Drought/snowpack news: Low snowpack = less acreage planted #codrought

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From the Denver iJournal (J.D. Thomas):

“Normally, we plant 1.4 million acres of corn, but it’s reasonable to think we’ll plant 1.2 or 1.3 million acres this year,” Waskom said. “It’s rare that we drop 10 percent in acreage, but we know that water supplies are going to be down for both surface water and subsurface water.

“This is going to be hard year for farming in Colorado — that’s something we can safely say.”

Northeastern Colorado may be see some of the biggest farming cutbacks, as the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District looks at a 50 percent quota for Colorado-Big Thompson water, though there are hopes that may be raised.

“I can’t speak for the board, but they are at the 50 percent mark now,” said Northern spokesman Brian Werner. A normal quota for C-BT is about 70 percent, as the district usually seeks to conserve some water when supplies are good and release more water during drier conditions…

Colorado snowpack did see some improvement in March, normally the snowiest month of the year, rising to 78 percent of average statewide on March 28. The South Platte basin in northeastern Colorado was at 71 percent and the Colorado basin, which supplies water for the C-BT project, at 80 percent.

Making things more difficult in northeastern Colorado is the fact that Fort Collins and Greeley have been leasing more C-BT water to replace their water rights on the Poudre River. Both cities expect difficultly using those rights during runoff because of ash and sediment from the High Park Fire burn area.

That has left many agricultural producers high and dry, as they depend on cities leasing some of their C-BT water, which just isn’t going to happen this year…

This year, farmers may seek to plant many of their acres in spring grains, such as barley or oats, or wait to plant wheat in the fall, Waskom said. Hay crops will still be planted, though without irrigation there will be fewer cuttings and prices will remain high.

Spring storms, of course, can dramatically change both the agricultural outlook and the snowpack, though it is extremely unlikely that Colorado will reach a normal snowpack this year, said State Climatologist Nolan Doesken.

“There are still two months where you can have more precipitation than evaporation,” he said. And this March was a lot wetter and cooler than last year, when the early hot and dry conditions set off what climatologists termed a “flash drought” across the Midwest and the nation’s Corn Belt.

The Corn Belt appears to have recovered from that drought, Waskom said, which means that Colorado’s corn producers could face both smaller crops and lower prices. But one crop definitely helped by the last storm in March here was winter wheat, which is harvested in early summer.

“It did give us moisture for spring crops, and much-needed moisture for planting,” Waskom said. And there are always some Colorado farmers willing to take a risk on getting enough rainfall to grow their crops, which is commonly known as “dryland farming.”

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Amy Hamilton):

“We’re doing a little bit better than last year, but we’re still less than normal,” said Grand Junction National Weather Service Meteorologist Chris Cuoco…

More rain fell in the Grand Valley this March compared to March 2012. March typically is the Grand Valley’s wettest month, but little more than one-third of an inch, or 0.35 inch, of rain fell last month. Normal rainfall is almost an inch, or 0.89 inch. In 2012, March saw 0.20 inch of rain. Year-to-date precipitation for 2013 is 1.35 inches of rain. Last year, from January through March, the Grand Valley logged a paltry 1.2 inches of rain.

From the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

In perhaps the surest sign of spring, water is flowing through the Government Highline Canal across the northern edge of the Grand Valley. Already, though, water managers across western Colorado are taking measures to make the most of what water they can and acknowledge that lean, dry times aren’t far off.

And this week might see domestic water suppliers in the Grand Valley begin to prepare their customers for expensive water and restrictions on lawn watering and other non-essential uses of water. “The end of March is going to be tale of the tape, or at least the tale of snow-ruler,” said Dave Reinertsen, chairman of the Drought Response Information Project. Reinertsen also is the assistant manager of the Clifton Water District, which relies on the Colorado River to serve its nearly 14,000 residential and commercial customers.

Low snowpack in the upper Colorado River Basin already has brought into play one of the key parts of an agreement governing the management of the Colorado River. The Shoshone Generating Station in Glenwood Canyon is calling water down from the high country as though the station were operating at full tilt, said Chris Treese, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The station, however, will draw only 750 cubic feet per second of water from the river, enough to spin one of its two turbines. That allows upstream users to set aside some water they would otherwise have to let flow by to allow for electricity generation in the second Shoshone turbine, Treese said. “We are in a drought situation, so we agreed to exercise the Shoshone relaxation agreement,” which is part of an overall agreement between Denver Water and several Western Slope water agencies and governments outlining the management of the river from its headwaters in the Never Summer Range to the Utah state line.

Relatively cool temperatures as March neared its end appeared to have left the first line of the state’s water supply in slightly better shape than was the case in 2012, when hot, dry winds swept away much of the moisture tucked into the high peaks. Runoff “is not coming down yet, and that’s OK right now,” Treese said. A slower melt will provide a greater opportunity to store water in reservoirs, which still aren’t expected to fill this spring. Upstream water users have only a limited time to take advantage of the Shoshone relaxation agreement because it lasts only through May 20.

Irrigators in the Gunnison River Basin also are moving to take advantage of what water they can, said Steve Fletcher, general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. The association’s quandary pretty much sums up the difficulties irrigators are facing across western Colorado. “Taylor Reservoir is our storage,” Fletcher said. “Last year it was 100 percent and there was a second fill. This year it’s at 80 percent and there won’t be a second fill.”

Irrigators are lumping together their water, making the most of some pre-irrigation practices for their corn crops and taking other measures, Fletcher said. “Everybody pretty much understands where we’re at,” he said. Many customers have been notified that they will get only 50 percent of the water they usually receive, said Fletcher, who has worked for the association for 30 years. So far, 2013 looks like early 2003, which also followed a drought year. “We started at 50 percent then,” until we got some key storms, he said.

Grand Valley water managers will get together Tuesday to consider recommendations to their governing boards about whether to impose drought restrictions, Reinertsen said in an email, which he closed with, “Here’s to a VERY WET weekend,” then drily added, “(Probably not going to happen.)” Sure enough, Grand Junction saw high temperatures around 70 degrees over the weekend — and no precipitation.

Meanwhile, Loveland may join the list of Front Range cities opting in for watering restrictions. Here’s a report from Tom Hacker writing for the Loveland Reporter-Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Loveland Water and Power so far is standing pat on a long history of allowing unrestricted water use by its customers. But that likely will change as spring marches toward summer. “We have proposed a short-term response for an event that is worse than a 100-year drought,” said Greg Dewey, Loveland’s water resources engineer.

Loveland water managers hold in their back pockets a program of mandatory restrictions, beginning with three-day-weekly lawn watering, that are less stringent than those imposed by other cities. While the trigger point will come with Northern Water’s quota announcement, action may take another month or more. Dewey said the restrictions would take effect if the city’s water deficit — the gap between supply and customer demand — exceeds 10 percent…

“A 50 percent (Northern Water) quota would put us at about a 14 percent deficit,” he said. But it’s likely that the restriction would not take effect until Loveland city councilors view the program, and that won’t happen until May 14.

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