Snowpack poised to deliver strong river flows – for the most part

When the ski season ends in Colorado the “snowmelt season” ramps up. And while winter sports are critical to the economy of several states in the region, the high country snowmelt that delivers water downstream to the Lower Basin is critical to all states.

This season starts with a good forecast. The National Weather Service reported that “one of the strongest El Niño events on record …helped steer atmospheric rivers into the western United States (to bring) welcome drought relief across the southern tier of the country.” But El Niño wasn’t great for all: NWS noted El Nino delivered fewer storms and warmer temperatures in the Upper Midwest and Northern Great Plains, resulting in “well below average” snowfall. In fact, several river basins in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming were below 70% of the median in March.

Here in Colorado, the news is largely positive, which bodes well for the Colorado River, so important to Lower Basin states. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) reported in early April that the state’s “snowpack stands at 114% of median” thanks to late-season storms. NRCS added: “Statewide, precipitation for March was 155% of median and water year-to-date precipitation stands at 103% of median. These conditions have improved streamflow volume forecasts statewide, currently standing at 103% of median.”

But the NRCS also reported that “certain basins have not fully rebounded from the earlier deficits in the water year …  which could mean drier soils would need to absorb more snowmelt, potentially affecting streamflow efficiency.”

Becky Bolinger, an assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center, told the Denver Post that despite the conflicting reports “We’re in a good position. The key is that just because we’re reaching peak snowpack does not mean that it should stop snowing.”

That’s hardly the only news about water in the region; following are other developments.

FLOW MANAGEMENT: Water officials in California, Nevada and Arizona in March shared proposals with the federal government for how the states would manage water in case of delivery shortages from the Colorado River. Cal Matters reports on details of the proposal, which includes the states’  agreement to “collectively cut their water use when levels dip below 69% capacity, ramping up to at least 1.5 million acre-feet a year below 58% of capacity.” Learn more.

HYDRO HELP: Earlier this year private interests, led by the Colorado River District, spent $99 million to buy the water rights of the Shoshone Power Plant on the Colorado River from Xcel Energy. The Colorado Sun, which reported on the transaction, noted it would “protect fish and habitat (and) also beef up water security on the Western Slope by protecting reliable westward flows for farmers and tourist economies.” Learn more, including why some are worried by the development.

TRIBAL WATER: The Navajo Nation is close to completing a settlement of water rights claims in Arizona, according to AZCentral, “ending decades of negotiations and giving hope for thousands of people who have long gone without running water.” A summary of the agreement states the goal is to “affirm and quantify the nation’s rights to water in the state and to secure funding to build much needed water delivery infrastructure to homes on the Navajo Nation.” Learn more.

HEAR HERE: Podcasts are a great way to keep up while you’re on a walk, driving or flying. The Mirr Ranch team has discussed water numerous times on our podcasts, including one in which Haley and I shared insights into water valuations concerning Western ranches. Or check out Haley’s conversation with outfitter Erin Crider about the impact of runoff on fly fishing and also what landowners can do to improve their own properties for fly fishing. Listen to our podcasts.

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