CWCB Drought Update for April #COdrought



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

Recent weeks have brought increased precipitation in the northern portion of the state and cooler temperatures have helped to maintain snowpack; levels in the northwest corner have reached near normal conditions and statewide snowpack has increased to 90% of normal. However, the southern portions of the state is experiencing rapid deterioration of conditions and the eastern plains have seen devastating dust storms. Storage remains below average and water providers are preparing for continued drought conditions throughout the spring and summer. CWCB is maintaining a new drought response portal,, with additional information on restrictions that have been implemented in specific communities.

 As of the April 16, 2013 US Drought Monitor, 100% of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought classification. D1 (moderate) and D2 (severe) cover 69% of the state, while D3 (extreme) accounts for an additional 25%. 14% of the state is now experiencing exceptional drought (D4), a decrease from last month.

 Spring snow storms have brought significant gains in the snowpack of the northern portions of the state; with the Yampa/ White, North Platte and Colorado basins all near normal at 98, 102 and 103% respectively. The lowest snowpack in the state is in the Upper Rio Grande basin (70%) while the Southwest basins is experiencing 71% and the Arkansas is at 79% of normal for the water year. The Gunnison and the South Platte have also seen increases and are now both at 88 % of average. *

 Despite recent gains in snowpack municipalities and water providers are still responding to drought conditions with both mandatory and voluntary watering restrictions throughout the spring and summer demand season. The CWCB drought response portal continues to help individuals determine the restrictions in their specific community.

 As of the first of April statewide reservoir storage is at 71% of average. The highest storage levels are in the Yampa/ White River Basin, at 105% of average while the lowest storage in the state is the Rio Grande River basin at 54% of average. All other basins range from 55% to 84% of average. Last year this time the state was at 108% of average reservoir storage.*

 Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) values have largely decreased across the state over the last month and all values remain negative. Below average reservoir storage and streamflow forecasts contribute to these values and data reflect conditions on April 1, 2013. Recent storms have helped to increase streamflow forecasts by as much as 10% in portions of northern and central Colorado, a component of the SWSI, however despite the increase they remain well below average.

 The long term experimental forecast for April through June of this year is projecting above normal moisture for the eastern plains of the state. Additionally, the Climate Prediction Center at NOAA is forecasting above average temperatures statewide and persistent drought conditions across western portions of the state, with some relief possible on the eastern plains.

 The National Interagency Fire Center Predictive services outlook indicates normal wildland fire potential is expected across most of Colorado from May into July.

 A report from the USFS on Bark Beetles in the Rocky Mountain Region indicates that 4.2 Million acres of land in Colorado and adjacent lands in southern Wyoming have been affected by Mountain Pine Beetle, but the outbreak of the last decade is largely on the decline. However, Spruce beetle is on the rise and is expanding from southern Colorado north toward the Gunnison region.

More CWCB coverage here.

Snowpack/drought news: Statewide snowpack = 90% of avg, Upper Colorado = 103% #CODrought




From (Nick McGurk):

“Snow equates to water, and that’s good, so in the water business we’re happy. We’re smiling, and the farmers are smiling,” said Brian Werner with Northern Colorado Water.

Snowpack levels along the Colorado River are above average and the South Platte is at about 90 percent. Werner cautions that reservoir levels are still below capacity. “The caution here is that we had a lot of large holes going into 2013 that we’re not gonna get full. So, this is good. We like Mother Nature for this. As we like to say, there’s a lot of holes in there and no matter what happens we’re not going to get those full this year,” Werner said. Werner says Horsetooth Reservoir, a vital source of water for Fort Collins and Greeley, is about 18 feet below capacity but could rise roughly 5 feet more this spring.

One problem for reservoirs in Northern Colorado is that Lake Granby, the second largest reservoir in the state, won’t come close to filling this year because there isn’t enough snowpack in that area along the Western Slope.

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

When the dust layers deposited on mountain snow April 8, April 14 and the 61-hour monster of April 15-17 come under a scorching sun, the already measly snowpack could melt into nothing in no time, the director of the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies in Silverton said Thursday.

