As March rolled into April, Ken Beck was keeping his eye on the snowdrifts piled on slopes around Vallecito Reservoir in Colorado’s southwestern mountains. Snow reports showed there was about 300,000 acre-feet of water in that snow waiting to flow into the reservoir, he said.
“We had a winter that was just phenomenal. And we had to pull (water storage) down to around 29,000 acre-feet to allow for the snowpack that was above,” said Beck, superintendent of the Pine River Irrigation District, which manages the reservoir located northeast of Durango.
Beck was in good company: Reservoir managers around the state saw water levels rise this year, a boon to downstream users who depend on stored water for drinking, growing crops, supporting industries and managing ecosystems. And as the year progressed, precipitation just kept coming in the form of rain, hail and severe storms.
“It was a season of abundance,” Beck said, “which is nice because we’ve come through some drought years here of late.”
October 2022 to the end of August, which makes up most of the 2023 water year, was the 22nd wettest period since 1896, according to assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger. This is good news for Colorado, a state that draws 83% of its water supply from surface water, like winter snowfall, spring rains and monsoon showers.
The 2023 water year ends Saturday, which makes Sunday a sort of New Year’s Day for water watchers. It’s set up this way to better reflect the cycle of snowpack buildup in the mountains and spring snowmelt into rivers and streams.
The above-average water year helped ease Colorado’s drought conditions. In the overtaxed Colorado River Basin, which begins in the western half of Colorado and spans six other states, the wet year even stabilized several reservoirs that were at historic lows.
But Bolinger said the future is still uncertain for water year 2024 in a state where the water supply varies significantly from year to year.
“What I do know about Colorado, and here’s where I’m going to be my ‘Debbie Downer’ self, is that it’s more common to have drought somewhere in the state. That’s our baseline, right?” Bolinger said.
What did this water year look like in Colorado?
When it comes to precipitation, this water year broke records.
For parts of Weld, Morgan, Adams and Elbert counties, October 2022 to the end of August was the wettest period in 128 years, according to the Colorado Climate Center. Front Range residents saw rain in their forecast and turned off their sprinklers, which cut outdoor, municipal water use in cities like Fort Collins and Aurora.
A record-setting number of severe hail reports poured in, Bolinger said. Clouds full of heavy rain and large hail, one of the most common types of precipitation, flattened fields of corn, wheat and melons in some parts of eastern Colorado. A stormchaser in Yuma County even reported a 5.25-inch hailstone, another record.
“Imagine a 4-inch diameter, you’re talking baseball size — larger, softball size — hitting down on your property,” Bolinger said.
Colorado was even drought-free for part of July. Drought conditions quickly returned to parts of southern and southwestern Colorado, ranging from abnormally dry to being in severe drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The rest of the state is still clear of drought conditions.
In Western Colorado, the atmosphere is sucking up more moisture than usual, she said, and the lack of precipitation, drier air and warmer temperatures are stressing the plant life on the Western Slope.
One reason to monitor plant health is to assess wildfire risk, since fires thrive on dry fuels. As of last week, five fires were burning around the state, and six past fires had been fully contained, according to The Colorado Sun’s wildfire tracker.
The above-average rain and snow this year lifted water storage levels in Colorado’s reservoirs. Water storage plummeted in 2021 and 2022 because of drought conditions, but in most river basins, water levels are back above the 30-year median from 1991 to 2020, according to a presentation by Karl Wetlaufer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service during the Water Availability and Flood Task Force meeting.
The only basin that’s not at or above its median water storage level is the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan combined basin in southwestern Colorado. There, six of seven smaller reservoirs are near or above their 30-year median water level, including Vallecito Reservoir, but the huge Navajo Reservoir, which feeds the San Juan River in northern New Mexico, is lagging behind.
That recovery is good news for water users and water resource managers, Bolinger said.
“We have these reservoirs to provide us cushion because of the variability that we have,” she said. “When you go into the next cold season and you have good reservoir levels, you know that that’s going to help you out in coming seasons if it’s drier.”
What was this water year like for the Colorado River Basin?
The 2023 water year helped stabilize massive reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin, but they are nowhere near full.
Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, was about 38% full, and Lake Mead, on the Arizona-Nevada border, was about 34% full on Monday, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. As of June 2022, those reservoirs were at near-crisis levels — 27% and 28% full, respectively — because of prolonged drought, climate change and overuse.
“Even with record snowpack, the impacts of climate change — warming temperatures, whatever you want to call it — are reducing water supplies even in a big water year like this year,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Earlier this year, as officials saw the substantial snowpack in the Colorado River Basin, Cullom said the main goal would be to avoid squandering the abundant water supply.
He said river officials in the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — have dedicated some of this year’s supply to reimburse Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border and Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison for emergency releases sent down to Lake Powell in 2021 and 2022.
“In that way, we didn’t squander. We took advantage and adapted to the changing hydrology,” he said.
Flaming Gorge sent 588,000 acre-feet to Powell, and Blue Mesa sent about 36,000 acre-feet. Those debts will be restored by March 2024 and mid-December, respectively, Cullom said.
What do Colorado experts expect for water year 2024?
At Vallecito Reservoir, Beck is looking at a solid carryover water supply for 2024. In September 2022, the reservoir held about 47,000 acre-feet of water. This September, it holds about 61,200 acre-feet. That means more cushion for downstream irrigators and, possibly, water releases for environmental purposes, Beck said.
“It looks like we’re going to have another banner year next year, we’ll make sure that there’s some good winter flows to maintain the fishery,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping for: another good year.”
It’s too soon to tell what the conditions will be during next year’s runoff and irrigation seasons — too much can change between now and then, Bolinger said.
She doesn’t envision a repeat of 2023, a summer with a drought-free period, months with below-average temperatures and above-average rains. A repeat is less likely than a return of warm months, dry periods and drought in parts of the state, she said.
“The key is really going to be, how does the snowpack season start?” she said.
Some factors are promising. Colorado is heading into the snow season with an active precipitation pattern and the soils haven’t dried out.
“In that sense, I think that we’re not going to start our snowpack season in a deficit, which is always a good thing,” Bolinger said. “If you’re starting at a deficit — meaning your reservoir levels are low, your soil moisture is dry — you’ve got a lot to make up for … once the spring melting starts. I feel generally good about how our snowpack season is going to start.”
It’s also an El Niño year. In September, October and November, El Niño weather patterns often bolster precipitation for much of the state, with the exception of parts of north-central Colorado.
This isn’t a sure bet — more of a sign of which way El Niño will nudge the state’s precipitation, Bolinger emphasized.
These weather patterns haven’t shown up yet, but they will over the winter and likely toward next spring, she said.
“If I’m gonna hedge my bets, it’s more likely that we’ll get more snow on the plains and in southern Colorado, and it would be more likely that we would start to see that drought that’s currently there improving rather than getting worse,” she said. “Those are my key takeaways when looking at an El Niño for the winter.”
Even with the first snowfall already blanketing some of Colorado’s mountains, the snowpack season might have a later start based on the seasonal temperature outlook, she said.
“Until then, I would say just enjoy the fall colors that we will hopefully have,” Bolinger said.