Radar blind spot exposes Southwest Colorado to dangerous storms — The Durango Herald

Graphic credit Cliff Vancura via The Durango Herald and Rocky Mountain PBS.
Graphic credit Cliff Vancura via The Durango Herald and Rocky Mountain PBS.

From the Cortez Journal via The Durango Herald (Jim Mimiaga):

“We can’t forecast what we can’t see, whether it’s water supply or extreme weather,” said Joe Busto, a researcher with the Colorado Water Conservation District.

Weather conditions and forecasts for the region rely on radar installations in Grand Junction, Flagstaff and Albuquerque. None of the stations detect low-altitude, dangerous conditions in an area that reaches from Alamosa west to the Grand Canyon, and from Gallup north to Moab, said Jim Pringle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

“We would like to see a radar station in that area,” he said. “On the weather maps, you can see the gap in your area where radar does not hit.”

Over the past few years, several severe and damaging storms hit the Four Corners without warning. They include:

On Feb. 22 and 23, 2015, a winter storm hit San Juan County, Utah, with forecasts for 11-16 inches of snow. The storm dumped up to 3 feet of snow in the northeast Navajo Nation, leaving waist-high drifts in some areas. The Navajo tribe declared a state of emergency. Local roads became impassable and an estimated 350 families were snowed in. Multiple power outages were reported, and cellphone towers were inoperable. Schools in Bluff and Montezuma Creek were closed until March 2 and 3, respectively, and schools in Monument Valley were closed through early March.

In summer 2015 on Southern Ute land, a funnel cloud was reportedly witnessed by government officials, but faraway radar stations couldn’t detect it. Residents had no warning.
On Sept. 23, 2015, a severe hailstorm at Vallecito Reservoir caught residents by surprise. The storm produced hailstones up to 1.25 inches in diameter and killed a mallard duck.

On Dec. 23-24, 2015, more than a foot of snow fell during a blizzard that caused white-out conditions and closed U.S. Highway 491 from Cortez to Monticello for 17 hours. The storm caused a 19-car pileup and stranded motorists. The potential for significant snowfall was missed because weather radar couldn’t see the changing, low-altitude storm.

In radar blind spots, on-the-ground weather watchers such as meteorologist Jim Andrus of Cortez provide the eyes for the Weather Service’s real-time weather data.

“I’ve had several incidents where there were no radar echoes showing up on the weather channel, but it’s raining or snowing outside,” Andrus said.

The lanky, silver-haired apartment manager with a weather-science mission is constantly looking up, monitoring the skies where technology fails. For 19 years, he’s filed regular reports to the NWS using the internet at the Cortez Public Library.

His on-the-ground reports often fill gaps in forecasts. In summer 2014, Andrus alerted the service to a severe storm that approached Cortez from a blind spot near Ute Mountain. The storm had the potential for hail and high winds, and NWS issued a warning based on Andrus’ report from the ground…

Radar just one set of eyes

The National Weather Service relies on three levels of reporting to provide forecasts for Four Corners residents. If one falls short, the forecast does too.

Satellite images show cloud activity from above and are valuable because they show the reach and route of storms. Ground-based radar, such as a Doppler system, looks into a cloud to determine the potential for precipitation and the severity of storms.

Blind spots are caused in part by the curvature of the Earth. When straight-line radar beams reach Southwest Colorado from the closest station in Grand Junction, they’re too high to do much good.

“In Durango for example, the radar’s lowest angle is 23,500 feet, but the top of winter storm clouds is at 18,000 feet,” Pringle said. “We’re not seeing the whole picture.”

In Cortez, the radar’s lowest reach is at an altitude of 23,000 feet. At Bluff, Utah, it’s 27,000 feet, and at the Navajo Nation south of Bluff, it’s 29,000 feet. In Pagosa Springs, it’s even worse, an altitude of 39,000 feet.

Radar benefits water supply

Since 2009, the Colorado Water Conservation District has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to research the need for radar in Southwest Colorado for more accurate water supply forecasts in rivers and reservoirs.

The study placed a temporary Doppler radar at the San Luis Regional Airport in Alamosa during the 2014-15 winter and compared its water supply data with radar maps from the weather service’s faraway installations. “The forecast was four times more accurate,” said Busto, a water district researcher and an author of the study.

“We’re building a business case that the radar black hole is killing the water world because we’re not keeping track of how much water we have,” he said.

The temporary radar will return to the Alamosa airport next winter to continue the study.

