NRCS: The May 1, 2014 Colorado Basin Outlook Report is hot off the presses


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


When viewing current statewide totals for all water supply parameters, it would be difficult to find a more “normal” year. With statewide snowpack, water year-to-date precipitation and reservoir storage at 107, 102 and 93 percent normal respectively, conditions are favorable for good water supplies this season. Of course the story is more complex than just the statewide numbers. Although 2014 was not a La Nina year some of the snow accumulation patterns could be construed as such the Upper Rio Grande and the combined San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel basins in Colorado both have snowpack percentages below 70 percent of median, while significantly better snowpack’s exist in the northern tier basins. All of the northern basins boast snowpack percentages that are greater than 120 percent of median. In general the statewide snowpack trended downward over the course of April falling 8 percentage as a result of below average precipitation in the form of snowfall throughout the month. Although monthly precipitation for the state was just 80 percent of average this April, year-to-date precipitation rounded out at 102 percent of average on May 1. With nearly all reservoirs currently at better standing than last year at this time, it is hard to frown upon the below average storage in the Upper Rio Grande and Arkansas River basins. In addition the vast majority of water supply forecasts for Colorado look to be better than last year based on current data.


Despite a slight decline in the snowpack percent of median during April, statewide snowpack was still 128 percent of last year according to SNOTEL and snow course observations on May 1. The Upper Rio Grande saw the greatest decline in snowpack with a 29 percent drop this month. All major basins saw a decrease this month, yet many remain near to above normal while some are well above normal. With nearly one third of all sub basin snowpack’s at 125 percent of median or better and 19 of 34 sub basins above 100 percent of median, this season is just what was needed to replenish last year’s ailing water supplies in the state’s northern watersheds. In the other regions of the state, the Arkansas and Gunnison basins are fortunate to have snowpack’s at 99 and 97 percent of median respectively, while the “have not” basins include the Upper Rio Grande and the combined San Juan watersheds at 50 and 68 percent of median respectively. The moral of this snow season is: snowpack varies greatly across the state, from 41 percent of median in the combined Conejos & Rio San Antonio watersheds to 169 percent of median in the Muddy Creek drainage in the Colorado River basin. Be sure to look at basins of interest and the sites within for the most concise data to prepare for the year to come.


For the first time since January, monthly precipitation was below average, not just statewide, but in every major basin. Quite similarly to January when monthly precipitation was at 81 percent of average, precipitation this month was 80 percent of average. Thanks to strong accumulations in October, January, February and March, year-to-date precipitation remains slightly above normal at this point. Thankfully the differences in year-to-date precipitation across the state are not as extreme as in the case of snowpack. The Upper Rio Grande basin has the lowest year-to-date total at 80 percent of average, with the only above average month this water year being November. Conversely, the South Platte basin is currently showing year-to-date precipitation at 119 percent of average. In general the precipitation map looks much the same as the snowpack map with better totals in the northern basins, and below average numbers in the south.

Reservoir Storage

With over one half of the states reservoirs currently at 100 percent of average storage or better, and nearly three quarters of the state’s reservoirs at or above 80 percent of average at the end of April, statewide reservoir storage is in fairly good standing. The Arkansas River basin currently has the lowest storage as a percent of average at 59 percent but on a positive note Pueblo Reservoir is right at the 30 year average storage with volumes at 54 percent of capacity. The South Platte River basin has the best storage at 110 percent of average and 90 percent of capacity. With the snowpack in the basin this year it is likely the South Platte reservoirs will reach 100 percent capacity this spring. The vast majority of all reservoirs in the state currently have higher storage levels than at this time last year. For areas with well above normal snowpack’s and projected streamflows, it is often necessary to draft reservoirs to make room for the above normal expected inflows. If reservoir storage is below average in a drainage basin with above to well above normal snowpack the project may be anticipating above average inflows.


Projected streamflows in Colorado are typically a reflection of current snowpack totals and monthly precipitation totals throughout the year, and this month is no exception. Similar to the snowpack reports current forecasts vary widely across the state from 148 percent of the May to July average for the Inflow to Wolford Mountain Reservoir to 16 percent of the May to September average at San Antonio River at Ortiz in the Upper Rio Grande. For the three major watersheds in the north, nearly all streamflow forecasts are calling for above normal runoff this season. Within that same region only three forecast points have forecasts below average; all other points look to have strong water supplies going into the beginning of summer. On the flip side of the state, in the four major southern basins, just over one quarter of the forecasted streamflows are projected to be 100 percent of normal or better. Brightening the scenario further in the south, 24 of the 55 forecast points are projected to be better than 80 percent of average. But with highly variable snowpack across the state forecasts differ greatly as well, be sure to consult the actual forecast information for the most accurate information.

