NWS Boulder office: A look back at the March 17-19 2003 blizzard #codrought

Since snowpack news is so dismal this season it’s hard to find any hopeful news to read. Here’s a look back at the storm in 2003 that moved the South Platte Basin out of the 2002 drought. It can happen again but odds are that it won’t. Here’s the introduction:

In 2003, one of the worst blizzards since historic records began in 1872 struck metro Denver with a vengeance. Heavy wet snow accumulating to around 3 feet in the city and to more than 7 feet in the foothills brought transportation to a near standstill. North winds sustained to 30 mph with gusts as high as 41 mph produced drifts to 6 feet in parts of the Denver Metro area. The estimated cost of property damage alone, not including large commercial buildings, was 93 million dollars making it the costliest snowstorm ever. Mayor Wellington Webb of Denver said “This is the storm of the century, a backbreaker, a record breaker, a roof breaker.” Two people died in aurora from heart attacks after shoveling the heavy wet snow. The National Guard sent 40 soldiers and 20 heavy duty vehicles to rescue stranded travelers along I-70 east of Gun Club Road. The heavy wet snow caused roofs of homes and businesses to collapse. The snow also downed trees, branches, and power lines. Two people were injured when the roofs of their homes collapsed. In Denver alone at least 258 structures were damaged. Up to 135,000 people lost power during the storm, and it took several days for power to be restored in some areas. Denver International Airport was closed, stranding about 4,000 travelers. The weight of the heavy snow caused a 40-foot gash in a portion of the tent roof, forcing the evacuation of that section of the main terminal building.

Avalanches in the mountains and foothills closed many roads including I-70, stranding hundreds of skiers and travelers. Along I-70, an avalanche released by the Colorado Department of Transportation blocked the interstate in both directions for several hours. Several residences between Bakerville and Silver Plume were evacuated because of the high avalanche danger. At Eldora ski area, 270 skiers were stranded when an avalanche closed the main access road. After the storm ended, a military helicopter had to ferry food to the resort until the road could be cleared. The heavy snow trapped thousands of residents in their foothills homes in Jefferson county for several days. Two homes burned to the ground when fire crews could not reach the residences. Some schools remained closed well into the following week. The storm officially dumped 31.8 inches of snow at the site of the former Stapleton International Airport, the most snowfall from a single storm since the all-time record snowfall of 37.5 inches on December 4-5, 1913. The storm made March 2003 the snowiest march on record, the 4th snowiest month on record, and the 5th wettest March on record. The 22.9 inches of snow on the 18th into the 19th was the greatest 24 hour snowfall ever recorded in the city during the month of March. The storm was also a drought-buster, breaking 19 consecutive months of below normal precipitation in the city. Snowfall across metro Denver and in Fort Collins ranged from 2 feet to more than 3 feet. The highest amounts included; 40 inches in Aurora, 38 inches in Centennial and 6 miles east of Parker, 37 inches at Buckley AFB, 35 inches in southwest Denver, 34 inches in Louisville, 32 inches in Arvada, 31 inches in Broomfield and Westminster, and 22.5 inches in Boulder. In the foothills, snowfall ranged from 3 feet to more than 7 feet. Some of the most impressive storm totals included; 87.5 inches atop Fritz Peak and in Rollinsville, 83 inches at Cabin Creek, 74 inches near Bergen Park, 73 inches northwest of Evergreen, 72 inches in Coal Creek Canyon, 70 inches at Georgetown, 63 inches near Jamestown, 60 inches near Blackhawk, 55 inches at Eldora Ski Area, 54 inches 8 miles west of Sedalia, and 46.6 inches at Ken Caryl Ranch. Locations from east of Greeley to Limon received almost all rain from this event, with rainfall amounts ranging from 1 to 2.5 inches

‘Spring is an incredibly important time of year for Colorado’s water supplies’ — Nolan Doesken #codrought



Here’s a release from Colorado State University (Emily Narvaes Wilmsen):

State Climatologist Nolan Doesken sat in his Foothills Campus office at Colorado State University last week and watched the smoke from the Galena Fire change color as the fire moved from grass and brush to trees exploding into flames. “It was very disturbing to see that even after a fairly cold winter, our forests are still so dry,” said Doesken, a senior research scientist at CSU.

