Once again, Southwest Colorado’s prolonged drought is expected to bring a host of challenges over available water and fire danger in the coming months.
“I’m really worried about the conditions we have,” said Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty. “It’s concerning what may happen.”
Before winter 2020-21, water managers and researchers were not optimistic it would be a heavy year for snowfall, and for the most part, those predictions have rung true.
For most of the winter, snowpack totals never reached historic averages, peaking somewhere around 85% of normal, according to Snotel sites, which, it should be noted, cover only high-elevation areas.
“We’ve been riding that line of mediocre snowpack all year,” said Jarrod Biggs, city of Durango’s assistant utilities director.
Now, warm weather in March and April has brought early season runoff, evidenced by the Animas River nearly tripling its flows over the past week. And as of Thursday, snowpack in Southwest Colorado was at just 71% of historic averages.
To complicate matters, Peter Goble, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said the dry, thirsty forest floor is expected to absorb a significant amount of the snowpack that’s on the ground.
As a result, researchers expect the Animas River will have just 50% to 70% of its normal flows for the year.
“Our recent summers have been so hot and dry,” Goble said. “We’ve been entering the last few snowpack years knowing we’d need above-normal (snowpack) to get to normal runoff.”
All these dire conditions on the ground are going to pose serious challenges and questions to water managers and fire officials.
Biggs said city officials have already started conversations with Durango’s biggest water users, such as Hillcrest Golf Club and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, about possible conservation measures.
The city of Durango gets its water mainly from the Florida River, and when needed, the Animas River. But the city’s reservoir is relatively small at 276 acre-feet (for comparison, Vallecito Reservoir is about 125,000 acre-feet).
As a result, the city doesn’t have the ability to store significant amounts of water, and instead chooses to weather drought years by asking its largest water users to cut back in times of low supply.
“It’s not watering restrictions, but we want to initiate the process,” Biggs said. “Is there a way you can get the same outcome with less water use?”
In the past, Durango has not taken more serious restrictions, such as prohibiting residents from watering their lawns, like other drought-strapped cities in the Southwest have, but that may change given prolonged drought in the region.
But the city does charge higher rates for water use, which has driven some conservation, Biggs said. And the city has been thinking about other measures, such as paying people not to use water, which has been successful in Las Vegas.
“I’m not saying that’s where Durango is headed,” Biggs said. “But we’ve been thinking how to launch a broader effort in that regard.”
One other long-term goal, Biggs said, is to start using water in Lake Nighthorse, which was built to fulfill water rights for Native American tribes and downstream users. The city has also purchased water rights in the reservoir.
The preferred option would be to pipe water from Lake Nighthorse to the city’s water treatment plant at College Mesa, Biggs said, but another idea is to build a new water treatment plant farther downstream along the Animas River.
Russ Howard, manager of the Animas-La Plata Operations and Maintenance Association, which manages Lake Nighthorse, said the 123,000-acre-foot reservoir should be full this spring.
“We spent all those years getting the project built, and now member entities are starting to look at long-term planning to put this water to use,” he said. “Especially with the drought lingering over our heads.”
Biggs said the city was able to withstand the drought in 2018, which by statistical data, was worse than the upcoming year. Still, factors such as wildfire can complicate the tried-and-true ways of surviving a drought year.
“We’ll do things we always do when it’s dry,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s still some unknowns because it could be an unprecedented year.”
Indeed, Doughty said fire season has already arrived, evidenced by red-flag warning days issued in early April. Normally, he’d have additional firefighters arrive in mid- to late May, but this year, those crews are showing up in April.
“Last year, we were holding our breath because it was incredibly dry and we are primed (this year) to have a very large fire, and we’re trying to be prepared for that,” he said. “I’m worried about what the weather is going to do.”
Goble said that while winter 2020-21 wasn’t among the worst snowpack years like 2002 and 2018, the dry soils on the forest floor bring additional concerns.
Early spring runoff, for example, is correlated to higher fire risks throughout the year, extending the state’s fire season.
Doughty, too, said this has an impact on firefighters.
“I don’t think anyone in their right mind could ignore the fact our climate seems to be changing,” he said. “This drought cycle we’re in is really concerning and dangerous.”
Drought conditions will also undoubtedly affect irrigators this year, said Ken Beck, superintendent of Pine River Irrigation District, the agency that oversees Vallecito Reservoir northeast of Durango.
Beck said “it’s rather bleak, but we’re hopeful” Vallecito Reservoir will fill this year, and as a result, it’s likely it won’t be possible to irrigate the full season.
“It’s definitely going to have an impact on us,” he said. “Pray, that’s the message (to irrigators), pray for rain and snow.”
Goble said every winter has its themes, and this past season was no different.
“I would say the biggest theme out of this winter was, we weren’t getting as much moisture per storm as we would have liked to see,” he said. “We got storms, but we had a lot of trouble getting tapped into deep moisture systems.”