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Colorado River Basin groundwater levels drop even faster than reservoirs

Sarah Jane Keller | Jul 30, 2014 05:00 AM

When Lake Mead is full it’s the largest reservoir in the U.S., capable of holding two years’ worth of water from the Colorado River. But the Southwest has been trapped in a 14-year drought, and the states Mead feeds – Nevada, Arizona and California – are thirsty. The reservoir is now only about half full (or half empty, depending on your outlook). This month it hit a record low since it was first topped off in 1937.

Now researchers have discovered another water disappearance that’s equally dramatic, but not nearly as visible as the newly exposed sandstone walls of Lake Mead. Over the last nine years the states drawing on the Colorado River Basin groundwater have pumped enough out from underground to fill Lake Mead nearly twice. That means groundwater has been drawn down even faster than Lake Mead or Lake Powell during those years.

Lake Mead's white bathtub ring symbolizes drought in the West. But there's been an even greater, invisible draw down of groundwater from beneath the Colorado River Basin in the last nine years. (Photo by Kumar Appaiah, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s well known that when surface water is scarce, cities and farms fill the gap by pumping aquifers. But no one knew that Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah have been using that much groundwater until the researchers measured it for the first time, using data from a NASA satellite. “I think the key phrase has been ‘shocking’,” says Stephanie Castle, a water resources researcher at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the study published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. That means a lot coming from a group of scientists studying worldwide groundwater depletion.

So why isn’t more being done to encourage judicious groundwater use? It’s not that managers aren’t interested in it, says Sharon B. Megdal, an expert in groundwater governance and the director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. Ideas have been thrown around for years, but it’s fundamentally a hard problem to solve and the politics of water don’t make it any easier. This study is also the first to measure groundwater depletion in the Colorado Basin on such a large scale. The good news though is that “right now there’s a lot of pent up demand (within the water-watching community) for developing solutions."


The first barrier to understanding – and caring about – groundwater use is that it’s mostly invisible. With aquifers, there are no photos of marinas stranded well above Lake Powell’s water line, just wells to drill and models to run. That’s why satellite data is so valuable.

Plus, there’s no single entity in charge of accounting for groundwater. That's different from surface water in the Colorado River Basin, since the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation keeps an eye on how much is entering and leaving their reservoirs.  And every state using the river is bound by a 1922 agreement that the northern Colorado River states, where most of water comes from, will share half with the Southwestern states. Since those states know that the water demands of about 40 million people are perilously close to outstripping supply, they’ve begun thinking about ways to stave off water conflict by using less of it or finding new sources.

But states aren’t held to any such agreement about their aquifers, and oversight varies, if there’s any at all. For example, California’s groundwater is the least regulated of any western state. With that state in throes of drought, overpumping has drawn saltwater into coastal wells. That's helped inspire two pieces of legislation that, if passed, could change the free-for-all nature of California's groundwater.

Arizona, where 40 percent of the water comes from underground, has made strides to preserve its groundwater stores, in part by recharging aquifers with leftovers from their Colorado River allotment, instead of sending it downstream to California, and by creating special water management districts. But those districts don’t cover the entire state, and rapid depletion is still a problem.

Since groundwater is a local resource, solutions to its runaway depletion will likely be local too. But not solving the problem, and running out in important agricultural regions, like California’s Central Valley, or cities, would have ripple effects that extend far beyond local wells.

Castle and her colleagues hope their revelations about the region’s groundwater will raise the resource’s profile in the management community and with the public. That’s an important step to slowing the drain on groundwater reserves. “I do personally believe that we can all do more to conserve,” says Megdal. “If people understood the pressure that is being put on our aquifers, they might think more about (their water use).”

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News correspondent based in Bozeman, Montana. She tweets @sjanekeller.

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‘Lucking out’ for Wyoming’s winter smog

Brian Calvert | Jul 29, 2014 05:00 AM

Northwest Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin has a number of things in abundance. Two of those are wind and sagebrush. Two more are natural gas and ozone pollution. And as Wyoming moves toward new air quality rules, we’re learning more about how those four things are related.

Wyoming regulators and the oil and gas industry have done a “pretty amazing” job of rolling back some major pollution problems, says Russell Schnell, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But ozone pollution is also driven by meteorology, he says, and that’s where the Upper Green holds a few natural aces.

Pinedale ozone
Smoke from flaring operations at a natural gas well near Pinedale, Wyoming. Photograph by Flickr user William Belveal.

