Best of the West: Forecasting the region’s water future; New Colorado state park; universities powered by green energy; humpback whales return to Washington; new dinosaur unearthed in North Dakota

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Oct. 25, 2021. (Photos courtesy of  NOAA and the office of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis) 

After a historically dry summer in the West, researchers throughout the region are focused on better understanding exactly how much water is available each year, and how it’s distributed, to better allocate the resource – especially as recent forecasts from NOAA predict another dry winter that could exacerbate issues for agricultural production and hydroelectricity.          

NASA recently launched a free and publicly-available online platform, called OpenET, that gathers information using satellite imagery down to the quarter-acre to determine exactly how much water evaporates from plants, soils, and other surfaces across 17 western states. “OpenET provides all farmers, policymakers and communities big and small with the same high-quality data on water use so that we can all work together from the same playbook to develop more resilient water supplies across the West,” Robyn Grimm, the director of climate-resilient water systems at the Environmental Defense Fund, said.

With a similar goal in mind, The U.S. Department of Energy kicked off a two-year study known as SPLASH, by installing mobile climate observatories near the headwaters of the Colorado River to help scientists better predict precipitation and improve modeling for how water flows through the region. The University of Arizona hopes to further improve that modeling using $5 million it received through a cooperative agreement from the National Science Foundation to use machine learning to build models of the nation's watershed systems. 

Of course, better data and modeling is only as good as the management practices it propagates. A coalition of researchers led by the University of California Merced recently launched the SWIM project, which will study different strategies for water management, including water banking, trading and data-driven management practices, in Utah,New Mexico and California. Using new instrumentation similar to a new $31 million radar system in San Francisco, The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes is working to improve forecasting for atmospheric rivers, which can cause flooding, but could also be important to keep water flowing in the state via new programs called Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations that were successfully tested at Lake Mendocino. 

Learn more about water forecasting and solutions to mitigate drought effects by watching WGA’s Working Lands, Working Communities workshop

NEW STATE PARK: Less than two months after White River National Forest purchased Sweetwater Lake and the 488 acres of land surrounding it to prevent it from being developed, Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced that the land will become a new state park – the first state park in the country to be located on Forest Service Land. The first-of-its-kindpartnership will expedite investment and improvements, including better facilities, upgraded campgrounds and a new boat ramp. 

GREEN POWER: As part of its Green Power Partnership Program, the EPA ranked the country’s top colleges and universities in terms of the amount of green energy they use. In total, the EPA’s Top 30 College & University Partners generate nearly 3.8 billion kilowatt-hours of green power, which is equivalent to the annual electricity use of more than 351,000 average American homes. Five of the top ten are in the West. Read more to see if your school made the list.  

A WHALE OF A COMEBACK: Commercial whaling in the early 1900s eradicated the humpback whale population from the Salish Sea in Washington. This year a record-breaking number of calves were spotted, marking a significant milestone in the species’ recovery, which now number over 500 adults. Read more of their incredible comeback story. 

DINOSAUR DISCOVERIES: At a remote Badlands canyon in North Dakota paleontologists discovered a myriad of fossils dating back 66-69 million years ago (very near the end of the age of dinosaurs) including two notable Triceratops skulls, a seven-foot-tall birdlike dinosaur known as an Oviraptorid, or the “chicken from hell,’ and the partial skull of a rare dinosaur fossil thought to be a Nanotyrannus, basically a giant raptor, of which only five partial skulls have ever been found. Though there is debate about whether the Nanotyrannus fossil is actually that of juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, the diversity of fossils within the site makes it quite special. 

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