Colorado streamflows remain low

EDWARDS ­— Forget the clouds and showers. Western Colorado remains in a drought, and it’s expected to stick around for a while.

At a “State of the River” meeting Wednesday at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards, assistant state climatologist Wendy Ryan gave a full house in the college’s lecture hall an overview of past and current streamflows, with some predictions thrown in for the rest of the season.

Ryan’s charts detailed the state’s descent last year into a historic drought. With reservoirs and streams living off the massive snow year of 2010-11, the drought didn’t really develop until early 2012. But the sparse snow of 2011-12 quickly brought drought conditions to the entire state.

By March of 2012, only 2 percent of the state wasn’t experiencing some degree of drought. By May, conditions on the federal Drought Monitor indicated that virtually the entire state was in either “severe” or “exceptional” drought.

By the time summer 2012 rolled around, Ryan said the Western Slope was even more dry than during the “Dust Bowl” years of the 1930s.

Support Local Journalism

For Eagle County, some relief came in the summer of 2012, but streamflows remained low. Those low flows continue into this year.

While Eagle River Water and Sanitation District general manager Linn Brooks said streamflows are expected to be “OK” moving into this summer, Ryan said those flows will remain below historic averages through the rest of this year.

In the Eagle River basin, Ryan said snowpack peaked a couple of weeks later than usual this year — in late April — at about 88 percent of its historic averages. The snow is now coming off fairly quickly, though.

That’s important because the valley depends on streamflow for most of its water supply. While a snow measurement site atop Fremont Pass still has good supply, Ryan said the snow is nearly melted off at the measurement site on Vail Mountain.

This “snow year” — defined as the season between roughly November to the end of April — will be a low one, Ryan said. That’s somewhat unusual in Colorado, which rarely experiences two consecutive years of low streamflows.

While Eagle River flows are expected to be lower than normal this year, those flows will lag even more as the Eagle, then Colorado rivers move west.

“The higher up you are, the better off you are,” Ryan said.

By the time the Colorado hits Lake Powell, those flows are still very low, although still better than last year.

Ryan said climate forecasts for the rest of this year indicate the drought will either linger or intensify. The good news, though, is that drought cycles don’t linger for extended periods.

In her presentation, Brooks said the Eagle River is subject to “extreme” variations from year to year. Brooks added that last year’s drought, when local water managers developed “water emergency” plans before summer rains brought badly-needed relief, taught both water officials and users some important lessons.

“We can vary our water use according to the supply nature provides,” Brooks said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at

Support Local Journalism