Snowpack/runoff news

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The snowpack as of May 1 in the watersheds drained by the Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel rivers leaves the southwest corner of Colorado hurting.

At 68 percent of its 30-year median, the amount of snow in the highcountry foretells a sparse runoff.

Only the Rio Grande basin is worse off at 50 percent.

On the flip side, the Colorado, South Platte, North Platte and Yampa/White basins are wallowing in snow. The Yampa/White and Colorado basins have snowpacks that stand at 121 and 122 percent, respectively. The South Platte has 133 percent and the North Platte, 135 percent…

“In general, moisture-laden storms have favored the northern-tier basins throughout 2014,” Domonkos said. “Last month, the Gunnison, Upper Rio Grande and San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins were impacted by warmer temperatures and lack of snowfall.”

Overall, however, the state is not doing too badly in regards to reservoir storage, Domonkos said.

Slightly more than 50 percent of state reservoirs stand at 100 percent of average or better and nearly three-quarters of them at 80 percent of average or better, Domonkos said.

Reservoirs catching runoff from the Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel basins were at 85 percent of average on May 1. Last year on the same date, the reservoirs stood at 64 percent of average.

Statewide, reservoirs hold 93 percent of their average, up from 71 percent on the same 2013 date. Three basins, the Yampa/White, Gunnison and South Platte, hold more than 100 percent of their average – 106, 107 and 110 percent respectively.

River flows in general will be good to excellent, the report says. More than one-half of stream-flow forecast points should have more than 100 percent of their average and nearly two-thirds should have flows of more than 80 percent of average.

But again, Southwest Colorado is the exception, the report says.

“Runoff volumes for May through July are expected to range from average to below average,” the report says.

Say hello to the EPA’s ‘Waters of the United States” website

Screen shot from the EPA's Waters of the US website May 9, 2014
Screen shot from the EPA’s Waters of the US website May 9, 2014

Click here to go to the website and get all the inside skinny on the proposed rule. Here’s an excerpt:

For the past three years, EPA and the Army Corps have listened to important input from the agriculture community. Using the input from those discussions, the agencies then worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that concerns raised by farmers and the agricultural industry were addressed.

Download a fact sheet about benefits for agriculture.

Read an op-ed on agriculture by EPA Administrator McCarthy.

More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.

HB14-1333: Legislature to fund Long Hollow project — The Durango Herald #COleg

Long Hollow Reservoir location map via The Durango Herald
Long Hollow Reservoir location map via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Joe Hanel):

A Southwest Colorado water district can expect $1,575,000 from the Legislature to help build a dam just off the La Plata River. It’s one of the few water projects statewide the Legislature is funding this year.

Long Hollow Reservoir, about five miles north of the New Mexico border, is being built to help farmers and ranchers in southwestern La Plata County keep water through the dry months, while at the same time letting the state meet its legal obligation to deliver water to New Mexico.

“Part of the reservoir would be for interstate compact compliance when Colorado has a difficult time making deliveries to New Mexico,” said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwest Water Conservation District…

With the money from the state’s water projects fund, Long Hollow reservoir should be finished by fall, he said. Most of the money to build the reservoir was set aside when the Animas-La Plata Project was scaled down.

The Legislature’s annual water projects bill, House Bill 1333, often has something for water users all across the state. But this year, Long Hollow is the only construction project to get direct funding. The bill also makes up to $131 million in loans to two projects on Denver’s south side – an expansion of Chatfield Reservoir and a water-efficiency and reuse project in the southern suburbs.

The bill has passed the House on a 61-1 vote, and it is on track to pass the Senate early this week.

NRCS: Water Supply Outlook for Colorado Much Better Than This Time Last Year #COdrought


Here’s the release from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (Mage Hultstrand):

The latest snowpack measurements, conducted by the USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), show above normal levels of snow at many measuring sites throughout the Yampa, Colorado, North and South Platte River basins in Colorado. Conversely, observations in the Upper Rio Grande, Arkansas, Gunnison and combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins indicate near to below normal snowpack’s.

“The month of April yielded below average precipitation in all watersheds but affected year-to- date precipitation and snowpack totals little, rounding out the snowpack on May 1 at 107 percent of median,” according to Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey Supervisor with the NRCS.

In general, moisture laden storms favored the northern tier basins in the state of Colorado throughout 2014. Last month the Gunnison, Upper Rio Grande and San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins were impacted by warmer temperatures and lack of snowfall. These basins have fallen further below normal since last month’s report, with the most severe deficit in the Upper Rio Grande basin, which fell from 79 percent of median last month to 50 percent of median this month. The latest surveys indicate the lowest snowpack percentage in the state was measured in the Upper Rio Grande basin at 50 percent of median. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins declined to 68 percent of median and the Gunnison declined to 97 percent of median.

