Depleted Water: With snow season starting dry, nervous officials worry about reservoirs

Photos by CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel—A No Fishing sign is shown on Colorado Highway 149 over the east end of Blue Mesa Reservoir, with a dry lake bed beyond. Without a significant December precipitation, 2012 is setting up to be the driest year on record. BELOW: The Gunnison River flows into a near empty Blue Mesa Reservoir. This area would be submerged at high water.



It’s going to take some December moisture to keep 2012 from breaking a mark more than a century old and going down as the driest year in recorded history in Grand Junction.

And even an average amount of precipitation in the year’s final month would result in this year being the city’s second-most-parched ever.

“Right now we’re on our driest year on record to this date,” said Joe Ramey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

As of Thursday, the city had recorded 3.47 inches of precipitation to date this year.

Average annual precipitation is 9.38 inches. The driest year on record is 1900, when 3.56 inches fell.

That also had been the total for that year through the end of November, meaning no precipitation fell in December, said Ellen Heffernan, a Weather Service forecaster. She said 1900 is the only year on record when the city had no December precipitation.

The average December precipitation in Grand Junction is 0.58 inches.


Four speakers will address the farming and ranching aspects of drought Monday at Colorado Mesa University.

The program “Drought and Agriculture” is being presented by CMU’s Water Center as part of its weekly “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought” seminar series. All the seminars are open to the public.

Speakers will include fruit grower Bruce Talbott, rancher Hugh Sanburg, farmer Mark Harris of the Grand Valley Drainage District and Max Schmidt of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.

The event is from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Saccomano Lecture Hall, Wubben Science Building Room 141. It also will be streamed live at

It’s too early to panic, everyone agrees.

But with this season of snowfall off to a lackluster start, water managers, utilities and agricultural interests all are anxious for the kind of storms that can lead next spring to refilled reservoirs and recharged watersheds after a year of drought.

Western Colorado was fortunate to go into last winter with lots of full reservoirs thanks to the epic snow year of 2010-11 and heavy runoff the following spring. That took the edge off this year’s drought, in contrast to 2002, when a lingering drought had carried over two winters and there was less stored water to tap.

But if this year proved the value of good reservoir storage in a drought year, it also points to the need to get reservoirs refilled now that they’re depleted.

“Bottom line is, reservoirs got hard hit this year. But that’s what they’re for,” said Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs. “But you still have to put more gas in the tank, or in this case water. Hopefully this will be a good enough snow year to bring them closer to full, if not full.”

Just a year ago, conditions were quite different in some western Colorado reservoirs. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was making big releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir to keep the water level low enough that winter freezes didn’t pose a danger of flooding upstream in the Gunnison area.

This year, Blue Mesa already is 40 feet lower, at just 39 percent of capacity and 57 percent of its normal storage level this time of year. Foundations of pre-dam buildings became exposed after having been underwater since 2002.

Rifle Gap Reservoir north of Rifle was still full and spilling water last November, said Jason Spaulding, manager for the Silt Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir. Now it’s maybe 30 feet lower, he said.

Bob Hurford, state Division of Water Resources engineer for Division 4 in the Gunnison River Basin, said a lot of reservoirs ended up with carryover storage last fall because they didn’t have to release it all thanks to the heavy snow of the previous winter.

“You just keep that storage up in your reservoir. It’s like money in the bank,” he said.

For the Clifton Water District, “the bank account got used up this summer,” said David Reinertsen, its assistant manager.

Clifton Water relies on Colorado River water, and specifically water stored upstream in Green Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling. As of the end of October, Green Mountain’s storage was down to 43 percent of capacity and 58 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Statewide, reservoir storage averaged 37 percent of capacity and two-thirds of normal for Oct. 31. For Gunnison River Basin reservoirs, the average was 46 percent of capacity and 61 percent of normal, while Upper Colorado River reservoirs averaged 54 percent of capacity and two-thirds of normal.

Slow start to winter

Meanwhile, this winter’s snowpack is off to a slow start, at just 38 percent of average statewide, and 40, 42 and 37 percent, respectively, for the Upper Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa/White river basins as of Thursday.