The albedo, the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface – dirt, sand, snow, ice – is key, Chris Landry said. Clean snow absorbs 5 to 20 percent of solar energy, but dust-covered snow absorbs 70 percent, Chris Landry said. The more energy absorbed, the faster the melt, he said. “Direct solar energy is bad news,” Landry said. “Air temperature is a relatively minor factor.”

The major dust event of the season so far – the sixth – occurred April 8, Landry said. The seventh occurred April 14. A break followed, then came the 61-hour assault. The dust arrives from northwest New Mexico and the Little Colorado River basin in Arizona, borne by wind from the south, southwest and west. “We’re retaining snow longer this year than last because of March and April storms,” Landry said. “But the water equivalent is no greater than last year.”

Runoff will surge when the three dust layers merge,” Landry said…

In a report to Montezuma County commissioners, John Porter, president of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said mountain precipitation in the Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel basins in March was 56 percent of average. Stream flow in the basins from April to July is expect to range from 46 to 61 percent of average, Porter said…

“There’s a potential that it’s going to be a less than average year,” Sterling Moss, director of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango, said Friday. “Soil moisture – 18 to 20 inches of depth – is half to two-thirds of what we should have after a normal winter.”[…]

Tom O’Keeffe from the Durango Rafting Co. isn’t sweating it yet. “The snowpack is 72 percent of normal, and it was 44 percent this time last year,” O’Keeffe said, “The current cold is not pleasant, but it holds off the melt.”

From (Alan Gathright):

The snowpack in Denver Water’s watersheds is 87 percent of average in the Colorado River watershed and it is 78 percent of average in the South Platte River watershed, said Stacy Chesney of Denver Water, Colorado’s largest water utility. Chesney cautioned that, as spring warms up, it can be hard to use snowpack depths to accurately gauge the percent of average normal snowpack. The problem is that snow normally starts melting by mid-April. This means that the average snowpack level starts to decrease, while the percent of average normal snowpack begins increasing even in the absence of additional snow, she said. [ed. emphasis mine]

Even if this year’s snowpack reaches normal peak levels, Denver Water reservoirs remain below normal after two years of drought. At this point, Chesney said, “It is too early to say how full our reservoirs are going to get.”

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

Greeley will not impose additional watering restrictions for residents this year, Greeley Water and Sewer Board members decided on Wednesday. Sufficient storage, recent water purchases and past conservation practices led water board members to declare this year an “adequate water year,” meaning residents can count on watering their lawns three times per week with the city’s regular schedule. Greeley will continue its long-term rental agreements, which include about 4,500 acre-feet for agricultural users, but the board said the city will not lease any additional water this year.

Jim Hall, Greeley water resources manager, said officials are still waiting to hear a projection for Greeley’s shares from the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation Co. Depending on how much precipitation the area gets over the next few months, Hall said those shares could prompt the water board to come back in July to implement some drought restrictions or, if snow and rain continue to fall like the last few days, to allow farmers and ranchers to lease some water.

The past few weeks of heavy snow across Colorado have boosted snowpack significantly, Hall said, pointing to a 10 percent increase in the South Platte River basin, which is now at 85 percent of the state historic average. “What really hurt us was we didn’t get any early snow,” Hall said, adding that the rest of the year followed a fairly normal pattern.

Snowpack this year is 162 percent of what it was last year, “so we’re in much better shape,” Hall said.

The water board’s decision comes less than a week after the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s board of directors set a 60 percent quota for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, from which Greeley gets a hefty portion of its water shares. Northern Water cited low reservoir levels and lack of mountain snowpack for reducing the quota this year.

If the city implemented mild drought restrictions, residents would conserve an additional 2,000 acre-feet that could be leased to agriculture, said Jon Monson, director of Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department. He said that would equate to about 800 acres of additional irrigated land — a blip of farmland on a map of the Greeley and Loveland farming areas. Monson said the drop in revenue due to a decline in water use would likely translate to a 0.75 percent increase in water rates for residents, and hiring “water cops” to ensure residents followed the additional watering restrictions would cost about $80,000. He said the total economic impact from leasing the water, including farmers buying seed and fertilizer and selling crops, would total about $900,000. While other communities implement watering restrictions, Greeley can enjoy a regular year because it has kept to a strict watering schedule since the 1900s, even during wet years, board members said. “I think the citizens of Greeley are going to benefit from that this year,” said Roy Otto, Greeley city manager.