With slightly better than one half of the states reservoirs at 100 percent of average or better, and nearly three quarters of the state’s reservoirs at or better than 80 percent of average at the end of April, statewide reservoir storage is in fairly good standing. The Arkansas River basin currently has the lowest storage as a percent of average at 59 percent but on a positive note Pueblo Reservoir is right at the 30 year average and 54 percent of capacity. The South Platte basin has the best storage at 110 percent of average and 90 percent of capacity. The vast majority of all reservoirs in the state have higher storage levels than at this time last year. For areas with well above normal snowpack or projected streamflows, it is often necessary to draft reservoirs to allow for the above average inflows. If reservoir storage is below average in a drainage basin with above to well above normal snowpack the project may be anticipating above average streamflow.

For most of the state, this spring’s runoff and summer water supplies are predicted to be good to excellent. More than half of the 89 streamflow forecast points in Colorado are predicted to have better than 100 percent of average streamflows. Nearly two thirds of the state is projected to have better than 80 percent of average streamflows. Two excellent statistics compared to this time last year. The basins that can expect some of the largest volumes include the Colorado, Yampa, North Platte and along the Cache La Poudre River in the South Platte basin. The exceptions are the Upper Rio Grande, and those basins in southwestern Colorado where runoff volumes for the May through July period are expected to range from average to below average volumes.

The latest ENSO discussion is hot off the presses #COdrought


Click here to read the latest discussion from the Climate Prediction Center. Here’s an excerpt:

Synopsis: Chance of El Niño increases during the remainder of the year, exceeding 65% during

ENSO-neutral continued during April 2014, but with above-average sea surface temperatures (SST) developing over much of the eastern tropical Pacific as well as persisting near the International Date Line. The weekly SST indices were near to slightly above average and increasing in the Niño1+2, Niño3 and Niño3.4 regions, and above average in the Niño4 region. The down-welling phase of a strong oceanic Kelvin wave that began in January greatly increased the oceanic heat content during March and April, and produced large positive subsurface temperature anomalies across the central and eastern Pacific. The upper portion of these subsurface anomalies reached the sea surface, warming the waters east of 125ºW longitude. Also during April, weak low-level westerly wind anomalies were observed over the far western Pacific, while upper-level easterly anomalies occurred over much of the Pacific. Convection was enhanced over the west-central equatorial Pacific. These atmospheric and oceanic conditions collectively indicate a continued evolution toward El Niño.

From New Scientist (Michael Slezak):

The weather is preparing to go wild, and will wreak havoc and death around the globe later this year. An El Niño, a splurge of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, is coming. It will unleash floods in the Americas, while South-East Asia and Australia face drought. Yet little is being done to address these consequences.

“The tropical climate system is primed for a big El Niño,” says Axel Timmermann of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu…

The effects can be deadly. A big El Niño in 1997-98 killed 20,000 people and caused almost $97 billion of damage.

Meteorologists contacted by New Scientist all expect an El Niño at the end of this year. And it looks like a big one, says Wenju Cai of CSIRO, Australia’s national research agency, in Melbourne. The more heat in the Pacific, the bigger the El Niño, and right now, 150 metres below the surface, a ball of warm water is crossing that ocean. “It’s huge,” says Cai.

Yet official forecasts remain cautious. As recently as 5 May, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration only said the odds of an El Niño would exceed 50 per cent this year.

Most El Niño researchers say forecasters are being too conservative. “One thing I hear over and over again is ‘we do not want to create a panic’,” says Timmermann. There is a reason: forecasting a big El Niño would cause a spike in food prices. “But it may be better to have this reaction at an early stage, when farmers can still adapt, rather than later.”

The good news is that El Niño is a known quantity. “We already know what happens when a big El Niño hits,” says Zafar Adeel of the United Nations University in Hamilton, Canada. That means vulnerable populations can be identified and emergency plans put in place. But not everywhere has a plan.

“I had work to do today, but then a river happened” — John Fleck #RioGrande #NMdrought

Breckenridge: “We can’t just sit up here and say we have all the water, now we’ll use it” — Tim Gagen #ColoradoRiver

Breckenridge circa 1913 via Breckenridge Resort
Breckenridge circa 1913 via Breckenridge Resort

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

The town council is considering legislation that would cap outdoor use at three days a week. It’s part of an effort to put a new emphasis on water conservation and efficiency, says Tim Gagen, the town manager.

“We have to walk the talk,” says Gagen. “We can’t just sit up here and say we have all the water, now we’ll use it.”