Mage Hultstrand, assistant Colorado snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said while people may think October and November don’t contribute much to the year’s snowpack, between them they typically account for about 25 percent of the peak amount each year.

But she added, “Really, you know, one big storm and we can be back (on track),”

The potential consequences should western Colorado experience another dry winter vary somewhat among reservoirs and water users, depending on their circumstances. Some reservoirs, such as Paonia Reservoir, may be drawn low most years but are able to reliably fill the following spring even in drier years. Dan Crabtree of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation western Colorado office said Paonia Reservoir is “a small bucket on a big stream,” and benefits from a huge watershed and lots of runoff above it.

Spaulding said Rifle Gap should come close to filling this winter, but if the snowpack is light and the creek feeding it is still running low next summer, irrigators will be affected.

“If we don’t get any snow this winter it could be bad for us next summer, for sure,” he said.

Blue Mesa, a large reservoir, takes longer to refill than many and isn’t forecast to fully refill this year, Crabtree said. He said there’s still plenty of winter ahead, but should dry conditions persist, the Bureau of Reclamation has criteria in place for trying to protect and recapture storage while continuing to meet obligations. It already is making the minimum releases required to meet a streamflow right through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and water rights for Uncompahgre Valley water users.

Impacts on agriculture

Crabtree said private reservoirs, and water rights holders on smaller streams, would be more impacted if there’s another drought year.

“Lack of storage would definitely be an issue,” said Hurford, of the Division of Water Resources.

He said some reservoirs aren’t currently filling as fast as normal because some streams above them are dry.

If a drought continues into next spring, resulting in both reduced natural flows and less reservoir water, “there’s going to be less yield for farmers. The crops will suffer,” he said.

Even this year’s drought affected the ability of some people with junior water rights to be able to irrigate, he said.

“That leaves a lot of people high and dry who haven’t been used to that. The last time that happened was 10 years ago,” he said.

Mark Harris is a partner in the Grand Valley Farms corn-growing operation in Mesa County. Even with good water rights, mostly coming out of the Grand Valley Canal system, he worries that those rights could be affected if the drought continues and there’s simply not enough water available.

“Right now we’re planning on raising a full crop but kind of making provisions for what we would do if we had to limit the acres that we farm based on water availability. It’s kind of a scary prospect,” he said.

Such a prospect is difficult to plan for when Grand Valley Farms is forward-contracting its corn and having to make decisions on things such as purchasing fertilizer and seed.

“It adds a level of uncertainty that we have not had to deal with in the past. It’s kind of a new phenomenon,” he said.

If the drought continues, Harris also wonders how municipal water needs will be met, and whether there will be attempts to change Colorado water law as domestic, agricultural and other water interests clash.

Planning for the worst

Grand Valley domestic water providers have been working hard to plan for shortages and be able to continue to meet their customers’ needs.

The 2002 drought led to the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Clifton, Palisade and Grand Junction water utilities developing a drought response plan. That prompted the implementation this year of voluntary water restrictions that remain in place.

Despite that, Ute Water temporarily saw an increase in water use as irrigation company restrictions and warm and dry conditions caused residents to use more domestic water for irrigating, said Ute Water spokesman Joseph Burtard.

That higher use dropped off after residents received bills based on exponentially higher rates for increased use.

Ute Water has a range of water sources, including 31 reservoirs on the Grand Mesa and a backup source on the Colorado River. Its two main sources of raw water storage, the Jerry Creek 1 and 2 reservoirs on the Grand Mesa, remain full, but Burtard said that’s because Ute Water has juggled other water rights and utilized its water portfolio in a way it’s never had to before.

“We were looking at our portfolio with a completely different perspective this year,” he said.

An average snowpack this winter would prevent the need to move to Stage 2, mandatory water restrictions with higher, drought rates next summer, Burtard said. But Ute Water and other Grand Valley water entities are preparing for the possibility that the drought may continue and Stage 2 measures might be required next summer, something they would agree to do jointly if the measures are needed.

For now, though, water-watchers know that with winter still getting underway, a few major storms can ease many of their concerns.

“It’s still early. Keep our fingers crossed,” said Hultstrand, the snow surveyor. “Really, we’ve just got to hope for snow this year.”


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