WESTERN SAN JUANS - A very dry winter on the Western Slope is resulting in disturbing water forecasts from experts, and pushing water users to protect their senior water rights.
On May 1, the Uncompaghre Valley Water Users Association, which supplies Montrose County farmers with irrigation water, requested a call on its water rights on the Uncompahgre River.
If approved, the state engineer, who administers the call, will start at the top of the list of junior holders to UVWUA and have head gates shut off in order of seniority to that right until the goal of the call is achieved.
The association could put a call on a 100 percent of its rights, but is only calling enough rights to maintain its current 70 percent irrigation flow to its farmers.
“The water users are doing everyone a big favor by holding farmers to 70 percent and putting a call on only its rights up to 70 percent,” Tri-County Water General Manager Mike Berry said.
The water users are hoping it's enough, UVWUA Assistant Manager Ed Suppes said.
The call could affect Tri-County Water, as its second water right, which currently is being used to fill the Ridgway Reservoir, was obtained in 1996 – not far up on the seniority list, Berry said.
That would mean that Ridgway Reservoir will stay where it is – about 87 percent full – until the call is fulfilled, he said.
UVWUA did not say how long the call will remain, but it will affect junior holders both above and below Ridgway Reservoir.
“That will get the inflows up and keep us from using our storage,” Suppes said.
In regards to the Gunnison Tunnel, UVWUA has about 104,000 acre-feet of water storage in Blue Mesa Reservoir that should keep the tunnel running at 100 percent, Suppes said.
The recent actions by water and agricultural experts are a reaction to the current water forecasts.
Reservoirs, including Blue Mesa and Taylor Park, are not expected to fill this year due to the dry winter, said Dan Crabtree, water management group chief for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Blue Mesa is at less than 50 percent of normal, but is expected to fill to about 78 percent, according to forecasts. Taylor Park, if managed as expected, could fill to 80 percent of normal.
In the Blue Mesa SNOTEL group, this year's snowpack peaked at around 12 inches (snow water equivalent) by mid-April, a drastic decline from last year's 25 inches in early May.
This year's trends are mirroring 2002, according to the state's forecast center – and 2002 was a devastating water year.
“In some communities in western and eastern Colorado, towns literally dried up and they had to haul in water for residential use,” Crabtree said of 2002. “In a lot of other areas, the water right call came on and the junior diverters had to curtail their usage, and it caused a lot of ranches, hay and land operations, to dry up and reduce the number of cuttings.”
That year, the UVWUA put a call on its Uncompaghre River rights on April 18. That call stayed on until September, and irrigation flows were at 50 percent, Berry said.
Adding to the distress of 2002 were several prior years of drought that had reservoirs already low.
That is not the case this year, as 2011 was a good water year for the state.
“A lot of farmers are calling in about letting ground lay,” Suppes said. “We don't want to encourage that because we don't know what is going to happen. It still needs to warm up so that we get the rest of the runoff, as we are not certain what's up there.”
Grizzly Peak, McClure Pass, Park Cone, Spring Creek Pass and Willow Creek Pass sites have lost all snow cover at measurement sites, according to April 27 updates from the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
According to April 10 reports, Red Mountain Pass was at 55 percent of normal snowpack, while the Upper San Juan was at 45 percent of normal.
New forecast numbers are expected to be released shortly, but were not available as of press time.
Suppes said UVWUA is constantly evaluating the water situation and making adjustments so that it is prepared for not only this year, but for possible future dry years.
Although agriculture will feel the effects, Berry said that he doesn't expect any restrictions for residential water user, but does ask that people be responsible.
Crabtree agreed, saying, “People shouldn't panic, but they should be diligent in their water use and trust that there are water managers that have been through this before and who are working together.”