#Snowpack/#Runoff news: Otero County commissioners discuss potential flooding scenarios

Arkansas River Basin High/Low graph April 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

From The La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Christian Burney) The Bent County Democrat:

Southeast Water Conservancy District board member Kevin Karney attended the April 22 Otero Board of County Commissioners meeting to discuss the summer’s projected water levels and the potential for flooding in North La Junta. Land Use Administrator Lex Nichols previously addressed the issue of flooding at a BOCC meeting on March 25.

The water collected in the Pueblo Reservoir and travels through the Lower Arkansas River is controlled by multiple entities, including the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Whenever levels approach the reservoir’s capacity, the Army Corps of Engineers will release some water into the Arkansas River to prevent over-spill. However, as that water travels downstream, it can collect in North La Junta. If too much water is sent downstream at once, North La Junta cannot bear the load and tends to flood.

Karney attended the BOCC meeting to reiterate the threat posed to North La Junta and to share the Southeast Water Conservancy District’s projected water imports.

When water enters the Pueblo Reservoir flood pool, the Army Corps of Engineers takes over to empty it, said Karney.

The Corps doesn’t technically have any obligation to Otero County to watch how much water they release or how fast they release, Nichols said, but the county had a working relationship with the officials who formerly monitored the Pueblo Reservoir’s flood pool. The problem for Otero County is that those employees have since moved on, and the new crew isn’t savvy to North La Junta’s issue.

Karney encouraged the county to re-establish a working relationship with the new officials to ensure they are aware of North La Junta’s predicament. He indicated it is important to establish that relationship quickly because Southeast Water Conservancy District projections indicate that the county will be receiving higher than average water levels this summer.

In a series of Southeast Water Conservancy District graphics distributed at the BOCC meeting by Karney, the Fryingpan-Arkansas collection basin, as of March, the snowpack levels are at 162 percent above the median.

The historic median for the snow water equivalent of imported water in the Fryingpan-Arkansas collection basin is just over 10 inches for the month of March. In March of this year, however, the collection basin has experienced nearly 20 inches in imported water.

The Upper Arkansas Basin similarly experienced a 143 percent of median in imported water.

The historical median is just below 15 inches of water, while 2019 projections place water import into the Upper Arkansas Basin at 20 inches of water…

In another Southeast Water Conservancy District document provided by Karney, it’s shown that Pueblo Reservoir, as of April 18, contains 242,849 acre-feet of water out of a maximum available capacity of 245,373 acre-feet.

“There’s available 2,524 acre-feet of space before it gets into flood pool,” said Karney.

“We’re going to be running water soon. And a lot of it,” said Commissioner Jim Baldwin.

The total amount of water expected to be [released] down the Lower Arkansas River in the coming months is approximately 90,500 acre-feet of water, it was stated at the meeting. On average, Otero County sees about 50,000 acre-feet of water over the summer.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

From Discover Magazine (Tom Yulsman):

…many measuring sites in Colorado experienced their wettest spring on record, according to Paul Miller, a hydrologist for the Colroado River Basin Forecast Center. Temperatures also were relatively cool, limiting the kind of premature snowmelt that has been seen with increasing frequency in recent years…

And that’s especially good news for water supplies in the Colorado River Basin. For the past 20 years, drought, aridification from warming temperatures, and increasing consumption, have caused water levels in the region’s two largest and most critical reservoirs — lakes Mead and Powell — to drop to very concerning levels…

As of the end of March, Lake Powell was at 37 percent of capacity, and Lake Mead was at 42 percent. Even though flows into the latter reservoir are projected to be at 130 percent of average, it would take multiple years like this to bring the water back up to comfortable levels.

Don’t count on that happening. Tighi points out that after a very wet year in 2011, people began speculating that a long-term drought in the Colorado River Basin was over. But 2011 “was followed by two of the driest years on record,” she notes. “We consider ourselves lucky that we got this one year reprieve. But luck and hope is not a way to manage and plan for the future.”

The reprieve does appears to forestall a first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government that would occur when Lake Mead’s level drops to 1,075 feet above sea level. That declaration would trigger significant mandatory cutbacks in water use.

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