drought

The sun is just a dim red dot. The nearby Canadian Rockies are shrouded in thick wildfire smoke.

Bob Gray knows we probably shouldn’t be hiking up a mountain right now.

“I have a scratchy throat,” he says. “Physically it effects my breathing. I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time in it.”

Maggie Mullen

It's no secret that water is a problem in the West. Historically, the humble beaver helped maintain wetlands and ponds across the arid landscape but their populations were decimated during the fur trade and their numbers dropped dramatically from 400 million to just 100,000 by the turn of the twentieth century. But Canada's national animal is making a comeback and scientists think they have an important role to play as our region fights drought.

The Colorado River is running low on water. The lifeline that slakes the thirst of 40 million southwestern residents is projected to hit a historic low mark within two years, forcing mandatory cuts to water deliveries in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.   

Facing exceptional drought conditions, cities throughout the watershed this summer have imposed mandatory water restrictions, ranchers have begun selling off cows they’re unable to feed, and the river’s reservoirs are headed toward levels not seen since they filled decades ago.

With wildfires burning through much of the West, there’s high demand for big aircraft to come in and battle the flames from above.

Colorado is called “the mother of  rivers” for a reason: it’s one of the most popular states for river rafting in the country.  But like the rest of our region, unprecedented growth, a changing climate, drought, and wildfires are taking their toll on this multi-million-dollar industry.

Wildfire smoke reached dangerous levels across the Mountain West Monday. Eastern Washington had the worst air in the country and all 56 counties in Montana were under an air quality alert – possibly the first time that’s happened in the state’s history.

Over the last 30 years, the West has seen an uptick in the size and frequency of forest fires. Scientists have typically attributed the change to low snowpack and high summer temperatures. But researchers writing in the journal PNAS say the trend could have more to do with rain.

Researchers pulled up maps of forest wildfires from 1979 to 2016 and compared those maps against data on snow, rain, temperature and humidity.

Low water levels on the Colorado River could force water shortages in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2020, according to a new forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

A shortage on the river is tied to the level of its main reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada. If the lake drops past an elevation of 1,075 feet, water users downstream have to start cutting back how much water they use. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects the lake to drop below that level next year, triggering water cutbacks in 2020.

Utah officials are praising a Draper firefighter who was killed while battling California's biggest wildfire, the first fatality of the massive Mendocino Complex Fire. 

Scorching temperatures are hitting our region’s biggest tourist attractions. On Friday, temperatures at Glacier National Park hit triple digits for the first time in recorded history.

A couple days later, the Howe Ridge fire blew up.

Lodgers and campers awoke late Sunday night to officials telling them to get out as soon as possible.


A new study shows air pollution like soot, dust and smoke is down around the country with one exception: wildfire prone areas like the Mountain West.  

Record-breaking wildfires in California have prompted tweets from President Trump and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. They blame the fires on “bad environmental laws,” too many dead or dying trees, and not enough logging.

A Belgian hiker died from apparent heat-related causes earlier this week at the Utah-Arizona border.

Hay prices are spiking this year, driven up by a drought-induced shortage of the crop. It’s affecting ranchers across the board, but horse owners in particular are feeling the pinch. Horses eat higher quality hay, so it’s harder to get. It’s forcing horse owners in Colorado to buy more hay from neighboring states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana and that’s driving the cost up even more.  


Simulating The Weather Created By Fire In New Study

Jul 30, 2018

A recent study is helping researchers understand the role of wind in the largest forest fires.

A coalition of advocacy and labor groups have sent a petition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). They’re calling for specific standards to protect construction, farm and other outdoor laborers from extreme heat. Right now there are no specific protections in place.  

Drought monitor outlook of Wyoming
Brian Fuchs / National Drought Mitigation Center

Wyoming is seeing slightly less drought now than this time last year, from 24 percent down to 20. But it’s still having an effect, especially since the state has experienced drought conditions for the last 20 years. Southern Wyoming is getting the worst of it, particularly in parts of Sweetwater and Carbon counties with abnormally dry conditions.

