NRCS: The January 1, 2013 Basin Outlook Report is hot off the press, read it and weep #COdrought


Click here to download a copy.

Here’s an excerpt:


The water year got off to a very slow start in Colorado. With winter storm tracks failing to favor us, snowpack and mountain precipitation were tracking well below normal throughout October and November. Winter finally arrived to Colorado in mid December and conditions steadily improved throughout the month. Unfortunately it was not quite enough, and as of January 1, snowpack readings remain below normal in all of the state’s major river basins. Due to the dry start to the water year, water supplies are currently expected to be below normal across the state this spring and summer. Adding to the water supply concerns, statewide reservoir storage is well below average as a result of last year’s poor snowpack and drought conditions. While it is still early in the season and anything can happen, water users should pay close attention to this winters weather patterns as well as the state’s snowpack and plan accordingly.


Dry conditions across Colorado during the fall and early winter season have resulted in below normal snowpack totals statewide. The storm systems that moved across the state in mid to late December greatly improved statewide totals; boosting the statewide snowpack from just 36 percent of normal on December 1 to 70 percent of normal on January 1. While this was a welcome change to the persisting dry weather patterns, as you can see, it was not nearly enough to bring statewide snowpack totals to near normal conditions. Current readings are only 91 percent of last year’s January 1 readings and this year’s January 1 snowpack replaced 2012 as the fourth lowest recorded in the last 32 years. The highest snowpack readings, as a percent of normal, are in the combined Yampa, White and North Platte basins. They recorded a snowpack at 85 percent of normal as of January 1. The lowest reading statewide is 61 percent of normal recorded in the Arkansas basin. In general, the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa, White and North Platte basins have a slightly better snowpack than they had last year at this same time. The South Platte, Arkansas, Upper Rio Grande and combined southwest basins (San Juan, San Miguel, Animas, & Dolores) have received less snow this year compared to what they had accumulated last year on January 1. Given the current snowpack deficit, the state needs to receive above normal snowfall over the next few months in order to reach normal conditions by spring.


Precipitation in the mountains of Colorado was sparse during October, November, and the first part of December. Statewide monthly precipitation totals measured at SNOTEL sites were just 50 percent of average for October, and only 41 percent of average for November. The state finally received some moisture in mid December and total precipitation for the month of December ended up at 112 percent of average. Conditions were fairly consistent across the state during these months, with some variability during December. Monthly precipitation for December ranged from 99 percent of average in the Arkansas basin to 123 percent of average in the combined Yampa, White and North Platte basins. Year to date precipitation totals reflect the dry conditions in October and November. Statewide totals as of January 1 are just 68 percent of average. The combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins have received the lowest precipitation, as a percent of average, at 59 percent of average. The Yampa, White and North Platte basins came in with the highest totals on January 1, as a percent of average, at 81 percent of average.

Reservoir Storage

As a result of last year’s well below average runoff, Colorado’s statewide reservoir storage has been tracking below average since the end of May 2012. Storage volumes have dropped from 3,716,000 acre-feet at the end of May 2012 to 2,292,000 acre-feet reported at the end of December. Current storage volumes are only 68 percent of average and 65 percent of last year’s volumes at this same time. The lowest storage volumes, as a percent of average, are reported in the Upper Rio Grande basin, at just 50 percent of average. The only basins currently reporting average reservoir volumes for this time of year are the combined Yampa, White and North Platte basins. The Arkansas River basin is currently storing volumes at 56 percent of average. Reservoir storage throughout the remainder of the state is below average as well, with the remaining basins reporting between 66 to 77 percent of average.


The first seasonal streamflow forecasts of the season reflect the below normal precipitation and snow accumulation received so far this water year. Across the state, seasonal streamflow volumes are expected to be below normal. Forecasts for the streams in Colorado’s west slope basins range from just 47 percent of normal for Tomichi Creek at Gunnison, CO to 81 percent of normal flows expected for the Inflow to Willow Creek Reservoir in the headwaters of the Colorado River basin. Forecasts for the streams in the Arkansas and South Platte River basins are currently in the range of 50 to 70 percent of normal for the spring and summer season. The Upper Rio Grande basin currently has some of the lowest forecasts in the state; Sangre de Cristo Creek is expected to flow at just 36 percent of normal for the April to September period. And finally the basins in the southwest corner of the state are expected to see streamflow volumes ranging from 63 to 78 percent of normal this spring and summer.

