THE CLIMATE CRISIS MAY THREATEN ALL THAT DEPENDS ON THE COLORADO RIVER ~ Mother Jones

“The red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.” 

Nick Bowlin

Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Southern California farmers spend their winters watching the snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, and what they see is the climate crisis hitting hard. When it melts, the snow that falls on these peaks will, eventually, make its way into the Colorado River, which connects the Southwest like a great tendon, tying the Continental Divide in Colorado to Southern California’s hayfields, where the Imperial Irrigation District is one of the country’s largest, and pouring from the faucets of urban users in Los Angeles and San Diego.

From California’s perspective, the view upriver is not encouraging. More than half of the upper part of the river basin is in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while the Lower Basin is even worse off: More than 60% of it is in the highest drought level. In January, water levels in Lake Powell, the river’s second-largest reservoir, dropped to unprecedented depths, triggering a drought contingency plan for the first time for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has seen a sustained period of less water and hotter days. This is, as climate scientists like to say, the “new normal.” But within this new normal, there have been exceptional drought years. One of them was 2020. Last year began with an encouraging snowpack in the Colorado Rockies. But a warm spring followed, and, then the seasonal summer monsoons never came to drench the Southwest. The lack of precipitation persisted into the fall and early winter, leaving the basin in a condition dire enough that water policy wonks—not a crowd known for melodrama—have begun using words like “scary” and “terrifying.”“In the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.” 

“In the 20th century on the Colorado River, nature was bent to human will,” the study stated. “Because we are now fully consuming its waters, and inflows are expected to decline, in the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”

The current version of the Colorado River Compact—the legal agreement that governs the river—expires in 2026. It will be renegotiated over the next several years amid a patchwork of interests, including seven Southwestern states, myriad agricultural districts, the Mexican government, some of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, including Las Vegas and Phoenix, and many tribal nations, whose legal claims hve historically been discounted. A compendium of policies, historic water rights, court rulings, laws and agreements, the Colorado River Compact allocates water for tens of millions of people and some of the most important agricultural regions in the country.

The impending renegotiation will determine how that water is distributed as the demand for water outstrips the river’s dwindling flow. Meanwhile, according to numerous models, the impacts of climate change will only intensify. A recent study from the Center for Colorado River Studies predicted that the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona could be forced to reduce their take from the river by up to 40% by 2050.

“It’s a red alert,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Everyone knows the red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.” 

OF ALL THE VARIOUS METRICS available to measure this challenge, storage capacity at the Colorado River’s important reservoirs is one of the most useful. In January, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Lake Powell could dip below a crisis threshold by 2022.

This forecast is not the most likely one, but the study triggers a drought-planning process—an acknowledgement that the worst-case scenario could come to pass for one of the country’s most important water storage sites. In 2019, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., hit its own version of this threshold, which led Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to voluntarily limit their Colorado River water use for the first time ever.

Put together, both Mead and Powell are on track to reach their lowest recorded levels ever in 2021, KUNC reported. Water levels in Mead and Powell languish at about 40% capacity, according to the most recent figures.

This future complicates the amalgamation of treaties, policies, laws at various levels of government, court decisions and agreements that make up the governance of the river, stretching all the way back to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the original interstate agreement. To give just one example, the Upper Basin states have long planned increased water use—water that the over-allocated basin can’t afford—thereby increasing the likelihood, according to the study, of a situation where the Lower Basin states would not receive their fair share of water. The result would be a “call” on the river, with the Lower Basin states demanding more water and legally mandated cutbacks for more junior water users higher on the river, including the city of Denver. The ensuing legal fights would be ugly.

This grim future hangs over the next several years, as both the Upper and Lower Basin states renegotiate the rules governing the Colorado River and work to reduce the water they use and keep crucial reservoirs filled. But these negotiations are difficult and political, with self-interest competing against the need to do right by the basin as a whole. Meanwhile, sensing profit in scarcity, Wall Street and hedge funds are pushing to privatize Colorado River water and allow markets to trade the resource as a commodity, according to a recent New York Times investigation.

The problem with vast water negotiations like the Colorado River Compact, said Marcus, the Stanford water policy expert, is that every entity, from governments down to people watering their lawns, come to expect the current amount of available water—even if that availability is an outlier or set to change. “Farmers can’t expect that they can plant whatever they want or not expect water to be expensive,” she said. “Urban areas need to get way more efficient, people need to ditch way more lawns.”  

Note: This story was updated to clarify that states are renegotiating the rules that govern the river, not the Colorado River Compact itself. 

