ALAMOSA — Setting an attendance record, nearly half a million people visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in 2017, Resource Management Chief Fred Bunch reported to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday.
“We set a huge record for visitation this last summer,” Bunch said, with more than 487,000 visitors frequenting the national park in 2017. Bunch said that’s 100 percent more than the park recorded in 2013 when the total attendance was 230,841.
“Now it’s almost half a million visitors,” Bunch said.
Bunch added that 2017 was also the warmest year on record at the dunes and one of the wettest with 13.89 inches of precipitation recorded. He said because of precipitation in the fall and the mild weather in November and December, the Medano Creek is still flowing at the dunes. Visitors cross the creek as ice in the morning and as running water when they come back down from the dunes in the afternoon, he said.
The moisture is not coming so far this year, however, Bunch reported. The snow measurement site at the dunes is recording 12 percent of normal.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten reported that the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley) is now the lowest in the state for snowpack at 33 percent of normal as of Tuesday morning, just below the San Juan Basin, which increased to 34 percent of normal by Tuesday. The week before the San Juan Basin was the lowest at 27 percent.
Cotten said the moisture line is currently below that of the drought year 2002, but a few good storms could lift the basin above that.
“We have a chance to be not as bad,” he said. “It will take a lot to get us up to normal — 183 percent to get us up to normal.”
No basin in the state is at 100 percent right now, with South Platte the healthiest at 86 percent. A week ago it was 82 percent of normal.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District Engineer Allen Davey said a dry year could make it more difficult for water management sub-districts in the Valley to make progress in replenishing the aquifers. The unconfined aquifer, as measured in a long-term study of a series of unconfined aquifer wells, improved by 76,357 acre feet between January of 2017 and January of 2018, with 733,980 acre feet being the remaining amount needed to recover the aquifer to court-required levels. Better water years and efforts of well users to decrease their pumping have resulted in improvements in recent years to the aquifer.
However, Davey said if the current river forecasts hold true this year (Cotten said the initial river forecasts for the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems are 54 percent of the long-term average), the loss to the system could wipe out some of the gains made in recent years.
“I think the sub-district board has made good strides, and it might not be that bad,” Davey said. “We should be operating in a manner that we see some improvement every year, but we can’t control the weather.”