USDA offers emergency loans to producers ahead of 2013 crop season to help combat persistent drought


Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today designated 597 counties in 14 states as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. These are the first disaster designations made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013.

“As drought persists, USDA will continue to partner with producers to see them through longer-term recovery, while taking the swift actions needed to help farmers and ranchers prepare their land and operations for the upcoming planting season,” said Vilsack. “I will also continue to work with Congress to encourage passage of a Food, Farm and Jobs bill that gives rural America the long-term certainty they need, including a strong and defensible safety net.”

The 597 counties have shown a drought intensity value of at least D2 (Drought Severe) for eight consecutive weeks based on U.S. Drought Monitor measurements, providing for an automatic designation. The Drought Monitor is produced in partnership by USDA, the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It helps USDA determine county disaster designations due to drought. The Drought Monitor measures drought intensity on a scale from D1 to D4, as follows:

D1: Moderate Drought

D2: Severe Drought

D3: Extreme Drought

D4: Exceptional Drought

In 2012, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought, or 71 percent of the United States. At the height of the 2012 drought, the Secretary announced a series of aggressive USDA actions to get help to farmers, ranchers and businesses impacted by the 2012 drought, including lowering the interest rate for emergency loans, working with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers, and expanding the use of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for haying and grazing, which opened 2.8 million acres and brought nearly $200 million in forage for all livestock producers during a critical period. Many of those same actions continue to bring relief to producers ahead of the 2013 planting season, including:

  • Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent.
  • Transferred $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures.
  • Updated the emergency loans application process to allow these loans to be made earlier in the season.
  • Filed special provisions with the federal crop insurance program to allow haying or grazing of cover crops without impacting the insurability of planted 2013 spring crops.
  • Authorized up to $5 million in grants to evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers adapt to drought.
  • Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.
  • Installed conservation systems that impacted more than 1 million producers, and reduced water withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer by at least 860,000 acre feet, equivalent to the domestic water use of approximately 9.6 million individuals for a year.
  • Worked with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility on premium payments to farmers, and one-third of all policyholders took advantage of the payment period.
  • Partnered with local governments, colleges, state and federal partners to conduct a series of regional drought workshops with hundreds of producers in Nebraska, Colorado, Arkansas, and Ohio.
  • A natural disaster designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for low interest emergency loans. During times of need, USDA has historically responded to disasters across the country by providing direct support, disaster assistance, technical assistance, and access to credit. USDA’s low-interest emergency loans have helped producers recover from losses due to drought, flooding and other natural disasters for decades. The interest rate on emergency loans currently stands at 2.15 percent, providing a competitive, much-needed resource for producers hoping to recover from production and physical losses associated with natural disasters.

    The Obama Administration, with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, has worked tirelessly to strengthen rural America, maintain a strong farm safety net, and create opportunities for America’s farmers and ranchers. U.S. agriculture is currently experiencing one of its most productive periods in American history thanks to the productivity, resiliency, and resourcefulness of our producers. A strong farm safety net is important to sustain the success of American agriculture. USDA’s crop insurance program currently insures 264 million acres, 1.14 million policies, and $110 billion worth of liability on about 500,000 farms. In response to tighter financial markets, USDA has expanded the availability of farm credit, helping struggling farmers refinance loans. Since 2009, USDA has provided more than 128,000 loans to family farmers totaling more than $18 billion. Over 50 percent of the loans went to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

    Visit for the latest information regarding USDA’s drought response and assistance.

    The 597 primary counties designated as disaster areas today correspond to the following states: Alabama, 14; Arkansas, 47; Arizona, 4; Colorado, 30 [ed. emphasis mine]; Georgia, 92; Hawaii, 2; Kansas, 88; Oklahoma, 76; Missouri, 31; New Mexico, 19; Nevada, 9; South Carolina, 11; Texas, 157; and Utah, 17. For more information about the specific state designations, visit the Farm Service Agency’s disaster designations page.

