Snowpack news: Snow dance may be in order as mid-season approaches — Steamboat Today

Click on a thumbnail for a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service

From Steamboat Today (Matt Stensland):

Steamboat Ski Area needs to get 6.5 inches of snow in the next 11 days if it wants to just tie the single worst January in the resort’s history of record keeping going back to 1979.

So far in January, 10.5 inches of snow have fallen at mid-mountain. On average, January yields 74.78 inches of snow and is typically the snowiest month of the season.

The worst January in the resort’s history was in 1981 when 17 inches was measured at mid-mountain. The second-worst January was in 1986 when 21.5 inches of snow fell.

The best January on record was in 1996 when 216.5 inches piled up. That is an average of nearly 7 inches per day.

The ski area is coming off a December when 56.25 inches of snow fell. On average, the ski area gets 68.74 inches of snow in December.

This January has also been a warm one with an average high temperature of 32.3 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The average high temperature for January in Steamboat is 27.3 degrees…
Joel Gratz, with, does not have great news when looking ahead to the last week and a half of January.

“I still don’t see a definitive timing of a pattern change toward consistent cold and snowy weather, but chances do increase late in January into early February for somewhat more consistent moisture,” Gratz wrote.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

It’s still early.

That is the optimistic attitude water leaders are taking towards the 2015 snowpack.

Tuesday’s snowpack sat at 61 percent of median for the San Juan Mountains on the western side of the Rio Grande Basin and 74 percent for the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the eastern side, and the Natural Resource & Conservation Service’s (NRCS) first stream flow forecast for the year predicted a 78-percentof-average flow on the Rio Grande at Del Norte during the irrigation season.

“We are hoping we can get some snow storms over these next months and get those numbers up quite a bit,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Division Engineer Craig Cotten said during the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) meeting yesterday in Alamosa.

“The best news I can give you the National Weather Service is still claiming we are going to have a good, above average precipitation year,” he added. “We are hoping they are going to get it right.”

The weather service’s precipitation outlook for February , March and April places the Valley right in the bull’s eye for above average precipitation, Cotten said. Longer-term forecasts from the weather service, going into the summer months, also predict above average precipitation, he added. That is not what the current snowpack reflects, however. Basin wide as of Tuesday the snowpack was 64 percent of normal and would require the snowpack from here through the end of the snow season to be 150 percent of normal just to get it up to average, Cotten explained.

“We do have some good months ahead really, and we can get that done if everything works right,” he said.

He said the current snowpack is about where it was in 2013, less than in 2012 and 2014 and significantly less than average. On the positive side, Cotten pointed out that some of the SNOTEL measurement sites in the basin are above average , such as the snow measurement sites at Cochetopa Pass (132 percent of median) Slumgullion (104 percent of median) and Medano Pass (110 percent of median), as of January 20.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Superintendent Lisa Carrico was encouraged about the above-normal snowpack on Medano Pass, because snow on the pass this winter will result in water running in the creek at the dunes this summer. She said the SNOTEL measurement at Medano Pass, reflecting 110 percent above median on Tuesday, had been 143 percent earlier in January.

Carrico said the precipitation at the dunes in 2014 was above average for the first time since 2008, and although it was only slightly above, “we’ll take it.” She said average precipitation is about 11.1 inches, and in 2014 the dunes registered 11.23 inches. She added for the first time in four years the flow at Medano Creek was better than average in 2014 and double the flow of any of the previous three years. The same was true on Sand Creek, she added.

RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver said San Luis Lake remained dry last year but hopefully the water in the wetlands between the dunes and the lake will reach the lake this year. In addition to providing an update on the snowpack and forecast, Cotten reported that Colorado more than met its Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states in 2014. The final accounting will not be approved until the annual compact meeting, which will be held in Texas in March.

As it stands, though, it appears Colorado will have an overall credit, having over-delivered its obligations on the Rio Grande, under-delivered on the Conejos River system and overall coming out ahead. Cotten explained that the state should end up with about 7,500 acre feet credit on the Rio Grande Compact. The Rio Grande wound up with a credit of about 9,000 acre feet after adjustments, and the Conejos River system was about 1,500 acre feet short.

Cotten said the Conejos River system annual index flow for 2014 was 225,100 acre feet, or about 70 percent of the long-term average, while the Rio Grande was pretty close to average, with an annual index flow of 638,700 acre feet. The long-term average runs 640,000-650 ,000 acre feet.

To make up some of its debt, the Conejos system shut off its irrigation season early in 2014, ending the season on October 21 rather than the traditional date of November 1, Cotten explained. In addition , the system released water that had been stored out of Platoro Reservoir to reduce its water debt.

Cotten said some compact water was stored this past year for both the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems, which is a rather new strategy , but he is hoping it can be done on a regular basis to help meet compact obligations without curtailing water users so heavily during the irrigation season.

