Snowpack news (Part 2): So far so good for Colorado Springs’ water supply

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

In mid-March, Dan Martin drove a snowcat 8 miles into the White River National Forest, headed for the place where Colorado Springs’ water supply begins. The cat lumbered along a forest service road at 10 mph, a road that Martin has driven every winter for nearly 20 years. A barbed wire fence lines the road, its wires half submerged in months of snow.

“There’s times when you can’t see this barbed wire fence,” Martin said. “To me, that’s a great year.”

Among other things, Martin measures snowpack for a living. But his time in Homestake Valley near Tennessee Pass has given him an extra snow sense. By barbed-wire fence standards, the water year for Colorado Springs is looking good.

After two years of low snowpack followed by a record-breaking year for snowfall, snowpack in Homestake Valley is solidly above average in 2015 – around 112 percent above average, based on a 30-year record. March is still winter in Colorado’s mountains, a crucial time for snowpack to keep building.

But snowpack levels are volatile – if snow doesn’t continue to fall in March and April, and if snowmelt begins too early, Colorado Springs, which gets much of its water from Homestake, could find itself facing a water deficit.

Martin monitors the snowpack closely for Colorado Springs Utilities to catch slight changes that could predict a good or bad water year.

Last winter was a record-breaking year of snowpack in Homestake Valley, but other years have been leaner. Sometimes the snow along the road is gone by spring’s end. Other times it lingers, soaking the valley until the end of summer.

“I’ve seen snow up here in August,” Martin said. “That’s probably 15 years ago, maybe. Sometimes it’s gone as soon as May. It depends on the snowpack.”

Snow in Colorado’s mountains is more than aesthetic and a blessing for ski resorts. For cities such as Colorado Springs and Aurora, snow in the White River Forest means water.

From January to April, Martin drives twice a month into Homestake Valley to take snowpack measurements, which help Utilities gauge its reservoir levels for the coming months. For Utilities customers, snowpack measurements determine watering restrictions come summer.

Water has around 200 miles to travel from Martin’s snowpack measuring tube to a faucet in Colorado Springs. It flows through Colorado River tributaries into three reservoirs, gets pumped over the mountains and is pulled pushed by gravity into Colorado Springs.

Aurora and Colorado Springs share the Homestake Water system, which conveys 70 percent of Colorado Springs’ water. Like water systems around the state, it depends heavily on winter and spring snowfall to fill its reservoirs every year.

Seeking snow

Mark Hanratty and Martin have measured snowpack for Colorado Springs and Aurora for more than a decade, and they return to the same spot every year in Homestake Valley to calculate the snow’s depth. They measure it in a drainage just off the forest service road, an area shaded by trees and where there is always snow.

“Anytime we come in here, we know we are going to have a lot of snow,” Hanratty said. The area’s wealth of moisture usually lingers for months after the mid-June snowmelt. “This is like the 9th green here in the summertime,” he added.

Mid-March is prime snow season for Colorado. The state typically receives most of its snow in March and April – no snow in late winter can signal a drought is in store.

“Springtime up here has nothing to do with when tulips and daffodils are coming up in your yard down there,” Hanratty said.

While March may leave Colorado Springs residents eager for warmth and greenery, Martin and Hanratty are praying for snow.

For their mid-March visit to the valley, Hanratty and Martin pulled their two snowcats into the drainage, covered by more than 3 feet of snow. Hanratty jumped out, sinking to his knees, with his 32-ounce aluminum snowpack measuring tube in hand. When stuck into the snow, the hollow metal tube measures the depth as well as its snowwater equivalent – there is about 1 inch of water to every foot of snow.

Hanratty tossed the tube into the snow – making sure that it was perfectly straight – and measured 47 inches of snow. The tube has to hit the dirt to get an accurate measurement. Hanratty weighed the tube and subtracted its weight from the total to come up with the snowwater equivalent of 18 ounces.

In layman’s terms, that puts the snowpack in Homestake Valley just above average. Later, a spreadsheet will translate the ounces into something more tangible – a water forecast for the upcoming summer.

While the tube measuring method might seem archaic, it is used around the West for measuring snowpack. Hanratty has no need for anything more high-tech and convenient, he said.

