Runoff/snowpack news: Lake Powell is rising a foot a day right now #ColoradoRiver

Lake Powell elevation, inflows, outflows, thru June 5, 2014
Lake Powell elevation, inflows, outflows, thru June 5, 2014

Click on the thumbnail graphic to view a table of data for Lake Powell via the US Bureau of Reclamation.

Here’s a report from (Amy Joi O’Donoghue) writing for the Deseret News. Here’s an excerpt:

Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said snowpack numbers can look crazy this time of year because the melt is well underway, but the snow that remains in northern Colorado and Wyoming is a big boost for the Colorado River and its tributaries.

“Basically the high pressure that was parked over the western United States (over much of the winter) ended at the Utah/Colorado border,” he said, adding that Colorado was pounded with storms while Utah was left wanting. “That is the benefit of this whole thing, what is going on with the upper Colorado River and the Green River now.”

Runoff into Lake Powell that began in mid-May reached 60,000 cubic feet per second. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports that lake levels will continue to climb a foot a day into late June, hitting a peak elevation of 3,616 feet.

The rising water opened the Castle Rock Cut near Wahweap Marina and three concrete launch ramps — Wahweap, State Line and Antelope Point — are now open.

“The above average snowpack is helping,” said bureau spokeswoman Lisa Iams. “We are kind of at the mercy of Mother Nature. Who knows what we will see in the future, but we are glad that we have it.”

The bureau projects that by Oct. 1, the start of the next water year, Lake Powell will likely be at an elevation of 3,610 feet, 26 feet below its 50-year average for the date.

“Lake Powell is still half full, but that speaks to the value it has provided. Without that bank account of water storage, the implications of consecutive years of drought would be far more catastrophic. It is operating exactly as it was designed to do.” Iams said…

A monthly climate and water supply report put out by the Natural Resources Conservation Service said Utah continued its dry pattern into May, which saw precipitation across the state at just 73 percent of average.

Reservoir storage in general is down 4 percent from where it was last year and most streams and rivers have already reached their peak runoff.

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

A new report shows that snowpack in the South Platte on June 1 was at 311 percent of its historic average for that date, narrowly putting it behind the mark set in 2011, which is widely referred to as one of the best-ever snowpack years for the area.

On June 1, 2011, snowpack was at 313 percent of historic average — farther ahead of normal than any other date on record in the South Platte basin.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s snowpack data — consisting of reports that collect data for the first day of winter and spring months — date back to 1968, although its Jan. 1 reports for the South Platte Basin only go back to 1985, and its June 1 reports only date back to 1986.

While data is somewhat limited, there’s no doubting there’s a lot of snow in the mountains right now.

Because of that large snowpack, along with recent heavy rains, there’s been some flooding in the area, particularly along the Poudre River.

As far as the potential for more flooding, water experts say river flows in the area are trending down, doing so earlier than normal, and if there is any more flooding, it will be caused by rains — not necessarily by how much melting snow is coming down from the mountains.

Dave Nettles, the Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 1 engineer, based in Greeley, explained that, in general, this year’s apparent peak runoff for snowmelt up in the mountains came about May 31 — roughly 10 days earlier than normal.

Flows in the Poudre River peaked on May 31, flowing at about 6,000 cubic feet per second (the historic average is about 1,600 cfs for that date), and had fallen to about 4,300 cfs by Thursday afternoon (the historic average for June 5 is about 1,800 cfs).

Similar to the Poudre, the Big Thompson River above Lake Estes peaked on May 31 as well, flowing at about 1,350 cfs (the historic average for that date is about 440 cfs), and had fallen to 815 cfs by Thursday afternoon (the historic average for June 5 is about 520 cfs).

“Depending on what the weather does, we may have seen the rivers get as high as they’re going to get,” Nettles said. “But as full as the rivers already are … and as saturated as the ground is … it won’t take much rain to make them rise again.”

In addition to large snowpack, reservoirs in the South Platte Basin remain full.

Reservoir levels in the South Platte basin on June 1 were collectively at 113 percent of the historic average for that date, up slightly from the May 1 report this year, when they were 110 percent of historic average.

Minus the flooding in some areas, it’s continued good news for water users in the region.

Snowpack and reservoir measures have been at normal levels, or better, all year.

A healthy water supply is vital for Colorado’s agriculture industry which, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, uses about 85 percent of the state’s water.

And it’s especially critical for Weld County, where the ag industry makes about a $1.86 billion economic impact annually and ranks ninth nationally.

In addition to being good for northeast Colorado, the NRCS report showed that water supplies are in good shape across much of the state.

The Colorado River Basin — which flows in the opposite direction of Greeley and Weld County but still supplies a large chunk of the region’s water needs through transmountain tunnels that cross the Continental Divide — had similar numbers to those of the South Platte basin.

Snowpack for the Colorado basin stood at 223 percent of average on May 1, while reservoir levels were at 95 percent of average.

Statewide, snowpack is at 197 percent of normal, and reservoirs are filled at 95 percent of normal.

“What it really means is the seep ditches can come into priority” — Steve Witte #ArkansasRiver

John Martin Reservoir back in the day
John Martin Reservoir back in the day

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

High flows in the Arkansas River are satisfying more water rights than have been met in 14 years.

