Colorado snowmelt’s early flow may be issue | VailDaily.com

Colorado snowmelt’s early flow may be issue

Colleen O'Connor
The Denver Post

Colorado’s peak flow from snowmelt hit a few weeks earlier than normal, causing problems for some recreational users of the state’s rivers and complicating downstream irrigation strategies.

A dozen late-winter windstorms coated high mountain snow with dust, causing the snow to melt earlier than usual. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the peak occurred in late May.

BLM is especially worried about flows on the Colorado River in the western part of the state, where the so-called flat water is running especially cold and fast, at a flow now about five times what it will be later this summer.

“People don’t understand, just by looking at it, how fast it’s moving,” Curtis said. “They let their guard down and don’t realize underneath there’s a very strong current.”

Last weekend, Jesse Lee Melvin of Denver died near Black Rocks on the Colorado River, a flat-water area west of Grand Junction that many mistakenly think is safe. Inebriated, and with no life jacket, Melvin drowned in the turbulent 60-degree water.

Water storage may also be an issue, said Andy Barrett of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder.

“When snowmelt starts earlier, you have to make sure there’s room in reservoirs to store the water, and also satisfy the demands of people downstream, like rafters and kayakers,” he said.

Data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows that reservoir storage statewide is at 116 percent of average, the best since 1999.

“But the earlier the runoff comes, the sooner the water runs out for certain irrigation systems that depend on streams, not water in reservoirs,” said Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

This could affect businesses such as haying operations along the Gunnison River and in North Park.

“They count on irrigating their hay as long as they can from rivers,” said Nolan Doesken, state climatologist at Colorado State University.

But the early snowmelt, combined with recent weeks of heavy rain, is good news for quenching thirsty lawns right now, and maintaining municipal water supplies for the summer.

“Everyone’s drinking water will be fine,” Pokrandt said.

Colleen O’Connor: 303-954-1083 or coconnor@denverpost.com