The Yampa Valley experienced one of the best snowpack years in recent memory this winter, but as temperatures rise, water officials say snow alone will do little to rein in an unruly 19-year drought.
Colorado water agencies are preparing for drier conditions and were educating local water users about the tough decisions on the horizon at the annual Moffat State of the River address. The town-hall-style forum was held on April 2 at the Moffat County Pavilion and kicked off with a positive assessment of the 2018-19 winter.
“Snowpack is good this year and the whole state is in good shape,” Colorado River District spokesman Jim Pokrandt said.
The Yampa and White River basins boasted above-average snowpack the first week of April, according to the National Weather Service.
In spite of the impressive winter, Pokrandt said summer Yampa River conditions remain uncertain.
“The number one villain is soil moisture,” he said.
After nearly two decades of increasingly hot summers coupled with sporadic spring and summer rains, Pokrandt said the soil is parched and more likely to drink up snowmelt before it has the chance to hit the river.
In order for soil moisture to rebound to pre-drought days, the Yampa basin will need “two or three” consecutive years of above-average snowpack to “break the back” of the long-term drought, Pokrandt said.
“This year’s snowpack could mitigate the short term drought if we have a good spring and monsoon season, but if we segue back to a hot dry summer then that’s putting us on bad footing for next year,” he said.
The Colorado River District wants to be the “organization that looks around the corner for trouble,” he said.
In keeping with that mission, Andy Mueller, the new General Manager of the district, explained ways in which his organization seeks to address the Western Slopes’ unpredictable water supply.
“We can easily see, because the (Lake Mead and Lake Powell) reservoirs are so low, that we may run into a time very shortly, if we see more years like last year, where we have an absolute catastrophe on our hands, we have a (compact) call up the (Colorado) river,” Mueller said.
Lake Powell, the upper Colorado River Basin’s water “saving’s account” is below 37 percent full and Lake Mead, the lower basin’s reserve, is a bit better at about 42 percent full, he said.
Climate change is a clear culprit, he said.
“Climate change is evident here,” he said. “Four of five of the earliest melt offs all occurred in the last five years. That’s what rising temperatures are doing.”
Over the past 30 years, Colorado’s average temperature warmed two degrees, according to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While a two-degree increase may not seem like much, Mueller said recent studies suggest a three to four percent decline in annual runoff in Colorado for every one degree of warming.
To avoid a historic call on the Colorado River, the seven upper and lower Colorado River Basin states —Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming — are making plans to reduce water consumption.
Colorado is currently working on a “demand management” plan: voluntary, temporary and compensated reduction of water use to increase river flows and maintain critical reserves in Lake Powell.
The Colorado River District is advocating on behalf of the Westslope to ensure future water plans don’t negatively impact the slope’s economy or way of life, Mueller said.
“I want to stress when we look at this demand management plan, if it is implemented poorly it could damage Western Colorado,” he said. “Western Slope agriculture cannot be the sole sacrifice zone.”
One way or another Colorado’s water usage will be restricted in the near future under a demand management plan.
“Keep in mind, if push comes to shove and there’s to be a curtailment of water, there’s one that we can plan for and those who curtail will be compensated, or if we don’t plan well, here’s what will happen: there will be a mandatory curtailment and nobody gets paid. …That’s what we’re trying to prevent, people suffering economically from a forced curtailment of water,” Pokrandt said.
Michelle Meyer, Executive Director of the Community Agriculture Alliance, one of the event’s sponsors, hopes more people will get interested in the state of the Yampa River.
“It (water) impacts every single person,” Meyer said. “Whether you have a water right and you’re in agriculture, it definitely impacts you, or you live in town and you drink water. It impacts every single person.”
Lauren Dodd is a freelance writer who has won awards for her coverage of special education in Central Texas. Contact her at Lauren.email@example.com or LaurenEDodd on Twitter.