Snowpack news: Statewide snowpack 67% of average, Colorado River basin comes in at 58% of average



Well now, snowpack in the Upper Colorado River basin below 60% of average is concerning. Luckily, reservoir storage is in good shape in most areas including the South Platte River basin. Front Range cities in the basin move several hundred thousand acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River. Colorado Springs and Pueblo get at least some of their supply from the Colorado River as well.

Direct irrigators can be significantly harmed in a water short year and those reservoirs which are in good shape right now may not refill during the runoff season, setting things behind for water year 2013.

I like to link to this graphic from Klaus Wolter and the Climate Prediction Center that shows reduced flows at Lees Ferry in second-year La Niña events. We’re are in the midst of a second-year La Niña event.

Click on the thumbnail graphics above and to the right for the current snowpack map for Colorado and the precipitation summary from this week’s NIDIS Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment Summary of the Upper Colorado River Basin from the Colorado Climate Center.

From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

“A lot can happen between now and spring,” said Bob Steger, manager of raw water supplies for Denver Water. Reservoir storage is above average and above last year’s, with the Denver Water system at 90 percent of capacity, compared to the average 83 percent for this time of year, Steger said.

And that’s a good thing, because the statewide snowpack is only at [67] percent of average, with the key Colorado River Basin (encompassing Summit County) only at [58] percent of average.

That’s the fourth-lowest level in the past 30 years, according to Mage Skordahl, assistant snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The only years with lower snowpacks at this point in the season during that 30-year span were 1990, 2000 and 2002, she said.

“When you start out like this, it’s not too often that you end up above average … We’d need to have above average snowfall the rest of the season just to get back to average,” she added.

While officials still seem sanguine at this point, Scott Hummer, the former Blue River Basin water commissioner for the State Engineer’s Office, said that, if he were still wearing that hat, he’d be starting to get concerned about long-term water supplies if the current weather trend continues.

Troy Wineland, the new Blue River Water Commissioner, said he’s definitely scratching his head about the upcoming irrigation season, but hoping that a predicted return to a snowy La Niña pattern could help boost the snowpack back toward average.

From The Mountain Mail (Ericka Kastner):

[Jennifer Stark, head meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo] said this week a ridge of high pressure in the atmosphere has been building over the Colorado Rockies and it brought in “quite a bit of warm weather…

Last winter there was a lot of snow in the west and north central United States, and in the mountains of Colorado, Stark said. “This year it is kind of reversed … the plains and southeast portion of the state have had more snow than this time last year.”

So, how about La Niña. Here’s the link to the latest ENSO diagnostic discussion from the Climate Prediction Center. Here’s the synopsis:

Synopsis: La Niña is expected to continue into the Northern spring 2012.

During December 2011, below-average sea surface temperatures (SST) associated with La Niña continued across the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean. The weekly SST index in the Niño-3.4 region remained near –1.0°C throughout the month, indicating a weak to moderate La Niña. The oceanic heat content (average temperature in the upper 300m of the ocean) anomalies strengthened across the eastern Pacific, reflecting a large area of below-average temperatures in the subsurface. In the atmosphere, anomalous low-level easterly and upper-level westerly winds strengthened over the central and west-central Pacific. Convection remained suppressed in the western and central Pacific and enhanced over northern Australia and parts of Indonesia and the Philippine Islands (Fig. 5). Consistent with these conditions, the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) also strengthened. This evolution is consistent with past events, in which the atmospheric components of La Niña become strongest and most well-defined during the Northern Hemisphere winter. Collectively, the ongoing oceanic and atmospheric patterns reflect the continuation of a weak to moderate La Niña.

A majority of models predict a weak or moderate strength La Niña to peak during the December – February season, and then to continue into early Northern Hemisphere spring season before dissipating during the March to May period. A slight majority of models predict La Niña to remain weak (3- month average SST anomaly in the Niño-3.4 region between -0.5 and -0.9°C) this winter, while several others predict a moderate-strength episode (anomaly in the Niño-3.4 region between -1.0 and -1.4°C). The latest observations, combined with model forecasts, suggest that La Niña will be of weak-to- moderate strength this winter, and will continue thereafter as a weak event until it likely dissipates sometime between March and May.

During January – March 2012, there is an increased chance of above-average temperatures across the south-central and southeastern U.S., and below-average temperatures over the western and the northwest-central U.S. Also, above-average precipitation is favored across most of the northern tier of states and in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, and drier-than-average conditions are more likely across the southern tier of the U.S. (see 3-month seasonal outlook released on 15 December 2011).

Mark Pifher is leaving Aurora Water to work on Colorado Springs Utilities’ Southern Delivery System

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Pifher was at the helm when Aurora built Prairie Waters, a $650 million project that recycles sewer return flows from the South Platte River near Brighton to Aurora Reservoir. The project includes a well filtration field, underground pipeline and treatment plant and will be used by other Denver-area water suppliers through the WISE partnership, which includes Denver and 14 smaller water districts. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work on another large project,” Pifher said. “Both projects maximize the utilization of existing supplies through the reuse of water, and therefore minimize the need to go out and dry up even more farmland or move more water through transmountain diversions.”

Initially, Pifher will work on [the Southern Delivery System] and other projects as assigned, said Gary Bostrom, chief of water services for Colorado Springs Utilities. “Given his background, we’re pleased to have Mark back with us,” Bostrom said, noting that Pifher worked on water rights issues as an attorney for Colorado Springs earlier in his career…

Pifher, who lives in Colorado Springs, joined Aurora in 2005 as deputy director, after serving as director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. He was promoted to replace Peter Binney in 2008. Binney now works as a water consultant. Dan Mikesell will act as interim director of Aurora Water until a replacement is named.