“We can’t blame it on a warm winter,” said Doesken, who is the official drought record keeper in Colorado and provides input each week to the U.S. Drought Monitor. “It’s just indicative that many areas have not begun catching up from last year’s deficits yet. A few places have made a little headway, but overall, the state remains drier than average for this time of year. Even with a couple of decent late winter storms, mountain snowpack remains low and we haven’t come close to replenishing our depleted soil moisture.”

Colorado’s drought statistics as of Monday, March 18, according to Doesken:

• 89 percent of the state is in severe or worse drought
• 48 percent of the state is in extreme or worse drought
• 21 percent of the state is listed as exceptional drought

Exceptional drought (D4 – dark red on the U.S. Drought Monitor maps) is the worst category of drought and is often associated with harsh impacts such as crop failures and cattle sales, Doesken said. The U.S. Drought Monitor is based at the University of Nebraska at http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/.

“Exceptional drought, D4, is equal to the kind of situation you’d only see once in any 50-year time period,” he said. “This is not unlike the extreme conditions that eastern Colorado had in the early and mid-1950s and back in the ‘30s.”

Doesken captures much of his information from volunteers who participate in the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, which consists of 17,000 volunteer precipitation monitors in all 50 states who report daily precipitation that assists scientists and meteorologists around the country. CoCoRaHS has 3,000 volunteers in Colorado alone.

“Since the summer of 2011, many areas of the states have fallen behind average precipitation by 6-10 inches or more,” Doesken said.

“It’s not like we need 10 inches of precipitation or 120 inches of snow all at once to get out of this drought, but what we do need is to promptly get back on a trajectory of regular, periodic wet spring storms, ideally accompanied by cool weather. What we had a week ago – that was very beneficial to parts of eastern Colorado but it did not get all of the state. The storms this weekend put down quite a bit of snow in the mountains, and that’s good, but it was still far from what is needed.”

Current (March 18) snowpack for basins in Colorado compared to normal:

• Southwestern (San Juans, Dolores region) – 83 percent
• Upper Rio Grande – 79 percent of average
• Gunnison – 78 percent of average
• Upper Colorado – 77 percent of average
• Yampa/White River – 77 percent
• Arkansas River – 73 percent of average
• South Platte – 69 percent

“Our mountain snowpack has made some improvement as we’ve moved through March,” Doesken said.

“But all along we’ve said we’ve only had a 10 percent chance of recovering to a near normal year and a 90 percent chance that we would end up below average. The likelihood of improving to above average remains 10 percent or less.”

The one redeeming factor, Doesken said, is that March temperatures have been much cooler than last year. This time last year, temperatures were in the 70s at lower elevations and in the 50s and 60s in the mountains. Snowpack was already melting and we were headed down a dangerous road toward drought.

“That has not been the case this year,” Doesken said. “That’s a good thing. Spring is an incredibly important time of year for Colorado’s water supplies, and we still have several weeks of potential spring storms ahead of us.”

‘Two bills on hydropower could help Colorado’ — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel


From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

It’s a tale of two ditches — one administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the other by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Legislation approved by the U.S. House would lift barriers to generating electricity using the water that passes through canals operated under commission regulation.

Similar legislation for canals built under the auspices of the Bureau of Reclamation is awaiting a vote in the House. An identical measure was passed during the previous House session.

Critics last session criticized the Bureau of Reclamation bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., because it would waive environmental studies for the small projects. Projects associated with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission already enjoy that exemption, but the bill affecting those projects would strip away more red tape.

The measure affecting FERC projects, HR 267, introduced by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and cosponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., also passed the House last year.