“The benefits of better observations and forecasts are tremendous,” said Craig Cotten, a Division 3 engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Our compact operations are based on stream flow forecasts. Inaccurate forecasts can cause unnecessary curtailment of ditches, over or under delivery of compact obligations and disruption of priority system.”

During a runoff period from the winter of 2013-14, for example, Grand Junction radar estimated 3,000 acre-feet of water for the southern San Juan Mountains, but the temporary radar in Alamosa showed 34,000 acre-feet of water supply.

Buston said local radar more accurately reads precipitation levels in low-altitude winter storms that tend to hug the mountains.

“In our part of the world, snowpack is our water bank, and people pay to lease shares, but when we are missing how much water there is, it’s like your banker not knowing how much is in your account,” Busto said.

For example, the study showed the 2013 water year forecast was 230,000 acre-feet, and the actual water supply was 344,000 acre-feet. The 2005 forecast was for 795,000 acre feet, but the actual water supply was 683,000 acre-feet.

Water forecasters say that by adding radar data to satellite images, Snotels and stream data in place now would improve local river runoff and reservoir forecasts.

What’s the cost?

In the water conservation board study, ideal locations for a permanent radar station were determined to be at regional airports in Alamosa, Durango and Montrose. Busto said the Cortez Municipal Airport is also a potential location for a Doppler radar station.

Depending on range capability, radar units cost between $2 million and $10 million, and are typically funded by state and federal governments. Portable units run about $500,000.

After the West Fork fires in 2013, a portable Doppler radar system was installed on Wolf Creek Pass to monitor flash flood conditions in the fire-damaged area.

Busto said it was effective in detecting storms capable of generating flash flood conditions, and warnings were issued. The same storms did not show up on radar systems in Grand Junction.

“Our mission is to protect lives and property, and the more resources we have to monitor weather, such as radar, then we can do that better,” Pringle said.

Busto pointed out that relying on satellite data to determine flash flood potential caused a “cry wolf” scenario for emergency managers. Every time satellite showed clouds in the area, erroneous warnings were sent out to residents, but nothing would happen.

Improved radar coverage would also improve airport operations, said Russ Machen, manager for Cortez Municipal Airport.

During winter storms, Machen relies on weather forecasts to plow the runways, and when the forecast is off, it can delay runway maintenance.

“The pilots would also appreciate more accurate regional radar to determine flight conditions,” he said.

Hundreds of boaters raft Dolores for first time in four years — The Cortez Journal

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Over the weekend, hundreds of boaters took advantage of a three-day whitewater release on the Dolores River below McPhee dam, the first in four years.

Reservoir managers said Sunday, the minimum rafting flows will continue until at least Tuesday, June 7.

The weekend whitewater release was announced last week on short notice, and within hours, the boat ramps at Bradfield Bridge and Dove Creek Pumphouse began filling up local boaters and their brightly colored rafts, kayaks, canoes and dories…

Friday morning, a parade of boats disappeared into the sunny Ponderosa Gorge, the first leg of 97-mile stretch to Slick Rock that features rapids, camp spots, remote hiking and spectacular scenery.

Bears roamed the shorelines and campsites, and were startled by the sudden presence of humans. River otters swam among boaters, and desert big horn sheep looked on from above.

A new rock fall in the river at mile-marker 17.2 can be skirted river left.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

It’ll be crowded on the Dolores River tomorrow — first boating release in a while

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

A whitewater boating release below McPhee Dam will begin at 1 a.m. Friday and last at least three days.

Flows will be ramped up to at least 800 cubic feet per second by early Friday morning, and will remain at that level through Sunday, June 5.

Reservoir managers said the recreational release could lengthen, and flows may go higher as the reservoir fills and water is sent downriver.

The spill was delayed until warm weather brought the runoff forecast into focus.

A peak is expected in June on the Upper Dolores River as mountain snowpack melts.

It takes a few hours for release to reach the Bradfield Bridge put-in and other boat ramps.

The release will taper off late Sunday, ramping down from 800 cfs to 600 cfs over two days. From there, the river will drop down to 400 cfs over two days, then 200 cfs and finally 65 cfs. Minimum boatable flows for rafts is 800 cfs to 600 cfs; minimum for kayaks flow is 300 cfs to 400 cfs.

Smaller rafts and kayaks could enjoy five to seven days of boating run in the 100-mile canyon below McPhee.

After Sunday, decisions about releases will be posted on the McPhee Reservoir website.

Documentary filmmaker Rig to Flip has been monitoring the Lower Dolores and has identified and photographed a new boulder field and rapid upstream of the Dove Creek pump house and boat ramp.

