Aurora, state snowpack woes get worse


AURORA | Aurora water officials are concerned that drought conditions this year are shaping up to be some of the worst in recent history.

Aurora’s water reservoirs are at about 57 percent of their storage capacity, which is low and “not normal or ideal,” said Marshall Brown, director of Aurora Water.

Skiers fill Gondola Square at the Steamboat Ski Area, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. Recent storms have improved the snowpack in Colorado’s mountains but state climatologist Nolan Doesken said the snowfall so far isn’’t good enough to pull the state out of its drought. (AP Photo/Steamboat Pilot & Today, Matt Stensland)

Brown said he’s concerned because if this year’s mild winter continues, it would be compounded with the dryness of 2012 which would lead to water levels being even lower in Aurora’s reservoirs.

“The forecasts for 2013 are not good right now, so the potential is for this drought that we’re in now to be as bad as anything we’ve seen in recent history,” he said.

The city uses about 50,000 acre-feet of water annually. As the drought continues, the Prairie Waters drought hardening project will be operating at full-blast, Brown said.

“Prairie Waters is a huge help for us now,” Brown said.

Currently, the Prairie Waters project is being operated at half its capacity, said Joe Stibrich, deputy director of water resources for Aurora Water. By the summer, Prairie Waters is expected to deliver 10,000 acre-feet of water, or 20 percent of Aurora’s total water consumption, which wouldn’t need to be pulled out of Aurora’s reservoir storage.

“As demand increases we’d ramp Prairie Waters up (in the spring),” said Stibrich.

It’s too early to tell whether any updates will be made to the city’s watering restrictions in the spring, but it’s always a possibility, Brown said. Aurora City Council members would have to approve new watering restrictions for 2013 before they would go into effect.

“If things won’t improve, and we won’t know for sure for the next few months, we would likely end up in a situation later this spring and into the summer where we’d have to recommend to council that they implement some restrictions,” Brown said.

Aurora would be facing significant problems if city officials hadn’t had the foresight to implement the $660 million Prairie Waters project in 2010, said Greg Baker, spokesman for Aurora Water. Before the project came online, the city’s water management plan was set up so that a “drought state” would be triggered if reservoirs were below 60 percent capacity, Baker said. That would mean if the city didn’t have Prairie Waters to help deliver water to Aurora’s residents, and this year’s winter continued to be devastatingly mild, the city would be in a stage II or III drought come May. Outdoor watering would be restricted to two days a week under stage II or one day a week under stage III, Baker said.

During 2012, the city’s drought designation was “normal stage” which meant the city prohibited watering more than three days a week and between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from May 1 to Sept. 30.

The outlook for a major change in Colorado’s drought is uncertain even though holiday storms have improved the mountain snowpack, according to climate researchers.

“It’s not quite good enough to pull us out of the ‘drought,’ but at least (it’s) bringing temporary relief and optimism,” State Climatologist Nolan Doesken said.

Snow levels were as low as 40 percent of average earlier this month in the state’s eight major river basins.

Doesken said the forecast for the first part of 2013 doesn’t include much moisture, and the longer range outlook is uncertain.

Conditions in the Pacific Ocean determine some long-distance weather patterns, which in turn affect snowfall in the West. So far, the Pacific has yielded few clues about those patterns, Doesken said.

“It doesn’t bode snowy, it doesn’t bode drought. It doesn’t bode average, either. It just bodes ‘We don’t know,’” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows Colorado conditions ranging from moderate — the middle of the five-step scale — to exceptional drought, the worst end of the scale.

Moderate conditions prevail along the northern Front Range from the Denver area to the Wyoming border. An uneven swath from northern to southwestern Colorado has severe drought conditions, while the rest of the state has either extreme or exceptional drought conditions.


The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]