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Rains boost flows

Posted: Wednesday, Aug 14th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Recent rains increased the annual forecast for the Rio Grande — and the amount of water obligated to downstream states.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten told members of the Rio Grande Roundtable yesterday the forecast on the Rio Grande increased from 315,000 acre feet to 340,000 acre feet and may increase further if the rains keep up.

“We have had some significant rains lately and that’s increased our flow on the river and streams a fair amount,” he said. “We are actually going up with our forecast on the Rio Grande … That might not even be high enough with the amount of rains we have been getting.”

The three-month weather forecast for this area has also changed to reflect more moisture according to Cotten who said this basin is now on the edge of the above-average precipitation range.

He added the obligation to downstream states under the Rio Grande Compact also increased with the increased flow. He explained that the compact does not require the obligation to be delivered at any specific time, and without large reservoirs to store water in until it makes the most sense to release it, water is released on a daily basis. When flow predictions change, it is more difficult to alter the downstream flow one way or another.

For example, at this stage in the calendar year, the more water the basin receives in the Rio Grande from the rains, the higher percentage it will have to send downstream to meet compact obligations to New Mexico and Texas.

As a result the curtailment on the Rio Grande is now about 7 percent.

The curtailment on Conejos River system irrigators is 0, however, which it has been throughout the entire irrigation season because the Conejos has already over-delivered on its obligation to downstream states.

Cotten said the over-delivery on the Conejos is about 10,000 acre feet, even with no deliveries on that system since the first of April.

Since the Rio Grande will probably under-deliver, not making its obligation this year by 2,000-3,000 acre feet, some of the surplus from the Conejos will probably be used to balance that out, Cotten explained.

His office is trying to avoid storing very much credit water in the compact reservoir storage at Elephant Butte in New Mexico because the evaporation there is so high, probably creating a loss of 15-20 percent. He said the New Mexico reservoir only has about 80,000 acre feet in it right now, which is a small fraction of its 2.2-million acre-foot capacity.

As an outgrowth of the West Fork Complex Fire, there are currently more tools in place to see how much moisture the basin is receiving and how much more water is coming downstream.

Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT) Coordinator Tom Spezze told the Roundtable six rain gauges and four new stream gauges have been installed to monitor the burned area so when the stream rises above normal levels the public can be alerted to the threat of flooding. Public safety has the been the first priority of the RWEACT group, which developed into an organization with a web site, Facebook page and twitter feed since its inception six weeks ago.

In addition to the additional gauges, spotters are in place to alert the team of rains in the West Fork Complex Fire area, and a Doppler Radar system has been installed at Bristol Head to provide storm information in real time. That system will be in place for 40 days.

Spezze said all of the tools in place now provide a way for the team to alert the public quickly of flooding threats resulting from the burned-off areas.

He added that flooding threats could exist into the fall, because the area can experience some of its heaviest rains in October.

Spezze and roundtable members involved with RWEACT commended the agencies and individuals for organizing this post-fire effort so rapidly and efficiently. Protocols are in place, for example, for the public to be alerted to danger as soon as the threat is known. Team members said the participants in RWEACT are working very well together to coordinate efforts ranging from the identification of natural resources most affected by the fire to the dissemination of information to the public.

RWEACT and Roundtable member Heather Dutton is part of the natural resources sub committee. She has worked closely with the Forest Service team in determining areas requiring immediate attention such as culvert replacement or closures to the public for safety reasons. Post-fire efforts must be coordinated closely with the Forest Service since all but about 700 acres of the 81,000-acre fire were on forest land.

Dutton said even though the river downstream from the fire is running black, it does not appear to be toxic.

Congressmen Scott Tipton and Mark Udall have recently visited the burn area, and Governor John Hickenlooper is scheduled to be in the Del Norte area this afternoon. He is scheduled to be at the Rio Grande County courthouse in Del Norte at 2:45 p.m.

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