Snowpack news: San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel basins = 82% of avg (best in state) #codrought

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From The Greeley Tribune:

Storms that moved across Colorado in recent days helped improve snowpack in the state, but current numbers still remain well below normal. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, snowpack in the South Platte River basin on Tuesday was 65 percent of the historic average for Feb. 27. At the beginning of this month, snowpack in the basin was only 53 percent of average for that time of the year.

Snowpack in the Colorado River basin on Tuesday was 73 percent of historic average, an improvement from the beginning of February, when it was at 66 percent of historic average.

Statewide, snowpack was at 76 percent of average Tuesday — up from 72 percent of average at the beginning of this month.

Although still well below average, the current snowpack numbers are much better than where they ended last year. At the end of May, statewide snowpack was only 2 percent of average. Greeley and many other cities in Colorado depend heavily on snow in the mountains to fill reservoirs that provide water for residents. Weld County’s farmers and ranchers, too, depend on winter and spring snows to provide runoff that fills irrigation ditches for the growing season.

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

A number of ranchers, in dry times, do emergency grazing on land in the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, encourages farmers to convert cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage, to vegetative cover, such as native grasslands, wildlife and pollinators food and shelter plantings, windbreak, grassed waterways or riparian buffers.

According to Jeff Wilson, director of the Weld County FSA office, no acres in CRP were used for emergency grazing in the wet years of 2010 and 2011. Last year, though, he said, there were 240 requests, with 70,200 of the county’s 220,700 CRP acres grazed. There were an additional 80 requests for haying on 8,000 CRP acres. With so many CRP acres grazed last year, Wilson said, it could limit what CRP ground will be available for emergency grazing this year — a problem that would only be exacerbated by further drought.

To the relief of local ranchers, much of Weld County will end February with twice its average amount of moisture for the month — thanks largely to this past week’s snowstorms. Still, a lot more is needed, local producers say, to make up for the damage done by last year’s drought, and to produce the pasture and crops needed soon to feed their cattle and the newborn calves arriving on their ranches every day during this time of year.

March is known as one of Colorado’s snowiest months, and local producers are praying, they say, that next month lives up to its reputation. “A few more of these, and we can get back to normal,” Kersey-area rancher Boyd Collins said, referring to the approximately one inch of precipitation that came with the deluge of snow this past week.

That moisture, alone, more than doubled the 0.45 inches of precipitation the Greeley area typically receives in all of February. “Three, four, five inches (of precipitation) can do it for pastures. Hopefully we get it,” added Collins, joined at his ranch Wednesday morning by Dale Jackson, a neighboring rancher and president of the Weld County Livestock Association. The two had spent the morning saving a newborn calf, receiving some assistance from Toma — Collins’ dog, which he estimates, while slightly laughing, can cover the workload of about nine men.

In addition to the recent snows, local ranchers, like Collins and Jackson, are grateful for today’s good cattle prices, expected to hit new record highs this year, with the U.S. herd is at its smallest since 1952.

But there’s still concerns for their cattle and their operations — mostly the weather. Already, Collins has had to shrink the size of his herd because of drought, and he’ll have to further downsize, he says, if rains don’t come. Prior to the 2002 drought, Collins’ ranch would produce about 125 head each year during the calving season, which stretches from winter into the spring. As a result of that drought, Collins reduced his herd size, and it took him about five years to get back to where his ranch was calving more than 100 head each year. This year — after once again reducing his herd size because of the 2012 drought — he’s only expecting about 75 calves.

Like Collins, many others have had to shrink their herds recently — troubling news to feedlots and beef packers, who have been swimming in red ink for several months, ag economists say, as a result of the tightened U.S. cattle herd. The tight supply of cattle has increased competition for cattle and the prices feedlots are paying ranchers, while the drought also has increased their feed costs. And because of the small herd, there’s less cattle going to slaughter at packing plants, with production not keeping up with operating costs.

This year, the situation led to the decision to close a Cargill packing plant in Texas that employs about 2,000 people. “We know we need to expand the herd … but, honestly, I just don’t know anyone who’s expanding this year,” Collins said.

According to new U.S. Department of Agriculture 10-year projections released this month, cattle numbers aren’t expected to reach pre-drought levels until 2017 or 2018.“There’s still just too much uncertainty,” said Jackson, noting that on his ranch, he can typically grow enough crops on his own ground to feed his cattle, but last year, had to buy half of the feed he needed.

