#Snowpack/#Runoff news: “Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams?” — Diane Johnson

Here’s a column about snowpack and runoff from Diane Johnson that’s running in The Vail Daily. Click through and read the whole column to learn about the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District priorities during drought. Here’s an excerpt:

As the water provider for homes and businesses from Vail through Edwards, we welcome each snowfall. Specifically, we focus on the water content — or “snow water equivalent” (SWE) — of our local snowpack. Statewide SWE is currently about 140 percent of normal and local snow measuring sites are similarly high.

Above normal SWE generally bodes well for summer water supply. However, we need the snowpack to linger well into May. The federal snow measuring site on Vail Mountain normally peaks on April 25, then the melt starts. The Fremont Pass site near the headwaters of the Eagle River normally peaks on May 6, followed by a six-week melt. A slower melt lets water seep into soils — which were parched entering winter due to drought in 2018. While good winter snow should mean good summer river flows, some of that snowmelt will replenish soil moisture and not be part of spring runoff. Winter may be over, but the Eagle River valley needs April (snow) showers to bring May (river) scours.

Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams? Because they serve as the supply for us to provide you with clean, safe drinking water, irrigation water, and fire protection. The amount of water used by our customers affects local stream levels. Since healthy waterways are critical to our natural environment and recreation-based economy, we strive to balance the water needs of our customers with the rivers’ needs.

In July 2018, as drought caused local waterways to drop to low levels, we prioritized river water over customers’ use of water for outdoor purposes. Outdoor areas use much more water than indoor areas and landscape irrigation has a greater impact on streamflows than indoor and fireflow use. Our staffcontacted hundreds of customers who were using excessive amounts of water that disproportionately impacted our community’s limited water resource. Nearly all customers who were contacted responded positively, which helped to preserve streamflows.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

…the moisture March has been delivering to Colorado has put an exclamation point on a stellar snowpack season. The state has experienced a remarkable turnaround from last year when poor snowpack and meager rainfall left the state deep in drought.

“There are lingering effects (of that drought) for sure, but as far as the snowpack goes, it’s really the best that we can hope for,” said Taryn Finnessey, climate change risk management specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

As of Wednesday, statewide snowpack averaged 140 percent of median.

“It’s been a very good water year,” Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said of the 12-month hydrological period that began last Oct. 1.

He said conditions have been particularly good in the southern mountains, where snowpack levels have been at 275 to 300 percent of where they were a year ago and already are well above their average seasonal peak amounts…

According to a March drought update produced by the board, since Feb. 1 the San Juan Mountains have received 15 inches of precipitation, nearly equal to the entire total they received during the 2018 water year that ended Sept. 30.

River basins in far-southwest Colorado on Tuesday had a combined median snowpack of 161 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Gunnison Basin, which was water-starved last year, is at 154 percent of median, and the upper Colorado River Basin is at 136 percent.

The Weather Service is reporting that precipitation so far this month in Grand Junction has totaled 2.28 inches, just 0.08 inches behind the record of 2.36 set more than a century ago, in 1912. Local weather records date back to 1893.

The current water year got off to a wet start in Grand Junction in October, which was the fourth-wettest on record for the city, with 2.76 inches of precipitation…

Record-setting or not, such moisture in Colorado has gone far to alleviate drought conditions in the state. Three months ago two-thirds of the state was experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That was down to just under a third of the state as of March 12, and about 7 percent as of the latest drought report last week, with drought conditions remaining in parts of southern Colorado.

Mesa County and much of western Colorado are now ranked as abnormally dry but not in drought. But officials are recommending removing that abnormally dry designation for Mesa County and much of the surrounding region in the next drought map, scheduled for release today…

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Erik Knight, a hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction, said the outlook at Blue Mesa Reservoir is “a lot better than a few months ago, that’s for sure.”

The massive, 940,700 acre-foot reservoir’s level has fallen to around 30 percent of capacity, and hasn’t been that low since 1977.

Now, Knight said, it’s looking like it may get to 85 percent of full this year…

Now Colorado snowpack levels are high enough that water officials are at least considering the potential for flooding this spring.

“Right now we’re not overly alarmed. We’re just going to see how it plays out,” Finnessey said.

She said streamflow forecasts are average to just above average at this point.

“Typically snowmelt is rather well behaved in Colorado,” she said.

She said most of the state’s flooding results from rain, not snowmelt runoff. In addition, it remains to be seen how much of the runoff goes toward refilling reservoirs versus swelling streams. But Finnessey said officials are looking forward to the ecosystem and reservoir benefits the snowmelt will provide.

But she said the drought’s impacts aren’t over, as in the case of ranchers who had to sell livestock last year. Poor hay-growing and range forage conditions took a heavy toll on many of them.

From 9News.com (Allison Levine):

Denver Water’s reservoirs are already in good shape with some, like Eleven Mile, over capacity…

What does that mean for Denver Water customers?

Hartman: It means we have a healthy water supply. It means, going into the summer, we’re going to be in our standard watering rules. We’ve seen, over the years, our customers become so good with their water use and we expect to see the same from them this summer…

There is still a lot of snow that has to melt. How will that impact reservoir capacity?

Hartman: We will be able to fill our reservoirs and we’ll be able to use that water throughout the summer. We’re in late March right now, it’s obviously always difficult to predict how things will unfold. We could, say for example, have a warm April. A warm April would melt that snow off more quickly.

Because of a number of dry years in the last 10 and 20 years, we have low soil moisture and Mother Nature gets dibs on that water. So, even with that great snowpack, some of that’s going to get eaten up by that very thirsty soil.

You can always get evaporation if the weather gets very hot, or we could have a cooler April, which we hope for. That slows the melt off and sort of sustains the reservoir that is the snow. We consider the snowpack one giant reservoir. We are optimistic that we will continue to see these weather patterns that keep the snowmelt happening in a slower, more predictable, and more manageable way.

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