Snowpack/runoff news: Dust on snow lacking this year due to spring weather patterns

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal April 8, 2015 via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal April 8, 2015 via the NRCS

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dave Buchanan):

A quick look around the Elk Mountains last Friday from the top of Snowmass Ski Resort revealed something not seen in nearly a decade: Mountain peaks coated in white snow.

That might not seem worth reporting, except for its rarity. This, according to the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, is the first spring in the past 10 when dust, blown in from elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau, hasn’t discolored the snowfields covering Colorado’s high country…

In recent years, though, spring dust-laden storms similar to the one that hit the Grand Valley on Friday have carried what the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies is calling an “increasing amount” of cinnamon-colored dust onto Colorado’s alpine peaks, creating dark, dirty-looking snow that absorbs more sunlight and melts more quickly…

This year’s lack of dust-covered snow wasn’t because of a shortage of dust, said Landry, but rather the lack of the right weather patterns.

“Earlier in March the dust wasn’t available (for transport because) the Greater Colorado Plateau received snow and rain during that time,” he said. “A couple of large storm systems cut the availability of dust” even though those storms were windy enough to bring dust to the mountains.

“And then the weather missed the plateau for the rest of March,” Landry said.

He said Friday’s storm was a non-event in regard to high-altitude dust deposition since most of the disturbance was at low elevations.

Landry’s studies, in conjunction with those from the U.S. Geological Survey, say the vast majority of the dust covering the mountains comes from the Greater Colorado Plateau.

“We don’t even talk about other sources,” said Landry, discounting theories blaming deserts in China as a major source of Colorado’s wind-blown dust.

“Such a strong relationship has been established” through analysis of the dust chemistry with parts of the Greater Colorado Plateau, Landry said.

“There are any number of locales within the plateau that can be contributing a lot of (dust) depending on the particulate size, wind, soil conditions and things like that.”

He also said local sources of dust can be major factors.

“The parking lot at A-Basin (ski resort) is pretty intense,” he said with a laugh.

The drought is one reason there is more dust being carried by the wind, but what produces the dust in the first place?

Landry said “anthropogenic causes” such as motor vehicles, livestock grazing, fires and private and commercial development are “clearly recognized to make dust available.”

“But then the drought can also be a factor in that disturbed soils have more difficult time recovering and vegetation may not recover at all,” he said.

And simply receiving more rain might not be the answer.

“In a real ironic twist, in the fall of 2013, there were major rains in the mountains and on the plateau and then there was the corresponding flash flooding,” Landry recalled. “All that streamflow mobilized a whole bunch of new silt, which subsequently dried up and became a new crop of dust available for the next spring.”

“So massively wetting the Colorado Plateau actually made it worse, we speculate,” he said.

April can be one of western Colorado’s windiest and snowiest months and Landry expects to see more dust-on-snow events.

“The only way we’ll get more snow pack is to get some very large spring weather systems, which are increasingly likely to mobilize dust,” he said laughing. “So, it’s a Catch-22.

“But I think everyone would prefer having the water.”

More information about dust-on-snow and the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies is available at

From the Summit Daily News (Ali Langely):

Snowpack in Summit County’s Blue River Basin hovered slightly above average for the last few months and, after several stretches of close to record-breaking warm weather, dropped to average in late March and below average in early April.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL sites recorded local snowpack on Wednesday, April 8, at 92 percent of the seasonal average for the date. Summit’s snowpack also measured 89 percent of the average seasonal total.

Snowsports enthusiasts, water supply managers and those in the recreation industry in Summit consider this spring’s snowpack to be better than those in 2012 and 2013, when they were recorded on April 8 at about 45 percent and 73 percent of average, respectively, but not as good as 2011 and 2014, which both saw close to 140 percent.

“It’s hard to compare,” Wade said. In 2014, “we had such a banner year.”

In his 23 years in the county, Wade said he has never experienced such a long paddling season on the Blue River as he did last year.

Wade said even if the weather patterns continue, he remains optimistic about the 2015 season. Paddlers are already enjoying flows on the Upper Colorado River, he said, and stand-up paddleboarding on Dillon Reservoir is growing in popularity.

“If nothing happens, we still will have water, we still will have river flow, there will still be business,” he said.


Statewide, a short-lived weather pattern in late February and early March resulted in snowpack gains, but the falling snow lasted only until March 6. Then the sky’s faucet shut off through the rest of March.

From March 6 through April 1, the state recorded the second-driest stretch for that time period dating to 1986; only 2012 was drier.

To compound the issue, warm early spring temperatures melted the snowpack, especially at lower and some mid-mountain elevations.

