Drought news: Early season snowmaking at Crested Butte depends on wet water

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From The Crested Butte News (Alissa Johnson):

Chris Corliss, mountain operations manager, explained that the Forest Service regulates the amount of water the resort can pump out of the East River. A minimum amount of water, which varies between November and December, must flow downstream—so whatever CBMR pumps out of the river must not interfere with that minimum flow.

“We have never not been able to pump any water,” Corliss said. He added that this summer, water levels have “been up and down a lot, so we’ve been comparing this summer’s drought to the closest summer pattern of this type. We were in the same scenario in 2002, but once it came time to make snow, the water levels were there and we had a normal year of snowmaking.”

What he can’t predict is exactly how much water will be in the East River by Halloween—the resort typically starts making snow between midnight on Halloween and sometime in early- to mid-November. Even in a typical year with normal water levels, the resort is sometimes restricted in the amount of water it can pump at any one time.

When snowmaking begins around 8 p.m., CBMR monitors water levels in the East River online. The pumps can be operating at full capacity and there can be plenty of water in the river, but if temperatures drop enough around 5:30 a.m. to slow ground water, they’ll have to slow snow production in order to maintain flows in the river.

“In our watershed, from Emerald Lake down through Schofield Pass and into the East River, if there’s no snow on the ground and it gets cold at night things lock up at 6 a.m., when we have the coldest temperatures of the night, and the ground water slows up,” Corliss explained.

He went on to admit, “There’s nothing more frustrating than being a snowmaker and turning the guns off. But that’s a reality in any year for early season snow-making. If we have snow on the ground, even a couple of inches, that insulates the ground enough to keep ground water moving.”

From The Crested Butte News (Alissa Johnson):

According to Kugel, the Gunnison Basin received 65 percent of its normal precipitation in September. Over the course of the 2012 water year beginning last October 1, it received only 71 percent of normal precipitation. The effects can be seen across the Gunnison Valley: flows into Blue Mesa Reservoir were 50 percent of normal during September, and the reservoir is currently at 41 percent of capacity. Flows into the Taylor Reservoir were 58 percent of normal last month, and that reservoir is at 53 percent of capacity. Last week’s rains brought about a modest increase in flows, Kugel said, but not enough to make a significant improvement in area stream flows. According to his manager’s report, prepared for the district board, “The Gunnison River at Gunnison is currently reporting a daily average flow of 137 cfs (the long-term average is 424 cfs and the record low flow for this date is 165 cfs, recorded in 1975). On September 23, flows in the Gunnison River dropped to a daily average of 80 cfs, tying the all-time low flow recorded on December 27, 1962.”

Kugel said in an effort to stem the flow of water out of Blue Mesa Reservoir, releases through the Gunnison Tunnel are being shut off two weeks early on October 15. The tunnel is currently running at 706 cfs…

Steve Fletcher of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association said they’re trying to store as much water as possible before the tunnel diversions are shut off. “Basically, we are just trying to conserve on storage water to carry extra water over for next year because we used heavily out of storage water this year,” he said. “We should have a little more [water stored] than we did during the drought years of 2002-2003, is what we’re hoping.”

Closer to home, in the Gunnison Basin, water levels in the Taylor Reservoir are projected to reach 56,235 af by the end of October and 40,000 af by the end of March 2013.

Here’s a release from the Eagle River Valley Water and Sanitation District (Diane Johnson):

For the first time since March, drought conditions in part of Eagle County are no longer severe, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Eastern Eagle County, along with all of Summit and Lake counties, was reduced to D1, moderate drought intensity, on the Oct. 2 monitor which was released Oct. 4. This headwaters region comprises 2 percent of Colorado and is the only area in the state not in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought (D2, D3, and D4, respectively, on the Drought Monitor’s D0 to D4 scale). Western Eagle County remains at D2, severe.

Drought conditions began locally in January due to poor snowpack. Conditions in Eagle County became severe in April after the driest March on record and elevated to extreme by early June. A wetter than normal July returned conditions back to severe by August, where they stayed until this week’s reduction to “moderate.”

July’s above average rainfall substantially helped local water supply conditions and avoided Eagle River Water & Sanitation District customers from having to limit water use beyond the normal, year-round regulations – which allow outdoor water use up to three days per week, before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. August saw just enough rain to moderate outdoor water demand during high irrigation season and many in the community decreased outdoor water use as local streamflows dropped in August and September.

The reduction in local drought intensity is tempered by the fact that drought persists throughout Colorado and has intensified on the eastern plains. Summer 2012 was the warmest on record in the state, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. This continues a 2012 trend as both the 3- and 6-month periods, of June through August, and March through August, were the warmest on record for Colorado.

The outlook for winter remains mixed. Snow provides a majority of Colorado’s water supply so Eagle River Water & Sanitation District always closely monitors conditions at local SNOTEL sites. Weekly snowpack graphs are available at www.erwsd.org.

From the Vail Daily (Lauren Glendenning):

El Nino, a weather phenomenon characterized by unusually warm water temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean, has brought huge amounts of snowfall to Colorado’s southern mountains in previous years, while La Nina, which features unusually cold water temperatures in the Pacific, has blessed the northern part of the state with massive snowfall. The Vail area and I-70 corridor, however, tend to fall in the middle of the storm tracks. Sometimes the northern storms will hit us, sometimes the southern storms will, and sometimes the Vail region is left out to dry. The weak El Nino pattern doesn’t tell weather forecasters any more about snowfall for the region, either. “Unfortunately, I think, (the weak El Nino) gives it toward equal chances instead of saying much about chances for excessive snowfall or a dry winter,” said Dennis Phillips, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction…

At the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, climate expert and meteorologist Joe Ramey recently looked at data for El Nino seasons that follow La Nina seasons, such as the upcoming season. Phillips said in that research, nothing stood out in terms of weather patterns…

And Gratz said not to put too much thought into early snowfall this month. He has researched whether snow in October is indicative of how the rest of the season turns out and has found no correlation. During the 2007-08 winter, for example, there was almost no snow throughout the fall and early winter, and then about two weeks into December it started falling and barely stopped for the rest of the season.

