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Snowpack news: A week of warm weather sends snowpack downward

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A warm week of weather left the state with a decreased snowpack of just 84 percent of median in terms of moisture content. A cold front is expected to move into the state today, bringing with it some additional moisture later in the week. March and April are traditionally the snowiest months, providing much of the water supply for later in the year.

But for now, the snowpack is below average throughout the state, with the exception of higher elevations in the central mountains. The South Platte and Arkansas River basins are near normal, overall, while the Upper Colorado River basin is at just 91 percent.

The flow in the Arkansas River below Pueblo Dam doubled Sunday to about 330 cubic feet per second after the end of the winter water storage program. Area ditches began taking water, rather than keeping it in storage at Lake Pueblo and other reservoirs in the Lower Arkansas Valley.

Water use by Puebloans began to increase over the weekend as well, but not dramatically, said Seth Clayton, director of administrative services for the Pueblo Board of Water Works. Water use increased by about 500,000 gallons Sunday, as temperatures hit 79 degrees.

“I think people are still nervous and haven’t kicked up their sprinkler systems yet,” Clayton said. “It really starts to go up at the end of March.”

Still, Pueblo water use has averaged just over 12 million gallons per day through Sunday, up a bit from the five-year average. By the end of March, it should be around 18-19 million gallons per day.

Following record snow in February, Pueblo is still above average with 1.43 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1.

From the Leadville Herald:

Two weeks of wet weather through the end of February and beginning of March have provided a significant increase in snowpack statewide and an even greater boost to those southern Colorado basins that are still ailing after several consecutive years of below-normal snowpack.

Despite substantial accumulations statewide, snowpack has not quite returned to normal; it was 87 percent as of March 1.

Further investigation of SNOTEL data indicates that during the nine-day period of Feb. 20 through March 1, the state of Colorado received two inches of snow water equivalent, 181 percent of the normal for that time frame. That is a 9 percent increase in snowpack percent of median. Preliminary numbers into March indicate an additional 7 percent increase between March 1 and March 5. On March 1, with 20 percent of the mountain snowpack accumulation season remaining, time is dwindling to close the gap and reach typical statewide peak snowpack levels.

Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service, said, “While not every major watershed in the state saw snowpack improvements this month, precipitation during the latter half of February was a highly beneficial to many water budgets across the state.”

The recent storm patterns were most beneficial to the Rio Grande watershed, receiving 300 percent of normal snowfall in the last nine days of February. The South Platte and the Rio Grande both received a 13 percent gain over the course of February. In the South Platte River basin, snowpack has not reached 2011 or 2014 levels at this point, but conditions are still better than 1988, 1993, 1994 and above normal.
Statewide precipitation for the month of February was right at normal, a drastic change from 45 percent of average received during the month of January. Year-to-date statewide mountain precipitation totals increased 3 percent since last month. Colorado reservoir storage increased as well from Feb. 1 to March 1 from 104 to 105 percent of average. Stream flow forecasts saw marked improvements most particularly for the state’s southern streams.

Domonkos put the recent weather into perspective. “This storm could not have come at a better time,” he said. “Without this storm, if the same weather patterns since Jan. 1 had persisted through spring, mountain snowpack would have narrowly reached only the minimum snowpack peak.”

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Denver Post:

Colorado water officials will get an update on mountain snowpack and an early look at potential flooding threats from the spring runoff on Tuesday.

State task forces on water availability and on floods are holding a joint meeting to hear reports on weather forecasts, snow levels and the possibility of flooding when spring arrives in the high country and the snow begins to melt.

Colorado’s snowpack is closely watched because it provides water for four major river systems that originate in the state: The Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande.

The Colorado River is under especially close scrutiny because it helps supply California, which is in the midst of a historic drought. The most recent assessment available showed 40 percent of California was in an exceptional drought, the driest of five categories used by the federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly 28 percent was in an extreme drought, the second-driest category.

In Colorado, the snowpack in the mountains and valleys that directly feed the Colorado River was 91 percent of the long-term average Monday. In three other Colorado basins that eventually feed into the Colorado River, the snowpack was 73 to 81 percent of average.

East of the Continental Divide, snowpack in the basin that feeds the South Platte was 104 percent of average, while the North Platte River basin was at 86 percent. The North Platte flows north into Wyoming before turning east into Nebraska, where it joins the South Platte to form the Platte River.

The Arkansas River basin had 96 percent of average snowpack, and the Upper Rio Grande basin had 80 percent.

Rain or extended warm spells in springtime can hasten the spring runoff and trigger floods by putting more snowmelt into Colorado’s rivers and streams than they can handle.

