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Snowpack below average

Posted: Thursday, Dec 13th, 2012

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — In order to get to an average snowpack this winter, the Rio Grande Basin will need 134 percent of average moisture from now on.

The snowpack for the basin, encompassing the San Luis Valley, currently sits at 31 percent of normal and is actually below the 2002 drought levels for this time of year, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten told attendees of the Rio Grande Roundtable on Tuesday.

“It’s not looking real good,” he said.

However, he said it is early in the season, and the basin could see some moisture during the next few months.

“We aren’t starting off very well.”

The National Weather Service forecast for January through March gives the basin equal chances of average precipitation but above average temperatures.

“That’s not going to help a whole lot either,” Cotten said.

As far as meeting its obligations to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact this year, the water division accomplished its goals, Cotten said. The Rio Grande will end the year with about 1,000 acre feet under and the Conejos River system will end with about 10,000 acre feet over delivered. Most of the 32,500 acre feet owed of the Conejos River system’s 175,000 acre feet flow this year was delivered by the end of April, Cotten explained.

The Rio Grande owed about 100,200 acre feet downstream, or 25 percent of its 408,000 acre feet flow, which was about 63 percent of the long-term average.

The over-delivery on the Conejos River system this year puts Colorado at an advantage with downstream states, Cotten explained, because it gives the state the option of relinquishing that credit water to Texas in exchange for storing water in post-compact reservoirs in Colorado. The crucial reservoir for the Conejos is Platoro, Cotten said, which has not been allowed to store water since the Rio Grande Compact reservoirs in New Mexico, namely Elephant Butte, have been so low this year, kicking in a Rio Grande Compact provision prohibiting storage in post-compact reservoirs.

The compact storage reservoirs of Elephant Butte and Caballo in New Mexico currently contain only 140,000 acre feet. They can hold 2.2 million acre feet. When their levels dip below 400,000 acre feet, the post-compact reservoir storage prohibition provision kicks in. That has been the case for some time.

Cotten touched on some ongoing legal matters with the compact states. New Mexico’s litigation with the Bureau of Reclamation regarding compact water storage and the authority over it is still ongoing, with not much recent movement in the case, Cotten said. Colorado is not a party in the case but is siding with the state of New Mexico.

However, Colorado might not be able to avoid potential litigation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a biological assessment regarding the silvery minnow, Cotten explained. The current agreement expires in March, and the federal agencies negotiating the new one are not getting along. Cotten predicted the Fish and Wildlife Service would be sued, which would drag the three states (Colorado, New Mexico and Texas) of the Rio Grande Compact into the mess.

He added people in New Mexico are looking everywhere for enough water to literally keep the endangered silvery minnow afloat, and that will probably include water resources upstream in Colorado.

Colorado will host the Rio Grande Compact annual meeting on March 21 in Alamosa.

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