Watershed Corner: Colorado snowpack brings cautious hope
Eagle River Watershed Council
Across the Colorado River Basin, tulips, hydrangeas, and dandelions are emerging in full force. As skis and snowboards are switched out for kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, many people are wondering how the winter’s high country snowpack is expected to impact summer soil moisture levels and streamflows.
Many of the waterways in the Colorado River Basin are primarily snowmelt-fed streams and rivers. Their flows are dependent upon how much snow accumulates in the mountains throughout the winter. With historically high levels of snowfall accumulation throughout the Colorado River system this winter, from its headwaters near Grand Lake to resorts throughout California, does this mean that we’re in the clear from widespread concerns about drought in the West?
The Natural Resources Conservation Service recently published its April Colorado Water Supply Outlook Report, which discusses the current snowpack and predicts the summer streamflow for the state of Colorado and for each basin within the state.
As of April 1, the Colorado Headwaters Basin as a whole is at 135% of median snowpack. The report states, “precipitation for March was 164% of median which brings water year-to- date precipitation to 122% of median. Reservoir storage at the end of March was 105% of median compared to 83% last year.”
Spring trends are forecasted to include above-normal streamflows throughout Colorado River Basin tributaries, and the April 1 report showed 118% of normal runoff volumes in the Colorado Headwaters.
Before snowmelt can make it to the streams and rivers, water is pulled to refill aquifers, reservoirs, parched soils, and the dry atmosphere. These water-depleted systems are exacerbated by the extended drought the whole Colorado River Basin has experienced over recent decades. Though it is very likely that we will see high flows this spring and into the summer, we should not be collectively breathing a long-term sigh of relief.
On April 11, U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper released a statement following the release of a new draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for near-term Colorado River operations released by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Hickenlooper’s statement says,
“Today’s announcement marks an important step in planning for a drier West. As the Colorado River Basin faces the stresses of climate-driven drought, states and stakeholders must work towards a collaborative, seven-state solution for managing water scarcity that honors our communities, the sovereignty of Tribes, and the concerns of agricultural producers. No matter how promising this year’s snowpack is, we must prepare for less water in the river on which we rely.”
Facing complicated, widespread environmental issues like drought and reduced streamflow can often feel overwhelming. But everyone can take an active role in protecting the critical rivers of the Colorado River system.
Here are a few ways you can take action:
—Reduce your outside water use and what you do use outside, use efficiently. Consider replacing nonfunctional turf with water-wise landscaping options. Explore native plants that are appropriate for your subclimate and elevation and provide habitat for wildlife like birds and butterflies that frequently require less maintenance than lawns and non-native flora.
— Be aware of what enters storm drains. Whether washing your car or watering your yard, outdoor water is generally not treated before entering storm drains and it likely makes its way directly to waterways. This water may therefore carry fertilizers, pesticides, sediment, and other pollution, reducing the quality of the water.
— Visiting car washes with water recycling or treatment infrastructure, rather than washing your car outdoors can make a difference to water quality. Protecting riparian buffers and installing rain gardens are other tactics that reduce polluted runoff from pavement and other impermeable surfaces.
For additional ways to support waterways in the Colorado River basin, consider getting involved with the programs of the Public Education, Participation and Outreach (PEPO) Committee of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. The roundtable is a group of water managers, users and stakeholders who work to solve water-related issues within the Colorado River Basin in the state of Colorado from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Utah state line. Their goals are to protect, conserve, and develop water supplies within the Colorado Basin and the Western Slope of Colorado for future needs. For more information visit ColoradoBasinRoundTable.org.
Thanks to a generous award from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the PEPO Committee is accepting letters of intent from groups located within the Colorado River Basin to support basin-wide events and individual event sponsorships. By June 1, 2023, submit a letter of intent to Anna Drexler-Dreis at firstname.lastname@example.org that includes your organization name, event name, what the funds will be used for, and how your event promotes public education, participation and outreach in the Colorado River Basin. Funding awards will be given to one or two organizations for a total of $1,000 to $2,000.
Melanie Smith is the development manager at Eagle River Watershed Council and Anna Nakae is its Projects Coordinator. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit ERWC.org to learn more and get involved.
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