#ColoradoRiver District Annual Seminar recap: El Niño looks promising for southwest Colorado

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From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Western Coloradans might consider keeping an umbrella handy this fall thanks to the development of a strong El Niño weather system.

Less clear is the degree to which snow-sport enthusiasts and those concerned with the adequacy of water supplies should count on a heavier-than-average overall snowpack this winter. But the weather trend is inspiring optimism among some.

“It looks like we’re going to have a heavier-than-normal snowfall this year, is what we’re hoping,” said Dusti Reimer, a Powderhorn Mountain Resort spokeswoman who noted that cooler-than-normal temperatures also are in the forecast.

“We’re definitely excited with those possibilities to make this pretty much an epic ski year.”

Klaus Wolter is a research scientist in Boulder with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division. He said that while chances are good in western Colorado for above-average precipitation this fall thanks to El Niño, mid-winter is likely to be drier than normal in Colorado’s central and northern mountains. Southern Colorado, by contrast, is more likely to continue benefiting in mid-winter from the moisture El Niños typically deliver to the southwestern United States.

“Basically if you want to have a lot of snow this winter the San Juans (San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado) are the place to go,” Wolter said recently at the Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar in Grand Junction.

For western Colorado as a whole, whether it can finish the snowpack season with net above-average precipitation depends on whether there’s a wet enough spring, he said. The good news is that El Niños typically boost spring snowfall levels, and the fact that the current one is a strong one increases the likelihood it will still be around by spring, Wolter said.

It was late-season moisture during another strong El Niño season, in 1982-83, that threatened to cause Lake Powell to overfill that spring.

Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman with the Colorado River District, said that from everything he hears from Wolter and other experts, “Colorado is kind of a no-man’s land” when it comes to El Niño winters. El Niños tend to be a strong predictor of above-average snow in southwest Colorado, while only sporadically providing benefits farther north, he said.

“We’ve seen El Niños produce good winters and we’ve seen El Niños leaving people saying, ‘Hey, what happened?’ It’s just not as sure-fire a thing as it is for other parts of the country,” Pokrandt said.

Given the concern over the adequacy of snowpack levels in the Colorado River Basin in recent years, Pokrandt would be happy to see El Niño at least produce average snows in coming months, even if it doesn’t deliver a whopper of a winter.

“The way things are going, 100 percent of average would look like a good year and act like a good year. I’ll take average,” Pokrandt said.

“… I hope as skiers and water managers we get at least an average year, if not better.”

El Niños are associated with warmer-than-average surface water temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Data to date suggests the current one could be one of the strongest since 1950.

For California and the Southwest, it should provide relief from drought, although possibly with negative side effects such as mudslides. El Niños also tend to result in below-average moisture for the Northwest and northern Rockies — making the current one bad news for places such as Washington state that already have been coping with wildfires and other effects of drought.

Predicting the impacts on Colorado is made difficult because of its location, somewhat on the border between the Southwest and the northern Rockies. While Interstate 70 is sometimes referred to as a typical rough dividing line between areas of above-average and lesser moisture during El Niños, Wolter more specifically puts it around Crested Butte and the Elk Mountains area.

If nothing else, the current El Niño looks promising for southwest Colorado, an area that has been particularly dry in several recent years.

“If this outlook pans out, that will be really good for the water supply situation in southwest Colorado,” said Jim Pringle, a warning-coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Wolter said that even if the mid-winter is drier in the central mountains, ski areas may benefit from having good conditions to open their seasons, and hopefully also good conditions come spring. That might bode well for spring break business and offer the possibility for pushing off their closing dates if the economics warrant staying open longer, he said.

Reimer said Powderhorn is scheduled to open Dec. 17 and close April 3, but those dates could be reconsidered if conditions warrant an earlier opening or later closing. She said the resort will further benefit from work this summer to expand its snowmaking coverage from 25 acres to 42 acres.

California Drought Monitor September 22, 2015
California Drought Monitor September 22, 2015

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

California’s water-supply problem is by default the problem of the entire Colorado River Basin, and basin states ignore it at their own peril, two speakers warned Thursday.

“You have to keep track of what’s going on in California. California affects the Colorado River and vice versa,” Jennifer Gimbel, principal deputy secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of Interior, said during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar in Grand Junction.

Pat Mulroy, retired general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, warned that Lake Mead is dropping ever closer to a point at which it would no longer be capable of releasing water for downstream uses. That will lead to panic and irrational behavior, she predicted, and federalization of a river system under which water is now governed and allocated by interstate compact.

“We will have all-out chaos,” said Mulroy, now senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ law school.

California is coping with a severe drought, the effects of which have been amplified by the inability of varying interests there to build flexibility into water management, store water in wet years and otherwise prepare for dry times, Mulroy said.

