The U.S. Drought Monitor reported on Thursday that there are no more extreme or exceptional drought conditions in the state, which plagued the Four Corners region after the dry 2018 winter and summer. Three months ago, nearly 30 percent of Colorado was listed under that status.
As of Thursday’s report, only 46.13 percent of the state was listed in some kind of drought status. That’s down from 83 percent last week.
Gov. Jared Polis, in a Facebook live video with snow experts, called the state’s snowpack “epic.”
[Joel] Gratz said the last time Colorado’s spring snowpack was anywhere near as solid was 11 years ago. But you have to go back to the 1996-97 season to really match this year’s levels.
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):
Recent storms packed the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico with healthy snow levels, and meteorologists anticipate El Niño conditions will persist through the spring. This is welcome news after last year’s dry conditions. But in the long term, forecasters and farmers still remain cautious. That’s because long-term drought has dried out the state’s soils. And reservoirs remain low, particularly on the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Chama River.
According to the most recent national drought monitor, the only extreme drought conditions in the entire nation are in San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico. Drought conditions are also building in west Texas and in New Mexico’s Lea and Eddy counties. And though El Niño conditions favor bringing precipitation to the Southwest, temperatures are expected to be above average over the next month, too.
During a call earlier this week about the outlook for the Rio Grande this year, Greg Waller, service coordination hydrologist with NOAA’s West Gulf River Forecast Center, emphasized the good snowpack news, especially after last year’s “brutal” conditions. But he also noted it’s critical to pay attention to what happens next.
Because the ground is so dry, initial snowmelt will first do the job of saturating top layers of the soil…
Refilling empty reservoirs
In 2018, there wasn’t any runoff to speak of on the Rio Grande, and both the river and reservoirs suffered.
“By this time last year, we were preparing to manage drying on the river,” said Mary Carlson with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In 2018, the Rio Grande began drying in early April, when it should have been flush with snowmelt.
Since last May, New Mexico has been under Article VII restrictions: According to the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any of the upstream reservoirs built after 1929 when combined storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs is below 400,000 acre feet. This includes Heron, El Vado and Heron reservoirs.
As of Thursday, Elephant Butte is holding 205,000 acre feet of water, and Caballo, 28,000 acre feet.
Carlson said Reclamation estimates Article VII restrictions will lift in mid-May, for about a month, until combined storage in the two reservoirs drops again below 400,000 acre feet.
While most of New Mexico’s streams and rivers are at or above their norm for the season—even the Santa Fe River is flowing right now—most of the state’s largest reservoirs still tell the story of 2018’s historically dry and warm conditions.
Elephant Butte Reservoir is at just 10.4 percent capacity as of Thursday, and on the Chama River, El Vado Reservoir currently holds just 25,000 acre feet of water, Heron Reservoir, 59,000 acre feet and Abiquiu Reservoir, 69,000 acre feet. For perspective, that means Heron is 15 percent full, El Vado, 14 percent and Abiquiu, just 12 percent.
Improvement over last year
In the Middle Rio Grande Valley, irrigation canals and ditches are already flowing, mostly to flush debris that built up over the winter and to check for leaks.
“There has been some irrigation going on, but generally it has remained cool and damp, and we are not getting many requests for water yet,” said Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District hydrologist David Gensler. “Certainly not like last year, when it was so dry and people were desperate for water.”
Unless something “really unexpected” happens, he said, the district anticipates a “pretty comfortable year” for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande
Even if New Mexico comes out of Article VII restrictions, he said the district probably won’t store much water in 2019, and they aren’t even considering the possibility of filling El Vado. That’s not just due to conditions and restrictions, he said: repairs are planned for El Vado, and managers will also need water to help support endangered species in the river, such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow…
There is a downside to anticipating this year’s runoff, he said: they’ll be watching the levees closely. The timing of snowmelt will matter, but there could be situations similar to in 2017, when there was levee seepage and bank failures. Gensler also anticipates that the Chama River below Abiquiu Reservoir will run at the channel’s capacity, causing erosion and damage to acequia intakes there…
Southern New Mexico farmers in wait-and-see mode
Further downstream, farmers in southern New Mexico are also watching the levels at Elephant Butte, which hit a low last September of three percent capacity.
Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) farmers will start receiving water from Caballo Reservoir at the end of May. Until then, they will have to pump groundwater if they need to irrigate.
