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Pilot project will aid stream flow predictions

Posted: Thursday, Jul 11th, 2013

Courier editor

VALLEY — A pilot stream flow forecasting project in Conejos County could have ramifications throughout the basin and the state.

The state water board, Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), is so interested in how the project will affect stream flow forecasts in the future it is willing to put $215,000 into it.

The local basin-wide water group, the Rio Grande Roundtable, on Tuesday unanimously approved the Conejos Water Conservancy’s $237,000 request for basin and statewide funding: $200,000 from statewide funds and $37,000 from basin-allocated funds. The conservancy district is taking the lead in sponsoring the project.

The total project cost is about half a million dollars with funds coming from state and local water grants, the CWCB match, local match and other grant funds.

Conejos Water Conservancy Manager Nathan Coombs and Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson said this project would provide more information to the Colorado Division of Water Resources and others to more accurately predict stream flows. The project will ultimately assist area irrigators as well because it will improve management of the Valley’s river systems. If the project is successful here, it will likely be installed in other parts of the state.

Joe Busto, with the CWCB Watershed Protection & Flood Mitigation Program, said improved forecasting translates to real dollars for irrigators. Improved forecasts assist the state in better managing water resources, which is even more critical in times of drought. Busto said this type of project is a high priority for the state.

Currently there are gaps in this basin and others where snowfall data is lacking.

“Every single basin said ‘we have problems’,” Busto said. “Can we find a new way to do business … get more accurate input to all the watersheds.”

He added, “how do you get into the 21st century is the goal.”

The project would use radar mounted by Red Mountain west of La Jara Reservoir to collect more information about snowfall and snowmelt. Busto said SNODAS (Snow Data Assimilation System) spatial modeling provides 100,000 data points in Colorado, with 4,000 of those in the Rio Grande Basin. The radar data will enhance those data points, he explained.

“Let’s bring in radar to get better coverage,” he said. “This is the complete coverage final answer.”

The pilot project will focus on the watershed in Conejos and integrate radar data with other forms of snowfall measurements and modeling systems. Complete coverage for the basin would require radar on the top of Bristol Head and in Center, Busto explained. That could be a long-term goal but would be more complicated to install. Busto said the Conejos watershed is simpler, so it is a good place to test this out.

The pilot will run seven months, he added, with the radar installed in November.

CWCB Board Member Travis Smith, who represents the Rio Grande Basin at the statewide level, said this project has been contemplated for some time, and he wanted to see it go forward.

David Gochis, National Center for Atmospheric Research, said additional measurements are needed on the ground to verify how well the radar is working. If the radar is validated, it would prompt more confidence in applying the radar precipitation estimates elsewhere, Gochis said.

He said a SNOTEL site is currently located at Lily Pond, and the state has survey sites at Platoro and a couple more sites further west, but additional measurement instruments are needed to verify that the information the radar is providing is correct. One obstacle to installing more measurement instruments is the wilderness boundary, Gochis said, because instruments cannot be placed in the wilderness area. They could be clustered around Platoro, however, he said.

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