Water outlook is not yet promising

ALAMOSA — With a basin-wide snowpack sitting at 31 percent of normal and the National Weather Service calling for dry conditions in coming months, “It’s not looking real great for us right now,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said during a water meeting in Alamosa on Tuesday.

“We are a little bit lower than 2002 at this point,” he said. That was one of the San Luis Valley’s worst drought years.

However, Cotten said that last year looked about the same until storms came in December to boost levels. “We could get something like that happening again,” he said, adding that a storm was supposed to be coming in on Wednesday.

“We have a storm coming in right now. Hopefully it will change the pattern,” he said.

The National Weather Service forecasts for February, March and April show this region at below average for precipitation, with the extended forecasts through June looking pretty much the same, Cotten said.

Although the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley) is not the worst in terms of snowpack right now — the San Juan Basin is lower at 27 percent of normal — the snowpack as of Tuesday morning was only 31 percent of normal in the Rio Grande Basin. The basin with the highest snowpack on Tuesday was South Platte with only 82 percent of normal.

“Nobody’s doing real good,” Cotten said.

The current annual flow forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers are 54 percent of the long-term average, Cotten told members of the Rio Grande Roundtable on Tuesday. The preliminary annual flow for the Rio Grande at Del Norte is 345,000 acre feet, or 54 percent of the long-term average and about half of what the river produced in 2017 (690,500 acre feet), while the NRCS is currently predicting an annual flow on the Conejos River system of 165,000 acre feet, also 54 percent of the long-term average and significantly below the 2017 total of 439,6000 acre feet.

The only upside of those lower numbers, Cotten added, is that less would be required to be sent downriver to comply with the Rio Grande Compact. Of the currently predicted 345,000 acre feet on the Rio Grande, the state would only owe 85,000 acre feet to downstream states, and curtailment during the irrigation season would likely be nil.

The same would be true on the Conejos River system, with no curtailment necessary during the irrigation season if the current prediction of 165,000 acre feet holds. The state would have to send 27,500 acre feet downstream to meet compact obligations, “which can be met without curtailment on the Conejos,” Cotten said.

“We can use our water we have in the San Luis Valley,” he added, “but that’s not going to be a whole lot.”

Cotten said Colorado ended 2017 in the black as far as Rio Grande Compact accounting on the Rio Grande, with about 1,850 acre feet credit, while the Conejos River couldn’t keep up with its increased obligation due to higher flows and ended the year with about 3,050 acre feet in debt.

“The Compact allows that,” Cotten explained. “It’s not a problem. You can go into debt and make it up the next year.”

The Conejos experienced an above-average year for the first year in a long time last year, Cotten said, at 143 percent of normal. It has a higher obligation to the compact than the Rio Grande and had to send 51 percent of its annual flow downstream, or 222,800 acre feet of the total 439,600 acre feet.

The Rio Grande also experienced an above-average year in 2017 at 108 percent of normal, which was the third year in a row for an above-average year on the river, Cotten said. Its obligation to the compact was 29 percent, or 199,800 acre feet of the total 690,500 acre feet.

On a legal note, Cotten said the trial over the groundwater rules/regulations will begin with opening arguments on January 29 and is currently scheduled for four weeks. He said five or six objectors are still in the case. The case will revolve around groundwater rules promulgated by the state engineer for water users in this basin. The case will present its arguments first, Cotten explained.

Chief District/Water Judge Pattie Swift will preside over the case, which will be heard in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s building at 8805 Independence Way in south Alamosa.

Caption: With temperatures in Alamosa pushing 60 degrees on Tuesday, the Rio Grande was flowing freely beside Cole Park. Snowpack as of Tuesday for the Rio Grande Basin was only 31 percent of normal./Courier photos by Ruth Heide