Currently, the district anticipates delivering to farmers six to ten inches of water per acre. But EBID hasn’t decided on final allocations yet, because their storage levels are so low, explained Phillip King, a civil engineering professor at New Mexico State University and water adviser to EBID.
A normal allotment for EBID farmers is 36 inches per acre per year. Last year, EBID farmers received ten inches. And even in 2017, during which snowpack was robust, drought and storage conditions meant they received 24 inches.
“While the snowpack looks promising, we don’t allocate it until it reaches the reservoir,” he said. “It is a long way from the mountain slopes of Colorado to Elephant Butte Dam.”
‘Pray for rain’
Meanwhile, over on the Pecos River, the Carlsbad Irrigation District had planned to start the irrigation season by now, but they’re holding off, probably for just a few more days…
Unlike on the Rio Grande, farmers on the Pecos have received full allotments of water in recent years—that’s about 3.7 acre feet per year. Right now, the initial allotment for this spring is set at 2.5 acre feet. “We expect that will go up,” Ballard said. “We have not yet gotten any of the snowmelt or runoff from the Sangre de Cristos into Santa Rosa Lake, so we’re just waiting to see what that will be before we increase the allotment.”
Here’s the release from the Desert Research Institute:
In the western United States, reservoirs are critical for storing water that can later be used by cities and for agricultural applications — but evaporation can remove a significant amount of this stored water each year.
A new collaboration between the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. and the Technical Service Center of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation aims to improve our understanding of evaporation from Lake Powell and other major reservoirs of the western United States through the deployment of floating evaporation stations.
The stations monitor meteorological conditions over the water and estimate evaporation using four primary methods: eddy covariance, energy balance, aerodynamic bulk mass transfer, and the combination of energy balance and aerodynamic. Data from the stations are transmitted back to the research team via a web portal for real-time monitoring.
While there are multiple techniques used for estimating reservoir evaporation, there is little consensus on which is best for accuracy, cost, and long-term operational monitoring potential, says principal investigator Chris Pearson, Assistant Research Scientist of Hydrology at DRI.
“A key aspect of this project is to use multiple techniques, including newer and older, more traditional methods. We’ll run them all at the same time, side by side, to see how well they agree or don’t agree,” Pearson said.
Water temperatures in Lake Powell change significantly throughout the year, as snowmelt fed runoff enters from the Colorado River and other tributaries. Temperatures also vary by depth and location around the lake. Consequently, the team has deployed measuring stations at two different locations, Warm Creek and Padre Bay, where the depth of water is around 100-150 feet.
By collecting data from multiple sites in the reservoir, the research team will learn about how evaporation rates vary both spatially and temporally throughout the year. The end goal, says Pearson, is to help scientists and water managers make accurate evaporation estimates using best available science – both at Lake Powell and elsewhere in the world.
“Eventually we’d like to integrate these data with satellite and gridded climate products, so we can provide accurate estimates with minimal instrumentation in the field, but collecting reliable and accurate benchmark in-situ data is the first step.” Pearson said.
This project is made possible with funding from the Bureau of Reclamation. Other members of the project team include Justin Huntington, Ph.D. (DRI, co-principal investigator), Brad Lyles (DRI), Richard Jasoni, Ph.D. (DRI), Mark Spears, P.E. (Reclamation, senior project lead), Dan Broman, Ph.D. (Reclamation), and Kathleen Holman, Ph.D. (Reclamation).
Effort worries coal counties on Western Slope; seen as duplicate by some
Lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill Thursday that orders the state to expand its tracking and possibly regulations of greenhouse gas emissions through 2050, an effort to buck the Trump administration’s disinterest in tackling climate change.
Colorado has been tracking greenhouse gas emissions by sector since 2008, but Senate Bill 096 greatly expands an existing effort by the Air Quality Control Commission. Under the bill, the commission would collect data and propose rules to address emissions by July 2020. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would be required to collect annual greenhouse gas data by sector and publish it; the department would also be required to forecast emissions through 2050.
The bill’s opponents say it would generate more regulations that could push coal-fired power plants closer to extinction, killing jobs and further raising electricity costs on the Western Slope…
…Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, the bill’s sponsor, said the measure would help Colorado reach its 2025 goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least a quarter. It would also ensure that greenhouse gas emission data would not depend on the federal government, which under President Donald Trump has abandoned its commitment to the Paris climate change accords.
