Colorado had an epic year of snowfall. How did Eagle County compare?

Upper valley streamflows already beginning to wane

A photo of the Eagle River from above in Edwards. Streamflows are already starting to wane in some areas of the river's watershed.
Todd Winslow Pierce/Archive photo

There was a lot of noise over the winter about great snowfall. Eagle County’s story was a bit different.

A couple of dozen people gathered June 1 at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards to talk about the state of the Eagle River and, by extension, the Colorado River.

Assistant State Climatologist Peter Goble’s data showed that of the three main snowpack measurement stations — Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass — only the site on Vail Mountain was above the 30-year average, at 104%. Copper Mountain, the closest site to Gore Creek’s headwaters, was at 90% for the season. Fremont Pass, the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River, was at just 82% of average.

Fremont Pass will put only about 71% of that snow into streamflows. The rest is lost to evaporation or will melt into the soil.

Snow below 11,000 feet is already melting quickly. The Vail Mountain measurement site is melted out, more than a week earlier than normal, and the Copper Mountain site is mostly gone as well.

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We’re already behind

The snowpack on Vail Mountain has melted out a bit earlier than normal.
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District/Courtesy photo

And, while the winter was a good one, Gobel noted that a dry April has put the area behind in its moisture accumulation. That April precipitation is “very important to runoff,” Goble said, adding that Gore Creek streamflows are already tapering off, as are Eagle River streamflows at Dowd Junction.

Still, a good snow year across the Colorado Rockies is sending significant water downstream for the first time in a few years.

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The river’s downstream users — Nevada, Arizona and California, along with Mexico — depend on Lake Powell and Lake Mead for their supplies. Goble said runoff into Lake Powell at the moment is at roughly 175% of normal. But, he added, it would take “years and years” of similar winters to fill those reservoirs.

That level of continued snowfall is unlikely, he said.

A developing El Nino pattern — warmer than normal water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean west of Ecuador — could help for the coming months. But what effect that pattern will have is uncertain, at best.

Streamflows on Gore Creek and on the Eagle River near Minturn are already starting to wane from seasonal norms.
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District/Courtesy photo

Goble also noted that while the earth continues to warm, that alone doesn’t necessarily mean less moisture. Still, he added, “a bet on a warmer future is a bet on a drying future.”

Eagle County depends largely on streamflows for its water supplies. The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District serves most of the valley from Edwards east to East Vail. District General Manager Siri Roman spoke about some of the ways the district is trying to ensure future supplies.

A new reservoir — eventually

Roman noted that the district’s long-term goal is to construct a new reservoir near Minturn at Bolts Lake. That project could store as much as 1,200 acre-feet of water. But, she added, it could take a decade and as much as $100 million to complete the project. District ratepayers would pay for that, as well as a number of other costly projects.

For now, Roman said the district is looking at a “scarcity response” plan. Still, she added, the district can handle all of its current domestic water needs.

4 facts

• The Colorado Legislature in its most recent session passed a bill requiring “do not flush” warnings on wet wipes.
• About 40 million people depend on the Colorado River.
• For every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature, streamflows decline by between 3 and 9%.
• An acre-foot of water is enough to cover a football field about one foot deep.

As part of an effort to reduce the district’s consumption by roughly 400 acre-feet per year. A big part of that reduction has to come from outdoor watering. Roman noted that indoor use puts about 90% of water used back into the river. Outdoor watering returns only about 20% back to the stream.

To get those cuts, Roman said the district may need to cut watering to just one or two days per week. Water also gets more expensive as people use more.

Audience member Don Welch asked Roman if the district has the resources to serve anticipated growth since as many as 1,000 new units are either proposed or approved for Edwards.

Roman acknowledged that the district is “getting close to capacity” in some areas. But, she added, the district issues commitments to developments on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We can tell you if there’s water,” Roman said. But she added, climate change will make reserve supplies more important in coming years.

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