Arkansas River winter storage program update: “We can’t predict where the water will be stored” — Phil Reynolds

Pueblo Dam
Pueblo Dam

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Conditions are right for a big year of winter water storage, but the problem may be where to put it all.

“We can’t predict where the water will be stored,” Phil Reynolds of the Colorado Division of Water Resources told the annual meeting of the winter water storage group.

The group is made up of the large canals east of Pueblo. After Pueblo Dam was completed in 1975, irrigators were able to curtail flows during the winter months and use the water later in the season. Under a court decree, water is stored from Nov. 15-March 15 under the program administered by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Last year, more than 128,000 acre-feet (41.7 billion gallons) of water was stored in Lake Pueblo, John Martin Reservoir or oŸ-channel reservoirs operated by some of the ditch companies. That’s more than the five-year average and close to the 20-year average.

The problem this year is that record rains in May and early June filled up most reservoirs.

While some of the water was used during the relatively dry months at the end of summer, reservoirs in the Lower Arkansas Valley are well above normal.

Winter conditions could be wet because of a strong El Nino condition. In similar years, that has meant a heavy spring runoff, said Terry Dawson of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Lake Pueblo is already at 138 percent of capacity — a capacity that recently was deemed smaller because of sedimentation in the reservoir.

“We are afraid at this point we may be in danger of spilling,” Dawson said.

But it won’t be the farmers’ water that spills. There are still 22,723 acre-feet of this year’s winter water that will be released next spring, and an estimated 50,000 acre-feet of new water that could come into Lake Pueblo this winter.

Before that could spill, however, water stored in temporary accounts or under long-term municipal contracts would be released.

Anticipating that, Aurora, whose water would spill first, already is making plans to drain its account through leases to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which will use the water in the Great Plains Reservoirs that are part of the Amity Canal system.

Reynolds identified more than 100,000 acrefeet of practical storage space that could be used downstream of Lake Pueblo. There are also 140,000 acre-feet available in the Great Plains Reservoirs.

However, winter water must be distributed equally to canal companies, and John Martin or the large reservoirs operated by Amity and the Fort Lyon Canal cannot be used by everyone.

The space in Lake Pueblo will get even tighter during the winter water program because Reclamation plans to run some water from Turquoise and Twin Lakes into the reservoir to make room for next year’s Fryingpan-Arkansas imports.

“We’ll need to know where and how much you plan to store, so we know what’s stored in Lake Pueblo and what can be moved,” said Jim Broderick, Southeastern executive director.

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters Magazine, Colorado Foundation for Water Education
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters Magazine, Colorado Foundation for Water Education