The basin lies between the Wind River Mountains and the Wyoming Range and provides billions of dollars in natural gas each year. Most of that comes from the Jonah Field, which hosts thousands of wells and their attendant pipelines, evaporation ponds, compressor stations and other infrastructural bits and bobs. All of that plumbing can leak natural gas, a which includes methane and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are pollutants that help cause ground-level ozone—better known as smog.

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The work of a Wall Street wrangler

Wyatt Orme | Jul 28, 2014 05:05 AM

Jay Ellis will consider buying scenic ranchland across the West on two conditions. First, the acreage needs to be close enough to towns with “amenities” -- entertainment, places to eat, and an airport or landing strip. The parcel also needs to contain “live water,” or some combination of lakes, rivers and streams. Then, after spending an hour or two on the property, if Ellis thinks that, yes, it’s of such caliber that he’d buy it with his own money, he’ll make an offer.

Once Ellis’s private equity fund, Sporting Ranch Capital, acquires a ranch property, then begins the work of turning it into a trophy. The product (on the market after a year or two) is a “sporting” ranch, from anywhere between 200 to 1,000-acres, and costing somewhere between two and eight million dollars. Ellis’ buyers, not surprisingly, are “high net-worth individuals;” they are among those fortunate few who have, as he put it, “had a significant monetization event” in their lives, maybe more. And they’re emotional buyers—they’ve always wanted a picturesque ranch in the West.

As a first step, the Dallas-based firm arranges to spruce the place up, hauling away old trailers, rusting farm equipment, piles of trash, and “unsightly structures.” It also works to restore the land so that the new owner can enjoy hunting and fishing. Depending on the property, this could involve restructuring a river, previously degraded by cattle, by putting in the verdant banks, deep pools, and slight riffles characteristic of any stellar trout stream. They’ll even add oxbows to a river, if the hydrology allows for it. At a 516-acre property in New Mexico, the firm added four lakes. Remodeling or building ranch houses they leave to the future buyers. By the time the firm is finished, Ellis says, they’ve done everything necessary to “take what God made and make it better.”

After spending years on Wall Street, Ellis relocated to Dallas to run the equity sales desk at Morgan Stanley. He says he’s always loved the mountains, and began looking at ranches online for a hobby. Business and pleasure began to mix a few years after the housing crisis, when the market for ranches began to thaw and prices had dropped significantly from where they’d been pre-2008. With the financial backing of T. Boone Pickens, the famous Texas energy entrepreneur and conservationist, Ellis quit his job at Morgan Stanley and started Sporting Ranch Capital in 2012. The fund has since acquired five properties, three of which are on the market now, or will be soon.

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On the Wilderness Act's 50th, a backpack into the Weminuche

Jonathan Thompson | Jul 24, 2014 06:00 PM

I’d like to say that my friend Gabe and I took a short backpacking trip in late June to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, which is coming up in September, but that would be a lie. We just wanted to go somewhere kind of wild, where we could escape the round-the-clock pressure of our jobs and laptops and cell phones for a couple days, maybe scare the hell out of ourselves on some high ridge line and then drink some whiskey around the camp stove. Our last-minute choice of Colorado’s largest wilderness area as a destination was mostly random.

A view into the Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southwestern Colorado. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Indeed, if you want to get away from it all, designated wilderness is not always the best choice. Drawing a line around a piece of mostly unnoticed land and make its wildness official is one of the best ways to draw more people to it. Besides, the Wilderness Act is a bit worse for half-a-century’s wear. Our do-nothing Congress is especially useless when it comes to designating new wilderness areas, even if the proposals come from locals, are whittled down by one compromise after another and have deep bipartisan support. The act has become impotent in its haggard middle age, and surely will never again accomplish the great land-preserving feats of its youth.

Meanwhile, the very philosophical underpinnings of the act have been questioned and beaten down: This notion of freezing a landscape, “untrammeled by man,” in its so-called natural state is imperialistic and anthropocentric, not to mention unrealistic, and ignores the fact that humans had been trammeling and working this landscape for centuries before white men arrived and declared it “virgin.” Given the global threats that we and our fellow Earthlings face, it can seem silly or quaint to engage in the long battles to bring new wilderness bills to fruition merely to protect relatively tiny portions of land from a new road or something.

So our last minute decision on a short jaunt into the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness, was in spite of wilderness, not because of it. We were, however, prepared for it, as Gabe had found a copy of the Backpacking Guide to the Weminuche Wilderness, first published almost 40 years ago. Though it did not include our particular trail, it did have some useful gems, e.g. adding non-dairy creamer to powdered milk makes the concoction creamier. Who would have guessed?

