Gunnison County 75% drought free, snow forecast is unclear

Spring needs to come in wet to maintain upswing

By Katherine Nettles

Despite strong and consistent precipitation for recreationalists in the North Valley this winter, the past two months haven’t been all powder days and deep snowpack across the Gunnison River Basin. According to preliminary measurements, reservoirs may fill up more than last year but only if spring brings those snow (and rain) showers.

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) reports that snowpack levels stagnated and in some cases even declined during February, and forecasts for spring are not yet clear on precipitation outlooks.

During a recent update to Gunnison County, UGRWCD senior water resource specialist Beverly Richards reviewed the basin’s snowpack for the year and pending forecasts. She said the drought conditions assessment as of February 21 showed that a good portion of Gunnison County—75% in fact—was drought free. And the remaining 25% was classified as being in abnormally dry conditions. Richards said most of the Western Slope is also experiencing no drought conditions.

“So that is a good thing. And that soil moisture will be a good thing for winter runoff starts this year,” she said. That change in drought conditions happened in just about five months, starting in September. 

The last time the entire county was considered free of drought conditions was 2019.  Richards said that unfortunately, the long-term outlook for drought conditions in the basin could return to extreme and exceptional drought, but “the majority of the county is forecasted to remain in no drought conditions.” 

Over the past 30 days, Richards reported that Crested Butte’s consistent snow showers did not translate to the overall county, which did not receive a whole lot of precipitation in general.

“That is a bad sign, because all the snow we had in January. February was starting to dry out a little bit, and this is what happened last year,” recalled Richards, tracing the dry and windy spring weather events that led to early summer droughts.

She said hopefully continued precipitation this month will help, but forecasts for the next three months have not been pinned down to either above or below normal.

“Hopefully in the next few weeks, they will have more information on that,” she said.

Reservoir storage over the entire Gunnison River Basin is at 55% of average, having held steady since November. The upper Gunnison Basin is at 48% of average. The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) was projecting as of February 8 that inflow to Blue Mesa during the runoff season, which is considered April through July, is going to be 6,005 acre feet and the end of water year content will be at 72% of average. “Which would be great considering we’re at 36% now,” said Richards. “But that could really change as we go through February [tallies] and March.”

The Upper Colorado River overall reservoir storage amounts are at 52% of average, having gone down since October.  

Richards reported that cloud seeding has been a strong program this winter, and through the end of January, there were over 400 hours of cloud seeding generator hours. That includes the new Black Mesa remote generator that came online this winter, and the other remote generator at Lake Irwin. Total snow water equivalent (SWE) for the upper Gunnison Basin was 9.8” as of January, and as of the end of February the SWE was 120% of average with total precipitation at 121% of average, down from about 150% in January.

Speaking of water, as people start considering spring and their lawn watering needs, UGRWCD general manager Sonja Chavez said that a new turf replacement program is now in place across the district. While homeowner associations cannot apply to be a part of the program directly, municipalities, counties and conservancy districts can channel involvement, and the district is ready to partner in bringing the program forward alongside local government.

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