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Two-thirds of Colorado’s counties — including all of Southeastern Colorado — were declared disaster areas eligible for federal drought assistance Wednesday. A total of 43 counties have been listed as disaster areas and can considered for assistance through the Farm Services Agency, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

    The entire state has been in drought for about 10 months, while the Arkansas River basin is in its third year of drought. [ed. emphasis mine] Snowpack for the state is only at 63 percent of average.

    The aid is much needed, said Prowers County Commissioner Henry Schnabel.“There was only one run of water on the Amity Canal this year, and I think farmers will access the help if they need it through this program,” Schnabel said. “One thing we’re already facing this year is severe dust storms, and as a county we’re working to mitigate the damage.”

    Colorado’s U.S. Senators hailed the decision.

    Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the continuing drought shows the need for Congress to pass a farm bill, which cleared the Senate in 2012, but stalled in the House. “Colorado and the West are experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record. This ongoing drought threatens our agricultural economy and farm jobs throughout the state,” Udall said. “This drought is a reminder of why Congress needs an up-to-date, long-term Farm Bill, and not the extension we are stuck with for the next nine months.”

    Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., agreed. “Today’s announcement from USDA is welcome news for many producers in Colorado who continue to struggle from the worst drought in decades,” Bennet said. “The temporary extension passed at the end of last year due to the House’s inaction is nothing more than a patch. Colorado’s farmers and ranchers need certainty, and they deserve better from their representatives in Congress.”

    Snowpack/drought news: Colorado snowpack is the fourth lowest in 32 years #COdrought #COwx


    From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

    The federal agency that helps to forecast water supplies in the Mountain West reported Jan. 4 that the Jan. 1 snowpack in Colorado was the fourth lowest in 32 years. That is in spite of the fact that precipitation in the Colorado Rockies was 112 percent of average for December. The statewide snowpack was just 70 percent of average as the new year began, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver. The water year begins Oct. 1, and although the upper Yampa Valley got slammed with piles of cold, dry snow beginning right before Christmas, it couldn’t make up for a dearth of moisture in October and November…

    Locally, the snowpack is stronger than the state’s 70 percent of average, but it varies around the Yampa River Basin. The NRCS reports that the combined Yampa and White river basins (the White River drains the western end of the Flat Tops, which are visible from Steamboat) stood at 78 percent of average on Monday.

    Steamboat Springs depends on snowmelt in the upper Fish Creek drainage for its domestic water supply as the spring runoff fills Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs. Jay Gallagher, general manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, said Monday that although he expects the storage in Fish Creek Reservoir (by far the larger of the two) to dip to 35 percent by April 1, he is confident the reservoir will fill this spring.

    The Tower measuring site maintained by the NRCS on Buffalo Pass essentially represents the Fish Creek drainage, Gallagher said. The NRCS was reporting Monday that the snow water equivalent on Buffalo Pass stood at 67 percent of average with 13 inches of water…

    The average snow water equivalent at the Tower site on April 1 is 45.8 inches, Gallagher added, and since 1965, there have been only two years (1977 and 1981) when there was less than 26 inches of snow water equivalent at the Tower site on April 1. Unusually low snow water equivalent years include: 1977, 25.4 inches; 1981, 23.8 inches; 2002, 28.4 inches; and 2012, 28.1 inches, according to Gallagher.

    From KUNC (Grant Gerlock):

    Farmers who raise winter wheat are already living rain to rain, or snow to snow. Winter wheat is normally planted around September and harvested in June. This time of year there should be a field of low, green grass as the young wheat goes through its winter dormancy. But the warm and dry fall caused a bit of a false start for the crop. Dan Hughes, who grows wheat in Chase and Perkins counties near the Colorado border in southwestern Nebraska, planted as deep into the dry soil as he could hoping the wheat could find moisture…

    Greg Kruger, a cropping systems specialist at the University of Nebraska’s West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, said in some places the wheat seed never even sprouted in the parched soil. “In our dryland farm it was zero germination,” Kruger said. “Certainly standing at field edge you’re not going to see anything.”