Boyd said he was able to grow enough feed on his own ground last year to get his cattle through this winter and the coming spring. But without pasture grass this summer, he, too, will have to buy feed, which is in short supply because of the drought, and, like cattle, has hit historically high prices.

In addition to his own acreage, Boyd, like many other ranchers, has agreements with the government to put cattle on the Pawnee National Grasslands in Weld County to graze, usually from summer into the fall. Boyd’s lease allows him to put up to 55 head on that ground, he said, but, because the 2012 drought depleted the grass, he was only able to put 20 head out there last year. He expects that, if the drought persists, he’ll be restricted to have even less cattle on the Pawnee National Grasslands, if any at all. “It’s said a lot, but we just need moisture,” Boyd said. “It’s that simple.”

Drought news: March could break the drought, it’s happened before #codrought

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Click on the thumbnail graphic for the 2003 South Platte Basin High/Low graph. Check out the big snowstorm around St. Patricks Day in 2003. Snowpack that year was ahead of the prior year when that storm hit. All talk of drought ceased afterward. I’ve also posted thumbnails of the current U.S. Drought Monitor map and the current Climate Prediction Center drought forecast map.

From the Associated Press via The Denver Post:

March is a make-or-break month for relieving drought conditions in Colorado. State climatologist Nolan Doesken says a series of snow storms or one monster blizzard, like the one in 2003, would go a long way to improve conditions along the Front Range and Eastern Plains. The month is traditionally a wet one. But last year the state dried out during an extremely dry and warm March, which also marked the start of a deadly wildfire season…

Doesken said this week’s series of storms benefited any areas that got at least 7 inches of snow, the equivalent of about a 1/2 inch of water.

Forecast news: Snowfall over the northwestern and central mountains #codrought #cowx

CWCB/IBCC: Updated Roadmap Memo from John Stulp and Jennifer Gimbel

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Click here to read the memo sent to IBCC and CWCB members. Here’s an excerpt:

The process of identifying consumptive and nonconsumptive needs and moving forward with the implementation of identified projects and processes has been a significant accomplishment, and roundtables will continue to work with project proponents to support their implementation. The legislative charge of the Water for the 21st Century Act is to also identify projects and methods beyond those already planned by project proponents to meet Colorado’s gaps for municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental, and recreational water needs.

Through your efforts, this work has begun to take shape. The IBCC and Basin Roundtables have concluded that the status quo will result in the transfer of too much agricultural water, which will negatively impact the state’s agricultural economy and the environment for many of our river basins. We have identified water supply options to meet our water supply future. The Basin Roundtables developed several portfolios that allowed us to understand the trade-offs and evaluate options. Using that work, the IBCC through a scenario planning process has begun to create an Adaptive Management Framework. The first element of this framework is a “No Regrets/Low Regrets Action Plan”. “No regrets/low regrets” actions could be taken in the near-term regardless of longer term future conditions (i.e. any future scenario that may arise).

More CWCB coverage here. More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.

CoCoRaHS blog: A Late Winter in the Heartland #codrought #cowx

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Here’s a blog post from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network that tells the story of this winter across the Great Plains. Here’s an excerpt:

Things were looking pretty dismal for snow lovers in the central U.S. through the end of January. With the exception of North Dakota and the Ohio Valley most of the region had received than 75 percent of normal snowfall by the end of January…

Two major storms rolled through the central U.S. in the past ten days producing copious amounts of snow. This last storm closely followed the path of the previous storm, laying down snow from Texas to New England.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is calling for climate change hearings

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From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

Climate change is threatening pillars of the Colorado economy, including the ski industry and agriculture, according to Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who this week encouraged the chairs of all the Senate committees he sits on to address the issue by holding hearings during the current session of Congress…

Potential health-related threats include death and Illness from heat waves, respiratory illness from rising temperatures, and the wider spread of infectious diseases like West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever, Bennet said in his letter to Sen. Kay Hagan, chair of the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Children and Families. A hearing would provide a chance to “shed light on the health impacts of climate change, particularly on our children and families,” Bennet said.

NWS: February Climate Review and March Preview for Southern Colorado weather #codrought #cowx

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Click here to read the article. Here’s an excerpt:

February of 2013 was a cold and relatively wet month across the state, especially across the eastern mountains and immediate adjacent plains, which saw above normal precipitation…

Looking ahead into March, in Colorado Springs, the average high and low temperature of 48 degrees and 22 degrees on March 1st warms to 56 degrees and 29 degrees, respectively, by the end of the month, with an average monthly temperature of 39.1 degrees. Colorado Springs averages 1.00 inches of precipitation and 8.1 inches of snow through the month of March. On average, March is the snowiest month in Colorado Springs.