Tipton twice supported both measures. DeGette voted against Tipton’s Bureau of Reclamation bill in the last session.

A spokesman for DeGette didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Neither bill was taken up by the Senate last time around, but both have Senate sponsors this year.

This year’s Bureau of Reclamation bill, HR 678, would exempt small hydroelectricity projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The costs of complying with the environmental policy act typically dwarf the actual costs of installing small turbines into canals, ditches or other conduits in which enough water runs to spin a turbine, Tipton said. “The only thing standing in the way of realizing the incredible potential of this readily available renewable energy source is the existing federal regulatory framework, which stifles development and entrepreneurship,” Tipton said when he introduced the measure this year.

HR 678 would clear the way for development at 373 possible sites in 13 western states, Tipton said, citing a Bureau of Reclamation site inventory conducted in 2012. Three of those sites have been proposed for development of small hydropower, Tipton’s office said, noting that “many potential developers view federal law and regulations as the primary obstacles to developing these and other Reclamation sites.” Colorado has 27 sites in which small projects could be installed on existing conduits, generating more than 27,000 kilowatts, Tipton’s office said.

An average house uses about 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year.

“Colorado currently has hundreds of hydro-related jobs, a number which has the potential to grow rapidly if the pending hydro reform legislation can become law,” the Colorado Small Hydro Association said in a statement of support for the FERC bill. The National Hydropower Association estimates each new megawatt could result in 5.3 jobs created.

As many as 60,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity could be built by 2025, the Colorado Small Hydro Association said, noting that the Energy Department said there is more than 12,000 megawatts that might be developed at 54,000 existing dams around the nation.

The McMorris Rogers-DeGette bill would allow projects, which already enjoy a categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act, as large as 10 megawatts and establish a 45-day public-notice process. If no objections are expressed, the project would no longer be subject to commission permitting requirements.

The FERC measure is sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, as S545 and the Bureau of Reclamation measure by Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., is S306. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., signed on a cosponsor of the Murkowski bill and his office said he is considering the Reclamation measure.

A House committee vote on the Bureau of Reclamation measure is expected soon, Tipton’s office said.

More hydroelectric coverage here and here.

Forecast news: Weekend storm, cold weather on the way #codrought #cowx

From the National Weather Service Pueblo office:

It is looking increasingly likely that a weekend storm system will usher in a period of much colder weather Saturday through part of the following week. A strong cold front will arrive late Friday or early Saturday and will bring modified arctic air from western Canada to our area, along with the chance for some spring snow. Still a ways out, so much can change in the forecast, but people with agricultural or gardening interests should continue to watch the forecasts this week.

From the Nation Weather Service Grand Junction office:

A weak and quick moving disturbance will move through the southern portion of the region, generating some increasing cloud cover today. This disturbance may also generate some light snow showers over the San Juan mountains, but little accumulation is expected. There will be a warm-up to slightly above normal values today through Wednesday, with increasing clouds ahead of an approaching storm system. This storm system will impact the region Wednesday into Thursday, bringing mountain snow and valley rain. Unsettled conditions look to remain over the area through the weekend, with a return to unseasonably cool temperatures.

The drought is expected to persist #codrought



From 9News.com (Dave Delozier):

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District board of directors is a few weeks away from deciding how much water farmers will receive for their crops. That decision will impact what farmers will plant or even if they will plant. “The next couple of weeks before our board of directors sets quota on April 12, is going to be critical for what happens in the mountains,” Brian Werner, spokesperson for Northern Water, said.

While March has increased the snowpack in the area almost 10 percent, the reservoirs are still below average. “Our reservoirs are almost 25 percent below average for this time of year and almost 50 percent below where they were a year ago,” Werner said.

With water storage so far below average farmers in northern Colorado are making plans for dealing with a limited amount of water. “Whatever we plant, we need to make sure we have enough water to take care of,” Larimer County farmer Bill Markham said.

