With the 2021-22 snow season winding down, Denver Water is getting a clearer look at water supplies approaching the irrigation, gardening and summer recreation season.
In fact, as 9News meteorologist Cory Reppenhagen has pointed out, much of Colorado likely hit its peak snowpack in late March, meaning we’ve started the process of spring runoff, when the snowpack begins to melt and flow into streams, rivers and reservoirs.
(Caption: Watch Denver Water crews weigh the snow to find out how much water it contains.)
In Denver Water’s collection system, which includes parts of the South Platte River and Colorado River basins, it’s not fully certain we’ve hit our peak — the point when snowpack reaches its highest point before melting off.
But we’re surely close, as snowpack in Denver Water’s collection system typically peaks around April 20.
What’s it all mean for our water supply? It’s a mixed picture.
Snowpack is a bit below average, but soil moisture has improved compared to last year, meaning more melting snow will find its way to reservoirs and less will disappear into thirsty ground.
Denver Water’s reservoirs are 79% full, on average, which is normal for this period. And runoff is likely to push that number north of 90% when storage peaks midsummer.
“Overall, we’d like the numbers to be higher, but with better soil moisture we expect better runoff than in recent years with similar snowpack,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water.
“We have good carry-over storage going into the runoff season because of low winter water use,” he added. “That’s a reflection of good work from our customers in continuing to improve indoor efficiency and water use habits.”
It’s important those good habits extend into the watering season; customers with spring fever should try not to get ahead of things with outdoor irrigation.
Warning! April is too early to turn on hoses, sprinklers and irrigation systems.
A string of snowstorms this year has improved soil moisture in the Denver region. And more storms could still head our way in late April and early May. This time of year, the weather can be unpredictable, and you might think spring has sprung — only to have winter sweep back in for a last goodbye.
And planting ahead of Mother’s Day (May 8 this year) is always a gamble, as the potential overnight freezes still lurk into the early days of the month. Cold temperatures can put an early end to spring seedlings and damage irrigation systems if water inside the piping freezes.
As it stands in mid-April, snowpack is at 88% of average in Denver Water’s Colorado River collection system, and at 74% of average in its South Platte system, though that South Platte figure is affected by a single tracking location with poor snow that has pulled down the broader average; in the wider South Platte River basin, snowpack is currently 90% of normal.
And a big wet storm or two, still possible this time of year, would improve the outlook.
Additionally, planned Airborne Snow Observatories (ASO) flights, which measure high elevation snowpack with great precision, will bring additional insight into the snowpack, as well as adjustment to the runoff outlook.
In 2019, flights in the Blue River Basin above Dillon Reservoir revealed more snow than expected at elevations above traditional snow telemetry sites that provide most snowpack data.
“The ASO data gives us the most detailed and accurate insight into snowpack,” said Taylor Winchell, a climate change specialist at Denver Water. “We look forward to seeing what new information that tells us this spring and how it narrows the uncertainty of water supply forecasts.”
The Bureau of Reclamation today submitted its initial spend plan for fiscal year 2022 funding allocations authorized in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to the U.S. Congress. This spend plan represents a blueprint for how Reclamation will invest in communities to address drought across the West as well as greater water infrastructure throughout the country. Reclamation will be provided $1.66 billion annually to support a range of infrastructure improvements for fiscal years 2022 through 2026.
“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the largest investment in the resilience of physical and natural systems in American history,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “Reclamation’s funding allocation for 2022 is focused on developing lasting solutions to help communities tackle the climate crisis while advancing environmental justice.”
“The Bureau of Reclamation serves as the water and power infrastructure backbone for the American West. The law represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our infrastructure while promoting job creation,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “The funding identified in this spend plan is the first-step in implementing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and will bolster climate resilience and protect communities through a robust investment in infrastructure.”
The FY 2022 spend plan allocations include:
$420 million for rural water projects that benefit various Tribal and non-Tribal underserved communities by increasing access to potable water.
$245 million for WaterSMART Title XVI that supports the planning, design, and construction of water recycling and reuse projects.
$210 million for construction of water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance project infrastructure.
$160 million for WaterSMART Grants to support Reclamation efforts to work cooperatively with states, Tribes, and local entities to implement infrastructure investments to increase water supply.
$100 million for aging infrastructure for major repairs and rehabilitation of facilities.
$100 million for safety of dams to implement safety modifications of critical infrastructure.
$50 million for the implementation of Colorado River Basin drought contingency plans to support the goal of reducing the risk of Lake Mead and Lake Powell reaching critically low water levels.
$18 million for WaterSMART’s Cooperative Watershed Management Program for watershed planning and restoration projects for watershed groups.
$15 million for Research and Development’s Desalination and Water Purification Program for construction efforts to address ocean or brackish water desalination.
$8.5 million for Colorado River Basin Endangered Species Recovery and Conservation Programs.
Detailed information on the programs and funding provided in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the FY 2022 BIL Spend Plan and materials from recent stakeholder listening sessions are available at http://www.usbr.gov/bil.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, an innovative and influential legal agreement among seven U.S. states that governs water rights to the Colorado River. In recognition of this anniversary, the Colorado State University Libraries will be spotlighting a series of stories in SOURCE about the ripple effects of this 100-year-old document on diverse people, disciplines and industries in 2022.
Nestled in the spires of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains lie acres of crystalline snowpack, slowly carving the granite formations where they rest. The snowpack feeds a litany of creeks and rivulets that form the Colorado River, the bedrock of the West’s water supply.
Snow is crucial to fulfilling the Colorado River Compact’s promise of 15 million acre-feet allocations split between the upper and lower basins. Nearly 40 million people among seven Western states depend on the river’s swift currents to power their daily lives – which snowpack monitoring helps inform by creating more accurate predictions of how much snowmelt will make its way downstream.
