Water-supply forecasts for 2014 continue looking good for most Colorado farmers.
Already ahead of the norm a month ago, new reports show snowpack and reservoirs levels improved even more during February.
In particular, northeast Colorado, which is the largest ag-producing area in the state, has historically good water supplies heading into March — what many consider the most critical month for water supplies.
Snowpack on March 1 in the South Platte River Basin, which supplies northeast Colorado, was 151 percent of historic average, according to figures released Thursday by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
That was an improvement from a month earlier, when snowpack was already at 126 percent of average.
Reservoir levels were also well above normal as of March 1, according to the report. Collective reservoir levels in the South Platte basin were at 112 percent of historic average, a slight uptick from Feb. 1, when reservoirs were at 111 percent of average.
Snowpack and reservoir measures for much of Colorado have been at normal levels or better for a while, but many water users were reluctant to get their hopes up, for months saying there was still a long way to go before the water outlook would be clear enough for farmers to know what they’d be working with during the 2014 growing season.
But now that we’re in March, those good numbers are really starting to mean something, water experts say.
March is often a big snow month in Colorado and plays a big part in water providers forecasting supplies for the year.
A healthy water supply is vital for Colorado’s agriculture industry that, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, uses about 85 percent of the state’s water.
And it’s especially critical for northeast Colorado — which includes the state’s five-most ag-productive counties, including Weld County, where the ag industry makes about a $1.5 billion economic impact annually and ranks eighth nationally for its production.
Like other water users, March is particularly critical for the ag industry, as farmers typically begin spring planting in April, and make their planting decisions largely based on water-supply forecasts.
In addition to being good for the South Platte basin, the recent NRCS report showed that water supplies are in good shape on the western side of the state.
The Colorado River Basin — which supplies much of western Colorado, but still supplies a large chunk of eastern Colorado’s water needs through transmountain tunnels that cross the Continental Divide — had similar numbers to those of the South Platte basin.
Snowpack for the Colorado basin increased to 130 percent of average on March 1, while reservoir levels were 97 percent of average.
Statewide, snowpack totals increased considerably during February. As a whole, Colorado received above normal snow accumulation throughout the past month as multiple storm systems moved through the state.
As of March 1, the state’s collective snowpack was 116 percent of average, and statewide precipitation total’s for February reached 133 percent of average.
Reservoir storage across the state remains just below average, at 89 percent of average. However, this is a great improvement over last year’s conditions at this time when storage was just 67 percent of average.
With the current snowpack conditions and storage volumes, drought conditions in most basins should be alleviated and reservoir storage should improve this spring, according to NRCS officials.
Optimism in SE Colo.
Farmers are even optimistic in southeast Colorado, where the water situation has been bleak for years.
According to reports from The Pueblo Chieftain, the Arkansas Valley’s three largest irrigation well-owner groups have submitted plans to the state with varying degrees of optimism, after they were limited in 2013. Pumping levels depend on the availability of surface supplies for augmentation, and all indications at a still early point in the growing season are pointing toward more favorable conditions than farmers have seen in the last three years.
“It’s almost like we’ve been on an extended summer vacation,” Dale Mauch, a Lamar farmer and Fort Lyon Canal board member, told the Chieftain. “It would be so much fun to plant a corn crop again. You’ve got to stay optimistic in this business, if not just for your mental health.”
The Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, serving the eastern end of the Arkansas Valley, wants to pump its irrigation wells at 90 percent capacity, up from 10 percent last year. The Arkansas Groundwater Users Association, which augments wells on Fountain Creek and the area east of Pueblo, is a little more cautious, planning an initial allocation of about 65 percent for farms — up from 30 percent last year. The Colorado Water Protective and Development Association, which covers wells throughout the valley, is looking at something less than 65 percent, but better than 2013, when wells without an independent supply were shut down.
SW Colo. Still Struggling
However, the southwest part of the state — the Upper Rio Grande and the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins — is still experiencing below normal snow conditions for this time of year.
The combined San Juan basins did see a 3 percentage point increase from last month and are currently at 85 percent of median. The Upper Rio Grande basin on the other hand lost 5 percentage points, dropping to just 79 percent of median. ❖