#Snowpack news (February 12, 2021): Improvements statewide due to recent storminess, more on the way

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Colorado’s snowpack this winter continues to lag behind normal — much less the above-normal amount needed for the state to escape from a continuing drought — but it has improved thanks to recent storms, and more moisture is on the way.

Snowpack in the state as of Wednesday was at 85% of median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Services. That’s up from 74% just under a month ago, and reflects a wetter recent weather pattern that has dropped multiple feet of powder on some Colorado ski areas.

Snowpack levels have shown similar increases in the Upper Colorado River and Gunnison River drainages, which now sit at 82% and 79% of median, respectively. The Gunnison drainage currently is the driest major basin in the state, with the Upper Rio Grande Basin having the highest amount of snowpack at 103% of median.

Tom Renwick, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, noted that a series of weather systems are due to move through the state starting [February 11, 2021]. The second one, now expected to arrive Saturday evening, “really looks like it’s got a lot of precipitation with it,” he said.

A third storm expected to show up Monday night doesn’t look as promising, Renwick said. “Still, anything we can get will help,” he said.

He thinks that if the three systems deliver as now expected, they could push the state close to normal snowpack for this time of year.

In a monthly webinar put on this week by Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, Peter Goble, a climatologist with the center, also indicated the forecasted storms could improve the snowpack situation in the state…

But he reiterated what water-watchers have been saying all winter — that even if the snowpack in the state reaches normal levels before seasonal accumulations peak in a few months, that likely would result in below-normal runoff levels due to dry soils and low base flows in streams as a result of continuing drought…

West Drought Monitor February 9, 2021.

All of Colorado remains in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Eastern and southwestern Mesa County are in exceptional drought, the worst category, with the northwestern part of the county in extreme drought. Much of western Colorado and much of the state’s eastern plains are in exceptional or extreme drought…

Low soil moisture levels and their streamflow impacts are of concern to the Ute Water Conservancy District, the Grand Valley’s largest provider of domestic water.

“The ground is going to take what it can before it gives us any,” said district spokeswoman Andrea Lopez.

The district tries to rely on the Jerry Creek reservoirs in the Plateau Valley as its primary water supply because of the high quality of the water that fills them. Lopez said those reservoirs are currently doing pretty well, considering the drought that kicked in last year, and are now 95.5% full. But she said that percentage will go down.

Snowpack levels at NRCS measurement sites on Grand Mesa, which feeds those reservoirs, range from 62% to 72% of normal.

Ute Water probably will eventually have to pull water from watersheds that aren’t its first choice, turning to the Colorado River, and mixing that water with water from the Jerry Creek reservoirs.

That affects its water quality and is more expensive due to the pumping and extra treatment that is required.

The Ute Water board could end up deciding to impose drought rates if needed…

According to the NRCS, reservoir storage at the end of January in the state was at 80% of average for this time of year. The Bureau of Reclamation currently expects runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir to be at 70% of average between April and July, and for the water level at Blue Mesa to top out this year at 576,000 acre feet, out of a reservoir capacity of 830,000 acre feet…

Renwick said that in La Niña winters, if the Western Slope is going to get precipitation it typically happens as the state starts heading into spring, “which is exactly what is happening.”

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 12, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Ark Valley Voice (Tara Flanagan):

Lake Powell, the current poster child for things gone awry in the Colorado River Basin, is shrinking from the top and sides, its old water lines scarring the southern Utah desert.

The numbers from Lake Powell Water Database don’t make it any prettier; the central storage bin for the Colorado River and a legendary playground for houseboaters, Lake Powell is down 29.67 feet from a year ago. The rivers feeding it are running at 70 percent of average and the 28 tracked reservoirs above it are at 70 percent capacity. The water level is at 39.1 percent of what they call full pool. At capacity, Lake Powell holds roughly 26 million acre feet of water.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and manages dams, power plants and canals, and which hails itself as the largest wholesaler of water in the country, recently fired a warning shot. In a January forecast the agency warned that lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the U.S., are heading toward record-low levels, which could result in the loss of hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. Front-Range cities are girding for water cutbacks as the larger seven-state region stands ready to put drought contingency plans into place.

A seven-hour drive from here, Lake Powell is sufficiently out of sight to not be a constant reminder about the water situation in Colorado. Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt calls the reservoir “the big train station for water.” For now he says he’s not panicking about a possible major derailment and reminds us that history can be an optimist. Some dry winters have staged spectacular comebacks, he says.

But Felt also reminds us that we’re in a dry year that was preceded by another dry year. With recent precipitation propping up the snowpack, we’ve seen encouragement in February. But lest we forget, there was 2020.

The moisture-sucking year that gave us a global pandemic also wreaked havoc on America’s West. The record-setting wildfires were a reminder that our lands were brittle and dry to begin with.

In layman’s terms, the soil in Colorado is wrung out. Which means, among other things, that much of the runoff heading for our waterways stands a good chance of getting sucked into the ground…

Right now the state drought map remains awash in tones of red and dark brown, and 70 percent of the state is seeing extreme conditions, according to drought.gov. Chaffee County, which has a mix of severe and extreme conditions, is seeing its 13th driest in 127 years, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About a quarter of Colorado is categorized as an exceptional drought – the most extreme of the five categories.

Colorado’s snowpack holds much of the story for the spring and summer and currently, the statewide figure is 81 percent of average, according to SNOTEL, a snow-reporting function of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. On the optimistic side, the Upper Rio Grande Basin is running at 108 percent of normal, which plays into the 243 inches recorded so far at Wolf Creek Ski Area. But the Upper Rio Grande also skews Colorado’s average upward.

Snowpack for the North Platte Basin is at 73 percent, the Colorado River Basin at 79, Gunnison at 78, and the Arkansas Basin at 94 percent…

Felt noted that February, March, and April tend to be the best snow months hereabouts, so there is always hope for a better finish to snow season. But at this point, he says, “it needs to be extraordinary.”

That said, Felt says municipal water supplies in Chaffee County are good. The major questions remain for agricultural production, wildfire danger, and recreation. “It’s worrisome when you combine that with our forest health issues,” he says…

He acknowledges that several long blasts of snow and a significant boost to the snowpack would do wonders to calm some of the emerging warnings.

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