Colorado’s water rights system gives priority to water rights based on the earliest dates that water was put to a beneficial use. A call is placed on the river according to the most junior right entitled to water.

For the Arkansas River below John Martin Dam, that call sat at 1949, the year of the Arkansas River Compact, for the first time since 2000.

“That means we can put water in John Martin Reservoir, which is then divided between Colorado and Kansas,” said Steve Witte, Water Division 2 engineer.

Throughout the year, flood events briefly raise Arkansas River levels high enough to allow storage in John Martin Reservoir. But the prolonged levels above 4,000 cubic feet per second have allowed storage to continue for days, rather than a few hours, as typically happens in a flood.

Actually, the river had a split call Wednesday, with water above John Martin flowing into the Great Plains Reservoirs (via the Fort Lyon Canal).

Water below is going toward the 1949 compact. That satisfies all but a few water rights in Colorado.

“It’s being fed by return flows. What it really means is the seep ditches can come into priority,” Witte said.

The state four years ago shut down seep ditches, because they captured return flows that should have been going to Kansas, under the state engineer’s interpretation.

Witte expects the river conditions to continue for the next few days.

Meanwhile, about 23,000 acre-feet of Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water has been imported through the Boustead Tunnel into Twin Lakes.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here and here.

Will The #ColoradoRiver Be Restored To Its Former Glory? — Jon Waterman

Jonathan Waterman paddling the ooze in the Colorado River Delta
Jonathan Waterman paddling the ooze in the Colorado River Delta

Here’s an in-depth look at the current state of the Colorado River Basin from Jon Waterman writing for Elevation Outdoors Magazine. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

In the arid Southwest we put a lot of faith into a century-old agreement. Created by skillful lawmakers in 1922, it’s called the Colorado River Compact and it has little bearing on the reality of the river in 2014, or most years as it turns out. The boosters of growth who wrote the 2,000 page document had no inkling that the two decades before 1922 were much wetter than the fossil record. They relied upon a single gauge to calculate the River’s past and future volume. And so the Colorado River Compact charted the future by mandating who could take how much water from the lifeline of the Southwest—and began the process of diverting it dry.

It’s impossible to understand the current state of the river witout looking at these actions of the past. Seven states blithely divided up the river and began planning dams as if the Colorado’s water would spring eternal. The Colorado River Compact became the foundation for legislation—collectively known as the Law of the River—that would extensively store and divert water partly to various industry and cities, but mostly to farms (eventually using 78 percent of the river).

Ecology, let alone science, was overruled when it came to taming the disruptive Colorado River—which was prone to unpredictable floods, reddened moods, and maddening droughts. The Law of the River, along with sorting out rights, would help control this unruly Force of Nature.

Central to this mindset was the prevailing Prior Appropriations Doctrine, defined as “use it or lose it,” which assigned highest priority water rights to the earliest users. It all began with miners who didn’t necessarily own land alongside rivers but were putting the water to what became known as “beneficial use.” The new doctrine first appeared in a Colorado court in 1872, then was adopted by other western states, citing that arid climates could not abide by the old Riparian Doctrine, which actually prevented river diversions that jeopardized downstream users.

Few foresaw that the population served by the Colorado River would grow to 36 million…

Among many well-regulated spigots controlled by the Law of the River was a 1944 treaty with Mexico. Our southern neighbors had no choice but to accept ten percent of the annual Colorado River flow, paving the way for large portions of the Mexican Delta to turn as dry and hard as the concrete slabs holding up thousands of well-plumbed Southwestern U.S. subdivisions. Not so across the border. As most of the world now works double-time to conserve and recycle, present-day water buffalos in the Southwest continue to sprinkle non-native lawns, revere cows (sustained by hay, drinking more river water than any other crop) and cling to outdated principles likely to remain on the books. Unless the West adopts more progressive policies, they will continue to use the river as if it were 1922.

The problem is this increasingly intricate plumbing system—to the chagrin of Earth Firsters everywhere—performed as planned, with the exception of a wet spell in 1983 that nearly popped the Glen Canyon Dam, penultimate cork of the Colorado River. Meanwhile, those who cared about the River, let alone those Mexican communities whose livelihood depended upon tourists and coastal fishing, were devastated…

When Mexico’s Morales Dam opened its river gates on March 23, 2014, a crowd cheered. Further downstream, the San Luis Rio Colorado community of Mexico spent weeks barbecuing and playing music out on the once dry river banks to celebrate, at long last, the Colorado River running past their town. From here, it flushed a soup of bottles and foam down into the Delta, a Rhode Island sized sprawl of ancient grains washed out of the Rockies and carved from the Grand Canyon. Even if the river can’t be restored to its “PreDambrian” glory, regularly flooding to the sea, regular pulses of water into the mid delta could at least support riparian shrubbery, small forests and habitat for various fauna, including 380 species of birds…

There is also hope to be found in Colorado River Basin states, where water trusts are being established to allow senior water rights holders to donate water back to the river, without losing their future water rights. If a basin-wide water trust could be established, along with healthier minimum stream flows that would assure the future of the river, America’s most renowned scenic wonder will have a fighting chance.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.