#Snowpack news: Folks should be dusting off their drought management and water conservation plans and hope for a wet Spring

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 15, 2018 via the NRCS.

From the Environmental Defense Fund (Brian Jackson):

La Niña has wreaked havoc on weather systems around the country, sending storms to Baton Rouge, San Antonio and Boston, while Colorado, California and pretty much the entire Southwest United States stay dry. Colorado is at 68% of normal snowpack with the southwest Rockies in even worse shape. The Sierra Nevada snowpack – a key source of California’s water supply – is at 30% of average. Many parts of New Mexico have received less than a half inch of rain, making it one of the driest starts to a water year on record in the state.

In fact, it’s really not looking good for the entire Colorado River Basin. Earlier this month NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center released its first forecast for 2018, predicting that spring runoff into Lake Powell would only be 54% of average. According to Jeff Lukas, who studies long-term climate shifts at the Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado’s snowpack is “well below normal, halfway through the snow accumulation season. Essentially, time is running out to make up that deficit.”

Statewide snowpack Basin High/Low graph February 15, 2018 via the NRCS.

Is Colorado ready?

It’s certainly been a rough start to winter. And while the lack of snow is bad for snow-dependent businesses now, what does it mean for water supplies as we move into spring and summer?

Here in Colorado the dry start to winter is a sobering reminder of the importance of drought management and water conservation to maintain our quality of life and preserve our beautiful natural places. Thankfully, we’ve got the Colorado Water Plan which maps out solutions to deal with these scenarios as we move toward a warmer, drier, more populated future. Now we just need to ramp up its implementation.

Doing more with less

One advantage Colorado water managers have is flexibility. Meaning there are tools in place that can be deployed to move limited supplies of water around to where it’s needed most. During a dry year like this, that might mean moving water away from farms to meet demand in thirsty cities. Historically this would lead to farmland being pulled out of production, harming rural economies. But nowadays we have the opportunity to use flexible and innovative tools called Alternative Transfer Mechanisms (ATMs).

ATMs enable farmers to keep land available for agricultural production, while temporarily moving their water to cities, the environment or other users. This helps to maintain farmland viability in the state and introduces a new source of income for agricultural producers. This flexibility enables the state maintain a healthy agricultural economy and more easily meet water demands, even during times of drought.

The Colorado Water Plan sets a measurable objective to share at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water using voluntary ATMs by 2030. Our estimates show that approximately 16,000 to 17,000 acre-feet of water is now moved annually using ATMs. That’s one piece of the puzzle, but we’ll need more rapid implementation to weather future weak snow years (and yes, they’re becoming more frequent). And we’ll certainly need to explore additional solutions if we’re going to support the projected population growth that Colorado is headed towards.

There’s still time

There is still time left in the season, and it is possible that precipitation may increase. I’m keeping my eye on a storm moving through the northern Rockies this afternoon. Maybe I’ll go skiing.

Either way, I’m thankful water managers in Colorado are ahead of the game and have taken precautions to keep reservoirs full. So far this winter has been a reminder of just how important this sort of long-term planning is. But planning isn’t enough. Now we have to actually start bringing ATMs and other solutions to fruition.

Upper Rio Grande River Basin High/Low graph February 15, 2018 via the NRCS.

From The Alamosa News:

Basin snowpack as of Tuesday was 45 percent of normal, not quite the lowest in the state but close, according to Pat McDermott, Colorado Division of Water Resources, who updated members of the Rio Grande Roundtable during their February 13th meeting. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas basin is a percentage lower, with the best snowpack in the state 95 percent of normal in the South Platte River Basin on Tuesday, with other basins everywhere in between…

Putting perspective on both ends of the spectrum, last year the snowpack was 152 percent of normal on February 8, but the drought year of 2002 was 25 percent of normal, McDermott pointed out. He said he realistically expected a year in the range of 2003 with about 45-50 percent of average annual runoff…

Currently the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is forecasting an annual flow of the Rio Grande at Del Norte at 340,000 acre feet with 83,800 acre feet obligated to downstream states as part of the Rio Grande Compact, requiring about 5 percent initial curtailment to meet that obligation.