Whitewater release announced for the Lower Dolores — The Cortez Journal

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiga):

Reservoir managers have announced a 10-day spill at an approximate rate of 1,000 cubic feet per second. However the plan is to begin the release the first weekend of June instead of over Memorial Day as forecasted last week.

“There will be a spill, and by pushing it forward we’re setting up the boaters for a longer season with improved rafting flows,” said Mike Preston, manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

Warmer weather beyond the current five-day forecast could accelerate the start of the spill by a few days.

McPhee will fill and provide full farmer allocations, with an estimated left-over water for rafting.

Cooler, stormy weather and significant snowpack holding in the mountains forced managers to adjust the timing of the spill until the first weekend of June.

Reservoir managers are waiting on a second peak runoff from remaining snowpack.

Preston said the decision for the delay is to avoid the possibility two small spills and their associated ramp-up and ramp-down water needs. For safety, spills are gradually increased 200 cfs at a time, then reversed at the end of the controlled spill.

Releasing rafting flows for Memorial Day weekend was not seen as ideal for boaters because managers would have to stop it to allow the reservoir to fill. Then a second spill would likely be required to avoid overfilling the reservoir as the second peak finishes coming down.

“Delaying for one release saves ramping water to extend the season,” Preston said.

The benefits of a single combined spill of rafting flows allows for longer trips and less down-river congestion of boaters.

The district worked closely with the Dolores River Boating Advocates on the early June release decision.

“There has been definite improvement in communication between the reservoir managers and the boating community,” said DRBA board member Wade Hanson. “DWCD and the Bureau of Reclamation have been on the ball with timely public notice about a release.”

Boaters should be aware of some new changes on the Lower Dolores River.

The usual private land available for a public take-out/put-in at Slickrock is closed.

However, another landowner is negotiating with the DRBA to open public access point on land just downstream of the bridge at Slick Rock near the old store.

Farther down river, the BLM’s Big Gypsum Valley river access remains open.

Boaters should be especially alert this season on the Lower Dolores because it has not been floated for many years.

A large boulder fall has been reported in Ponderosa Gorge upstream of the Dove Creek pump house at mile 17, and debris flows and log jams are a real possibility.

Also expect campsites throughout the 100-mile section to Bedrock to be overgrown.

“It’s exciting to get on the Lower Dolores after all these years,” said Hanson said. “We will be taking a lot of pictures and GPS coordinates of the campsites to inform the public.”

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Whitewater seekers might get crack at Dolores River – The Durango Herald

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Durango Herald (Sue McMillin):

The Dolores Water Conservancy District announced on its website on Monday that recent heavy precipitation, including what’s in the forecast for this week, would likely fill McPhee Reservoir and allow for a boating release. If it happens, it would be the first since 2011.

The water district said that the precipitation combined with a cool, slow start to irrigation season has left the reservoir just 12 feet below full.

“A boating release will likely cover the Memorial Day weekend and last 5-10 days at 1,000 +/- CFS (cubic feet per second),” the website says.

The district says it will continue to keep boaters updated through the week.

The Dolores River was dammed in the late 1980s, which created McPhee Reservoir to ensure domestic water supply for Cortez and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and irrigation for more than 70,000 acres of otherwise arid land.

For the latest on the reservoir levels, visit http://www.doloreswater.com/releases.htm.

Dolores water district unveils $8 million in upgrades — The Cortez Journal

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Five automated, high-tech pumping stations do the heavy lifting of pulling water from canals and pushing it through pipes to farms. Another pump system at the Great Cut Dike pulls water from McPhee Reservoir into the Dove Creek Canal and onto the pumping stations.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation have teamed up for $8 million worth of upgrades for the 20-year-old pumping stations.

The four-year plan includes upgrading the electronic communication control system, or SCADA, which operates irrigation deliveries from a main control room.

So far, three out of six pumping plants have been overhauled: Fairview, Pleasant View and Ruin Canyon. Next on the list are Dove Creek, Cahone, the Great Cut Dike and the SCADA system. Final upgrades will begin after irrigation seasons and be completed over the next two years.

Water officials and engineers touted the upgrades during a public tour Thursday at the Pleasant View pump station. At Ruin Canyon, two pumps were rebuilt, and two variable-speed electric motors were replaced. The electronic drive systems were also replaced.

The same upgrade occurred at the Ruin Canyon pump station, with a total cost for both upgrades of $1.25 million.

“They are more efficient, run cooler and require less maintenance,” said DWCD engineer Lloyd Johnson. “They will last another 20 to 25 years.”

