Remember when it rained mud?
April showers may bring May flowers, but this year they also brought dust storms that smudged your windows and turned skies rust-red.
The layers of dust, along with higher than normal temperatures, are combining to make the winter’s snowpack disappear faster than your 401(k).
High winds lifting dust from the red-rock canyon country of eastern Utah and dropping that load on the Colorado mountains occurred at least 12 times this spring, according to a report issued by Chris Landry, director of the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
Also contributing to the report were hydrologists Andy Barrett of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado and Tom Painter from the University of Utah.
Barrett said the runoff is being affected by a combination of factors, including the heavy dust layer in the surface and upper layers of snow, clear days and warm temperatures.
For example, the high Monday in Grand Junction was 86 degrees, 13 degrees above the average high of 73.
The effect of what the reports calls“remarkable conditions” is a faster-than-normal runoff exacerbated by the dust, which increases the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the snow.
“The timing of the warm temperatures, the dust coming to the surface and the clear skies is really kicking off the runoff and increasing the rate at which the snow is melting,” Barrett said. “We are prepared to see some very high flows at some of the (stream monitoring) stations.”
In the report, Landry wrote, “Direct absorption of solar energy by that unprecedentedly dirty surface, reinforced by higher than average air temperatures, may result in a prolonged and early snowmelt surge.”
While the promise of high water means thrills for rafters and boaters, there are other considerations.
Tuesday morning the National Weather Service in Grand Junction issued a flood advisory for the Elk River near Milner west of Steamboat Springs.
The Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction keeps close tabs on the runoff, monitoring inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir and balancing how that water is released with the multitude of needs from power producers and water users downstream concerned about having enough water for the summer irrigation season.
The regional bureau office in Salt Lake City doesn’t have any computer models that provide information on how dust layers affect runoff, officials said.
However, a recent reading of Landry’s reports provoked enough interest that some of this year’s peak-flow forecasts were changed to account for more water earlier than expected.
“We don’t have an equation or model to take (dust storms) into account other than anecdotal information,” said Dan Crabtree, lead hydrologist for the bureau’s Grand Junction office.
After reading Landry’s latest update on snow conditions, the local officials “bumped our peak forecasts up about a week,” Crabtree said.
Knowing when to expect high water helps the bureau meet several demands, including the recently designated water right through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Some environmental groups are quick to say this year’s high flows are due to the settlement of a long-standing lawsuit, but it’s not the legality that is causing more water to flow this year through the Gunnison River. It’s Mother Nature.
The water right, had it been in effect last year, also would have been met by the rush of spring runoff, bureau officials noted.
“It’s a balancing act, trying to make good, efficient use of the water to meet the multitude of demands,” said Ed Warner, resources division manager for the bureau in Grand Junction.
The Gunnison flows shot off like the Space Shuttle on Tuesday when Crystal Reservoir spilled and raised the Gunnison by 2,000 cubic feet per second over several hours.
The bureau is keeping a watchful eye on river levels near Delta, where local residents get nervous about flooding when the river nears 10,000 cfs. As of Tuesday afternoon, flows near Delta were measured at 8,440 cfs. The flows could last through today, bureau hydrologist Eric Knight said.
“I would guess (Crystal Reservoir) should spill through Friday and maybe through the weekend,” Knight said.
The flows from Crystal are being augmented by the spilling of Silverjack Reservoir on the Cimarron River.