Seasonal snowpack decline this early in the spring is rare and occurs in one of every 10 years, according to a report produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

2012 was the extreme case in which snowpack melting began early and continued unabated through the spring due to above-normal temperatures.

“While late-season snowstorms large enough to provide the kind of moisture we need in the mountains of Colorado are possible, they are not probable at this point,” said Brian Domonkos, hydrologist with the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey Program. “Coloradans and other downstream water users should be prepared for below-average streamflows this spring and summer.”

Statewide snowpack recorded on Wednesday, April 8, was 65 percent of normal, down from 87 percent last month, according to SNOTEL and snow course observation sites. That means this year’s snowpack ranks third from the minimum year of 2002 in a 30-year period of record.

The persistent bright spot in the state, the report said, is the South Platte River Basin where snowpack was 110 percent of normal last month. Though the South Platte experienced a large decline in March, it recorded the most snowpack of the state’s river basins on April 8 at 85 percent of normal.

“That means they won’t take as much down in Denver” from Summit, Wade said, referring to water pulled through the Roberts Tunnel in Dillon Reservoir by Denver Water to supply Front Range residents.

The Colorado River Basin, which includes Summit County, recorded an overall snowpack of 70 percent of average.

Colorado mountain snowpack typically peaks on April 9, but the NRCS report projected this year’s peak will have occurred one month earlier, closer to March 9, if warm temperatures and below-normal precipitation continue.

Snowpack deficits will negatively impact reservoir storage, which remains better in the northern half of Colorado while the southern half has stayed below normal.

“March is the second most significant month for mountain precipitation in Colorado. April is the most important, so if this dry trend continues through April, it would be a real one-two punch to Colorado’s water supply,” Domonkos said.


Summit’s ski resort officials have said early-season snow helped conditions through much of the spring despite much lower than average total snowfall.

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area reported that 100 percent of its easy, intermediate and difficult skiable acres were open Wednesday, while 84 percent of its expert terrain was open.

At Breckenridge Ski Resort, 99 percent of the terrain was open. Copper Mountain Resort was 67 percent open, and Keystone Resort, which closes Sunday, was 48 percent open.

Nearby, Loveland Ski Area was 91 percent open, Vail Mountain was 79 percent open and Beaver Creek, which also closes Sunday, was 43 percent open.

According to snowfall data reported by Breckenridge Ski Resort and compiled by, the ski area was blessed with heavy snow for a few days in a row in mid-November and again right before the Thanksgiving holiday.

In December, Breckenridge reported 29 inches in two days just before Christmas and more snow before New Year’s.

The rest of the season has been slow for powder hounds.

January’s snowiest day at Breckenridge was the 20th, with 7 inches, and the ski area reported five days of 4 inches or more that month.

As is typical, February was snowier than January, but this year it wasn’t by much. February’s snowiest days at Breckenridge were Feb. 5 and 21, when the ski area reported 9 inches. That month saw seven days of 4 inches or more reported.

Then in March, the ski area reported its snowiest day on the 4th, with a meager 6 inches, and the month saw five days of 4 inches or more.

So far in April, local ski areas have recorded one powder day, on Friday, April 3, and none will extend its season. Last year every local ski area pushed back its closing dates.

San Miguel
 water rights 
are upheld
 — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A Colorado Supreme Court ruling this week that upheld an instream flow water right in the San Miguel River in Montrose County also is being praised as an important one for the state’s instream flow program as a whole.

The court Monday ruled in favor of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in connection with its process for pursuing the water right for a 17-mile reach of the river. The board sought the right at the urging of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife to preserve habitat for three sensitive fish species — the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub — and for “globally imperiled riparian communities.” A water court approved an instream flow protection of up to 325 cubic feet per second.

The Farmers Water Development Company had argued to the Supreme Court that the 
CWCB’s action was quasi-judicial, and as a result its notice and comment period failed to follow procedural due process. The high court found instead that the instream flow process is a quasi-legislative one that “concerns the rights of the people of Colorado, with a prospective policy focus on protecting the environment.”

The court’s opinion, written by Justice Allison H. Eid, said the legislature vested the CWCB with the exclusive authority to appropriate instream flows on behalf of state residents, and such an action is a policy determination within the agency’s discretion. The opinion also pointed out that the agency doesn’t decree instream flow rights, but decides whether to seek such a right from water court.

The Western Resource Advocates conservation group, which was a party to the case, called the ruling a landmark decision that will have a bearing on other instream flow applications by the CWCB.

“This is more than just a technicality. It’s about the very nature and strength of the instream flow program,” said WRA staff attorney Rob Harris.

