Where’s the snow!? What a dry winter might mean for Colorado

We finally got a little dusting of snow last weekend. But snowpack in Colorado and throughout the West remains exceptionally low.

La Niña has wreaked havoc on weather systems around the country, sending storms to Baton Rouge, San Antonio and Boston, while Colorado, California and pretty much the entire Southwest United States stay dry. Colorado is at 68% of normal snowpack with the southwest Rockies in even worse shape. The Sierra Nevada snowpack – a key source of California’s water supply – is at 30% of average. Many parts of New Mexico have received less than a half inch of rain, making it one of the driest starts to a water year on record in the state.

In fact, it’s really not looking good for the entire Colorado River Basin. Earlier this month NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center released its first forecast for 2018, predicting that spring runoff into Lake Powell would only be 54% of average. According to Jeff Lukas, who studies long-term climate shifts at the Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado’s snowpack is “well below normal, halfway through the snow accumulation season. Essentially, time is running out to make up that deficit.”

Is Colorado ready?

It’s certainly been a rough start to winter. And while the lack of snow is bad for snow-dependent businesses now, what does it mean for water supplies as we move into spring and summer?

Here in Colorado the dry start to winter is a sobering reminder of the importance of drought management and water conservation to maintain our quality of life and preserve our beautiful natural places. Thankfully, we’ve got the Colorado Water Plan which maps out solutions to deal with these scenarios as we move toward a warmer, drier, more populated future. Now we just need to ramp up its implementation.

Doing more with less

One advantage Colorado water managers have is flexibility. Meaning there are tools in place that can be deployed to move limited supplies of water around to where it’s needed most. During a dry year like this, that might mean moving water away from farms to meet demand in thirsty cities. Historically this would lead to farmland being pulled out of production, harming rural economies. But nowadays we have the opportunity to use flexible and innovative tools called Alternative Transfer Mechanisms (ATMs).

ATMs enable farmers to keep land available for agricultural production, while temporarily moving their water to cities, the environment or other users. This helps to maintain farmland viability in the state and introduces a new source of income for agricultural producers. This flexibility enables the state maintain a healthy agricultural economy and more easily meet water demands, even during times of drought.

The Colorado Water Plan sets a measurable objective to share at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water using voluntary ATMs by 2030. Our estimates show that approximately 16,000 to 17,000 acre-feet of water is now moved annually using ATMs. That’s one piece of the puzzle, but we’ll need more rapid implementation to weather future weak snow years (and yes, they’re becoming more frequent). And we’ll certainly need to explore additional solutions if we’re going to support the projected population growth that Colorado is headed towards.

There’s still time

There is still time left in the season, and it is possible that precipitation may increase. I’m keeping my eye on a storm moving through the northern Rockies this afternoon. Maybe I’ll go skiing.

Either way, I’m thankful water managers in Colorado are ahead of the game and have taken precautions to keep reservoirs full. So far this winter has been a reminder of just how important this sort of long-term planning is. But planning isn’t enough. Now we have to actually start bringing ATMs and other solutions to fruition.


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