Its last feast of boaters crashed through the jagged Class IV rapids in 2011, so she’s hungry. But rapidly dwindling snowpack in the Dolores Basin could mean Snaggletooth’s involuntary hunger strike will continue.
Record-breaking snowfall in December and January had snowpack in the San Juan Mountains at 130 percent of normal. Then Mother Nature sent storms northward, leaving February and March with below-normal precipitation.
As of April 1, snowpack in Dolores River Basin was at 88 percent of the 30-year median for that date, according to a watershed analysis by the National Resource Conservation Service.
Mike Preston, manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which controls McPhee Reservoir, said the reservoir will fill enough to provide farmers with their full allocation of water. But the likelihood of a boating release, or spill, below the dam is uncertain.
“We’re being very cautious and don’t want to get people’s hopes up,” said Preston said. “It there is a spill, it will be small.”
Two months ago, early record snowpack and hopes of a snowy March (typically the wettest month of the year) had reservoir forecasters predicting 68,000 acre-feet over reservoir capacity, enough for a 22-day rafting season.
April 1 the rafting prediction went to 22,500 acre-feet, enough for 5-10 days. But on April 15, the rafting forecast dropped to 5,701 acre-feet, barely enough for just six days. The latest prediction shows flows boosting to 475 cfs on June 5, to 800 cfs June 6, then down to 400 cfs June 7-10.
Because of the narrow margin, variability of snowmelt, irrigation demand and weather, managers can’t announce if there will be a spill until early to mid May. Notice of the boating release will be given about one week prior.
The current storm in the Dolores Basin is improving the situation, stated DWCD engineer Ken Curtis, but a boating release is still uncertain. If a whitewater release materializes, the cooler, wetter weather would slow the runoff and delay the release until around Memorial Day. Hotter drier weather in the coming weeks would force an earlier release from dam gates to prevent the reservoir from over topping the spillway.
El Niño, the weather phenomenon that gives the Southwest a better chance for winter storms from the warming Pacific, did not materialize as much as hoped for the southern San Juan Mountains.
“After February 1, southwest Colorado’s precipitation flatlined and went below normal,” said Dennis Philips, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Pacific storms encountered a high-pressure ridge off the west coast and rode over it to the north.”
The Four Corners area is on the boundary of the area historically impacted by El Niño, he said. This time last year, snowpack in the Dolores River Basin was at 44 percent of the 30-year median level. Heavy rains in spring 2015 helped to offset the weak winter, and McPhee went into the fall with significant carryover.
Boaters are encouraged to closely monitor the DWCD website at www.doloreswater.com under the tab “releases” for more updates.