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 49 percent of Nebraska’s winter wheat crop is in poor or very poor condition. Seventy percent is poor or very poor in South Dakota. That number is 31 percent in Kansas, the nation’s top winter wheat state…

    First, snowpack in the Rockies is normal, at best. “Normal” might sound good, but Michael Hayes at the Drought Mitigation Center said that’s not enough to refill diminished rivers and reservoirs. Without more snow, water disputes along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers could continue.

    Conservation: ‘Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense’ — Ronald Reagan


    From The Trinidad Times (Jim Dipeso):

    Imagine a Republican leader who racked up the following achievements: He fought smog by regulating vehicle emissions, kept dams from choking free-flowing rivers, set aside big chunks of wild backcountry for permanent protection, and supported a strong treaty to prevent harmful gases from mucking up the atmosphere.

    Democratic operatives might just invite this candidate to switch parties, though GOP partisans might brand him a RINO, short for “Republican In Name Only.”

    Such a leader existed, and his name was Ronald Reagan. The Gipper knew better than to pigeonhole the environment as a partisan issue. He may have said some dumb things about trees, but he also said, “If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense.”

    Conservation issues historically have been bipartisan. There is no reason to accept nonsensical assertions from elected officials that environmental stewardship is for liberals but not for conservatives. Is this a naïve wish? Despite what you might hear from talk radio hucksters or politicians trafficking in divisive rhetoric, there is broader agreement on the importance of conservation than seems apparent on the surface.

    Last year, Colorado College’s bipartisan State of the Rockies poll found broad evidence in six Western states that voters, by large majorities, value public lands for their contribution to quality of life, support clean air regulations, and believe renewable energy development should have high priority.

    Western voters by and large believe a strong economy and strong environmental protections can co-exist, rendering conservation neither red nor blue. That is precisely the basis for the partnership struck up between the National Audubon Society and the Republican organization, ConservAmerica. It’s called the American Eagle Compact, and it sends political leaders a simple message: All of us have a stake in good stewardship of the air, water, land, wildlife and climate; conservation ought to be a national priority that transcends partisan boundary lines.

    More conservation coverage here.

    Boulder County won’t yet sign IGA with Denver Water for Moffat Collection System Project


    From the Boulder Daily Camera (Amy Bounds) via the Longmont Times-Call:

    The Boulder County commissioners on Monday night declined to sign an intergovernmental agreement with Denver Water, withholding their approval for a planned expansion of Gross Reservoir.

    About 40 residents and environmentalists, in a public hearing that lasted three-and-a-half hours, urged the county commissioners not to sign the agreement, citing concerns that ranged from noise to traffic safety to Denver Water’s need to conserve instead of expand…

    The intergovernmental agreement would have established a pool of at least $500,000 to compensate area residents and another $2 million the county could use to limit urban sprawl or pay out to residents. Another $4 million would have gone toward the preservation of land around Gross Reservoir. Another $500,000 would have been contributed to use for forest treatments on private property, $1 million to assist the Coal Creek Canyon Parks and Recreation District with its master plan goals and $250,000 for recreation projects recommended by the Preserve Unique Magnolia Association. Other conditions included requiring dust mitigation on gravel roads and improvements to Colo. 72 and affected county roads.

    But, public speakers said, the limits were too vague and the amount of money that would be contributed much too low. “Don’t take the minuscule bribe that Denver Water is proposing,” said Coal Creek Canyon resident Anita Wilks. “No amount of mitigation will be enough.”[…]

    County staff members, who recommended approval of the intergovernmental agreement, have said a 1041 permit denial likely would result in a legal fight. County open space attorney Conrad Lattes previously said that Denver Water has contended that Boulder County’s 1041 powers would be pre-empted by a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit that Denver Water is seeking. Although the county has not conceded that issue, he said the agreement would give the county more flexibility than the 1041 process and would avoid extensive litigation.

    More Moffat Collection System Project coverage here and here.

    ‘There’s been a great deal of speculation on water needs for oil shale, but it’s all based on unproven technology’ –Steven Hall


    Oil shale has been “The next big thing” in Colorado for over a hundred years now. Here’s an article exploring the water needs of oil shale development, from Judith Lewis Mernitc writing for the High Country News via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Click through and read the whole article, there is a lot of good detail there. Here’s an excerpt:

    Trapped in fossil-fuel purgatory, oil shale has to be heated to super-high temperatures, a process called “retorting” that requires enormous amounts of water. No one can even say for sure how much, although some energy companies try.