Crunching numbers

While Martin and Hanratty measure snowpack, Abby Ortega, a planner with Utilities, watches it through charts, graphs and data. But numbers are more than numbers to her, just as reservoirs aren’t quite as simple as they seem,

“Really I work on a spreadsheet all day,” she said. The spreadsheet tracks types of water. “You guys look at a reservoir and see a bucket of water. I see layers within that water.”

The layers depend on where the water came from, who owns it, and where it has to go. Built in the 1960s, Homestake Reservoir sits above 10,000 feet – it holds 43,000 acre-feet of water, and while it’s narrow, its depths reach 215 feet. In the winter, 4 feet of ice covers the reservoir. While good snow years come and go, there is always snow at Homestake in the winter, Hanratty said.

“The most snow I’ve seen up here was just over 7 feet,” he said.

The reservoir sits in an avalanche path – in the early 1990s, two years of avalanches destroyed an outlet hut along Homestake Dam. Some years, Utilities will hire contractors to trigger avalanches from the ridge above. Meanwhile, the hut was moved underground.

Homestake is where Colorado Springs’ water begins its journey eastward. After the reservoir, water is sent from Homestake to Turquoise Lake, then to Twin Lakes Reservoir.

Just north of Buena Vista, the Otero Pump Station pushes the water 750 feet over the mountains, and then it is pulled down the eastern side toward the Front Range. Half of the water goes to Spinney Mountain Reservoir, which feeds Aurora, while the rest travels down a pipeline to Rampart Reservoir.

Colorado Springs Utilities has been measuring snowpack in Homestake Valley since 1978, a much shorter span of time compared with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has been taking snow measurements around the West and in Colorado since 1935.

But the nearly 30-year span gives Utilities plenty of data to help forecast water levels for its reservoirs, which in turn determine water use for months and years. Monitoring snowpack levels in Colorado’s mountains is crucial for Front Range cities and for all of the 18 states downstream, to the east and the west, where Colorado’s rivers flow.

Four major rivers flow out of the state, including the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, but the Colorado River, with its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, is perhaps the most endangered. The river feeds California but it also provides water to the Arkansas River Basin, home to Colorado Springs, and feeds the reservoirs in the Homestake System.

Unlike other Front Range cities, such as Fort Collins, Colorado Springs is not near a major river, and relies instead on tributaries and recycled water to feed its water reserves, said Ortega. Having water storage is key to helping Utilities to weather a drought.

“If you can leverage those wet years with storage, you can ride through the dry years,” Ortega said.

Reservoirs are difficult to construct and even more difficult to get approved, since environmental regulations have tightened since the 1960s.

While Utilities may not add another reservoir, it is looking to the Southern Delivery System to offset stresses – population growth, drought and other system outages – on its existing system.

The Southern Delivery System is a regional project to bring Arkansas River water from the Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West. The project is expected to deliver water beginning in 2016.

“That pipeline is going to be our water supply,” Ortega said.

2015 Colorado legislation: HB15-1259 (#RainBarrel) passes final House vote 45 to 20 #coleg

Rain barrel schematic
Rain barrel schematic

From the Associated Press via the Fort Collins Coloradan:

The bill allows homeowners to collect up to 110 gallons in rain barrels.

Colorado’s rain-barrel ban is little known and widely flouted, with rain barrels for sale at many home-gardening stores and commonly used by home gardeners.

But the barrels technically violate Colorado water law, which says that people don’t own the water that runs on or through their property. They can use the water, but they can’t keep it.

Colorado’s law banning rain barrels was amended in 2009 to allow use by people with their own wells. But the change didn’t apply to municipal water users.

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

The measure addresses what some believe to be an antiquated prohibition on collecting and storing rainwater from roofs in Colorado.

“Colorado is the only state where it is illegal to collect and use rainwater,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who co-sponsored the bill. “I’m glad to see so much bipartisan support for this common-sense bill.”

The measure was amended to allow individuals to keep rain from their roof in up to two 55-gallon rain barrels for use in their garden or on their lawn. The bill started at two rain barrels with a combined storage of 100 gallons, but lawmakers decided to slightly raise the number.

Sponsors pointed out that an estimated 97 percent of water that falls on residential property never ends up in a river or stream system.

