From The Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):
It’s a short walk through deep snow to what the federal government considers the headwaters of the Colorado River. Some years it’s deeper than others. Technically speaking, station 05K14 sitting at 11,300 feet atop the Berthoud Pass Summit and measures the snow that first feeds the Fraser River before eventually trickling into the Colorado. But from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s perspective, this is the highest measurement point in the river basin still worth walking to every month. Some months more than others.
As the Colorado River basin edges closer to its typical early-April snowpack peak, last Friday’s manual measurements of snow depth and water content at the Berthoud Summit site offered ample insight into what we can expect of our state’s namesake river this spring. With the assistance of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and a group of water watchers that included the USDA’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie, NRCS scientists B.J. Shoup and Mage Hultstrand measured snow and water at the site at about 143 percent of the median for that date.
As a result, water managers have already begun making arrangements to accommodate an above-average runoff in the Colorado River. Similar scenarios have begun to play out elsewhere across the state.
“This week, we know we’ve got a very impressive snowpack here at the headwaters of the Colorado River. We’re at about 40 percent above normal for this time of year. We’re already above our average peak, so we know we’re going to have a good runoff,” said Chris Treese, external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “So we look at these data and begin to manage. Already this week we’ve made some decisions about reservoir operations. Reservoirs have already begun releasing more water than they would typically at this time of year to make sure they have some space for this snow as it comes down.
“The goal of any reservoir operator is to fill without spilling, and that’s a lot more art than science, but this is the science part of that equation.”
From the practical perspective ranging beyond drought relief and flood control, Colorado fishermen would do well to take a page from the whitewater boating playbook and put some of that science to use. The NRCS Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program has been around since 1935, and the public data it produces (nrcs.usda.gov) serves as a sort of seasonal scouting report for all things water-related.
“This is a program that I really didn’t know much about until there was an attempt to cut the budget, and all of the sudden I knew a lot about it,” Sen. Bennet said after volunteering to collect a snow sample Friday. “I heard from people all over the state that relied on this data for so many years for so many different things.”
The NRCS snow survey data and resultant forecasts are generated in two different ways in Colorado, through 102 manually measured snow courses and 114 automated Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites situated throughout the mountains. Both budget-threatened programs provide critical information to a Data Collection Office in Denver, offering historical record of snow and water throughout the West and current measurements used to forecast and prepare.
About 80 percent of Colorado’s water supply comes from mountain snowpack that accumulates from October to April. Led by the South Platte River Basin at 144 percent, statewide measurements as of Tuesday showed the snowpack at 115 percent of normal, despite only 85 percent of median in the Rio Grande River Basin.
“They’re not making any more water,” Bennet said. “We’re standing on a place right now where we’ve had a really good snowpack this year. Southwest Colorado, southeast Colorado, they’re still facing significant droughts, and our farmers and ranchers in those regions are going to need this data in order to be able to plan, so it’s an important deal. When you’ve got to make something as precious as our water go further, it’s important that we have as informed a view as we can.”
The same insight applies to all things outdoors in Colorado.
“We use water, especially on the Western Slope, in a variety of ways. It’s consumptive — the traditional ag and municipal — and it’s non-consumptive,” Treese said. “But they all add to the economic value of the river and our lives out here.”