Snowpack/drought news: Front Range water providers carefully watching low snowpack levels

snowpackcolorado04022012

Here’s the release from the Front Range Water Council via Denver Water

Front Range Water Council members are keeping a close eye on snowpack levels, and some might implement additional water restrictions if their supplies continue to look below average.

Even those water providers whose storage appears to be in good shape for this year are carefully watching the numbers because if warm dry weather continues through this summer, they may need to stock up for what could be a dry year in 2013.

“During the drought 10 years ago, water providers learned it’s difficult for reservoir storage to survive multiple-year droughts,” said Jim Lochhead, Front Range Water Council chair and CEO/manager of Denver Water. “As a result, municipalities pushed more comprehensive conservation efforts, and we’re seeing those positive results today. But conservation alone is not enough. We need strategies that also include reuse and new supplies.”

The Front Range Water Council is a collaboration between Aurora Water, Denver Water, Colorado Springs, Northern Water, Pueblo Board of Water Works, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company. The members, all of whom pull various amounts of water from the Colorado River, are looking at options should the snowpack levels remain low.

In Colorado, the year round water supply is dependent on the winter snows and the ability to store the snowmelt runoff for later use. Because each provider also pulls water from additional sources — some of which are in better shape than others — individual providers will likely need to address their supplies in different ways:

Aurora Water — Aurora Water’s supplies are in relatively good shape, in part because of the Prairie Waters project, which recaptures river water from the South Platte, as well as higher than normal reservoir levels. However, staff is keeping a close eye on reservoir levels to determine if Aurora needs to keep extra supply in the event dry weather continues into 2013. Aurora has permanent conservation measures in place which prohibits residents from watering more than three days a week or between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., but no additional restrictions are planned.

Colorado Springs Utilities — Colorado Springs Utilities is well positioned to manage its water situation this spring and summer thanks to adequate storage levels and customer conservation. Staff continues to carefully monitor the dry weather conditions and below average snowpack.

Even though Colorado Springs Utilities is not looking at mandatory restrictions this year, it reminds its customers that the City remains in voluntary water restrictions. Customers should be even more diligent in managing their water use this irrigation season by following conservation tips, attending free xeriscape classes and taking advantage of rebate programs at http://www.csu.org.

Denver Water — Denver Water gets about half of its supply from the Colorado River and half from the South Platte River, snowpack levels in both basins are very low. Officials have not yet implemented additional restrictions, but could if its system reservoir levels drop. In the meantime, Denver Water asks residents to conserve as much as possible.

Denver Water is proposing several projects to meet its future need. It is building out its recycled water treatment system and has an aggressive conservation program. In addition, the utility is pursuing new supply. Following the 2002 drought, Denver Water nearly ran out of water in the north end of its system, which is more susceptible to water supply problems during a dry year. The utility currently is in the permitting process to enlarge Gross Reservoir near Boulder to help avoid running out of water any given year and put water where it is needed.

Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District – Northern Water and its Municipal Subdistrict provide water to Northeastern Colorado through the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects. The C-BT Project has above average water in its storage reservoirs due to recent high snowpack years and will be able to fulfill this year’s deliveries despite lackluster snowpack. In addition, two proposals – the Windy Gap Firming and Northern Integrated Supply projects – would add even more reliable annual supply to this growing region.

Pueblo Board of Water Works – The Board has worked diligently to maintain an ample reserve supply in storage at Clear Creek, Twin Lakes, Turquoise and Pueblo Reservoirs so that it can continue providing a reliable water supply to all of its customers, even during severe droughts. The Board currently has over 3 times as much water stored in these reservoirs than it did going into the irrigation season in 2002. For this reason the Board does not anticipate any watering restrictions or curtailment of extraterritorial water leases for this coming summer.

Wise water use by Puebloans has saved millions of gallons of water since 2003. The Board acknowledges our customers’ help in preserving this vital resource, and encourages them to continue doing so.

Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company – Twin Lakes provides water to municipal and agricultural users in the Arkansas River and South Platte basins including several Front Range Water Council members. Twin Lakes is closely monitoring the snowpack and runoff forecasts and is preparing for a below average year.

Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District – A majority of the water supply to the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project comes from the Colorado River, where snowpack levels are very low. By May 1st the Bureau of Reclamation will notify the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District as to the amount of project water available to the District’s domestic, municipal, and irrigation entities that have applied for project water. Since the supply of project water is to supplement the supplies available to the users from privately-owned water rights, the use of project water increases during years in which there are lesser supplies of privately-owned water within the basin. The Allocation Committee then meets to review the applications, and prepare recommendations concerning the applications received as related to the amount of water available. Recommendations from the Allocation Committee are considered at the next meeting of the board of directors of the District, and appropriate allocations are made.

Front Range Water Utility Council member media contacts:

Aurora Water – Greg Baker 303-739-7081

Colorado Springs Utilities – Steve Berry 719-668-3803 or Mark Murphy 719-668-3831.

