Snowpack still lags, but better than 2012
March snowstorms boosted Colorado’s snowpack above last year’s levels at this time, but it wasn’t nearly enough to quell concerns that the ongoing drought will likely have significant consequences throughout the state this summer.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released its official April 1 Colorado snowpack report on Wednesday, indicating that the state’s snowpack is 30 percent greater than last year at this time. Within the Colorado River Basin, the snowpack is 43 percent above last year.
But that’s not saying much compared to the historical average, as Colorado looks to be headed into the second straight year of drought.
Snowpack for the year remains at just 74 percent of average statewide, up just a single percentage point from the March 1 NRCS report.
Colorado River Basin snowpack is also at 74 percent of average. Snowpack ranged from a low of 67 percent of average in the Rio Grande Basin to a high of 81 percent in the North Platte Basin, according to the latest NRCS report.
“This is the third consecutive month that the snowpack has increased by just 1 percentage point,” said Phyllis Ann Phillips, state conservationist with the NRCS.
Though snowpack remains well below normal, most of the major basins saw slight improvements to snowpack percentages during March, she said.
“The good news is that most basins continue to accumulate snow and have yet to reach their peaks for the year,” Phillips said.
Locally, wet snowstorms that moved through the area last week helped boost the snowpack in the Roaring Fork watershed to 83 percent of normal, according to the March 28 snowpack report from the Basalt-based nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy.
The snow water equivalent measured at various locations within the watershed increased to levels above last year. However, the moisture level remains about the same as 2002, which was the last big drought year in Colorado and locally, according to the conservancy’s snowpack report.
At this point, though, there is little chance that snowpack will reach normal conditions before the usual melt-off begins in mid-April, observers say.
Unlike last year, when reservoir storage remained above normal from the previous year’s record high runoff, reservoir storage statewide is well below average this spring.
Statewide, reservoir storage is only 71 percent of average and just 66 percent of last year’s levels, according to the NRCS report.
In the Colorado River Basin, reservoir storage is just 66 percent of average and only 55 percent of last year’s levels, according to the report.
Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River is 60 percent full, according to the latest Roaring Fork Conservancy report.
Water conservation measures are already being imposed by some Front Range municipalities, including the city of Denver, and by water resource managers on the Western Slope.
On Tuesday, Colorado River water officials announced that the senior call on the Shoshone Hydro Plant in Glenwood Canyon is being “relaxed” due to low reservoir storage in the basin.
An agreement between Front Range and Western Slope water users calls for the Shoshone call to be relaxed in order for junior water rights holders farther upstream to be able to store more water once the spring runoff begins.
It’s a move that benefits both Denver Water and the West Slope, according to a joint statement from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Denver Water and Xcel Energy, which owns the Shoshone hydroelectric plant.
“This is a statewide drought, and we all need to work together to manage water resources for the health and safety of our residents, our economic vitality and the environment,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager of Denver Water.
Added Eric Kuhn, general manager for the Colorado River District, “Relaxing the Shoshone water right in this limited way benefits the West Slope as well.
“It might make the difference between having a full supply at Green Mountain Reservoir and not having a full supply,” Kuhn said. “In a year like this every extra drop of water we can store now will help us later.”
Meanwhile, the nonprofit conservation group Western Resource Advocates said Wednesday that even more water conservation measures will be needed, sooner rather than later, in order to maintain adequate water resources through the summer months.
April is when municipalities and other water providers start to make projections for the irrigation season. That includes planning for watering restrictions and other measures to conserve water, said Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for the WRA.
“Drought is a fact of life for people who live in the west,” he said during a media telephone conference held in conjunction with the release of the latest Colorado snowpack report.
“It has happened before, and it will happen again,” Beckwith said. “And, with the affects of climate change, we will likely see and increase in the length and severity of drought cycles.”
As it’s shaping up, 2013 is on par to be as bad as last year in terms of dry summer conditions. Coupled with less water availability from reservoirs, Beckwith said it’s likely to be on par with the 2002 drought year, when wildfires ravaged much of the state, including the devastating Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs.
“Ongoing conservation measures, including municipal watering restrictions and taking some agricultural lands out of production, will help us weather a drought,” he said.
Bart Miller, water program manager for the WRA, said “simple measures” early in the season, such as even-odd watering days or not allowing watering during the mid-day and late afternoon/evening hours go a long way.
“Those are the kinds of common sense measures that cities and towns can consider to help reduce the amount of water use going into the season,” Miller said.
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