The variable speed pumps adjust to irrigation demand. As the pressure fluctuates, the electronic drive system directs the pumps to adjust and keep the pressure steady. The drive system automatically turns on other static pumps as demand requires.

“We’re here to meet demand of the farmer,” said engineer Ken Curtis. “They pay high dollar for volume when they want it, and that is why we have a big crew of electricians and mechanics to ensure it is all working.”

The Bureau of Reclamation built the dams and reservoirs and pays to update them, said Brent Rhees, BOR’s regional director for the Upper Colorado River region.

He explained that a portion of power revenues generated from Glen Canyon dam and other BOR hydro-electric plants are set aside to pay for project upgrades like the one at the Dolores Project.

“These upgrades are satisfying to see because they keep us grounded in our mission to deliver water,” Rheese said. “The BOR has transitioned to resource management of existing projects.”

DWCD chipped in $1 million toward the project.

Forum explores new potential use of Dolores River — The Cortez Journal

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A documentary screening about the Dolores River was followed by a lively forum about the issue of low flows below McPhee Dam.

“River of Sorrows” was commissioned by the Dolores River Boating Advocates to highlight the plight of the Lower Dolores River.

The new film, which is for sale on the DRBA website for $10, had several showings April 30 at the Sunflower Theatre.

A panel answered questions from a moderator and from the audience. The panel included Josh Munson of the DRBA; Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District; Eric White of the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch; Mike Japhet, a retired aquatic biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and Amber Clark, of the Dolores River Dialogue.

What are the major challenges facing the Dolores River and what are the solutions for addressing those challenges?

Munson said the challenge is for people to see there are beneficial uses to Dolores River water other than just farming, such as for fishery health and boating. Changing the water rights system to allow individuals to sell or lease their water allocation so it stays in the river is one solution.

“Other uses helps to diversify the economy,” he said.

Preston said a major challenge is managing the reservoir in drought conditions. He said the goal is maximizing efficiencies in order to improve carryover in the reservoir year to year.

“High storage lifts all boats, including for recreation,” he said.

White said the film missed the compromises the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has made regarding water rights.

“Our allocation has dropped,” he said. “The tribe has fought for our water rights for a long time.”

Japhet said low flows below the dam are threatening three native fish: the flannelhead sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.

“They have been declining precipitously,” he said.

Japhet called for more flexibility in how water reserved for fish and wildlife is managed out of McPhee. For example, 850 acre-feet diverted to the Simon Draw wetlands could be used to augment low flows on the Lower Dolores to help fish.

Clark said the big picture solution need to be collaborative and local, “or somebody from outside will find a solution for us.”

The group revealed the difficulty in finding a compromise that improves the downstream fishery and recreation boating but does not threaten the local agricultural economy.

“Use if or lose it water doctrine is a waste of water resources for farmers and conservationists,” Munson said. “The system does not allow for an individual to lease their water” for instream purposes.

Preston pointed out that in the last eight years, there has been four years where there was a release from the dam. The last one was in 2011, and this year a spill is uncertain.

“We are four for four. When we have excess water we release for boating and the fishery,” he said.
Japhet said the “elephant in the room” is if one of the three native fish species is petitioned for listing on the endangered species list.

“It would cause the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to take a very close look at what is going on with the water and fish resource,” he said. “The best solution is to be proactive and work something out locally to avoid a federal mandate telling us what to do.”

An audience member asked if the river itself has a right to water. Preston said the state instream flow program designates minimum flows for the river, including a 900 cfs below the confluence with the San Miguel. Below the dam the instream flow designation is 78 cfs.

“The river has a right to water, the fact that it was once wild should stay in people’s minds,” Munson replied. “The place itself has a beneficial use for fish, birds, otters. It’s recreation provides a way to make a living.”

Betty Ann Kohlner expressed concerns about McPhee water being used for hydraulic fracturing used for drilling natural gas.

Preston said about 4,000 acre-feet is available in McPhee for municipal and industrial purposes, including for fracking. But, he said, There has been limited use of the water for that purpose.

“If you can lease water to frack, why can’t water be leased for recreation and fish needs downstream from willing owners?” responded one man. “There is a contradiction in how we apply our understanding of how we should use water.”

Don Schwindt, of the DWCD board, pointed out that the Dolores River is part of the Colorado River compact that divides the state’s river water with several downstream states.

“Two thirds of the state’s water is required to leave by compact, and as it leaves it is available in the streams,” he said. “That two-thirds is more dominate than agricultural use.”

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed