Colorado winter snow outlook bleak after a dry summer season; Emergency drought plan activated | Colorado Springs Information

Despite the recent welcome snowfall, the long-term outlook for Colorado’s winters is bleak after a dry summer and record fires across the state.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling for drought conditions to persist across the state and possibly worsen into next year as a weather pattern in La Niña brings above-average temperatures and arid conditions to the American southwest, said David Miskus, a climate meteorologist Forecast center.

The entire state is already seeing drought conditions, with more than two-thirds being affected by extreme or exceptional drought. Most of El Paso County is in extreme drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

To make preparation easier, Colorado has activated its municipal drought plan for the second time in history as several cities say they need to prepare for the almost certainly dangerously dry year of 2021.

For Colorado Springs Utilities, enabling the Drought Plan means improving communication among other major water users about water storage, future water supplies, and operational plans, said Patrick Wells, general manager, Colorado Springs Utilities Water Resources and Demand Management.

Colorado Springs maintains a water reservoir for the city worth about three years, and this is the community’s primary buffer during dry periods, he said.

Planning for drought and water supplies in the state is getting harder as supplies become more variable, according to Wells and other experts.

“We have seen many times in recent droughts that conditions can change from fairly wet to fairly dry to extremely dry pretty quickly,” he said.

For example, last winter snowfall was quite heavy across the state, and by April 1, snowpack for the upper Colorado River Basin was 100% of the average. But the basin recorded only 52% of normal drainage if experts expected to see much, much more water, said Brad Udall, senior scientist on water and climate research at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute.

Colorado Springs relies heavily on water from the Colorado River Basin.

The water in the Colorado Basin was likely lost to thirsty soils because the fall of 2019 was so dry and likely some water evaporated in the warm spring temperatures, he said.

“It’s not typical, but it could very well be our future,” said Udall.

For water users along the Lower Arkansas River in counties like Pueblo and Otero, 2020 snowpack runoff came quickly along with higher temperatures that resulted in evaporation, said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

“It’s been a very, very strange year with water,” he said.

However, he agrees with Udall that higher temperatures and lower flow rates may be the new normal. In the lakes east of Pueblo, 50% of their capacity is being lost to evaporation, and that could increase, he said. Hence, projects to preserve the water in the system need to be tackled to deal with it, he said.

“We still manage water as we did 50 years ago,” said Winner.

Lining ditches and ponds can help more water reach the fields, and once it gets there, pivot sprinkler systems and drip irrigation can also help farms water more efficiently, he said.

At the Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Cañon City, staff were also surprised that the Arkansas did not rise to more normal rivers this year and that they fell off pretty quickly, said Ben Sacks, general manager. However, the dam at Twin Lakes held water in the river until mid-August during a heavy outdoor tourist season, he said.

“We really can’t complain,” he said.

The company can do it in low flow years by putting fewer tourists on each raft to keep them nimble, he said. But drought also adds to the risk of forest fires, which pose a much greater threat to tourism, he said.

The state assumes that water protection and water efficiency will play a large part in controlling water demand in the future. This year, in January, Colorado Springs first introduced permanent outdoor irrigation restrictions.

Colorado Springs Utilities considers first year a success as it saved 500 acres of water, Wells said. An acre of water is 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water it takes to cover one acre of water.

The rules limit outdoor watering to three days a week and prohibit water during the heat of the day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from May 1 to October 15.

During the first year of restrictions, utilities focused on educating the public while more enforcement actions are planned for the next year, Wells said. Residents could be fined $ 100 after being reported twice for violations.

“We are really trying to introduce a new ethic of long-term water conservation,” he said.

Fresh Water News contributed to this story.

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