Denver Water – Stacy Chesney 303-628-6584

Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District – Brian Werner 970-622-2229

Pueblo Board of Water Works – Paul Fanning 719-584-0212

Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company – Steve Berry, 719-668-3803 or Mark Murphy 719-668-3831

Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District – Lee Miller 719-948-2400

Meanwhile, here’s a release from Colorado State University (Emily Narvaes Wilmsen) that explains current conditions:

Despite the cooler weather coming in, Colorado State University climatologists have officially confirmed for the U.S. Drought Monitor what many people in Colorado already know: About 98 percent of the state is experiencing varying levels of drought.

The most severe drought in the state is in the Arkansas Basin where drought ranges from D1, or “moderate” drought to D3, or “extreme” conditions as a result of last summer’s Texas drought which also affected Colorado. A newer area of D2 or “severe” drought has recently been added to the Yampa/White Basin in northwestern Colorado due to lack of sufficient snowpack this season.

Most of the Northeastern Plains are designated as “abnormally dry.” In October, 60 percent of the state didn’t have any drought categories. That has shrunk to 2 percent, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist who is based at Colorado State University.

“Even though reservoir levels are still strong and northeast Colorado soil moisture is still pretty good, we just don’t usually start out quite this warm and dry at this time – so this is very concerning.”

Some comparison is being made to 2002, which was the last major drought in Colorado.

“In 2002, things didn’t seem that bad at the end of March as March had been quite cool with some snow,” Doesken said. “April 2002 was a lot like March 2012 in that there was scarcely any precip statewide and the snowpack just disappeared without producing much runoff. I don’t recall much fire issues until mid April 2002, but then things started going crazy.

“There is plenty of time yet for at least some parts of Colorado to improve,” Doesken said. “Our spring ‘cool wet season’ continues into mid-May in southern Colorado and into the first or second week of June in northern Colorado. We typically need – and often receive – about three major widespread cold and soaking storms during this coming 10- to 11-week period along with increasing amounts of scattered thunderstorms, especially from late April onward.”

Statewide, the northeast plains have received less than 5 percent of normal for the March – that’s the worst for the state, said Wendy Ryan, research associate who works with Doesken in CSU’s Colorado Climate Center.

“The temperature has been 6 to 9 degrees above normal,” Ryan said. “The mountains have already started melting out after some improvement in February. I recently helped with the snow course at Cameron Pass and it’s only 50 percent of normal at the end of March. The two lower courses, Big South and Chambers were single digit percents of normal with barely any snow cover at all.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor officially tracks drought conditions across the United States; the office of the State Climatologist at Colorado State University is responsible for reporting Colorado’s conditions to the monitor. The drought monitor, through the National Drought Mitigation Center based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a synthesis of multiple indices and impacts that represent a consensus of some 200 federal and academic scientists.

In Fort Collins, March was the warmest in 124 years of record keeping, Ryan said.

“In Fort Collins, we had the hottest and driest March on record,” Ryan said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had only a trace of precipitation for March. No years have had zero.”

Ryan said the Front Range urban corridor has been one inch or more below average for March. The entire state is below 50 percent with the exception of the far Eastern Plains, which have received some moisture.

The statewide snowpack has declined in recent weeks and is currently only 60 percent of normal, she said.

“March is one of our bigger precipitation months on the Front Range so to not have anything is a big deal,” Ryan said. “This is pretty much polar opposite to last year with record snowpack continued to accumulate in the mountains all spring.”

From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

Statewide, the snowpack is only 50 percent of the historic average; the Colorado River Basin snowpack is the lowest in the state, at 47 percent. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is showing above average chances for dry weather to continue the next three months, with above average temperatures, which could further debilitate the spring snowpack.

Even those water providers whose storage appears to be in good shape for this year are carefully watching the numbers because if warm dry weather continues through this summer, they may need to stock up for what could be a dry year in 2013, according to the Front Range Water Council.

“During the drought 10 years ago, water providers learned it’s difficult for reservoir storage to survive multiple-year droughts,” said Jim Lochhead, Front Range Water Council chair and CEO/manager of Denver Water.

From the Denver Business Journal (Cathy Proctor):

Council members all pull water from the Colorado River, and are looking at options if snowpack levels remain low, the council said.

From The Denver Post (Monte Whaley):

About 98 percent of the state is experiencing varying levels of drought, according to CSU, with the most severe in the Arkansas Basin, where drought ranges from D1, or “moderate” drought to D3, or “extreme.” Last summer’s Texas drought is also still affecting Colorado, CSU said.

A newer area of D2 or “severe” drought has recently been added to the Yampa/White Basin in northwestern Colorado due to lack of sufficient snowpack this season.

Most of the northeastern plains are designated as “abnormally dry.” Conditions changed drastically since October, when 60 percent of the state didn’t have any drought categories.

That has shrunk to 2 percent, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist who is based at CSU.

“Even though the reservoir levels are still strong and northeast Colorado soil moisture is still pretty good, we just don’t usually start out quite this warm and dry at this time — so this is very concerning,” Doesken said.

Some are comparing this year to 2002, which was the last major drought in Colorado. “In 2002, things didn’t seem that bad at the end of March as March has been quite cool with some snow,” Doesken said.

