Current Situation

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“Twelve dust-on-snow events during the winter of 2008/2009 led to a 40 to 50 day earlier snowmelt–which occurred 20 days earlier than normal–with record streamflow rates” (Dybas, 2010).

2009 spring dust storm

A 2009 spring dust event blankets the sky--Courtesy of Jack Brauer

You can examine surface water data for the entire state of Colorado here: USGS Water Data. This link provides: real-time data, daily data, daily/monthly/annual statistics, peak-flow data, and field measurements for a number of surface waters across Colorado.

“Landry has documented “dust events” annually since 2002-03. The phenomenon is increasingly serious, but it’s way too early to show a trend, Landry said” (Rodebaugh, 2010).

Who is monitoring?

“Landry’s discussions with water managers led to the development of CODOS [Colorado Dust-on-Snow program], now funded by local, regional, state and federal water management agencies. CODOS monitors the statewide distribution of dust in mountain snow cover and reports on that distribution in biweekly advisories” (Dybas, 2010).

Options to curb the problem?

“Designating wilderness is one way to control these [land disturbing] factors, according to SUWA’s Martin. Wilderness automatically precludes off-highway vehicle travel, road building, and oil and gas drilling. Without these kinds of disturbance, SUWA [Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] hopes that the frequency of dust storms will drop” (Sands, 2010).

“…SUWA and Great Old Broads are throwing cautious support behind a “fast-moving process” to dedicate up to 1.3 million acres of wilderness west of Durango. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett has initiated the process to protect huge swaths of Canyonlands and Cedar Mesa, including spots like Indian Creek, Dark Canyon and Grand Gulch. Bennett hopes to introduce legislation in June and have it adopted as a rider to the Ominbus Appropriations Bill in September. The senator is currently engaging stakeholders in Southeast Utah and asking for input on crafting a wilderness bill for the area” (Sands, 2010).

“•Minimize invasion by annual grasses

–Control N and S deposition (cars, power plants)

–Reduce disturbance of susceptible soils

–Study system resistance

•Minimize dirt roads and their use

•Minimize fertilizing (e.g., NPK, alfalfa) dryland soils, as annuals will dominate. If fields are abandoned, replant perennials” (Jayne Belnap, 9/18/2009 Dust in low elevation lands: what creates it and what can we do about it?).

Dust events have increased over the past several years

“Another spike has hit in recent years, and the size and frequency of dust storms appear to be on the rise again. “In the late 1800s, dust loading skyrocketed and was about five times as high as our background data,” Neff said. “Today, dust is about three or four times the background, and livestock, off-road vehicles, human development, dirt roads and weather are all factors” (Sands, 2010).

“A Washington Post analysis of federal data from areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management found that between 2004 and 2008, off-road vehicle use rose 19 percent, the number of oil and gas wells increased 24 percent and grazing acreage climbed 7 percent” (Eilperin, 2009).

Dust on car

Dust deposited on a car windshield--Courtesy of Jack Brauer

“Advocates for off-road vehicle users, for example, charge that environmentalists have seized upon the dust issue as a political club in their efforts to curb the increasingly popular recreational sport. “A lot of the public land in the West is a very dusty place. What human uses make it more dusty, and to what extent, is unknown,” said Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, which represents off-road enthusiasts. “There’s just no studies on it” (Eilperin, 2009).

“The earlier snowmelt changes the blooming and growing times of vegetation, triggering ripple effects that hurt Colorado farmers. Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said farms in the valley are getting the snowmelt runoff two to four weeks earlier each year, making it difficult to keep grain and potato crops irrigated. “A lot of the water’s gone by the time the crops need it,” he said” (Eilperin, 2009).

“…Many Southwestern communities are struggling with poor air quality, and dust is making it worse. Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and Scottsdale, has failed to meet federal air quality standards and is cracking down on off-road vehicles and unpaved roads to limit dust” (Eilperin, 2009).

“If grazing leads to disturbances of BSCs, regeneration typically requires decades for the initial colonization and hundreds of years for a crust lichen community to form. During this long regeneration period, wind erosion of exposed soils could increase” (Neff et al., 2005).

“While some regeneration of the lichen/moss component of the crusts is now occurring, this process takes several hundred years in these environments” (Neff et al., 2005).

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