Water Lines: Snowpack varies across Colorado & region
Free Press Weekly Columnist
After a dry start to the season, recent storms have brought Colorado’s snowpack up to near normal for this time of year – moderately good news for both skiers and water managers. However, the benefits of these storms have not been evenly distributed across the state.
As of Jan. 12, the Colorado, South Platte and Arkansas River Basins all had above-normal amounts of water in the snow piling up in the mountains along the I-70 corridor and the central part of the state. A little farther to the northwest, the Yampa and White River Basins were at 96 percent of normal, while just to the southwest, the Gunnison Basin was at 90 percent. Moving farther south, the river basins in the far southwest corner of Colorado were at 70 percent of normal, and the Rio Grande Basin in south-central Colorado was at just 64 percent of normal.
The Colorado river basins with the skimpiest snowpacks have already been shortchanged for several years in a row. On the U.S. Drought Monitor map, you can see that a lumpy wedge across the southern tier of Colorado is in a long-term drought. The wedge is fatter and shows more severe drought conditions in the Southeast and is skinnier and shows more moderate drought conditions in the Southwest. The Albuquerque Journal recently reported that as a result of multiple dry years, water deliveries to central New Mexico from the San Juan River Basin in southwestern Colorado will be short this year for the first time in the 40-year history of the San Juan – Chama Project.
Region-wide, Colorado is doing better than its neighbors in the Colorado River Basin, with the exception of Wyoming. Most of New Mexico is in some level of long-term drought and an area of extreme drought straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border just south of the Colorado state line. Most of Arizona and Utah are in moderate to severe drought.
Outside of the Colorado River Basin, but also dependent upon Colorado River water, California has seen some improvement in its headline-making drought, although most of the state remains in extreme or exceptional drought – the two worst categories as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The three-month outlook released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Dec. 31 indicated a likelihood of above-average precipitation for most of Arizona, New Mexico and southern California, with “equal chances” of above or below-average precipitation for Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Still, the seasonal drought outlook is for the drought in the four corners area to persist or intensify.
To put the current snowpack data in perspective, mid-January is typically about the mid-point for snowpack accumulation in Colorado. The snow content of storms in the remainder of January, February and March could still tip the balance significantly towards a wet or dry water year.
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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