#Drought/#Snowpack news: “We had some good moisture in spring but then we didn’t get any. It was just dry during the summer and fall” — LuAnn Adams #Utah

Photo via SolarPumps.com.

From Utah Public Radio (Kerry Bringhurst):

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has released its annual report outlining 2018 production numbers that include a review of the health and welfare of the state’s farm, produce and ranching industries. Utah Agriculture Commissioner LuAnn Adams is warning of challenges facing agricultural producers in 2019, including drought.

“It’s no secret what these drought conditions have played,” Commissioner Adams said. “We had some good moisture in spring but then we didn’t get any. It was just dry during the summer and fall.”

When Commissioner Adams and her family moved their sheep from mountain and rangeland grazing areas back to their ranch in Box Elder County this past fall, the livestock was malnourished.

“And we had plenty of feed but it was like feeding them sticks, and no nutrition,” she said.

Her family used food supplements and high-protein feed to sustain the herd before taking the sheep to market. Adams says a number of Utah producers are using nutritional supplements and state financial supplements, or Utah Department of Agriculture and Food loans, to sustain their herds and their livelihood…

Adams approved three new loans earlier this month and says there are other programs to support the industry, including GIP, the Grazing Improvement Program. Unique to Utah, GIP uses state money allocated by the Utah legislature for cost-share grants ranchers can use for rangeland improvement. Producers can apply to have up to 50 percent of project costs on private grazing lands covered by the state. The funds have been used for a water salinity project in eastern Utah and a wildfire reduction program near Minersville in Beaver County. GIP funding could cover up to 75 percent of costs for rangeland improvement projects on public lands.

“We’ve done a lot of pinion-juniper removal,” Adams said. “Those trees suck up a lot of water. And when you remove that, the new grasses come and it helps with the Sage Grouse and wildlife also and puts a lot more production on the ground.”

Some of the UDAF funding has gone to support solar projects that use the energy source to operate water pumping systems that sustain grazing animals.

“We are able to get water where you couldn’t get water many years ago because we are using solar,” she said.

Most of the solar energy projects are in mountain and high elevation rangelands.

The UDAF expects Utah lawmakers to include funding the GIP program through 2019 state budget allocations. A final state budget is expected to be approved March 14, the last day of the legislative session.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Since October 2017, Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners have been listed at varying levels of drought. On April 17, 2018, the region was listed in the D4, “exceptional drought,” category – the most extreme listing the U.S. Drought Monitor has.

La Plata County has remained in the exceptional drought listing ever since – that is, until this Thursday, when the rating was dropped a notch for most of the county to D3, “extreme drought.”

US Drought Monitor January 22, 2019.

…in October 2018, moisture started to return to the region, and a series of snowstorms over the past few weeks has snowpack building in the San Juans. As of Wednesday, a snow station near Molas Lake, at an elevation of 10,500 feet, recorded a snow depth of 47 inches.

Calls to the Pine River Irrigation District, which manages Vallecito Reservoir, were not immediately returned Thursday morning. But a gauge of the reservoir’s water level shows Vallecito is at 30 percent capacity, improving slightly from mid-December when the lake was just 25 percent full. As of Thursday, Lemon Reservoir was at 17 percent capacity.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Heavy snowfall over the weekend, topping two feet in some areas of the state, has brightened Colorado’s water outlook for 2019, with snowpack statewide reaching 106 percent of average as of Monday.

“I want to see this continue,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Domonkos’ comments came Tuesday at a Denver meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force.

While the white stuff has weather watchers grinning, no one is throwing confetti yet, in part because last year’s devastating drought has sapped reservoirs and left soil desperately dry.

Snowpack is watched closely because it provides the majority of Colorado’s water supply. This year, even as snow storms rediscover the state after being largely absent last year, the deeply dry conditions on parts of Colorado’s Eastern Plains and its mountains mean that when the snow melts this spring, it’s not likely to produce as much water because the moisture will seep into the soils first.

Despite thigh-deep snow in places like Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge, the state has a long way to go to make up for last year’s deficits, officials said.

The southwestern corner of the state remains in what’s known as an exceptional drought, while places such as the Rio Grande Basin remain in extreme drought and large parts of the state, to a lesser degree, are still classed as being dry by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Even though we’ve seen pockets of improvement there are long-term consequences to the drought. We’re monitoring everything heavily,” said Taryn Finnessey, chair of the task force and senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Last year was Colorado’s second-driest on record. In response, in May, the state activated its drought plan, putting agriculture, water and weather agencies into monitoring mode, and making available to its 34 drought-stricken counties additional federal insurance funds for crops and small businesses. Late last fall, as conditions continued to deteriorate, Colorado added six more counties to its drought watch, bringing to 40 out of 64 statewide the number of counties still battling dry conditions.

The drought plan remains in effect, Finnessey said, with officials waiting to see what 2019’s spring storms may deliver.

“Right now we’re getting mixed signals,” said Peter Goble, a drought specialist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center. “2018 told us a clear story. Water year 2019 has yet to reveal its true form,” he said. The water year begins Nov. 1 and runs through Oct. 31. It is the standard unit of time scientists and meteorologists use to measure precipitation.

The Arkansas River Basin, which includes Colorado Springs, Pueblo and La Junta, has the best snowpack in the state right now at 129 percent of average.

The South Platte River Basin, which includes the metro area and Fort Collins, came in second with a snowpack of 113 percent of average.

But in keeping with the winter’s wild cards, the Front Range actually slipped into short-term drought mode in December, after several weeks went by with no snow.

In response, Highlands Ranch customers turned on their sprinkler systems to provide relief to dry lawns and trees, driving demand up 3 percent from where it was last year at this time.

“There is some concern here,” said Swithin Dick, a water resources staffer at Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.

Though Colorado and other states are seeing some drought relief, there is growing alarm that conditions in the broader, seven-state Colorado River Basin will not improve significantly this year, due again to ultra dry soil conditions throughout the basin.

New reports indicate that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which are less than half full, will fall to a crisis point this year, likely triggering major water cutbacks in Arizona, Nevada and possibly California.

Colorado’s snowpack is projected to peak around April 8, at which point water managers will begin to make final projections for this year’s runoff. The next task force meeting is scheduled for Feb. 19 in Denver.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org

Statewide snowpack basin-filled map January 25, 2019 via the NRCS.

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