After lagging for most of the winter, the amount of water in the snowpack in Colorado's part of the Colorado River Basin has finally caught up with last year's (meager) snowpack for this date. That brings the Colorado Basin snowpack to 73% of the average amount for this time of year. The Gunnison River Basin is at about 75% of average, slightly below where it was at this time last year.
These levels are not great, especially with low reservoir levels left over from last year's drought, but they are a lot better than the sub-50% levels we were seeing in December. Statewide, the snowpack is currently at about 77% of average for this time of year, but the South Platte River Basin is only at 68%, and the Arkansas River Basin is at 73%.
Earlier this month, Denver Water decided to declare a "Stage 2" drought and impose twice per week watering restrictions beginning April 1. In a March 14 press release, Denver Water Manager Jim Lochhead stated, "We've never seen conditions like this, and we are concerned about our water supply... our reservoirs haven't been full since July 2011." Colorado Springs water managers have also proposed two day/week watering restrictions.
In addition to watering restrictions, Denver Water has announced it will drain Antero Reservoir, moving its water to Cheesman and Eleven Mile Reservoirs, in order to reduce evaporation losses.
Meanwhile, farmers in Northern Colorado are anticipating that they will have to leave fields unplanted due to water shortages. The Fort Collins Coloradoan reports that in addition to the low snowpack and reservoir levels, farmers are facing increased competition for water from Fort Collins, which had its water supply from the Poudre River destroyed by the High Park Fire last summer.
According to the March 19 update from the National Integrated Drought Information System, extreme drought conditions are persisting in much of eastern Colorado. "There will likely be no winter wheat south of Kit Carson County, with fair to poor conditions (though winter wheat is greening) to the north," states the report.
Depending on what happens in the rest of March and April, conditions could get a bit better or a lot worse. A big problem with last year's drought was the way the snowpack rapidly melted in early spring instead of continuing to build, as it usually does. Grand Valley water managers are monitoring the situation closely and will release an assessment and guidance for water users (that's all of us) in early April.
The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center predicts that the drought will persist or intensify throughout most of Colorado and the rest of the Southwest between now and the end of May. This may not be the best time to put in a new lawn.
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, and to 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.