Snowpack still far below normal

ALAMOSA — Recent snowfall has helped the water outlook for the Rio Grande Basin, but this year is going to be far from normal.

San Luis Valley residents can only hope it will be closer to average than it is right now.

Basin snowpack as of Tuesday was 45 percent of normal, not quite the lowest in the state but close, according to Pat McDermott, Colorado Division of Water Resources, who updated members of the Rio Grande Roundtable during their February 13th meeting. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas basin is a percentage lower, with the best snowpack in the state 95 percent of normal in the South Platte River Basin on Tuesday, with other basins everywhere in between.

“Recent snowstorms helped quite a bit,” McDermott said.

Putting perspective on both ends of the spectrum, last year the snowpack was 152 percent of normal on February 8, but the drought year of 2002 was 25 percent of normal, McDermott pointed out. He said he realistically expected a year in the range of 2003 with about 45-50 percent of average annual runoff.

“But let’s keep optimistic,” he added. “There’s hope. We’ve done it before.”

He referred to 1990, which looked dire at the beginning of the year but ended up with an 85-percent of normal year.

“We’re ahead of where we were in 1990. If it gets to snowing it could happen. Late snows in this basin are huge. Last year May snowstorms provided a huge benefit.”

Roundtable member Charles Spielman asked about the possibility of cloud seeding to increase precipitation in the basin. He said every other basin was doing that. He suggested a study to determine if it would be helpful in this basin.

Roundtable President Nathan Coombs said he did not know if the political climate was receptive to that idea. He said weather modification was occurring in Pagosa Springs, and the Conejos Water Conservancy District has considered measuring the clouds that come into the Valley as a result to see if they are yielding anything. Even that is something the conservancy board is hesitant about, he added.

Coombs said only 15 percent of storms even have the potential to be seeded, and it costs $5,000-7,000 for every attempt.

Currently the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is forecasting an annual flow of the Rio Grande at Del Norte at 340,000 acre feet with 83,800 acre feet obligated to downstream states as part of the Rio Grande Compact, requiring about 5 percent initial curtailment to meet that obligation.

McDermott said Colorado is currently in a debit status with the Rio Grande Compact for the first time in 30 years, with about 1,300 acre feet under delivered. Considering the abundant water year that 2017 was, however, that is a minimal amount, he added.

The NRCS current forecasted annual flow on the Conejos River systems is 160,000 acre feet or about 54 percent of normal, which would require 25,000 acre feet to be sent downstream and a curtailment of only about 1 percent at the beginning of the irrigation season.

The irrigation season could start early on the Conejos so the system does not over-deliver, McDermott said. The irrigation season is set from April 1 to November 1, but the water division office has some latitude, and Division Engineer Craig Cotten has granted a few one-time variances due to low snowpack and warm weather, McDermott said. Farmers must submit written requests to be considered for irrigation season variances.

A few of the Roundtable members said they did not believe well users should be allowed to irrigate yet, especially since surface irrigators were not yet allowed to divert. McDermott said the water variances were not blank checks but were restricted in amounts and times as a one-time exception. He added the division office is also open to comments about when the irrigation season should begin on surface streams.

“You have to have the flexibility,” McDermott said.

The National Weather Service’s forecast for March, April and May (and through the summer) is warmer for this region with precipitation below normal at least into the summer.

“We will have a dry spring,” McDermott said.

McDermott also reported on the well rules trial, which could conclude on Thursday, February 15, and about well meter rules. He said the division has taken 10-12 people to court in the last year for not complying with the well measurement rules, which require meters on wells and annual measurement reports. Noncompliance can be expensive but is easy to avoid, McDermott said.

McDermott also reminded attendees what wells were exempt and non-exempt from the groundwater rules currently in trial before the court. Typically, wells greater than 50 gallons per minute must comply with the rules, while those with less capacity are exempt. Exempt wells generally would be domestic and livestock wells. Those with non-exempt wells must join a sub-district, work out their own augmentation plan or otherwise replace their depletions to surface rights as required by the rules. McDermott added that the division staff would work with folks who wanted to reduce their water right to bring their wells into the non-exempt category.

Caption: Waterfowl take a frigid swim this past weekend at Home Lake, which was partially frozen and partially open water. Due to an unseasonably warm winter, many of the San Luis Valley’s waterways have not completely frozen over./Courier photo by Ruth Heide