The Crestone Eagle, April 2004:

Winter’s snowpack melting quickly; dry March means drought is not over

by David Nicholas

With 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 then.

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 Mr. Vandiver.

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 during March.

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 right.

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 very welcome).