By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL—(March 2) Although winter snows brought welcome precipitation—and powder snow– to the high country, snowpack levels in the Gunnison River Basin have dropped to just 72 percent of an average year when it comes to snow water equivalent and just 69 percent when it comes to accumulated precipitation.  Although the Western Slope is not facing the dire circumstances of communities located along the bone-dry Front Range, an awareness of water as a finite resource will be essential as we move into the spring and summer seasons, officials say.

The large scale predictions of the Climate Prediction Center indicate below normal precipitation levels through June; however, predictions of the local National Weather Service Office in Grand Junction show that odds favor near to above normal precipitation levels for April, followed by drier than average levels in May and June, according to National Weather Service Forecaster Jim Pringle.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” Pringle said.

Although the Gunnison Tunnel was scheduled to open Monday, UVWUA Manager Steve Fletcher acknowledged that irrigation water, which will be running at 50 percent this growing season, will be tightly managed.

“Unfortunately, our storage is down going into the season,” Fletcher said. “Last year, we were at 100 percent storage going into the season, with second fill. This year our storage is at 80 percent going in, with no second fill.”

Many growers are setting ground aside this year, he noted, and all are planning ahead for a very dry year. Those who rent water on a year-to-year basis from UVWUA will not be able to do so this year, he said.

“If you have a share that is allocated to the ground, you can use it,” Fletcher said. “But contract, or rented water, won’t be renewed—we can only make the water go so far.”

Although spring rains could ease the situation, Fletcher added he expects to make administrative calls on both the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers this summer.

“We won’t do it until we absolutely have to,” he said, “but we will undoubtedly call out both rivers sometime over the summer.”

“We are definitely in the second year of a drought,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Assistant Engineer Jason Ullman said. “Snowpack conditions in the Gunnison River basin are not good, only around 70 percent of average in many areas. The best areas of the basin appear to be on the west end of the Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau. Unfortunately, not much of the water used for irrigation in the valley comes from the Plateau.”

Storage levels are much lower than they were during the drought of 2002, he said.

“For instance, we started 2002 with over 512,500 acre-feet in storage at Blue Mesa Reservoir, and this year we began April with 333,813 acre-feet in storage,” Ullman said.

“In fact, given that April-to-July runoff is forecast by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center at only 53 percent of normal, we could end the year in Blue Mesa at a lower point then we have seen since it filled in the late 60’s.”

Temperature will play a role in just how dry things get. Ullman pointed out that cooler weather could prolong runoff, which would benefit irrigators, but that sudden heat could be less favorable, causing snowpack to melt too rapidly.

“Even if we have record snow the rest of the year, we will have runoff significantly below average in all areas of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre basins,” Ullman said, “meaning that there will be more calls and administration required by our office. It will be a tough year for the Gunnison basin, and really all of Colorado, since the entire state is currently running at snowpack levels well below average, (resulting) in low spring runoff forecasts.”

Local communities do not have the “teeth” that Front Range municipalities have when it comes to enforcing water restrictions, noted Project 7 Water Authority Manager Adam Turner. Established in 1977, Project 7 is a cooperative effort that encompasses seven local entities: the municipalities of Montrose, Delta and Olathe, as well as The Tri-County Water Conservancy District; Menoken Water District; Chipeta Water District and Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).

“I believe that we will have plenty of water for domestic water users,” Turner said. “We would like you to be judicious when it comes to using house water on your lawn—when ditch water runs short, people tend to water with the hose, which could put a strain on the drinking water system, because it is all coming from the same pot.

“We have no tools in place to enforce water restrictions here,” he said, “so we just ask people to be aware, and not to waste water.”

Statewide, average water use runs around 165  gallons per capita per day, Turner said, and local water users tend to fall right in line with that average.

“We are not super high on use over here,” he said.

“People here are pretty aware. Of course the numbers go up in the summer in the cities, where there are no ditches, but our users tend to stay around 165,000 to 185,000 gallons per capita per day.”

Worldwide, there are people who live on a few liters of water per day and are happy to get it, he noted.

“The Front Range is really in trouble this year,” Turner said, “and California will use every drop that we don’t claim.

“It’s kind of like being caught between an 800 lb. gorilla and a freight train—so we are trying to share the pain.”