Western Slope water advocates reflect on 2022 water year

Summit County and northwest Colorado saw an encouraging summer, but drought conditions persist throughout much of the Colorado River Basin

The Blue River is pictured in Silverthorne on Sept. 4, 2022. According to the most recent data from the United States Geological Survey, temperatures for the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir have consistently stayed between 44 and 44.5 degrees Fahrenheit for the past week.
Eliza Noe/Summit Daily News

As the 2022 water year comes to a close, experts on the Colorado River are reflecting on how drought has affected the river basin on the Western Slope in Colorado. 

The United States Geological Survey defines a water year as “the 12-month period Oct. 1 for any given year through September 30, of the following year.” Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, will designate the beginning of the 2023 water year. Brendon Langenhuizen, director of technical advocacy for the Colorado River District, said that this water year has been “fairly close to normal.” 

“We’re still in a drought. There’s still dry conditions,”  he said. “I want to stress that it has improved, and I think a lot of that has been in part due to those monsoons.”

He said that snowpack for the Colorado River headwaters was decent for 2022, but temperatures were higher than usual as well. A good monsoon season finished off the water year, he added, and the three main water basins on the Western Slope — the Yampa-White, the Colorado headwaters and the Gunnison — had similar conditions, which is unique. 

In general, Langenhuizen added, the Western Slope started off really dry, trending toward the driest kind of snowpack that the region has had. Then, a snow-filled December came around Dec. 9 to Jan. 9, where snowstorm systems kept coming and pushed all of the region well above average for snowpack. Shortly after there was another drought of snow. That lasted all the way through most of February. After that, the region started to get some snow again and it turned out to be an average to below average year, he said. 

“From April to July — which is the key period of runoff — you can see that we have between 64% to 80% of average runoff during a time period across these basins,” Langenhuizen said. “(There is) the loss that we have between our snowpack and our runoff, and this is a trend that we’ve been seeing the last couple of years where we get an average, or maybe slightly below average, snowpack but our streamflows are well below average. And that was definitely the case this year.”

A lot of the deficiency between snowpack and streamflow can be attributed to dry soils, Langenhuizen said. In the northwest corner of Colorado, including Summit County, heavy monsoonal moisture greatly benefited the abnormally dry soils. Earlier this month, the southern half of Summit County was lifted from drought status, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The line begins just south of Ute Peak, stretches along Interstate 70 and ends around Chalk Mountain, a Lake County landmark slightly south of the Summit County border.

“That’s something that we haven’t seen in the last couple of years,” Langenhuizen said. “So this was something kind of unique for 2022. These monsoons were nice consistent monsoons that came in and didn’t lead to massive debris flows and post-fire debris flows.”

Across the Colorado River Basin, however, extreme conditions persist. New federal actions come after states on the river failed to meet an important water conservation deadline this summer. In June, the United States Bureau of Reclamation asked the seven Basin states to conserve an unprecedented quantity of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet or the federal government would step in and implement its own conservation measures.

“We have lots of interesting challenges ahead of us on the Colorado River as water users,” Marti Whitmore, president of the board of the Colorado River District, said. “There are no easy solutions. If there were, we’d already have found them. It’s really important that as we move forward to address our challenges that we make sure we have off effects that we spend time carefully considering the potential implications and ramifications and try to avoid unintended consequences.”

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