Drought/snowpack news: Low reservoirs in South Park will impact economy this summer #codrought

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From The Fairplay Flume (Mike Potter):

The planned drainage of Antero Reservoir starting in April and low water levels at Spinney Mountain Reservoir that have closed boat ramps will likely have negative impacts on Park County this summer.

Kevin Tobey, the parks manager for Eleven Mile State Park and Spinney Mountain State Park, said the boat ramps at Spinney Mountain Reservoir have been closed because water levels are too low.
“The water is currently at the bottom of the North Boat Ramp at Spinney Mountain Reservoir, which is only 47 percent of capacity, and there is little hope that water levels will rise much through the spring,” he said in an email. “If boat trailers backed off the ramp, they’d get stuck in the mud, so we have to close the ramps when we don’t have at least 2 to 2 1/2 feet of water on the ramps so boats can safely launch.”[…]

It’s hard to say how all of that will impact the reservoirs as far as visitation. Tobey said when Antero was drained in 2002, he saw a slight increase at Eleven Mile and Spinney from displaced fisherman. But then when Antero reopened in 2007, he also saw a bump in the use at the other reservoirs. “Visitation at Eleven Mile and Spinney Mountain State Parks actually increased slightly in 2007 when Antero re-opened,” he said…

Park County Commissioner Dick Hodges said the impacts to the county will be most felt by businesses that have relied on people visiting Antero. He said the county would be most affected through the loss of sales contributing to the 1 percent sales tax. Michael “Griz” Egloff, a fishing guide with South Platte Anglers, said the closure and drainage of Antero Reservoir is going to hurt business. “It’s going to kill me this year,” he said. “This drought is just going to wreck Park County.”

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

Trekking atop more than five feet of snow, John Fusaro and Todd Boldt moved mechanically on Thursday, stopping with the same muted routine each time they reached a new point on their map, which looked a lot like a constellation of stars.

A simple line connecting highlighted dots, the 1935 map guided Fusaro and Boldt to 10 spots more than 10,000 feet up the Poudre Canyon, where the pair returns each month to gauge Colorado’s mountain snowpack. Using the same map has provided a level of continuity that allows Fusaro and Boldt — conservationists for the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service — to calculate averages at each point over a 30-year timespan, they said.

At Cameron Pass, Fusaro and Boldt found snowpack at 75 percent of its normal level. Not great, but certainly an improvement over last year, Fusaro said. One year ago, he and Boldt could casually walk through some points outlined on their map that were normally covered with feet of snow. Of course, yet another year ago — in 2011 — Colorado’s snowpack was so high that the pair had to improvise with their measuring tools to accurately record the hordes of snow that collected there, they said.

Thursday’s readings will come out in the NRCS April 1 report, which will give water districts and municipalities the best estimate of snowmelt likely to trickle down the Poudre Canyon come summertime.

About 85 percent of the snow that collects in the mountains over winter is already there, Fusaro and Boldt said. Typically, if snowpack hasn’t reached an average level by Jan. 1, there is a slight chance — about 10 to 15 percent — that enough snow will fall to fill the gap, Fusaro said.

For many Weld County farmers and ranchers, the lower snowpack numbers confirm what they already knew: that larger cities such as Greeley and Longmont likely won’t have extra water this year to lease to farmers and ranchers.

Last spring, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District set its spring quota for the Colorado Big-Thompson Project, a supplemental water source in northern Colorado, at 100 percent, meaning each unit of C-BT water would yield a full acre foot. Farmers were in need of water during the drought, and the C-BT reservoirs at the time were filled to high levels. But Brian Werner, a spokesperson for Northern Water, said recently the quota this year will likely be set at about 60 percent because those reservoirs have been depleted since last year, and this year’s below-average snowpack won’t be enough to refill them.

According to the Colorado Snotel Snowpack Update Map on Thursday, statewide snowpack was 22 percent lower than the historic average, with the North Platte River Basin at the highest percent of the state average (83) and the South Platte River Basin at the lowest (71).