During my teens and twenties I went backpacking as often as possible, with Gabe and other friends, into remote canyons or to the base of crumbly, obscure peaks. But kids and jobs and age had put the kibosh on all of that, and so when we shouldered our packs at the trailhead, it broke a long backpacking moratorium. We trudged up the trail, past the little sign marking the wilderness boundary and into a vast, sloping field of tundra and rock, punctuated by cascading, wildflower-adorned streams. And I got to thinking about what it must have been like to be environmentally-minded in this region in the 1960s. By then, huge swaths of the San Juan Mountains, not to mention their waterways, had been forever altered by a century of hardrock mining, and the industry was still going strong, its methods becoming more invasive. Early settlers had clearcut one mountainside after another to build the towns and timber the mines. A spiderweb of roads covered the landscape, going where no road should go. The industrialization of the entire region must have seemed imminent.

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In Southcentral Alaska, salmon declines are pinned on a toothy invader

Ben Goldfarb | Jul 24, 2014 05:10 AM

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Yukon River’s chinook salmon runs, which have lately plummeted for reasons that remain murky. While researchers are years from cracking that mystery, the Yukon isn’t the only Alaskan river losing its salmon. In the state’s Susitna River basin, which courses through Southcentral Alaska near Anchorage, the mighty fish has also crashed. And unlike in the Yukon, scientists may have pinpointed the culprit: Northern pike, a rapacious invader with an appetite for young salmon.

That pike are invasive in the Susitna is a curious artifact of Alaska’s rugged geography. The fish — snaky creatures whose long jaws are spiked with needle-like teeth — are native throughout the American Midwest and Canada, and they also naturally inhabit the entirety of northern Alaska. But the Alaska Range, a 400-mile-long band of mountains that curves from Lake Clark to the Canadian Yukon, historically blocked the pike from the state’s southern reaches.

In Southcentral Alaska, invasive Northern pike can grow to more than 30 pounds. Photo courtesy of the US Geological Survey.

That changed in the 1950’s. Scientists aren’t sure how pike ended up in southern Alaska, but the most likely explanation, says Adam Sepulveda, aquatic biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is that an ice-fishing aficionado airlifted them by floatplane.

Although it took a few decades for the pike population to grow large enough to harm salmon returns, the nosedive, when it came, was swift. In a Susitna tributary called Alexander Creek, for instance, the number of chinook escaping to their spawning grounds plunged from nearly 4,000 fish in 1999 to less than 200 in 2010. Anglers grew despondent; once-vibrant fishing camps were boarded up. "Pike are the only species where fishermen will buy me a beer when they find out I'm working on them,” Sepulveda says.

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Of packrat poop, creosote bush and juniper-fed lamb

Jodi Peterson | Jul 23, 2014 05:00 AM

How can herbivores survive munching on poisonous plants? A new study helps prove something that scientists have long suspected -- that it’s not just enzymes in an animal's liver that break down toxic compounds in plants, but that bacteria in its guts also play a major role.

As an aside, if you’re wondering why an animal would deliberately eat a naturally toxic plant, that happens for several reasons – perhaps the plant contains a lot of nutrients, or it tastes good, or both (for example, larkspur and locoweed, which plague Western cattle growers). Or maybe better-quality forage isn’t available and the animal is desperate.

The new University of Utah study focused on the woodrat (Neotoma lepida, also called packrat), found in Western deserts. In desert areas where creosote bushes grow, the bushy-tailed rodents eat it and thrive, despite a toxic resin in the leaves that can cause kidney cysts and cancer. Apparently the creatures acquired this talent some 17,000 years ago, according to a press release about the study:

“In a natural climatic event at the end of the last glacial period, the Southwest dried out and our major deserts were formed,” the study’s senior author, Denise Dearing, professor and chair of biology, says. Creosote, which was native to Mexico, moved north into the Mojave Desert and replaced juniper there, but did not go farther north into Great Basin deserts. Desert woodrats in the Mojave started eating creosote bushes, while desert woodrats in the Great Basin kept eating toxic juniper, to which they had adapted earlier."

