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Feel of Drought: So this is Drought

As Colorado enters the heat of summer and the prospect of another drought year, PULP looked at some of the forces of drought and found there’s more to drought than the heat. 

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“We should never be living in the illusion of plentiful water.  Because of this, during a D2 drought, and especially in the third consecutive summer of drought in southeast Colorado, I would recommend that residents voluntarily restrict how much water they use this summer,” said Becky Smith, Colorado Climate Center’s Drought Specialist.

As Colorado faces a D3 (severe) and D4 (extreme) drought conditions, in many areas, the response to drought is mixed.

However, with future prospects of prolonged drought affecting the majority of this country, demand on water will only continue to increase, or simply put, there will be less water to sustain a growing population.

Most Coloradoans think of drought as a yearly event where less snowfall means less water and there’s unbearable heat killing all the crops. However, the consequences Pueblo County and other parts of southern Colorado are likely to encounter are extremely high risk of wildfires potentially devastating to forests and communities, failed crops, diminished yields, soil and irri-gations issues, but also consumption restrictions like those already being faced by residents of Colorado Springs and Denver on nonessential water use.

Everyone understands natural drought mechanics on a basic level. Less snow and rain means less water. But there is something called consumptive use, or the water you use and the water used for industrial and agricultural means. What’s happening is Colorado is in a natural severe drought that is being worsened by the demands of human consumptive use. The system, the lakes, reservoirs, the underground aquifers, and ground water doesn’t have time to replenish naturally because of continued drought and continued use. 

Also, average water storage at reservoirs across the Colorado is down 34 percent from this time last year, according to the Colorado Board of Natural Resources, and filled to only 39 percent of capacity. This year is the third consecutive year of severe drought conditions. 

Factors contributing to the Colorado’s drought are a historically dry season, exacerbated by Colorado’s perception that water is abundantly plentiful but in reality is being drawn at a rate faster than it can be naturally replenished. All this done in a semi-arid state trending towards an even more arid climate.

To understand drought mechanics, you have to first look at the intensity the current drought in the West. 

Currently, the majority of the country is in a severe drought with conditions ranging from moderate to exceptional across two-thirds of the lower 48 states. Colorado is one of six states –  along with Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa – facing an exceptionally dry period unlike any other period since 1895. 

Aiguo Dai, associate professor of climate science at University at Albany, suggests “we are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be ful-ly recognized by both the public and the climate change research community.” 

Models from Dai’s study indicate that most of the United States, especially the West, will be significantly drier by the 2030s. Estimates show some areas reaching a level of drought sever-ity rarely, if ever, observed in modern times. 

Still, gaining an understanding of what Coloradoans can assume about the state of their climate, along with what influences are applying stress on it only paints part of the picture of Colorado’s current climatological situation. Climate scientists agree that Colorado’s climate is not going to change overnight into a radically dry climate with no wet seasons. Colorado will still see fluctuations in wet and dry seasons as the history of Colorado weather shows but with a long-term move to being an overall drier climate due to climate change.

Information for US Drought Monitor - David Miskus

Information for US Drought Monitor – David Miskus

 The analysis conducted by NWS indicates Southern Colorado has seen some level of beneficial moisture in the past few months, however it also reports “a continued lack of moisture … along with increasing temperatures and the start of the convective [fire risk] season … will likely keep high fire danger across the area and could lead to more local governments instituting fire restrictions over the next several months.”

NWS’s data also indicates the soil across Southern Colorado is much drier than normal and the southeast plains region, dense in agriculture-centered communities, faces the greatest deficits of moisture in the state. Those deficits in soil moisture only return to normal levels after sustained wet seasons.

To translate: Colorado is dehydrated and the water we do have is going to satisfy a thirst that is unquenchable because of the heat and drought conditions. While climate change does im-pact the drought, according to Becky Smith, consumption practices are the most immediate threat to continued drought. 

Tracing transmountain municipal water supply (mountain snowpack) shows several locations reporting an overall decrease in average water content over the last 50 years. With the most dramatic decrease seen in the Ivanhoe Snotel (SNOwpack TELemetry) where the average water content in April fell from 18.2 feet between 1961-1990 to 11 feet during the years of 1981-2010. Additionally, in the mid-2000s snow course reports started being conducted around areas of the Columbine Ditch, located on Fremont Pass 13 miles north of Leadville, as well as Ewing Placer and Wurtz ditches; all of which either collect and divert or store transmountain water eventually seen flowing through the Arkansas River. The Ewing Ditch is one of the oldest diversions in Colorado and was constructed in 1880. 

So where does the latest analysis leave the region as the summer heat approaches? 

NWS forecasts, “May and June indicate better chances for above normal temperatures along with a slight tilt to below normal precipitation … Especially across southwest Colorado.”

Even the Pueblo Board of Water Works in its most recent state-of-the-drought report to customers acknowledges, “This ongoing drought is a natural disaster beyond human control.”

