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Snowpack is above average in Southwest Colorado. But water managers caution that drought persists.

Austin Cope

The level of snowpack in southwestern Colorado is above average for this time of year, according to the most recent SNOTEL report.

A Colorado SNOTEL report for February 2 determined that snowpack in the state’s southwestern river basins is 139% of average for this time of year.

SNOTEL reports are made through a system of snowpack and climate sensors operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The increased precipitation is leaving water managers like Ken Curtis, the general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, hopeful about the immediate future of watersheds in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins.

The Dolores River Basin feeds McPhee Reservoir, which exists to provide irrigation water for Montezuma and Dolores counties and the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

“So if we stay on the storm track, we continue to get some storms, we certainly are going to be back into a full project supply come close to filling the (McPhee) lake,” Curtis said. “And if it's exceptional, we could even have a small spill. So the odds are in our favor, but the next three months will determine the details.”

Even though Curtis is optimistic about the 2023 irrigation season, he also said what many climate scientists are saying about the above-average snowpack: it won’t be enough to wrench the region out of 23 years of “megadrought.”

According to Curtis, for southwestern Colorado, the frequency of water shortages in the area is causing problems for the whole system.

At the end of the day, he said, the region delivers most of its water to large agricultural projects like the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch and the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company.

“And so the repeated droughts have been pretty dramatic on farm incomes and revenues to the (Dolores Water Conservancy) district,” Curtis said. “It's the age-old question of what's driving all the change and what can you do about it.”

One solution that’s been offered at a federal level is the System Conservation Pilot Program.

The SCPP pays farmers and other large scale water users to curb their use.

The program's renewal was included in the omnibus bill that passed Congress in December and is accepting proposals from farmers in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River.

However, according to Curtis, so far, no farmers in Montezuma County have opted in to this program.

Copyright 2023 KSJD. To see more, visit KSJD.

Chris Clements