Water watch

Slade Connell, left, and Richard Overholt of Grand Junction take a core sample of the snowpack on Grand Mesa during a monthly survey. On this sample, the snow was 45 inches deep with a moisture content of 12 inches.

Slade Connell and Richard Overholt travel 45 miles on each monthly survey of the snowpack, sampling 10 areas.

A sign off Colorado Highway 65 near the De Beque cutoff in Plateau Creek canyon explains the area’s lasting drought.

A core sampler shows 45 inches of snow Friday near the Skyway trail head on Grand Mesa. Snows in Colorado’s high country in the past week did little to stoke optimism among people evaluating water.

The snows of late January amounted to cold comfort for water watchers worried that low snowpack so far this winter could translate to low river flows this summer.

Low river flows could then translate into restrictions on water use, beginning with rates designed to discourage long showers, spraying domestic water on lawns and gardens and other inefficient uses.

The Grand Valley’s major providers of domestic water — Clifton Water District, Grand Junction and Ute Water Conservancy District — will meet on Tuesday to continue preparations for the possibility, if not the likelihood, of a second consecutive dry summer.

“We’re on the cusp of making some decisions,” Grand Junction Public Works and Utilities Director Greg Trainor said.

The snows that pasted the Colorado high country in the last week did little to stoke optimism among water watchers.

Those snows “gave us a little bit of a bump,” said Erik Knight, hydrologist with the Grand Junction office of the Bureau of Reclamation. “It was about a 5 percent bump, but we were down 20 percent” from 2012, which was the worst drought year since 2002.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service paints a more worrisome picture, noting that the readings from its measuring sites in the Colorado River Basin high country show that moisture content lagged behind already low 2012 levels at the end of January.

Snowpack in the Gunnison River Basin just got back to last year’s snow levels, Knight said, meaning that the drought lingers on.

Northwest Colorado is now in a state of extreme drought — one step above “exceptional drought” — according to the Drought Monitor, which is a project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The U.S. Forest Service is girding for an active fire year, Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Daniel Jirón said.

“We’re expecting a challenging fire season,” said Jirón, who was fresh on the job when the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs broke out last summer.

Long-range weather forecasts for the region anticipate dry, warm weather — good for breaking down lower-valley inversions; long-term droughts, not so much.

That puts water managers in the Grand Valley in a spot. They’d like to know now what the future holds, but they’re also aware that the coming months are those in which the high country snags the heaviest of the winter snows.

The water providers are revising their joint drought response plan in anticipation of a dry summer, said Joe Burtard, chairman of the Drought Response Information Project and spokesman for Ute Water.

In the Grand Valley, Grand Junction and Ute Water both have reservoirs on Grand Mesa, insulating them somewhat from the effects of low snowpack in the surrounding mountains, but Clifton Water is supplied entirely by water from the Colorado River, effectively making its 13,700 residential and commercial customers the first ones to feel restrictions as the levels of the Colorado River slip.

Projections for the Colorado River are “still very bleak,” Clifton Water District General Manager Dale Tooker said after sitting in on a conference call with other water providers who depend on the Colorado for their water. Reservoirs that feed the mainstem of the Colorado above Grand Junction are on a track that would leave them 50 percent to 60 percent full, Tooker said.

“All of the Front Range communities are actively involved in drought planning,” Tooker said. “When that happens, we’re not necessarily going to follow suit, but if reservoir levels are down, we’ve got to consider instituting voluntary restrictions.”

That kind of step, however, can boomerang, as water suppliers learned last year. After calling for voluntary restrictions, water suppliers actually saw demand increase as customers made the most of water while they could.

Domestic water providers aren’t alone in casting wary eyes upstream on the Colorado.

Agricultural users also are watching, said Dick Proctor, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

Without the same kinds of water-management tools available to domestic suppliers and with fixed spots in the pecking order of water rights, options are limited.

“All we can do is the best we can with what we have when we get it,” Proctor said.

Grand Junction, with 10,000 customers, and Ute Water’s 80,000 consumers in 2012 remained insulated from dryness in the rest of the state, much as was the case in 2002, the previous low-water mark year for Colorado, because of their reservoirs on Grand Mesa, officials said.

Snowfall on Grand Junction’s measuring stations on the mesa at the end of 2012 was about 87 percent of normal, so the prospects for the city’s customers were considerably less dire, Trainor said.

The systems of all three major Grand Valley water suppliers, however, are interconnected, making it possible for them to supply each other’s customers if necessary.

That carries risks, however, because Ute Water, for instance, doesn’t necessarily account for supplying Clifton in its annual water-use projections.

“That’s why we have a combined drought-response plan,” Tooker said.


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