    Utah-based Red Leaf claims its technology needs only a tiny amount; other estimates say that full-scale development of oil shale in Colorado would require more water than all of Denver uses in a year.

    “There’s been a great deal of speculation on water needs for oil shale, but it’s all based on unproven technology,” says Steven Hall, Colorado spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, which recently signed a lease with ExxonMobil for an experimental oil shale project in the Piceance Basin.

    “I don’t think the technologies those (low) water-use estimates are based on are commercially or environmentally feasible,” Hall said.

    In November, the BLM published a fresh analysis of oil shale development’s environmental impacts on Western public lands. Much of the analysis, which also looks at tar sands in Utah, is concerned with water — the lack of it in this arid region, the great need any energy-extraction technique has for it, and the vulnerability of freshwater aquifers to industrial contamination…

    Lawmakers including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, warn that the BLM’s parent, the U.S. Department of Interior, stands in the way of economic progress. But not even the oil producers have figured out how to get the water to the rock without incurring huge energy costs — costs that may not pencil out in the final analysis.

    In other words, it may take more energy to get the water to the oil shale than anyone can actually extract from it…

    This problem with the so-far embryonic industry is what regulators and industry experts call an “energy-water nexus” issue: Just as water needs energy to travel from source to tap, nearly every form of energy needs water throughout its lifecycle, from mining to generation to reclamation.

    More oil shale coverage here and here.

    South Platte River Basin: ‘We have to have an oversupply along the whole system’ — Bob Sakata


    Here’s a recap of yesterday’s meeting about the South Platte River Basin groundwater study authorized last session by the legislature [HB12-1278], from Grace Hood writing for KUNC. Groundwater levels are rising, some say, due to the alluvial wells that have been shutdown and augmentation. Here’s an excerpt:

    Reagan Waskom is director of the Colorado Water Institute, which hosted the event. He framed the issue this way:

    “Are these the only areas in the basin? Is this beginning of a trend toward higher groundwater levels? Are we at the end of something? Was it a blip in time?”

    Waskom is working with dozens of scientists, and aggregating data from as far back as the 1890’s to find the answer.

    It’s something that matters to farmers like Robert Sakata. Speaking in a facilitated dialogue, Sakata explained he used to own and use wells connected to the South Platte. In the ’70s, he and other junior water rights holders were required to replace the water they used.

    “We just felt like it wasn’t economically viable for us as a vegetable farmer to do that,” he said. “Our returns are usually between .5 to 1 percent. That additional cost we just couldn’t justify. So we ended up unhooking the wells.”

    Fortunately for Sakata, he also owned surface water rights he could use to irrigate his crops. But other farmers weren’t as lucky. The drought of 2002 and a subsequent state Supreme Court decision in 2006 resulted in thousands of wells being curtailed and about 400 being shut down completely.

    “That’s almost the analogy that I see in the state right now is that to make sure we’re not injuring every person along the way, we have to have an oversupply along the whole system,” said Sakata.

    Meantime, Joe Frank with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District spoke of another reality: some of his water rights owners aren’t getting all the water they’re entitled to.

    “Going into this next year, if we continue this drought, we’re going to see severe curtailment,” he said. “So ultimately it comes down to water supply. We’re water short in this basin. We need to work together to develop that supply.”[…]

    The meeting raised a lot more questions than it answered for the more than 100 who attended. But Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said it was a good beginning.

    “Everyone who spoke here today said the big problem was we aren’t taking advantage of our compacts to capture the necessary water that we’re going to need as a state over the next 50 years for agriculture, municipal use.”

    Conway is referring to the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which would build two water storage reservoirs in the region. In recent years it’s become a hotly contested project in the area. Despite the intractable nature of these water debates, the Colorado Water Institute’s Reagan Waskom said he’s determined to make the South Platte River study meaningful.

    More meetings are planned, click here.

    More 2012 Colorado legislation coverage here. More South Platte River Basin coverage here. More coverage of the shutdown of irrigation wells in the basin here.