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Snowpack in Southwest Colorado has water managers ‘cautiously optimistic’

With snow-water hovering around normal, experts are approaching predictions with trepidation
The snowpack in the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan Basin, which includes Engineer Mountain, is 99% of the annual median snow-water equivalent, compared to the 30-year period. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Peaks of the San Juan Mountains remained blanketed in a hearty snowpack well into spring 2023. Snowbanks lined the streets of Durango for most of winter. And the water accumulation in the southwestern basin swelled to over 180% of the 30-year median around this time last year.

This year’s dry sidewalks and warm wintertime temperatures in the low country of Southwest Colorado are a certain contrast to last year’s weather.

Snowpack in the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan Basin is 99% of the annual median snow-water equivalent, compared to the 30-year period. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Reservoirs filled last year and managers were forced to spill excess water; but how are things looking for water and drought conditions this year?

The answer is “just fine” – but probably not much better than that.

“Cautiously optimistic” is the general sentiment, Southwestern Water Conservation District General Manager Steve Wolff said, although water users are still keeping an “eye on the sky.”

From 1991 to 2020 – the 30-year period used to calculate historical medians – the snow-water equivalent accumulation in the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan Basin generally peaked on April 1. Compared to the median peak, the moisture this year is about 9% lower than usual and likely to stay that way, said Colorado’s Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger.

“This is really the time that those warmer temperatures, the solar radiation (and) the angle of the sun really start taking over,” she said.

For reservoir managers, this means the snow accumulation in the mountains will provide enough water to scrape by with a full supply this year, but the faucet will shut off there.

The state of Colorado as a whole is doing well in terms of moisture accumulation, however, dry soil in the Southwest have water managers concerned about how much of it will trickle into reservoirs during spring runoff. (Courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service)

“We expect a full supply year but not a lot of extra,” said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee Reservoir.

The reservoir’s active capacity of 229,000 acre-feet supplies water to 61,000 acres of farmland across the southwestern corner of the state, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the cities of Cortez and Dove Creek.

The Spud Mountain SNOTEL site to the west of Coal Bank Pass summit recorded a snow depth of 57 inches on Thursday, with 20.1 inches of snow-water equivalent. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

McPhee’s full supply is largely thanks to 138,000 acre-feet of rollover from last year, when the reservoir was so full that managers were able to spill water into the lower Dolores River, to the pleasure of boaters and fish biologists.

Despite near-median snow-water equivalent accumulation in the basin, forecasts put the water supply this year at around 80% of median levels.

Dry soil from last fall can act like a sponge, Wolff said. And with little to no snow at lower elevations, an above-median snowpack could still yield below-median water.

The San Miguel-Dolores-Anmimas-San Juan Basin appears to have peaked in terms of snow-water accumulation (black line) just below its median peak (green line), and far below last year’s banner water year (purple line). (Courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service)

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 70% of the state is not in drought – but counties in the southwest corner of the state are all considered 100% “abnormally dry.”

Because of the surrounding environment, Vallecito Reservoir almost always fills, and Pine River Irrigation District Superintendent Ken Beck said last year was stressful as a result of the high runoff. A lack of water is not a problem for him this year, either. The reservoir is all but sure to fill this year, and he’s looking at how long the season will be.

“Hopefully there’s enough there to … fill the reservoir and can keep it full with a little runoff coming into it to make it last so that the lower priority ditches can stay on longer,” he said. “So that’s what our hope is.”

Of course, the snowpack does not just provide water for irrigation or boating – the moisture also keeps wildfire conditions in check. Warm spring weather melts the snow quickly, leaving plants dry and barren for a longer period of time before the monsoons arrive.

“When you have that, your vegetation starts drying out earlier, and so that just leaves you open to a longer window of wildfire risk,” Bolinger said.

But, she said, there are still many unknowns in the spring forecast.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

This is due, in part, to a 30-year data set that has been impacted by a historic drought. As the climate becomes increasingly volatile, forecasting has become less and less accurate.

Darrin Parmenter, the Western Region director with Colorado State University Extension, said he does not put a lot of stock in the forecasts. He hasn’t put a shovel in the ground in several days, he said, but he is generally positive about conditions (per his general disposition), for now.

“If it’s a slow decline, then that’s going to be ideal,” he said. “You can write this article today and five days from now, it could be drastically different in terms of what’s melting and what’s been absorbed by the soil. So it’s always so hard to tell.”

Parmenter’s lack of faith in the forecasts is not misplaced, Wolff said.

“We used to be able to forecast based on what we’ve seen the last 20, 30 years, and I think a lot of that forecast ability is going out the door,” he said. “We see bigger variability, bigger ranges and things. It’s just much harder to do.”


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