Guided by the Compact’s allocations, snowmelt is a critical facet of water history and planning that is not often considered in detail, though it directly influences outdoor recreation and hydrology.
“It’s been 100 years since the Colorado River Compact has been signed, and one of the issues … is that the conditions in the river that existed prior to 1922 (were) not constant. and they were more than what we see in the long-term average. They had a short window and used those quantities to estimate who got what,” said CSU Professor Steven Fassnacht, who studies snow hydrology.
Hydrologists did not measure snowpack until 1936, when the aftermath of the Dust Bowl spurred the newly created Soil Conservation Service to measure snowpack.
These measurements helped give farmers a holistic perspective into the Colorado’s entire watershed and ensured they were aware of moisture levels before planting and irrigating crops.
However, snowpack measurements and actual water levels in the Colorado can vary significantly given the river’s dynamic nature, which has spurred hydrologists to take more complete snapshots of mountain ecosystems with improved snow measurements.
People may never be able to fully predict the river’s water levels, but modern snow measurement systems give scientists a better idea by measuring a wealth of environmental factors.
Today, a nationwide network of Snow Telemetry, or SNOTEL, sites inform the National Weather Service by giving daily information on precipitation, snowpack and soil moisture to better indicate how much snowmelt will end up in river sheds.
Climate change impacts on snowpack
“Over the 80-to-90-year period of snow courses, these watersheds have changed,” Fassnacht said. “There’s been land use conversion, fire, insect infestation and a lot of disturbances to the forest. Climate change is making the conditions different – the system is getting warmer, and trees are growing at higher elevations.”
As the West’s climates become more varied and unpredictable, so too will the structure of snow, according to Fassnacht. Heavy snowfalls layered on top of melting snowbanks will create more variation between snow layers, which creates unstable snow. Greater variations in temperature between October and February further creates fluctuations in snowpack and weakens the stability of the bottom layer, which can trigger more avalanches.
Moreover, the Lower Basin downstream of Lake Powell, has experienced unprecedented drought in the past 20 years that has changed how California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico use water.
In fact, the Colorado River no longer reaches the Pacific, instead reduced to a scorched delta dotted with skeletal capillaries that whisper of the river’s once-powerful current. The Upper Basin upstream of Lake Powell, though, has not seen the same reduction in the overall amount of snowpack, although the distribution of snow has changed.
“We all want to be able to get the sound bite, tweet out the simple answer, but we’ve seen over the past few years that things are complex,” Fassnacht said. “In northern Colorado, stations at lower elevations are actually getting more snow, and higher elevations are getting less snow. That doesn’t match up with things warming up everywhere, because then lower elevations would have more rain than snow.”
Snow and water usage at ski resorts
These findings hold particular relevance for snow-dependent activities like skiing and snowboarding. Keeping a slope covered in crystals requires massive quantities of water, which Fassnacht has helped watershed science students investigate in practicum courses at Copper and Winter Park.
Snowmaking is a water-intensive activity that heavily relies on local rivers, and as snowfall becomes more varied among elevations, it will become even more important for ski areas to reduce their water consumption – and even threatens the future of the Winter Olympics.
“The entire industry is reliant on frozen water falling from the sky every winter on a consistent basis, and it doesn’t, which makes skiing a difficult industry to make money. That is why ski resorts are more about real estate sales, retail and cheap season passes than just skiing,” said Michael Childers, an associate professor in history at CSU. “The real money has always been in real estate, which has led to the rampant growth of ski towns, which has led to increasing water use in those regions whose water is actually owned by agricultural and urban interests who are also increasingly thirsty.”
The future of an environmental good
Ultimately, the future of snow in the West depends on an improved understanding of the CRC and the Law of the River, the composite body of laws that govern the Colorado River’s water and infrastructure.
The Compact’s original designations to states – and the document’s reliance on uncharacteristically high-water levels – have allowed for the over-allocation of the river’s resources and its slow decline. With more inconsistent winters, the entire basin faces unprecedented water scarcity that could soon see the extinction of the high Rockies’ glimmering snowfields.
“Water is an environmental good – we’re only recently starting to recognize that with water law,” Fassnacht said. “Current water law restricts what we can do, but we need to consider the sustainability of what we’re doing with these water systems. We’re only starting to integrate the different players and stakeholders, but we need to work together more.”
He added: “We need to invite everyone to the table, have a frank conversation, and think about what the ramifications are, since this is a system that has global implications.”
A half day virtual educational seminar explaining the complicated and often confusing issues surrounding water in SW Colorado.
About this event
Water Law in a Nutshell Workshop
Led by Mr. Aaron Clay, Attorney at Law and former 26-year Water Referee for the Colorado Water Court, Division 4
Friday, April 22, 2022
9:00 AM to 1:00 PM Virtual Live On-Line Course
**Details and link access will be sent directly to you after you register and a couple days prior to the start of the course.
Continuing Education Credits Available:
Realtors: 4 hours CE
Attorneys: 4 hours CLE
Once again we are pleased to present the Water Law in a Nutshell course. A great opportunity to learn with Aaron Clay in an online setting about all aspects of the law related to water rights and ditch rights as applied in Colorado. Subject matter includes the appropriation, perfection, use, limitations, attributes, abandonment and enforcement of various types of water rights. Additional subject matter will include special rules for groundwater, public rights in appropriated water, interstate compacts and more.
From his 26 years as a water referee at the Colorado Water Court, Clay brings his wealth of knowledge that earned him a reputation as one of the top experts in water law to this “Water in a Nutshell” course.
Even if you have done this course before, it is a great refresher as there is so much information to absorb!
We welcome EVERYONE, from anywhere in Colorado, including landowners, realtors, lawyers, water district employees, and anyone else interested in water law.