Better, but not great: Water experts discuss current river conditions

Though snowpack and other conditions look better than 2021, water experts are urging the public to remain mindful of water use

The Blue River is pictured on June 1, 2020, in Silverthorne. Though current snowpack and runoff predictions look better than 2021 conditions, water experts are still urging the public to conserve water.
Jason Connolly/Summit Daily News archives

Local water experts gathered together in the Silverthorne Pavilion to give updates on the state of the Blue River and the Upper Colorado Basin as a whole at the Colorado River District’s State of the River meeting.

Peter Goble, a climatologist at Colorado State University, said that though local rivers do look better than they did in 2021, drought conditions are still affecting parts of the Western Slope.

“​​Though we had a slow start to the snowpack season, it really jumped up right around Christmas and a little bit thereafter. February was slow, again, March was near normal, and then we peaked right about at the normal time here,” Goble said. “But we did peak a little bit on the low side, right about 85 to 90% for the headwaters, a little bit lower than that up in the (Colorado River) basin.”

Goble said that recent precipitation gave a small boost, but it’s not too late to see more added water supply before the dryer summer months. However, he said, just because local rivers reached 80-90% snowpack does not necessarily mean Summit County will get 80% of peak runoff. It’s not a one-to-one relationship, and when snow melts, dry soil is addressed first. Dry soil soaks up any melted snow before it can even make it down to the river.

“​​The analogy that I like to use is snowpack and precipitation in general, is kind of like your income. Feeding the soils in the spring is kind of like paying bills,” Goble said. “Around that, we get like streams and reservoirs — it’s like our spending money. If you make 80% of your normal income in the month, you’re spending money is probably going to be disproportionately affected, probably less than 80%. Similarly, if we’re above 100%, we can get some really good runoff values. But for the Colorado headwaters, we were expected based on this regression, about 71% of normal (runoff), given the percent of normal snowpack.”

There are big hopes surrounding monsoon conditions, Goble added, but historically, where exactly those summer storms will end up has not been reliably predicted.

“It’s not a disaster year in and of itself, but it’s certainly not a drought buster,” he said. “We’re wondering why shortages exist. Then the monsoon season remains a big question mark, but with warmer-than-normal temperatures likely for the summer, we will see increased fire risk and maybe some water availability issues in some of the places where things are already struggling.”

Green Mountain Reservoir, downstream from the Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, is still not expected to fill, according to engineer Victor Lee of the Bureau of Reclamation. This means Denver Water and Colorado Springs Utilities will owe some water back to the reservoir.

“Flows will remain below 100 cubic feet per second until probably the beginning of July,” Lee said. “I don’t expect any heavy releases, and the power plant capacity will be much lower than normal. The important part is Green Mountain will fill all water that is for the benefit of the Western Slope this year.”

Nathan Elder, the manager of raw water supply for Denver Water, said at this point there is roughly a 50-50 chance of Dillon Reservoir filling peak outflow. Currently, the outlook has that peak being between 50 and 1,000 cubic feet per second — depending on monsoons and other factors — but Elder said that number is more likely going to be closer to 50.

“We don’t see sustained outflow for rafting season this year,” he said.

On June 18, Denver Water is expecting to have full marina operations.

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