Snowpack/runoff news

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal April 15, 2015
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal April 15, 2015

From The Mountain Mail (Merle Baranczyk):

With below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures for much of the past month, snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin stands at 87 percent of median.

April 1 reports from the Natural Resources Conservation Service show precipitation for March was 65 percent of average. Reports show year-to-date precipitation at 92 percent of average.

According to the NRCS, basin reservoir storage as of March 31 was at 80 percent. A year ago, reservoir storage was at 60 percent.

Streamflow forecasts for the Arkansas River at Salida currently total 80 percent of average while the forecast for the Cucharas River at La Veta is at 62 percent of average.

On March 1, basin snowpack was at 101 percent of median, February precipitation was at 135 percent of average, and year-to-date precipitation was at 101 percent of average.

The NRCS website states that even with the most optimistic snowfall, forecasts would not provide the amount of snowpack accumulation needed to reach median peak snowpack levels.

After the large storm system from the end of February into the first week of March, the rest of the month saw minimal new snow.

The NRCS reports that between March 1 and April 1, statewide percent of median snowpack dropped by 18 percent to 69 percent of normal amounts for the end of March.

The Arkansas and South Platte basins are currently tied for the most plentiful snowpack in Colorado at 87 percent.

The NRCS reports that the combined Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan basins of southwest Colorado have experienced warm and dry conditions for much of the winter and now show just 49 percent of normal April 1 snowpack.

Snowpacks in the Upper Rio Grande, Gunnison and Yampa-White basins stand at 59, 63 and 65 percent of normal.
Upper Colorado and North Platte basins report snowpacks that are 76 and 73 percent of normal.
April is the month when the state on average sees the most precipitation.

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Colorado’s overall snowpack is the third worst in 30 years for this time in April, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The snowpack is down to 69 percent of normal. It fell from 87 percent of normal one month ago, the federal agency said.

In addition to the dry conditions, spring temperatures are higher than normal, so the snowpack is disappearing earlier than usual, according to the conservation service…

The snowpack disappeared rapidly throughout the Roaring Fork River basin after a series of storms dumped about six feet of snowfall on slopes in two weeks during late February and early March. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River is 89 percent of average. In the Fryingpan Valley, the snowpack completely melted at Nast Lake, which is at 8,700 feet in elevation, according to the conservation service. The snowpack is still at 93 percent at Ivanhoe Reservoir, which is at 10,400 feet in elevation.

The snowpack is only 64 percent of normal at Schofield Pass at the headwaters of the Crystal River. It’s at 44 percent at the North Lost Trail snowpack measurement site near Marble.

March came in like a lion but ended like a lamb for Aspen Skiing Co. ski areas. Snowmass received 54 inches of snow during the month, about 90 percent of average, according to company spokesman Jeff Hanle. Aspen Mountain received 41 inches or 77 percent. Aspen Highlands received 44 inches or 80 percent. Buttermilk collected 25 inches or 50 percent of average, Hanle said.

Aurora: Prairie Waters project update


From (Maya Rodriguez):

“Prairie Waters was born from the drought of 2002-2004, and is a way of fully utilizing Aurora’s water,” Aurora Water spokesperson Greg Baker said.

The Aurora Prairie Waters project is a large-scale effort to reuse water for a growing city.

“You have to think of sustainability,” Baker said. “How are you going to support a community like Aurora, which will probably double its population in the next 50 years? And where is that water going to come from?” Baker asked.

Most of Aurora’s water comes down from the mountains. Snow melt flows into the Colorado and Arkansas River basins. However, one third of Aurora’s water comes from the South Platte River. Its water that is, in effect, reused.

“If you use water in the shower, you wash your car, you take a bath – that water ends up back in the South Platte,” Baker explained. “We retreat down here, put it back in our system, and it ends up back in the South Platte again. We get to use it over and over again. So, it is the ultimate water cycle.”

The cycle involves piping that water underground into a man-made basin, through sand and gravel and then treating the water, including using UV light to get impurities out.

