A lateral flows Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association-managed water to local fields. This year, rounds of winter storms have made for a good water picture, but have affected the association's ability to burn debris from irrigation ditches and delayed getting crops in the ground. (Courtesy photo/UVWUA)
The snow just kept coming, shattering grimmer expectations held midway through last year. Multiple storms starting last November pushed the snowpack up — and up. As of Thursday, March 16, the snow-water equivalent in the Gunnison Basin stood at 146% of median.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s data from earlier in the month showed the unregulated inflow volume to the big watering hole of Blue Mesa Reservoir is projected to hit 105% of average in May, at 215,000 acre-feet. (Unregulated inflow is representative of what would have happened if not for reservoir regulation upstream at a given location.) For the 2023 water year, the unregulated inflow is expected to be 100% of average. Actual live storage capacity was projected to be at 71% by the end of the water year in September.
It’s a mixed blessing — although one farmers will take.
“Right now (conditions) are looking pretty good,” said Steve Pope, Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association manager. “Our struggle right now is getting dry enough ground to burn ditches and get them ready for the upcoming irrigation. We’re taking every dry opportunity we can to get out there.”
The water users manage a system of irrigation canals fed by the Gunnison Tunnel, which takes Gunnison River water to those with water rights and, pending availability, pump contracts.
The UVWUA’s storage pots include Taylor Park and Ridgway reservoirs; the former has already reached first fill and has a good snowpack above it. Pope also said Ridgway is doing extremely well, with quite a bit of snow above it. “Right now, it looks like we’re trending in the right direction,” he said.
Pope estimated about 5 more inches of snowpack now than at about the same time last year, and was optimistic the trend would continue for the next few weeks — with a few cautions.
“The main concern is, if it gets really warm really quickly and stays that way, our ability to control that water becomes a challenge,” he said. Too-high temperatures will melt the snowpack off the mountains too rapidly for the UVWUA and others to capture all of it.
Another bit of good news: there appears to be less dust hitting the snowpack right now. Dust is thought to accelerate snowmelt. Pope said wetter conditions in places from which the wind carries the dust have served to tamp down on it.
While rejoicing over a better-looking water year, the UVWUA is also assessing its structures for repairs and needs to clear debris from ditches. Pope said it is possible that the snowpack will push more debris into draws, which then could make it into the canals, so his team is on alert.
“The weather’s impacted us, but it’s probably slowed down the farmers too. They can’t get their equipment out in the fields as quickly as they would like,” Pope said.
“We’ve got to get some drying weather now,” Olathe farmer John Harold said. Harold’s family grows the signature Olathe Sweet sweet corn, as well as onions. They should be planting the onions right about now, but the ground is too wet.
“I think most onion growers are nervous. Sweet corn, we probably have time. … We probably have time for both,” he said. “As a farmer, you can’t complain about the moisture, but I’m ready to.”
What farmers need, he said, are some cold nights to firm up the ground so it can be prepared, then some warmer days to dry the soil a bit. He’s hopeful the forecast for the next few nights of lower temperatures bears out.
Harold said the water users association had hoped to have water in the canals by April 10, about a week later than usual, but right now, it is too wet to burn debris from the ditches. Harold will be planting 175 acres of onions and said he would rather be doing it “tomorrow” instead of next month.
“There’s nothing we can do but wait. That’s hard,” said Harold, although he and others have been plowing. “It will be a little tougher to work the ground this year, because we’re just not getting those cold nights, which is unusual.”
He reiterated his hope for colder nights to harden the ground, and rounds of daily sunshine to dry the earth.
“Other than that, we’ll be hunky-dory. At least we’re not California. They’ve got real problems,” Harold said.
Parts of the Sierra range in California have seen feet of snow drop in single storms, imperiling lives and homes — and setting up the region for significant flooding when melt-off occurs.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s March 15 “snow drought update” names California and the Great Basin as the places with the deepest snowpack and notes the flood risk is enhanced due to spring runoff and high-elevation rain.
The same update notes that south and south-central Colorado snowpack draining into the Arkansas, White and Red rivers is of concern, because of low snow water equivalent compared to records for the Sange de Cristo range.
“So far, we’re not getting much for ground temps,” Harold said of the situation in his and other fields. “But, there’s not a dust problem. There’s not a smoke problem, because you can’t burn ditches.”
As bounteous as winter storms have been, as usual, they’re insufficient to lift the West out of drought.
“We’re going to need a number of years like this to lift us in the right direction, but we’re sure happy for every time we get it (water), that’s for sure. It really comes down to timing right now,” Pope said.
“I think all of us feel real good about that (snowpack and runoff), as long as it doesn’t come too fast,” said Harold. “But things look pretty good.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.
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