State of the River speakers talk snowpack, flooding and the Colorado water plan
Just like you can’t step in the same river twice, six speakers at the 21st annual State of the River meeting gave differing perspectives on local water issues.
About 80 people — water managers, weather experts, government officials and interested community members — attended the event hosted by the Colorado River District at the Community Center in Frisco Tuesday, May 6. Discussion revolved around snowpack, runoff, flooding and the state water plan.
RUNOFF AND RESTORATION
Joanna Hopkins, board president of Blue River Watershed Group said runoff in recent years seems like feast or famine.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s any normal,” she said, “but I’ll take a feast.”
She spoke about the group’s restoration project of Tenmile Creek, impacted by decades of mining, railroads, highways and development, and presented before and after photos of the work. The group will now focus attention on restoration of the Upper Swan River Watershed, where dredge boats in the early 20th century mined for two miles and the group and its partners will work to turn the river “right side up.”
‘THAT BLEEPY BLEEP’
Troy Wineland, water commissioner for the Blue River basin, joked that in his third year managing area water rights he’s no longer called “the new Scott Hummer,” his predecessor for decades. “You all have come up with much better names for me,” he said smiling, “from that bleepy bleep that tagged my well to that SOB that curtailed my water use.”
Wineland predicted above-average runoff but said speculations only go so far. “You look at past records, you take into account the current conditions and then you throw the dart,” he said.
Since he won’t have to enforce water restrictions this spring, he will focus instead on getting faulty measuring devices replaced or improved and enforcing laws around exempt wells.
He pointed to a graph and asked the audience to consider this year’s snowpack levels. “What does that surplus, that bonus, that cream on the top, what does that mean to you?” he said. Better rafting, some said. Fishing. Full reservoirs.
To Wineland, however, the surplus represented a deficit. He worried about a lack of concern for water conservation during a drought that has persisted in Colorado’s arid environment for the last 14 years. Millions of people rely on Summit’s water, he said, pointing out the 3.2-million-acre-foot water shortage projected for the West by 2050, or enough water for about 10 million households.
FILL ’ER UP
Bob Steger, water resources engineer with Denver Water, discussed Dillon Reservoir operations. The utility’s main priorities for the reservoir are maintaining its water supply and reducing flood risk, he said, but it also considers boating, rafting, kayaking, fishing, endangered fish and its upcoming construction project.
The utility began lowering the reservoir level in late February, just like in other high-snowpack years, he said. Going forward, the reservoir will start filling in mid-May or June, depending on whether the spring is wet or dry.
The Roberts Tunnel, which brings water from Dillon to Denver, won’t be turned on until mid-June or July, he said, and the utility will replace the large gates that control outflow to the Blue River likely sometime between August and October.
FISH HEART RUNOFF
Ron Thomasson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who oversees Green Mountain Reservoir operations, said he expects to fill that reservoir in mid-July.
He talked about how more runoff will improve habitat for four endangered fish species in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River and showed his “obligatory snowpack graph.” Then he presented spaghetti plots to explain that when experts say “most probable scenario” what they really mean is, “It’s actually no more probable than any other scenario. It just happens to be in the middle.”
Summit is more likely to experience flooding after five days in a row of temperatures above 55 degrees, she said, and she encouraged residents of low-lying areas or places that have flooded before to sign up for the Summit County alert system and to help neighbors if they’re not home or not capable of helping themselves.
Nolan Doesken, state climatologist based at Colorado State University, helped put weather patterns in historical perspective.
He explained the rare conditions that combined to cause record-breaking flooding in the Boulder area in September. Then he switched to the “crazy winter that you just lived through” in Summit and what to expect in the six- to eight-week runoff season produced by seven months of snow.
He joked about the polar vortex, a phenomenon that’s been around forever but didn’t make the media until this winter, and he showed more spaghetti plots saying, “Those averages are beautiful. They give us something to think about. They never happen.”
Those excited about a surplus should remember the rest of the state is experiencing drought conditions. “You fared well,” he said. “It’s not always going to work that way, so please be grateful.”
Then he asked for volunteers to help collect real-time precipitation data with rain gauges for cocorahs.org.
MAN WITH THE PLAN
Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable that represents Summit and five other counties, emphasized problems with low levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and focused on the state water plan, which the roundtable is helping to create.
Of the 14 states in the West, Colorado is one of four without a water plan. The other three are Washington, Oregon and Arizona.
“The time to talk about it is now,” he said, “and that’s what we’re doing.”
He focused on the projected gap between water supply and demand and said the roundtable is considering three ways to fill the gap: conservation, agriculture-to-urban water transfers and new projects.
“Transmountain diversion should be the last tool out of the box,” he said. “Conservation and reuse needs to be hit hard.”
If a new transmountain diversion must be constructed, it should be done along the lines of the recent agreement between West Slope stakeholders and Denver Water.
One audience member asked why reducing population growth wasn’t one of the considered solutions. Most of the projected growth “is us having children,” Pokrandt said. “It’s the elephant in the room, but it’s the one that you really can’t touch.”
He said in some parts of the Front Range, the untouchable issue is green grass.
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