“The things we can remove out of the water now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago, is just staggering,” treatment plant supervisor Kevin Linder said.

Right now, it’s the low season. The plant is processing 14-million gallons of water a day. In the high season, the summer months, it can do more than twice that: 30 million gallons.

“This treatment plant is one of the most advanced plants in North America,” Linder said.

Part of the reason the system isn’t used everywhere is that it is expensive to build. Prairie Waters cost $638-million. However, water managers there see it as a way of protecting the city from the effects of future droughts while protecting Colorado’s overall water supply.

“We’re asking a lot of Colorado to let us use this water for our residents,” Baker said. “And, so, if you’re going to do that, you have to honor that commitment.”

There are plans to expand Aurora Prairie Waters by adding more filters and providing some water to places in Douglas County.

More Prairie Waters coverage here and here.

#ColoradoRiver pulse flow — one year later

Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute
Colorado River pulse flow (Minute 319) reaches the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998 on May 15, 2014 via the Sonoran Institute

From Arizona Public Media (Vanessa Barchfield):

One year ago the governments of the U.S. and Mexico worked together on a historic project to send water down the parched Colorado River Delta in Mexico…

University of Arizona geoscientist Karl Flessa said Tuesday that the eight-week flooding helped to germinate and establish cottonwoods and willows that will live for up to 50 years, demonstrating that even a small amount of water can have long-lasting effects on an ecosystem.

But, Flessa said, the impact of the water varied.

“In some places the pulse flow did enormous amount of good work in establishing vegetation and sustaining that vegetation. In other parts of the river it didn’t really make that much of a difference,” he said.

He and his team are studying why that was the case.

“So we’re really trying to map out the river and identify those prime restoration sites.”
Future efforts will be targeted in those conservation sites that responded best to the returned flow of water.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Well rules closing in — The Valley Courier

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Imminent well rules for the San Luis Valley are now being refined for clarity, consistency and defensibility against potential court challenges.

State Engineer Dick Wolfe reviewed the latest draft of the groundwater rules Tuesday in Alamosa with the group of local residents and water attorneys serving on the groundwater advisory committee. He said although he had hoped the April 7th meeting would be the last one, he expected there would be at least one more next month to review changes related to comments received on Tuesday and within the next couple of weeks.

Other actions that must be completed before the rules can be submitted to the court include: complete statement of basis and purpose; finish the response functions peer review; and complete/gather supporting documents that must be submitted to the court along with the rules. These documents will comprise the evidence that would be presented in court proceedings , should the rules be challenged, Wolfe explained.

The Attorney General’s office is reviewing the rules to make sure they will be defensible in court, Wolfe said. The modelers who would have to testify in court have also been working with the state engineer’s office to make sure the language in the rules is accurate and properly defined.

Wolfe has tried to minimize, if not eliminate, potential objections to the proposed rules by involving a wide variety of folks in the rulemaking process. Each of the advisory committee meetings throughout the multi-year process of formulating the well rules has been public, with crowds generally running from 50-100 people.

The audience was a little smaller Tuesday than the month before, and the questions fewer, with one of the concerns revolving around what happens if efforts to replenish the aquifers do not work, even with everybody giving it their best shot.

The state legislature has mandated that the artesian pressure in the Rio Grande Basin (the Valley) must get back to the level experienced between 1978-2000 , and the well rules are designed, in part, to meet that requirement . Because it is difficult to pinpoint what those pressure levels were, and should be, the state engineer’s office is incorporating data collection in the well rules to better understand the 1978-2000 pressure levels. The state engineer’s office will work with water conservation and conservancy districts, sub-districts and water users to collect data about the confined aquifer system and will release a report within 10 years from the time the well rules become effective.

Based on that investigation and report, the state engineer will determine what’s the best method to achieve and maintain the sustainable water supply in the confined aquifer system that the legislature is requiring.

The new draft on Tuesday included a paragraph giving the state engineer latitude to allow greater pumping in areas of the Valley that might exceed that 1978-2000 level at some point in the future.