Some points in the Poudre Canyon, such as Deadman Hill at 10,220 feet, were as high as 83 percent of the snowpack normally recorded at that site. At Big South, where elevation is 8,600 feet, snowpack was 117 percent of the average there, although snow at that level melts so quickly that the reading is hardly indicative of what to expect come summer, Fusaro said. He said details like that, or the quality of the soil beneath the snowpack, don’t occur to most people. “People don’t realize that you have to recharge the ground before you get runoff,” he said, explaining that dry soil will yield less snowmelt, because it absorbs snow before it can run off into the river for cities farther east.

“People just think, ‘Oh, we got 12 inches of snow — the drought is over,’” Fusaro said as he and Boldt worked in synchronized motions, Fusaro recording numbers as Boldt dug into the snow. Hardly a word was exchanged between them. “We’ve been doing this together for 19 years,” Fusaro laughed. “We don’t need to talk.”

Here’s an in-depth look at the potential for a large wildfire near the Colorado River headwaters from Bobby Magill writing for the Fort Collins Coloradoan. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Standing on the shore of Grand Lake, it’s impossible not to look across the water and notice a row of homes on the far shore sitting directly beneath a mountain flanked with countless dead trees. The water pouring from your kitchen faucet in Fort Collins is directly linked to whatever happens on that shoreline when the next wildfire roars through Grand Lake — 50 miles as the crow flies and over the Continental Divide from Fort Collins.

Your morning coffee might not have tasted any different after the High Park Fire torched the Poudre River watershed last summer, but Fort Collins’ primary source of drinking water was compromised as rain washed ash and silt off the burned slopes and into the river and the city’s water treatment plant. The High Park Fire forced the city to temporarily switch its entire water supply from the Poudre River to the clean, ash-free water of Horsetooth Reservoir, which is filled with water piped beneath Rocky Mountain National Park from Grand Lake and the reservoirs of the headwaters of the Colorado River on the west side of the park.

Wildfires don’t occur often in that area because the climate is generally too cool and wet. But with severe drought afflicting forests decimated by bark beetles, a wildfire, when it occurs, is likely to be explosive. “It’s not likely we’ll have a fire in a given summer, but if it occurs, get out of the way,” said Jason Sibold, a Colorado State University geography professor, forest ecologist and fire historian…

Major wildfires burn about every 150 years or more in the Colorado River’s headwaters because the fire season is usually short and limited by the area’s late snowmelt and the summer monsoon season. But recently, the climate conditions in Grand County have changed. “The common thread is drought,” Sibold said. “It’s not fuels. It’s not fuel type. There is a lot of combustible material up there all the time. The thing that drives fire in the system is drought, drought, drought. And that’s kind of bad news for us.”[…]

Once a severe wildfire torches mountain slopes there, intense rainstorms wash soot, silt and debris into rivers and reservoirs — the same reason the Poudre River ran black after the High Park Fire. Large debris can be filtered out of the system, but the sediment and ash may stay in the water as it is piped through the Adams Tunnel beneath Rocky Mountain National Park and into Front Range reservoirs. “There’s no way you can keep out the sediment and the carbon,” said Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner. “That will get into the C-BT system and work its way to the Front Range. It’s a treatment issue. It costs more. The communities that treat water will have to do changes to how they treat water.”

Manganese and other contaminants in the water would spike, possibly affecting the taste and color of tap water and forcing cities to pay more to treat it, said Chris Matkins, water utilities manager for Loveland, which uses the C-BT system as a major source of its water.

From USA Today (Doyle Rice):

The entire state of Colorado remained in a drought. Wednesday, for the first time in 11 years, mandatory water restrictions were ordered for Denver because of the extended dryness. This is what the Denver Board of Water Commissioners calls a “Stage 2” drought, and includes restrictions on lawn irrigation, hotel laundry, car washing and other non-essential uses of water.

“The last time we declared a Stage 2 drought was in 2002,” Greg Austin, president of the Denver Board of Water Commissioners, said Wednesday. “We are facing a more serious drought now than we faced then.”

The entire state of California is considered to be either abnormally dry or in a drought, which is the highest percentage for the Golden State since October 2009. California has endured its driest January and February on record.