From The Trinidad Times (Steve Block):

Colorado is entering its third year of drought, with the southeast part of the state rated in the most dangerous level of D-4, or extreme drought conditions. Taryn Finnesey, an official of the Colorado Office of Water Conservation & Drought Planning of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) talked about climate conditions and possible changes at a Thursday meeting of the board of the Purgatoire Watershed Partnership, part of the Spanish Peaks/Purgatoire River Conservation District.

Finnessey told the board that climate models from the 2008 report titled “Climate Change in Colorado” show Colorado’s Front Range could expect average annual temperatures to rise by 2.5 degrees by the year 2025, and by 4.0 degrees by 2050, relative to a temperature baseline for the years 1950-1999.

Finnessey said carbon dioxide gas ascends into the atmosphere, trapping the heat below. She said levels of carbon dioxide gas have increased dramatically since the pre-industrial age, when they were about 270 parts per million cubic feet (cf). She said a study of the atmosphere for the years 2006-2009 showed an increase to 386 parts per million cf. That has been a primary cause for the rise in temperatures in recent years, and has produced many side effects.

“Any increase in the Earth’s temperature impacts health, agriculture, sea levels, wildlife habitats and many other things,” Finnessey said. “What I focus on are the impacts to water resources, because that affects so many other things.”

‘The U.S. only has 18 percent of the world’s farmland in production, but produces 40 percent of the world’s food’ — Dan Barker


This is the second part of a two-part series on a water forum held at Morgan Community College last week, from Dan Barker writing for The Fort Morgan Times. CLick through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Agriculture is Colorado’s No. 2 industry. If that is diminished, it will diminish the overall economy, [John Stulp] said to a room full of producers. It was an economic disaster when 92 percent of Crowley County’s water was bought up, he said…

City leaders complain that agriculture takes the lion’s share of water, but they do not look at all the factors, Stulp said. For example, a good deal of that water goes to cities in the form of food. Ag water irrigates nearly 3.5 million acres of fields, which makes up about 5 percent of the land in Colorado, he said…

Rather than just drying up farms, it is important to plan for the future, he said. A Statewide Water Supply Initiative report says that, by 2050, the population could double and the state will need another 700,000 acre feet of water for the new residents. Essentially, the state will not have enough water. That has encouraged leaders to look at both consumptive and non-consumptive needs, the water supply availability and the projects and methods needed to meet future needs, Stulp said. Even with all the currently planned projects — such as the Northern Integrated Supply Project that Fort Morgan is a part of — there would just barely be enough water to meet that new need, he said…

One alternative is rotational fallowing, which would allow growers to lease their water to cities during a few years out of every 10 years, he said. Other alternatives include interruptible supplies, deficit irrigation, water cooperatives, water banks and water conservation easements, Stulp said. “The devil’s always in the details,” Stulp emphasized…

Planning for water needs is not just looking at the state as a whole or one stretch of a river, Stulp said. Different areas have different needs and situations. Planners need input from areas to learn how to best use water resources. Besides agricultural water needs, planners have to look at what is needed for energy production, and how climate change may affect the state, he said. Hickenlooper recently said the state needs a long-term water plan by 2015, and that any plan should start with conservation, Stulp said…

Those who criticize agricultural practices need to understand them first, [Chris Kraft] said. The U.S. only has 18 percent of the world’s farmland in production, but produces 40 percent of the world’s food.

More infrastructure coverage here.

‘It [produced water from coalbed methane wells] is so valuable to us’ — Bill Brunelli


Below are three articles that are all part of a Special Report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. Produced water from coalbed methane operations isn’t all bad.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Ranchers west of Trinidad say the flow water from gas drilling has allowed them to stay in business during the recent drought. “It is so valuable to us,” said Bill Brunelli, who ranches in the Apishipa River drainage area and works for the Huerfano County road and bridge department. “The wells are getting weaker and weaker, and the produced water has helped a lot of people out.”