CWCB director James Eklund said the decision affirms the agency’s instream flow program process. Had the court determined that the process is quasi-judicial, the agency would have to follow rigidly spelled-out proceedings involving legal pleadings and procedures, rather than its current system involving a hearing process involving a board, he said.

“Our board gets to ask the kind of questions they want to ask. There’s not as much in the way of getting them to the meat of the issue,” Eklund said. A quasi-judicial process would be more difficult for the agency to follow, he said.

Christopher Cummins, the attorney representing Farmers Water Development Co., could not be reached for comment.

Eklund said the ruling is important because the instream flow program “is the most robust tool that we have as a state to protect streamflows for the environment.”

“It does double duty for us,” he said, because it also protects flows at the state or local level, as opposed to the federal government doing so through Wild and Scenic River designations.

Western Resource Advocates said that, if not for instream flow protections, the fish to be protected in the San Miguel River might require protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Instream flow rights are nonconsumptive, aimed at maintaining minimum flows between points on a stream, or certain levels in natural lakes. According to the 
CWCB, since 1973 it has appropriated instream rights on more than 1,500 stream segments covering more than 8,500 miles of stream, and 477 lakes.

Eklund said the court ruling provides certainty to everyone involved in the instream flow rights process, including opponents to proposals. “You want to know the rules of the game when you get into it and this opinion helps provide some clarity on that,” he said.

Harris said the ruling will have some bearing on some big fights coming up this year on instream flow proposals, including one that ExxonMobil is challenging involving Yellow Creek in Rio Blanco County.

He noted that when it comes to allocation of water, instream flow rights are junior to rights already in existence before they were decreed. But he said some entities are seeking “carve-outs” that would give priority over instream rights to other water uses that haven’t even been come up with yet, and he objects to making instream rights second-class rights.

“Water rights for instream flows, they deserve a seat at the table like any other water right,” he said.

More water law coverage here.

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Arkansas Basin Roundtable: Land use planning should be tied to water availability in future development #COWaterPlan


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Land use planning should be tied to water availability in future development, the Arkansas Basin Roundtable decided Wednesday.

That was one of three additions to the basin implementation plan the roundtable is completing as part of the state water plan, ordered in 2013 by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The meeting was held at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

The roundtable also added planks to support full development of Colorado’s entitlement under the Colorado River Compact and a watered-down preference for marketing water within the basin, rather than to the Denver area.

The roundtable unanimously agreed that land use planners must consider water resources when new development is proposed, a tough issue that has frequently arisen during the past two years of consideration of the state water plan.

“One of the ways we will better encourage water conservation is to work with local communities on land-use planning,” said Reed Dils, a retired outfitter and former member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We need to recognize how complicated it will be to achieve that end,” said Brett Gracely, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, who noted his own community’s attempts to integrate future water supplies and development. He did not oppose the addition to the plan, however.

The roundtable was not as cohesive on the issue of keeping water in the basin.

Dave Taussig, a water lawyer from Lincoln County, said he understood why water rights owners want to sell to water providers in the Denver area, in order to maximize value. But that would strip water from farms in the Arkansas River basin, harming the landscape and economy.

“Because it is so overap­propriated, water has to go to fill the gap in our basin before it’s sold to another basin,” Taussig said.

Most on the roundtable agreed with him.

“We have to make it attractive to leave water in the valley,” said Reeves Brown, a Beulah rancher and member of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

But others disagreed, saying the Arkansas River basin already imports water from the Colorado River, and that mechanisms to manipulate prices to keep water in the basin would drive up the prices artificially.

“I don’t know where you’re going to get the money to keep this valley green,” said John Schweizer, president of both the Catlin Canal and Arkansas Valley Super Ditch. “It sounds like a good idea, but I don’t think it will work.”

The final wording expressed only a “preference” for marketing water only within the Arkansas basin, and pledged the roundtable’s support to develop ways to make it more attractive to leave water in the basin.

Dan Henrichs, superintendent for the High Line Canal, opposed any steps to use water banks or other methods that might run afoul of Colorado water law’s prior appropriation system. He agreed to write a minority opinion.

The roundtable also adopted a simple statement that supports the state in achieving full development under the Colorado River Compact. Henrichs, Dils and SeEtta Moss, of the Arkansas Valley Audubon Society, opposed the option. Henrichs again argued for abiding by the prior appropriation doctrine, while Dils and Moss wanted to continue a collaborative approach with other roundtables.

On another Colorado River issue, the roundtable agreed to remain neutral on how existing transmountain diversions might be affected if future diversions from the Colorado River such as the Flaming Gorge pipeline are developed.