There’s a long way to go before the irrigation and lawn-watering seasons begin, but water providers and users in the region can’t help but feel a little optimistic.
Water supplies in the South Platte River Basin, which covers most of northeast Colorado, are heading into 2014 at normal levels — a much better situation than seen during the past couple years.
A snowpack survey from the Natural Resources Conservation Service released this week — the first comprehensive report since June — showed that snowpack in the basin on Jan. 1 was 99 percent of historic average, and collective reservoir storage levels were slightly above normal, at 105 percent of average.
“There’s certainly an optimism now that hasn’t been there in a while,” said Mike Hungenberg, an Eaton-area farmer who serves as the president of the New Cache La Poudre Irrigation and Reservoir companies, which had their annual meetings Wednesday morning.
Hungenberg and others were quick to point out, though, it will be the heavy snow months of March and April that play the biggest part in water supplies for the upcoming growing season — as is the case every year.
But they’ll certainly take what looks to be a solid start to 2014.
A healthy water supply is vital for Hungenberg and an agriculture industry that, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, uses about 85 percent of the state’s water. And it’s critical for Weld County, where the ag industry makes about a $1.5 billion economic impact annually, which ranks eighth nationally.
The recent NRCS report also showed that water supplies are in good shape on the western side of the state as well, which has an impact locally.
The Colorado River Basin — which flows in the opposite direction of Greeley and Weld County, but still supplies a chunk of the region’s water needs through transmountain tunnels that cross the Continental Divide — had similar numbers to those of the South Platte Basin.
Snowpack for the Colorado Basin was 102 percent of average on Jan. 1, while reservoir levels were 98 percent of average.
Hungenberg said that with many reservoirs already full in northern Colorado, the snowpack in the mountains should make a more direct path downhill in the spring, possibly allowing farmers to get an early start on irrigating.
Hungenberg also said that, with reservoirs full and snowpack at solid levels, there’s optimism that cities will be more willing to lease some of their extra water to farmers and ranchers this year, if the water situation still looks good down the road. In 2013, most cities leased little or no water at all to ag users, because cities had to refill their reservoirs, which had been depleted during the 2012-13 drought.
Along with Hungenberg, others, too, are optimistic.
“There’s a long way to go, but any time those (snowpack and reservoir) numbers are around the triple digits, we’ll take ’em,” said Brian Werner, public information officer and records manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. The district oversees the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which, with its system of a dozen reservoirs, is the largest water-supply project in the region, supplying about one-fourth of the total water supply in northeast Colorado. (The majority of that C-BT Project water is diverted from the West Slope’s Colorado River Basin.)
Thanks to significant early-season snowfall across Colorado, the state as a whole is enjoying the best start to a winter season since 2011, according to the NRCS report.
It’s a far better situation than seen during the past couple years. On Jan. 1, 2012, snowpack was 85 percent of average in the South Platte Basin, with the entire state sitting at 72 percent of average. The 2012 drought would later set in, and leave snowpack statewide at a record-tying low of 2 percent of average by May 2012.
On Jan. 1, 2013, snowpack in the South Platte Basin was down at 70 percent of average. Making matters worse a year ago, the South Platte’s reservoir levels were only at 77 percent of average, and statewide, reservoirs were only 67 percent of average, because reservoirs had been depleted during previous drought.
“Of course, we still have a long way to go this year,” said Jon Monson, the director of Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department. “But any time we can get a good base like we have now, that’s a good thing.”