From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

July in particular was wet in Summit County, with about double the average precipitation for the month. Eastern Eagle County, including the Vail area, is also in the area where the drought intensity has been reduced, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The Oct. 4 update marks the first time since March that drought conditions are not classified as severe in the area, but extreme to exceptional drought persists across large areas of the Colorado, especially on the eastern plains, where exceptional drought still prevails, and in the northwestern corner of the state, still experiencing extreme drought…

Drought conditions began locally in January due to poor snowpack and worsened after the driest march on record. Record high temperatures across much of the state worsened conditions in late spring and early summer, when much of the state was classified as being in extreme drought.

From The Fairplay Flume (Sonja Oliver):

Those words are echoed by hay retailer Ginger Bruvold, owner of Outpost Feed and Ranch Supply in Florissant. “But there isn’t a lot of hay in the entire country because of the drought,” Bruvold said. “The people I’ve bought my hay from for the last seven years – they had no hay. They had to sell off part of their cow herd,” she added.

Bruvold said her Colorado supplier, who is located in the Gunnison area, told her there was “absolutely no water for irrigation this year,” and his fields had suffered dramatically.

As part of a resulting chain reaction, Bruvold must spend a lot more time trying to locate hay from out-of-state suppliers – from areas including Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota and Nebraska, to name a few…

According to Bruvold, the price range for the hay she is able to locate has increased by 30 to 50 percent compared with what she paid at this time last year. Lake George resident Ron Zaccagnini, district manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said he was told by someone who attended a recent Ft. Collins hay auction that “grass hay went for over $500-600 a ton.” That’s roughly triple a price that averaged $200 per ton in 2009…

Governmental policies and export sales of hay to other countries such as China have placed even more stress on the market. According to a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Global Agricultural Information Network memo dated May 26, 2009, the export of U.S. hay to other countries is encouraged.

“Five years ago (in 2004), the U.S. barely exported alfalfa hay (approximately 6,000 tons) to China,” says the introduction to the report. “In 2008, the United States exported over 17,613 tons valued (at) over $5 million to China – the result of … market activities that built appreciation of the product,” it says.

“South China’s appetite for U.S. alfalfa will grow given declines in Chinese hay supply and increased demand” and “with proper pricing, promotion and reasonable freight rates, the road is paved for sales.” Some estimates for shipping costs of hay from the West Coast to China approximate anywhere from $30 to $50 per ton. And it is to China’s advantage to import hay from the United States; rather than send an empty ship back to the mainland, hay and other commodities are a bonus.

Compare those freight costs to an approximate $2,000 to $3,000 added to a load of hay trucked into Colorado, depending on where it originated, says Bruvold. Tesch calculates a cost of $4 per mile per load, so 500 miles would translate to $2,000.

Crested Butte: Stricter water quality standards mandated by CWQCC for Coal Creek through town

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From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman/Alissa Johnson):

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission voted September 11 to impose the stricter standards despite an argument from U.S. Energy that nearby domestic wells were pumping water from the Slate River instead of Coal Creek. “Frankly, I don’t even recognize my town in the diagrams presented to you from U.S. Energy,” said High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA) water director Jennifer Bock in reference to the claim that the wells were pumping water from the Slate River. The portion of the creek affected by the decision starts at just below the town’s water supply intake to the confluence with the Slate River. By voting to put stricter regulations on that portion of Coal Creek, the commission voted in agreement with positions advocated by HCCA, Gunnison County, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers.

The segment of Coal Creek is out of compliance with state water quality standards, and has been since temporary modifications were first put in place in the early 1990s. Bock explained that temporary modifications are put in place when a discharger releasing pollutants into a water body cannot meet quality standards and needs more time to assess the situation. “The legal word in the regulations is uncertainty, so if there’s uncertainty about why there’s a pollution problem, it does give the discharger time to resolve it,” Bock said. In this case, U.S. Energy Corp. was requesting an extension of the temporary modifications and more lenient standards on cadmium, zinc and copper.

Initially, U.S. Energy proposed loosening the temporary modifications in addition to extending them. Yet the current temporary standards are already significantly above state standards: of 2.3 micrograms per liter for cadmium as opposed to the more typical range of .15 to 1.2 depending on water hardness, and 667 micrograms per liter for zinc. State standards for zinc are typically between 34 and 428 micrograms per liter, again depending on the hardness of the water. After some back and forth, U.S. Energy instead proposed a slight tightening of the temporary modifications to 2.1 micrograms per liter for cadmium and 440 for zinc. In HCCA’s eyes, that amounts to the status quo, but that’s acceptable for the time being if steps are taken to understand where that pollution is coming from.

In addition to standards for drinking water, the commission granted U.S. Energy’s request for temporary modifications on standards for copper, cadmium and zinc. As part of the decision the Water Quality Control Commission is asking U.S. Energy to develop a comprehensive study on metal loading from Mt. Emmons, which will be the subject of another hearing on December 10 in Denver.

More Gunnison River Basin coverage here and here.