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Snowpack low: Will there be water?

“Out the back window the sky is dead. Rain promises the garden its grave relief, its promise buried in furrowed hearts” — Paula Gunn Allen, “Rain for Ke-Waik Bu-Ne-Ya.”

Drought: a prolonged period of abnormally low precipitation. In Pagosa Country, and most of Colorado, the word is often associated with 2002. That association may be short-lived, given current conditions.

In Colorado, drought is not an abnormal occurrence. Short duration droughts, three months or less, occur in nine out of 10 years. Since 1893, Colorado has experienced six severe droughts, the last of which was in 2002.

According to Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken, in e-mail correspondence with SUN staff, 100 percent of Colorado is now designated by the U.S. Drought Monitor as abnormally dry.

“We really need a quick turnaround here in the next few weeks or we’ll be having very, very low stream flows in much of the state,” Doesken said.

If it doesn’t seem noticeable in Archuleta County, that’s because, while a large percentage of the snowpack has melted and snow water equivalent levels (SWE) are significantly less than average, the SWE in the Upper San Juan River Basin is still much higher than for rivers in most of the state.

“You may not realize it there, but your basin has been better off than most of Colorado’s mountains in terms of snowpack,” Doesken said.

But, “better off,” is not promising.

Last year, at the end of March, the snow water equivalent (a measurement of snow pack) for the upper San Juan River was 32 inches.

As of April 2 this year, the snow water equivalent is 20 inches.

“That’s thirty percent less,” said Pete Kasper, lead water commissioner for Districts 29, 77 and 78. “The San Juan is running at 650 cubic feet per second (cfs). The water is leaving before we’re ready to use it.”

The snow water equivalent is measured at 10,000 feet. Kasper said that an interesting trait of the snowfall of the past two years has been the lack of snow at lower elevations. There might be snow at 10,000 feet, but down in the valleys, snow has been minimal.

Low snow levels at lower elevations correlate to low or empty springs and shallow wells for residents.

The snow water equivalent levels are, according to Kasper, at the lowest levels at this time of year since the 2002 drought. However, Kasper added that the 2002 levels were still lower than this year’s, at least for the Upper San Juan River Basin. However, another character of the low precipitation levels, Kasper said, was that this condition is being experienced statewide, not relegated to any single region of Colorado. The Colorado, North Platte, Yampa and White River Basins, their SWE levels for April 2012 are lower than 2002 levels.

According to graphs from the Glenwood Springs office of Division of Water Resources, Kasper said that the 2012 SWE levels are very similar to 2002.

“It’s close enough to 2002 to be worried,” Kasper said.

But, as of yet, there is no official declaration of drought in Colorado.

In Colorado, the Water Availability Task Force bears the responsibility of assessing statewide drought conditions, then gives the governor the recommendation to declare an official drought. When this happens, the state follows the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.

However, water providers, such as the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD), may also make an official drought declaration.

In April 2002, the local ratio reached 62 percent. By October 2002, the ratio was at 29 percent.

In June of 2002, Level One restrictions were implemented by the district.

“The basic drought management plan was never stress tested,” public information officer for PAWSD Renee Lewis said.

Those who did not abide by the restrictions received very high bills. The discontent this caused the ratepayers caused the district to revisit the Drought Management Plan in 2008 to make it more practical and realistic, Lewis said.

The 2008 revised plan defines a firm water supply as, “adequate raw water facilities incorporated with conservation measures to provide the normal water demand without mandatory restrictions, plus a one year supply safety margin.” If between March to October, the ratio derived by dividing the usable water capacity of Hatcher, Stevens, Pagosa and Forest Lakes by the estimated annual demand for the current year is at 90 percent or less, PAWSD will request that users voluntarily decrease water usage. If it reaches 70 percent or less, Level One restrictions are put into effect, 50 percent or less triggers Level Two restrictions, 40 percent or less triggers Level Three and 30 percent or less triggers Level Four restrictions.

The levels of water restriction start mild with designated watering times and days for irrigation and vehicle washing purposes. However, at the highest level of restriction, no outside water usage is allowed, washing driveways and sidewalks is prohibited, vehicle washing at residences is prohibited and, “hotels shall not change sheets more often than every four days for guests staying more than one night.”

The plan is currently being revised yet again, and Lewis said the plan will be open to users this summer for feedback and discussion, and may go through its first stress test.

“We want to see how people will react and what the public participation will be,” Lewis said.

This summer, if any of the triggers are reached, PAWSD will begin to implement the revised Drought Management Plan.

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