But a paragraph later, the same report states the Pueblo Board of Water Works does “not anticipate watering restrictions or curtailment of extraterritorial water leases this coming summer [2013].” 

In 2002, Pueblo felt the impact of the severe drought conditions when the board placed restrictions on outdoor watering and some water leaseholders. 

Having learned from the 2002 experience, the board has worked proactively to maximize storage and explains that it currently has more water stored in reservoirs it draws from than it did entering the irrigation season in 2002. 

Still Smith urges all Coloradans to bear in mind that the NWS is a government entity and most water providers are private companies. Even if the area is considered to be in an extreme drought, water providers will not immediately put water restrictions into place.

“NWS is going to tell you what they observe, based on objectively analyzing data.  Water providers are a business, selling customers a product.  They may take some more time before they advise the customers not to ‘buy’ as much of their product,” said Smith.  

She adds that the public should keep in mind the lack of restrictions doesn’t mean the area isn’t suffering from an “impending water shortage.”

As Colorado enters to what looks like another drought year, the State may be faced to change its long-standing policy where it can stave off drought through water storage. In the next decade, for the first time since the Arkansas Frying-Pan system was created, southeast Colorado may again realize what water shortage looks like and the only way to fight drought is at the source — the modern source — the tap.

by Matthew Ramirez & Rob Donovan

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.

Colorado

Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks

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A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”

____

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

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More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire

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Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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Get to Crested Butte Colorado for a wildflower wonderland

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Crested Butte’s wildflowers cast a spell on Michelle Bivens at an early age.

“It goes back to about 6 or 7 years old,” she recalls, when her family camped every summer among the vibrant arrays, library books in hand to identify the great variety that makes the mountain town “the wildflower capital of Colorado.”

With a family of her own, she bounced around from Colorado Springs, to Austin, Texas, to Woodland Park over 22 years. But in 2012, Bivens moved the husband and kids to the valley that stayed in her dreams.

“There’s no place like it,” she says — a truth that comforts wildflower buffs in dry years like these when their backyards don’t yield the typical burst.

Bivens is executive director of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, the weeklong celebration that starts July 6 and will mean more to flora fanatics of the Pikes Peak region and beyond.

That includes George Cameron. He’s a founder of the Native Plant Society’s local chapter, a retired botany professor who’s more than disappointed by what he’s seeing, or not, in his go-to spot, Stratton Open Space.

“This is the worst possible year,” Cameron says. “I live for the wildflowers every year, and it’s very depressing when they’re not there.”

He treasures higher displays on the mountain, those that grace Elk Park and Devils Playground, for example. And while he has yet to visit with “peak season” approaching, he fears the flowers haven’t had the moisture to bloom in abundance.

“There’s been no snowpack, nothing for them,” he says. “I’m not hopeful it’ll be very good this year.”

But for the fields and hills around Crested Butte, his faith is strong. “That’s because of the soil.”

While Pikes Peak’s granite is hydrophobic, washing away moisture, the earth surrounding the glacier-formed area of Crested Butte is composed of shale that better retains water. Snow melts, and life beneath has a better chance of emerging in all its glory.

Indeed, judging by photos out of Crested Butte, the flowers are popping a week before the festival. Snow melted earlier than usual, Bivens says, and the killing cold winds didn’t strike later.

“The good news is the flowers are coming early, and they didn’t freeze,” she says.

So Jason Odell is gearing up for a visit. The Colorado Springs photographer and teacher plans to soon escort clients to Crested Butte, to capture the scene he’s been scouting for almost two decades.

 

He encourages students to enjoy the landscape, the perfect beauty pairing with iconic Colorado ruggedness, but to also pay attention to details. He wants them to kneel before a flower, to photograph the changing shades of a columbine, the dancing of lupines, the petals splaying from an Indian paintbrush’s stem.

“I think wildflowers are so popular because they’re so ephemeral; they’re only around for a few months or sometimes even a few weeks,” Odell says. “And they have this diversity of color that normally we don’t get in our everyday landscape. … It’s being able to say you saw something totally unique.”

The flowers “pull you out of ordinary existence,” Cameron says. In his Pikes Peak Community College pupils, he sought to instill a reverence for the different species, expressing how they all grow on different terms, some appearing only once in a generation, and how they all can exist in harmony.

“There’s always something new to find out,” says Tom Zeiner, a geologist who’s made wildflowers his focus in retirement.

Naturally, he has a summer home in Crested Butte, where during the festival he leads educational hikes, guiding from the valley floor to the high-alpine zones where the colors change, where it’s common for him to spot a flower he’s never noticed before. Already, Zeiner says, he’s observed impressive swaths of glacier lilies and other classics.

But the early bloom highlights a trend concerning climate change onlookers. If the flowers show earlier, will pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds be around to ensure they last?

More immediate threats are the rising number of explorers who pick the flowers and trample off-trail, Bivens says. The nonprofit festival aims to make people “appreciate the wild places we have,” she says. What better teacher than the fragile, mysterious wildflowers?

“It really is quite a miracle that unfolds,” she says.

___

Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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