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McPhee likely to fill for farmers’ irrigation needs

Winter’s jump-start to provide full supply, but boaters will need a miracle
If only! Last year’s snowpack, shown here in the La Platas, hit 140 percent of normal, enough for farmers and a two-month whitewater rafting season below the dam. This year, snowpack in the Dolores Basin is at a meager 44 percent, but the weather pattern might be shifting in favor of more snow.

Thanks to recent improvements in snowpack, full service irrigators of McPhee Reservoir are expected to get a full supply this farming season, officials report.

But it will take a miracle from the snow god Ullr for a whitewater spill below the dam this year.

Snowpack average in the Dolores Basin jumped from 20 percent at the beginning of January to 44 percent after the latest storm last weekend.

“Back-to-back storms on Jan. 10 and 20 are a step in the right direction,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

Irrigation supply in the lake was already at 50 percent (136,000 acre-feet) going into winter, thanks to last year’s record snowpack and runoff, he said. The carryover combined with forecast runoff of current snowpack will be enough for a full water supply, or close to it, he said.

Based on conservative probability forecasts using historical averages, the reservoir is expected to reach full irrigator capacity of 260,000 acre-feet. If the winter totally dries up, there may be some minimal shortages.

A good sign is that a high-pressure ridge that has been blocking storms from Southwest Colorado appears to be breaking down, officials observe, paving the way for more a more typical winter pattern of one storm every 10 days.

However, the probability for a whitewater boating spill is unlikely, unless the Dolores Basin gets some “mega storms” that drop 2-3 feet in the mountains between Dolores and Lizard Head Pass, Preston said.

Winter water supply forecasts are critical for farmers planning for the upcoming season as they decide how much seed and fertilizer to buy.

“All the numbers are telling us that the water will be there for full farming,” Preston said.

In other news, a bill in the Colorado legislature to provide funding for aquatic nuisance boat inspections passed through the Senate agriculture committee. The bill would add a $25 fee to in-state boats and a $50 fee for out of state boats to help fund boat inspections that prevent infestation by the problematic quagga and zebra mussels.

McPhee is considered at high risk for the contamination due to its proximity to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which are heavily infested with the mussel, which builds up in thick layers on substrate including recreation and irrigation infrastructure.

Boat inspection programs through Colorado Parks and Wildlife were previously funded through severance taxes collected from oil companies. But the money dried up after the state supreme court ruled in 2015 that oil companies were being unfairly taxed by the state. The boat stamp program, if passed, would keep the program funded at current levels.


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