Depleted water supply means reservoirs won’t fill
The hope is for an eternal spring when it comes to snowpack in the Colorado high country.
And if not eternal, then maybe at least through April.
March left the western Colorado high country snowpack in better shape than the same month had a year ago, but that’s not the same as saying that the moisture stored among the peaks will easily recharge reservoirs and flood fields.
“We don’t look as good as we did a month ago,” rancher Carlyle Currier said of the lands his cattle graze on and near Grand Mesa. “But it’s not melting like it was last year. We don’t have the wind and hot temperatures drying the ground out.
“If we can still get some good April storms, there’s still the potential to have a decent year.”
Unlike last spring, when low runoff was offset by large amounts of stored water, reservoirs are low this time around and the prospect of them filling is dim.
Already water managers are moving to keep as much water in liquid form as they can.
Under an agreement with Denver Water, more water is being allowed to flow downhill for capture in high-elevation reservoirs than would otherwise be the case. That arrangement, however, can continue only until May 20.
Green Mountain Reservoir, a major impoundment on the upper Colorado River, began filling on Monday, about the same time as last year, possibly signaling an early runoff in that drainage, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Kara Lamb said.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s April 1 snowpack readings bear out the sense that moisture levels are down, but they could be worse.
In the Gunnison River Basin, the moisture content was 71 percent of the median, but 116 percent of 2012 at this time. The Colorado River Basin fared slightly better, with a snowpack-moisture content that was 74 percent of the median and 143 percent of 2012 at this time.
Statewide, moisture content was 74 percent of median and 130 percent of the previous year.
Colorado typically gets about 20 percent of its snow accumulation in March, and the NRCS noted that the snowpack on average reaches its peak on April 8, meaning there “is almost no chance that the snowpack will reach normal conditions before beginning to melt.”
That melt will find reservoirs statewide filled at 71 percent of average and 66 percent of last year, according to the NRCS.
On Grand Mesa, the NRCS recorded 16.1 inches of moisture on Thursday, just below the average of 16.43 inches on that date, at Trickel Park Reservoir. At Mesa Lakes, the 13 inches of water was slightly higher than the average of 12.95 inches for the date.
The Trickel Park reading is an indicator of the amount of moisture in the drainages used by the Ute Water Conservancy District, the largest supplier of domestic water in the Grand Valley, while the Mesa Lakes reading offers a glimpse of the moisture content for the drainages that feed into the Grand Junction municipal water supply.
Ranchers who depend on snow to cover their pastures on public land, as well as irrigation to carry them through the summer, already are feeling the pinch, said Bill Martin, co-owner and manager of the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction in Loma.
The drought is “impacting a lot of things,” Martin said.
Sales of bulls are down 20 percent to 30 percent “because guys don’t know how many cows they can turn out, so they don’t buy bulls.” Martin said.
Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service that lease out lands for grazing are cutting back on the number of days they’ll allow grazing and the number of animals allowed on those lands, Martin said.
“Almost everybody’s cut back 10 percent to 40 percent, either on days or headcount or both,” Martin said.
The numbers of stocker cattle, or lighter-weight animals taken to fatten up in the high country, “are way down,” Martin said. “Prices are quite low because people are reluctant to buy them.”
Agreeing with Currier that April storms might bring much-needed relief, Martin said there’s another aspect, though.
“It’s kind of a two-edged sword,” he said. “You want the moisture, but you don’t want it while you’re calving or lambing.”