“No one knows for sure if that will in fact happen ” if they can demonstrate they are replacing injurious stream depletions, they are in a sustainable condition ” and not interfering with the compact,” Wolfe said.

However, if the opposite is true and efforts to reach that 1978-2000 goal are not successful it might mean going back to the drawing board.

“If pumping levels don’t get them there, then we have to evaluate what else do we need to do,” Wolfe said.

Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said the information that will come out of the data collection within the next 10 years, if not sooner, will determine if additional restrictions might be necessary to get the aquifer to the mandated sustainable level. If additional restrictions become necessary, he said, “that will be a new rule making process.”

Division 3 Assistant Engineer James Heath added, “That’s where we would have to come back and do another rule making and redefine additional parameters to reduce pumping more, recharge more “”

Well Rules Advisory Committee Member David Frees suggested that rather than going through the lengthy rule-making process again in 10 years or so, if it turned out that was the necessary course, it might be better to include some provisions in the current rules to allow the state engineer to enact stricter curtailments if necessary to meet the water sustainability goal mandated by the state legislature.

“We want to be careful we don’t specify one solution to that problem if that’s what happens after 10 years,” Wolfe said.

Frees said he was not recommending that only one provision be included, “but I think there ought to be a provision in these rules if we don’t meet that sustainability the state will take some action or require further provisions.”

Wolfe said the rules do provide for that: “Not later than 10 years from the Effective Date of these Rules, the State Engineer must prepare a report concerning the results of the investigations.” Based upon the results of the investigations, the State Engineer must determine the preferred methodology to maintain a Sustainable Water Supply in the Confined Aquifer System and recover Artesian Pressures and thereafter propose any reasonable amendments to these rules.

Wolfe said, “We created these rules. We can amend them.” Another advisory committee member suggested that the rules include a default provision if the sustainability goal is not met so the state and folks in the basin don’t have to go through another 6-8-year process to develop more rules.

Attorney Bill Paddock disagreed that a default provision should be included in the rules. He said the default provision might not work either , which would just create more problems in the future. He recommended collecting the data that will provide a better understanding of how the system operates before setting up a default provision. Advisory Committee Member Norm Slade said, “Some of these sustainability plans might be impossible ” I would like to see you put something in there so you could regulate these wells if it’s impossible to reach sustainability . If a state engineer deems a sub-district can’t or won’t meet sustainability standards, those wells may be regulated.”

Wolfe said that is in the rules, and any well owner who does not comply will ultimately be curtailed.

Slade asked if the state had to wait 10 years if it looked like it would be impossible for a particular plan to meet the requirements. Wolfe said the rules state that the engineer’s office will prepare a report and proposed amendments no later than 10 years but do not specify a time period.

“I agree we shouldn’t be waiting until the 10th year,” Wolfe said.

He said the state would continue monitoring and evaluating the various plans set up to comply with the rules to make sure they are working.

“These things are set up to allow people to adjust as they go along,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe explained that the rules’ assumption is that hydrological conditions in this basin will return to what they were in 1978-2000 , the period of time the aquifers are mandated to recover to. However, the new normal may be drier conditions, as they have been in more recent history, Wolfe explained, and people cannot just wait and hope things get better on their own.

He pointed to the first subdistrict , which is going into its fourth year of operation, and said in his opinion it has proven that water plans can be successful.

He and other Division of Water Resources staff explained that the well rules and the models the rules rely on provide flexibility and ranges to account for variables such as wet years and dry years. That helps water planners like sub-districts decide what they might need to do, for example providing enough water storage to make up for drier years.

Advisory Committee Member LeRoy Salazar said not all of the tools are in place yet, but he liked the direction things were moving and believed the work being undertaken with the rule implementation process would provide more tools for the future.

Wolfe agreed. “Even though there’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point, in some ways this is the beginning ” The state’s going to be working closely with the users as we go forward ” There’s going to be better and better tools to predict the future.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.