DATA DUMP: ZOOM BOOM PITFALLS ~ Land Desk

Housing crisis intensifies in the West

Jonathan P. Thompson
Feb 24, 2021

I’m worried. Maybe a bit disgusted, too. 

It’s no secret that housing prices in many of the “best” places—particularly those at the gateway to public lands and outdoor recreational opportunities—have been climbing for years. Nor is it news that homeownership for the working folks in these places grows more and more elusive with each passing year. 

Now, on top of that, there’s the Zoom Boom. Pandemic-spurred remote work is freeing folks from the office and the cities and they are buying up remote work-centers, aka houses, in places far away from cubicles. The effect has been akin to throwing gasoline on an already raging fire, and real estate markets from Bozeman to Bend to Tucson to Truckee have exploded. 

wrote about this phenomenon for High Country News a couple of months ago. With more end-of-year data available, it’s clear that the phenomenon is more than a momentary flare-up, that it goes deeper than a mere Zoom invasion, and that the real estate fire appears to be getting hotter and even spreading to previously lower-priced markets. 

It’s the spread that has me worried. 

I resigned myself a long time ago to the fact that I may never be able to afford to buy a house in my hometown of Durango, Colorado, and that I will always be an economic exile from the place of my birth. In the years since I made that realization, home prices have continued to flame uncontrollably (my income, meanwhile, is burning about as hot as rain-sodden cardboard). 

But I could always find a little bit of comfort by moving that Zillow mouse a few miles away from Durango proper, as home prices tended to drop in direct proportion to the distance from the town’s historic center. Things would always be affordable over on the Dryside, I thought, or out Arboles-way, where my wife and I bought a very groovy home twenty years ago for a whopping $84,000 (but sadly had to let it go). It’s the old “drive till you qualify” non-policy of affordable* housing, leaned on by communities from Jackson to Aspen to Durango to ensure that they have workers to keep the places running. 

But now even those far-out places are getting pricey. According to the latest statistics, prices are going up everywhere, and the stock of affordable** homes throughout the entire county is vanishing. The following graphs really drive it home, so to speak: 

Up until just five years ago, houses under $240,000 made up the bulk of countywide sales, most of them being outside of Durango city limits. Now, less than 10% fall into that category and more than half of all sales have been for prices above $500,000. Someone making La Plata County’s median household income ($68,000) could “afford” a $290,000 home—if they had a $20,000 down payment and $200 monthly debt payments (e.g. student loans, credit cards, etc.). Sources: Durango Land & Homes (who unfortunately did not break out the critical $240k-$500k category in graph on left); and Zillow affordability calculator. 

In other words, you could drive all night and still not qualify unless you make significantly more than the median income for the region. Even a couple of veteran Durango school teachers making a combined salary of $100,000, and with $500 in additional monthly debts, such as kids’ college tuition or student loan payments, only could afford a $370,000 house—far below the median home price—and that’s only with a $20,000 down payment. And who has $20k lying around? 

Similar patterns are appearing everywhere, not just in so-called Zoom towns. The median home sales price in the Los Angeles metro area climbed from an already astounding $644,000 at the beginning of last year to over $720,000 now, out of reach of even relatively well-paid Angeleno workers; Denver’s prices shot up by 11 percent over the last year. Rental rates follow home prices. 

Median home sale prices in Santa Fe shot up by more than 25% in one year. Note scales are different between graphs. Source: Redfin. 

Something is bound to break. As housing costs climb further out of reach of the average worker, the abyss between the wealthy and the poor widens. When drive-till-you-qualify breaks down, the non-Zoom workers have little choice but to crowd into substandard housing, move into tent-towns, or set up camp in the backseat in the Wal-Mart parking lot. And even those who already own a home see their property taxes rise, making it more and more tempting to sell out, take that equity, and hightail it to Greece, thereby gutting the community of its core members. 

Sources: Zillow affordability calculator, Redfin, Jackson Hole Real Estate Report, US Census Bureau, and Albuquerque Association of Realtors. 

Perhaps the most maddening part of all of this is that the Zoom Boom isn’t the half of it: The biggest real estate action is happening in the ultra-high end luxury markets. Given the prices folks are forking out, it’s hard to imagine that these are one-time office workers becoming telecommuters. The Aspen market saw 90 sales over $10 million last year and the average home price shot up to more than $11 million. San Miguel County, home of Telluride, had a record-smashing year for real estate sales volume. “The lifestyle provided by our quaint town in the San Juan Mountains … was the prevailing force driving an extraordinary influx of demand,” crowed the Telluride Properties real estate activity report. 

