Thu May 10, 2012

Rough Waters Ahead for Summit County Rivers and Reservoirs

Historically low snowpack combined with earlier-than-usual runoff could make this summer difficult for water managers in Summit County. Water officials meeting this week to discuss options are drawing on lessons from a decade ago.

Most of Colorado is in some stage of drought – and climatologists have declared a severe drought in Summit County. Snowmelt from that part of that part of the state feeds reservoirs that supply water to the Front Range and other parts of Colorado – and snowpack there is currently at just 33% of average.

The Summit Daily News reported that snowpack levels haven’t been that low since 2002, a memorable drought year.

That year, water officials were late in implementing a response, says Jim Pokrandt with the Colorado River District. And when they did, those water restrictions weren’t employed evenly across the county.

That information is helping to shape the response plan for this year and next, Pokrandt says.

“Up in Summit County the officials are going to work on some kind of unified response to the drought, so that the public does get a unified message, and won’t be lulled to sleep by, you know, false messages – or no messages."

Low snowpack and subsequently low stream flows impact the state’s recreation economy - and Pokrandt points out that it’s not only ski resorts that are affected.

“You can still do plenty of rafting but you won’t see the high water of last year.. so the rafting industry looks closely at this; the fishing industry; anglers – they’re looking at stream flows because when they get so low, temperatures rise and that can be dangerous to fish health.”

Jason Blevins put it more bluntly in the Denver Post:

“The last time Colorado snowpack was as feeble as it is this spring — at the apex of a parching drought in 2002 — commercial rafters saw summer business plummet 40%.”

Despite that, Blevins goes on to say that many rafting outfitters in the state aren’t worried.

“In fact, without a torrent of snowmelt, outfitters are hoping to start ferrying guests earlier than usual, especially after last year, when commercial rafters didn't really start rolling with guests until late July. But then last year, some rafters were running trips into early fall, which is unlikely to happen this year.”

After a meeting Tuesday in Summit County, Colorado water managers – including officials from Denver Water and the state Bureau of Reclamation - are calling for mostly voluntary water restrictions.

Pokrandt is confident that will be enough... as long as conditions don’t deteriorate too rapidly.

“Thanks to a higher level of water reporting, whether it’s KUNC or the newspapers... I think there is a greater awareness. You can point to the fact that, pretty much across Colorado, because of the 2002 drought, municipal water use has declined 20 percent in the last ten years. At this point we’re hoping that they’re listening to the news, and that as individuals they'll do what they can to use water wisely. As Denver Water puts it – use only what you need.”

The Summit Daily reported on the economic relationship that mountain communities have with snowpack and stream flows.

See the May 8 assessment from the National Integrated Drought Information System (NDIDS) here [pdf].