RG basin snowpack below average, but weekend expected to bring more moisture

The Rio Grande at Alamosa is running a little higher right now because of a release from the Rio Grande Reservoir as part of its reconstruction project. Basinwide, the snowpack is 86 percent of average./Courier photo by Helen Smith

ALAMOSA — This weekend’s snow might bring the Rio Grande Basin up to average.

Before the snowfall began on Friday, the basin (the San Luis Valley) was sitting at 86 percent of average, the second lowest basin in the state, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten.

“We started off really good and kind of went downhill from there, but it is still early,” Cotten said. “We are hopeful we will have a good year.”

On Friday the Upper Rio Grande (San Juan Mountains) portion of the basin was sitting at 71 percent of average snowpack, but the Sangre de Cristo side of the Valley on the east was doing much better, at 120 percent of average, creating a basin-wide average of 86 percent.

Cotten said if the basin receives the snow as predicted over the weekend, the basin will be above 100 percent of average.

“We are hopeful for that,” he said.

As of Friday, the Rio Grande Basin was the second lowest in the state, with the only basin showing a worse snowpack being the San Juan Basin, which was the same story last season.

“That’s pretty typical lately, the southern part of the state is seeing less than the northern part,” Cotten said.

However, he added, “The pattern is supposed to change.”

The southern part of the state is due to receive better moisture this winter.

“We are assuming the pattern is going to change at some point and start bringing a little bit more snow to the southern area, to us and New Mexico,” Cotten said. “We are still waiting for that to happen.”

This season is already ahead of last year, which is a good sign. The basin last year did not reach the same level of snowpack as it has right now until the end of January. “Even though we are below average, we are two months ahead of last year.”

Cotten added, “That bodes well for us. It would be nice to have a good water year.”

Currently there is more water in the Rio Grande because ditches were turned off last week, so the natural flow is going downstream. The river also experienced a peak because water was released from the Rio Grande Reservoir as part of its reconstruction project.

“That peak of water is making its way to around Alamosa right now,” Cotten explained. “The river is a little higher than it normally would be and a lot higher than it was.”

Also good news, Colorado will end the year with a small amount of credit as far as the Rio Grande Compact is concerned, “which is right where we want to be.”

Cotten said the combined credit between the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems will probably be about 5,000 acre feet, which will be stored in the Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico.

“We would like to keep a little bit of credit water in Elephant Butte but not too much because it does evaporate,” Cotten said.

In legal updates, the state is still involved in a lawsuit between the three states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and it appears that will move towards a trial, which probably will not be held for a couple of years. Colorado’s role is not as major as the other two states but is involved to make sure Colorado’s water is protected, Cotten explained.

A judicial ruling is still pending from Chief District Judge Pattie Swift in connection with a water trial held early this year regarding the proposed groundwater rules that will affect well owners in the Valley.

In another legal matter, this week the division received word that the Supreme Court upheld Judge Swift’s conviction of Gregg Sease for his seventh contempt of court involving water violations in the northern part of the Valley. The higher court remanded the matter back to Judge Swift for sentencing. She had initially sentenced Sease to 90 days in jail in addition to fines and fees.

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