Valley closer to permanent radar system

VALLEY — The San Luis Valley has been a bit of black hole when it comes to accurately forecasting weather and the storms that bring water.

That is about to change.

A permanent radar system is coming to the Valley thanks to the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, Rio Grande and Alamosa Counties, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and many other entities. The SLV Water community along with state and local governments reached the conclusion that permanent radar was needed in the Valley itself. The reason being not only for weather and water forecasting purposes, but even more importantly for public safety. 

The story begins in 2011 when the Conejos Water Conservancy District undertook a project to improve snowpack measurements and streamflow predictions on behalf of the entire Rio Grande Basin. With the help of Joe Busto from the Colorado Water Conservation Board a team of experts was assembled to take on this task. The experts included weather expert Dr. Dave Gochiss and radar expert Ken Howard. Working with Nathan Coombs, manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the team found several weaknesses and identified them. They were: an inability to get actual snow measurement in watershed areas that are designated wilderness; smaller tributaries and sub basin measurements were not being taken; and forecasting models were not adaptive to changing climate conditions such as beetle kill and fires. Essentially there was not enough data in critical areas.

The solution? Using a radar as a measurement device that is able to see much farther into wilderness areas. A three-dimensional mapping tool from NASA known as the Airborne Snow Observatory was also utilized. The result was the development of a new model known as WRF-HYDRO. This new model has proven to be a better fit for the Rio Grande Basin’s needs. The radar’s 120-mile radius viewshed will give water managers a better understanding of the snow pack that sits in the basin’s upper reaches and the water that will come down to quench the Valley’s farms, ranches and wetlands.

Today, the project has now moved past the “experiment” stage, and it has been determined that permanent radar is what is needed. A permanent radar would not only assist in water forecasting for agriculture and the Rio Grande Compact, but it would give the entire Rio Grande Basin access to specific weather updates, better and more timely road reports as well as benefitting airplanes that are flying in and around the Rio Grande Basin.

The landscape of the upper Rio Grande has changed in recent years, particularly with the West Fork Complex Fire of 2013. According to data gathered by the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team, the large burn scar that was left from the West Fork Fire and Papoose fires resulted in barren high altitude slopes that are a flash flooding hazard. Furthermore, the dry conditions that exist in the Rio Grande Basin forests contribute to increased fire risk for the entire Valley.

Through this data from RWEACT, it has been made very evident that having an emergency warning system capability through radar would lessen the likelihood of the citizens of the San Luis Valley being harmed by natural disasters. It would also increase readiness and give better windows of time in the event of an evacuation. This initiative also ties into flash flood awareness program that RWEACT has established to help residents and visitors be aware of the fire and flooding risk that exist in the basin’s upper regions. The SLV Radar Project is a big step towards increased safety for the general public,

This is a very costly venture, so a wide array of support has been necessary, most notably the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Rio Grande County and Alamosa County. Representatives from the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Conejos Water Conservancy District had numerous meetings with the Rio Grande and Alamosa County Commissioners in an effort to bring awareness of the need of this project. The result was that the counties agreed to bring partnership monies to the table which was the catalyst that moved the project forward.

Alamosa County has now donated the land needed for the actual radar site which is located right next to the San Luis Valley Regional Airport. Gigi Dennis-Lounsbury, the Alamosa county administrator, has also played a key role in this process reaching out to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) for financial assistance for the project as well. In turn, CDOT made a request to the Capital Development Committee to request direct funds from the Colorado legislature. Without this critical piece, the project would not have the momentum that it does currently.

This effort would not be where it is today without all of the entities that have stepped forward. While this story is not yet finished, it is fairly certain that something that began as a test is now a project that has the potential to be an enormous benefit to the Rio Grande Basin.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets on the second Tuesday of every month at 623 Fourth Street, Alamosa. For More information please visit