Water Lines: Snowpack low on Grand Mesa and across the West
Free Press Weekly Columnist
Throughout the West, communities and farms rely on melting snow for water supply. Each year, water managers track mountain snowpack levels in the spring to forecast the water supply for the summer growing season. For decades, snowpack conditions measured on or around April 1 have been used to generate river flow forecasts that inform water supply plans.
As of late March, the Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) stations operated by the Natural Resource Conservation Service are showing very low snow conditions in many parts of the West. In drought-stricken California, the snow water equivalent (SWE), or water contained within the snowpack, is only five to 25 percent of the median for this time of year, with many stations having no remaining snow. Oregon snowpack is not much higher, at only seven to 38 percent of the median. California hasn’t had an above normal snow year since 2011, leaving much of the state in the most severe category of drought.
Compared to California, snow conditions in the Upper Colorado River Basin look much better, but this is still a lower than normal snow year. SNOTEL stations above Lake Powell collectively are reporting SWE levels that are 74 percent of the median for this time of year. But up on the Grand Mesa, which supplies much of the drinking water for the Grand Valley, a hot, dry winter has left a near record low snowpack. Since records began at Mesa Lakes in 1987, the only year with a lower end of March SWE was 2002. At the opposite extreme, 2015 winter temperatures were among the highest recorded at both Mesa Lakes and Park Reservoir SNOTEL sites, with 15 days in 2015 reporting the highest recorded daily mean temperatures.
What does this all mean for flow in streams draining the Mesa? A short spring window still remains for snowpack to recover. At Mesa Lakes and Park Reservoir SNOTEL stations, the snowpack typically reaches its maximum level in late April, so spring storms could still boost the snowpack, provided temperatures stay cold enough for the snow to stay on the ground. But even if the snowpack recovers in April, the historical record suggests spring runoff from the Mesa will still be well below normal this year. In 2002, the record low snow year, the snowpack was not much lower than it is in 2015, and total runoff recorded downstream at the Plateau Creek stream gauging station near Cameo was only 15 percent of the median during April through July.
While water supply storage reservoirs help buffer from the effects of low snow years, several low snow years in a row can severely stress water supplies, as this year is showing in California. So, as the growing season begins, this is a good year to plan ahead for conserving water in the warmer months to come.
Stephanie Kampf is an associate professor of Watershed Science at Colorado State University. 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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