“The story of California is the story of missed opportunities, and of the inability, the human inability, to find solutions,” she said.

Gimbel, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said part of California’s problem is a lack of sufficient in-state water storage capability to help it prepare for dry years, as opposed to the high-capacity storage provided by Lake Mead and Lake Powell on the Colorado.

“It’s quite honestly what’s saved our bacon over these last 15 years of the drought,” Gimbel said.

She said the heavy precipitation during what’s being called the “Miracle May” earlier this year helped stabilize water levels in Lake Powell. That has provided some breathing room for dealing with what’s an ongoing drought, and efforts to deal with it must continue, Gimbel said.

She said Lower Basin states have had “difficult discussions” in this regard, “and when things get bad people tend to go back to their positions.”

“… I think that we have to do better on this river. We cannot give up, and it means that when we get scared we cannot retreat to our corners and close the door. We can’t do it alone.”

She hopes that Colorado learns from California’s experience “about drawing lines in the sand, litigating and being unable to move forward.” She said as work began on Colorado’s state water plan, she worried about the rhetoric she was hearing, and about people falling back to their standard positions.

“You can protect what you want to protect, go after what you want to go after,” but everyone has to work together, said Gimbel, who praised the progress that since has been made on the plan.

Said Mulroy, “It is not easy to try to find a new balance point, it is not easy to try to understand your adversary’s position or your fellow stakeholder’s position.”

That is something that has yet to occur in California, she said.

Mulroy sees a need for people to view themselves as citizens of the Colorado River Basin. Everyone has to conserve water and participate in the management of the system, and water needs to be viewed not just as a right but a responsibility, she said.

“If we each take a little bit less in times when we can … and we set limits on how far we’re comfortable letting the system drop before we start recharging the system, then we won’t be sitting in front of dry reservoirs,” Mulroy said.

Asked about concern on the Front Range that conservation measures could mean fewer green lawns and reduced property values, she talked about the initial resistance in the Las Vegas area to efforts to have homeowners convert to more desert landscaping, before they realized it could be beautiful and also end the need to mow lawns.

“It is a real cultural shift, but people need to understand there is a need to conserve,” Mulroy said.

She said that in considering the challenges river basin states face in the years ahead, it’s important to keep in mind the “amazing transformation” that has occurred in connection with the Colorado River’s management over the last 20 years. Parties in Colorado and other states have overcome acrimony and finger-pointing to forge agreements that have drawn attention from people in other parts of the world who have river systems facing similar challenges.

“We need to look at the successes in order to keep the challenges that we face in perspective and not perceive them as insurmountable,” Mulroy said.

El Niño: One of Nature’s Biggest Weather Makers — Weather-Ready Nation

El Niño has arrived, according to forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, and it’s making big news. But why? It simply comes down to the extensive impact El Niño has on the world’s weather patterns.

Average influence of El Niño on US temperature and precipitation
Average influence of El Niño on US temperature and precipitation

When an El Niño develops, it can start a chain reaction in the atmosphere influencing the weather in places much farther away from the tropical equatorial Pacific Ocean, including the United States. This means certain changes to the typical climate, or long-term average for temperature or precipitation, for folks in some parts of the U.S. Climate is like the tides. Just like the tides roll in and out, our climate warms during the summer and cools during the winter. El Niño’s would be like changing the level of those tides in some places. Perhaps they come in a little higher or earlier now, getting you wet before you have a chance to move your blanket back.

The map above highlights areas of the U.S. that experience temperature or precipitation conditions that may be different from normal when an El Niño is present. Impacts from El Niño are most noticeable during the late fall through early spring months. During late spring and summer, climate patterns may not be affected at all.

Not every El Niño event leads to the same climate conditions, however, and the strength of the El Niño event can have an impact on just how warm, cool, dry, or wet the affected areas become. As of summer 2015, the current El Niño has strengthened over the past few months, with a strong event currently favored during the late fall and early winter, according to the latest report from the Climate Prediction Center.

In instances when a strong El Niño occurs, there can be large impacts to communities and the U.S. economy. Strong El Niños are often associated with heavy winter rains across California, which could bring much needed moisture to a region devastated by drought. Even if above normal precipitation falls across California, one season of above-normal rain and snow is very unlikely to erase four years of drought.

Meanwhile, heavy rains in the southern half of the U.S. could lead to flooding causing widespread damage to towns and communities, lives and livelihoods. In addition, El Niño could elevate the risk for severe weather across the Southeast during winter. On the other hand, above-average late fall to winter temperatures across the northern tier of the U.S. might mean a milder winter and lower energy costs. It’s important to understand that a strong El Niño only favors these impacts, but doesn’t guarantee they will happen…

For more information on El Niño, visit http://www.climate.gov/.