State of River: April snowfall a ‘game-changer’ |

State of River: April snowfall a ‘game-changer’

Leia Larsen
The Colorado River west of Windy Gap on Thursday, May 23. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

GRANBY — Grand County water managers and leaders gave a tentative sigh of relief following this season’s late spring snowfall.

A panel of water experts spoke at the public State of the River Meeting on Wednesday at the SilverCreek Convention Center to discuss the quality and quantity of the Colorado River Basin and its relationship to Grand County. Among the discussion topics were Wolford Mountain Reservoir, background on the Windy Gap Firming Project and wildfire planning. But benefits to Colorado’s water supply following April’s precipitation events dominated much of the discussion.

“We’ve had a recent change of fortune,” said Don Meyer of the Colorado River District.

According to Meyer, the Middle Park received about 150 percent of its average snowfall in the month of April, which he called a “game-changer.”

“If we did have another 2012 this year, we would’ve been in dire straits,” Meyer said.

Current data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL sites places the Upper Colorado River Headwater Basin’s snow water equivalent at 106 percent of its median levels. Total precipitation is at 93 percent of average for the area.

The recent influx of precipitation comes as a relief, especially after shortages in the 2012 season. According to Meyer, last year’s water demands on Wolford Mountain Reservoir, located north of Kremmling, dropped its levels by 38 feet. But Meyer now feels optimistic.

“We hope to fill the reservoir this year,” he said. “We had a ton of demands because of the drought, but this year is looking a lot better.”

Granby Reservoir

Granby Reservoir is projected to be at 90 percent of average, according to Andrew Gilmore of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“It’s not great, it’s something like we had in 2011, but way better than last year,” Gilmore said.

Releases from Granby Reservoir to the Front Range will be at normal levels, Gilmore said. The water is transported via the Colorado-Big Thompson project.

Water Quality

Water officials are still weighing options for a stop-pumping process on Grand Lake for restoring water clarity from July to September each year. According to Grand County’s Lurline Underbrink Curran, an agreement has yet to be signed.

“Stop pumping is a difficult thing to do year in and year out,” Curran said, pointing to cost.

For the time being, Northern Water remains concerned about water quality in Grand County’s reservoirs in light of recent fires on the Front Range. Pine-beetle kill and wildfires create issues with sediment runoff in the Colorado River and its tributaries. This runoff requires ramped-up pretreatment efforts. Extreme events can render rivers and reservoirs completely untreatable. Last year’s High Park fire, for example, caused debris flows that made the Poudre River too turbid for use. Fort Collins and Greeley became entirely dependent on water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

According to Wilkinson, last year’s fires created a sense of emergency among forest and water managers. Colorado State Forest Service, U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and Northern Water are now working jointly under a C-BT Headwaters Partnership. The partnership will address forest health issues, develop strategies for combating fires, and preplanning for disasters in the Colorado-Big Thompson watershed area. The Partnership’s primary goal is to first develop a five-year operating plan to fund their efforts.

“We at Northern (Water) don’t think it’s a question of if, it’s a question of when,” Wilkinson said.

Windy Gap Firming Project

The Windy Gap Firming Project continues to move forward. The Bureau of Reclamation is deliberating modifications to the current Windy Gap carriage contract. The carriage contract specifies the procedures and fees for water moving through the Colorado Big Thompson Project. The Bureau of Reclamation’s next step will be to issue a Record of Decision, then Northern Water and its participants will begin hashing out design plans for the project.

According to Northern Water’s Eric Wilkinson, the design process will take at least two years. Actual construction will take around three years.

“So the earliest we would see the Windy Gap Firming Project placed into operation is 2018 or 2019,” Wilkinson said.


Wolford Mountain Reservoir continues to struggle with northern pike, an invasive species that threatens trout and kokanee. The Colorado River District will continue to offer a $20 bounty for any northern pike caught in the reservoir.

Downstream from here

While the recent influx of precipitation will provide relief to Grand County and the Front Range, especially after snowfall shortages last year, areas downstream remain in drought. SNOTEL data for the entire Colorado River Basin above Utah’s Lake Powell indicates that the year’s precipitation remains low, at 81 percent of average. Lower Colorado users below Lake Mead project mandatory shortages as early as 2015, said Eric Kuhn, general manager for the Colorado River District.

Reporter Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.

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