RGWCD Board Member Lawrence Gallegos, who represents Conejos County, said the forecasts last year were off, so when it was discovered more water would be needed to meet the compact than had originally been predicted, irrigators had to be significantly curtailed and even shut off early. He encouraged using stored water in reservoirs to help pay compact debts to prevent that kind of drastic curtailment in the future.

Cotten said the division is working on better forecasting methods as well as greater utilization of reservoirs for compact storage. The division has to make sure compact storage/release from reservoirs can be accomplished without injuring other water users at the same time, he said.

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Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin

Upper Colorado River Basin  month to date precipitation January 18, 2015 via the Colorado Climate Center
Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation January 18, 2015 via the Colorado Climate Center

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center. Here’s an excerpt:

Last Week Precipitation:

  • The largest precipitation totals in the drought monitor region over the past week were in the San Juan and Wasatch mountains where precipitation totals exceeded one inch over some areas of the high terrain.
  • The northernmost portions of the Upper Green River Basin also experienced over an inch of precipitation. The rest of southwest Wyoming varied from having no precipitation in Sweetwater County to up to an inch of precipitation in Lincoln County.
  • The Duchesne basin received only 0.11-0.25″ of precipitation at lower elevation with much of the higher terrain experiencing 0.50-1.00″.
    The Yampa/White basin received only 0.01-0.10″ of precipitation in most areas. The high terrain over Rabbit Ears and Buffalo Passes experienced 0.25-0.50″.
  • The Central and Southern mountains in Colorado received less than 0.50″ over the past week with the exception of a bull’s-eye over the Mesa-Delta County border. The majority of the area was between 0.11″ and 0.25″.
  • East of the divide conditions were dry over the past week. Much of northeast Colorado had no precipitation. Most of the area east of the divide received 0.01-0.10″ of precipitation. Nearing the continental divide in the high terrain totals were in the 0.11-0.25″ range.
  • More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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    NOAA: Rivers in the sky

    From NOAA (Kenneth Lang):

    Yes, there are rivers in the sky! Atmospheric rivers, to be exact, are narrow bands of moisture that regularly form above the Pacific Ocean and flow towards North America’s west coast, drenching it in rain and packing it with snow. These rivers, which transport more water than the Amazon or the Mississippi, have a far-reaching impact – even on the food you may be eating today.

    With the January 14 sailing of NOAA’s largest ship, the Ronald H. Brown, a major investigation of atmospheric rivers named CalWater 2015 is now underway.

    With the January 14 sailing of NOAA’s largest ship, the Ronald H. Brown, a major investigation of atmospheric rivers named CalWater 2015 is now underway.

    “Improving our understanding of atmospheric rivers will help us produce better forecasts of where they will hit and when, and how much rain and snow they will deliver,” said Chris Fairall, the chief of Weather and Climate Physics at NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

    While atmospheric rivers impact the entire West Coast, they are particularly important for California, where they can deliver half of the state’s total annual precipitation in just a few storms.

    California produces nearly half of all the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States, requiring an enormous amount of water. If it were its own country, California would be the eighth largest economy in the world – larger than Italy or Russia. Interruptions to the water supply impact not only the agriculture, industry, wildlife, and citizens of the state, but the nation as a whole.

    With California currently facing one of the most severe droughts on record, the mission could not be more pressing: atmospheric rivers are collectively drought breakers – though they can also cause serious and dangerous flooding.

    The Pineapple Express

    TV weather forecasters in California in the 1960s noticed the atmospheric rivers traveling from an area near Hawaii to the West Coast and dubbed the phenomenon the Pineapple Express.

    “But the atmospheric rivers sometimes flow north towards Alaska, bypassing California altogether. Or they may arrive in California but with much less precipitation than usual,” said Fairall. Fifteen years ago scientists began to study these changes and how to better anticipate them.

    One question CalWater 2015 is investigating is the degree to which precipitation from atmospheric rivers is affected by aerosols. Aerosols, in scientific parlance, do not refer to spray cans but to particles suspended in the air, such as dust or pollen or pollution. Moisture in the air condenses around such particles and this is what forms clouds and rain.

    Scientists are learning that not all particles produce the same kind of precipitation under the same conditions. For example, particles blown from the deserts of Africa via the jet stream may have more precipitation forming qualities than local man-made pollutants, which may actually decrease precipitation. Some particles may also be better at forming snow versus rain, a critical difference in the Sierras where the snowpack serves as California’s biggest reservoir.

    CalWater 2015 is also investigating what proportion of the water falling on California originated at the rivers’ “source” in the tropics, and how much was picked up from the ocean along its 3,000 mile route.

    “I was quite surprised by some early analyses that indicate the rivers may actually be picking up very little water along the way. This is one of the things I’ll be measuring at sea on the Ron Brown,” said Fairall.

