Basin drought persists

ALAMOSA — Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer for Division 3 Craig Cotten this week reported on the condition of area creeks and rivers, which are running far below normal levels — or not at all.

“The most ugly is Ute Creek,” he told members of the Rio Grande Roundtable this week. “There’s no water in Ute Creek and hasn’t been for several weeks. It’s a pretty bad situation.”

Cotten said the eastern side of the San Luis Valley (Rio Grande Basin), the Sangre de Cristo side, has been worse than the west, the San Juans, this year. He said Ute Creek has not experienced a flow much above 10 cfs (cubic feet per second) since the runoff this year, and it is now 0 cfs.

Saguache Creek experienced a little bit of runoff early on but dropped off and hasn’t had much of a flow since the runoff, Cotten said. “It’s real close to ’02,” he said. The year 2002 was an historic drought year for the basin.

The Rio Grande is also experiencing low flows, Cotten said. As of Tuesday, the Rio Grande at Del Norte was flowing at 220 cfs, and the average this time of year is over 1,000 cfs. The river had actually risen by Tuesday, he added. It had been below 200 cfs a few days prior.

The annual forecasted flow for the Rio Grande is 300,000 acre feet, which is 46 percent of the long-term average. If the forecast holds, Cotten said, this will be the fourth lowest year for the Rio Grande in its 110 years of recorded history.

Of that amount, 75,000 acre feet must be delivered to downstream states to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations. Cotten said that obligation could be met with wintertime flows, so irrigators will not have to be curtailed during the irrigation season to meet the compact obligation.

Cotten said the snowpack was higher than the drought year of 2002, “but not a lot,” and it was lower than average by quite a bit “and melted out close to where it did in 2002.”

The annual forecasted flow for the Conejos River systems is 165,000 acre feet, or 44 percent of the average long-term average. That system will owe 27,500 acre feet as its compact obligation to New Mexico and Texas. That obligation can also easily be met with winter flows, according to Cotten. There are zero curtailments on the Conejos River at this time.

The Conejos River at Mogote experienced a higher runoff than 2002 by quite a bit but in the last few weeks is running close to ’02 levels, Cotten said.

Likewise, the Alamosa River above Terrace Reservoir had a decent runoff but then fell off hard.

Cotten had a piece of good news for the future, however. He said the precipitation forecast puts the basin right on the edge of above-average precipitation later this summer, so the basin could experience a good monsoon season, “and hopefully carry on through the wintertime.”