Crestone Eagle, April 2004:
Winterís snowpack melting quickly;
dry March means drought is not over
by David Nicholas
the winter cold turning into warm spring days as we approached
the equinox, Steve Vandiver, the State Engineer for Water
Division 3 (the San Luis Valley) was all smiles in early March.
“It’s certainly much different and much better
than we have had in recent years,” Mr. Vandiver said
The snow pack was 110% of normal for the entire Rio Grande
basin in February. The snows in February had made up for the
depleted numbers over the winter in the Sangre de Cristo to
where the snow pack was between 90-120% of normal.
“It’s not a huge snow pack, but certainly it
is very respectable compared to what we have been having and
is a good year to kind of turn this thing around,” said
At the annual meeting of the Rio Grande Compact Commission
on March 25 the news was a little more somber. Hal Simpson,
the state Water Engineer said that the weather forecast for
April and May is dry and sunny; “although, one forecaster
said it would be snowy and wet”.
Simpson said that the snowpack on the Sangres was down to
69-70% and that San Juans were now at 89% of normal. To lose
that much snowpack in 28 days and without the regular snows
in the offing, nerves are on edge.
The warm days of mid-March began an early thaw. March and
April are crucial for providing much of the precipitation
for the basin, but little precipitation fell in the region
Going into the windy season, which generally starts around
April, the warming of the Valley and dry spring winds can
blow the snow off the peaks, as it has consistently done in
past years. The winds can make the snow disappear before it
has a chance to thaw. In 2002 that is what happened.
The Unconfined Aquifer
A normal snow pack is good news for recharging the aquifer.
However, the unconfined aquifer, which lies beneath the surface
of the Valley floor to a depth of 100 feet in some places,
has been depleted to 950,000 acre ft below normal. Allan Davey,
the engineer for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District
estimates that, conservatively, it will take 19 years for
this aquifer to recharge. And that is with farmers and ranchers
practicing restraint in their agricultural practices, which,
if conversations with some of these folks are any indication,
will not happen this year.
“It’s a race to the bottom (of the aquifer),”
said farmer/rancher Greg Gosar in early February. Mr. Gosar,
who farms in Rio Grande County and owns both surface and groundwater
rights, cannot afford to cut back his productive acreage.
Calls by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to cut
back acreage by 20% last year and by 25% for 2004 are not
being well received. Using the figure 495,000 acre feet being
available from the Rio Grande, 153,000 (27%) of this figure
is going to be used as part of Colorado’s obligation
under the Rio Grande Compact, leaving 342,000 acre feet to
recharge both the water course and the unconfined aquifer.
But with the next four to six weeks being crucial in terms
of weather, and with planting starting this month, it may
be that water recharging the aquifer is being pumped out as
fast as it comes in.
Says Mr. Vandiver, “The recharge that we will see from
a run-off like we are looking at right now will certainly
help with the aquifers, but it is in no way going to heal
the depletions from the last two years. We are probably not
going to gain any storage in the aquifers this year because
of the draft and the limited amount of recharge that we will
have. Even though we are looking at a fairly decent year,
it is not going to change things significantly as far as the
aquifer conditions are concerned.”
Aware of the challenges and the hostility by ranchers and
farmers toward government telling them what to do, Mr. Vandiver
counsels “surface and ground water users to use water
as effectively and efficiently as possible and try to reduce
the overall pumping from the aquifer until we can get this
thing to turn around”.
To charges that Mr. Vandiver is just too pessimistic, he
responds that he is a realist. Having been at the Colorado
Division of Water Resources for over 30 years, he says that
in his experience the last two years have been unprecedented.
Erring on the side of caution does not hurt him, Mr. Vandiver
says. At this time it’s that caution which makes him
Unless we get heavy wet snows in the mountains in April the
drought situation could get bad again very quickly. Pray for
snow in the high country—it’s the white stuff
we want now . . . (and a little rain in the valley is also
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