Water Lines: The river is rising!
Free Press Weekly Columnist
Signs of spring: tulips blooming, parks echoing with the sound of children’s voices, and riverfront trails closed due to high water. The last sign only appears in a good water year, when spring snowmelt is sufficient to keep the rivers rising even after the irrigation ditches pull off their share.
When a section of Grand Junction’s Colorado Riverfront Trail closed last week, it reflected the fact that this winter’s generous snowpack in the Colorado River’s headwaters has begun to melt. With Colorado’s Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack at 112 percent of the historical median for the date on April 28 (down from 125 percent on April 21), boaters are anticipating a good rafting season and farmers are anticipating receipt of their full ration of irrigation water. At last check, the riverfront trail was open again, but flows in the Colorado River near the Utah state line were running an impressive 168 percent of average!
In the Gunnison Basin, Blue Mesa Reservoir is expected to receive 126 percent of its average inflow, which will allow it to fill and make it easier to meet downstream flow targets for endangered fish and the health of the ecosystem in the Black Canyon, as well as meet irrigators’ needs.
This year’s big snowpack in the Colorado and Wyoming high country has also bought more time for officials working on a contingency plan to keep water levels in Lake Powell high enough to keep generating hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam. A drop below the minimum power pool would not only cause electricity rates across the West to go up and cut income available for endangered fish recovery programs, but it would also make it difficult to release enough water to keep Upper Colorado River Basin states in good standing with their compact obligations to downstream states. With Powell’s lake elevation forecast to rise about 40 feet to 3,614 feet this year, there’s no immediate need for major cutbacks in Upper Basin water use or extra releases from Flaming Gorge or other upstream reservoirs.
It’s sure nice to have a good water year in western Colorado, but it’s important not to relax too much. The snowpack in 2011 was significantly bigger, and Lake Powell rose 50 feet, but by early in 2013 all of those gains were erased and the level was lower than before. Due to continuing drought conditions in the southern and western portions of the Upper Colorado Basin, total inflows into Powell are forecasting to be just slightly above average. As of April 28, Colorado’s southwestern river basins had only about 70 percent of their usual snowpack for this time of year, and flows in the San Juan River were just 31 percent of normal for the date.
Some of the factors that could affect river flows going forward include wind and temperature. Whenever the wind kicks up and the sky turns dark with dust, you can expect a good portion of that dust to land on high mountain snow and speed its melt rate. If temperatures are high as well, that further speeds the melting. Interestingly, both conditions also reduce the total runoff by increasing the amount of water that evaporates and by increasing the amount taken up by plants emerging early from the snow.
To learn more about current conditions and forecasts, you can check out the National Integrated Drought Information System site for the Upper Colorado Region at http://www.climate.colostate.edu/~drought and the Western Water Assessment Intermountain West Climate Dashboard at wwa.colorado.edu/climate/dashboard.html. For current information on Lake Powell, go to http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/gcd.html.
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 http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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