State water taskforce has its fingers crossed for monsoons and El Nino

Author: Marianne Goodland - July 25, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

“Rains flushing ash, sediment and debris into the Animas River from 416 Fire. Lots of fish are dying. Water the color of a chocolate bar. Run-off likely to continue for months,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest Region tweeted. (Photo courtesy @CPW_SW via Twitter)

Monday and Tuesday’s downpours, which led to flash flooding in some parts of the state and the cancellation of flights at Denver International Airport, did not go unnoticed by the water watchers around the state. It’s a sign of annual monsoon moisture, which the state’s water availability task force has been waiting for.

Between the monsoons, which are already boosting precipitation numbers almost everywhere in Colorado, and a hoped-for El Niño winter, Colorado might just do okay with its water situation for the next couple of months.

The Monday and Tuesday rainstorms produced as much as two inches of rain each in many parts of the state. While they caused problems in urban areas, they provided welcome moisture for parts of the state experiencing drought so severe it’s setting records and drawing comparisons to the disastrous drought of 2002.

The water year, which runs from October to October, is the third warmest in the 123 years the state has been keeping those records, said Becky Bolinger of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University on Tuesday.

The average for this water year has been 2.9 degrees above average from October through June, she reported.

This warm year includes three months with above-average temperatures: last November, which was the warmest on record; May, which was the second warmest; and June, the third warmest.

Temperatures in June and July have been averaging three to five degrees above average, she said. And that’s not likely to change for the next three months, either, especially in Southwestern Colorado, which is facing the worst drought of any part of the state. At the same time, rainfall in June and July are still below normal, no surprise to many drought-stricken parts of the state, where rainfall is 4.21 inches below the state’s average annual rainfall of 12.74 inches.

But the moisture numbers, beginning in July, are promising, she said. Drought monitors are predicting a more active monsoon season, particularly for western Colorado. And an El Niño watch has been issued, which means that there’s a greater than 70 percent chance that an El Niño weather pattern will develop this fall and into the winter.

For Colorado, that means water, almost everywhere.

Bolinger sees it as a bright spot that will mean Colorado could be at the tail end of its current drought. She hopes for a “nice, snowy winter,” especially for Colorado’s southern mountains, which this year have been hit the hardest by lack of snow and rain and faster than average melting of the snowpack.

Brian Domonkos, a hydrologist with the National Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reviewed the situation for each of Colorado’s major river basins.

The Gunnison basin is at its worst point, Domonkos said, with rainfall in June at just 17 percent of average, drawing a comparison to the rain that failed to fall in 2002, the state’s worst drought year. Combined with a record low snowpack, Domonkos called the situation in the Gunnison basin “a double whammy.”

However, the start of the July monsoon season has been welcome in the area, which is drawing 75 percent of its normal precipitation.

The news for southwestern Colorado, home to the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan rivers, is better — sort of. The area, which has been plagued all summer by the 416 fire, had 64 percent of average rainfall in June and 106 percent, or above average rainfall, so far in July. But that’s for an area that only sees an inch of rain per month, and the area’s reservoir levels are still fairly low, he said.

If you’re a farmer, the news on water supply in Colorado’s northeastern region couldn’t be better. There’s been record moisture in some parts of the South Platte River, the main waterway that serves that area, Domonkos said.

The state is so far at about 85 percent of normal rainfall through the first three weeks of July, not counting Monday or Tuesday’s heavy downpours in much of the state.

But the heavy rains are now creating other problems, according to southwestern Colorado representatives on the task force. Heavy rain in the 416 burn area has led to ash and other debris flowing into the Animas River. That’s led to a massive fish kill, according to Ryan Unterreiner, the southwest region water resource specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He believes the fish kill will be fairly significant and that it will take years for the fish population to recover.

The other problem is how warm the river waters are, leading to restrictions on fishing in some areas. “We have concerns with every river in the southwest region” on temperature, he said.

Fishing restrictions also are in place in other parts of the state, such as on the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado. There are also concerns about water levels even on the Front Range, such as for Bear Creek between Evergreen and Morrison, and at Elevenmile and Spinney reservoirs west of Colorado Springs, according to Jackie Corday, also with the division of parks and wildlife.

Water watchers are keeping their fingers crossed for the next three months and are hopeful for copious amounts of snow, come winter.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.