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Warm temperatures cause early meltdown

Cliff Thompson

Unusually warm weather has melted snow and swelled stream to nearly unprecedented levels this week.

The flow of the Eagle River at Avon increased from 85 cubic feet per-second to 242 Friday, which is more than triple its average flow for this time of year. An early meltoff of snow could mean a long, dry summer and a repeat of the drought of 2002 – unless it rains.

That was the worst drought since Sir Francis Drake explored the San Francisco coastline. Even Wednesday rain and snow did little to improve the snowpack moisture in nearby mountains. It increased it 1 percent. It will take more than 20 such storms to bring it to average.

The snowpack at Fremont Pass east of Camp Hale is currently at 77 percent of the long-term average and is actually smaller than it was in March 2002.

But unlike 2002, local water suppliers over the last two years took steps to make sure there won’t be a repeat of the shortages experienced that summer. Until the rain showers earlier this week which dropped just over half an inch, March was one of the driest on record. Weather watcher Frank Doll recorded just 3.5 inches of snow. The long-term March average is 16.5 inches.

Lesson learned?

“We have the experience of ’02,” said Dennis Gelvin, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which provides water service to 22,000 Eagle County residents east of Wolcott. “We saw what we can do. I feel pretty comfortable we can manage.”

Summer lawn sprinkling and agricultural irrigation causes water use to reach its highest levels of the year. At the height of the drought in 2002, lawn watering was restricted.

To deal with drought, the local water district deepened the wells serving Berry Creek in Edwards, built an additional pipeline in Eagle-Vail that can use water from wells under Vail’s and determined that the aquifers in Vail serving the golf course wells are sufficient to supply water to the town even if the stream no longer flows. District managers will, if necessary, release 500 acre-feet stored in Homestake Reservoir this summer. An acre-foot will cover a football field a foot deep.

The water district is also working with the Vail Recreation District on golf course irrigation so how much and when water wil be pulled from Gore Creek to irrigate the greens and fairways.

On top of that, the water district will release water from Black Lakes in late summer and autumn so it can move the spillway up and create more storage for the following year.

By releasing the water during what are typically some of the lowest flows of the year in Gore Creek, the district will be able to bolster streamflows with stored water and be able to build more storage, Gelvin said.

The Eagle Park Reservoir is typically used for improve streamflows for snowmaking on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains.

More snow needed

Right now the snowpack in the upper reaches of the Eagle River basin isn’t sufficient to fill the 3,000 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir, which needs approximately 1,000 more acre-feet. Gelvin said the snowpack feeding that reservoir has 11.4 inches of moisture and it is estimated 15 inches are needed by May 1. But the district has the ability to make up most of that shortfall with a well atop the Continental Divide that can pump 250 acre-feet into the reservoir, if needed, he said.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons or enough to cover a football field a foot deep.

The other reservoirs, Black Lakes atop Vail Pass, hold 300 acre-feet of water and are expected to fill. Both Black Lakes and Eagle Park can be used for supplemental water releases in summer, but are typically held in reserve for winter.

Gelvin said the drought of 2002 may have been caused by a combination of low snowpack and scarce rainfall that April and May. Only .13 inches of precipitation fell.

Typically more than 3 inches falls in April and May, according to local weather records.

“If we get normal rains we’ll be okay,” Gelvin said.

The 10-day weather forecast is calling for possible light rain or snow showers but no heavy storms. The longer-term outlook, unlike that of March 2002, is calling for normal precipitation through April and May.

Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: cthompson@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.

Watering lawns not yet necessary

The way Mike Bauer see it, there’s something about warm weather that makes us want to turn on sprinklers.

That’s been happening this week in parts of the county, said Bauer, the water conservation specialist with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

“You don’t need to water your lawn yet,” he said. “It’s just not necessary. Let it green up naturally. It should be almost ready to cut before your water it.”

Deferring watering until April 15 or May 1, depending on your elevation and location, will help grass develop more drought resistance by forcing roots to grow deeper, he said.

“There’s good residual soil moisture now,” he said.

Trees and shrubs should be on the same watering schedule as the grass.

When you do begin watering your lawn, Bauer said, remember to observe the no-watering Mondays and the even-odd schedule according to your street address.

– Cliff Thompson


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