#Snowpack news: Dry February, where’s Ullr?

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

How dry was February? The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s snow measurement stations at Beaver Creek and Vail Mountain recorded just more than 50 percent of the average snowfall for the past 30 years — 58 and 54 percent, respectively.

That’s still better than other areas around the Western Slope. The measurement site at Schofield Pass, between Aspen and Crested Butte, reported 33 percent of the historical average during February.

Despite a lack of new snow and warmer-than-normal temperatures, the area’s snowpack remains in good shape.

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District reported that snowfall at the Vail, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass recording sites was tracking either at or slightly above historical averages on Feb. 1.

“Being at 90 percent (of average) — that’s all right,” Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager Diane Johnson said. “We were in worse shape in 2013 until we got bailed out by that storm that hit after (Vail) Mountain closed.”


That dry February was largely the result of a ridge of high barometric pressure that set up to the west of Colorado and stayed for a few weeks.

Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said that high pressure ridge let only a few small snowstorms into this part of the Rockies after the last significant snow-making system hit the area between Jan. 30 and Feb. 2. Johnson said that storm boosted snowpack in this area to levels that helped the area ride out a dry month.

Aleksa said the high pressure ridge has finally broken down and moved off to the east. That opened the door for the storm system that hit the Vail Valley March 6 and 7.


That system left a coating of wet snow on local roadways that snarled Monday traffic from about 7 a.m. into the late morning. At one point, it took just more than an hour to drive from a point about a mile west of Avon on Interstate 70 into the Vail Daily building in Eagle-Vail.

While snow fell past the early-morning reporting period, Vail Mountain’s website was reporting 3 inches of new snow Monday morning. Beaver Creek’s website reported 4 inches of new snow during the same period.

Aleksa said areas to the west of the Vail Valley were harder hit, with snow reporting stations on the Grand Mesa, southwest of the valley, reporting between 5 and 10 inches of new snow.


While snowpack held largely steady during February, that is one of the area’s more snowy months, so there’s catching up to do.

That won’t come for a while. Aleksa said current prediction models forecast another warm, sunny week through the region, with no new snow in the forecast until March 15 or so.

That’s about as far into the future as meteorologists can look with any certainty. Longer-range forecasts aren’t nearly as accurate. Still, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center has some potentially good news.

The 90-day outlook for precipitation shows a 50 percent chance of above-average precipitation for all of Colorado through the end of May. That could bode well for the final month or so of the current ski season at Vail and Beaver Creek. It could also be good news for water supplies, since most of the valley’s drinking water comes from snowpack.

This snow season — which stretches from October through May — also seems to be hewing to historical norms for El Nino weather patterns, which develop to the west of South America in the Pacific Ocean. Those patterns, which are typified by warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures in that area, usually bring more precipitation early and late in the snow year, with relatively dry conditions through the mid-winter months.

There’s more potentially good news in the future for the Vail Valley. While this year’s El Nino pattern has about run its course, Aleksa said that temperature monitors show that the next pattern to develop will be a La Nina, which has cooler-than-normal temperatures in the same area of the Pacific. The storms spawned by La Nina conditions are generally more favorable to this part of the Rockies. The epic snow season of 2010 — 2011 came during a La Nina pattern.

But that’s next season — maybe. For now, it looks as if the region is on track for a good finish to the snow season, if not the ski season.

#Colorado River — Aspinall Unit operations update: Blue Mesa storage = 67% of capacity

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 800 cfs to 600 cfs on Tuesday, March 8th. Dry conditions in February resulted in another reduction in the runoff forecast. The latest runoff forecast is now at 86% of average. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 557,000 acre-feet which is 67% full.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for March.

Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 800 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at 0 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit dams
Aspinall Unit dams

“Heads Up” Dynamic time of year for our weather and water supplies — Nolan Doesken

Nolan Doesken -- Colorado Water Foundation for Water Education President's Award Presentation 2011
Nolan Doesken — Colorado Water Foundation for Water Education President’s Award Presentation 2011

From email from Nolan Doesken:

I just wanted to give you a quick climate update.

We’ve had a fairly average winter so far in terms of precipitation and mountain snowpack accumulation throughout much of the Upper Colorado River Basin and the remainder of Colorado. But after the first few days of February, the frequency and intensity of storms has declined, winds have increased, accumulation of mountain snowpack has leveled off in many areas and we’ve seen a marked warm up in temperatures with a loss of low elevation snow (welcomed by those of you who live and work in some of the mountain valleys that “enjoyed” a frigid winter thanks to localized cold-air pooling.) This is not totally abnormal, but a bit troubling.

