Dry Conditions Continue To Plague The West Slope

The dry summer has become a dry autumn. September saw continued below-average precipitation, the result being that all of the Colorado River District is in extreme drought or even worse, exceptional drought.

As water year 2020  ended on September 30, the regional drought ranked among the worse in the last 20 years — on the order of 2002, 2012 and 2018. August was the hottest month on record.

So once again, the region enters the coming snow season with poor soil moisture, a factor that reduces runoff from even an average snowpack, like what happened in spring 2020.

Colorado River District engineers reported to the Board of Directors that in Water Year 2020, runoff volumes were much smaller than originally forecast in April (which was already discounted for dry soils). This followed a near-average snow accumulation season as precipitation dropped off in April and May and giving way to dry conditions throughout the summer. Monsoons can temper summer’s effects but as in 2019, the monsoons were a no-show.

“Unfortunately, this seems to be becoming a recurring theme: a false promise of runoff commensurate with snowpack,” said Deputy Chief Engineer Dave Kanzer.

Reservoir operators in Western Colorado will be looking for better winter and runoff conditions in 2021 to help water levels in reservoirs recover from 2020’s heavy use. Looking ahead, though, the start of snow season does not look encouraging, according to the Climate Prediction Center. The three-month temperature and precipitation outlook shows warmer and drier-than-average conditions in the upper Colorado River Basin.

The poorer outlook is driven by the La Niña conditions currently in place. In La Niña conditions, precipitation typically, but not always, favors areas north of Colorado. Colorado generally falls in an area of uncertainty as storms can dip down in the northern and central mountains. The area of concern during La Niña is Colorado’s southern mountains.

As for the dry summer and river flows, some crops took a hit. According to River District Board Member Marc Catlin, in Montrose County producers had to become “irrigators, not water spreaders.” Some still got good crops. Board Member Bill Trampe said that around Gunnison, he estimates the hay crop at 50% to 60% of normal.

In the Colorado River, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Program had to stretch limited reservoir supplies used to bolster flows in the 15 Mile Reach. The Colorado River District and ExxonMobile helped ease the pressure by donating 1,500 acre-feet and 5,000 acre-feet, respectively, from Ruedi Reservoir supplies.

In the Yampa River basin, dry conditions in late summer brought on a rare call on the river, forcing producers with junior water rights to curtail irrigation on bottomlands after they had brought livestock down from the high country. The River District donated 750 acre-feet of water and Tri-State Generation donated 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to take the call off the river and help producers. Endangered fish in the Yampa also got an assist from the bolstered flows.

The Moffat County Cattlemen’s Association wrote a letter of appreciation to the District after the coordinated effort to boost flows.

“Your willingness to help keep irrigation going on these crucial agriculture acres in this time of extreme drought is greatly appreciated,” the letter read. “This irrigation is vital in keeping forage production going, and in this time in which may restrictions have limited production on so many products, we have all realized the importance to keep all forms of production functioning.”