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Low runoff rains on irrigators’ parade

For the third year in a row, runoff in the Colorado River and its tributaries looks to be way below normal.

If so, it will mean much less water available for crop irrigation, said John Sikora, assistant division engineer with the state Division of Water Resources, Division 5, in Glenwood Springs.

Snowpack is now 60 percent below normal, Sikora said.



“In the hydrological cycle when we see multiple dry years, more water goes into the ground” than into the rivers, he said.

It flows into fractures in rocks and soil.



“It may travel a mile or so before it pops up in a creek,” he said.

If the ground is saturated, runoff tends to flow over the surface and into creeks and rivers, he explained. But if the soil is dry, more water is stored underground.

“It may show up in six to eight months. It really reduces the peak runoff,” Sikora said.

Usually, peak runoff in this area occurs between late May and late June.

On Wednesday, the Colorado River below Glenwood Springs was running 2,130 cubic feet per second. Mean average flow for April 10 is 2,417 cfs, according to the Division of Water Resources website.

“I would expect, if the current conditions continue, it will be a lot earlier this year,” he said of the spring runoff.

But that depends on whether or not spring rains fall and temperatures cool off.

Current weather trends are for dry warm weather with windy days. Temperatures are not dipping below freezing at night, so high-country snowpack is melting around the clock, he said.

Under those conditions, snow can actually evaporate rather than melt.

“Snow will go from a solid to a gas” under those dry windy conditions, Sikora said. “The best thing we could hope for is a lot cooler temperatures to slow the process down.”

Sikora is also seeing calls for senior water rights six to eight weeks earlier than usual. While most ranchers begin irrigating their hay and alfalfa fields in mid-May, this year they started to irrigate in April.

The prospect of an early and reduced runoff “is making a lot of people nervous. There were some early calls last year, but with this third year in a row, people are probably more nervous,” he said.

With those who hold the senior or older rights using their water earlier than usual, that means junior water rights holders could run out earlier, he added.

In other words, if an irrigation ditch on Divide Creek has only 2 cfs of water and the senior ditch right is for 2 cfs, the holders of junior rights are out of luck, he said.


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