We’re now in the final and often most important months of the winter in terms of water supply. Forecasters are back pedaling on their earlier predictions for wet weather this coming 1-2 weeks. The storms are still anticipated to bring copious moisture to northern and central California but now seem more likely to dissipate as they move into the Central Rockies. But long range seasonal predictions (see the 3-month March-May precipitation outlook http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/) are sticking
with the forecast of a good chance for a wet and fairly cool spring — even though the El Nino Southern Oscillation appears to be weakening now (consistent with previous forecasts). Cool wet springs, when they occur, are always a boon for water supplies and sometimes an indicator of flood potential.

If you’ll recall, last year we were very dry and quite warm in March and early April and were losing hope that the anticipated wet spring would material. But it did show up in dramatic fashion. The current forecast is somewhat similar to what was issued for this same time period last year — driven, again, by El Nino relationships — but will likely not play out in the same fashion. Every year is different.

Looking beyond spring, it is very difficult to anticipate summer precipitation anomalies. But most forecasts lean towards anticipating a hot summer — a reliable trend in recent years.

Meanwhile, California’s wet season only has a few more weeks to go, so this week’s anticipated storm is a big deal there. Here in the Rockies our spring “wet seeason” is much longer — lasting to early June on the Front Range and eastern plains. So we’ll have more opportunities, hopefully..

I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, but just want to make sure we’re all paying attention at this critical time in the water year. As we’ve seen time after time — with particularly dramatic drying in spring 2012 and wetting in spring 2015, these next few weeks can make a huge difference.

We will continue to do our detailed weekly assessments and will send e-mail updates each week on Tuesday evening with links to updated climate and water information http://climate.colostate.edu/~drought/

We will also be on “high alert” with an approx 2-week cycle for Tuesday morning 10 AM webinars where you can watch, listen in and chime in.

Local expert participation is greatly appreciated. The next webinar will be March 15th: http://ccc.atmos.colostate.edu/drought_webinar_registration.php

We are aware that we may be trying to cover too much information in too much detail, so we’re working to streamline these briefings and leave more time for feedback and local input.

If you know of others who would like to be on our distribution list, please let me know. Likewise, if you are tired of getting all this climate information every week just unsubscribe. Finally, I appreciate your input and suggestions on how to improve our information delivery.

We notice that 40% or more of our mailing list do open our weekly update messages — so I guess that’s good.

OK, one LAST thing. Precipitation varies dramatically over short distances in nearly every storm. If you’re not already, please consider joining the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network (CoCoRaHS) and help monitor precipitation from your own back yard. Take a look at the CoCoRaHS maps http://www.cocorahs.org (click on your state and county) and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Experience has shown time after time that one station every square mile is great, and more than that can be even better. Sign up and help out. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be home to measure every day. That’s the power of having lots of volunteers. Report when you can, and don’t worry about it when you can’t. If you know of others — especially folks that live in some of our data gaps — please encourage them to join. Click the “Join CoCoRaHS” button on the website.

#Colorado Corn commits $200,000 more toward sustainability focused research projects

Monsanto droughtgard corn via Real Science
Monsanto droughtgard corn via Real Science

Here’s the release from Colorado Corn:

The Colorado Corn Administrative Committee allocates thousands of dollars annually to research endeavors, and has already made sure 2016 will be no different, as the organization recently committed $211,389 to research projects.

These efforts come in addition to the organization’s approximately $185,000 invested in ongoing or recently concluded research endeavors.

Over the years, Colorado Corn has provided dollars, as well as input and resources, to a long list of projects that have evaluated irrigation methods, alternative water-transfer methods, seed varieties, root structure, livestock, farm safety, environmental impacts, biofuels, rotational fallowing and a number of other aspects of farming, all to help producers become more efficient.

Along the way, Colorado Corn has teamed up with municipalities, businesses, universities, research facilities, the state of Colorado and many others – relationships the organization will continue building upon in the never-ending efforts to bring more tools and knowledge to Colorado’s producers.