More coverage from Pam Zubeck writing for the Colorado Springs Independent. From the article:

[ed. From the CSU release: “Mark Pifher has been hired for a new position as the SDS Permitting and Compliance Manager. With construction activities well under way in El Paso and Pueblo counties, there are an increasing number of construction-specific permits we must acquire, in addition to the extensive environmental monitoring and mitigation plans and projects required for compliance with the federal, state and local permits we’ve secured”[…]

Southern Delivery got under construction last year but got a sucker punch when most of the Banning Lewis Ranch, a residential and commercial development originally said to be a big reason for the pipeline, was sold to an oil drilling company from Texas, Ultra Resources. Utilities folks insist that even without Banning Lewis, the pipeline is needed for “redundancy,” a pitch that materialized as the project evolved but development of Banning Lewis didn’t.

More coverage from the Aurora Sentinel. From the article:

Dan Mikesell, deputy director for Aurora Water Operations, has been named interim director for Aurora Water effective Jan. 6.

More Aurora coverage here.

Two Rivers Water Company files exchange and storage change cases in water court


Here’s the release from the Two Rivers Water Company (John McKowen):

Two Rivers Water Company ( announced today that it has filed two Colorado District Court, Water Division 2,Water Court applications in Pueblo, Colorado to irrigate farmland and for municipal, industrial, recreation, fire protection and other beneficial uses.

The first applicationwould allow Two Rivers to use water leased from Pueblo Board of Water Works to be stored in its reservoirs and used to irrigate farmlands in Huerfano and Pueblo County.

The second application would allow Two Rivers to use water diverted from the Huerfano River for irrigation to be stored in the Orlando Reservoir and other places upstream. In addition, itwould allow water to be used for municipal, domestic, industrial, agricultural, commercial, truck washing, stock watering, recreation, fish and wildlife, fire protection and other beneficial uses including augmentation, substitution and exchange. This application would permit Two Rivers to augment water supplies to the town of Gardner.

“The water court applications are another important step in the development of our business model, which is unique among publicly traded water companies,” stated John McKowen, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Two Rivers.

“The exchange of water upstream to our reservoirs and ditch systems allow us to create jobs and economic growth in Huerfano and Pueblo counties at a more accelerated pace by putting water that otherwise would have to be released downstream to beneficial use first upstream for growing crops and augmenting municipal water supplies,” McKowen noted.“In particular, a water court application we filed for the Robert Rice ditch allows us to provide augmentation water to the town of Gardner, which could bein danger of losing its water supply,” he added.

McKowen noted that Two Rivers has a unique business model among publicly traded water companies in that it actively farms high-yield, irrigated farmland while also providingwholesale water for municipal, industrial and recreational use. Both farming and wholesale water are significantly demand driven in the current economic environment and provide excellent profit margins, McKowen said, adding thatone business benefits from the worldwide increase in the demand for food and the other benefits from the worldwide increase in the demand for water. In the western United States the two businesses are inextricably intertwined, McKowen noted.Two Rivers provides balance rather than the oftenseen,very intense competition for water between the agricultural and municipal communities, he said.

McKowen also pointed out that the symbiotic relationship between food and water allows Two Rivers to cover its overhead and generate profits from farming while its water business develops and establishes supply relationships.As a result, Two Rivers cansupport the development of its water business from irrigated farming and, in future years, provide support to water-short communities without permanently drying up prime farm land. Societally, McKowen noted, the Two Rivers business model provides a more holistic and sustainable solution to competing rural and urban interests.

Gary Barber, Two Rivers’ Chief Operating Officer and the architect of Two Rivers’ water strategy stated, “This is the first step of many whereby Two Rivers provides real solutions to water-short water districts along the southern portion of the Front Range of Colorado without buying and drying some of Colorado’s most productive farmland. As Chairman of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, I have seen the tension build between smaller water districts trying to provide water to their communitiesandthose farming communities trying to sustainagriculture. Both need water.”

Barber noted, “Two Rivers’ water assets have a special character, most importantly 70,000 acre feet of storage which can be rehabilitated at 10% of the cost, and a small fraction of the time required to build new storage. We are ideally positioned to provide the ‘wet’ water solutions to both communities. It has been a problem we have been studying at the Roundtable for several years. “

In addition, Barber said, “When I was asked by Two Rivers to join its management team and saw how it had put together this unique “ag/muni” holistic business model with its unique assets, I saw it as a real opportunity to develop a public/private partnership that could genuinely serve the people of Colorado. Since joining Two Rivers in early 2010, I’ve been able to combine my water experience with the company’s entrepreneurial talent and build a unique enterprise that has many exciting opportunities ahead.”

More coverage from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

Two Rivers’ plans call for creating about 38,000 acre-feet of storage in Cucharas and Orlando reservoirs. The company owns about 4,700 acres of land in ditch systems fed by the reservoirs, including the Huerfano-Cucharas Ditch. This year, about one-third of that will be planted as the company ramps up to full production, Barber said.

In a separate change-of-use application in water court, Two Rivers wants to dry up about 150 irrigated acres on the Robert Rice Ditch, but would change the use of the water only so it could be used in Huerfano County. Two Rivers purchased the ditch, which has a water right dating back to 1867, making it fairly senior.

Under the purchase agreement, as much as 130 acre-feet could be made available to serve future developments in Huerfano County. The water also could be used to augment existing wells in communities such as Gardner, Barber said.

“It’s not speculation, since we do have an agreement with the seller, but we did not file for the augmentation of any specific wells,” Barber said.

More Arkansas River basin coverage here.