GREELEY, Colorado – Record-breaking wildfires in 2020 turned huge swaths of Western forests into barren, sooty scars. Those forests store winter snowpack that millions of people downstream rely on for drinking and irrigation water. But with such large and wide-reaching fires, the science on the short-term and long-term effects to the region’s water supplies isn’t well understood.
To understand, and possibly predict, what happens after a river’s headwaters goes up in flames, researchers are descending on fresh burn scars across the West to gather data in the hopes of lessening some of the impacts on drinking water systems.
On a sunny winter morning, a team of researchers led by Colorado State University hydrologist Stephanie Kampf roamed through the steep drainage of Tunnel Creek, a tributary to the Poudre River west of Fort Collins. Much of the area burned last summer and fall during the Cameron Peak Fire.
PHOENIX – A team of researchers at Petrified Forest National Park east of Holbrook have discovered fossilized remains of a new species of prehistoric reptile. The 220-million-year old burrowing reptile is a drepanosaur, an ancient reptile that had a claw on its tail and a birdlike beak.
Researchers, who named the species Skybalonyx skapter, announced the discovery Oct. 8.
Originally, drepanosaurs were thought to have lived in the trees that grew lush in prehistoric Arizona, but Bill Parker, a paleontologist with Petrified Forest National Park, said Skybalonyx skapter suggests something else.
“The new one, we think, is actually what they call fossorial, so it actually dug in the ground and burrowed,” Parker said. Researchers suspect the claw on the tail, as well as elongated claws on the reptile’s second fingers, helped it dig for bugs to eat.
Skybalonyx was discovered by a group of summer interns from Arizona State University, Virginia Tech, the University of Washington and other colleges who teamed with park researchers to scour an area of the park known as Thunderstorm Ridge.
WASHINGTON – For four years, the Trump administration took steps to boost uranium mining for what it called national security reasons, a move environmentalists saw as an attempt to open the door to mining near the Grand Canyon.
President-elect Joe Biden may be ready to shut that door for good.
“I can’t believe I have to say this, but we can’t let Donald Trump open up the Grand Canyon for uranium mining,” Biden tweeted in August, after a Trump administration task force on nuclear fuel proposed relaxing restrictions on mining on federal lands.
In a statement posted at the same time, Biden called the Grand Canyon an “irreplaceable jewel” and blasted the Trump administration’s mining plan, saying he would focus instead on developing clean energy. While Biden did not lay out a specific mining plan, his statement was still enough for Kevin Dahl.
“I’m thrilled that the new administration has taken that stand even before inauguration. It’s a well-considered policy,” said Dahl, the Arizona senior project manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Mining supporters disagree, saying that “well-considered policy” is actually short-sighted and ill-informed.
“Mining on this land can be done responsibly and would bring hundreds of good-paying jobs to my district,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott. “As I have said on many occasions, this withdrawal is not about protecting the Grand Canyon, but crippling the domestic uranium mining industry.”
The withdrawal Gosar referred to was then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision in 2012 to impose a 20-year moratorium on new mines on just over 1 million federal acres around Grand Canyon National Park. The moratorium was aimed at protecting the Grand Canyon watershed from “adverse effects of … mineral exploration and development.”
Dahl said the moratorium has allowed scientists to study the risks and impacts mining could have on the environment, and has led to interesting discoveries about the watershed.
All signs are pointing to a dry start to 2021 across much of the Colorado River watershed, which provides water to about 40 million people in the Western U.S.
A lack of precipitation from April to October made this spring, summer and fall one of the region’s driest six-month periods on record. And with a dry start to winter, river forecasters feel more pessimistic about the chances for a drought recovery in the early part of 2021.
“We’re starting off water year 2021 with widespread much below-average soil moisture conditions and snow water equivalent conditions,” said Cody Moser, a hydrologist with the Utah-based Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Some weather stations in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada have recorded their driest years on record, Moser said. There doesn’t seem to be much relief in sight. Short-term and long-term weather forecasts all point to above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for the foreseeable future.
Exceptional drought conditions have expanded across 65% of the Colorado River watershed. Low soil moisture heading into winter will also play a role in how snowpack accumulates this season, and how much water will flow into streams and reservoirs during spring runoff, adding pressure to large-scale water users like municipalities and farmers.
Most major rivers in the basin are projected to flow well below normal levels next year due to extremely low soil moisture conditions, though Moser said there’s significant uncertainty about water supply forecasts so early in the season.
But given the dry conditions heading into winter, an average snowpack won’t be enough to provide significant relief, Moser said.
“It does seem like we’re going to need a really good snow year in order to make up some ground for the dry conditions entering the season,” Moser said.
Soil moisture is an important indicator because it can influence how much snow melts into streams, rivers and reservoirs.
A recent forecast from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates Western water infrastructure, showed the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs are likely to drop next year if demands stay the same.
Without a high snowpack this winter, the agency forecasts the Colorado River system’s biggest reservoirs will be reduced to a combined 44% of their total capacity by fall 2021.
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant.
MOAB, Utah – Climate change and increased demand for water across the Southwest are shrinking the Colorado River’s second-biggest reservoir, Lake Powell. Although water managers worry about scarcity issues, two local river guides are documenting the changes that come as the enormous reservoir hits historic lows.
For the past three years, Mike DeHoff and Pete Lefebvre have carefully photographed and mapped Cataract Canyon on their guided raft trips on the river. For more than four decades, the lower portion of the beloved canyon has been submerged, but now that the lake’s water levels are plummeting, things in Cataract are rapidly changing.