“Each of these projects represents yet another step in Colorado Corn’s efforts to help farmers produce more food with less resources, and also discovering the most sustainable methods of doing so,” said Colorado Corn Executive Director Mark Sponsler. “Like other research endeavors we’ve supported over the years, these new projects and their results will play a critical role for the future of our farmers and our state’s $40-billion agriculture industry.”

Following all-day meetings and presentations in recent weeks, the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee’s Research Action Team agreed to fund the following endeavors:

• $141,282 ($47,094 per year, over three years) to Colorado State University’s Raj Khosla, Robin Reich and Louis Longchamps, to research and determine the most productive, efficient, profitable and sustainable water, nutrient and seed management strategies for irrigated corn. In particular, this project will examine the agronomic advantages of using variable rate precision-irrigation management, precision-nitrogen management strategies, and variable seeding rates.

• $31,580 to Kirk Broders at Colorado State University, to complete a comprehensive survey of bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens of corn grown in Colorado, including foliar, ear, stalk and root pathogens. This information will later be used to direct future pathological studies of corn at CSU.

• $21,240 to Jerry Johnson and Sally Sauer with Colorado State University, to continue testing yield performance of four drought tolerant corn hybrids compared to four traditional, non-drought tolerant hybrids at three different plant densities under dryland production conditions in northeast Colorado.

• $17,287 to Louis Comas with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, to continue overseeing development of a tool for monitoring and managing water stress in corn.

Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin

Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation as a percent of normal February 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.
Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation as a percent of normal February 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

Fountain Creek: “I think the mayor (John Suthers) is being more realistic” … Steve Nawrocki

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Other agencies concerned with the impact of the Southern Delivery System on Fountain Creek are awaiting their chance to provide input in the face of new offers by Colorado Springs.

“I think the mayor (John Suthers) is being more realistic about how to address the problem,” said Steve Nawrocki, president of the Pueblo City Council. “What they first came to us with was $19 million for one year, so this is an improvement. I’m not sure it will be enough. We haven’t had a chance to talk about it as a council.”

In January, council unanimously approved a resolution asking that a $500 million backlog in Colorado Springs stormwater projects be addressed within 10 years, and Suthers came close to that over 20 years. Suthers indicated the number was reached during negotiations with Pueblo County, led by Commissioner Terry Hart.

Hart Tuesday said he was surprised at how Suthers had broken the news to media, but said many of the figures he presented are close to what has been discussed.

“There are also things we want in the agreement, but have not made public,” Hart said.

Nawrocki argued that the city of Pueblo should have a seat at the table in the current negotiations between Pueblo County and Utilities.

“I think the county has been pretty secretive in the way they’ve gone about it,” Nawrocki said.

Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, agrees that there should be more openness in writing and enforcing any agreement.

He would like an outside agency, such as the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, to review the list of 73 critical projects as well as the county in order to determine benefit to Pueblo and other downstream communities.

Pueblo County has hired Wright Water Engineers to evaluate the benefits, but as the Environmental Protection Agency’s audit of Colorado Springs’ stormwater permit showed, one set of eyes might not be enough, Winner said.

“I have more faith in John Suthers than I did in Steve Bach,” Winner said, referring to the current and previous mayors of Colorado Springs. Bach opposed a regional drainage district that voters rejected, while Suthers has actively worked to find solutions. “But everyone is term-limited. There needs to be a third party with technical expertise.”

Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek district, says it’s in a chicken-and-egg situation, awaiting funding for both flood control projects and the day-to-day operation of the district.

The district is continuing its studies of what kind of flood control structures would be built and the location, but needs funding to move that work along. Small, who was vice president of Colorado Springs City Council when Pueblo County’s 1041 permit for SDS was issued, contends the first of five $10 million payments to the district is past due.

“The longer it takes them to reach an agreement, the longer it takes for us to begin work,” Small said.

2016 #coleg: Could this be the year for rain-water barrels in #Colorado? — The Colorado Independent

Photo from the Colorado Independent.
Photo from the Colorado Independent.

From the Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Colorado is the only state in the country that outlaws rainwater collection, a popular conservation technique among urban farmers and gardeners that has some rural farmers and ranchers worried cityfolk would violate first-come-first-serve water rights.

A new bill that would allow Coloradans to collect rainwater runoff from their roofs and protect downstream senior water-users rights is coursing its way through the state Capitol.

