ALAMOSA — While firefighters fought wind-whipped area fires on Tuesday, water leaders received news that conditions will not be improving in the future.
The Rio Grande Basin snowpack dropped from 42 percent of average last week to 37 percent of average by Tuesday, normal precipitation is not expected until August, wildlife refuges are bracing for reduced nesting areas and the dunes logged record low precipitation, which does not bode well for Medano Creek flowing during tourist season.
Pat McDermott, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3, told the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday that moisture levels were disappointing in March and abysmal in April. “We’ve got to get some May snow.”
Forecasted flows are not encouraging, with Platoro one of the higher predictions at 59 percent of average and Sangre de Cristo Creek one of the lowest at 15 percent. Last year Trinchera had a nice snowpack, which resulted in water in Mountain Home Reservoir, but this year the forecasted flow for Trinchera is 29 percent.
McDermott reported that there are very few Snotel sites still reporting on the east side of the basin along the Sangre de Cristo range. Medano, for example, is dry, Trinchera and Ute Creek are also dry, and Culebra only has 1.5 inches of water level.
Fred Bunch, reporting for the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, said the Snotel max was 1.4 inches, the driest since measurements began, and unless there is more precipitation soon, “We are not going to have much of a creek.” Last year, by comparison, the creek ran all year and even flowed during the wintertime up until this February, Bunch said.
“We’re looking at a pretty dry summer,” Bunch said. “That’s unfortunate because that’s a big draw for the visitors. They come and play in the creek.”
Sharon Vaughn, project leader for the SLV National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said the refuges would be managed as if experiencing a natural drought cycle, with water focused on priority areas such as the nesting area for white ibis. The Monte Vista refuge contains the largest nesting area for white ibis in the state.
Vaughn added that other areas on the Monte Vista refuge would be allowed to dry up, which is significant since “historically we had the highest percentage of nesting waterfowl in North America.”
The Alamosa and Baca refuges will also focus on priorities, Vaughn said. She said worse than not providing any water at all would be to provide water for waterfowl nesting but not enough for brood habitat.
McDermott said although this year is going to be below normal on river flows, it is still not as bad as drought levels from 2002 and 1977. For example, the forecasted flow for the Rio Grande this year is 300,000 acre feet, or about 46 percent of the long-term average, but in 1977 the river only produced 215,000 acre feet. The Conejos River system is forecasted to produce 140,000 acre feet this year, which is 44 percent of the long-term average, but in 1977 it only produced 99,000 acre feet and in 2002 only 65,000 acre feet.
The bright side is that no curtailments will be required during the irrigation season to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states.