As of this week, almost 99% of Texas is either abnormally dry or in a drought. Parts of eastern Texas are 8 to 16 inches below normal precipitation for the past six months, meteorologist Anthony Artusa said in this week’s Drought Monitor. In the Texas Panhandle, he says, the Greenbelt Lake reservoir has dropped to 12% of capacity.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan:

Due to ongoing drought, the city’s “Level 1” restrictions will limit lawn watering to two days per week. Even-numbered residences water Thursday and Sunday; odd-numbered Wednesday and Saturday; commercial, multifamily and HOAs Tuesday and Friday. Watering of trees, shrubs, flowers and gardens will not be restricted, but restrictions are in place for car washing and spraying off pavement.

Permits through Fort Collins Utilities are available for yards with new seed and sod, properties of more than 4 acres, medical hardships and religious objections.

Information: http://www.fcgov.com/water-restrictions or (970) 416-2881.

From the North Forty News:

While the storm on March 22 and 23 of this year didn’t make everything right, it did add 8 to 12 inches of fairly wet snow to much of the northern Front Range, and even more on the eastern plains. Having available moisture also helps induce more storm activity, but we don’t seem to be out of the woods yet, Doesken said.

Of course, in a larger sense, things remain quite dry. Statewide, the mountain basins were only at 77 percent of normal in advance of the storm, and the South Platte drainage in northeastern Colorado was the driest of the bunch at 67 percent of average. The Colorado basin, where northeastern Colorado gets water from trans-mountain diversions, was only at 77 percent.

While the mountain snowpack is still far below normal, the storm may be an indication that the best possible spring conditions for the state could set up, with Four Corners lows sucking up Gulf of Mexico moisture and pumping that into Colorado’s Front Range. Many global warming models predict that in Colorado more precipitation would move from winter months to spring, and that has also been a trend in the past decade, most notably in 2011, a record-setting runoff year.

In the meantime, Northern Water continued to fill Horsetooth and Carter reservoirs, emptying the big bucket on the Western Slope, Lake Granby. As it did, farmers and municipal water managers alike filled the March water-users meeting, hoping to get the board to bump up its allocation quota for that Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) water.

“There were more people there than I’ve ever seen at any meeting other than an April meeting” when the quota is actually set, Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said.

The big topic of discussion, of course, is how much water the board will allocate this year. Last year, the first year of drought, the board set a 100 percent quota, meaning each C-BT share realized a full acre foot of water.

The system is set up to provide more water in times of drought, with a 70 percent quota being common in years when precipitation is normal. At the beginning of last year, however, reservoirs were full, which is certainly not the case this year, Werner said.

“We’re starting out with a huge hole in our supply — we have 350,000 acre feet less water in storage than last year. That’s two Horsetooth Reservoirs,” he said. The quota this year may be set at 50 percent or lower…

Farmers with more senior rights on the Poudre will probably be able to take that water for use on fields in May, June and, perhaps, into July…

“We’re already dead here,” said farmer Bob Johnson of Wellington, whose farm received only a couple inches of light snow during the March 22-23 storm. “Of our 350 irrigated acres,” Johnson said, “we’re only going to plant 50 with corn.”

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From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

[March 24] was the 179th anniversary of Powell’s birth. Our current drought and water management struggles in New Mexico and across the western United States make this a good time to revisit what Major Powell was trying to explain to the House Committee on Irrigation back in the spring of 1890…

Powell imagined great dams to protect valleys from flooding and store water during times of plenty to use in times of drought, and would likely be pleased with the way we carried out his dreams. He would doubtless be amazed at the massive natural gas-powered groundwater pumps that now step in when river water lags during a drought. And a reading of his 19th century thinking on Western water management suggests he did not contemplate cities the size of Albuquerque, El Paso and Juárez springing up amid the farms of the Rio Grande Valley.

Even then, he clearly understood the water battles of his day between upstream and downstream users, but more important, he saw the seeds of conflict we were planting when we carved up the landscape the way we did.

Powell’s idea, roundly ignored in his day and clearly impossible to implement now, was to build governance in what was to become the western United States around watershed boundaries rather than the arbitrary survey-straight state lines that had been drawn as Manifest Destiny spread across the continent.

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