Water experts don’t expect area reservoirs to fill

Water shortages could occur without a rainy spring

By Alissa Johnson

The forecast for area reservoirs has been updated to reflect current conditions, and unless spring brings precipitation, there could be water shortages come late summer. The good news, as often seems to be the case, is that it’s still early.

According to Frank Kugel, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, snow pack continues to be variable across the region. As of Monday, April 11, the snow water content at the Schofield SNOTEL (snow telemetry) site was at 77 percent of normal and the Butte SNOTEL, which is on Crested Butte Mountain, was at 91 percent of normal.

“It is surprising to have that much difference in that close of an area,” Kugel said. “This year perhaps more than most years [has been variable] because storms have been very localized.”

Kugel said that the only Gunnison Basin SNOTEL site at normal levels is on Grand Mesa. Of the five sites the conservancy district tracks, Schofield is the lowest.

Data provided by the Gothic Weather page also demonstrates some of the variability. The winter’s total snowfall is 30 percent below average, and the current snowpack is 38 percent below average. Comparing this winter to the past, it comes in 35th out of 42 years of data collection.

“We were at 28 inches [of snow] on the ground this morning,” said billie barr, business manager at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory on Wednesday. The average for this time of year is mid-50s, and warm temperatures are accelerating snowmelt. According to barr, there were three record highs in the last week and one record for highest low.

“It’s so variable this time of year and [snowmelt ] is going really quickly now because the snow is softening up,” barr said.

Southern hillsides are bare, which accelerates snowmelt because the snowpack melts from the bare points out and any new snow melts faster in those places. barr also said that the East River is starting to open up and flow.

As of Monday, Kugel said inflow rates into Taylor Reservoir were at 73 percent of normal and inflow rates into Blue Mesa were at 68 percent of normal. Looking at what conditions mean for water supplies, however, requires more data. Forecasters also consider soil moisture—particularly as it is impacted by precipitation last fall.

“If the moisture we receive going into winter months is a dry period, the soil is dryer so runoff goes into ground rather than flowing into reservoirs,” Kugel said.

Forecasts from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center project that Blue Mesa Reservoir will be 76 percent of normal, or 515,000 acre feet, and Taylor Reservoir will be at 77 percent of normal, or 76,000 acre feet.

“It is looking more and more like we have the potential for shortages this year—especially late summer flows are likely to be lower than average,” Kugel said.

“It’s a bit early to project that and one only has to look back to last year to see how grim things looked this time last year and then it rained for six weeks straight and snowed in the high country,” he continued.

The short-term weather forecast does hold promise for moisture. In the meantime, the Taylor River User Group will meet on April 20 to discuss outflow rates from Taylor Reservoir to balance fill projects with recreation and irrigation needs along the river.

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