Northern Colorado snowpack saw gains in April while south needs moisture | TheFencePost.com

Northern Colorado snowpack saw gains in April while south needs moisture

After an unusually dry winter, some parts of Colorado finally got a much-needed reprieve with snow and rain in April. For others, however, the limited amount of precipitation that fell was too little, too late.

According to Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey Supervisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, precipitation in April brought the northern half of the state to near-average levels of snowpack for the year. That was a surprise, he said, since by this time of year, snowpack already is starting to melt, but from the Gunnison River Basin north, nearly all basins saw gains in snowpack numbers.

The southern half of the state, though, fell further behind average. The snowpack south of the Gunnison River Basin has already started to melt, and this part of the state didn't receive as much moisture as its northern counterpart.

"The places that really needed it did not get what was needed and the places that were still in need because they were below normal got some precipitation," Domonkos said. "However, it wasn't enough to really make up for the deficit, but the deficit is nowhere near as great as that in the southern portion of the state."

The majority of Colorado is considered to be in some level of a drought, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's U.S. Drought Monitor, last released on April 26 with data updated on April 24. Areas of extreme drought expanded in southern Colorado. The only area of the state not considered to be in a drought or abnormally dry is the northeastern and north central parts of the state.

Eric Brown, spokesperson for Northern Water, which collects water on the West and East Slope and provides water for much of northeastern Colorado, said April's moisture was very beneficial for the area, especially considering the abnormal dryness throughout the month of March.

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"Through all of March — which is a critical month for snowpack — the South Platte River Basin's snowpack levels were stuck between 80 and 85 percent of normal, and that was the case all the way up to the first week of April," he said.

The South Platte River Basin was at 89 percent of normal levels as of April 26, after peaking at 93 percent after some of the storms in April, Brown said. The Colorado River Basin, which is where Northern Water's large Colorado-Big Thompson project captures the majority of its water, has also seen increases from the recent moisture. Before the storms in April, it hovered around 80 percent of the average, and is now at 86 percent of the historic average, according to snowpack data from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The added moisture in some parts of the state should make for better runoff this spring, which helps paint a prettier picture for farmers in the northern part of the state. Plus, Brown said the direct moisture falling on farmland should have improved soil quality.

"Some of that recent moisture also came in the form of direct rain and snow on the area's farm fields, helping with soil moisture, which is critical at planting time and can also help farmers hold off on how quickly they have to start irrigating after the crop is planted," he said. "Even if that moisture might have slowed up some farmers in getting out in their fields, I would guess the recent moisture was beneficial for nearly everyone."

And those gains in soil moisture were much needed. According to the Drought Monitor, topsoil moisture in Colorado was 53 percent very short to short as of April 22, but that was an 8-point improvement from the previous week. That said, winter wheat conditions declined for the week ending on April 22, with a 5 percent increase to 29 percent of the crop rated very poor to poor in Colorado.

In early April, the Northern Water board of directors voted to increase their C-BT project quota allocation for 2018 to 80 percent from its 50 percent quota in November. The C-BT quota sets the percentage of water from the project each participant can use for the year, and the 80 percent quota means that in 2018, each water user can use 8/10 of each acre-foot of water they own. For example, if someone owns rights to 100 acre-feet of water, they can use 80 of those acre-feet of water over the year.

Brown said the allocation was increased based on strong levels of regional water storage and the below-average precipitation this winter. As a whole, Colorado's reservoir system is at 110 percent of its historic average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He also said that the quota each year is set to ensure enough water is left in the reservoir system to protect future years' water supply.

As we move into the spring and summer, Domonkos said the further south you go in Colorado, the more worried farmers are likely starting to get about moisture levels — and they're not wrong, he said.

"(In the southern half of the state) we have low snowpack, we have very low precipitation year-to-date and while reservoirs are still normal to above normal in most cases, with as dry as we are, it is definitely something to watch," he said.

C-BT Quotas for the last 10 years

2008 – 70 percent

2009 – 80 percent

2010 – 80 percent

2011 – 80 percent

2012 — 100 percent

2013 — 60 percent

2014 — 60 percent

2015 — 70 percent

2016 — 70 percent

2017 – 80 percent

COLORADO SNOWPACK/RESERVOIR LEVELS

Figures represent percentage of historic average

Basin / Snowpack / Reservoir Storage

Gunnison / 53 / 109

Upper Colorado / 86 / 118

South Platte / 89 / 106

North Platte / 100 / 129

Yampa/White River / 86 / 129

Arkansas / 55 / 139

Upper Rio Grande / 22 / 119

San Miguel (others in SW. Colo.) / 25 / 101

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service