who last year dedicated more than 50,000 hours to trail projects. Only the Red Rocks District in Arizona received more volunteer hours in 2015.

“With the fire and then the flood, it’s definitely been a challenging time for us,” Cloudman said. “We’re adapting to how we do things. Cost-saving where we can, looking at creative ways to expand what we can do and move forward in the recovery efforts.”

One example: Working with partners like Wildland Restoration Volunteers and Great Outdoors Colorado, which helped secure funding for the Young Gulch Trail rebuild project through Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s State Trails Program.

With help from several volunteer organizations like Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, USFS has restored 63 percent of the 370 miles of flood-damaged roads on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grasslands, and 33 percent of the 157 miles of damaged trails, as of last year.

Fifteen campgrounds, day-use and river access facilities have been rebuilt, while 12 others have been decommissioned across the Canyon Lakes and Boulder ranger districts.

More than $100,000 and 10,000 hours have gone into reopening a portion of the North Fork Trail in Glen Haven. About as much money and work has been dedicated to the still-closed Lion Gulch Trail, which could open as early as September or as late as the summer of 2017, Cloudman said.

In Big Thompson Canyon, several fishing access areas were washed away and won’t be restored, including the North Fork and Glen Haven picnic sites and Idylwilde rest stop. Fishing access has been restored to Sleepy Hollow Park.

Cloudman said Canyon Lakes Ranger District hopes to offer more fishing access on the Big Thompson, one of Colorado’s premier fly-fishing destinations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates the Big Thompson sees 2,559 angler days per month, totaling an annual economic impact of $2.37 million.

But the forest service’s plans to add more fishing access won’t be finalized until the Colorado Department of Transportation’s rebuild of U.S. 34 from Loveland to Estes Park is complete in 2018 or 2019.

Construction of the highway poses an economical and ecological impact to the Big Thompson’s fishing industry.

The first part of CDOT’s massive rebuilding project on U.S. 34 begins after July 4, with rock blasting in the horseshoe area of the canyon, near milepost 78.4.

The brunt of the work begins in October, after tourist season. Road crews will blast away the mountainside near the defunct Idylwilde Dam, a once-popular area for anglers. It remains to be seen if CDOT will completely close the highway for five months or enact temporary closures, allowing access during peak hours.

“If our guides don’t have access to the river, then obviously it’s going to affect business,” Christiansen said. “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s not like we have anything in our control.”

The same impact is happening on already popular hiking trails such as Greyrock and Hewlett Gulch, which are near Young Gulch Trail.

Cloudman said both trails have seen an uptick in visitors since the Young Gulch closure. In 2012, the trails averaged 44 and 33 people a day, respectively, with 70-80 visiting on the weekends.

But during last week’s Memorial Day weekend, more than 100 cars parked at Greyrock and along the shoulder of Colorado Highway 14 each day while passengers hiked the 7,513-foot peak.

Prior to its closure, Young Gulch averaged 37 daily visitors, with 75 on the weekends. Thanks to its close proximity to Fort Collins, the multiuse trail was popular with hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.

But the 4.9-mile trail that meanders up Young Gulch and Prairie Gulch — crossing a stream about 20 times — was scoured by the flood, cutting 2- to 3-foot-deep ruts in the gulch and rerouting the stream channel.

The trail requires an extensive rebuild, essentially a move out of the floodplain.

“A monumental task,” Cloudman said.

In 2014, the forest service debated whether to even rebuild the trail. The agency held public meetings to gather feedback and developed an environmental analysis of the sustainability of the trail.

“It came down to, if we can find a good place and a good way to build a new, sustainable trail, then we absolutely will do it,” Cloudman said.

The new trail design will reduce the number of stream crossings by almost one third, move more of the trail out of the flood zone and provide a more sustainable route, Cloudman said. It will remain open to all users.

Working in a steep, constrained canyon won’t be easy for trail crews, which include Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, Overland Mountain Bike Club, Poudre Wilderness Volunteers and the Larimer County Conservation Corps.

Until the new trail is completed, hikers must endure the trail closure, marked by the closed gates, barricades and cones that have become a common site in the forest since flood and fire changed the landscape.

RMNP plans to restore the Lulu City wetland

Grand Ditch
Grand Ditch

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Leia Larsen):

According to National Park Service officials, the 47,600 cubic-yard debris flow changed the river channel, deposited a large debris fan, increased sedimentation in the Colorado River, degraded ecosystems and damaged the aesthetics of a wilderness area. Because the area now contains more sediment and debris that it would under natural conditions, had the man-made canal never existed and never breached its bank, the Park began exploring solutions for restoration.

On Feb. 12, Park representatives announced the availability of their “Record of Decision,” which selected the referred alternative from the Environmental Impact Statement guiding the restoration process. Plans are to remove large debris deposits from the alluvial fan in the Lulu City wetland, stabilizing slopes and banks and restoring the Lulu City wetland by removing debris piles. Some small-scale motorized equipment will be used in the stabilization and revegetation efforts, and large equipment will be used to remove debris deposits and reconfigure the Colorado River through the Lulu City wetland.

According to a Park statement, there will be “short-term, adverse impacts on natural soundscape, wilderness, water resources, weltands, visitor use and experience, and wildlife from restoration activities and the use of mechanized equipment.” The long-term benefits, however, will be the high-level restoration to the area. At this time, he Park does not have any information regarding when restoration activities will begin.

A copy of the Record of Decision is available online at or by calling 970-586-1206.

