Rain becomes the saving grace
September 10, 2012
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The smell of rain in the air has been a welcomed one ever since it began falling in early July.
As much of Colorado faced extreme drought conditions following a dry winter and spring, raindrops became a reason to celebrate. And after one of the worst winter seasons ever in terms of little snowfall, there it was: precipitation – finally.
According to the National Weather Service, the percent of average precipitation in Eagle County between June 29 and Aug. 27 was between 130 and 150 percent for about 2/3 of the county, and between 110 and 130 percent for the rest of the county.
“July precipitation was hugely important,” said Diane Johnson, spokeswoman for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. “Then, in August, we were a little below average, but it was enough to sort of limp us along.”
The Eagle River basin began melting about four to eight weeks earlier than normal this year because of the below average snowfall followed by warm spring temperatures and wind. The outlook was worse than 2002, the worst drought year Colorado had seen in an estimated 250 years based on tree ring data.
Data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service showed the Colorado River basin had its lowest May 1 snowpack in 45 years at just 21 percent of average for that date. The entire Colorado River basin was less than 50 percent of average in terms of streamflows.
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That was grim news, especially so early in the year.
“That’s why we were so concerned so quickly,” Johnson said. “We were thinking, ‘Ugh – we have a really long season to get through.'”
That’s when rain is such a blessing, even though it provides only short-lived relief in most cases.
Consistent, longer rain events, like an all-day rain shower, do the most good, Johnson said. Those are the rain showers that soak into the ground, meaning the increased streamflows as a result last longer than quick rainstorms produce.
The rain helps the district in that it waters lawns naturally, meaning residents don’t need to turn on their sprinklers as often, which helps the water supply. Rain also helps decrease water temperatures in the streams, which is better for the fish and overall stream health.
Scott Todd, the superintendent at the Vail Golf Club, could be more thankful for rain this summer.
“Basically, it saved me,” Todd said. “In the month of June, we got about .14 inches total for the entire month. By July 3-4, we were about one week away from Gore Creek reaching our water restriction level, which is 20 (cubic feet per second) at the monitoring gauge in West Vail by the water and sanitation office. Then, the rains came.”
Todd said his crews were running around the Vail Golf Course in June with hoses to water hot spots. In July, however, they faced a much better situation.
“We were able to irrigate when needed, which wasn’t that often because of the rain, but we didn’t have to worry about water restrictions,” he said.
Irrigation bills at golf courses can be huge, as in thousands of dollars per month huge, so rain saves money, too.
“The benefits are numerous,” Todd said.
Even in big snow years, Johnson said the water district always hopes for rain. When the rain isn’t necessarily critical locally, that’s when they think globally, she said.
“There’s still these long-term deficits in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, so you look at the whole Colorado River Basin,” Johnson said.
Without the rain in July and August this year, the water district would have likely issued a water supply emergency that would have temporarily banned outdoor water use. And while that didn’t happen, the streams are not out of the clear yet, Johnson said.
“It’s time for folks to button up their outdoor irrigation and let the demand on us – and thus (on) the streams – go down,” she said, referring to low flows and fragile river environments that need all the water they can get this time of year. “(The water district) can meet customer water demand even at these low flows (and lower), but for our community which depends upon the streams, give them a break and stop using water outdoors. Grass can go dormant now. Turn off the irrigation systems.”
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.