In Pueblo, the average high and low temperature of 55 degrees and 21 degrees on March 1st warms to 63 degrees and 30 degrees by the end of the month, with an average monthly temperature of 42.3 degrees. Pueblo averages 0.93 inches of precipitation and 5.7 inches of snow through the month of March. On average, March is the second snowiest month in Pueblo.

In Alamosa, the average high and low temperature of 45 degrees and 12 degrees on March 1st warms to 55 degrees and 21 degrees by the end of the month, with an average monthly temperature of 33.5 degrees. Alamosa averages 0.53 inches of precipitation and 5.0 inches of snow through the month of March. On average, March is the snowiest month in Alamosa.

Here’s a preview of Denver’s March weather from the NWS Boulder office. Here’s an excerpt:

MARCH IN DENVER IS TYPICALLY A TRANSITION MONTH WHERE THE DRY WINTER SEASON ENDS AND THE MOIST SEASON BEGINS. THE PHRASE, “IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE WEATHER, JUST WAIT 5 MINUTES”, CAN OFTEN BE USED IN DENVER DURING THE SPRING MONTHS WITH MARCH INCLUDED. MARCH OFTEN PROVIDES A WIDE VARIATION OF WEATHER AND TEMPERATURE RANGES. OUTDOOR ENTHUSIST CAN ENJOY DEEP POWDER AT HIGHER ELEVATIONS WEST OF THE URBAN COORIDOR AND RETURN BACK TO SPRINGLIKE TEMPERATURES IN THE 70S.

‘Buy and dry’ could take 40% of farmland out of irrigated production in the South Platte Basin by 2050

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Here’s a recap of the February 25 “2013 Water Course” seminar at Colorado Mesa University from Hannah Holm writing for the Grand Junction Free Press. Here’s an excerpt:

According to Jacob Bornstein, a program manager for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) who spoke Feb. 25 at a water seminar at Colorado Mesa University, continuing along this path could lead to the drying up of up to 40% of irrigated agriculture in the South Platte River Basin by 2050, an outcome state leaders are eager to avoid. Western Slope agriculture is also at risk, although “status quo” water sourcing practices would dry up closer to 20% of irrigated farm and ranch land over the same period.

Bornstein explained that permanent transfers of agricultural water are more appealing than temporary leases and rotational fallowing agreements because both kinds of transfers require lengthy, expensive water court processes, and permanent transfers provide more long-term certainty to urban water providers.

Bornstein described how the CWCB, Colorado’s primary water policy agency, is working with roundtables of stakeholders in river basins across the state to try to develop a more balanced plan for meeting the water demands expected from population growth in coming decades. Part of the challenge is to prepare for multiple scenarios, since no one can be sure precisely what the climate and economy will serve up for the state in terms of water supply and demand.

More education coverage here.

HB13-1130 is on its way to the state senate #coleg

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A bill that would allow state engineer approval of water transfers without a court decree for up to 30 years is headed to the state Senate. The state House this week approved the legislation, HB1130. Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, is listed as the Senate sponsor.

The bill would allow extended operation of interruptible supply agreements. Current law allows for water leases from farms to cities for three years out of 10 on the approval of the state engineer. The agreements cannot be renewed, and would require a water court decree to continue the arrangement beyond the initial 10-year period. The new law would allow the leases to be approved by the state engineer for two additional 10-year periods. Aurora, which is seeking water leases this year to replenish its water storage supply, is pushing the legislation. In 2004-05, Aurora leased water from theRocky Ford High Line Canal, selling part of the lease to Colorado Springs in the second year. Aurora City Council has approved up to $5 million for leases this year.

While Aurora has talked to the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, they have so far been unable to come to terms. Farmers say Aurora’s offer of $500 per acre-foot is too low because crop prices have improved since a 2010 memorandum of understanding was signed.

Opponents of the legislation say 30 years is too-long a period to lease water without a water court action. Water court provides a forum to determine how an action injures other water rights, which cannot be allowed under the state Constitution. The new law would allow appeals to water court only after agreements were negotiated.

A state-administered substitute water supply plan for a proposed pilot program last year to lease a much smaller amount of water from the Super Ditch to El Paso County cities drew unprecedentedopposition. Several water interests challenged the state engineer’s authority to approve moving water under existing state law without a filing in water court.

More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.