#Snowpack news: “…we’re feeling pretty good about the water year” — Brian Werner

Westwide SNOTEL map April 7, 2016 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL map April 7, 2016 via the NRCS.

From The Greeley Tribune (Nikki Work):

According to the latest snowpack reports from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, northern Colorado water users may finally get to let out the breath they’ve been holding.

In February, Brian Werner of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District said a wet, snowy spring would be key for a good water year. March and April are the most important months of the year for snowpack, he said.

Those wet spring snows came in March, with the official state total coming out of Denver International Airport at 18.4 inches of snow. Greeley, on the other hand, only got a total of 4.4 inches, according to the National Weather Service office in Boulder.

While those storms dropped varying depths of snow along the Eastern Plains of Colorado, they were of huge benefit to mountain snowpack, boosting most of the basins across northern Colorado to numbers near or above the historic average. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, as of April 4, the state was at 97 percent of the average for snowpack.

“March was good pretty much statewide,” Werner said. “We never get too over-confident, but we’re feeling pretty good about the water year.”

As of April 6, both the river basins that feed into northern Colorado — the Upper Colorado River Basin and the South Platte River Basin — were above 100 percent.

As for reservoir storage, the state is currently at 111 percent of average, according to the April 1 update from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Upper Colorado River Basin is at 111 percent of average and the South Platte River Basin is at 107 percent of the average.

Werner said not only are the water totals looking good, but since the snow had high water content, it helped improve soil moisture, something vital to farmers.

April will be key to deciding what the good water totals mean for farmers, Werner said. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District will hold its the Spring Water Users Meeting on April 13 at The Ranch in Loveland, where officials and producers can talk needs and forecasts. The next day, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District will decide water allocations. [ed. emphasis mine]

Southern Colorado may still be in murkier water, though. Though the storm that rolled through on March 26 hit southern Colorado harder than the metro area or northern Colorado, the March 23 blizzard didn’t. That kept the basins from getting a needed jump in moisture-packed spring snow. The Arkansas River, Upper Rio Grande and several other southern Colorado river basins are at or below 85 percent of the average.

“That’s a concern for southern Colorado,” Werner said. “We always say this — you want to be average or above average.”

The area’s saving grace may be in reservoir storage. The Arkansas River Basin and the rivers that make up the San Miguel area basin are both over 100 percent of the average, and the Upper Rio Grande Basin is at 94 percent storage, according to the NRCS report.

So while southern Colorado, which has struggled with drought for several years, will start the summer nearly 20 percent below average in snowpack, the area’s water storage may offset at least some of that burden, Werner said.

From the NRCS via The Durango Herald:

Though Southwest Colorado has yet to reap the benefits of a wet El Niño, as of April 1, statewide snowpack totals are up 150 percent from last year, according to the National Resource Conservation Service.

Karl Wetlaufer, assistant snow survey supervisor for NRCS, said data released Wednesday show just how much the dry spell in March affected the southern San Juan Mountains.

Combined metrics for the Animas, Dolores, San Juan and San Miguel basins entered March with 97 percent of normal snowpack. By the end of the month, the total was down to 81 percent.

March brought just 53 percent of average precipitation for the region.

“Overall, the biggest news in that corner of the state is that it was a very, very dry March,” Wetlaufer said. “That dry spell certainly had a notable impact on whether or not a lot of those basins will reach their normal peak accumulation amounts.”

However, because of major dumps in the central and northern parts of the state, snowpack totals are 150 percent higher than last year – bringing Colorado to just about normal averages.

“It was a really strange split where northern and central mountains got well above average, and southern mountains got well below,” Wetlaufer said. “So statewide, we’re actually very near normal levels.”

And, Wetlaufer added, there’s still time for more snow. With forecasters predicting a wet spring, there remains a chance for higher elevations to accumulate more snowpack before summer.

“If we have a cool and wet spring for the next few months, water supplies could still dramatically increase, and that’s a trend we’ve seen in previous years,” Wetlaufer said. “Even down in the southwest, with how much high elevation terrain there is, it could still turn things around.”

From 9News.com (Maya Rodriguez):

“April is a very large contributor to the entire water budget,” said Brian Domonkos of SNOTEL, the federal team in charge of tracking snowpack across Colorado and other states in the west.

Using long, hollow tubes, the team digs deep into the snow near Berthoud Pass, to test how deep the snow level is. At the bottom, they strike soil.

“The soil plug allows us to know that the sampler made it all the way to the ground and most likely captured the entire depth of snowpack,” he said.

The spot at Berthoud Pass is one place that can tell them a lot about snowpack conditions in other areas.

“This site was picked because it’s right on the Continental Divide,” Domonkos said. “So, in a way, we’re representing snowpack on both sides of the divide…

Statewide, snowpack levels sit at 98-percent of what is a normal level this time of the year. If you look closer, though, the SNOTEL team said that number doesn’t mean everything is near average, everywhere in the state.

“Southern half of the state just didn’t get the precip in the latter half of March that the northern half of the state did,” Domonkos said.

As for reservoir levels this summer, the team said those that rely on the Colorado and South Platte River basins, including those on the Front Range, appear to be in good shape.

“We would anticipate that reservoirs would get fill supplies,” Domonkos said, adding, “provided we don’t have dry spells going forward.”

Meanwhile, the Arizona and California are keeping a wary eye on forecasts into Lake Powell. Here’s a report from Tony Davis writing in The Arizona Daily Star. Here’s an excerpt:

Drought continues to put the squeeze on the Southwest’s water supplies, with Colorado River runoff forecasts declining for the second straight month.

The details

What: The April-July forecast for Colorado River runoff into Lake Powell is 74 percent of average, down from 80 percent in early March. It’s the second straight decline in the monthly forecast from a February prediction of 94 percent, said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist for the federal Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.

Why runoff is low: In February, the culprit was mainly warm weather, which triggers evaporation of river water. In March, the problem was more attributable to very dry weather in the southern half of the Colorado’s Upper Basin, including the Dolores River in Colorado and the San Juan River in [Colorado], New Mexico and Utah.

Why it matters: Much of the runoff into Lake Powell at the Utah border eventually makes its way to Lake Mead at the Nevada border. Mead is where much of Tucson and Phoenix’s drinking water is stored; it is pumped uphill to the two cities via the Central Arizona Project canal system.

What it means: The current low flows aren’t bad enough to trigger a shortage in CAP deliveries for 2017. But they make it more likely that a shortage will occur in 2018, said Chuck Cullom, CAP’s Colorado River program manager, and Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resources manager for Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. The feds currently predict a 54 percent chance of a 2018 shortage.

Why a 2017 shortage is unlikely: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoirs, is scheduled to release extra water from Powell to Mead this year because Powell is storing more water than Mead. It will release 9 million acre-feet, compared to 8.25 million on average.

How a 2017 shortage could still happen: If it stays dry and runoff is very low into the Colorado from its tributaries in the Lower Colorado Basin, such as the Little Colorado, Paria and Virgin rivers. But it’s unlikely that it will be that dry and runoff will be that low, Cullom and Hasencamp said.


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