But critics say the measure would steal water rights from downstream users. They say water does not belong to someone simply because it fell on a roof. Instead, the water is return flow that someone downstream has a right to, especially if that water is being stored, say critics.

Republican Reps. Don Coram of Montrose and J. Paul Brown of Ignacio both voted against the measure. Coram said the bill serves as a literal slippery slope, suggesting that what starts as roof collection could end in allowing Coloradans to collect rainwater off their entire property.

“We keep nibbling away on the prior appropriation doctrine, and you know you eat an elephant one bite at a time,” Coram said, referring to the system in Colorado in which water rights are granted to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity.

“I object more to changing the process,” Coram added.

The bill would also set standards for rain barrels, including mandating screens to filter out debris and insects.

Sponsors estimated that with two 55-gallon barrels, residents cold capture more than 600 gallons of water each year.

Environmental groups praised the bill as another step towards conservation.

“While the amount of water saved is modest, having rain barrels in yards around the state will serve as an important tool to increase Coloradans’ knowledge of our limited rainfall and water supply,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “This common-sense step should help people understand the need for smart water conservation policies.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

In the 1894 hit song “Playmate, Come Out and Play With Me,” the rain barrel is forever lodged in our collective consciousness right between the apple tree and cellar door.

But Colorado has waited 121 years since then for the use of rain barrels to become legal.

On Monday, the state House took the first step toward legal rain collection with the passage of HB1259, which would allow collection of up to 110 gallons in two 55-gallon drums. The bill passed 45-20 and now heads to the state Senate.

“Colorado is the only state where it is illegal to collect and use rainwater,” said state Rep. Daneya Esgar, who co-sponsored the legislation. “I’m glad to see so much bipartisan support for this common-sense bill.”

She sponsored the bill after hearing people talk about rainwater collection.

“It makes more sense to collect the water and use it when it’s needed,” Esgar said. “Really, the purpose is to get people to talk about water use and to be conscious of it.”

Colorado’s ban on rain barrels can be traced back to the state constitution and subsequent court cases that prohibit any sort of detention of water upstream from a senior right. It’s the same concept that poses a dilemma when considering flood detention structures.

Has the rain-barrel ban been rigorously enforced?

“Not that I can recall,” said Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte. “I would say it’s been rarely enforced. If people ask, there is a policy on (the Division of Water Resources) website.”

A 2009 state law (SB80) authorized the use of rain barrels in connection with other water rights. Another 2009 bill (HB1129) authorized pilot projects for rainwater harvesting. So far, the proposed Sterling Ranch development in Douglas County has been the only applicant.

HB1259 would allow any single-family residence or multifamily residences with four or fewer units to collect rainwater. Rainwater could only be used on lawns or in gardens, and would not be allowed as drinking water or for any other indoor uses. Barrels also would be required to have a sealable lid.

Opponents of the bill said it opened the door to other forms of capturing water before it reaches downstream users. Supporters argued that 97 percent of the water on residential lots never makes it into the stream system anyway.

If the rain-barrel law passes, homeowners will have a new source of water for that apple tree, while keeping rain from sliding down the cellar door.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.

John Fleck’s Water News: Are we overreacting to California’s #drought? #ColoradoRiver

#Drought news: Statewide reservoir storage = 105% of avg

Click here to go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board website to read the update. Here’s an excerpt:

Activation of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, and the activation of the Agricultural Impact Task Force remain in effect to respond to ongoing drought conditions in Southern Colorado.

February was the 14th warmest on record and 221 daily temperature records were either tied or broken throughout the state. March has continued this pattern especially on the western slope. At least two communities, Denver and Colorado Springs have seen their earliest 80oF day on record (March 16). Late February and early March storms helped increase snowpack levels, but the remainder of the month, to date, has been warm and dry in many basins.

El Nino conditions are expected to strengthen over the next few months favoring a wet spring for the southeastern portion of the state.

 Water year-to-date precipitation at mountain SNOTEL sites, as of March 16, is at 85% of normal. As a state, Colorado will need to experience 226% of normal precipitation in the next few weeks in order to reach the normal peak by April 1st. The South Platte basin continues to have the highest snowpack at 100% of normal. The Upper Rio Grande basin has the lowest at 73% of normal, a 12% increase from February.

