Low-elevation snow stacks up this season: Experts unsure why SNOTEL sites below 10,000 feet performing better than high-elevation sites — @AspenJournalism #snowpack (March 6, 2023)

This SNOTEL site at about 8,774 feet at the top of McClure Pass was measuring 154% of median snowpack on March 1, 2023. Lower elevation SNOTEL sites across the West Slope are showing a higher percentage of median snowpack than those at a higher elevation (above 10,000 feet). CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heater Sackett):

Snowpack on the Western Slope is tracking above average for this time of year, which has some forecasters feeling optimistic about spring runoff. But there is also an interesting phenomenon that they don’t yet know what to make of.

The snow-water equivalent — a measure of how much water is contained in the snowpack — for the headwaters of the Colorado River stands at 116% of average. That number is measured by snow telemetry (SNOTEL) sites, which are remote sensing stations throughout the West’s mountainous watersheds that collect weather and snowpack data.

Most of the lower-elevation SNOTEL sites (10,000 feet and below) have a higher percentage of median snowpack than high-elevation sites (above 10,000 feet). For example, in the Colorado basin, low-elevation SNOTELs are at a combined 121% of average while high-elevation ones are at 112% of average.

This trend holds true across the Western Slope with the Gunnison, Southwest and Yampa/White/Green river basins at 155%, 152% and 142% of average, respectively, for low-elevation sites and 119%, 136% and 122% for high-elevation sites. In the Roaring Fork basin, snowpack is at 110% for the four high-elevation sites and 134% for the four low-elevation sites.

“I can pretty confidently say sites below 10,000 feet have that trend pretty clearly exhibited,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant supervisor at the National Resources Conservation Service’s Colorado Snow Survey. “It’s certainly an interesting observation.”

Why this counterintuitive trend is occurring is unclear. This winter’s storm patterns may be favoring lower elevations. Or colder-than-average temperatures and overcast days in February may have allowed the snowpack at lower elevations to continue accumulating. The February temperatures for western Colorado were on average about 2 degrees below normal, according to the NRCS.

“We’ve been cloudier, colder, and that has probably helped prevent some melting at lower elevations that might typically take place,” said assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger. “We will definitely want to look into why the lower elevations are performing so much better than the higher elevations.”

Snowpack above average

Snowpack overall on the Western Slope is above average, with some basins — the southwest, which includes the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan rivers and the northwest, which includes the Yampa, White and Little Snake rivers — already surpassing the average seasonal peak. Snowpack typically peaks the first week or two in April.

What more snow at lower elevations means for the timing of this spring’s runoff is also unclear, but forecasters say runoff volume should be above average.

“Big picture, this year is looking very, very favorable for all of western Colorado, and it’s a really big turnaround from the last couple of years,” Wetlaufer said. “It’s kind of tough to parse out the impact of this lower-elevation snow being at a higher percent of median than higher-elevation snow, but, in a general sense, I would certainly say it’s quite encouraging for ample snowmelt runoff this season.”

This is partly because lower elevations encompass more surface area than higher ones; there is simply more land below 10,000 feet than above, and if it is covered in an above-average snowpack, that is a good thing for streams and soils.

“Having that lower-elevation snowpack is going to help keep soil-moisture levels high, which can help the efficiency of the higher-elevation snow when it does melt at a later date,” Wetlaufer said. “Substantial low-elevation snow is going to wet up the soil conditions and allow most of that snowmelt to actually transition to the stream channel.”

In recent dry years, thirsty soils have sucked up runoff before it made it to streams. For example, 2021 was historically bad, with an upper basin snowpack that peaked about 90% of average but translated to only 36% of average runoff into Lake Powell, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It was the second-worst runoff on record after 2002.

Although water managers are feeling confident that this year will be better and give a boost to depleted reservoirs in Colorado, they caution that one good year is not enough to pull the entire system out of a crisis. Lake Powell, which is the storage bucket for the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, is at about elevation 3,521 feet, or about 23% full, the lowest since filling.