Leading negotiations between urban and rural water users: Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.
Under the 2016 bill, residents could collect rainwater in no more than two 50-gallon rain barrels. The state engineer would be responsible for providing information on the appropriate use of rain barrels, and under a Becker-sponsored amendment, would ban rainwater harvesting in years when there’s not enough to go around.

Becker has opposed rainwater harvesting in the past, twice last year, and once this session, when an earlier version of the bill went through the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.

Most Republicans at the Capitol have opposed the bill in the past. Were rain barrels to become popular, opponents worry benevolent city slickers would suck up water farmers and ranchers need for their livelihood.

Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov
Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov

[First in time, First in right] water rights, called prior appropriation, are the backbone of Colorado water law. The first person to use a water source secures the rights. Farmers, ranchers and municipal water providers often have first dibs on water that comes from rivers, streams and ditches.

Senior water rights holders worry that during droughts, which Colorado experiences regularly, there would be no way to enforce restrictions on rain water harvesting and that urban dwellers would abuse their rights.

Rainwater harvesting enthusiasts and environmental groups say the practice will help educate urban and suburban Coloradans about the importance of conservation and where their water comes from. This is a compelling argument to rural water users who complain city dwellers are clueless about where their water comes from and fail to understand how precious every drop is.

Collecting rainwater would have a minimal impact, if any, on water rights, according to a recent study from Colorado State University that proponents have used to show the practice would not impact senior water-rights holders.

The Ag Committee amended the rain barrel bill, House Bill 16-1005, to declare water a property right. Under the amendment, the use of rain barrels would be subject to the prior appropriation doctrine. But the declaration doesn’t have the force of law and did not outline how disputes would be addressed, abuses curbed and rules enforced.

Becker and several other committee Republicans still weren’t convinced, and voted against the bill.
After a week of negotiations between Becker and the measure’s sponsors, the bill was ready for the full House debate last week.

“Is there an appropriate path for an injured party to go through in order to curtail the use of rain barrels?” Becker asked the House, suggesting an amendment to clarify that the state engineer could ban rainwater collection when a downstream user with senior rights didn’t have the water they were entitled to. That authority is granted under a 1963 law intended to address a shortage issue when wells pump out too much water. Becker said rain barrels should apply to this rule, too.

Becker’s amendment also asked the state engineer to keep a close eye on rain barrel use. Under the amendment, the state engineer would report back to the House and Senate ag committees on whether rain collection has violated water rights, based on complaints, rainwater collection pilots or any other data. But that report wouldn’t be due until 2022.

Proving that collecting rainwater in a barrel hurts downstream users isn’t so easy and that concern is sure to be a stumbling block when the bill reaches the Republican-controlled Senate. Still, Becker’s amendment was enough to eliminate much of the Republican opposition to the measure.

“It’s a responsible way to look at rain barrels,” Becker told the House. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The bill’s Democratic sponsors and House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran of Denver all applauded Becker’s work on the bill, which gives it a better chance of surviving the Senate.
As amended, the bill garnered support from 16 more House Republicans than a year ago, including Becker, and it passed the House almost unanimously, 61-3.

Here’s a guest column from Samantha Fox running in the Loveland Reporter-Herald:

Rain barrels are in the news again in Colorado, the only state in the U.S. where collection of rainwater is illegal. House Bill 1005, now with the Senate, is an attempt to change that; a similar bill was defeated last year.

Many people react strongly to this debate with a question: why is rainwater capture, a strategy that seems aligned with a water conservation ethic, illegal in a dry state that needs to conserve water?

Others answer just as strongly that the longstanding and tightly managed “prior appropriation” system of Western water rights must be protected. Once the spigot on rain barrels has been opened, can it be turned back off if water rights owners are affected?

Those two poles sum up most of the discourse around rain barrels, but it need not be a polarizing issue. Here are some of the nuances being carefully considered behind the scenes:

• Rainwater harvesting has actually been legal on a limited basis in Colorado since 2009 — those who can’t connect to a municipal system qualify. How many people are operating in this capacity? Has there been evidence of injury to water rights from this law?

• In urban areas, impervious surfaces funnel rain into municipal systems or storm drains. Does this mean it isn’t available to streams for diversion by water right holders anyway? Municipal supply often comes from rural areas. If rainwater harvesting catches on, how would water rights in big drainages be affected by changing the current storage dynamic of rainwater?

