Snowpack/runoff news: The melt-out is underway, Upper Rio Grande Basin = 60% of normal

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

In light of the most recent snowpack report, the Rio Grande Basin is no longer at the bottom of the list in the state but it’s close.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten reported to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board yesterday the Rio Grande Basin was 73 percent of average as of Monday morning, April 14. The basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley, had been the lowest in the state for snowpack but is now barely above the Durango area, which sits at 71-72 percent of average, Cotten said.

“Most of the other basins in the state are above 100 percent,” he added.

This will be the sixth year in a row the Rio Grande Basin has registered a belowaverage snowpack, which will result in a below-average run off, Cotten explained. The basin had risen to a point slightly higher than the previous three years until about a week ago, Cotten said, when warmer temperatures hit and the snowpack dropped.

SNOTEL sites within the basin vary greatly, Cotten added, with snow measurements in the northern part of the Valley reflecting higher numbers than the southern part.

“Here in the basin, similar to the state as a whole, the northern streams are a little better than the southern streams,” he said.

The best, at 103 percent of average as of April 3, was Saguache Creek and the worst, at 35 percent of average, was the San Antonio River at Ortiz. On the same date, the Rio Grande at Del Norte stood at 80 percent of average , based on information from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), which operates the SNOTEL measurement sites. Cotten said NRCS has encountered budget crunches the last few years and has had difficulty maintaining their SNOTEL sites, with a move made to eliminate the manual snow measurement courses, but for the time being those are still in place. He said NRCS is looking for cooperators to help with funding the SNOTEL and snow course sites. Cotten added although NRCS has had trouble maintaining its SNOTEL sites, the data from the sites is “in the ballpark.” He said his office has nothing to prove them wrong but feels the data may not always be exactly correct. NRCS claims its data is good, he said.

Based on the NRCS forecast for April, the Rio Grande is predicted to run 505,000 acre feet this year, with 128,700 obligated to downstream states as part of the Rio Grande Compact. Since Colorado has already sent water downstream in January, February and March and will send more water downstream in November December, the amount calculated to be delivered during the irrigation season itself, April-October , is 42,000 acre feet, Cotten explained. To make that commitment, the water division will have to curtail irrigators by about 10 percent, he added. That is the current curtailment on the Rio Grande. The current curtailment on the Conejos River system is 6 percent, Cotten added. The April NRCS forecast for the annual flow on the Conejos system, which includes the Conejos River, San Antonio and Los Pinos Rivers, is 200,000 acre feet, with 45,000 acre feet obligated to New Mexico and Texas to meet the Rio Grande Compact . A great deal of that has been or will be sent downriver during wintertime, but the amount required to be sent downriver during the irrigation season is 11,000 acre feet. That accounts for the 6 percent curtailment.

While Colorado’s Rio Grande Basin may reflect below-average numbers, New Mexico is in much worse shape with snowpack in places well under 50 percent of average and even less than 10 percent of average.

The reservoirs used to store Rio Grande Compact water are located in New Mexico, with the main reservoir storage at Elephant Butte Reservoir. Currently that reservoir has about 302,000 acre feet of compact usable water but is only seeing inflow of about 123 cubic feet per second (cfs), compared to the average inflow of more than 1,000 cfs, “so they don’t have much flow at all into the reservoir,” Cotten said. He added that once the irrigation season begins below the reservoir the water will diminish even more. New Mexico irrigators will begin irrigating below Elephant Butte in May. Cotten reminded the group that as long as Elephant Butte is below 400,000 acre feet which will be the case all year Colorado cannot store water in reservoirs built after the Rio Grande Compact was ratified. Those post-compact reservoirs include Platoro.

Regarding weather forecasts for the next three months May, June, July the Valley is showing equal chances of having average precipitation. That is better news than the last three years when the summer months reflected below-average precipitation forecasts for this area, Cotten said.

From the Aspen Daily News (Nelson Harvey):

As this winter’s banner snowfall helps refill mountain reservoirs drained by the historic drought of 2012, it’s also allowing administrators of at least two major trans-mountain diversion water projects in the Roaring Fork watershed to plan for larger-than-normal diversions to the Front Range this year.

The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is expected to divert 73,000 acre-feet of water in 2014 from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River above Ruedi Reservoir to the Arkansas River basin on the East Slope. One acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons, and over the last 12 years, the project has diverted an average of 54,000 acre-feet, making this year’s projected diversion 35 percent larger than average.

