Water users hope early spring snowstorm is a harbinger of things to come

With Colorado in its second year of drought, farmers and city folk alike were hoping the first snowstorm of spring was to be a harbinger of wet things to come.

“There are still two months when you can get more precipitation than evaporation,” said State Climatologist Nolan Doesken. “Spring is the time to recover, and there’s still time.”
For much of the state, precipitation for the month of March was near, or in some cases, above normal, which was a huge step ahead of last year.

March is typically the snowiest month of the year in Colorado, but last year there was almost no measurable precipitation, Doesken said. This helped set off an extremely dry spring that led, in part, to what was termed a “flash drought” over the nation’s Corn Belt.

While the storm on March 22 and 23 of this year didn’t make everything right, it did add 8 to 12 inches of fairly wet snow to much of the northern Front Range, and even more on the eastern plains. Having available moisture also helps induce more storm activity, but we don’t seem to be out of the woods yet, Doesken said.

Of course, in a larger sense, things remain quite dry. Statewide, the mountain basins were only at 77 percent of normal in advance of the storm, and the South Platte drainage in northeastern Colorado was the driest of the bunch at 67 percent of average. The Colorado basin, where northeastern Colorado gets water from trans-mountain diversions, was only at 77 percent.

While the mountain snowpack is still far below normal, the storm may be an indication that the best possible spring conditions for the state could set up, with Four Corners lows sucking up Gulf of Mexico moisture and pumping that into Colorado’s Front Range. Many global warming models predict that in Colorado more precipitation would move from winter months to spring, and that has also been a trend in the past decade, most notably in 2011, a record-setting runoff year.

Earlier in March, Doesken observed that there appeared to be a possibility of some fairly significant snows, but they didn’t seem to have enough time to set up and create significant snowfall across much of the state.

“The upper level winds traveling at mid-latitudes were just zipping along,” he said. “We did have some Four Corners lows set up, but it didn’t happen big time.”

In the meantime, Northern Water continued to fill Horsetooth and Carter reservoirs, emptying the big bucket on the Western Slope, Lake Granby. As it did, farmers and municipal water managers alike filled the March water-users meeting, hoping to get the board to bump up its allocation quota for that Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) water.

“There were more people there than I’ve ever seen at any meeting other than an April meeting” when the quota is actually set, Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said.

The big topic of discussion, of course, is how much water the board will allocate this year. Last year, the first year of drought, the board set a 100 percent quota, meaning each C-BT share realized a full acre foot of water.

The system is set up to provide more water in times of drought, with a 70 percent quota being common in years when precipitation is normal. At the beginning of last year, however, reservoirs were full, which is certainly not the case this year, Werner said.

“We’re starting out with a huge hole in our supply — we have 350,000 acre feet less water in storage than last year. That’s two Horsetooth Reservoirs,” he said. The quota this year may be set at 50 percent or lower.

“We aren’t going to be able to do much more than 60, unless the weather just goes bonkers, producing an incredible amount of precipitation,” Werner said. “They are looking at a two-year window every time they set the quota. They can’t shoot their wad on this one year.”

Farmers aren’t likely to find any municipalities leasing water this year, either. A 50 or 60 percent quota alone would be enough to dry that market up, but this year Fort Collins and Greeley have been buying all the C-BT water they can find to replace rights on the Poudre, which will likely be laden with sediment and ash from the High Park Fire burn area during peak runoff.

Farmers with more senior rights on the Poudre will probably be able to take that water for use on fields in May, June and, perhaps, into July. However, that scenario will not help other agricultural water users, such as those in the North Poudre Irrigation Company.

The city of Fort Collins has already told NPIC users that it will not lease any C-BT water to farmers this year. Unfortunately, there really aren’t many options for water users in the NPIC service area, which lies between the foothills and the Weld County line, north from the Cache la Poudre River to about Larimer County Road 76.

“We’re already dead here,” said farmer Bob Johnson of Wellington, whose farm received only a couple inches of light snow during the March 22-23 storm.

“Of our 350 irrigated acres,” Johnson said, “we’re only going to plant 50 with corn.”

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