April 2002 was a lot like March 2012, he added, saying there was scarcely any precipitation statewide and the snowpack disappeared without producing much runoff…

“We typically need — and often receive — about three major widespread cold and soaking storms during this coming 10-to-11 week period along with increasing amounts of scattered thunderstorms, especially from late April onward,” Doesken said.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

“As we all know, water is one of our most precious resources,” said Alan Hamel, executive director of the Pueblo Board of Water Works. “And, even though we don’t anticipate any restrictions on irrigation this year, we encourage all of our customers to use water very wisely and not waste it.”[…]

Most of Colorado’s snowpack occurs in March and April, and statewide snowpack was listed at 58 percent of normal Monday by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Pueblo received only 0.11 inches in March, and has received 0.74 inches for the year, less than half of normal. Record-breaking temperatures were recorded over the weekend before colder weather and high winds returned Monday…

Between its accounts in Lake Pueblo, Clear Creek, Turquoise and Twin Lakes, the water board has more than 43,000 acre-feet of water in storage, more than a year’s worth of potable water supply.

From CBS4Denver.com:

Denver Water said because March was so dry they’re now anticipating a weak year for the rivers and creeks that fill the lake. “We need to maintain or hold some more water in Dillon Reservoir in anticipation of low run off and snowpack,” [Phil Hofer, Frisco Bay marina manager] said.

By law Denver Water has to release 50 cubic feet per second. They said they’re just above that at 53. On the same day last year they were releasing 97 cubic feet per second. And by the end of April 2011 they were releasing 255 cubic feet per second.

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

Despite the flushing and a dam project that has reduced the city’s transmountain storage capability, Utilities has ample water for a normal growing season, Berry says, promising there won’t be a repeat of 2002 when drought conditions triggered water restrictions during what turned out to be the third driest year in more than a century, with only 7.84 inches of rain. Only two Dust Bowl years, 1939 and 1934, were drier.

It seems like a no-brainer to expect rationing, considering Colorado Springs has received .37 of an inch precipitation since January 1, or 22 percent of the normal 1.69 inches, the National Weather Service reports.

Adding to the problem are high temperatures. Along with dozens of cities in 25 states, Colorado Springs experienced higher-than-normal temperatures in March. The average high was nearly 64 degrees, compared to an average of 52 in a normal year. The average minimum was 32 in March, compared to 26 degrees in a normal year, according to the Weather Service…

But Pueblo won’t impose restrictions, and neither will Springs Utilities, despite a project to improve Homestake Reservoir, part of the city’s transmountain system, which delivers water from the Colorado River basin to Colorado Springs. The reservoir, in the Holy Cross Wilderness area near Leadville, will be drained and the work will begin this summer. (Berry says the lake is already low enough that two snowmobiles have been found at the bottom, “but no Jimmy Hoffa.”)

Utilities officials decided to move ahead on the $30 million project this year (Aurora is a partner in the project) after 2011 turned out to be a “pretty wet season,” Berry says, with 16.24 inches of precipiation for the year, not far off the normal mark of 17.4 inches.

To compensate for the empty Homestake Reservoir, Utilities purchased additional storage space in Pueblo Reservoir. That water will be delivered to the Springs through the Fountain Valley Authority water line, Berry says.

While snowfall has been below normal in most of Colorado, except for the Sangre de Cristo range, Berry says local snowpack on Pikes Peak is a little above average. That means the North and South Catamount Reservoirs, lowered last year due to repairs on Montgomery Dam near Breckenridge, will likely return to normal levels this year.

Local storage is at 73 percent of capacity, Berry says, slightly more than the historic capacity of 70 percent, while the city’s systemwide storage stands at 69 percent of capacity, compared to the historic level of 62 percent.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Andre Wineke):

“We’ve looked at it and, while it’s certainly dry, we feel good about our storage this year,” said Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. “For 2012, we don’t expect any restrictions.”

Having said that, Berry added, it wouldn’t hurt everyone in Colorado Springs to keep an eye on their water usage.

“I think if the weather conditions don’t improve going into next year and if we have a bad snowpack next year like we have this year, then it could be a problem,” he said. “It’s still key that our customers conserve. Customer water usage is going to be really important this spring and summer. If our customers help us, that will certainly help us going into next year.”

Berry said Colorado Springs Utilities’ storage reservoirs are at about 69 percent of capacity. That’s above the 62 percent average for this time of year from 1970-2004, albeit down from the 77 percent of capacity in 2011…

The warm March did pump up local water use: Colorado Springs residents used an average of 53.6 million gallons of water a day during the month, up 15.2 percent from March, 2011, according to Colorado Springs Utilities. On the plus side, however, Utilities customers used 358 million gallons less than they did back in March, 2001 — about a 27 percent decrease after adjusting for the city’s growth.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Bobby Magill):

Normally, Fort Collins gets more than a foot of snow every March. But not last month.

Only a trace of precipitation was recorded in Fort Collins last month, the first time in history that March did not have any measurable precipitation at all. The next driest March on record was 1966, when 0.01 inches of rain fell.

The average overall temperature for March was 50 degrees, or 8.6 degrees above normal. The average high temperature for March was 67.2 degrees – five degrees higher than the average high temperature for April.

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