#Snowpack/#Drought news: The drought of 2018 comes to an end (mostly)

Statewide snowpack basin-filled map April 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District looks at three key areas to measure snowpack: Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass. The latter two sites are the nearest measurement sites to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively.

The snowpack, as measured in “snow water equivalent” at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass are both very good — more than 130 percent of the 30-year median.

Different at Vail

Vail Mountain is a different story. There, the snowpack peaked March 25 — 30 days earlier than the normal peak. It plateaued for a couple of weeks, then started to decline April 14.

Despite a very good snow season, Vail Mountain’s peak was only 92 percent of the 30-year median. As of April 25, Vail Mountain’s snowpack was 78 percent of normal. The warm weather in Vail dropped the snowpack even farther in a matter of days.

Vail’s snow water equivalent peaked at 20.8 inches — again, this is the amount of water in the snow — and sat at 17.6 inches April 25. But there was another one-inch drop from April 26 to April 26, and the measurement site showed a four-inch decline over just 10 days.

The measurement sites at Copper and Fremont had better news. At Copper, snowpack peaked April 14 — two weeks sooner than normal. But the peak was 132 percent of the 30-year median.

As of April 25, the snowpack at Fremont Pass hadn’t yet begun to decline, and was at 135 percent of the 30-year median.

While this water season is setting up to be a good one — depending on a combination of temperatures, speed of the runoff and the arrival of summer rains — Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District noted that one good season doesn’t make up for nearly two decades in some sort of drought.

The current cycle has lasted long enough that some climate watchers have stopped using “drought” and are now calling this the “aridification” of the mountain west.

What that means, Johnson said, is that water system customers need to think about water use in new ways.

“People need to change their habits,” Johnson said, particularly regarding landscaping and irrigation. While most water used indoors eventually returns to local streams, most irrigation water soaks into the soil and doesn’t return to streams.

As local streams reached critically low levels in 2018, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District issued hundreds of letters to people who were using far more water than they should, almost of all of which went to landscape watering.

Johnson said the district issued on “a couple” of substantial fines, adding that most customers voluntarily complied with orders to use less water.

But using less water needs to become the rule, not the exception, Johnson said.

“There are ways to be efficient and still have beautiful landscapes,” Johnson said. “It means being much more thoughtful in what you plant and how it’s designed. There are all sorts of beautiful, cool things that can be done.”

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The drought that parched crops, crunched ranchers and drained reservoirs across Colorado in 2018 has quietly come to an end, a new map from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows.

Just 1 percent of the state is still in drought, compared to more than 50 percent earlier this spring.

“This is the best year that you could have after what we had last year,” said Colorado assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger.

Colorado Drought Monitor April 23, 2019.

Massive February snowstorms and a March bomb cyclone helped bring the statewide snowpack to 122 percent of average. In southwestern Colorado, conditions are so wet that some farmers can’t get to their fields to plant crops.

“It is crazy from before,” said Montezuma County hay producer Brian Wilson with a chuckle. He estimated he’s about two weeks behind schedule.

As Wilson waits for conditions to dry out, he’s purchased more fertilizer and supplies. He expects to grow more hay this than in 2018. But he also worries because he’s spent more money than usual.

“There’s always a gamble, yes,” Wilson said. “We’re hoping to at least break — even make a little bit — to recoup some of the losses we’ve had.”

Wilson and other farmers depend on water from nearby McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. In early February it was 7 percent full. Now it’s a quarter full and expected to fill up all the way.

“[February and March] just came on like gangbusters,” said Mike Preston, general manager at Dolores Water Conservancy District. “The probabilities are that we’ll fill the reservoir, and we’ll have some excess water.

For Preston, that means letting extra water run down the river for boaters and recreators. That water will travel into the Colorado River system and help fill Lake Powell, a key part of the Colorado River Basin storage system…

This year won’t be easy for farmers, either: Some face declining crop prices while others struggle to find workers to harvest crops. And of course, there’s no telling when another dry year like 2018 might come along. The expectation is that it will get worse as the climate warms.

“What we do know is that if it’s hotter, there will be more evaporation, less recharge and less runoff,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. Waskom said CSU is making great strides in developing seeds and technologies that may help farmers in the future. Colorado will likely see more swings like what happened over the past year, and new research won’t get rid of that white-knuckle emotional rollercoaster for farmers.

“So we may have drier drys and wetter wets and hotter hots,” he said. “We’ll figure out how to deal with climate. But it’s those weather extremes — drought, flood, hail — that are really hard to cope with.”</blockquote<

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