“Is this going to solve the Lake Powell and Lake Mead crisis? Not even close,” Bolinger said. “But the forecasted inflows into Powell are above average right now. There’s a silver lining there.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

#Colorado is conflicted about cutting its #water use — Writers on the Range

Tom Kay in front of his John Deere tractor, image: Dave Marston

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):

In Colorado, farmers must enroll in a four-state program by March 1, if they want to get paid for fallowing their fields perhaps the best option to plump up the Colorado River’s giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, speaking at the district’s annual seminar on the Colorado RIver, on Sept. 14, 2018 in Grand Junction. Muller expressed concerns about how the state of Colorado might deal with falling water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Not everyone is a fan, including Andy Mueller, director of the Colorado River District. He doesn’t like programs that pay farmers to stop farming. Mueller also didn’t ask for the Inflation Reduction Act’s $125 million to pay the farmers he represents. Mueller’s organization exists to keep Western Colorado’s rural water away from growing cities across the Rockies.

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who chairs the Committee for Agriculture and Natural Resources, has a more nuanced view. He says he understands that rural communities fear a “buy and dry” scenario. Where annual leases become routine, and once-verdant fields and farms wither. He insists that any water leasing must be temporary, voluntary and well compensated.

A water-leasing program called demand management was created for Colorado irrigators under former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — it was tested, but never used. It would have allowed farmers to lease and store their water in a Lake Powell account under state control. Under Gov. Jared Polis’ administration, however, demand management was quietly shelved.

Now, this new, multi-state program for leasing agricultural water, called a “system conservation pilot program,” isn’t getting much traction. The program was announced two and a half months ago by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

Its major drawback, says Tom Kay, an organic farmer in western Colorado, is that the Upper Colorado River Commission is offering a “stupid price of $150 an acre-foot.”

“Farmers like to farm; you have to pay them more than they make farming to interest them,” Kay adds. He gets around $650 per acre-foot of water growing mostly organic corn and dry beans on his 350-acre farm near the town of Hotchkiss.

Kay says he recently toured California’s Imperial Valley, where farmers are getting $679 an acre-foot. They sell their 200,000 acre-feet of Colorado River to the San Diego County Water Authority and consider the price reasonable.

Water prices are also rising. In California last summer, when the Bureau of Reclamation was looking hard for water, large irrigation districts in the Lower Basin were asking $1,500 per acre-foot to lease their water to cities, reported Janet Wilson of California’s Desert Sun.

If farmers got more money for their water under the new pilot program, says State Sen. Roberts, Colorado “could get more participation (and) show the federal government we are doing our part.” He also says that many state legislators think California and Arizona should bear the brunt of water cuts.

Getting farmers to fallow their land could build resilience in the Colorado River Basin, says Aaron Derwingson of The Nature Conservancy. A few years ago, he worked with grower Kay and Cary Denison, formerly of Trout Unlimited, to develop an “organic transition” program whose concept was simple: Lease two-thirds of your water for three years so pesticides and fertilizers leach off the land, then apply for organic certification. The demand management trial was largely funded by the Bureau of Reclamation.

So the question remains: Why is the Upper Colorado River Commission offering farmers so little for their irrigation water? The commission’s executive director, Chuck Cullom, explains: “$150 per acre-foot was chosen to discourage drought profiteering.”

Kay guesses that the low price was set to discourage participation. While $150 is the floor, and farmers can negotiate for more, commission representatives haven’t gone to agricultural communities to beat the drum for its program.

Kay says, “That $125 million is a lot of money, and it belongs to Upper Basin farmers.”

Meanwhile, in mid-November, 30 western cities agreed to cut “non-functional” turf grass by up to 36%, including big water guzzlers such as Utah’s Washington County, which wants to siphon more water out of Lake Powell.

What’s unclear is how much water from not watering grass stays in the river. Mueller points out that Aurora, a fast-growing Denver suburb, “is cutting water to sell more water taps. They’re building more houses.”

Kay admires Mueller’s rural leadership but thinks the way forward is clear: “Denver has a junior water right. Why isn’t it paying us in western Colorado to fallow ground, just like what Los Angeles and San Diego are doing?”

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He owns a small, irrigated parcel in Western Colorado.

Map credit: AGU

Upper #SanJuanRiver #snowpack report — The #PagosaSprings Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Sun website (Randi Pierce and Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

A snow report from Wolf Creek Ski Area dated approximately 6 a.m. on March 1 indicates that Wolf Creek has received 9 inches of snow in the prior 24 hours and 11 inches in the prior 48 hours. According to the report, this brings the midway snow depth to 119 inches and the year-to-date snowfall total to 339 inches. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 32.6 inches of snow water equivalent as of 10 a.m. on March 1. TheWolf Creek summit was at 134 percent of the March 1 snowpack median.

The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins were at 140 percent of the March 1 median in terms of snowpack.