Snow telling what spring holds for irrigation water

With a blanket of snow on the ground and a bright sun in the sky, winter seems like it has been good to Southwest Colorado. With March just around the corner, it will not be long until that grass begins to green up and we look to our mountains for our summer’s irrigation water.

While the San Juan Mountains are covered in snow, the outlook for this summer’s irrigation supplies is not so bright. One of the best sources of information about our actual mountain snowpack and the resulting water that will run down our rivers this spring and summer is the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service website:

The NRCS has been measuring the winter snowpack in the western U.S. for more than 75 years and now has automated Snotel sites that report in daily from hundreds of spots. Information includes snow depths and the amount of water held in the snow along with other important weather data. With this information and historic records, the NRCS does a pretty good job of predicting how much water is held in the mountains that will later run down our streams for summer irrigation, rafting and other recreational uses.

It is this information that is used by water managers in the West to plan for their future water supplies. I use it to get an idea of just what the little La Plata River has in store for me and the west side of La Plata County.

While many people I talk to think that we have had a good winter, the true information is that we are quite a bit behind on our snowpack and water supply in Southwest Colorado, as is most of the rest of the state. As of Tuesday, the San Juan Mountains are only holding about 81 percent of the average snowpack and stored water. From this data, the NRCS forecasts that we will have only 70 to 80 percent of our average stream flows this spring.

As an irrigator on the La Plata River, I could be in for a tough year if we continue in the current La Niña weather patterns that have prevailed this winter. With warm storms and limited precipitation, the outlook for everyone who depends on our rivers could be disappointing. With the threat of an early spring and possible dust storms to coat the snow, we could see our runoff gone before it can be enjoyed.

As I make my plans for the summer, the limited irrigation supply will affect how I fertilize, irrigate and make pasture rotations. As I look forward to spring, I will have to wait and see just how much irrigation water the mountains will give us. Until then, I will keep busy: It is almost shearing time, and then there will be baby lambs greeting me in the mornings.

Doug Ramsey has farmed in La Plata County for more than 30 years. He can be reached at 385-4375.