Dry, dry, dry
Water experts say statewide, the drought is the worst since the 1960s, and in the Upper Colorado River basin it’s the worst since 1977.
Compared to other river basins throughout the state, however, the Colorado River is in an enviable position.
“As far as runoffs are concerned, the Colorado basin is probably sitting as good as any basin in the state,” U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Tony Tolsdorf said Wednesday.
The recently-released National Weather Service forecast shows snowpack in the Colorado River basin above Grand Junction at just 27 percent of average on May 1. Compare that to other basins throughout the state and it almost looks good.
The Arkansas River basin is at 19 percent of average, the Rio Grande basin is at 8 percent and the San Juan basin is at a paltry 7 percent of average for May 1.
“We’re not talking isolated basins,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District engineer and Glenwood Springs City Councilman Dave Merritt. “Our concern is if we don’t get the water in reservoir storage, we won’t have it. … If we can’t put water into storage, we won’t be able to release anything.”
The runoff report, which predicts runoff through July 31, paints a picture of a dry, dusty and fire-ridden summer across the state.
“The snowpack in the Colorado Basin has diminished to one of the lowest measurements on record,” the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service report said. “Over a third of the measuring sites have already melted out during April. Most of what snow remains is above 10,000 feet elevation, and even the snow in those locations is melting rapidly.”
What does all this mean? Most likely, according to Merritt, it means that voluntary or mandatory water conservation measures could be imposed.
“I’d say we’re in very serious condition,” he said. “It’s dry. It’s very dry and it means we’re going to have to conserve.”
Water conservation measures normally trim lawn-watering, car-washing and other water-intensive activities. The sparse runoff, however, will affect other activities in the area, as well.
“For sure there’s going to be a lot of people hurting for water,” Tolsdorf said, especially those with junior water rights.
“Water rights will be called,” he said. “Probably some that have never been called.”
On the South Platte River, anyone with water rights secured after 1871 is out of luck, Merritt said. But the Colorado River is a “free river” – at least for now – meaning that all those with water rights can be satisfied.
As far as water recreation, Tolsdorf said the lack of runoff will be evident in rivers and reservoirs.
“They’re going to notice it right away,” he said.
Tolsdorf also said that in most parts of the state, the peak runoff, which usually occurs in late May or early June, has already happened.
“For most streams in the state, we probably have (seen the peak),” Tolsdorf said. “There really isn’t much left in the mountains.”
But in the Colorado basin, the runoff is defying other parts of the state. It previously looked as though spring runoff may have peaked in mid-April, but over the last few days, the river has again begun to rise.
The Roaring Fork River, which hit its previous high on April 16 at 800 cubic feet per second, hit that mark again on May 6 and has since broken 900 cfs on both Tuesday and Wednesday. But historic average flows for Tuesday and Wednesday are more than twice that level, averaging just under 2,000 cfs.
Similarly, the Colorado River looked like it might have hit its peak in mid-April. But it, too, reached a new high for the runoff year in the last few days, peaking at about 2,800 cfs on Wednesday. The historic flow for Wednesday, however, was about 4,500 cfs.
Reservoir storage also continues to lag below average across most of the state, the USDA report said. Statewide volumes are 86 percent of average and are 88 percent of last year at this time.
Only the Gunnison Basin is reporting an above-average storage volume, at 117 percent of average.
The lowest storage volumes, as a percent of average, are reported in basins plagued with the lowest snowpack and runoff prospects. Those basins include the Arkansas basin with storage volumes of 76 percent of average, the San Juan, Animas, Dolores, and San Miguel with 72 percent of average volumes and the Rio Grande Basin at 71 percent of average storage.
Statewide storage volumes are more than 470,000 acre-feet below the average mark for this date. With the water user demands ahead, along with low inflows, reservoir storage is expected to be severely reduced through the coming summer months, the report said.