Roaring Fork looking at low peak flow this year
The chances for peak flow in the Roaring Fork River anywhere close to average are disappearing with the snowpack in Colorado’s hot, dry spring, according to a report released Thursday.
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s latest forecast says peak flow of the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs is likely to be 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) – just 47 percent of the average peak.
The forecast could be altered by a drastic change in the weather.
In contrast, the river peaked at 8,200 cfs last year – nearly 39 percent above the average. It peaked on July 2. The normal peak is between May 29 and June 23, according to the river forecast center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The paltry peak is bound to be a disappointment to rafters and other river runners. That could affect tourism in the valley this summer.
Adding to the concern is the lowered expectations for the amount of water the river will move this spring and half the summer. Lower water levels and overall volume will affect farmers and ranchers, other irrigators, boaters on reservoirs, wildlife and fish.
The amount of water that will flow through the Roaring Fork River from April 1 through July 31 is forecast to be 380 kilo acre feet (kaf), or 54 percent of the average of 704 kaf, according to Mage Skordahl, assistant snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A revised streamflow forecast was issued April 1. It reflects the significant drop in the snowpack Colorado experienced during March, Skordahl said. The statewide snowpack fell to 52 percent of average as of April 1. That was down from 81 percent on March 1.
“All major basins in the state reported significant drops in snowpack percentages over the last month, resulting from well below average snowfall and precipitation and warmer than average temperatures,” the Conservation Service said in a report issued Wednesday.
An automated snowpack measuring station 10 miles east of Aspen showed the snowpack was just 46 percent of average. In the entire Roaring Fork River basin, the snowpack is highest at the Ivanhoe site in Fryingpan Valley, at 69 percent. It is lowest at Nast Lake, also in the Fryingpan Valley, at just 10 percent of average. Nast Lake is at 8,700 feet in elevation. Ivanhoe is at 10,929 feet.
The low snowpack is affecting the strategy of water managers such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency has already reduced water released from Ruedi dam to try to fill the reservoir this summer. “We hope it does [fill],” said bureau spokeswoman Kara Lamb. “We cut releases back from the reservoir on Tuesday.”
The inflow to the reservoir usually starts increasing in late April and early May. This year it started early, reflecting the warm, dry weather. The bureau wants to capture as much inflow as it can because the snowpack is so limited.
On Friday, the bureau reduced the water releases from Ruedi Reservoir to 40 cfs, the minimum it tries to maintain for the sake of the lower Fryingpan River. Rocky Fork, a creek right below the dam, adds to the river’s flow.
The bureau faced an entirely different challenge while managing water last year. The remarkably high snowpack forced the agency to empty water from the reservoir to make room for runoff. One year ago on April 6, it was released at 140 cfs or 100 more than on Friday.
The level of releases that will be required this summer and fall are too hard to forecast, Lamb said. It depends on rainfall and actions by water rights holders downstream – “who calls for water and when they call for it,” Lamb said.
Water from Ruedi Reservoir is sometimes called upon by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during late summer and early fall to boost water levels in the Colorado River near Grand Junction for the benefit of endangered fish.
“If it’s hot and dry enough, they might have to call for that earlier,” Lamb said.
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