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SLV water outlook is dry and draining

Posted: Wednesday, Jun 12th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Current water conditions in the Rio Grande Basin are not the worst they’ve ever been — but close.

“We are in trouble,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Staff Engineer Pat McDermott told members of the Rio Grande Roundtable yesterday.

He said runoff peaks in other parts of the state were about the third week of May. The Rio Grande Basin peaked in March.

Of 10 SNOTEL (SNOwpack TELemetry) basin sites only one still had snow at the end of May, he said.

While the majority of the state enjoyed late spring snows boosting snowpack levels, the entire Rio Grande Basin languished at less than 50 percent of normal runoff.

The June 1st forecast for the Rio Grande is only 300,000 acre feet, or 46 percent of the long-term average. Last year’s streamflow on the Rio Grande was 406,000 acre feet, and that was not a stellar year. A normal year would run 620,000 acre feet.

That 300,000-acre-foot forecast puts 2013 as the fourth worst year on record, as long as records have been kept since 1890. The drought year of 2002 was the worst year with only 154,000 acre feet on the Rio Grande, 1902 the second worst year with 210,000 acre feet and 1977 the third worst year with 215,000 acre feet, “and now here we are on the Rio Grande with the fourth worst year ever,” McDermott said.

The only positive thing about not having much water is the obligation to downstream states is practically nil. McDermott said of the predicted 300,000 acre feet on the Rio Grande, only 75,000 acre feet will be required by the Rio Grande Compact to be sent downstream to New Mexico and Texas. That translates to a mere 4-percent delivery obligation during the irrigation season.

On the Conejos River system, the current obligation is zero because Colorado will have no trouble meeting its obligation to the compact during the winter months after the irrigation season, McDermott explained. In fact, the Conejos will probably over-deliver water downstream this year.

The forecast for the Conejos River system is currently 130,000 acre feet or 40 percent of the long-term average. Last year’s annual flow was 175,000 acre feet. Of the 130,000 acre feet, the Conejos system owes 12,000 acre feet to downstream states through the Rio Grande Compact. That requires zero curtailments during the irrigation season, and Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten will likely extend the irrigation season on the Conejos well into December because no additional water will be required to go downstream in the winter months, McDermott explained.

Not that the downstream states couldn’t use additional water. The Elephant Butte Reservoir, the Rio Grande Compact’s main storage reservoir in New Mexico, has less than one-tenth its total capacity in storage right now. The reservoir can hold about 2 million acre feet and currently has 187,000 acre feet in storage.

“This is a puddle, guys,” McDermott said.

He added that from looking at the National Weather Service forecasts, it does not appear the San Luis Valley will get much relief for many more months to come.

“Let’s hope for a great Thanksgiving and great snowfall,” he concluded.

Forecasting future

Not able to create more moisture but hopefully make better use of the Valley’s water was a proposal for future funding to help improve snowpack and streamflow forecasting. The Conejos Water Conservancy District is taking the lead on a pilot project to improve forecasting in the Rio Grande Basin. The Colorado Water Conservation Board believes so much in its potential it has preapproved $215,000 towards the $544,000 project.

Conejos Water Conservancy District Manager Nathan Coombs said his district would also be seeking $237,000 from state and basin water supply reserve accounts that along with some other funding will pay for this project.

Coombs will bring this request back to the July roundtable meeting for formal action.

Coombs said the pilot project would involve radar technology that would greatly complement the snow collection data sites already in place in the basin. The radar stations would provide 400 data points on the Conejos and 750 data points on the Rio Grande, Coombs explained.

Coombs said this pilot project was not intended to reflect any criticism on Cotten’s staff or his office but would help them in providing another tool for the forecasts and Rio Grande Compact deliveries.

“We will be able to update forecasts that Craig has to work with.”

Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe is on board with this project, Coombs said, and part of the project total will go towards additional modeling improvements on the Rio Grande Decision Support System.

Coombs said there are areas in the Valley where there is not a good way to measure what the runoff will be until it comes down the mountain, and by then forecasts and curtailments might have to be adjusted, at times at irrigators’ expense.

Retired Water Division Engineer Steve Vandiver, who now manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said the problem with forecasts is the unpredictability of the weather, and radar would not help that, but it would fill in some of the gaps where snow measuring sites do not currently exist.

“It just is the next step,” Vandiver said, “not a silver bullet but it will help.”

Travis Smith, who represents this basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said, “This is a bold step into the future.”

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