Parachute Creek spill: Aerators set up to volatilize benzene in creek water #ColoradoRiver


From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Aerators have been set up on Parachute Creek to remove cancer-causing benzene, detected downstream from a hydrocarbons spill in western Colorado. Williams energy company crews also expanded their pumping of hydrocarbons from trenches dug along the creek to try to prevent seepage of super-concentrated benzene in groundwater into the creek.

Test results released Monday showed benzene in surface water at levels around 3 parts per billion, said Kirby Wynn, Garfield County’s liaison to the oil and gas industry…

The benzene detected last week, at 2.7 ppb, was below the federal drinking water standard of 5 ppb. The limit for benzene in Parachute Creek is 5,300 ppb, set by Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission at a level deemed protective of aquatic life because the creek isn’t designated as a drinking water supply…

Absorbent booms have been laid across the creek, including near the headgate for Parachute’s reservoir, town administrator Bob Knight said. Farmers and ranchers near Parachute use the reservoir water for irrigating crops. They rely on springs and other sources for drinking water, Knight said. Knight said he’s keeping headgates closed and that he’d prefer not to have benzene or diesel at any level in town water. “I’d like to keep the people assured that the water going into the reservoir is the same quality it has always been. That’s our goal.”[…]

Western Colorado residents, meanwhile, were pressing lawmakers to treat the spill from Williams’ gas plant, built by the creek and slated for expansion, as a warning. “There’s inadequate safety regulation to protect public health and the environment,” Grand Valley Citizens Alliance president Leslie Robinson said. “With all the drilling along the Colorado River, we know anything could happen. There should be increased setbacks from waterways and residential areas.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

South Platte Basin: The lack of augmentation water sources will keep some farmland out of production this year


From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

Weld County is still home to potato festivals and dotted with spuds-growing artifacts, but the local tater industry has little to contribute anymore to the area’s vast legacy. A shell of what it once was, Weld’s potato acreage took another hit this year as the last large-scale grower of the crop — Strohauer Farms in LaSalle — plans to raise half of its potatoes outside of the state, citing water issues as the reason for doing so. The Potato Day Festival for about 25 years has been a staple of autumn activities in Greeley — a community where the potato is credited as being the first commercially viable crop locally grown. But since 1987, Weld County has gone from growing 3,855 acres of potatoes on 66 farms to what’s expected to be about 550 acres this year, grown by just two farmers.

Harry Strohauer — owner of Strohauer Farms, which grows nearly all of the remaining potatoes in Weld County — and others point the finger at water issues to explain why spuds production has decreased so sharply. Strohauer said he’d rather keep his crops growing near LaSalle — the only place his family has farmed since coming here in the 1940s — than in New Mexico, where he’ll plant 500 of his 1,000 total potato acres this year. The climate along the northern Front Range and his soil close to home are ideal for growing the crop, and Weld’s proximity to large markets (the Denver metro area) and the infrastructure (Interstate 25, U.S. 34 and U.S. 85) add to the local benefits. “But the truth is, with how we manage things in this state, we just don’t have a reliable source of water anymore,” said Strohauer, who’s an executive committee member for the National Potato Council and has spearheaded Strohauer Farms since he was 16 years old, following his father’s death.

As the region’s population has grown, so have the overall demands for water.

The tightening of water supplies and the uncertainty of the resource in dry years has become too much for some farmers, including potato growers, who stress that potatoes are an “unforgiving” crop if not fully irrigated — especially if you’re trying to meet the standards of King Soopers, Whole Foods and others, as Strohauer is.

