Colorado's water situation is OK for this year, experts say


Colorado’s major reservoirs are full enough this year to stave off any water shortages, but another poor season of snowpack will spell trouble, according to water providers and climate experts.

The state’s Water Availability Task Force recently reviewed reservoir levels, snowpack and rainfall in Colorado’s major river basin regions, with hopes that this week’s rainfall and July “monsoons” will make a sizable difference.

The month of May was, on average, the second warmest on record and the warmest since 1934, according to a drought update from the task force. “While daytime highs were above normal, nighttime highs were also well above normal, which may have contributed to early snowmelt across much of Colorado,” the report said.

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Not surprisingly, southwestern Colorado, which is fighting off the state’s largest wildfire, is the worst off in terms of snowpack, which was second lowest on record, according to Brian Domonkos of the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The region dominated by the San Miguel, Dolores, San Juan and Animas rivers saw just 55 percent of its normal rainfall in May and 50 percent in June. That might not sound so bad, except that, Domonkos said, it meant the rainfall went from a half-inch to a quarter-inch.

Reservoirs in the southwest also are the lowest in the state, at around 78 percent of normal levels.

The news isn’t great for the rest of southern Colorado either, Domonkos reported. Snowpack melted weeks ahead of schedule in many areas, such as in the Gunnison and the Upper Rio Grande basins in southeastern Colorado.

May rainfall in the Gunnison region was just 32 percent of normal and only 20 percent in June. But the area’s reservoirs are in better shape, at 91 percent of normal levels.

In order to “catch up,” Domonkos said, the Gunnison region would need 200 percent of its normal rainfall.

In the Upper Rio Grande, the water situation is a tad better: While May rainfall was just 42 percent of normal, a big thunderstorm that rolled through the area on June 8 bumped up its average for June to 125 percent. And its reservoirs are close to normal levels.

The news gets better the farther north you go. For the region served by the Arkansas River, the snowpack was helped along by late storms and melted at a rate close to normal. May rainfall was still well below normal, at 44 percent, but June has been right at the average. And the region is looking forward to its wettest month of the year: July. In addition, reservoir levels are above average, Domonkos reported.

The region served by the Yampa, White and North Platte rivers haven’t seen any rain since June 1, and May wasn’t great, either, at 43 percent of normal. But reservoirs in the area are in good shape. Some of the area’s reservoirs are owned by energy companies that stockpiled water for a situation like this year’s low snowpack, noted Taryn Finnessey of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The state’s grande dame river — the Colorado — was closer to normal on the speed of its snowmelt than most, but rainfall hasn’t been great, with just 14 percent of its normal precipitation in the first two weeks of June. The good news is that its reservoir levels are also above average, at 120 percent of normal.

And at the South Platte, everything’s coming up roses — normal rainfall in May, almost-normal snowpack and healthy reservoir levels.

The reservoir levels will get Colorado through this year, according to the task force members. But the next snow season has to be at least 80 percent of normal to prevent any problems, Domonkos said.

Water providers at the task force meeting in Denver last week said they don’t foresee any water shortages or additional restrictions this year. But the poor snowpack and lack of rain for southern and southwestern Colorado are impacting both tourism and agriculture, according to several task force members.

The water situation is especially worrisome for agriculture. Joel Schreekloth of the CSU Extension Service said farmers in southern Colorado are getting ready to tap into preventive planning and insurance for spring planting, although this week’s rains may yet save the spring season. Many are waiting for the July monsoons to get ready for planting summer crops. Ranchers are looking to lease pasturelands in Wyoming and Nebraska rather than selling off cattle at depressed prices, he added. “Unless conditions improve, additional prevented (planting) and failed crop acres are likely,” according to the drought report.

A rescue operation for cutthroat trout is underway in southwestern Colorado, according to Finnessey, who said the trout are being rescued because of the fires raging through the area and the damage those fires are causing to the area rivers. The rescue is to preserve the trouts’ genealogy, she said.

According to John Stulp, the state’s water czar, “reservoir strength is our saving grace.” Most municipalities will be able to avoid water restrictions this year unless it’s already part of their normal operations, he added.

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