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Ike Fredregill

Wyoming Snowpack Level Up; Water Outlook Healthy

in News
3194

By lke Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With the majority of snowpack levels above average, Wyoming’s water supply for 2020 is looking healthy despite lower than normal precipitation forecast for February.   

“Coming into early February, we’re not doing too bad,” said Jim Fahey, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist. “Overall, our reservoirs are above average, sitting around 120 percent to 130 percent. We’ve had a lot lower storage in recent years.”

Snowpack feeds water supplies throughout the year as melting snow enters waterways around the state. Too little snow could require water supplements from the state’s reservoirs, Fahey said. Too much could lead to flooding.

“All our water is held up in snowpack until it melts,” Fahey explained.

Throughout the state, mountain snowpack is at about 100 percent to 115 percent of median, with the highest concentrations located in north central Wyoming containing snowpack at about 130 percent to 145 percent above median.

Sweetwater Basin in south central Wyoming recorded the lowest snowpack with levels at about 70 percent to 80 percent of median, NOAA reported.

“Right now, we don’t have any specific concerns about drought in Wyoming,” Fahey said.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Bill Mokry said the NWS models showed February could be drier than normal across the state, but the three-month outlook is a little more optimistic.

“Climatologically speaking, there’s a decent chance for below normal temperatures and precipitation through February,” Mokry said. “The climatological models that we run out past our typical seven-day forecast are picking up on a couple signatures … a colder arctic air mass coming in and some drier conditions following that.”

While December through February is typically a dry period, he said precipitation rates even out for February, March and April models.

“Looking at that time frame,” Mokry said, “we’re seeing equal chances of below or above normal precipitation.”

Streamflows during the runoff season are expected to be near normal for most of the state, but the Sweetwater and Upper Green basins could experience below normal streamflow volumes, NOAA documents state.

“That’s mostly due to a lack of snowpack in that area,” Fahey said. “Farming and ranching in the area could be impacted a little, but as far as the effect on the overall water supply, it’s not too significant.”

On the other side of spectrum, Fahey said the above average snowpack could lead to minimal flooding in a few areas.

“There could be minor flood problems on the Wind River Basin,” he explained. “We could see minimal problems with flooding on the Platte and Laramie rivers if it warms up too fast.”

The biggest problem is rain during the snowmelt season, which can quickly overload streamflows and reservoirs.

“We look at that every year,” Fahey said, “but, it’s a hard call, because it’s all about the timing.”

Fahey’s full water supply report can be viewed here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMb4j54TtjI&feature=youtu.be).

Natural Gas Faces Difficulties as Market is Flooded with Cheap Product

in Energy/News
Jonah Field
3147

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A victim of its own success, Wyoming’s natural gas industry has faced plummeting prices in recent years, leaving only one operator with active rigs in the state, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) reported.

“There are 23 active rigs in the state, and of those only two are natural gas,” said PAW Communications Director Ryan McConnaughey. “There are a lot factors impacting natural gas, but a big one is sustained low prices.”

More than a decade ago, natural gas experienced a surge in popularity with the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that boosted production, but a University of Wyoming researcher said the mining process was almost too successful.

“In the last decade, we’ve become so good at getting oil and gas out of the ground through unconventional methods — fracking and horizontal drilling,” said Rob Godby, the director for UW’s Energy Economics and Public Policies Center and an associate professor for the College of Business. “Prices have fallen through the floor. There’s just too much natural gas on the market.”

In 2008, national natural gas prices were around $7 per 1,000 cubic feet (MCF), Godby said. The price as of Wednesday was $1.77 per MCF.

“It’s only gone one direction, which is down,” he said. “The other thing that’s scary about that price is we’re in the middle of winter, and if you’re going to have a coldest month, it’s February.” 

As energy companies switch over to renewable power sources for electricity generation, natural gas and coal have stepped into backup roles to ensure the lights stay on during major winter storms. Previously, natural gas prices spiked to around $150 per MCF during these events, but Godby said those instances are becoming less frequent.

“In real terms, taking inflation into account, we’re essentially at the lowest point in gas sales history,” he said. “Operators are having a very hard time making money with natural gas.”

Permian Basin 

The hydraulic fracturing process is not selective, so when oil operators frack, they often capture natural gas as a free and marketable byproduct, Godby explained.

“People often think of oil and gas drilling as a jelly donut, and operators are trying to get that jelly out,” he said, crediting the analogy to Mark Watson, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director. “But, it’s really like Tiramisu.”

Operators horizontally drill through layers of rock containing oil and gas, then pressurize the hole with water and other additives, which fractures the rock and releases both oil and gas.

“In the last year or so, the U.S. just became the largest producer of oil, and all that oil growth brings with it a lot of natural gas,” Godby said. “And the most prolific field where this is happening is in the Permian Basin on the eastern half of New Mexico and Western side of Texas.”

Natural gas producers in Wyoming are typically producing only natural gas while competing with oil producers, whose get their natural gas essentially free.

Further complicating the situation, McConnaughey said Wyoming’s tax on natural gas is higher than New Mexico’s.

“Wyoming’s tax rate on energy production is not competitive with our peers,” he said. “It’s typically about 4 percent more than other states, and New Mexico takes 4.5 percent less than Wyoming does.”

Coronavirus

With less extraction comes less revenue for the state, a major challenge when considering mineral revenues paid for more than 50 percent of the state’s budget in 2017, the Wyoming Taxpayer’s Association reported.

Coal’s decline is well documented in Wyoming, but Godby said natural gas is not far behind.

Since 2015, Wyoming’s projected natural gas production declined by 18 percent, and natural gas severance tax payments have dropped 19 percent, UW documents state.

“Our economy has gone from riding a tricycle with coal, natural gas and oil to a bicycle with natural gas and oil, and now,” Godby said, “we’re down to riding a unicycle with oil, which is the most volatile of the three.”

Oil production is projected to increase 14 percent from levels in 2015, bringing the state a 9 percent increase in oil severance tax, but that income might not be reliable, he said.

“Oil production could rise and offset some of the declines,” Godby said. “The problem is oil is still the most difficult commodity to forecast for, and as the transportation industry moves away from fossil fuels in the future, it will become even more volatile.”

China is one of the two largest oil consumers in the world, and the coronavirus epidemic has “slowed their economy to a crawl,” decreasing their energy demand, Godby said.

“This is why gas prices at the pump are so low,” he explained. “Oil prices right now are really low, because demand has dropped.”

Wyoming Ag Year in Review: Crops Hit Hard in 2019, but There Was a Silver Lining

in News/Agriculture
2712

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Agricultural producers were hit hard by weather across Wyoming throughout 2019, but on the upside, government agencies rose to the occasion on many fronts, a Wyoming Department of Agriculture spokesperson said. 

Stacia Berry, Department of Ag deputy director, said 2019 was a challenging year for farmers and ranchers alike, but Wyoming came out on top by the end. 

Listed below, Berry highlighted major problems producers faced in 2019 and notable boons for the industry from the department’s point of view.

High: Trade momentum

In December, the U.S. House approved the United Sates-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), an update to the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.

“There’s a lot of positive momentum in the trade area,” Berry said. “From an agriculture perspective, USMCA is something we’re excited to see moving forward.” 

While the agreement is heavily focused on the automotive industry, Berry said it could also provide several benefits to ag producers who trade internationally.

“Mexico and Canada are two of the top three markets for ag goods exported from the U.S.,” she said.

The nation is also in the first phase of trade negotiations with China and opening additional market access in Japan.

“Those three trade deals are going to provide more opportunities for export for agriculture in general, but also more opportunities for (Wyoming) producers,” Berry said.

The Wyoming Business Council is getting ahead of the trade deals with a Wyoming beef industry study that could help producers understand how best to capitalize on foreign markets, said Ron Gullberg, the Business Council business development director.

“Even though there’s trade deals being cut, it’s not like the flood gates open, and we’re ready to ship a bunch of beef,” Gullberg said. “We’ve got to work on the supply and logistics, too.”

High: Governor’s initiatives

The ag industry received significant support from the state’s executive branch in 2019, Berry said. 

“Gov. Mark Gordon has a great focus on agriculture in land health, soil quality and his focus on invasive species,” she said. “As well, (Wyoming’s) First Lady (Jennie Gordon) released big news last year with a hunger initiative for children around the state.”

In October, Gov. Mark Gordon launched an initiative to slow the spread of invasive plant species across Wyoming.

Wyoming’s agricultural lands could experience significant impacts as a result of terrestrial invasive species, Berry said.

The initiative is slated to include both technical and policy teams.

To address food insecurity, Jennie Gordon founded the Wyoming Hunger Initiative last year. 

“As agriculture is in the food production and safety businesses, they have great initiatives that work hand-in-hand with the work that is being done,” Berry said. 

Working together, ag initiatives, non-profit organizations and Jennie Gordon’s initiative could significantly reduce the number of people in Wyoming who spend their days wondering where the next meal will come from, she added. 

High: Leadership positions

Department of Agriculture Director Doug Miyamoto was honored with high-level national appointments that could allow Wyoming to play an integral role in future policy decisions, Berry said.

“We are strategically positioned right now for Director Miyamoto to serve as the president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA),” she said. “He was just installed as the secretary-treasurer on the board, and will be the president four years from now.”

The position could grant Wyoming access and opportunities in national policymaking decisions that could affect the state. 

“To my knowledge, there has never been a president of NASDA from Wyoming,” Berry said.

During the summer of 2019, Miyamoto was also appointed president of the Western United States Agriculture Trade Association (WUSATA).

“WUSATA promotes the export of U.S. food and agriculture products throughout the world from the Western region of the country,” Berry said.

In conjunction with those leadership positions, Berry said the department has worked with the Wyoming Congressional Delegation to support farmers and ranchers in Washington D.C. 

Low: Weather 

A late spring and early winter prevented ag producers from getting seeds in the ground early enough and forced many to prematurely harvest their crops.

“In April and May, it was good and bad in that it was wet and cold,” Berry said. “Even though we were getting more moisture than we typically would, alleviating drought worries, that also put most everybody behind on spring work.”

