Solid winter snowpack masks systemic problems in Colorado River |

Solid winter snowpack masks systemic problems in Colorado River

Water managers from the Colorado River District held their annual State of the River meeting in Grand County last week. While they had an optimistic outlook for 2019 officials are still concerned about the systemic issues facing the river.
File photo

Colorado’s eponymous river is doing relatively well in early June 2019 with significant snowpack still lingering at higher elevations, making the river basin’s water managers cautiously optimistic as they look at the state of one of the nation’s key waterways.

Last Thursday evening the Colorado River District, a special taxing district dedicated to the conservation and management of the Colorado River and its stream flows, held a public forum at West Grand High School in Kremmling regarding the current status of the Colorado River. Each year officials from the River District present a series of public forums called “state of the river” meetings in various communities up and down the length of the basin. State of the River meetings are typically held each year in the late spring prior to the start of high runoff periods and irrigation season.

The state of the Colorado River is relatively strong in 2019 following a solid year for snowfall in Colorado’s High Country but despite plentiful precipitation water managers are struggling against a surprising impediment: low temperatures.

“With this cold and wet weather, the snow is lingering much longer than normal,” Victor Lee, a hydrologic engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said. “It has not run off like it typically does. We are going into June with a very delayed peak runoff.”

Despite the delayed start to high water season in the Rockies water managers are cautiously optimistic about the state of the river this year and the impacts from this year’s snowpack. Multiple officials presenting at the State of the River meeting noted they plan to fill, but not spill, the major reservoirs in Grand County with the exception of Wolford Mountain, which is expected to spill sometime later this summer. Nathan Elder, with Denver Water, said the entity he works for anticipates reduced diversions out of Grand County this year thanks to predicted higher than average native stream flows in East Boulder Creek.

Even with the improved snowpack in 2019 though officials continue to sound alarm bells about the future of the key waterway of the American southwest, noting the river basin currently consumes more water than Mother Nature replaces, even in wet years. Andy Mueller, General Manager for the Colorado River District, gave a presentation on drought contingency planning for the Colorado and made several sobering statements about the future water in the west.

According to Mueller the Colorado River basin uses up roughly 16 to 17.5 million acre-feet of water each year, though on average the basin rarely receives that much precipitation annually. To cover the gaps between how much water is consumed and how much is received water managers rely on the massive network of reservoirs that dot the western US to provide the supply. That supply is dwindling though as the water deficit continues to grow.

Mueller noted that the 10-year running average for the amount of water deposited by the environment into the Colorado River basin continues to decline. The current 10 year running average is now just above 12 million acre-feet a year. Mueller noted the ongoing impacts of climate change and a warming environment on the water picture in the west and presented a slide showing average temperature data for the Colorado River going back to 1900.  

According to Mueller the Colorado River is now, on average, a full two degrees warmer than it was 30 years ago. The slide provided by Mueller shows a marked uptick in river temperatures beginning in the early 1980s. Since 1983 the Colorado River has experienced only three years when river temperatures were below historic averages.

“Recent studies indicate there is a three to four percent decline in annual runoff in Colorado for every one degree of warming,” Mueller said, noting that researches believe the decreased runoff is a result of a longer growing season, allowing vegetation to consume more water naturally.

“The forests are using more water, the riparian area is using more water,” Mueller said. “We have a supply problem. The question is, where are we headed?”

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