Half a million people have died in the U.S. due to complications from COVID-19 and the U.S. economy shed nine-million jobs during 2020. Yet the super-rich kept getting richer (WARNING: clicking this link may result in rage). And many of them, apparently in search of that “quaint” lifestyle, spent their excess cash on palatial resort-town refuges, even as businesses in those same communities struggled and local governments suffered from revenue shortfalls. 

There is no vaccine against unfettered greed and Congress long-ago abandoned the progressive tax policies that kept runaway-wealth in check through the 1970s. Given that many members of Congress are multi-millionaires, meaningful change on that level may prove elusive, no matter which party is in power. 

But there is a local and/or state level policy tweak that could, at the very least, allow communities to capture some of the huge volumes of cash being shuffled around in real estate deals: a real-estate transfer tax on high-end sales. It would have to be progressive. So, for example, the rate would be 0% for sales below $300,000; 1% for $300,000 to $500,000; 2% for $500,000-$800,000; and then the rate would ratchet up from there. 

Naysayers will try to claim that this will dampen sales. It won’t—Aspen and Telluride both have one†. Nor is it a radical idea. A number of states have implemented them and others are considering it. Meanwhile it would bring in millions of revenues that could be used for affordable housing. A 2% tax on Teton County property sales would have brought in nearly $50 million last year, which could build a lot of affordable housing units.

Such a tax is not the solution. It merely would be an incremental step toward the massive overhaul of policy, tax structure, and even worldview that is needed to tackle the twin crises of unaffordable housing and wealth inequality that threaten to crush our communities, especially the “best places.” 

***

On a somewhat related note: More than two decades ago, some New York real estate folks proposed building Cloudrock, a new town of sorts at Johnson’s Up on Top, a swath of mesa-land southeast of Moab, Utah, with stunning views of the La Sal Mountains. It would be anchored by a luxury “wilderness” lodge and include pricey condominiums, some of which would be Tuscan-themed, others built in the “spirit of the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde,” according to marketing material. 

Cloudrock got mired in controversy and court cases and seemed to have vanished after the financial crisis of 2008. But then, a couple of months ago, it emerged from the dead, sort of: Sotheby’s International “marketed for the first time” Cloud Rock-Parcel One, a 175-acre “cliff edge development opportunity, ideally suited for a luxury wilderness resort or private estate.” It goes on:

In the center of our mesa, world-renowned Urban Planner Andrés Duany has designed our small village in the wilderness, a jewel in our landscape. A center for makers, creators & dreamers and the best off-the-grid coffeeshop in the world, for when you just want to take a short bike ride for good coffee and conversation.

Apparently it’s up to the purchaser of the land to build this stuff. Anyway, if that description makes you a bit nauseated, I’d suggest not looking at Cloudrock’s Instagram bio (close your eyes now!) 

What the … !? Anyway, if you’re interested, the parcel’s asking price is a mere $22.7 million. But hey, that’s a small price to pay to be “Connected to the Stars,” no? 

###

*It’s no longer so affordable when the costs of commuting long distances are factored in. In the Durango area, for example, the average person spends more than half of their income on housing + transportation
**For this post I’m using the standard definition of “affordable,” meaning that no more than one-third of one’s total income is spent on housing. 
†Colorado lawmakers prohibited communities from implementing real estate transfer taxes as part of the short-sighted, fiscally-idiotic TABOR reforms of 1992, which continue to plague state and local budgets. It’s time to throw TABOR out, for once and for all. Arizona also has a ban on transfer taxes.

AVALANCHE SURVIVORS RECOUNT THEIR EXPERIENCES ~ NPR

What I dislike about these pieces, the media looks for SEXY stories then grabs onto them like a dog with a bone. The people interviewed are professionals that were working/filming/doing a story when caught, knowing the consequences of their actions. Seldom Seen calls it Kodak Courage. Encourages bad behavior.

rŌbert

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Avalanches kill more than a 100 people worldwide each year. We have stories of three people who were caught in avalanches and survived.

U.S. FOREST SERVICE RETHINKS ROAD THROUGH PUBLIC LANDS TO RITZY VAIL VALLEY DEVELOPMENT

Following objections to Berlaimont Estates, the White River National Forest’s supervisor must scrutinize the impacts of 19 luxury homes on the broader landscape

Jason Blevins

Feb 17, 2021

Florida developers are planning to build 19 luxury homes on their 680-acre inholding of private land above Edwards. The White River National Forest has proposed allowing a road across federal land to reach the property, located in the snowy aspens at the top of this aerial photo. But the developers are objecting, saying the approved access would have greater impacts than their preferred road. (Bruce Gordon / Ecoflight, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The proposed road through public land weaves up the mountain to thickets of aspens where Florida developers want to build trophy homes. 