From the Vail Daily (Melanie Wong):

Think it’s been unseasonably warm? So do the walkers and runners out on the recreation paths, the fly fishermen in the Eagle River and the skiers cruising down the mountain in short-sleeves.

March weather data shows that this winter has brought stretches of higher-than-average temperatures and that mid-March has had the thermometer at or near all-time record highs for the month. The highest recorded temperatures for Vail in March are in the mid-50s, which are similar to what Eagle County has been seeing the past few days. Typically, average March temperatures are closer to the mid-40s, according to National Weather Service data.

According to SNOTEL information gathered on Vail Mountain, the record mid-March high for the last 30 years was 56 degrees in 1995, with several other very warm Marches in 2011 and 1999. March 15 of this year was very close to those record highs, with a max temperature of 53 degrees. However, Monday could break that record, with the forecast calling for a high of 56.

“Essentially we’re under a ridge of high pressure, meaning there’s a bubble of warm air in the atmosphere over us,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Ben Moyer. “In fact, most of Colorado is seeing high temperatures. On Monday, Denver is at 69, and Pueblo is in the lower 80s.”

However, as National Weather Service data acquisition program manager John Kyle points out, this winter has not only brought warm highs, but also a good number of very cold days.

Dec. 14 was a record warm day, as were a few days in February, Kyle said. However, there was also a record low day recorded around New Year, and the first week of March was colder than the historical average.

“Minus the latter part of December and a couple brief days, it looks like it was a warmer than normal winter, and that was the case for most of the Western Slope,” said Kyle.

SNOWPACK STILL OK

The good news is that snowpack levels are still looking strong, ranging from 83 percent of the average snow water equivalent to 113 percent of average at the Eagle River headwaters at Fremont Pass to 107 percent on Copper Mountain.

“The (snow water equivalent) took a huge hit on Vail Mountain between Sunday and Monday, but Fremont and Copper held tight. Does that cause concern? Yes, but there’s still a good month of winter left,” said Diane Johnson, of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

Snowpack affects reservoir levels, fire danger for later months and river levels. Mountain residents should certainly be concerned about stream flow levels, but Johnson said it’s too early to tell if the local waterways will be normal or suffering come spring.

“A few years ago, we were saved by end-of-winter storms after a very poor snow season,” she said. “Even if we get snow in late April and May like we did in 2013, it can really help our situation here.”

As far as precipitation, the predictions are positive. The outlook from the Colorado Climate Center calls for higher than average chance of precipitation during the next few weeks, although it is also calling for higher than average temperatures.

Governor’s Ag Forum recap

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

The weather did not deter those interested in “Water: Colorado’s Treasure,” this year’s theme. The Denver-area forum is in its second year of sponsorship from the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program.

The event also marked the first time new Ag Commissioner Don Brown of Yuma spoke before the well-attended forum. Brown is less than two weeks into his new job, but spoke about his history with water issues. While acknowledging he needs to learn more about surface water, Brown said his family was early irrigators on the Ogallala aquifer. Brown also made a pitch for the interest in agriculture held by Gov. John Hickenlooper. “He’s extremely passionate about agriculture, wants us to succeed in agriculture. And I intend to achieve those goals for him,” Brown said.

Craig Beyrouty, dean of the college of agricultural sciences at Colorado State University, discussed CSU’s academic work on water issues. He said 25 percent of the faculty in the ag college work on water policy, water conservation, recycling, water quality and agricultural perspectives on water. “We’ve just finished a drought of three to four years,” Beyrouty said, although some sectors of the state have yet to recover, most notably, southeastern Colorado. “What will we do if we have a drought of 10 to 15 years? Are we prepared for it? We are not, and that’s where innovation and science-based information” will play a big role on short-term and long-term drought.

The ag forum also heard from the Environmental Protection Agency, not always one of the most welcome of federal agencies. Speaking on behalf of the EPA, however, was Ron Carleton, who until recently was Colorado deputy commissioner of agriculture and for six years chief of staff in Washington for then-Rep. John Salazar, newly retired as Commissioner of Agriculture.

Carleton, a resident of Fort Collins, is now counselor to the EPA administrator for agriculture policy, and works as a liaison between the agency and farmers and ranchers.

Carleton got friendly applause from the audience. “It’s heartening to be identified with the EPA and you still applauded,” he joked.

Carleton said his role is to make sure agriculture has a seat at the table when views of the industry are discussed and to promote meaningful engagement between agriculture and the EPA.

