Best of the West: Storms don’t resolve regional drought problems; firing up new products in Colorado; alert system reducing eagle deaths near wind turbines

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Feb. 1, 2021. (Photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources)

The “atmospheric river” that recently drenched California in rain and buried the high Sierras in deep snow was an encouraging development for the state’s water supply, but still “not nearly enough to make up for the deficit” that accumulated during the dry start to the winter.

Sean de Guzman, chief of the state's Department of Water Resources' snow surveys and water supply forecasting, told the Associated Press that the snowpack’s water content was 70% of average. While this week’s (Feb. 3) measurement shows an improvement of 20% since the end of December, de Guzman added "we're still nowhere near out of the woods" and that the state still needed “multiple days of above-average precipitation to make up for the dry early months.” He did remind: “February is one of our three wettest months of the year."

That news will sound familiar to other western states experiencing below-average snowpack. A recent update on the U.S. Drought Portal operated by the National Integrated Drought Information System noted that “despite recent precipitation, exceptional drought conditions persist over areas of the Intermountain West,” which includes Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. More concerning, the report noted that “the regional average annual precipitation for 2020 was the second lowest on record and lowest since 1956.”

That sobering news amplifies a recent report by the Bureau of Reclamation that notes near-record-low levels for Lake Mead (42% of capacity) and Lake Powell (40% capacity). The reservoirs are critical for storage of Colorado River water that helps support 40 million users. The Colorado Sun reports that “if those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.”

FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE: In Colorado, they're recovering from the worst wildfire season in recorded history. That means the state is overloaded with fire charred trees that in many cases will need to be cleared and disposed of; future fire mitigation 'thinning' projects will create even more trees to dispose. All of which, Colorado Public Radio reports, is music to the ears of James Gaspard, owner of Biochar Now, a company in Berthoud that uses 100 kilns to convert wood into biochar, a “carbon-rich charcoal that can help soil retain water and nutrients.” Gaspard sees even more possibilities for products that his company can produce, including cat litter, animal feed, water filters, plastic, even soap. Learn more.

EAGLE ALERTS: There is no disputing that wind farms pose a threat to unsuspecting eagles. Now Wyoming Public Media reports there’s a new technology to reduce that threat. A team from the Peregrine Fund has developed the Identi-Flight system, which can identify raptors in the area and shut down the wind turbines. A test of the system at a wind farm in Wyoming found an enormous decrease in eagle deaths when compared to a nearby wind farm. Learn more.

AN INDIGENOUS ‘FIRST’: The Caldecott Medal is considered one of the highest honors to receive in children's literature. So Michaela Goade of Alaska was thrilled when she learned the book she illustrated, We Are Water Protectors, topped more than 100 other children’s books to win the Medal. (The book was written by Carole Lindstrom.) In the process Goade, who is Tlingit, also became the first Indigenous person to win the Medal. Learn more.

STATE OF THE STATE: The past week has seen Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, and Greg Gianforte of Montana become the latest Western Governors to deliver a State of the State address. They join Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Brad Little of Idaho, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Laura Kelly of Kansas, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Kate Brown of Oregon, Spencer Cox of Utah, David Ige of Hawaii, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Lemanu Mauga of American Samoa, who previously delivered addresses. Read, watch all addresses and the ‘word cloud’ created of the top issues discussed.

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