CSU Sponsors First Poudre River Forum Feb. 8

Cache la Poudre River
Cache la Poudre River

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jennifer Dimas):

The Cache la Poudre River is life-blood for Northern Colorado. In recognition of its importance to the area, the community is invited to the first Poudre River Forum, 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8 at The Ranch Events Complex in Loveland. The forum, “The Poudre: Working River/Healthy River,” will focus on all of the river’s stakeholders, representing perspectives from agricultural, municipal, business, recreational and environmental backgrounds. Topics to be discussed include:

• The water rights of agricultural and municipal diverters;
• Where the water in the Poudre comes from and what it does for us;
• Ecological factors such as flow, temperature, fish and sedimentation.

The forum will feature presentations and dialogue, including remarks by State Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs about how the Poudre itself was the site of early conflict and cooperation leading to the development of the doctrine of prior appropriation in the West, and how water law has evolved in recent years.

Following the event, a celebration of the river will be held until 6 p.m. with refreshments and jazz by the Poudre River Irregulars.

Pre-registration is required by Jan. 31. The cost is $25; students 18 and under are free and scholarships are available. To register, visit

The event is sponsored by The Poudre Runs Through It Study/Action Work Group facilitated by CSU’s Colorado Water Institute.

More Cache la Poudre River watershed coverage here and here.

Ag practices in Weld County impact RMNP, the Colorado Livestock Association hopes to help

Nitrogen Deposition via Knight Science Journalism
Nitrogen Deposition via Knight Science Journalism

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

The local agriculture industry is teaming up with scientists and other experts, looking to possibly take the “biggest step yet” in addressing what’s been a major concern at Rocky Mountain National Park for several years. While Greeley is about 60 miles away from the park, ammonia drifting westward from ag operations in Weld County and surrounding areas, among other sources, has impacted the park’s ecosystem, according to studies.

Biologist Jim Cheatham said the 2006 Rocky Mountain National Park Initiative report revealed that nitrogen levels in the park are about 15 times more than natural amounts — with the excess coming in the form of nitrogen oxide from sources like fossil fuels, and also ammonia from ag operations. Such levels, according to Cheatham, have altered the vegetation composition, aquatic communities and overall natural processes of the alpine tundra the park was created to protect under its designations as a National Park, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Class I Airshed.

Now, the Colorado Livestock Association is voluntarily working with climatologists and other scientists in hopes of controlling the problem.

The Greeley-based organization is spearheading an effort to develop a warning system that will tell ag producers — based on atmospheric conditions — when they should or shouldn’t scrape manure from pens at feedlots and dairies, fertilize crops or perform other tasks that release ammonia into the atmosphere. Only when weather conditions are right does that ammonia drift from farms, ranches and dairies along the Front Range and northeast Colorado plains to Rocky Mountain National Park.

“So if we can just get more exact data about how and when that ammonia is moving into Rocky Mountain National Park … and then develop a warning system … that could really go a long way in fixing the problem,” said Bill Hammerich, president of the Colorado Livestock Association. “We know we’re not the only contributor to the issue, but we certainly want to do our part to help fix it.”

Such a warning system has been in discussions for about two years, Hammerich said, and it finally got off the ground this month, thanks to a recent $100,000 boost from the Conservation Innovation Grant program.

Cheatham said he’s “very appreciative” of the efforts being made by the Colorado Livestock Association and others, saying the development of a warning system could be the “biggest step yet” in addressing the high nitrogen levels in the park.

There’s no exact numbers showing how much of an impact agriculture operations have on the high nitrogen levels, but he said the 2006 report showed that about 55 percent of the excess nitrogen was coming from sources in Colorado, while the other 45 percent drifted in from outside the state. Cheatham said ongoing studies are attempting to pinpoint precisely how much ag and other industries are affecting nitrogen levels.

“We know agriculture’s impact is significant.”

William Brock Faulkner — a professor at Texas A&M University’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, who’s helping with the warning-system endeavor — said the Colorado Livestock Association and other parties involved (Cheatham, the Colorado Corn Growers Association in Greeley and Colorado State University Atmospheric Science Department professors Jeffrey Collett and Russ Schumacher, among many others) are hoping to have about 30 to 40 producers in the region participating in a “pilot” program by March or April of next year, after more data is collected. Faulkner said some of the effort will be determining whether a warning system would even be economically feasible — not requiring producers to delay practices like manure removal, needed as part as of animal-health measures, for too many days.

But local producers say they’re willing to do their part.

“Myself and others in agriculture certainly don’t want to have a negative impact on the environment,” said Steve Gabel of Eaton, former president of the Colorado Livestock Association, and also operator of Magnum Feedyards, which has the capacity to hold nearly 25,000 head of cattle.

Gabel explained that many producers already have practices in place that help reduce the release of ammonia into the atmosphere, but added that, if a warning system can be developed, he could hold off on performing ammonia-releasing tasks for as many as a few days at a time, or even up to a week, if needed.

Cheatham said the overall goal is to ultimately cut nitrogen levels in the park by half — 1.5 kilograms of reactive nitrogen per hectare per year. He noted that it’s a “realistic and achievable goal,” but those levels would still be about seven or eight times the natural amounts of nitrogen in the park.

“We understand that, with human activity, natural levels are not achievable anymore,” he said, describing Rocky Mountain National Park as ahead of the curve in addressing the nitrogen issue compared to other parks. “But we certainly need to do what we can to control the problem.”

More water pollution coverage here.