All is good, it might seem.
More rain forecast for the coming week, a continuation of a wet spring. Still plenty of snow in the high country. Predictions of average, not overly hot, temperatures for the summer. Expectations of a less hectic fire season. Depleted Colorado reservoirs expected to be mostly full in a few months. Irrigation water likely available late season.
What drought?, you might ask.
Let's not get too complacent. Despite snowpack being at the highest level in nearly a decade, that was the primary message this past week at the Colorado River District's "State of the River" session, co-sponsored by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.
One wet year does not end a drought. It's, to coin a phrase, just a few more drops in a far-from-full bucket. Our last good water year came eight years ago. Only in six of the last 35 years have we seen snowpack levels similar to what we're experiencing now.
As of last week, the SNOTEL survey by the National Resources Conservation Service pegged Colorado's snowpack at 155% of normal. In southwest Colorado, hardest hit by several years of drought, measurements ranged from 190% to 224% of average for this point in the season. In every river basin in the state, snowpack is above normal.
It takes more than one wet year to not only refill reservoirs but also recharge aquifers and return moisture in parched soils to normal levels. We'll likely see a depleted Blue Mesa reservoir fill to 95% of its capacity by mid-summer and storage in other high country reservoirs approach high water marks. Downstream, it's a different story.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the safety nets for Colorado River water users, helping smooth out the ups and downs of precipitation. Storage in Powell is the insurance policy for Colorado and other upper basin states, available water for meeting obligations to the Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico in dry years without curtailing uses upstream. Right now both major reservoirs are at about 40% of capacity.
All this upstream snowpack and rain is predicted to boost Powell to 47% of capacity by the end of the year, another three or four feet, but there'll still be plenty of the "bathtub ring" visible. It's been 36 years since Powell was full. It's not likely it'll ever fill again.
There's still some squabbling going on between California water districts, but the seven states dependent upon Colorado River water earlier this year reached agreement on an updated management plan that honors the 1922 Colorado River Compact but provides flexibility in meeting needs and obligations.
Colorado's drought management hopes are contained in the Colorado Water Plan years in the making via discussions in each of the river basins. In the just completed legislative session, lawmakers trimmed Governor Polis' $30 million funding request for initial work down to $10 million and bet on voter approval of sports gambling to provide long-term funding for implementation of the plan. Whether that's a safe bet or a long shot remains to be seen.
There's another long-term consideration rarely discussed when water is the topic on both sides of the Rockies here in Colorado and in the other six states that depend on already over-allocated Colorado River water.
That's the issue of capacity — not of our reservoirs, streams and ditches but instead how many people our lands and waters can reasonably support long term. All the steps leading up to the inevitable breaking point brought on by rapidly increasing populations are merely markers along the road to harder decisions that will ultimately become unavoidable.
How we handle long-term water needs impacts every imaginable level of society. In our homes, we expect to turn on the tap and see water flow. Industries important to our economy such as manufacturing, oil and gas, and agriculture would wither and die without assurances of a dependable long-term water supply. Much of our outdoor recreation depends on reliable flows in our streams and rivers and adequate moisture to sustain public lands and wildlife.
One good year does not lessen the urgency of meeting our long-term water challenges.
Jim Spehar learned which end of the shovel went in the ditch out on 21 Road and later represented western Colorado municipalities on the board of directors of the Colorado Water Congress. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.