Rio Grande Forest water right is working — Rio Grande Roundtable

Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative
Early winter along the Rio Grande on the Gilmore Ranch via the Rio Grande Initiative

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

If it ain’t broke ” don’t let the government fix it.

That’s the gist of San Luis Valley residents’ message yesterday to representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and their consultant who are gathering input to revise the Rio Grande National Forest’s plan.

In fact, members of the Rio Grande Roundtable who represent varying water interests throughout the Valley went so far as to make a motion to write a letter to the Forest Service urging it not to change the Forest’s plan regarding federal reserve water rights. The vote was unanimous with one abstention from Charlie Spielman.

“There’s no need to change it,” said Travis Smith, who sits on state and local water boards and manages the SLV Irrigation District. “It is a huge success story not only for the federal agency but for the water users in the San Luis Valley. Don’t change it. I think we have demonstrated over the last 30 years it is a very workable situation.”

Rio Grande National Forest Deputy Supervisor Adam Mendonca said he was not aware of any other National Forest that had anything like this. He said in 1977 the process began to develop a federal reserve water right that would provide in-stream flow for such purposes as fish and other wildlife habitat. The water right decree was filed in 2000 and is specific solely to the National Forest. The decree requires minimum flows in many riparian areas. Mendonca said the flows are so minimal they do not impact other uses and in fact provide benefits to those uses.

“I have yet to have anyone tell me the decree we have today is bad,” he said. “We don’t have monitoring data that would indicate it is not working.”

He said many people were unaware the federal government had a water right in the forest, which is probably a good thing because they have not seen any detrimental effects resulting from it.

“If you hadn’t noticed a real impact, I would say it’s working,” he said. Unlike the process in other basins in the state, the water right in this basin was accomplished without litigation thanks to the forest supervisor at the time, Jim Webb and then-Division Engineer Steve Vandiver, Smith said. He added that the decree that is in place provides a certainty for water rights for the Forest Service in addition to providing certainty for the water users.

“I would strongly support that it needs no change,” Smith said.

Rio Grande Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson agreed.

“My understanding is it was a monumental accomplishment for the Forest Service and local water users ,” Gibson said, “something that was not accomplished in any other basin.”

He added, “It worked. We have demonstrated it works.”

Mendonca explained that the Forest Service is currently working under a plan approved in 1996, and the parts of that plan that no one wants to change will just roll over into the new plan. The Forest is not starting over with a new plan but is revising the 1996 plan, he added.

“We will use the 1996 plan until we have a new one filed ,” he said.

He said the revision plan is a four-year process, with this being the first year of that process. This year, which ends this summer, is a time of assessment when the Forest Service and its consultant Peak Facilitation Group are gathering input from residents throughout the area on what they believe should be kept and what should be revised in the current plan. The Forest Service has held numerous public meetings already, many of which focus on specific parts of the plan such as timber use, water and livestock grazing.

The Forest Service also wants input on what people believe should be changed under the standards and guidelines specified in the plan, particularly since the Forest’s budget has decreased drastically in recent years so it is more difficult to meet the “have to” requirements as opposed to “it would be good to” guidelines.

Mendonca said the budget for the Rio Grande National Forest has decreased from $14 million to $8.5 million over the last eight years. When the budget declines that significantly , he added, “something doesn’t get done.”

That is why it is important for the forest plan’s standards and guidelines to be “sustainable and attainable,” Mendonca said. The Forest Service will prioritize what it focuses its resources on according to those mandates and guidelines.

The next two public meetings regarding the Forest Service plan revision are scheduled Monday and Tuesday , April 27 and 28, with the first on April 27 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Alamosa County Commissioners Building, 8900-A Independence Way, Alamosa, specifically related to vegetation, timber and fire issues, and the second on April 28 from 5-7 :30 p.m. at the Saguache County Road and Bridge, 305 3rd Street, Saguache, with a focus on current issues and foreseeable trends concerning water and soil management.

For more information, visit the RGNF plan revision website at http:// riograndeplanning or contact Mike Blakeman at the Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 852-5941.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.