The bill passed the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee on a party-line vote of 5-2; it now heads to the Appropriations Committee…
Southwest Colorado greenhouse gas emissions attracted global attention in 2014, when NASA scientists discovered a 2,500-square-mile methane cloud over the Four Corners caused in part by natural gas production. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
Even as Colorado grapples with methane emissions from oil and gas operations and a power mix still mostly reliant on coal, Sen. Ray Scott, a Mesa County Republican, questioned why SB 096 would have the state spend nearly $2 million to duplicate data already being tracked by the federal agencies and local universities.
I’ve known for awhile that a crane’s diet consists of crop waste grain such as corn, wheat, barley, oats, as well as snails, crayfish, insects, small vertebrates and the eggs of other birds, but what I observed over the next hour was completely unexpected. The cranes used their elongated beaks to root around for potatoes, with great enthusiasm. At first I thought they were just slicing them into smaller and smaller pieces in order to eat them – which some of them were, but then I saw one throw back an entire potato and swallow it whole. Then another, and another. I pressed record.
The sandhill cranes were swallowing potatoes whole like a pelican eating a fish! After years of capturing footage of the cranes flying in and out of fields, it was quite interesting and unexpected to witness a behavior I had never before observed in this species.
I am so glad I got the courage to ask the landowner for permission to access their land. My trip was shaping up to be pretty fowl but by the end I was happy as a lark. I think next year I’ll time my visit for the heart of the festival when there are guided tours lead by birding professionals, volunteers to ask for advice and help, fellow birders to compare notes with and a craft fair to chill at instead of brooding in my hotel lobby. Honestly, the festival is a hoot. If you’ve never been to one before I highly recommend it– maybe I’ll see you there next year! We’re always looking to add more crane enthusiasts to our flock.
From the Colorado Water Conservation Board/Colorado Division of Water Resources (Ben Wade):
In response to persistent and prolonged drought conditions throughout the southern half of the state and along the western border, the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan was activated for the agricultural sector on May 2, 2018, additional counties in northwest Colorado were added in September and activation remains in effect; information can be found HERE.
February and March-to-date have both seen impressive snow accumulation statewide, but especially in the southern half of the state where snowpack is currently above 150 percent of normal for all basins. This persistent moisture and near normal temperatures has resulted in significant drought improvements across the region. We will continue to monitor throughout the snow melt season to determine inflows to reservoirs and streamflow levels. Post wildfire flooding remains a concern and will be closely monitored. The daily flood threat bulletin can be accessed May 1 through September 30 HERE.
As of March 19th, exceptional drought (D4) and extreme drought (D3) have been entirely removed from Colorado. Severe drought covers just 0.63 percent of the state while moderate drought covers an additional six percent. Forty percent of the state is currently experiencing abnormally dry conditions, a significant improvement in recent weeks. Most of the western slope has seen three and even four class improvements in drought conditions since the start of the water year (see image below).
El Niño conditions are now present, and will likely continue through spring (80 percent chance) and even summer (60 percent chance) of this year. Historically spring during an El Niño event trends toward wetter conditions, and the NOAA Climate Prediction Center outlooks for April, and for the April-May-June period show increased chances of wetter-than-average conditions, with less confidence in the temperature outlook.
SNOTEL snow water equivalent statewide is 142 percent of average with all basins well above average. The highest snowpack is in the Southwest basins of the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas & San Juan at 158 percent of median, while the lowest is tied with both the Yampa-White and the North Platte at 128 percent of median (see image below).
Many basins, as well as the state as a whole are near maximum observed snowpack for this time of year and short term forecasts indicate that an active storm pattern is likely to remain.
Reservoir storage, statewide remains at 83 percent of normal but is expected to increase as soon as the runoff season begins. The South Platte, Colorado, and Yampa-White, all above 90 percent of average as of March 1st. Storage in the Arkansas and Upper Rio Grande basins are at 87 and 78 percent of normal, respectively. The Southwest basins of the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas & San Juan, and Gunnison remain the lowest in the state at 58 and 63 percent of normal, respectively.
Streamflow forecasts are near to above normal statewide and have been steadily increasing in recent weeks. As a result the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center has adjusted their April-July unregulated inflow forecasts as follows: Blue Mesa Reservoir 960 KAF (142% of average) a 32 percent of average increase, McPhee Reservoir 480 KAF (163% of average) a 51 percent of average increase. The Lake Powell inflow forecast is 9.50 MAF (133% of average) an increase of 2.2 million acre-feet or 31% of average.
The Drought Visualization Tool is now live; please take a minute to provide feedback on this tool HERE.