McDermott said Colorado is currently in a debit status with the Rio Grande Compact for the first time in 30 years, with about 1,300 acre feet under delivered. Considering the abundant water year that 2017 was, however, that is a minimal amount, he added.

The NRCS current forecasted annual flow on the Conejos River systems is 160,000 acre feet or about 54 percent of normal, which would require 25,000 acre feet to be sent downstream and a curtailment of only about 1 percent at the beginning of the irrigation season.

The irrigation season could start early on the Conejos so the system does not over-deliver, McDermott said. The irrigation season is set from April 1 to November 1, but the water division office has some latitude, and Division Engineer Craig Cotten has granted a few one-time variances due to low snowpack and warm weather, McDermott said. Farmers must submit written requests to be considered for irrigation season variances…

The National Weather Service’s forecast for March, April and May (and through the summer) is warmer for this region with precipitation below normal at least into the summer.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (J. Adrian Stanley):

…the experts say it’s not time to panic. Yet. There’s still two months ahead that could bring more snow, and that could be enough to lower fire danger until the area’s June monsoon rains come. But that’s assuming that normal weather patterns start kicking in, and you know what they say about assumptions…

There are many factors that lead to massive, destructive wildfires. There’s the moisture level in everything from “flashy” fuels like grasses and shrubs to large-diameter trees. There’s wind. Humidity. Daily highs and lows.

But it doesn’t take a genius to know that the winter’s snow pack is a huge factor. Russ Mann, fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Denver, says that it’s too early to know if trees in our area are low enough on moisture to increase the likelihood of a fire. They’re dormant right now, and you can’t accurately measure the levels, he says.

But other conditions look less than ideal. The region, he says, is in a moderate drought, with the areas to the south and southwest of us experiencing a severe drought (a couple steps down from the worst-case scenario).

Asked to compare drought conditions on Feb. 7, 2012 — months before Waldo — to the conditions on Feb. 7, 2018, Mann paused to pull up the maps and study them. “It’s not as bad as we have now,” he said.

Likewise, asked to compare this winter to the one that preceded Hayman, the largest fire in the state’s recorded history, Mozley noted that our region’s snow pack stood at 20 to 30 percent of the norm, with about two months left of winter to make it up. The winter before Hayman, our region saw 67 percent of normal snow pack…

Kathy Torgerson, lead forecaster and meteorologist with the NWS Pueblo, says that climate change is always a factor. Every 10 years, she says, NWS resets “average highs and lows” and every time they get higher. Likewise, as climate science would predict, heavy rainstorms still hit the area in summer, but they are less frequent. (Some may remember the once predictable afternoon showers in summer.)

But the crazy weather this year, she says, is more related to a La Niña weather pattern that’s concentrated moisture in northern states and northern Colorado, while leaving the southern part of the state parched…

While it’s notoriously difficult to predict weather far into the future, Torgerson says signals do not point to a wet spring. And even if we do get quite a bit more moisture in the remainder of winter and spring, all meteorologists consulted for this story agreed that it wouldn’t make up the deficit.

It’s too early to predict if the summer monsoon season will be particularly wet, though Mozley noted that autumn, at least, will likely bring relief. There are already signals that winter 2018-19 will follow an El Niño pattern, bringing moisture to the area.

In the meantime, locals are bracing themselves. Jim Reid, executive director of El Paso County’s Office of Emergency Management, says that with the ground hard and dry, he’s less worried about fires than he is about floods caused by hard spring rains that fail to absorb. Such storms have wiped out roads in the past, he notes.

Dave Condit, deputy forest and grassland supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, says he is concerned about fire, but he’s also worried that his teams may not be able to conduct controlled burns in spring due to dry, windy conditions and low moisture in plants and trees…

City Forester Dennis Will says he frets more about the trees in city parks dying than he does about the native trees in the city’s open spaces. We’ve had a couple wet years, he notes, and native trees are hardy enough to survive around five severe droughts in their lifespan.

From The Aspen Times (Jason Auslander):

More than a foot of snow fell atop Aspen Mountain between midnight and 4 p.m. Thursday, according to the Aspen Mountain ski patrol station located at the top of the Gentleman’s Ridge lift.

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