The bureaucratic path to approval, more than a decade in the making, is even more serpentine, as a chorus of wildlife advocates and conservationists fight the plan.

“It’s quite obvious that most people, especially in Eagle County, do not like this and do not want it and I’m trying to balance that with applying and implementing the laws of the land,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, the White River National Forest supervisor. Fitzwilliams in September approved a road through federal land above Edwards to give the developers access to an island of private property where they want to build Berlaimont Estates. The developers, however, argue he picked the wrong road.

The Alaska National Interest and Lands Conservation Act of 1980 — or ANILCA — requires federal land managers to provide “adequate access” for “reasonable use” of private property surrounded by public land. 

When Fitzwilliams approved the road in September — after more than 12 years of federal and local review — wildlife advocates cried foul, arguing the road would impact elk and deer herds in a valley where development and recreation has already reduced winter habitat. Many asked that Fitzwilliams simply deny the road.  

“ANILCA can be a hard law to understand,” Fitzwiliams said. “I’ve received so many emails and letters and petitions, telling me I should reject any access. I wish it was as easy as people described in those letters.”

The developers — Petr Lukes and Jana Sabatova — were troubled by the decision as well, arguing Fitzwilliams violated ANILCA and federal environmental laws by approving a road to 19 homesites on 680-acres of private land that was not their preferred alternative. (The developers wanted a less winding, less expensive road that accessed their property in the middle, not the side. They enlisted Eagle County safety officials in support of their route.)

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams approved the Alternative 2 route climbing up from Edwards and Interstate 70 so developers could have “adequate access” to 19 proposed homes on a private parcel surrounded by public land. The developers are objecting to Fitzwilliams’ decision, arguing the Alternative 3 route has less impact and is safer. (White River National Forest)

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THE LETHAL ATMOSPHERIC SETUP BEHIND A DEADLY ARCTIC OUTBREAK ~ The Washington Post

How ingredients came together for an onslaught of bone-chilling temperatures and a barrage of storms

A National Weather Service map of alerts for Sunday. Note that some areas were under more than one of these alerts at one time or another. Winter alerts are identified in the key. (NOAA/NWS)
A National Weather Service map of alerts for Sunday. Note that some areas were under more than one of these alerts at one time or another. Winter alerts are identified in the key. (NOAA/NWS) 

By Tom NiziolFeb. 16, 2021 at 2:26 p.m. MSTAdd to list

It took a while, but when winter decided to kick into full gear across the heartland of the nation these past few days, it did so with a passion.

Almost the entire Southern Plains was under winter storm warnings on Valentine’s Day, the alerts encompassing some 90 million people. Only nine states within the Lower 48 were not under some sort of winter alert Sunday, with wild winter conditions spanning the continent.

Live updates: Power outages plague Texas, other states amid deadly cold, snow

In addition to heavy snow and ice, wicked wind chills covered the nation’s midsection. Even such places as Seattle and Portland, Ore., didn’t escape unscathed; Arctic air spilled through mountain gaps in the northern Rockies, sneaking its way to the Pacific Coast while producing damaging snow and ice.

So what’s behind the onslaught of bone-chilling temperatures and the barrage of storms? It has to do with a number of overlapping factors that came together in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Image without a caption
(Tim Meko/The Washington Post)

Generally speaking, most weather catastrophes share similar DNA. They all are made up of smaller meteorological ingredients. Individually, any one of these features alone may not be problematic, but added together, it’s the perfect recipe for a high-impact disaster. As the adage goes, the sum is greater than the parts.

Looking back, it’s clear this extreme weather pattern had been incubating for a while. It began in early January with a perturbation of the polar vortex. That disruption knocked the whirling eddy of bitter cold air and low pressure off-kilter, resulting in upper-atmospheric warming that displaced cold air to the mid-latitudes.

A look at the upper-air pattern between Feb. 11 and Feb. 16. Note the high pressure (red) across the Polar Region, which allowed the Jet Stream to dip far south across the United States. (Tropical Tidbits)
A look at the upper-air pattern between Feb. 11 and Feb. 16. Note the high pressure (red) across the Polar Region, which allowed the Jet Stream to dip far south across the United States. (Tropical Tidbits) 

According to Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, that sudden stratospheric warming was integral in helping us get to where we are now.

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