• In times of low or even average river flows, some water right holders have to place “calls” that halt junior diversions in favor of senior ones. Just how tenuous is this balance? Is it really so tight that rainwater harvesting could immediately cause some rights holders to lose water? If so, where does this happen and what’s the recourse?

• Colorado is a headwater state for six states dependent on Colorado River water. It’s also the only mainland state that has rivers flowing out but no rivers flowing in. All of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack and rain. Could the scale of rooftop water harvesting become big enough to impact water legally promised to other states? A 2007 study found that 97 percent of rain in one Colorado county evaporated or was taken up by plants. But that is one county in a state with diverse topography and microclimates. How does this dynamic work in every area that is crucial to stream flows?

• Some people have been capturing rainwater illegally for years in Colorado. In other states, rainwater capture is only used by 5 to 10 percent of households; how does Colorado currently compare to this number, and will it reach the same plateau of adoption?

• In the language of the bill, rooftop snow accumulation is equivalent to rain under the generic term, “precipitation.” How does the seasonality of these flows affect water right holders who expect injury?

The sponsors of this bill hope to encourage water-wise practices. Water rights holders are acutely aware of the value of water and understand the importance of conservation, but they are looking for assurance that their water availability and their long-fought-for rights won’t be harmed. After amendments added recently that address data collection on impacts, provide for a review and objection period, and expressly stipulate that rain water harvesting does not constitute a water right, it looks like the bill may pass this time.

Take a closer look at the issue and you’ll realize it isn’t as simple as conservationists versus farming. Water rights are an important component in our state’s laws, and affect flows that underpin a broad spectrum of critical water uses, stream conservation, farming, and municipal supply, among others. They are inherently tied to our economy and ability to grow sustainably. Asking the less obvious questions is more likely to lead us to a solution we can all live with.

SDS: No agreement with Pueblo County yet, April start-up uncertain

The new north outlet works at Pueblo Dam -- Photo/MWH Global
The new north outlet works at Pueblo Dam — Photo/MWH Global

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

It’s not clear whether the Southern Delivery System will be up and running by the end of April as Colorado Springs desires.

“We’ve seen significant movement, and the commissioners understand the sense of urgency,” said Pueblo County Attorney Greg Styduhar. “But that does not mean we will not continue to apply the same critical eye and comprehensive analysis we have used so far.”

Pueblo County, through its 1041 permit, might not have filled in all the boxes associated with turning on the water by that time, and has been working with Colorado Springs Utilities to complete the checklist. But it has taken time to work through issues, particularly the question of stormwater.
“Both sides have been working diligently and there have been some concessions, but no meeting of the minds,” Styduhar said. He said a final version of an agreement should emerge in the next few weeks, and the commissioners would like to give the public the opportunity to comment.

Once a deal is reached, the public process could add another month for more review.

For almost a year, the county and Utilities have been negotiating an IGA that would allow SDS to start up. The meetings started as an alternative to a “show-cause” hearing on whether Colorado Springs Utilities was meeting all of its commitments under the 1041 agreement. Few details of the talks have emerged up until this week.

Meanwhile, the pipeline from Pueblo Dam to Colorado Springs already has been pressed into service, twice, to supply Pueblo West, which along with Security and Fountain is an SDS partner. Testing continues and Colorado Springs wants to fire up SDS by the end of April, when testing ends and warranties kick in.

Anxious to get things moving, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers this week revealed a proposal to Pueblo County that puts more than $450 million into play over 20 years to fix drainage problems on Fountain Creek. It also would pave the way to release $50 million over five years to build flood control structures on Fountain Creek between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

The offer increases the amount of money on the table, the range of projects and the time frame, all of which Pueblo County has continued to fight for in negotiations. Styduhar agrees with Suthers that it would be an enforceable contract, citing Supreme Court decisions that back that viewpoint.

The question is timing.

“Certainly, there is a time crunch,” Styduhar said. “But it’s still important to look at it with
a critical eye.”

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

#Colorado: Greg Hobbs designated Senior Water Judge

Greg Hobbs sent the following explainer in email:

Chief Justice Nancy Rice has designated retired Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs to be a mediator in water court cases. The Water Judges of Colorado’s seven water divisions, after conferring with the attorneys in particular cases, will decide whether or not to refer the case to Senior Water Judge Hobbs for mediation. All mediation sessions will be confidential.