Record-breaking temperatures are scorching the United States with parts of our region seeing all-time highs. A number of heat-related deaths are already being reported in the U.S.

US Fish and Wildlife Service-Mountain Prairie Region

States in the Colorado River’s upper basin, including Wyoming, are considering ways to start saving any water conserved from efforts like avoiding irrigation in hayfields or watering lawns. It’s a novel idea being considered in the wake of low snow packs this year in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah that have caused Lake Powell to receive less than half its usual flow. That flow is needed to satisfy water allocations promised to states downstream. 

There is a moment as heatstroke sets in when the body, no longer able to cool itself, stops sweating. Joey Azuela remembers it well.

"My body felt hot, like, in a different way," he says. "It was like a 'I'm cooking' hot."

Three summers ago, Azuela, then 14, and his father were hiking a trail in one of Phoenix's rugged desert preserves. It was not an unusually hot day for Phoenix, and they had gotten a later start than usual. By the time they reached the top, Azuela was weak and nauseous. They had run out of water.

Until fairly recently, it was illegal to harvest rainwater in Colorado. Now, as in a number of other Western states, it’s seen as alternative water source in an increasingly dry landscape. But is rainwater safe?

Sybil Sharvelle, an environmental engineer at Colorado State University, is one researcher trying to answer that question.

While Colorado and Utah didn’t get a lot of snow this winter, the Northern Rockies did. But now those record-breaking snowpacks are melting really fast and causing some of the worst flooding in more than four decades.

Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

It could be a good year for moisture in Wyoming, according to this week’s snow report from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.  

The NRCS has data stations scattered across the state that measure the amount of water in snowpack, and use that to predict how much water will be available in the spring and summer. These measurements are important in a region where most of the water supply comes from snowfall.

Wikimedia Commons

Niobrara, Weston and Crook counties are on high alert for wildfires as Wyoming's first fire restrictions of the year are put in place.

Bureau of Land Management New Castle Field Office Manager Rick Miller said a main reason fire restrictions were issued Tuesday was because it's been very dry in the region.

"Northeast Wyoming has not had the rainfall that other parts of Wyoming have received, nor the spring snowfall, so we're quite a bit drier than other parts of Wyoming right now," Miller said.

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Several environmental groups filed a petition Wednesday with the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to overhaul a program that exempts underground aquifers from protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

With drought and climate change creating water shortages in lower desert states, Wyoming is looking for more ways to store its share of Colorado River water. Last week, a bill sponsored by Representative Cynthia Lummis that would expand the storage capacity of Fontanelle Reservoir on the Green River in southwest Wyoming passed the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously.

Lummis says Wyoming needs more water to grow.

April Barnes

You might think of the Grand Canyon as one of the wildest places in the U.S. But the fact is, the Colorado River that runs through that canyon is not wild at all. Here’s a quote from Cadillac Desert, a documentary on water in the West.

"This river, the Colorado, can be turned on and turned off down to the last drop on orders from the Interior Secretary of the United States," a voiceover tells us. "This was the first river on earth to come under complete human control."

Brian Dierking

In response to a 15-year drought around much of the West, the U.S. Interior Department announced a new initiative called the Natural Resources Investment Center. The idea is to make it easier for the private sector to invest in water conservation projects like water transfers.

Water Resources Director Jimmy Hague with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership says such transfers allow water to be stored and moved to places where it’s needed most during dry spells.

Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge

The shadows of cottonwood trees grow long as the sun sets over Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Wyoming. A perfect time to spot wildlife on the Green River. Among the reeds, I see a white patch with a long neck. A trumpeter swan. Refuge project leader Tom Koerner passes me a pair of binoculars.

“That's probably a single bird and right in this wetland unit we just drove by there's three different pairs that nest in here,” Koerner says. 

Green River Recreation Department

It’s been a decade and a half of drought for Western states, many of which depend on the Colorado River for water. That includes Wyoming where the main branch of the Colorado—the Green River—originates in the Wind River Range.

The Upper Colorado River Basin states have decided to try a water conservation program long used in the Lower Basin states that pays water users to let their excess water flow back into the river.

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