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Canada’s boreal forests are burning – and releasing loads of carbon

Krista Langlois | Jul 22, 2014 03:05 PM

Rumbling afternoon thundershowers are breaking over the Southwest, bringing gratitude and sweet relief – not that the region needed much relieving this year. Bouts of cool, wet weather throughout early summer helped stave off the conflagrations predicted to erupt after a dry winter, and by mid-July, most areas had already been deluged by a full month’s worth of rainfall. In other words, summer monsoon season has extinguished any lingering fears that 2014 would be a bad fire year.

“In a word, fire season was underwhelming,” says Chuck Maxwell, meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center's Predictive Services Group. “We had near normal to probably below-normal activity.”

But as the Southwest collectively inhales the smell of rain falling on dry land, parts of the Northwest and Western Canada are bathed in acrid smoke. Nearly a million acres are burning in Washington and Oregon alone – more than what typically burns over the course of a whole year. Some 12,000 firefighters have been deployed since the fires began earlier this month.

Yet though the deadly combination of drought and summer lightning strikes have led to a particularly severe fire season in eastern Washington and Oregon, some of the West’s biggest blazes are in Canada's Northwest Territories, where the total acreage burned so far this year is six times the 25-year average. In recent years, twice as much Canadian forest has been burning annually as in the 1970s, says University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan, and the northwestern part of the country is experiencing its hottest, driest summer in half a century. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” Flannigan says.

The Birch Creek fire complex in Canada's Northwest Territories. Courtesy Kelly Pennycook, Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories, and Dennis Quintill, via NWTFire. Photograph taken July 14,2014.

While fires in sparsely populated northern Canada have less of an impact on human safety and infrastructure than those in the Pacific Northwest, their effect on the environment may be greater. The ancient, stunted boreal forests that ring the Arctic Circle contain 30 percent of the world's land-based carbon, and when they burn, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

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A bison boost for Native economies

Wyatt Orme | Jul 22, 2014 05:00 AM

“Buffalo is better for you than skinless chicken,” Karlene Hunter will tell you. “It has more omega-3s than an avocado.”

Hunter is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and CEO of Native American Natural Foods. The company, which she cofounded in 2007, makes all-natural, low-calorie buffalo snacks (Tanka Bars, Tanka Sticks, Tanka Bites) sold in over 6,000 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, REI and Costco.

Larger than the state of Delaware, the Pine Ridge Reservation is in Shannon County, one of the poorest in the United States. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed the reservation “poverty’s poster child.” At the time of his reporting, half the adults over forty had diabetes and the unemployment rate hovered around 70 percent.

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photograph from Flickr user, Jerry Burke.

Hunter’s company, which aims to source its food and ingredients from Native American producers, is now beginning a new project: Help native ranchers find economic opportunities and create more Native American sources of buffalo meat for her products.Currently Native American Natural Foods buys the wild rice it uses from Red Lake Nation Foods in Minnesota and its cranberries from processors in Wisconsin who deal directly with native growers. Yet only 17 percent of the company’s buffalo supply comes from Native producers. The new project, called the Tanka Fund, would help finance and support Natives in raising bison on Indian land in Western and Midwestern states. To make this happen, the company recently teamed up with Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a national organization that restores Native control of reservation lands that have fallen out of tribal ownership.

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Efficiency lessons from Germany

Jonathan Thompson | Jul 21, 2014 05:05 AM

Just days after its national soccer team became world champions, Germany won another less glamorous but important competition: It was ranked number one in energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The United States, meanwhile, showed even less proficiency for efficiency than for soccer. It finished a dismal 13th place out of 16 countries, beating out only Brazil, Russia and Mexico.

Somehow, I doubt that the poor ranking will bruise American pride. After all, as a nation we tend to look upon efficiency and conservation with about as much fondness as Ann Coulter has for soccer. We mistakenly conflate consuming less power with having less power, and thus see efficiency as impotence — a world of slow cars, dim lightbulbs, tepid showers and unbathed, tofu-eating wimps. We live in a land of abundance, especially those of us in the American West, so have no pressing need to make do with less. And even when we try to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we tend to emphasize the more — more solar plants, more wind farms, more desert covered with gleaming mirrors — than on simply consuming less in the first place.

Efficiency hasn't slowed growth in Germany. Here, cranes construct hundreds of new housing units alongside a huge, new park in central Berlin. It was made possible in part by federal laws that require developers to fund green spaces. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Germany, meanwhile, is in the throes of its Energiewende — the transition away from coal and nuclear towards renewable energy sources. During the first half of 2014, nearly one-third of Germany’s electricity came from renewable sources. They’ve accomplished this, in part, by a strong feed-in-tariff policy that incentivizes the installation of rooftop solar or small- to medium-scale wind power. Often overlooked, though is the less sexy side of the Energiewende: A policy to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 (compared to 2008 levels) and a whopping 50 percent by 2050 via higher building standards, better appliances and the like. Thus the number one ranking in energy efficiency.

