Flows low … and heading lower
The drought parching Colorado and a good portion of the West has left the statewide snowpack that feeds surface flow at or beneath historic lows. Some local streams are already at or near levels normally not reached until mid-summer.
It’s causing people in agencies monitoring snowpack, streamflows and fire danger to run out of historic descriptive comparables.
If there is any good news, it’s that the snowpack of the Eagle and upper Colorado river drainages are projected to be 43 percent of average for April to July – the best of any drainage in the state.
By contrast, the Rio Grande, in the southwestern part of the state, is projected to be at an arid 25 percent of average at the Del Norte gauging station. Some water users there are even fearing the river may dry up completely later this summer unless it rains heavily.
The Colorado River is a little better off. It’s flow is projected to range from 58 percent of normal near its headwaters to just 5 percent at its San Juan tributary at Bluff, Utah. New streamflow minimum recordings are forecast at 14 points on the Colorado River, most of them in Utah.
The bad news is visible on surrounding mountains that are rapidly shedding their snow.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Alan Martellaro, division engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Glenwood Springs. “We’ll encounter (flow) conditions that we have never experienced here.”
“This will rank as one of the worst drought years on record,” added Mike Gillespie of the state Natural Resources Conservation Service. “This is pushing the limits of what was observed in 1977.”
Indeed, 1977 was the driest on record. But it was different than what the state has been experiencing so far this year. In 1977 regular spring rain fell, lessening the drought, Gillespie said.
The current drought comes after four consecutive years of below normal rain and snowfall.
“If things don’t turn around quickly, we’ll exceed the low runoff of 1977,” Gillespie said.
What happens next will be governed by the vagaries of the weather. If it rains, it could moisten area forests and grasslands and keep them from becoming fire magnets.
For surface irrigators, the low flows will mean there will not be water enough for all. With Colorado’s first in right water law, irrigators with junior water rights may not have as much water as they need.
The largest water right on the upper Colorado, the Shoshone Power Generating Station five miles east of Glenwood Springs, just exerted its right to divert up to its full right of 1,408 cubic feet per second. It is the earliest the power facility has ever made a river call.
That means upstream irrigators with water rights filed after that held by Shoshone must let the water flow to the diversion point for the power station.
Still some water here
Local water commissioner Bill McEwan of Eagle said conditions are the driest he’s seen in the 11 years he’s been in the area. He thinks the peak of the Eagle River will occur when we have a week of consecutive warm days.
“The snow in the upper elevations hasn’t really begun to melt yet,” he said. “The low elevation snowpack was basically very minimal and the streams that rely on that are way past peak now.”
He said Eby and Castle creeks north of Eagle are down to a trickle.
“There’s not going to be near enough to go around,” he said.
Storage volume is also down significantly from normal. Reservoirs in the upper Colorado Basin are averaging 82 percent of average and just 83 percent of the volume of last year’s stored water. That water is released into rivers to meet demands for water.
Fire danger up
The lack of precipitation and resulting dearth of snowpack and surface runoff has created tinder-dry conditions, pushing fire danger to extreme levels throughout most of the Eagle County.
Ironically, the light rain showers sprinkling the area are not being welcomed by wildfire watchers. The sprinkles can cause grasses and other “flash fuels” to grow and actually increase fire danger.
“They (the rain showers) do reduce fire danger in the short term but long-term they create more fuel,” said Holy Cross district ranger Cal Wettstein.
The entire county is under a fire restriction imposed last week that prohibits open fires except in improved campgrounds. Users of tobacco products are restricted to using them within a vehicle or building or at a developed recreation site that is devoid of flammable material.
Local users of treated water who are sprinkling their lawns will be restricted to an odd-even day watering schedule according to street address.