Water users anxious about mountain snowpack

With an extended drought and compromised water systems exacerbating the “flash drought” conditions of 2012, water users are growing notably nervous about the mountain snowpack and the chances of heavy spring storms.

Toward the end of January snowpack statewide was only at 62 percent of normal, with the South Platte basin at only 56 percent and the Colorado basin at 59 percent. There was also little reason to believe that conditions will change dramatically, said State Climatologist Nolan Doesken.

“Statistically, there is really only a 1 in 10 chance that we will get back to or above average by the peak snowpack accumulation time in April,” Doesken said. “So there’s a 9 in 10 chance that we will reach spring with the snowpack below average.”

Following a rather disastrous 2012, reservoir levels were hit fairly hard. The big lakes on the Western Slope — Lake Granby and Green Mountain Reservoir — were at 56 and 68 percent of capacity, respectively. On the Eastern Slope, Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lakes were at 51 and 61 percent of capacity, respectively.

“The South Platte reservoirs (on the Eastern Slope) should all fill,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. “Of course, that depends on when people actually start calling water. If people start calling for water in April or May, when those reservoirs should be filling…”

March, historically the wettest month of the year in Colorado, may prove even more critical this year. Last year, March proved to be the harbinger of a drought that affected much of the Midwest, and led to what was coined a “flash drought” through most of the Corn Belt.

“In all my years in Colorado, that was the first time I saw a March without any measurable snow,” Doesken said. “March was so warm over most of the U.S. that it really set off what they called a flash drought.”

Essentially, there were few indications that drought was setting in onthe Midwest Plains, but the warm March set off plant growth early and then sparse precipitation in the following months just kept drying out the ground. The drying ground across the Midwest meant little evaporation, meaning the dry conditions kept compounding.

Doesken said the flash-drought condition doesn’t really affect much of Colorado, except for perhaps the most eastern plains, though dry conditions here certainly help set off the domino effect for the Corn Belt.

“I had not heard that term used that much, but if definitely got talked about last summer,” Doesken said. “Through May and early June, most of the Midwest was just a little dry and a little warm, so people really didn’t see what was coming at them.

“There were just a small number of consecutive days without precipitation — sunshine and hot temperatures — and drought really blossomed over the Corn Belt.”

Now that much of the Midwest and West are in a full-blown drought, people are paying a great deal of attention.

Waskom said Colorado farmers, by and large, did OK last summer, with the higher prices offsetting reduced production. This summer’s water situation, however, may be affected by depleted reservoir levels and the fact that Greeley and Fort Collins will pull more Colorado Big-Thompson water to make up for Poudre River water that will probably be unusable due to runoff from the High Park Fire.

“I think folks are nervous thinking about what they are going to do,” Waskom said. “With Fort Collins and Greeley, there’s going to be a lot less C-BT available for lease.

“If you are growing grass, you are going to use less water. If you are growing real crops you are thinking about planting fewer acres. How many acres you are planting may depend on the chemicals on your land. Crop rotation can’t turn on a dime.”

If there was any good news, it would be that the relatively dry winter of 2010-2011 was followed by an incredibly wet spring in Northern Colorado and record runoff. Things were incredibly dry to the south, however, with I-70 often cited as being the dividing line between the “have water” and “have nots.”

“We were going into a La Nina condition (a noticeable cooling of western Pacific equatorial waters) and the forecast that goes with that really held,” Doesken said.

This year, National Weather Service climate forecasters expected an El Nino pattern to develop, which usually brings more precipitation to southern states. But neither El Nino nor La Nina developed.

“We just got off the phone with the climate forecasters and basically they said there are no indicators present that have any predictive skill in telling us what the spring is going to be like,” Doesken said.

“What I don’t like abut the current condition is the spatial extent (with drought covering much of the West and Midwest). The storms are basically hitting just the northern and eastern fringe of the nation.

“The drought area is large and the chances of recovering over a short time and over a large area are very few.”

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