With snowpack low, water supplies worrisome next summer, expert says
Ryan Summerlin January 18, 2010
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A Colorado River expert is warning that there may be serious water shortages here and further west next summer, if the Colorado high country does not receive some serious snowfall before the spring runoff.
“We’re running way behind in snow pack,” said Dave Merritt, a board member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
The snow depths of the Colorado River basin, as they melt starting in the spring, create the runoff that fills reservoirs, ditches and other water systems all the way to the Gulf of California.
At a meeting of the Garfield County commissioners on Monday, Merritt said that the snow depths in the Colorado River basin is “a little bit better than 2002 right now.”
He later described 2002 as “essentially the worst year we’ve had on record” for snow depths, when the statewide snowpack was essentially gone by June.
One report indicated that the statewide snow depth on June 10, 2002, was only 2 percent of the average for that date.
Currently, Merritt reported to the county commissioners, “Most of the basins are running in the 70 percentile range.”
According to the online Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Colorado River basin contained 72 percent of average on Jan. 18. The Upper Rio Grande basin held the most, with 80 percent of average, and the statewide estimate was 74 percent.
Merritt told the commissioners that the state’s water officials, worried about the prospect of another record drought year, already are discussing whether there will be sufficient water to raise Lake Powell above its present level of 60 percent full.
Lake Powell, formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, is one of two primary storage reservoirs for the states that signed the Colorado River Compact of 1922.
The compact governs allocations of the Colorado River’s water to seven states – Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada – and the Republic of Mexico.
Merritt said the current regulations call for an annual release of 8.23 million acre feet of water from Lake Powell to satisfy the compact’s allotments, and 1.5 million acre feet for Mexico.
Another large reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Mead (Hoover Dam), “has been dropping pretty precipitously,” Merritt continued, and is counting on an “equalization” release from Lake Powell to boost the water level.
But, if the spring runoff is insufficient to bring Lake Powell’s levels up by much, Merritt said, “there’s less than a 50 percent chance of equalization” in 2010.
The “equalization” is determined by a complex series of calculations related to how the Colorado’s waters are managed, Merritt explained.
Speaking by telephone after the meeting, Merritt conceded that “most of our snowfall comes in April and March,” which could invalidate his cautionary statements.
“But we’re way behind where we should be” at this point of the year, he said.
The CRWCD board will hold its first regular quarterly meeting of the year on Jan. 19-20 at the Hotel Colorado. For information about the meeting’s agenda and other Colorado River issues, go to the district’s website at www.crwcd.org.