Best of the West: Reservoirs filling up; DU goes solar; wildfire defense; extreme heat; new cancer treatment techniques; wildfire academy; solar array; fusion energy

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 13, 2024. (Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock Images, Olivia Sun and Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun). 

Heading into the summer, reservoirs are filling up and drought conditions are easing off in some parts of the West, especially across areas of California, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.

In California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is expected to reach full capacity for the first time since 2019, thanks to two consecutive years of high precipitation. Once full, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that Lake Tahoe typically provides sufficient water supply to meet demand for three years, even if snowpacks are below normal.

The region’s snowpack continued to be above average at the beginning of this month, sitting at 102-184 percent of median on May 1. Heavy snowfall in January, February, and March helped boost these numbers, as some spots in the Tahoe area pushed past 200 percent of median on April 1.

The strong winter snowpack and spring showers have brought nearly all of the major reservoirs in Nevada up to at least 80% of storage capacity, and most reservoirs in northern Nevada and the Eastern Sierra are expected to fill as more spring runoff comes down.

Soil moisture is also high in the region thanks to last winter’s late-season snowmelt and rain showers this spring. NOAA reports that less than 1% of California and Nevada are in drought, and according to the USDA’s report, “water year 2024 is well on its way to receiving an A on its final report card.”

In Utah, most reservoirs across the state are looking healthy, as they’re reaching nearly full levels this spring. More than half of the state’s reservoirs were over 85 percent full after another good snow year for Utah. A fairly wet winter, combined with last year’s record-breaking snowfall, has removed just about all of Utah from drought conditions. Only 0.2 percent of the state is currently in any classification of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which dipped to its lowest level in recorded history less than two years ago, hit a seven-year high recently. Two winters of heavy snowfall in the surrounding mountains have helped bring the lake’s level up by more than 6.5 feet since late 2022. The current level marks its highest point since 2017 and the lake is now just one foot shy of entering its healthy range, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

In Colorado, late-season snowstorms helped push the state’s snowpack above average. This week, the statewide snowpack sits at 114% of median. Only 9% of the state is in drought conditions, with no areas experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.

Additionally, a new forecast from the University of Colorado and the University of Hawaii predicts an upswing in precipitation in the Colorado River Basin, potentially leading to an end to the drought that has gripped the river in recent decades. Precipitation naturally rises and falls in the river basin, and the new analysis suggests that precipitation patterns are expected to swing into a wetter cycle between 2026 and 2050.

Past studies show that 2000 to 2021 marked the driest period on the Colorado River in the last 1,200 years, causing strain on the waterway that provides water for 40 million people across seven western states. The recent forecast finds a 70% chance that the river basin will see an increase in precipitation in the coming years, and it could even rebound back to its historically normal flow.

DU goes solar: Denver University plans to build enough solar panels on campus and in the surrounding area to completely offset campus electricity use within about the next three years. The university has set its sights on building out 23 megawatts of solar power in the next few years in order to help meet its goal of becoming net-zero in carbon emissions by 2030. The proposed solar expansion, which will include solar arrays on campus and in surrounding counties, will eliminate half of DU’s remaining carbon footprint in the process.

Community Wildfire Defense Grants: Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small recently announced that USDA is investing $250 million across 158 projects to plan for and mitigate wildfire danger for at-risk communities.

The funding comes as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the program will dole out $1 billion over the course of 5 years to help communities in the wildland-urban interface maintain resilient landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and ensure safe, effective wildfire response. A few recipients in this round of funding include $10 million for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, $6 million for Wasco County in Oregon, and $9.9 million that The Nature Conservancy will use to protect areas of Colorado, which will also help maintain safe water for downstream communities in New Mexico.

The program is now in its second year, after it was originally announced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at WGA’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

New chemotherapy method: researchers at the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center are developing a new method to deliver pancreatic cancer chemotherapy more effectively. Researchers hope that the approach, known as nanoparticle encapsulation, can help slow tumor growth and prolong survival in pancreatic cancer treatment.

Extreme heat: Arizona’s heat officer with the state’s Department of Health Services, Eugene Livar, announced plans to prepare for extreme heat this summer. Livar unveiled the deployment of half a dozen mobile cooling centers, which are solar-powered centers made from shipping containers that can be moved around the state based on where the need is highest.

The city of Phoenix will also be opening two 24-hour cooling centers for the first time, and Maricopa County will invest $4 million to expand the hours of cooling stations around the city.

To learn more about preparing for extreme heat, watch the panel on Addressing the Effects of Extreme Heat at WGA’s Western Prosperity Forum in Phoenix, which featured Mr. Livar alongside state and federal experts.

Wildfire Academy: a new program in Nevada is introducing high school students to the basics of wildland and municipal firefighting. The program is designed to prepare students for careers in firefighting or to study fire science in college.  Additionally, it hopes to drive more interest in a field that has faced a labor shortage in recent years, even as the need for wildland firefighters increases.

Solar array: a $1.2 billion solar array is proposed for southern Wyoming. The project, run by Enbridge, aims to install 1.2 million panels over 5,400 acres near Cheyenne, making it the largest solar farm in Wyoming. The proposed project would install 771-megawatts of solar power in the coming years. 

Astonishing temps: researchers at Zap Energy in Washington are unleashing fusion reactions that can generate temperatures ranging from 20 million to 66 million degrees – comparable to the temperature of the sun’s core. The lab, which builds on previous fusion technology by eliminating the need for magnets and lasers, hopes to leverage the intense power of fusion to generate clean and sustainable energy.

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