Water Year 2023, (Very) Cautiously Optimistic
Although water year 2023 is off to a relatively good start, it is too early to make solid short-term projections for water managers and users. Snapshot data of current conditions indicate that the snowpack across the Upper Colorado River Headwaters is 133% of average which is almost identical to the conditions we experienced just last year at this time of year (see picture). mid-January of 2022 was the beginning of an exceptionally dry period for the basin, resulting in a snowpack which totaled less than 90%. The mid-winter dry spell, coupled with early, warm springs temperatures created a runoff season which brought only about 60% of average flows to rivers throughout the basin.
Atmospheric moisture is expected to continue to deliver the rain and snow we need throughout the rest of this month, hopefully avoiding a repeat of last year’s bait and switch conditions. However, the misalignment of expectations has serious ramifications.
Long-term predictions estimating how much water will make it from the snowpack into the rivers have significantly underperformed during the past three years of intense drought conditions. This kind of prognosticating is done in January and is meant to inform water managers throughout the Upper Basin (CO, WY, UT, NV) as well as Lower Basin (AZ, NM, CA) on how much to lower storage in reservoirs to make room for the incoming flows of spring. However, when these early models promise average flows, only to have the real flows be far less, reservoir levels do not recover as expected. With record low reservoir conditions across much of the west, this uncertainty leaves water managers nervously watching weather patterns and for indicators and predictors as the annual snowpack slowly grows in the headwaters of the system.
System Conservation Pilot Project
In December of 2022, the Upper Colorado River Commission established a well-funded ($125 million from the Bureau of Reclamation) System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP). This purpose of this program is to pay water users to leave their water in the system ‘to mitigate the impacts of ongoing drought and depleted storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.’ River District General Manager, Andy Mueller, will share concerns with the board of directors regarding the potential for economic and social disruption and drought profiteering with a program of this size and scope.
“At $125 million and a fixed offering price of $150 per acre foot of water conserved, this program could result in as much as 833,000 acre feet of water being transferred from Upper Basin water users to the Colorado River system over a period of one or two years.
We continue to believe that any SCP or Demand Management Program in the Upper Basin should only be implemented if the Lower Basin has committed in an enforceable manner to reducing consumptive use by a minimum of 2 million acre-feet of actual use on an annual basis.”
Measurement Rules in the Yampa White Green Basin
During the second day of the board meeting, Erin Light, Division 6 Engineer will present to the River District Directors on the new water administration and conditions within the Yampa/White/Green basins. Recently designated as over-appropriated, the Yampa River has struggled to maintain flows adequate to meet the water needs of its various users, resulting in several historic ‘calls.’ The White River also grapples with flow and storage issues which have necessitated a shift in management priorities. Water users in that region of the state have not historically implemented measuring devices due to the limited administration in the basin, and the transition will need to happen quickly.