The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, which manages a four-mile-long tunnel piping water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River on Independence Pass to the Arkansas River basin, is also tentatively planning to divert between 53,000 and 55,000 acre-feet of water this year. According to Kevin Lusk, the president of the company’s board of directors, that’s as much as 20 percent more water than the project’s average annual diversion of about 46,000 acre-feet, most of it destined for the cities of Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

But at least one other trans-mountain diverter — the Pueblo Board of Water Works — is actually planning to pipe less water to the East Slope this year through the Busk-Ivanhoe tunnel above the Fryingpan than usual, since above-average snowpack in the Arkansas River basin should help the city meet its water needs…

Although peak runoff is likely weeks away, all three of the trans-mountain diversion projects in the Roaring Fork watershed are already piping water to the East Slope. On Sunday, a gauge at the Twin Lakes Tunnel’s entrance registered a flow of 22.3 cubic feet per second, or roughly 10,000 gallons per minute, heading into the tunnel. Similar gauges at the Boustead Tunnel (part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project) and the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel registered flows on Sunday of 2.49 cfs and 1.43 cfs, respectively…

The ample water supplies that make historically large diversions possible also are aiding local reservoirs this year. Storage in the Colorado River basin’s reservoirs hovered around 93 percent of average on April 1, up from just 65 percent of average on the same date in 2013.

The storage picture is likely to improve even further in the coming months. Mage Hultstrand, a hydrologist for the National Resources Conservation Service, told a meeting of the Governor’s Water Availability Task Force in Denver this past Wednesday that snowpack in the Colorado River basin stood at 130 percent of average as of April 1. That early surplus means that the basin could still have an average water year even if it received just 83 percent of normal precipitation for the rest of 2014, Hultstrand said.

At last week’s task force meeting, officials charged with securing water for Front Range cities like Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs said their own reservoirs already are between 80 and 90 percent full, even though peak spring runoff is likely more than a month away. The healthy storage numbers make it less likely — though not impossible — that Front Range cities will have to institute mandatory watering restrictions this summer like they did during the drought of 2012…

As residents of southern Colorado contemplate a high-risk fire season, people along the Front Range have another sort of natural disaster on their minds this spring: floods. Last September, flash flooding destroyed and damaged homes, roads, bridges and other infrastructure in 20 Front Range counties. Now, concern is running high that when runoff courses down through stream and riverbeds that were rerouted by last year’s floods, a second round of flooding could result.

Many Front Range communities are racing to get ahead of the threat by stabilizing stream banks, shoring up roads and putting other watershed protections in place before spring runoff kicks into high gear next month.

Robert Glancy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told last week’s task force meeting that recent bouts of warm weather in the central mountains have helped jump start the spring melting process, drawing down the snowpack and reducing the likely strength of future floods.

“I’m glad that we’re melting now, because it’s wearing down the snowpack,” Glancy said.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Lance Benzel):

The snow that pounded Colorado’s high country all winter – delighting skiers with an extended season – looks poised to bring thrills to the state’s whitewater enthusiasts. Not to mention the businesses that put them in the water…

Cumulatively, the Arkansas River Valley is at 102 percent of the mean snowpack, or about average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which measures snowpack across the state. Hidden among those numbers is a much-better-than-average snowpack in waterways near the river’s headwaters, Hamel said, calling them a key indicator for good rafting. He said a high moisture content in the soil also will help generate runoff into the area’s waterways, bolstering water from snow melt.

While the numbers are worth cheering, they’re nothing compared with the Laramie and North Platte river basins, which are at 139 percent of mean. The Yampa and White River basins are at 121 percent, the Upper Colorado River Basin is at 123 percent, and the South Platte River Basin is at 132 percent.

But heavy snowpacks are hardly universal. Missing out on the trend are basins in southern and southwestern Colorado, which suffered an anemic winter.

The Upper Rio Grande Basin is at only 67 percent of the mean, and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins are at 73 percent.

Predictions about the health of the rafting season rest on hopes for mild temperatures early in the season. A rapid melt could mean bad news for rafting companies, which look for a stable, long runoff to keep flows moving into the peak tourist period, generally from mid-June to mid-August.

Dust picked up by storms in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and then dumped on Colorado’s high country also can enter the mix, leading to quicker melts.

While the Colorado River Water Conservation District recorded at least eight large dust storms this winter, the state’s snow packs might be deep enough to weather effects of the dust, general manager Eric Kuhn said.

In some areas, including the Colorado River Basin, the deep snow might be a double-edged sword, sending outfitters on a hunt for waterways that aren’t dangerously high.


Denver Water has been regulating its outflow at the Dillon Reservoir dam to get ready for all the snow to melt. Right now the output is around 700 cubic feet per second and there’s already one rafting companytaking advantage of all the water.

“Today is the start of our 2014 rafting season,” Campy Campton with Kodi Rafting said on Thursday.
It’s come about a week or two earlier than normal. The above average snowpack is starting to melt, and that means rivers are already moving…

“This is really early, especially for the Blue River, but we had some folks that are interested in boating today and we were coming out anyway, so we brought them along for the fun,” Campton said. “This is one of the few rivers in the state of Colorado that’s solely dependent upon dam release for the river to flow.
“We boated the Blue the last time in 2011. We saw enough water to come down here commercially and boat and have fun.”[…]

The River Outfitter’s Association said there are other places like the Animas River around Durango, the Colorado River near Glenwood and the Arkansas River around the Royal Gorge that are also seeing companies get an early jump on the season.

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