Where there are holding ponds for coal bed methane water, ranchers don’t have to haul water for cattle, he explained. “If this water goes away, 100 head of my cows are going away,” said Gary Mestas, a rancher who often hauls water to his grazing cattle, but feeds some near mined water releases.

Many ranchers were forced to sell off their herds following the 2002 drought, but have been able to hang on to at least some cattle through the drought of the last two years. “We don’t irrigate with the water, but we have a discharge on the property,” said Brent Tamburelli, who ranches with his wife Tami near Cokedale in the Purgatoire River basin. “Up until the 1980s we always had runoff because of the snowpack, but the weather has changed.”

The Tamburellis, who also have a gravel business, have cut their herd to about one-fifth of the size it once was. But without any water in the recent drought, they’ve managed to keep some breeding stock. He said his great-grandfather once rand 1,000 head of goats on the ground. The stream cutting through the property would be completely dry without the coal bed methane water, he said. “Any use for it would be better than pumping it back into the ground,” Tamburelli said.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Gary and Karen Salapich lease their property near Gulnare for gas wells, but unlike some of their neighbors, have no water discharges on their property. It’s been so dry, they wish they did.

They first found out about CBM when a line carrying water broke on their property about five years ago and accidentally irrigated one of their hay fields. “The state wanted to know what the damage was,” Mrs. Salapich said. “Damage? That was the only area that grew,” her husband added.

Salapich is a native — his father was the postmaster at the dwindling town of Gulnare — and said methane has always been a problem with wells. While driving, he pointed out an old open-pit coal mine above a spring. “That water goes right through a coal seam, so it’s the same as CBM. In my own well, I hit water at 500 feet, but went through a coal seam to go down to 600 feet. You always find gas, but that’s why you vent your well house, to let it escape,” Salapich said. “My well has been here forever.”

He believes the area’s climate has become drier in the past decade and that CBM water is the only way some of his neighbors have been able to continue to ranch. The Salapiches say not all of the water coming up is of good quality, but believe requiring the energy companies to deep-inject all of it would be a waste. They have organized neighbors and attended state rule-making hearings on the use of water. At issue now is how water quality, as determined by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, will affect its use.

In the Purgatoire River basin to the south, the water from hundreds of gas wells flows freely into the watershed through pipes at many points. It’s turned dry creeks into streams and created wetlands. The Norwest Corp., consultants for the energy companies are monitoring streams for water flow patterns and water quality impacts throughout the Raton Basin.

In the Apishipa River basin, where drilling came later, more water is kept in open ponds, where it is supposed to evaporate. Those ponds have become vital to wildlife and livestock, however. More recent state regulations require the ponds to be lined, so they have to be fenced because animals slip on the slick materials used to line ponds. “We don’t want to see the water taken out,” Mrs. Salapich said. “It has good qualities.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Even without wildlife, Mitotes Lake is a beautiful sight on a chilly winter day. On most days, it’s teeming with critters. Todd Huffman, a Trinidad taxidermist, bought the lake and surrounding land — including the mineral rights — from the state in the early 1980s. The lake, actually a fairly large pond, is fed by flood water in the drainage, and more recently coal bed methane water releases. “There have been years when it was really low,” Huffman said. “One year I lost all my fish.”

The lake level has stabilized, even during the drought, because of the water released from coal bed methane wells. And it has improved the environmental conditions. Water quality is important to him because he raises koi in a greenhouse near the lake. The water coming out of his wells is warm and sometimes he has to add salt to it to kill the algae.

He spends thousands of dollars each year to test the quality. “That water’s a godsend to me,” Huffman said. During the drought, Mitotes Lake has been an oasis for wildlife. “I have a photo with about 200 elk, two bears, turkeys . . . It’s like Noah’s Ark dumped off on the place,” Huffman said. “If they were dumping water that was nasty, everybody would be complaining.

More coalbed methane coverage here and here.