Water managers share bleak outlook

This photo taken last November by Erik Knight of the Bureau of Reclamation shows a much-depleted Blue Mesa Reservoir when the lake was close to 68 feet low. Water runoff forecasts for this year suggest a similar picture may develop this fall.

Call it gloom and doom, or simply an unvarnished look at the future, but there wasn’t much to smile about after Thursday’s meeting to discuss summer water supplies in the Gunnison, Uncompahgre and North Fork Valley river basins.

Every four months state and federal water managers gather to talk about water availability in the three adjacent regions, with attention focused on Blue Mesa Reservoir, the key impoundment in the area.

With the 2013 water year nearly three months old and last year’s drought conditions predicted to linger across western Colorado, indications are this year may wind up as one of the five-driest in nearly 40 years.

Summer water supplies rely on a healthy snowpack building throughout the winter, but October and November, which historically contribute about 25 percent of the year’s snowpack, saw little precipitation fall across the upper Gunnison Basin.

“There was not enough (precipitation) to get the snowpack started,” said hydrologist Erik Knight of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Precipitation picked up significantly in December but largely in the wrong places.

“December precipitation was 120 percent of average, but most of it was at lower elevations,” Knight said.

The higher watersheds, where snows accumulate to feed the summer irrigation season, received very little moisture.

“We were in a hole for the first two months” of the Nov. 1–Oct. 31 water year, Knight said.

And by January 1, “we hadn’t gained any ground,” he said.

Forecasters each year try to judge the expected inflow into Blue Mesa Reservoir during the peak runoff period of April through July to allow water users to make spring and summer irrigation plans.

The Jan. 1, 2012, runoff forecast called for 450,000 acre-feet of inflow, but “we ended up with 206,000 by end of July,” Knight said.

This year’s Jan. 1 forecast is less, calling for Blue Mesa Reservoir to receive 370,000 acre-feet by the end of July.

“It’s always hard to compare this year with history, but we could end up at 206,000 or less or more, but we’re still looking to be dry,” Knight said.

February through April historically are the snowiest months, but in 2011 the snowpack still was growing into May.

“That year was so late we had another three or four weeks of accumulation,” Knight said. “And then 2012 went the other way” when the snowpack started to fall in early April.

The real crunch comes at the May operations meeting, when more is known about the winter’s snowpack.

Still, the forecast puts 2013 up there (or down there) with the water-short years of 1977, 1981, 2002 and 2012.

No one at Thursday’s meeting expressed much hope the precipitation hole won’t just get deeper.

Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the long-term drought outlook for the Gunnison Basin has the region in extreme to severe drought conditions.

“There’s really not much good news,” he said.

Dave Kanzer, water resources engineer for the Colorado River Water District, said everyone should expect “a pretty challenging year.”

Knight said the upper Gunnison Basin would have to receive 138 percent of its average precipitation just to make average.

“Based on where we are today, this year is way behind” the pace set in 2002 and 2012, Knight said. He predicted if the Upper Gunnison Basin were to receive just the average amount of snow for the rest of the winter, “We’ll end up at 70–80 percent of average” snowpack.

Given the long-term moisture forecasts, “we might be happy just to get to average,” Knight said.


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