Ag producers waited out the weather, which pushed harvest time later into fall, creating a domino effect that came to a head when the snows flew early. 

“Summer felt like it was here, and then, gone,” Berry said. 

While the weather affected crops statewide, she explained its impact was particularly felt by sugar beet producers and by crop producers in southeastern Wyoming, where increased spring precipitation was determined to be the primary factor in the  Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapse. 

Low: Tunnel collapse

In July, a century-old irrigation canal collapsed, leaving more than 100,000 acres of farm land in Wyoming and Nebraska without water during the hottest stretch of the year.

“(The USDA Risk Management Agency) were able to determine the cause of the collapse was weather related,” Berry said. “That was a very positive thing, because it meant ag producer’s insurance could cover their losses.”

Originally estimated to cost the economy about $90 million, the collapse affected more than 400 producers in Wyoming and Nebraska. 

A bout of late summer precipitation staved off the worst of the damages, a University of Wyoming spokesperson said in December

Tunnel repairs are slated to be complete by spring. 

Low: Sugar beet harvest

Sugar beet markets have been in flux for the last several years, resulting in the 2018 closure of a nearly century-old sugar beet plant in Goshen County, but weather was the culprit behind crop problems in 2019.

“A late spring and an early winter really hurt the sugar beet producers,” Berry said. “Your crop is never going to be as good when it’s frozen in the ground, and you’re trying to dig it out.”

A root product, freezing in the ground reduces the beet’s sugar content, and subsequently, its market price.

In December, Gordon sought to have the USDA declare Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties federal disaster areas as a result of the decline in beet harvests.

““Weather is a defining part of agriculture,” Berry said. “Wyoming is home to a lot of harsh weather, and you have to be very resilient as an agriculturist in any part of the state.”

It’s not yet clear if 2019’s weather will impact the 2020 growing season, but Berry said the department has its fingers crossed for a break in the storm.

“Even though winter showed up early, it depends on how long it decides to stay,” she said. “Weather really can dictate how any year goes for agriculture.”

Wyoming veterans weigh in on celebrating Veterans Day

in News/military
2342

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Gravesite flowers on Memorial Day, barbecues on Labor Day, social media outrage on Columbus Day — most holidays have their traditions.

But Veterans Day tends to elude veterans and civilians alike.

Despite numerous veterans in my family, including myself, I can’t think of a single instance we even acknowledged Veterans Day.

Perhaps our family is an outlier? So I dialed up some of my old army buddies and asked how they planned to spend Nov. 11. 

“What’s that on — a Monday?” asked Victor Varela, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served with me in Iraq. “Yeah, I’m working. I might go have a beer after, I guess.”

All the calls ended similarly and I was left asking what it is we are supposed to celebrate and for who.

Veterans Day is widely viewed as the day to honor the living, while Memorial Day is reserved for honoring the dead, according to the Veterans of Foreign Wars website.

Originally dubbed Armistice Day, the holiday was created to honor the conclusion of World War I, which ended Nov. 11, 1918. 1n 1954, Congress renamed the event Veterans Day to honor veterans from World War II, the Korean War and future wars.

Vietnam-era veteran and Laramie resident John Hursh, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain, said celebrating Veterans Day can be as simple as a couple words and a quiet moment.

“Just walk up to a vet and say thanks,” Hursh said. “I think it’s best when someone comes up, looks you in the eye and thanks you for your service.”

Although he doesn’t have plans for anything fancy, Hursh said he has his own way of celebrating.

“I’m going to take a moment for myself,” he said. “It’s time to pause for a while and remember your buddies and think about how you got where you are and be thankful for our country.”

Tim Sheppard, executive director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, is a retired Army colonel who also served during the Vietnam War. Sheppard has seen many behavioral trends come and go since the late 1960s, but one receiving increased attention in recent years is “Stolen Valor,” the act of lying about military service to garner sympathy or respect.

The fraudulent acts could make some people hesitate before thanking a vet, not knowing if the person’s experiences were genuine. Sheppard said people should look past those rare cases and honor the spirit of the holiday.

“Take the risk and thank the vet,” he said. “Let us police ourselves and we’ll do our best to safeguard the integrity of military service.”   

If people don’t know a veteran to thank on Veterans Day, Sheppard suggested observing a moment of silence at the “eleventh minute of the eleventh hour.” 

As for me, I still struggle with how best to honor the holiday. I was lucky to serve at a time when soldiers were well-received and have been thanked on numerous occasions for my service. It’s a good feeling, but an awkward one.

My peers were volunteers. We served because we felt it was our duty or because we needed a way out of our situations or for the educational opportunities afforded by the G.I. Bill and sign-on bonuses. 

Our country didn’t call on us as much as we stepped forward and asked for the privilege. 

It feels self-aggrandizing to celebrate that experience with a national holiday, especially a holiday created to honor those who, in many cases, were not given a choice. 

So, I plan to spend this Veterans Day focusing on the experiences of my fellow veterans and what their service has afforded future generations. 

Whether you visit your local war memorial, thank a veteran in person or share a quiet moment of reflection, your efforts are what make this country worth serving. 

Thank you.

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