Drought has been on the tongues of many water managers for the last few years, but 2014 brought some relief, at least to Grand County.
That relief comes from a high snowpack, which last month was 44 percent above average according to information from the National Resource Conservation Office in Kremmling. According to officials who spoke at the Grand County State of the River meeting on Tuesday, May 13, that means Middle Park residents should expect to see reservoirs easily fill to capacity. It’s also likely less water will need to be piped to the Front Range. Farther downstream, however, drought still plagues the West.
“If it’s north of Glenwood Springs and east, it’s going to fill and spill. If it’s south and west, it’s not,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, at the meeting.
According to Don Meyer, operator of Wolford Mountain Reservoir for the Colorado River District, that doesn’t mean locals should worry about flooding.
“We’re not going to see a 2011 year in terms of runoff and flooding,” he said. “Instead, 1997 is more a comparable year to this year in terms of snow.”
The 2010 and 2011 winter season brought epic conditions for skiers and snowboarders, but its high snowpack also brought a lot of flooding fears. As the snow melted, the Colorado River near Kremmling ran several times above 9,000 cubic feet per second, Meyer said. The 1997 season, however, only peaked at around 8,000 cfs once during the runoff period.
Meyer’s goals at Wolford for the coming season include work to benefit fisheries within the reservoir, Muddy Creek and farther downstream for endangered species in the Grand Valley. He’ll also be working to monitor and collect data on the reservoir’s dam, which has been moving since 2008.
Northern pike remain a problem in Wolford Mountain Reservoir, and the Colorado River District will continue to offer a $20 bounty for any of the predatory fish caught there.
Meyer also noted he expects the reservoir to fill to its 66,000 acre-feet capacity.
“This year it won’t be a problems, but other years it was a problem,” he said.
With the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, Andrew Gilmore with the Bureau of Reclamation also expects plenty of runoff. His agency manages Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir, pumping Colorado River water through Grand Lake to the Front Range.
“We’re above average, but it’s nothing like 2011,” he said. “Cold weather will likely slow the runoff down.”
Still, Gilmore noted recent snowstorms have likely built up the snowpack even more. While he expects Lake Granby to fill without spilling, he said a spill isn’t out of the question.
Jeff Drager with Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which jointly operates the C-BT with the Bureau of Reclamation, agreed that it’s too early to predict how runoff will influence Lake Granby.
“It’s a flip of a coin whether going to spill or not,” Drager said.
Gilmore also noted the need for water managers to address runoff issues in a warming global climate.
“Spring runoff is happening earlier in Colorado,” he said. “It’s one of the changes to our global climate season.”
Denver Water is predicting plenty of runoff on the East Slope as well. According to Bob Steger, a manager with Denver Water, they’ll be trying to fill Gross Reservoir with water from South Boulder Creek. That could mean supplements from the Moffat Collection System, which pipes water east from the Fraser River, will be minimal. About a fourth of Denver’s water comes from the Moffat Collection System in typical years.
“We don’t know how much of the South Boulder Creek Water we’re going to get to store, but we’re optimistic we’ll be able to store a lot of it, because there is a lot of snow on the east side of the Divide,” he said.
Denver Water will also be trying to store water from peak flows in Williams Fork Reservoir, which is used to supplement downstream water rights calls.
Those downstream needs are likely to be significant, as drought still plagues much of the southwest. California is facing its worse drought on record, causing its governor to declare a state of emergency this winter. The Colorado River, which feeds six other states besides Colorado as well as Mexico, is becoming a symbol of dwindling water in the West. Water levels on the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have dropped drastically to historic lows, threatening water and electricity supplies for millions. Even as Colorado breathes a sigh of relief with its plentiful snow, Kuhn with the Colorado River District stressed the need for continued conservation.
“In Colorado, we can’t divorce ourselves from the rest of the basin,” he said. “If we’re going to use more water on the Front Range, someone else is going to use less. There is no surplus.”