    An Armada’s effort

    Flying through rivers in the sky Scientists aboard NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft will measure wind, air pressure and moisture while flying through atmospheric rivers. (NOAA)
    Flying through rivers in the sky
    Scientists aboard NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft will measure wind, air pressure and moisture while flying through atmospheric rivers. (NOAA)

    CalWater 2015 will simultaneously employ, in addition to NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown, two highly specialized NOAA aircraft, the Lockheed WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV-SP “hurricane hunters”; NASA and Department of Energy aircraft; NOAA satellites; roughly 100 ground stations; and hundreds of weather balloons, all being deployed into the line of storm activity of two to three anticipated atmospheric rivers.

    NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown’s commanding officer, Capt. Robert A. Kamphaus, explains that, while it may seem counterintuitive to put a ship in the path of a winter storm, “the Brown is a very seaworthy and capable platform with a great crew.” The crew will also closely watch National Weather Service forecasts. “I’m confident we will meet the project objectives while keeping the ship and all aboard safe,” said Kamphaus.

    Environmental intelligence

    The goal of CalWater 2015 is the same as the mission of NOAA: to provide environmental intelligence. This intelligence will be used by water resource managers in many fields, including those involved with agriculture and flood control.

    The risk of severe flooding from atmospheric rivers can be significant, and environmental information can save lives, property, and money. With severe weather forecasting, every hour counts.

    “Flooding, besides being a serious life and limb hazard, has other impacts, such as mudslides, transportation issues, sewage overflowing into the ocean…It even affects the management of salmon and steelhead. Better forecasts derived from the data we are collecting this month will make it easier to manage all of it,” said Fairall.

    The CalWater 2015 field campaign runs from January 14, 2015 to mid-March 2015. Leading agencies are NOAA; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; NASA; the Department of Energy; the Naval Research Laboratory; and the State of California. Other partners include CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and STC, Science and Technology Corporation. CalWater 2015 evolved out of an ongoing NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory project called the Hydrometeorology Testbed.

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    Colorado Corn just committed $101,595 to research projects, with the bulk spent on water-focused efforts

    Here’s the release from Colorado Corn:

    Colorado Corn allocates tens of thousands of dollars annually to research endeavors, and has already made sure 2015 will be no different.

    Colorado Corn’s Research Action Team this month committed $101,595 to research projects, with the bulk of the funds spent on water-focused efforts. Following all-day meetings and presentations, Colorado Corn’s Research Action Team agreed to fund the following endeavors:

    * $30,425, to Colorado State University’s Troy Bauder and Erik Wardle, for their “BMP Research and Demonstration” project, which, over the next two years, will monitor the effects of improved nutrient management methods commonly practiced by corn growers, to better understand the agronomic and water quality benefits from these practices. This is expected to be useful in a triennial review for the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, helping quantify the good work producers are already doing in this area.

    * $26,700, to Erick Carlson at CSU, to develop additional methods for reducing the deep percolation of nitrates into groundwater, through investigating the functioning of wetlands created by irrigation runoff.

    * $25,000, to CSU’s Phil Westra and Scott Nissen, for various objectives at the Center for Ecology, Evolution & Management of Pesticide Resistance.

    * $15,604, to Louise Comas with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, to create a tool that will help corn producers identify when their crop is going into stress, help estimate potential yield impacts of that stress, and help dry-land and irrigated producers assess potential effects from constraints in their water supply.

    * $3,866, to Joel Schneekloth with the Colorado Water Institute, to study the impact of residue removal and tillage upon the soil characteristics important to crop production and crop-production economics.

    Arkansas Basin Roundtable hopes to score $865,000 to launch the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    A plan to coordinate efforts to prevent and respond to large burns in watersheds is spreading like, well, wildfire.

    The Arkansas Basin Roundtable last week agreed to ask the Colorado Water Conservation Board for $265,000 toward an $821,000 plan to launch the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative.

    The funding includes three projects designed to reduce wildfire risk in separate parts of the Arkansas River watershed.

    Watershed protection is crucial to protecting water supplies, since fires destroy plants, ruin the ability of soil to absorb water and increase silt or debris during fierce runoffs.

    “The Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative started in response to the catastrophic wildfires of 2012-13,” said Mark Shea, a Colorado Springs Utilities employee who co-chairs the group.

    Those fires included the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires near Colorado Springs, the East Peak Fire near La Veta and the Royal Gorge Fire near Canon City, as well as many smaller fires.

    Earlier, there had been grassland fires on the Eastern Plains during the prolonged drought of the last few years.

    At the December roundtable meeting, Shea presented the case for coordinating wildfire response efforts throughout the entire Arkansas River basin to control fires.

    Since then, a full package of how the group would function has been prepared.

    “We’re planning to have a meeting in February to get folks started talking,” said Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

    The projects that would be funded by the state grant include mitigation in the Purgatoire, Cucharas and Tennessee Creek watersheds. They total about $110,000 of the state grant money, as well as $308,000 in matching funds from other sources.

    The rest of the funding will go toward organization, data collection, strategic planning and public outreach and education.

    More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.