 March 1st streamflow forecasts statewide range from 54-113% of average. The near average to above average forecasts are in the South Platte, Colorado, and upper portions of the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. The lowest streamflow forecast is 54% of average in the upper Gunnison basin on Surface Creek at Cedaredge.

 Reservoir Storage statewide is at 105% of average as of March 1st a slight improvement from last month. Storage in the northern half of the state is in good shape heading into the spring. The southern half of the state has below average storage levels. The Upper Rio Grande has the lowest storage at 72% of normal.

 The Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) is at near normal statewide. The lowest SWSI value in the state is due to low storage levels in Paonia Reservoir in the Gunnison basin. Currently, the reservoir is at 25% of average.

 Current El Nino conditions are expected to persist and may be bolstered by a positive PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation). El Nino typically favors more precipitation in Colorado during the growing season.

 Water providers in attendance reported their systems are in good shape, largely due to plentiful storage. Despite higher than average temperatures, providers have not seen a significant increase in customer demand.

More Colorado Water Conservation Board coverage here.

Snowpack news: Colorado Snowpack Struggles As #Drought More Than Doubles Since Christmas — CBS Denver

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal via the NRCS

From CBS Denver (Chris Spears):

With the end of snow season in sight for Colorado’s high country the statewide snowpack continues to struggle.

As of March 20 it was 81 percent of normal, down from 92 percent on March 6.

The average peak for snow accumulation in Colorado’s mountains is April 9.

While we’re in much better shape than some of our neighbors to the west, we know all too well how fast things can change when the weather patterns shift.

Colorado is a land-locked state about 1,000 miles from the nearest source of atmospheric moisture and it depends on weather patterns to bring rain and snow.

The latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 51 percent of the state was in a drought as of March 17.

That’s up 30 percent from just three months ago.

The latest 90-day outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center provides hope for the state with a wetter-than-normal forecast.

For Colorado to reach peak snow accumulation by the normal date we’ll need a few slow-moving and soggy storm systems to materialize quickly in the high country.

SNOTEL data shows that precipitation would need to be 293 percent of normal to reach peak accumulation by April 9.

2015 Colorado legislation: SB15-183 (Quantify Water Rights Historical Consumptive Use) passes Senate assigned to House Ag committee #coleg

Flood irrigation -- photo via the CSU Water Center
Flood irrigation — photo via the CSU Water Center

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

he Colorado Senate gave final approval Tuesday to a water bill that made some Western Slope lawmakers a bit uneasy.

The measure, [SB15-183], requires water court judges, when considering changes in water uses, to decide based on actual historical use of that water, rather than uses not approved by a prior water decree.

Several Western Slope lawmakers from both parties questioned why such a bill would be necessary, saying it allows water rights owners who use water for unapproved purposes to get away with that illegal use.

“We have water courts for a reason,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. “Water courts are highly trained to deal with technical issues. This bill basically is skipping over the water courts system and coming here to the Legislature to try and get a legislative result, as compared to having it well considered in the court system that, again, is trained to deal with these kinds of things.”

Supporters of the measure said the bill is designed to give direction to water court judges based on a recent Colorado Supreme Court decision in a case between Dick Wolfe, the state’s water engineer, and the Sedalia Water and Sanitation District over the district’s historical use of water.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling and a sponsor of the bill, said it’s the Legislature’s job to give direction to the courts when there is undefined law on an issue.

“The question here is, do we want a consistent use of water, a consistent means of determining what the volume or quantity of that water is, as the Supreme Court did in the Sedalia case?” Sonnenberg said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is clarify what they have asked us (about) what should and should not be used in quantifying a water right in a change of use.”

Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, said the bill rewards water users who use that water for unapproved uses.

The bill has support from virtually every water group in the state except the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

In the end, only eight senators voted against the bill, including Donovan, Roberts and Sens. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican whose district includes Garfield County. It now heads to the House for more hearings.

In a related matter, the House approved a water bill Tuesday that allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to acquire water rights for up to 12 pilot projects to measure efficiency savings for instream flow use.

The pilot projects would take at least 10 years to complete.

The bill heads to the Senate for more debate.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.