WESTERN SLOPE – With a number of strong winter storms seeming to bypass southwestern Colorado this past winter, it’s no surprise that San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, San Juan, and Rio Grande watershed snowpack levels are below the overall state average of 114 percent. For rafters and anglers eager for a long summer of fun on the river, there’s no need to panic, though, because a lot can happen in the next couple of months.
According to the most recent snowpack percentages provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan watersheds, as a group, are currently at 88 percent of average, while the Upper Rio Grande is at 79 percent. And these two watershed groups are the only two in Colorado reporting average levels of below 100 percent.
Statewide the snowpack level is 114 percent of average, with the highest snowpack levels found in the Yampa/White (133 percent of average) and North Platte (138 percent of average) watersheds in northwestern Colorado.
“There are just those two areas in the state that are predicted to have below-average stream levels this summer,” said soil conservationist Lenny Lang, from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Grand Junction office. “It was a La Niña year, and most of the storms favored the northern mountains. Basically everything in the state looks really good except for those two areas.”
But while the numbers are a fairly reliable indicator of where snowpack levels currently stand, one must take them with a grain of salt, because the weather we experience between now and June is crucial, when trying to anticipate summer river levels, says Telluride Outside co-owner John Duncan, who believes snowpack percentages in April mean very little. Telluride Outside is just one of a handful of outfitters in the region that depend on river flows for guided rafting fish-fishing excursions.
“What happens over the next couple of months may be even more important than what has come before us,” Duncan said, discussing what kind of weather the Western Slope can expect over the next couple of months. More snow and a cold spring, for example, would mean a later runoff – and a longer rafting season, while warm temperatures through early June could lead to an early runoff – and a shorter season. Then, throw in the possibility of one of those snowpack-killing dust-storms blowing in from Arizona, and the melting process speeds up even more. “Those are the factors that dictate the runoff schedule,” Duncan said.
Judging from the current snowpack percentages, and hoping for favorable weather, Duncan anticipates that the 2011 rafting season will extend to the Fourth of July.
“I think we are going to have a shorter-than-normal rafting season,” he said. “Even though it’s been windy lately, we have not had many dust-storms. If we make it rafting until July 15, we are jumping for joy. We have only made that one time in the last three years.
“With 80 percent snowpack on the ground right now, and kind of normal weather conditions, I think we’ll make it to the Fourth of July.”
Looking back further at his outfitter’s history of rafting on the San Miguel, Duncan noted that between 1984 and 2001, the average closing date for rafting on the San Miguel River was Aug.1.
“In the last ten years we had hit August first exactly once,” he said, adding that meteorologists say that the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were abnormally wet. “Whether this is the new norm or it’s just a return to weather as normal remains to be seen.”
For rivers relying on reservoir storage, Lang said, the data corresponds (to snowpack averages), with reservoir levels statewide at 103 percent of average, and the San Miguel, Dolores and Animas watershed reservoir storage average coming in at 82 percent.
For boaters seeking a trip on the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir, indications are there will be a release sometime in May, but precisely when is unclear. According to an updated press release issued on April 12 by the Dolores Water Conservation District, the release of 800 Cubic Feet per Second (CFS) intended for Memorial Day weekend is now expected to come May 20.
“Remember, in 2009 McPhee filled early, and the releases had to start on May 11,” the press release states. “In 2010, reservoir capacity allowed holding back until May 24, but started five feet lower (20,000 acre-feet). So the timing of the spring melt will be the primary driver (temperature and solar radiation). Basically we’re back to a fill and spill operation and we will try to update the controlling parameters of reservoir elevation, inflow and outflow.”
The Dolores Water Conservation District officials will also continue to monitor dust-storms (and anything that may hasten the runoff and raise the reservoir earlier that anticipated).
For more information on the Dolores River releases visit doloreswater.com and for updated snowpack levels visit co.nrcs.usda.gov.