Water official gives grim drought report


Extra water not available for endangered fish

A low snowpack means no enhanced spring peak flows for endangered fish in the Colorado River upstream of Grand Junction this year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that a voluntary program to boost river flows to benefit the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker won’t take place because currents wouldn’t approach levels that would help the fish.

The Coordinated Reservoir Operations Program involves operators of the Dillon, Green Mountain, Williams Fork, Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs. It was established in 1995 as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program in order to pass on reservoir surplus in years of above-average snowpack.

The goal of enhanced flows is to fill river shallows that are critical spawning habitat for the fish, while not causing flooding.

However, with below-average snowpack this year, most basin reservoirs aren’t expected to fill this spring, and streamflows are predicted to remain well below the coordinated operations target threshold of 12,900 cubic feet per second in the river near Grand Junction.  — Sentinel staff

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ­— Northwest Colorado has become a region of severe drought during the past month, a state water official said Wednesday.

Based on that and other indicators such as surface water supply levels, a task force has asked Gov. John Hickenlooper to elevate the response level for the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa/White river basins under Colorado’s drought response plan.

Veva Deheza, manager of the Colorado Water Conservation Board Office of Water Conservation and Drought Planning, gave an update on state drought conditions at a board meeting in Glenwood Wednesday.

The data she presented reflected not only the worst Colorado snowpack conditions in the last decade, but a forecast of continuing below-average precipitation in northwest Colorado through July.

Temperatures are expected to be hotter than normal statewide during that same time frame, after also having been above average in April and early May.

“This is pretty shocking,” Deheza said in showing the board a graphic depicting temperatures in some places as much as 6 to 10 degrees above normal over the past month, particularly in eastern Colorado.

Snowpacks in many basins reached their peak as much as six weeks ahead of normal, in some cases by March 2, Deheza said.

Some river basins, including the Colorado and Yampa/White River, had average snowpacks in early May that were even lower than during the 2002 drought year. Daily flows into Blue Mesa Reservoir and Lake Powell are close to minimum levels for this time of year.

However, Deheza noted that State Climatologist Nolan Doesken has said Colorado is transitioning out of a La Niña weather cycle.

“What that means is you’re transitioning toward normal or toward an El Niño. The question is how far are we going?” she said.

While there can be differences from basin to basin, Deheza said Colorado is typically drier during La Niña than during El Niño weather patterns.

A new state drought plan enacted in 2010 provides for three response phases to droughts. Deheza said the difference between the first two phases involves the amount of monitoring that occurs. Under the third phase, which Deheza said might involve situations such as communities facing the prospect of running out of water, the governor issues an official drought declaration.

The San Luis Valley also is in a severe drought, and a Phase 2 response has been in place there and for southeast Colorado for the last year.

Deheza said that besides boosting monitoring, a Phase 2 response entails the CWCB coordinating with Farm Service Agency officials to determine if counties will be requesting a federal disaster declaration that could make financial assistance available to farmers and ranchers. The CWCB is “talking to folks on the ground” to make sure farmers and ranchers have the resources they need, and also will be coordinating with the Colorado Tourism Office to consider how industries like rafting and fishing might be affected.

“We’re quantifying those impacts, we’re tracking those impacts, we’ve got communication pathways set up,” she said.


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