But making life particularly difficult now, Strohauer says, is the inability to pump groundwater wells. In the mid-2000s, augmentation requirements were made more stringent in Colorado. Augmentation water is required to make up for depletions to the aquifer. Over time, pumping water out of the aquifer depletes surface flows in the basin needed by senior, surface water users.

Prior to the state’s rule changes in the mid-2000s, farmers were only augmenting for about 10 percent of the water they pumped out of the ground, according to some estimations. During the severe drought of 2002, surface flows were meager and some senior surface water users said well-pumpers were taking too much out of the aquifer and not putting enough back in. In the end, the state’s augmentation requirements were changed, and owners of certain groundwater wells — wells considered “tributary” to stream flows — now have to augment as much as 100 percent for the water they pump out of the ground. Strohauer said now, with those changes in place, it would cost tens of millions of dollars to own enough augmentation water and take other measures needed to get all of his wells pumping again at full capacity. Like Strohauer, many other area farmers haven’t been able to get their wells fully pumping again, or at all in some cases.

Strohauer said he isn’t exaggerating when he claims it’s easier to haul his farm equipment and fly to and from his new farmground in New Mexico than it is to grow potatoes near his Weld County home and deal with some of the water rules in Colorado. In New Mexico, Strohauer has no augmentation requirements. He can pump as much water out of the ground as needed without having to make up for his depletions. But he doesn’t at all believe that’s the best way to manage groundwater either, he added. “I’m not against augmentation, by any means,” stresses Strohauer, who, in addition to his groundwater wells, owns senior surface water rights. In many years, though, that surface water isn’t enough to fully irrigate his potato acres, and the groundwater wells are needed to provide immediate, supplemental relief in dry times. “I agree that we need to be augmenting more than we once were. But I think things have swung way too far the other way.”

Like others in the LaSalle and Gilcrest area, Strohauer has seen his basement flood from high groundwater levels in recent years. High groundwater has also flooded fields, causing some crops — including some of Strohauer’s potatoes — to rot. Strohauer and others believe the high groundwater levels have been caused by “overaugmenting” the aquifer since Colorado changed its rules in the mid-2000s, while others believe it stems from the wet years of 2010 and 2011, among other issues.

Complaints of high groundwater levels and the inability to pump wells led to a legislative push last year for a comprehensive study of groundwater activity in the South Platte River basin — a study that’s under way now by the Colorado Water Institute and is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

“Maybe this study will show us something new,” said John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s adviser on water, noting that other efforts — including similar groundwater studies and water-cooperative pilot projects — are under way in Colorado. “There’s no doubt ag across the state faces water challenges. We live in a semi-arid region.

“We need to get to a point where we’re making the most beneficial use of what limited water we have, and we’re going a lot of different routes to get there.” Until that happens, Strohauer is considering planting more acres elsewhere, he said.

Water issues have affected other farmers in Weld County.

Sakata Farms in Brighton, which grows crops across southern Weld County, has reduced its acreage from 4,000 to 2,500 in the past four years, and brought commercial broccoli growing to an end in Colorado when it stopped production of that crop a couple years ago. Bob Sakata, owner of Sakata Farms, has said water uncertainty is the main reason for cutting back on production.

“You just hate to see this happen, but we have to grow somewhere,” said Strohauer, explaining that it’s taken him years to develop his contracts to sell potatoes to large grocers, and those contracts could come to an end if he falls short on production just one year. “We want to stay to here. I don’t want to see potato acres keep disappearing in Weld County. But it’s getting harder to stay here.”

More from the Tribune:

Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Council in Monte Vista, said shortages have had a major impact on growers in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where more than 90 percent of the state’s potatoes are grown. Since the Colorado drought of 2002, the southern part of the state has had little relief, and because of that, restrictions on groundwater-pumping have been put in place and potato acreage has decreased significantly.

In 2002, Colorado altogether was planting about 77,800 acres of potatoes, but is only expected to plant about 53,000 acres this year, largely due to tight water supplies in the San Luis Valley, Ehrlich said. The state’s potato production from 2002 to 2011 steadily dropped from about 3 billion pounds to 2.3 billion pounds — about a 25 percent decrease.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here and here.