Climate outlook; The Ogallala Aquifer

Snow plows work to clear Denver roads.

Climate outlook projects warm, wet spring likely for much of Colorado and the West

After announcing that February 2016 was “probably” the warmest month globally since records began being kept in 1880, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its 2016 spring climate outlook for March through June. The report explains what scientists are expecting to see throughout the nation, as strong but weakening El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean continue to shape how weather events play out across the country. Among other things, NOAA scientists give good chances (33 to 80 percent) for a warmer-than-average spring across much of the nation.

This year’s El Niño, which peaked in November, has alleviated some drought in the Northwest. But Southern California has languished without much relief, and is expected to remain in a persistent “exceptional” drought through the spring. Mild drought conditions are currently impacting much of southern Colorado, which helped spruce beetles devastate more than 182,000 acres of forest in the mountains last year. Scientists couldn’t tell if these drought conditions were likely to change or not.

Scientists broadly expect above-average temperatures across the West, with a modest chance of warmer temperatures in the western half of Colorado (33-40 percent). Colorado and New Mexico also have the highest chances (40-50 percent) of above-average precipitation this spring.

Combined with the temperature projections, these expectations mean that parts of Colorado have good chances of seeing a spring that’s unusually wet, warm or both.

Researching the Ogallala Aquifer

This map shows the extent of the Ogallala Aquifer and reveals the large differences in its depth across the plains, which require water management strategies unique to those areas.
This map shows the extent of the Ogallala Aquifer and reveals the large differences in its depth across the plains, which require water management strategies unique to those areas. USGS

Last week, CSU announced a team of researchers, led by CSU but pooled from seven other universities and the United States Department of Agriculture, had won $10 million from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to research ways of improving the sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala is the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, sprawling under eastern Colorado and seven other Great Plains states. Because the enormous aquifer provides water for about 30 percent of agriculture in the U.S., the speed of its decline from overuse has sparked concerns about how long this water supply will last. About 30 percent of the aquifer has already been depleted and 70 percent may be gone by mid-century, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek last year.

The four-year research project brings many disciplines to bear on how communities can collaborate to make water management systems more adaptable and effective.

“This project offers an opportunity for much-needed integration and collaboration to extend the life of our shared groundwater resources,” said Meagan Schipanski, the project’s lead investigator, in a press release.

The project seeks to help sustain the thousands of rural communities whose economies depend on reliable water from the aquifer. But these communities are spread across a vast region and the groundwater levels in these areas vary widely, implying a need for management strategies tailored to smaller areas. With a diverse group of researchers located throughout the region, the project can observe the big picture while also keeping a close eye on the communities most affected.


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