Thanks to an exceptional year of deep winter snows and frequent summer rains, Colorado’s drought-stricken reservoirs have reached a three-year high, with the statewide average standing at 102% of normal, up from 78% at this time last year.
“Statewide [reservoir levels] increased to above normal for the first time in three years,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Lakewood. “We’ve seen really significant increases in every individual river basin as well as statewide.”
Wetlaufer’s comments came last week at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, which monitors rain and snow, weather forecasts, and stream and soil conditions statewide. Wetlaufer is a member of the task force.
The numbers don’t mean all the state’s reservoirs are full, but that their “fullness” at this time is above average for this time of year. Reservoirs are tracked in each of Colorado’s eight major river basins, with the South Platte and Arkansas basins seeing the biggest gains, Wetlaufer said.
Colorado derives the majority of its drinking and farm water supplies from mountain snows that are collected in reservoirs, and as a result, reservoir levels are closely watched.
Hydrologists track water throughout a period of time known as the water year, which begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30.
Water year 2023 has given Colorado and other Western states a major reprieve from a 22-plus-year drought cycle that is considered the worst in more than 1,200 years. Precipitation registered at 108% of normal.
The year “has been wetter than average for a lot of areas around the state,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University’s Climate Center who is also a member of the task force.
This year is giving the whole state a much-needed leg up on moisture going into the winter.
This doesn’t mean that the megadrought is over, though for a two-week period in July, the state was actually drought free, Bolinger said. But since then low levels of drought have returned to the southwest and south-central part of the state, including the San Luis Valley, where Alamosa had its driest summer on record, receiving just 4.32 inches of rain, down from a norm of 7.5 to 8 inches.
Looking ahead, the water picture remains healthy. An El Niño weather pattern that is expected to arrive shortly and continue into the winter and next spring will bring with it wet snows for much of Colorado, with the exception of the northwest mountains.
That same weather pattern means the danger of ultra-dry conditions returning in the next six months is slim, Bolinger said.
“Overall I am not seeing any indicators over the next six months that things are going to turn bad, but in the next year a lot will change. The area I will probably watch is the northern mountains. That is an area that could be at risk for developing drought,” she said.
Still water utilities, coming off a summer when rains kept lawn sprinklers turned down and helped bolster those reservoir levels, are pleased with the situation.
“The South Platte Basin has had a really good summer which translates into lower demand on our system,” said Swithin Dick, water resources administrator for the Centennial Water and Sanitation District in Highlands Ranch. “It’s looking good going into the winter.”
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