“There are rapids down there that are not on any published river map right now,” DeHoff said. “They’re coming back at a rate that publication can’t keep up with.”
The pair photographed these returning rapids year-to-year, illustrating in real-time what it looks like as Lake Powell’s water levels shift. Lefebvre said he was inspired by “Chasing Ice,” a 2012 film that documented shrinking glaciers from a sustained rise in global temperatures.
“I remember watching that movie and thinking, ‘I need to be doing this in Cataract,’” Lefebvre said. “If I have a picture of Dark Canyon and the mouth of Clearwater (Canyon) and these places where the rapids used to be, maybe I can start documenting that change.”
It wasn’t long before their hunt for new rapids sent them digging into the past. DeHoff has spent hours poring over old river maps, guidebooks, and historic photos in search of clues.
Snow in the Valley? Unlikely, but Arizonans can make their way about two hours north from Phoenix to Flagstaff to get a taste of winter.
Snowbowl Ski Resort, the Alpine slopes on Northern Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, opens for the winter season on Friday, with some slight changes due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Obviously we want people to have fun on the mountain,” said Li Cui, the marketing manager of Snowbowl Ski, “but health and safety is the most important thing for us because if you don’t feel safe then you’re probably not going to have fun.”
The biggest operational changes on the mountain are through ticket sales and capacity limitation.
“Ultimately our entire plan comes down to spreading people out as much as possible, outdoors,” Cui said.
“We feel very comfortable and believe skiing outside with plenty of space is a safe environment.”
The Snowbowl team will be closely monitoring weather conditions, the number of open trails, and the parking lot and lodging capacity.
“That daily limit is going to be very fluid … even honestly hour by hour,” Cui said.
WASHINGTON – An endangered squirrel that was driven to the brink of extinction by wildfire just three years ago in southern Arizona has seen its numbers more than triple following federal, state and local preservation efforts.
The Mount Graham red squirrel population was cut from 252 to just 33 squirrels in the wild after the Frye fire destroyed much of their habitat in 2017. But a survey released last month by state and federal agencies estimated there are now at least 109 squirrels on the mountain.
Advocates welcomed the improvement, but said the squirrel, which was put on the endangered species list in 1987, is not out of the woods yet.
“It’s a good sign that it’s heading in an upwards direction rather than stagnating or … heaven forbid, going down,” said Marit Alanen, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Alanen points to a long list of factors threatening the squirrel’s mountain forest habitat, including fires, both natural and man-made, insect infestations and competition from the Abert squirrel, which was introduced in the 1940s. But wildfires have been the biggest threat, reducing the number of trees available to the squirrels and leaving them exposed to predators.
“We’ve been seeing these fires that have just gotten bigger and bigger over the years and have been of higher severity,” said Alanen. She said the Peak fire in 1996, the Nuttall Gibson fire in 2004 and the Frye fire “have impacted at least 95% of the squirrel’s habitat to some degree.”
That reduction in the forest has led to a “habitat bottleneck,” with squirrels competing for fewer suitable trees, said Robin Silver, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity. It’s one reason the center filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in September, in an effort to force an expansion of the squirrels’ critical habitat.
WASHINGTON – State and federal weather officials are predicting a warmer and drier than normal winter for Arizona, which would come on the heels of the driest monsoon ever recorded in the state.
The “nonsoon” summer followed by a La Niña winter could spell trouble for water resources and wildfire conditions in a state already gripped by drought, the officials said.
“Going into a dry winter after this dry summer is going to be making the drought worse, for sure,” said Nancy Selover, a state climatologist at Arizona State University.
Usually occurring once every two to seven years during the winter, the La Niña weather pattern stems from a cold phase of the Pacific Ocean that shifts the jet stream, leading to colder weather in the north and warm and dry weather in the Southwest.
David Miskus, a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service, said that if the La Niña weather system “does what it normally does – sub-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures in the wintertime – that’s exactly what Arizona and the Southwest does not need this winter.” The long-term outlook is calling for just that.
2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.
Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. While environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.
The watershed’s ongoing aridification, with record-breaking hot and dry conditions over the last 20 years, and lessened federal financial support for large-scale water projects is adding more pressure on projects that attempt to divert water to fast-growing communities or slow the purchase of agricultural water supplies.
For years, environmental journalist Laura Paskus has been following the twists and turns of a proposed project in New Mexico’s southwest corner, called the Gila River Diversion.
Introduced in 2004, when Arizona settled tribal water rights with the Gila River Indian Community, the diversion was billed as a way to provide much-needed water supplies for four mostly rural New Mexican counties.
“The most recent plan was to build this diversion in the Cliff-Gila Valley,” Paskus said. “And to provide water to irrigators,” like farmers and ranchers.
What propelled the project forward was a federal subsidy to cover some of the costs associated with planning and building. Thorny questions over the project’s total cost, its eventual operation and the financial burden of those who would receive the water were present from the start, Paskus said, but the idea of leaving federal dollars unspent kept the effort alive for more than a decade.
“But there was never a really solid plan of how it would be built or how it would be paid for,” she said.
Failure to come up with a plan finally sank the proposal in June this year. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, which had thrown its weight behind the project five years earlier, voted to stop spending money on environmental reviews related to the diversion. Roughly $17 million had already been spent on engineering plans and consultants over the years.