Lean winter snowfall could mean coming summer water restrictions

Your lawn might not be green this summer…but you could win a trip to Garlic Mike’s

[ by Mark Reaman ]

Lack of snow this ski season will have longer and more serious impacts than just having to repair the bottoms of your skis from hitting too many rocks. The lean snowfall on top of a very dry year in 2020 may foreshadow coming water restrictions for the area.

“We are beginning to talk about how best to message the need for people to conserve water in the coming year,” said Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general manager Sonja Chavez. “We are contacting municipalities in the county, mayors and managers, to talk about how best to convey the message around drought awareness and preparing our public for the potential for watering restrictions this summer and having Gunnison possibly delay opening its ditches as they did in 2013. Everyone will be asked to cut back on water consumption, especially in the summer when we experience high water use associated with agricultural, lawn irrigation and municipal uses associated with tourism. The bottom line is that we are in an extreme drought and right now it would take a lot of snow to catch up and get our reservoirs to where they need to be to feel at all comfortable.”

Despite a few snowstorms across the state including here in the past week, most of Colorado and Gunnison County is listed as being under extreme or exceptional drought conditions. Statistics show that this is the sixth driest year in 127 years of record for Gunnison County, and we are 6.46 inches from normal precipitation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration earlier this month reported that combined average annual precipitation last year in Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico was the second lowest on record and the lowest since 1956.

The drought is relatively uniform across the southwest United States and that is making water managers worried as Lake Powell and Lake Mead are not filling. Both are currently at under 45 percent capacity and could drop to 35 percent. This could trigger regional restrictions to keep water flowing into those reservoirs that ultimately are used to generate hydro-electricity for millions of users.

Reservoir storage in the Gunnison River Basin is currently at 77-percent of average, compared to 104 percent average for January 1 at the same time last year. Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently less than half full while the Taylor Reservoir is at about 62 percent and is projected to only fill to 85 percent of capacity at its peak this coming spring. In addition, the Uncompahgre Valley has been in an extreme drought, which impacts our basin as well.

“Given the long-range forecast we don’t see it getting much better,” said Chavez. “We are in a major drought and that will have a huge impact on our ranchers and their hay production. The ranchers are expressing concern that like last summer they won’t get two (hay) cuttings this year. Some are cutting the size of their herds. Everyone is adjusting and looking at how best to keep the soil healthy.”

Chavez said that 2013 was a similar drought year and that is when the UGRWCD purchased water from the Aspinall reservoir system to forestall a Gunnison Tunnel call which would have impacted all junior water users in the Upper Gunnison Basin. She described the move as a sort of insurance policy and one that could be repeated this year. The district is prepared to make such a purchase in case it is needed.

Chavez indicated the basin would need to get close to 150 percent of average in terms of snowfall by the end of the season to come close to normal. Given the current shortage, that is pretty unlikely but not impossible.

“We have seen big snow at the end of the winter before and we could use it again,” she concluded. “But it will take more than just one year of good precipitation to catch up as the first meter of our soils are incredibly dry. We are looking to our community to voluntarily pitch in to help support our water values and share our limited supply. To launch our community drought campaign, we are offering a $100 gift certificate to Garlic Mike’s to the individual or group that can come up with the best drought slogan. We all need to be aware of what the drought means to us.”

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