Breckenridge is not alone. Other mountains towns in Colorado are devoting more attention to water conservation and efficiency. A coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley is assembling plans for public outreach to elevate water efficiency. The Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District began crimping water use in 2003. Aspen’s water-efficiency measures go back even further, to the 1990s…

Colorado’s Front Range cities, where 85 percent of state residents live, have become more efficient with existing supplies. But they have also expanded supplies in recent decades by buying farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys for their water rights, and allowing the farms to then dry up. They have also purchased mountain ranches in such buy-and-dry transactions.

Front Range water providers also want to retain the option of going to the Colorado River and its tributaries for one final, big diversion. Western Slope water leaders urge caution. But to have credibility, leaders in the mountain valleys realize they first must put their own houses in order.

“The Western Slope needs to be goosed,” says Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Frankly, the Front Range has led most of the water-conservation efforts in Colorado to date.”[…]

Gagen says that Breckenridge has been nibbling at water conservation efforts for several years. Leaking segments of existing pipes, which can cause loss of 8 to 15 percent of all the municipal water supply, are being replaced. Sprinklers in parks are being changed out in favor of more efficient devices. And the town is now looking at narrowing irrigation at its golf course to avoid watering of the roughs.

Breckenridge, in its municipal operation, has also adopted more xeriscaping, using plants that don’t require irrigation, reducing irrigation of remaining turf, and, in some cases, installing artificial turf.

Still on the agenda is elevating rates for high-consumption users. The average water bill in Breckenridge is just $35 every two months, not much more than dinner at one of the town’s higher-end restaurants. As such, most people probably pay little, if any attention, to the idea of conserving water in order to reduce their costs. They just write the check, says Gagen.

While Breckenridge has broad goals of improved sustainability, Gagen says the plan to reduce outdoor lawn irrigation to three days a week was pushed by two council members who have been persuaded by books they’ve read: “Blue Revolution,” by Cynthia Barnett (2011), “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner (1986), and “Getting Green Done,” by Auden Schendler (2011)…

Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has achieved a 20 percent per capita reduction in use, according to Diane Johnson, communications director. That’s in line with the reduction in water use since 2000 by Denver Water’s 1.3 million direct and indirect customers.

However, Eagle River has not pushed indoor water savings. Because 95 percent of indoor water is treated and released into the Eagle River, explains Johnson, the impact is small on the valley’s creeks and rivers. This compares with just 15 to 40 percent of water returned to streams after outdoor irrigation. Given limited resources for messaging, the better return is to hammer home the message of reduced outdoor use.

“What we really try to work with local people to understand is that their outdoor use affects how much water is in the rivers,” says Johnson. “If you are using water indoors, save yourself some money and be efficient, but most of that water comes back to the treatment plant and returns to the river.”[…]

In adopting its regulations on outdoor lawn watering, Eagle River Water was motivated by the searing drought of 2002. But laws also provide incentives. When seeking permits for new or expanded reservoirs, county regulations ask about “efficient use” of existing resources. State and federal regulations approach it with different wording, but essentially the same intent. “Efficient use of resource is going to be a consideration in any of those permitting processes,” says Johnson.

Eagle River Water has also adopted tiered rates, charging higher rates per 1,000 gallons as consumers step up consumption. But what do you do about those pockets of consumers for whom money is no deterrent?

That’s an issue in the Vail Valley that water officials are starting to wrestle with. Aspen recognized years ago that price was no object to some homeowners—and charges nosebleed rates.

Aspen’s municipal utility, which delivers both electricity and water, uses the income from high-use water customers to pay for front-end renewable energy programs and demand-side energy efficiency, says Phil Overeynder, the former utilities director and now the utilities engineer for special projects.

Aspen in the early 1990s approached the forked paths of water use. But instead of continuing to build capacity for existing water demands, the city instead reined in use. Last year, Aspen used the same amount of water as it did in 1966, despite having three times as many residents. (See more detailed story).

Now, an effort has been launched to frame a broad water efficiency strategy for the Roaring Fork Valley. The seed was planted in 2010 by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, a non-profit founded in the mid-1990s. The effort has several motives—including energy.

Formation of the group was at least partly influenced by the writings of Amory Lovins, a resident of the area, who for decades talked about “negawatts”—the idea that efficiency in energy was as good as new supply. The group he co-founded, Rocky Mountain Institute, further applied this idea of a soft path to water efficiency.

CORE’s Jason Haber explains that saving water also saves energy in several ways. Developing water resources requires energy, but it also takes energy to pump water. Energy is also embedded in treatment of sewage, he points out. Typically, water and sewage are the largest components of any municipality’s energy budget…

Whether Colorado truly has any water to develop on the Western Slope is debatable—and has been debated frequently in state-wide water forums. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has suggested that major new diversions would be risky, simply because of the lack of certainty of legally entitled water in future years. Colorado’s use of the river that bears its name is tightly capped by two inter-state water compacts and one international treaty.

More conservation coverage here.