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Washington’s new clean-water plan is a mixed bag

Kevin Taylor | Jul 18, 2014 05:10 AM

Washington’s governor last week announced a bold approach for creating cleaner, safer waters for fish and the people who eat them. Unless he didn’t.

Every day, the state’s Department of Health releases a map of waterways so polluted that restrictions are placed on the amount and types of fish people should eat. Washington has many troubled waterways, including the industrialized Duwamish River (“River of No Return,” HCN June 23, 2014). On the other side of the state, an entire section of the Spokane River has signs posted near its banks (and on the state map) warning: “Don’t eat any fish.”

Advisory from the Washington state health department.

The state has been under pressure recently from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to revise its fish consumption rate to better protect the health of people who eat locally caught fish. (The rate is a measurement of how much fish is being consumed, in order to help state officials decide how to regulate pollution accordingly. Until now, the rate has been out of date and misleadingly low.) The EPA, in turn, is being pressured thanks to a lawsuit filed last year by tribes and environmental groups, who argue that many Indians, immigrants and impoverished people eat far more fish than the state currently assumes.

Gov. Inslee agrees. “I gotta tell you, there are people who eat a lot of fish,” he said at his press conference last week. Inslee announced Washington would match Oregon with the most-protective “fish consumption rate” in the nation at 175 grams per day. The new rate assumes that each Washington resident, on average, consumes a six-ounce serving of locally caught fish per day, or a little more than 11 pounds a month, and that waterways must be clean enough that levels of pollutants like mercury or PCBs accumulating in fish won’t kill anyone. The current standard is based on an assumption of 6.5 grams per day, or a little more than five pounds in a year.

But moments after unveiling the higher consumption rate, Inslee proposed a tenfold weakening of the state’s water quality standards that protect against cancer risk. Amid criticism, Inslee insisted there’s “no backsliding” on water standards and that “there is no either-or between environmental and economic health.”

The regional head of the EPA appears to think the change is backsliding. “If Washington reduces the level of cancer risk protection … tribes, certain low-income, minority communities, and other high fish consuming groups could be provided less protection than they have now,” EPA’s Region 10 director Dennis McLerran wrote to a state senator just days before Inslee’s announcement. By increasing the fish consumption rate but rolling back the cancer risk assessment — two arcane calculations in the formula that sets water quality standards — "they are giving with one hand and taking away with the other," said Fran Wilshusen, habitat director for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The governor’s advisory team was surprised to discover there would indeed be less protection when crunching the numbers, said Kelly Susewind, special assistant to the director of the state Department of Ecology. Which is why, Susewind said, the rollback is a “hybrid” in which the standards are weakened across the board, but the department will not allow discharge (from industry or municipalities) of cancer-causing toxic at levels higher than presently permitted.

Critics of the cancer risk assessment change call it a concession to industry and municipal wastewater dischargers. The dischargers argue tougher clean water standards are prohibitively expensive and may even be unreachable with current technology. Boeing derailed former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s attempt at setting a higher fish consumption rate that may have catalyzed stricter pollution standards in 2012, according to documents obtained by the independent journalist group, InvestigateWest.

“Business is worried about the economic impact” of tougher water quality standards, Susewind said. “(Companies) are looking at investing on a 20- or 30-year schedule, and they ask, ‘How will I know that 10 years from now I (won’t) end up with a limit I can’t comply with?’” Susewind said. The governor’s plan, he said, allows business more certainty.

“So the good news is that nothing is getting worse?” asked Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit that’s been pushing for bigger improvements to water quality standards for years. “That’s not why we started this process,” Wilke said, referring to the quest for a more realistic (and higher) fish consumption rate that would require stricter water standards.

Wilshusen has been advocating for a more protective fish consumption rate since the mid-1990s. She praises Inslee for raising the rate, but said all the moving parts to the governor’s plan, including running it through the legislature next year before it’s actually implemented, make its success far from certain.

“It’s like when you were a kid and ordered something from the back of a comic book,” Wilshusen said. “And when the envelope comes in the mail, you open it and say, ‘Hey! It didn’t look like that.’”

After 25 years of work, she said, “What we got this week is disappointing.”

Kevin Taylor writes from Spokane, Washington, where he does not eat the fish.

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