Drought/snowpack news: ‘We are expecting to see the drought persist and continue at least through April’ — Taryn Finnessey

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From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

[Colorado Water Conservation Board Drought & Climate Change Technical Specialist Taryn Finnessey] said last year was the second worst drought year on record for Colorado since 1895, with the worst year only beating 2012 out by tenths of a degree, and that was at the height of the Dust Bowl.

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows the whole state under dry conditions with the eastern plains under extreme or exceptional drought conditions, Finnessey noted. In all of the San Luis Valley counties except Mineral the drought monitor indicates severe drought but not extreme or exceptional…

Unfortunately, the drought is forecast to persist at least through the spring months, she added, with temperatures above average and precipitation below average. “We are expecting to see the drought persist and continue at least through April.”

A drought task force is monitoring conditions, Finnessey said. Right now the task force is concentrating on agriculture, but if drought conditions persist, task forces will be activated to deal with impacts to tourism, municipalities, fire and other arenas…

Finnessey was involved in reviewing survey results regarding the effect of the 2011 drought year on the agricultural economy in the Rio Grande and Arkansas River basins, which CSU Agriculture and Resource Economics Professor James Pritchett addressed during the 2013 Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference in Monte Vista last week. Finnessey said 2012 drought impacts are now being sought from area farmers and ranchers to determine the impact of multiple years of drought, and she encouraged San Luis Valley residents to participate in the survey.

To fill out the survey online, which takes 10-15 minutes and is primarily multiple choice, go to: http://tinyurl.com/CSU-drought

Economic losses due to drought conditions were not just evident in lost production, Finnessey said, but also in lost potential revenue related to that production that might have been realized because of higher commodity prices during that same drought period — “potential revenue, what would have been earned under typical growing conditions.”

Those combinations resulted in an estimated $4.7 million economic impact in the Rio Grande Basin due to drought in 2011, according to Finnessey. By comparison, the Arkansas Basin logged $104 million losses due to drought in 2011 and 1,300 jobs lost. That severity relates to the Arkansas Basin’s reliance on dry-land farming, Finnessey explained…

Most of the state was declared either a primary or contiguous drought area last year, Finnessey said, and although those designations expired at the end of the year, they were renewed again this year. She said the eastern plains were hit the hardest, but the Rio Grande Basin received contiguous classification, which means some benefits. Unfortunately what those benefits will be to area producers is unclear because the Farm Bill is still in limbo, Finnessey said…

Not only farmers and ranchers are worried about water conditions this year, Finnessey added. With reservoir storage less on February 1 of this year than last year at this time, municipalities are concerned about being able to provide enough water for their customers this year, Finnessey said. A web site is being set up that will help folks know about water restrictions in their areas, landscaping and agricultural information under drought conditions. It is not live yet but will be located at coloradodrought.com

From the Casper Star-Tribune (Benjamin Starrow):

Widespread drought in 2012 divided Wyoming’s ranchers into two basic categories: those with hay and those without. The distinction has important implications early in 2013, already showing signs of being another dry year. There may be no better insurance policy against a dry summer than hay. It could mean the difference between keeping and selling key breading stock. That, in turn, could mean the difference between a profitable year and a devastating one.

2012 was the driest year in the last 118, resulting in the state’s worst hay crop since 1950, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Wyoming hay production plummeted from 2.4 million tons in 2011 to 1.9 million in 2012, according to the service. Nationally, hay stocks are down 16 percent. Prices have gone the opposite direction. Alfalfa was selling at $215 a ton in November, compared to $145 last year…

Snowpack levels are down, even with last weekend’s snow storm, National Weather Service Meteorologist Chris Jones said Monday. Snowpack on Casper Mountain was around 40 percent of its 30-year-average. In the Snowy Range and southern Wind Rivers, those numbers ranged from 50 to 65 percent, Jones said…

Precipitation levels, critical for the ground moisture needed for healthy rangeland, are also down in many places in Wyoming. While the northwest and northeastern parts of the state have seen consistent precipitation, central and southeastern Wyoming has struggled.

Casper received 1.71 inches of precipitation between October and January. That is 59 percent of the city’s 30-year average. Last year the city saw 4.06 inches of precipitation over the same period, according to weather service data. In 2011, that number stood at 3.21 inches.

