By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
It may sound mundane, but for a lot of locals — human and otherwise — a lot depends on the seasonal and shorter patterns of temperature and precipitation. That’s particularly evident in the winter, when ski resorts track the snowpack in daily detail, but they’re not the only ones watching.
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is in charge of estimating the amount of water that will trickle down from the Rockies toward the Pacific Ocean April through July. This year, it’s looking good for the millions of people who depend on that water.
“We really had some good snow early in the season,” senior hydrologist Brenda Alcorn said. “December and January were really big months, then February was kind of okay and we really dried out in March and April. Then, in May, we had a couple of cold storms that kind of helped us rebound a bit. It’s slowing down, but it’s still coming. A lot of the reservoirs have filled or will fill this season.”
In general, Alcorn said, runoff has been above the 30-year rolling average throughout the Western Slope, with the notable exception of the Yampah River watershed.
On the Roaring Fork, runoff was high enough to close some of the diversion tunnels to the Front Range for the third year running. That’s easier to do when the reservoirs on that side of the Divide are already pretty full, but it’s still unusual, according to Liza Mitchell, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
“We had an above average snowpack this year, so we’re sitting pretty in terms of the natural water storage system,” she said. “It looks like there was a peak right around June 9, then it dropped a bit and then it peaked again.”
High water is an important part of the natural cycle.
“Peak flows scour the streambed and create good habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrates, which are the base of the whole food web,” Mitchell explained.
It’s also a boon for recreation; just ask Ryan Moyer of Up The Creek Rafting. The Glenwood Springs based company offers trips down otherwise oft-ignored sections of the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers. The latter, in particular, requires a sweet spot in water level to be raftable without bumping into bridges.
“Typically we’re able to get up there almost every year, but it doesn’t last for long,” Moyer said.
“For it to be still running this good this time of year is a bit above average. We’re predicting good things through the peak of the season.”
Off the river, day-to-day conditions can have just as much impact as broad weather patterns.
In the North Fork Valley, for instance, one cold night in spring can “sting” crops and lead to lean harvests. That was a bit of a problem this year, but according to Orchard Valley Farms Manager Rob Kimball, it’s far from a disaster.
“There’s some of everything, but not an abundance of everything except our grape crop. It’s spotty all over the valley,” he said.
“When the tree doesn’t have as much work to do, the fruit that it does have is usually pretty darn good and tasty, so that’s a positive,” he added. “I think we’re up for a pretty good year all-and-all.”
Folks hoping to sample some of that local produce might consider a trip over to Paonia for Cherry Days this weekend.
Closer to home, the lilac bloom seemed somewhat stunted this year, but the wildflowers are beginning to make up for it in the high country.
According to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) things are looking a bit dryer than usual at the site closest to Carbondale, which has recorded 6.61 inches of precipitation so far in 2017, compared to 6.98 inches last year and 10.66 the year before that.
The National Weather Service outlook through mid September forecasts a 40 percent probability of above average temperatures on the Western Slope, with an equal chance of above or below normal precipitation.
That’s not great news for local firefighters, with fire bans already in place on BLM and private land in unincorporated Garfield County. The stage-one restrictions, which don’t currently extend into Pitkin County or White River National Forest, prohibit campfires outside of metal grates in developed campgrounds, operation of an engine without a spark arresting device, smoking outside or other uses of open flame.
Fireworks are always prohibited on BLM, National Forest and National Park Service lands, and the Garfield County Sheriff’s office urged locals to think twice before setting them off at home.
In fact, thinking twice may be the rule of thumb in general.
“Nobody wants to be the cause of a fire. It’s just about paying attention,” noted Carbondale Deputy Fire Chief Rob Goodwin. “Right now the fire danger is very high and quickly moving to extreme. We’ve had this extended period of hot and dry, so all the grasses have cured out and now the larger fuels have started to dry out. The conditions are really ripe for a bad fire.”
The only cure for that, he said, is the consistent afternoon rains that usually come through in July.