Drought Watch 2012: Low snowpack, high temperatures to blame | SummitDaily.com

Drought Watch 2012: Low snowpack, high temperatures to blame

Troy Wineland
Water Commissioner,
Division 5, District 36

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles that the Summit Daily will run over the summer to keep the community informed about ongoing drought conditions in the county.

“Uncharted territory.” “Driest year on record!” “Seeing things that have never occurred before.”

These were the headlines and quotes in 2002, the last time we experienced conditions comparable to those we are witnessing today.

Uncharted… The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Green Mountain Reservoir, placed its “start of fill” call on April 1, the earliest it has ever placed this call. Its basis? Even assuming above average precipitation this summer, which is not in the forecast, Green Mountain will fall 20+ feet shy of filling this year. This equates to a 40,000-acre-foot shortfall in wet water storage.

Driest year… The entire state is experiencing drought conditions to a varying degree, from abnormally dry to extreme drought. Summit County is under severe drought and will remain there, or worsen, absent substantial precipitation.

Never occurred before… My conversations with ranchers revealed a mutual consternation. Not one of them can recall an earlier or drier spring. Headgates were opened weeks early and they are struggling to capture a fraction of what they typically divert.

Snowpack in the Blue River Basin peaked at about 85 percent of average on March 1. Since then, high winds and warmer temperatures (literally) vaporized an already deficient snowpack to 9 percent of average as of May 15. Less snow and warmer temperatures translate to earlier and severely diminished spring runoff. Basins that reach their prime in June or July achieved an unremarkable “blip” six to 10 weeks earlier than average. At present, all the principal water courses within the county are flowing less than 33 percent of average (several are less than 20 percent) with a few of the streams already breaking record low flows.

If your water rights are junior to Green Mountain’s 1935 date, and you have no augmentation water, you are out of priority and cannot legally divert water. If you hold water rights that are senior to Green Mountain (pre-1935) or you have augmentation water, your diversions may not exceed your decreed amount. For those who have an exempt well without augmentation water, your water use is limited to in-house use only (meaning: absolutely no outside water use).

“We’re in better shape than we were in 2002, we don’t need to worry!”

This statement is short-sighted and misinformed. We live in a semi-arid environment. Year-to-year variability of Colorado’s snowpack is the norm, not the exception. Current demands on water in Colorado are barely tenable given average precipitation. One subsequent winter/spring like this and our worries are sure to blossom.

Look for this column every Monday throughout the summer. Articles will focus on drought, water conservation and the perspectives/realities of water management in Summit County.

You can also anticipate a countywide outreach effort requesting voluntary water conservation in the near future. I urge everyone to join together in establishing a new benchmark for resourcefulness, and creativity while navigating these uncharted waters.

Due to drought conditions in the Blue River watershed, water providers in Summit County are implementing increased levels of water conservation. Please go to your water provider’s website to see how these changes will affect you. For additional water conservation tips visit: http://www.blueriverwatershed.org.

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