Optimism increasing

Snowpack, winter storms encourage McPhee managers

Winter storms and a fresh layer of snow have brought a new level of optimism to water discussions in Southwest Colorado.

Buoyed by a recent forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, the local U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office has released a tentative operating plan for McPhee Reservoir which predicts all water allocations will be met for the 2013 water year. Though the state of the area's rivers and reservoirs is far from outstanding, present snow levels and predicted instream flows are reason to be hopeful, according to Vern Harrell, a civil engineering technician with the Bureau of Reclamation's Western Colorado area office.

"It looks fair right now, not really good, but fair," Harrell said. "It looks like we most likely will meet all our obligations for the users."

The present water year comes on the heels of four years of drought conditions which have left local reservoirs dangerously low. Currently, McPhee Reservoir stands 100,000 acre feet below it's reserve elevation in February 2012. The lack of reserve in the reservoir means water users in the area are counting on a solid snowpack and generous runoff to provide operating water for 2013.

"The reason we were able to get through last year, with low snowpack, was because we had considerable water in storage," said Mike Preston, Dolores Water Conservancy District general manager. "Going into this runoff season, we've got a much bigger hole to fill. We are in a deficit that impacts everything."

Should current trends continue, the reservoir would gain enough water to meet needs, Harrell said, but as a result McPhee would be drawn down even further going into next winter.

"Pretty much, if this thing were to play out with the inflow we are predicting and we maxed out everybody's full allocations, which is worst-case scenario demand, it looks like everyone would have a pretty good chance at a full supply," he said.

However, that sort of demand following a year when the reservoir did not fill will mean the region will be right back in the hole for 2014.

"If we do have to fill allocations at full supply, that means next year we will be starting from scratch again," Harrell said. "That is certainly not fun."

Preston said meeting water allocations is the primary goal for those who manage the local reservoir.

"People's livelihood depend on this water," he said. "If we are able to deliver our allocations, that is certainly what we want to do. Managing lower reservoir elevations is more difficult, but if we have the water available we will meet our allocations. That is our priority."

The forecast for the reservoir predicts total accumulation of 205,000 acre feet, roughly 70 percent of average inflow volume. Should the reservoir fill at that rate it would reach a maximum content of 272,988 acre feet, 63 percent full. By October, however, the reservoir would already be pulled down to an elevation lower than where it sits currently. Thus, the cycle of hoping for snow and decent inflow rates would begin again.

Harrell said though forecasts generally attempt to simplify the equation of water supply and demand, many factors influence reservoirs and the ability to support water demand for the coming year.

Though snowpack seems the most obvious key to a decent water year, the timing of the runoff, current soil moisture and summer weather conditions all contribute to the story of water allocations and reservoir demand. The interplay of these factors can support or hurt water supply.

"The worst case scenario is if we quit getting our storms and it turned up dry again and then if that was coupled with a late runoff, early demand and a hot, dry summer," Harrell said. "That's the nightmare. Then we would experience some shortages."

In terms of comparative water years, Harrell said the condition of the reservoir is disturbingly similar to 2002, when the region suffered a dramatic and devastating drought. However, Harrell still finds reason for what he calls "cautious optimism."

"We've still got two months to gain water and I think this last storm was a huge help to us," he said. "To be honest, in January I didn't want to put out an operating plan because it wasn't good. But, I'm feeling pretty good about it now. I think we are going to be OK."

kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.