Drought 2002: Snowpack at 8 percent of
May 3, 2002
By Jennifer Reeder
Special to the
There’s no doubt about it: Southwest Colorado
is in a drought.
As of May 1, the snowpack level for the San
Juan Basin was at 8 percent of normal – the worst in the
state. Area reservoirs aren’t anywhere near full, and rivers’
water levels will peak at about 50 percent of normal. Most
irrigation ditches were opened Wednesday, about 45 days
Ken Beegles, division engineer for the
Colorado Division of Water Resources, said Vallecito and Lemon
reservoirs usually are full at their highest water levels for
the season by the middle of June.
Baxstrom, a state water commissioner, documents the
Florida River on Thursday as water makes its way down
from Lemon Reservoir, which contains about 16,000 acre
feet of water.|
But this year, the irrigation ditches leading
from the reservoirs are open already, so the reservoirs may
not be able to add to their existing storage.
On May 1, Vallecito Reservoir had about
65,000 acre feet of water out of a possible 125,000 acre feet.
This time of year, it usually has an average of about 62,500
acre feet of water, so the water level is actually above
But as Beegles pointed out, "Most years, it’s
just starting to fill."
Beegles said an acre foot is about enough
water to cover a football field with a foot of water.
As of May 1, Lemon Reservoir had about 16,000
acre feet out of a possible 40,000 acre feet. It would have
23,000 acre feet in an average year.
"I think we will use all of the reservoir
supplies this summer unless we get an extraordinary
precipitation out of a storm front," Beegles said. He said the
supplies could be depleted by mid-July.
The San Juan Basin snowpack, which provides
most water for the reservoirs, is "going to be zero in about
three days," Beegles said.
Brian Avery, hydrologist for the National
Weather Service in Grand Junction, said Southwest Colorado’s
minimal snowpack has prompted the weather service to gear up
for a potentially large number of wildfires.
But a global shift in weather could mean some
increase in summer precipitation for the area – possibly
starting in July – as a new El Niño weather pattern
El Niño is a warming of the Pacific Ocean
that changes weather patterns. If this year’s system develops
into a strong system, like the one in 1998, it could mean a
wetter summer and longer monsoon season. Eastern hurricanes
may move west up the Mexican coast, causing an increase in
precipitation for Southwest Colorado, Avery said.
McCoy, left, and Justin Catalano, both ditch riders for
the Florida Farmers and Florida Co-op Ditch Co., watch
water flow through the irrigation canal head gate on the
Florida River near La Plata County Road 234, east of
Durango. As ditch riders, McCoy and Catalano work to
maintain irrigation ditches. The ditches typically open
later in the season, but this year’s drought has
prompted officials to open some ditches about 45 days
A strong El Niño system could also mean
higher snowpack levels next winter, Avery said.
Still, it’s too soon to celebrate.
"It took us a long time to get into this
drought; it’ll take us a long time to get out," Avery
Precipitation in January, February and March
in La Plata County is usually 5 to 6 inches, but the county
only received a little more than one-half inch in that time,
said Kevin Mallow, an extension agent at the La Plata County
Sandy Young, a local weather observer for the
National Weather Service, reported one-half inch of
precipitation for April.
"It’s not good news for farmers or ranchers
or anybody," Mallow said.
In response to the drought, Keith Dossey,
county executive director of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency for La Plata and Archuleta
counties, has officially requested that federally leased,
privately owned land in the Conservation Reserve Program be
given the option to allow grazing.
"We’re in bad shape," Dossey said. "Our
driest months, based on historic weather, are May and
Dossey said he has heard reports of domestic
water wells going dry.
"Springs are going to dry up and affect cattle," Dossey