Among the big issues: Waters of the US Rule, also known as the Clean Water rule, which has generated considerable controversy within agriculture. Carleton said the rule is likely to be finalized later this spring, but that it is expected to be changed significantly based largely on the feedback from the ag industry. He noted the EPA got more than a million comments to the agency, with about 800,000 coming from form letters and postcards and another 200,000 unique comments.

According to Carleton, the administrator said that after the comments and more than 400 outreach meetings around the country, that the agency probably did not get some things right in the original proposal. He did not elaborate on the possible changes.

The Clean Water rule, under the federal Clean Water Act, defines the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both maintain that the rule would not add any regulation of water to agriculture, but the ag industry has disagreed. Among the concerns are the rule’s broad definitions, which some claim could place even dryland contained in floodplains under the EPA’s jurisdiction.

“The administrator is genuinely concerned that we get this right,” Carleton told this reporter later in the morning. With the comments received and the modifications planned, it will provide more certainty about what’s jurisdictional and what isn’t.

Carleton said his challenge is how to better engage the agricultural community and ensure there’s a good meaningful two-way dialogue with the agency. There have been efforts to do that in the past, but EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is interested in better engagement, Carleton said. As a matter of public policy, the EPA wants to protect water and air, human health and the environment, but the trick is how to balance those requirements with concerns about impacts on agriculture.

Among the other challenges faced by the agency, Carleton told the audience that they’re looking at worker protection standards on pesticide handling, pollinator health, and further work on nutrient management. Carleton noted that the Des Moines, Iowa regional water utility recently announced its intention to sue upriver countries because of their inability to control nutrient runoff.

“No question we want clean water… clean air… and a clean environment. Also no question we want a prosperous and productive agricultural sector as well, one that produces the fuel, food and fiber” for the United States and around the world. “We can find ways to work together to achieves those goals,” Carleton said.

The forum also witnessed the first awarding of the governor’s agriculture export awards. The “New Exporter Award” went to Watkins Grain. The company was contacted in 2010 by buyers in the Philippines, seeking white millet. The company learned the rules and procedures for exporting, and now is shipping containers of millet on an almost daily basis, providing a new market for Colorado growers.

The “Experienced Exporter of the Year” was Keeton Industries of Wellington, which exports aquatics technology to 19 international markets, and has been doing so since the 1970s.

The afternoon breakout sessions looked at maximizing the value of water by enhancing environmental benefits of irrigation, a legislative update, the value of ag water, water quality issues in four Colorado rivers and a look at the documentary “Droughtland.” The 2014 film, produced by Steffan Tubbs of KOA radio, looks at drought conditions in southeastern Colorado.

2015 Colorado legislation: Two groundwater bills, no solutions to high groundwater near Gilcrest yet

South Platte River alluvial aquifer
South Platte River alluvial aquifer

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

Among the bills awaiting action (and funding) in the House are House Bill 15-1013 and HB 1178. The latter would take $500,000 over two years from general funds and put it into an “emergency dewatering grant account.” If the bill makes it to the governor’s desk and is signed, then the money, under the control of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), could be used to start emergency pumping of wells permitted for dewatering in the Gilcrest and LaSalle areas. Those areas are experiencing high groundwater that has damaged crops, flooded basements and streets.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, one of the bill’s sponsors, told this reporter she sought the legislation as a short-term fix to the groundwater problems for residents in her district. It is “the only short-term solution available for Gilcrest and surrounding areas,” she said this week.

Saine pointed out that her bill has the support of the South Platte Basin Roundtable.

But her bill is at odds with another that is intended to address the high groundwater problem in her district and in Sterling.

HB 1013 comes from the annual interim Water Resource Review Committee, of which Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is a member. Sonnenberg is the Senate sponsor of HB 1013, along with Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton. In the House, HB 1013 is sponsored by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. It passed the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee in late January.

Both bills arise from the 2013 CWCB report that recommended local solutions for high groundwater problems in Gilcrest/LaSalle and north from Sterling to Julesburg, rather than a one-size-fits-all plan.

HB 1013, also awaiting action from the House Appropriations Committee, would require the CWCB to conduct a study that would test alternative methods for lowering the water table along the South Platte near the Gilcrest/LaSalle and Sterling areas. The bill sets up application and approval criteria for the pilot projects, which would last four years. The bill also deals with related issues, such as augmentation plans and recharge structures (ponds or ditches).

HB 1013 sets up a lengthy process for the pilot projects, starting with a 45 days’ notice for proposed criteria and public comment. Another 75 days is allotted for comments on the pilot project applications. Once the CWCB approves the applications, another 35 days is available for appeals.

