Winter washing West Slope drought away? |

Winter washing West Slope drought away?

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Kara K. Pearson/Post IndependentJoe Dice balances himself on the bed of a moving pickup while throwing out bales of hay to feed his cows in Silt.

SILT MESA, Colorado ” Lifelong rancher Joe Dice hasn’t seen snow like this since big winter storms in the 1980s.

If the weather doesn’t dry up or become unseasonably warm, the hefty snowpack around most of Colorado will bring larger-than-normal amounts of runoff down from the mountains. That comes as a boon to farmers and ranchers, with irrigation being the major water use in the West.

“In the last six or seven years we haven’t had hardly any snowpack,” Dice said. “It makes a lot of difference, like on this area over here on the north side (of Silt Mesa) where we’re all under reservoirs.”

One early morning last week, Dice was out feeding cattle as part of his daily chores. Dice, 78, ranched all his life in the Eagle and Silt areas and has run cattle and grown hay for about 15 years on the northern part of Silt Mesa.

Barring unforeseen dryness, “we should have a nice summer … especially for irrigation,” Dice said. “This country’s pretty much a barren country wherever you don’t irrigate, and we have to depend on rain where you don’t irrigate.”

John Bellio, a Silt Mesa farmer, said, “What the snowpack will mean is that we’ll probably have more runoff going into Harvey Gap (Reservoir) that will continue to feed us more water through the season.”

“So it’s a good thing. … We’ll definitely have a head start on the growing season.”

Of course, that depends upon the weather through the rest of the winter and spring, Bellio added. Bellio grows a grass and alfalfa mix in the east part of Silt Mesa with his father, who’s also named John. Bellio said his customers are buying more hay this year because animals are using more energy to get around in the snow.

The Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison ” Colorado’s largest body of water ” is a good indicator of the state’s water supply. It was full in 1999 and then again in 2006, but didn’t make it to the brim last year.

It will be full this year, said Dan Crabtree, a water manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

“If all our reservoirs are full and we are diverting all that we have a right to or that we can use, the excess goes downstream and it ends up in Lake Powell,” Crabtree said.

Lake Powell is a storage vessel for the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In 1999, its waters reached only 3,555 feet above sea level out of a 3,700-foot capacity. Currently, Crabtree said, Powell is still more than 100 feet low, but that could change.

The Bureau of Reclamation predicts that snowpack runoff coming down the mountains and into the Colorado River will help recharge Lake Powell by nearly 5 million acre-feet of water, raising the reservoir’s height by about 34 feet.

After about eight years of drought, Crabtree said, “I hesitate to say that the drought is over, but it is for this year.”

Chris Vogt, owner of Glenwood Canyon Kayak, also has kept an eye on the falling snow.

“I always keep myself glued to the Weather Channel in the wintertime,” he said.

If the right conditions persist, this year’s snowpack could add up to superb water for kayakers and rafters.

“If we do well for the rest of the year, it’s going to mean great runoff for everybody,” Vogt said. “The only group that it really hassles is the fishermen. It kind of shortens their season because the runoff season is a little longer.”

High flows mean certain rapids become dangerous and technical enough that few people would want to try them. But fortunately, in the area, there’s plenty of options for varying skill levels, Vogt said.

But, just like it does for farmers and ranchers, everything depends on the weather.

“We live by the weather day to day,” Bellio said. “You look out the window, look at the weather report, and you figure out if you’re working inside or outside.”

Meteorologist Ken Ludington said he and a group of his colleagues at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office believe Colorado hasn’t seen a big snowmaking winter like this since at least 1995.

“As we move into the spring, runoff is a concern,” Ludington said, of possible flood danger. “It’s just a lot of water that’s got to come down at some point.”

Crabtree said, “We’ll be keeping an eye on runoff and releases from reservoirs. We try to minimize any flooding potential.”

Of course, it all depends on the weather.

“If we get some really hot days and it’s warm or snow’s melting and we get some rain on top of it, you could see some flooding,” he said. “But if we have a nice uniform, cool spring, then you won’t see any flooding.”

Crabtree also said his agency is concerned less water could cause flooding because vegetation has grown down inside flood plains and encroached on channels during recent drought.

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