Snowpack still well below normal

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ALAMOSA — Assuming normal precipitation this spring and summer, the Rio Grande near Del Norte is likely to produce about 60 percent of its normal flow during the irrigation season, Pat McDermott, Colorado Division of Water Resources, told Rio Grande Water Users Association members during their annual meeting on Thursday.

He said the latest forecasted flow from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for April-September for the Rio Grande near Del Norte is 395,000 acre feet, which is 63 percent of the long-term average. Of that, 96,800 acre feet or 25 percent, would be obligated to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact, he added. If the predictions hold and the irrigation season begins on April 1, the presumptive date to begin irrigating, curtailments would be 6 percent on the Rio Grande at the beginning of the season.

The water users association decided on Thursday to recommend April 1 to the division engineer’s office as the irrigation season start date unless the river reaches 1,000 feet. “If it gets to 1,000 feet, it’s warm and the river’s running … it’s time to divert,” said Rio Grande Water Users Association President Greg Higel.

The water users association on Thursday also raised their annual assessments by $5 for 2018, from $30 to $35 with callable if needed.

McDermott said the irrigation season is beginning early for La Jara Creek and Sangre de Cristo Creek to give those irrigators as much opportunity as possible to use the water while they have it, and the division office is open to input from other water user groups regarding irrigation season startup dates.

“We are going to have very little curtailment this year,” he said. “Let’s use as much water as we can in this basin.”

McDermott had little better news for this water group on Thursday than he had for the Rio Grande Roundtable water group last month. The basin snowpack had risen, however, from 45 percent of normal mid February to 53 percent on Tuesday. The average statewide is 69 percent.

Some parts of the basin are worse than others, with Saguache Creek having the best potential this year and the east side “tragic,” he explained. Culebra and Costilla Creeks “are in bad shape.”

McDermott showed comparisons of this year with past water years in the basin (San Luis Valley) and said “We are getting dangerously close to 2002.” That drought year the runoff was 25 percent of normal, with 2003 experiencing 50 percent of normal run off.

“We are starting to track below ’03,” he said.

“We’re better this year coming off the heels of a 112-percent year, so that should soften the blow,” he added. The years 2014, 2015 and 2016 were also above normal.

“We have had four pretty good years in a row on the Rio Grande,” McDermott said.

Precipitation in the last month also helped, but McDermott said the basin is “going to need some snow” to increase the runoff for the year.

The National Weather Service’s forecast is “constant and consistent warm and dry” for this part of the U.S., McDermott said.

He added, however, that there have been other years in the past, like 1990, that have started out dismally and improved, so “I think there’s a little bit of hope … It’s happened before.”

Caption: Pat McDermott, Colorado Division of Water Resources, answers questions during the Rio Grande Water Users Association meeting on Thursday. Courier photo by Ruth Heide.

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