Should it become law, the bill wouldn’t go into effect until around Aug. 5. That contrasts with the timelines for HB 1178, which addresses the problem only in Gilcrest. Because HB 1178 has what’s known as a safety clause, if signed, it would go into effect immediately.

“Had 1013 addressed the immediate problem of flooding basements and potential health and safety issues, I would not have run 1178,” Saine said this week. Testimony given during the HB 1178’s March 2 hearing indicated that pumping could start as soon as April 15.

But the emergency dewatering plan wasn’t supported by the water resources review committee. During their Sept. 30, 2014, meeting, then-Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, commented that if action was not taken soon, those affected by the high groundwater problems would take legal action. “We owe it to the people of Colorado” to solve this problem with a smart approach, Brophy said. Dewatering wells take out the water “and dump it in the river, which I think is a waste of water. How can that be okay if it’s not okay to pull it out for beneficial use?”

Coram, during the January hearing on HB 1013, said dewatering was not the solution. HB 1013 is not the only solution, he said, “but it’s a start.”

HB 1013 has another important distinction: its cost. While HB 1178 seeks $500,000 in general funds, which come from income and sales tax, HB 1013 seeks less than $100,000 over two years for evaluation of the pilot projects. Sonnenberg told this reporter this week he is attempting to get those dollars from the CWCB construction fund rather than tapping into the general fund.

HB 1013 does not address the costs for implementing the plan that would come from the pilot projects.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.

2015 Colorado legislation: Rainwater catchments bill passes out of House ag committee

Rain barrel schematic
Rain barrel schematic

From The Denver Post (Anna Gauldin):

A bill that would allow residential rainwater collection sailed through a committee hearing Monday, making headway in Colorado’s decades-old water rights battle.

House Bill 1259 passed the Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee 8-5 and now advances to the full House.

“We’re simply wanting to allow people to collect the rain that falls off of their rooftops … to put back into the earth,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo.

The proposal would limit total barrel size to 100 gallons per residence. Proponents say that the average homeowner could collect about 600 gallons of water annually to water their lawns or gardens.

That amount of water could sustain a vegetable garden or a flower bed, according to Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, who testified for the legislation.

“One of the most important things this bill accomplishes is putting urban and suburban water users in the mind frame of conservation,” said co-sponsor Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge.

Esgar said people already use rain barrels and were shocked to find out it’s illegal. Beckwith said Colorado is the only state to prohibit residential collection of rain.

Colorado’s water rights system — known as “first in time, first in right” — emerged during the mining booms of the 19th century. Using that rhetoric, people argue that collecting rainwater prevents it from reaching rivers, violating the rights of downstream users.

“It’s a violation of the doctrine of prior appropriations,” said Pat Ratliff of the South Metro Water Authority. “It’s not their water (to use). It’s a return flow that somebody downstream has a senior right to.”

From CBS Denver:

Lawmakers are working to change a decades-old law that prohibits Coloradans from collecting rainwater.
It’s currently against the law — in almost all cases — to put a bucket by a downspout and catch the rain because that water is the property of people downstream. But a bill changes water rights, allowing homeowners to store up to 100 gallons of rain at a time.

It’s been illegal to collect rain in Colorado for more than a century. It can be directed by changing gutters or grading, but it can’t be collected.

“Many people I’ve spoken to think I’m joking when I tell them that the collecting of the rain off of your roof is illegal,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo.

Esgar and Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, say it’s time the law changed. A recent study found 97 percent of rain doesn’t even make it to a stream because it’s absorbed by vegetation or evaporates.
Esgar and Danielson say homeowners ought to be able to collect and use the water where they need it most, as long as they put it back into the ground.

“Water collected through this bill will not even be enough to water the average blue grass lawn in Colorado even once,” Esgar said.

“Anytime that you manipulate that system — any — it affects somebody,” rancher Jim Yahn said.

Yahn says the study looked at only a small natural area in Douglas County, not municipal runoff. He says even a little water makes a big difference.

“There are people waiting in line for that water, and if they don’t get that little influx from a rainfall event, then they don’t get that water that they are going to put on their crops, that they’re going to use to offset their well pumping,” Yahn said.

Supporters insist the bill will result in more water for everyone by encouraging conservation.

“Perhaps when they see how little water 100 gallons really is, they’ll think twice about how much water they’re using when they turn that faucet on and it comes pouring out to water their lawns,” Danielson said.

Under the bill Coloradans can only use the rain collected outside — on flowers for example.

The state is in the middle of a 10-year study of rain harvesting in both urban and rural areas. Opponents say lawmakers should wait until that’s done.

The bill passed committee Monday and is headed to the full House.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.