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Drought 2002: Snowpack at 8 percent of normal

May 3, 2002

By Jennifer Reeder
Special to the Herald

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 early.

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.

Harold 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 normal.

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 develops.

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.

Charlie 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 early.

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 said.

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 Extension Office.

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 June."

Dossey said he has heard reports of domestic water wells going dry.

"Springs are going to dry up and affect cattle," Dossey said.


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