Last week, the state engineer’s office announced it was implementing “priority administration” on the North Platte River and its tributaries north of Pathfinder Reservoir and between Pathfinder and Guernsey reservoirs. All water from the designated section of river will be diverted into the reservoirs for storage. It was the first time the state announced priority administration outside of irrigation season since 2005…

Back at his Casper farm, [Robert Keith] said he believes in the resiliency of the state’s ranching industry. Drought is, after all, a part of life here. His own farm should be in good shape. The Casper Alcova Irrigation District stores water in good years and has a seven-year supply, Keith said. Further, the farm invested in a series of irrigation pivots, increasing the efficiency of Keith’s operations. He said he uses three-quarters of his annual allotment most years. Still, he has worries. “I think we could hold on one more year,” Keith said. “If it happens another year, no one will be in business.”

From the Cortez Journal (Kimberly Benedict):

Buoyed by a recent forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, the local U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office has released a tentative operating plan for McPhee Reservoir which predicts all water allocations will be met for the 2013 water year. Though the state of the area’s rivers and reservoirs is far from outstanding, present snow levels and predicted instream flows are reason to be hopeful, according to Vern Harrell, a civil engineering technician with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado area office.

“It looks fair right now, not really good, but fair,” Harrell said. “It looks like we most likely will meet all our obligations for the users.”

The present water year comes on the heels of four years of drought conditions which have left local reservoirs dangerously low. Currently, McPhee Reservoir stands 100,000 acre feet below it’s reserve elevation in February 2012. The lack of reserve in the reservoir means water users in the area are counting on a solid snowpack and generous runoff to provide operating water for 2013…

The forecast for the reservoir predicts total accumulation of 205,000 acre feet, roughly 70 percent of average inflow volume. Should the reservoir fill at that rate it would reach a maximum content of 272,988 acre feet, 63 percent full. By October, however, the reservoir would already be pulled down to an elevation lower than where it sits currently. Thus, the cycle of hoping for snow and decent inflow rates would begin again…

Though snowpack seems the most obvious key to a decent water year, the timing of the runoff, current soil moisture and summer weather conditions all contribute to the story of water allocations and reservoir demand. The interplay of these factors can support or hurt water supply…

According to automated system data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the snowpack statewide is at 76 percent of average. Of the eight river basin regions studied by NRCS, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan region is the only basin above 90 percent of average, calculated at 91 percent as of Feb. 12. The Arkansas and South Platte basins are at 65 and 59 percent of average respectively. North Platte stands at 72 percent, Yampa and White at 76 percent, Colorado at 70 percent, Gunnison at 78 percent and the Upper Rio Grande at 81 percent.

From The Mountain Mail (James Redmond):

Typically this time of year the mountains receive an inch of moisture a week, yet weekly totals through Jan. 23 mostly ranged from 0.1 to 1 inch along the Western Slope, with a few isolated pockets receiving 1 to 2 inches, the Water Availability Task Force’s January drought update reported…

In Salida January yielded only 0.01 inch of precipitation throughout the entire month. January usually has an average precipitation of 0.33 inch, historical Mountain Mail records show…

If the Chaffee County area has a drought this year similar to last year’s conditions, “that would be a record,” Terry Scanga, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District manager, said Jan. 31.

This area has never seen two back-to-back drought years of last year’s severity, he said. If the drought continues, irrigation rights will see the impact first, probably near July…

“My forecast for late winter, January to March, shows below-normal odds for moisture in much of (Colorado), still consistent with a cold North Pacific (PDO) in conjunction with a warm North Atlantic (AMO),” [Klaus] Wolter reported Positive AMO and negative PDO values go a long way toward explaining our dry fall and early winter. Given the continuing PDO-AMO setup for drought, pessimism remains justified for at least the next few months, he reported.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Statewide, snowpack moisture content was listed at 75 percent of average following storm systems that moved through over the weekend. The southwest corner of the state was at 90 percent of average; the Rio Grande basin, 81 percent; and the Arkansas River basin, 65 percent.

About 6 inches of snow were recorded in the Spanish Peaks area, with a moisture content of about 0.35 inches. The largest amounts of water added to the snowpack in the Arkansas River basin came at South Colony in Custer County, Whiskey Creek in Las Animas County and Hayden Pass in Saguache County.

Relatively lower amounts were recorded in the Upper Arkansas River.

“There was about 2 feet of snow in my front yard, but we need about 4 feet this time of year,” said Rego Omerigic of Leadville.

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