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November 29, 2012
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DROUGHT WATCH: Mountain snowpack shrinking instead of growing

My family and I went cross-country skiing on Grand Mesa over the Thanksgiving holiday, and found excellent conditions - about a foot of snow with smoothly groomed tracks (thank you Grand Mesa Nordic Council - gmnc.org) under brilliant blue skies and no wind-chill whatsoever. In fact, despite being at nearly 11,000 feet of elevation in late November, the temperature was well above freezing.From a water supply perspective, conditions aren't looking so good. As noted by the Summit County Citizens Voice, the state's snowpack is shrinking at a time of year when it usually grows, building the white "reservoir" that melts slowly to feed streamflows into the summer months. According to the Nov. 26 Snowpack Update Map from the US Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service, Colorado's snowpack is down to just 44% of average for this time of year - which is down from 52% the week before. The situation varies around the state, but doesn't look good anywhere. Snowpacks in the Colorado, Gunnison, Yampa/White, Upper Rio Grande and San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan River Basins are all registering between 40-47% of average, while the Arkansas is at a mere 30%. The South and North Platte River Basins are in the best shape, at 50% and 52% of average. This doesn't necessarily mean that we'll have another drought year, since Colorado tends to get a large share of its snowfall in a few big storms later in the season. It bears watching, though, since statewide reservoir levels are already low: 66% of average for this time of year, and at 37% of their total capacity. Graphs shown by State Climatologist Nolan Doesken at Colorado Mesa University on Nov. 26 showed levels at Lake Dillon, Blue Mesa Lake and Lake Powell dropping between April and June of this year, a time when they normally refill.Doesken pointed out that severe and widespread droughts are regular occurrences in Colorado, and the last one we have long-term data for (2002) was pretty short compared to droughts in the 1930s and 1950s. It's worth noting that there were a lot fewer people in Colorado during those droughts.Currently, the US Drought Monitor is reporting that over 90% of the state is in at least a "severe" drought, with a wide swath in the northwest corner (including Grand Junction) in "extreme" drought, and a large section of the southeastern part of the state in "exceptional" drought, the worst category. The US Drought Monitor also forecasts that drought conditions will persist or intensify in Colorado and all surrounding states over the next three months.Water managers and planners are paying close attention to these numbers and forecasts, even though they know that long-range forecasting for Colorado is a very uncertain business. If the picture doesn't get significantly better by March, conservation measures will increasingly move from "voluntary" to "mandatory."The drought situation will also be on the minds of the "basin roundtables" of stakeholders as they work with each other and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop a statewide water plan. The planning process is seeking to develop a broadly accepted approach to meeting future water needs, and the process includes identifying plausible supply and demand scenarios and adaptive management strategies.It's entirely possible that we'll get a big storm or two that will make skiers happy (even below 10,000 feet), and water users across the state will breathe sighs of relief. But the historical record (never mind climate change) tells us we won't dodge the bullet forever. At some point we'll face a severe multi-year drought again, so it's not too soon to start thinking about how to adapt. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning & let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.

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The Post Independent Updated Nov 29, 2012 12:59PM Published Nov 29, 2012 12:58PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.