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El Niño looks to revive the Colorado River Basin

Posted by Jeff Florence on November 5, 2015 in Access, Action Needed!, Basin Updates, Conservation, Habitat, Legislation and Advocacy, Lower Colorado-Roaring Fork, Press/PR, Reclamation, Trout, Upper Colorado-Fraser-Blue-Eagle, Water Quality, Western Water Project, Yampa-White

Severe drought conditions have left the west starving for water. Reservoirs are dwindling down and the Colorado River is drying up before it can reach the Pacific Ocean. The area has tried to limit their water usage despite increased populations, but mother nature hasn’t been too cooperative.

Until she sent El Niño.

El Niño is classified by warmer than average surface waters in the Pacific ocean that cause warmer and drier than average temperatures over the western and northern United States with cooler and wetter than average conditions in the Southwest.

Currently, the warmer than average equatorial surface waters in the Pacific are moving further north, resulting in the strongest El Niño ever, surpassing the event in 1997 that dropped record amounts of snow in California and the Southwest.

droughtThis is great news for those along the Colorado River basin that are depending on a wet winter to bring life back to their crops, reduce drought conditions, and replenish
their reservoirs.

The Colorado River basin receives the bulk of it’s moisture in the form of summer monsoons and winter storms. These winter frontal systems, which are increased through El Niño, are what meteorologists are hoping will bring relief to the Colorado River basin.

fig1

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

“Winter and spring frontal systems originating in the North Pacific Ocean, provide the largest and most important source of moisture. These large-scale systems tend to carry moisture at higher levels in the atmosphere, with orographic effects of the mountainous West causing an increase in precipitation with elevation,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. “Cold frontal systems produce substantial amounts of snow above about 5,000 feet and rainfall at lower elevations in the Rocky, Uinta, and Wind River Mountains, which constitute the headwaters of the Colorado River and its principal tributary,the Green River. These storms build snowpacks that melt in the late spring, providing runoff to the Colorado River.”

The increase in runoff will hopefully increase the flows of the Colorado, which are currently at some of the lowest recorded. But, unfortunately, with such dry surface conditions from consecutive drought years, the likelihood of flooding during the runoff is increased.

It’s tough to predict the actual effects El Niño will bring, however meteoroligists are relying on previous El Niño events that have brought plenty of moisture to the Southwest, including the Colorado River basin.

What will occur throughout the state of Colorado remains to be seen with the unpredictable weather pattern.

el-nino-typical-pattern

Photo Courtesy of The Weather Channel

Meteorologists are expecting Colorado’s winter numbers to look close to average. However, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, 20-inch snowstorms are almost seven times as likely to occur during El Niño years. These snowstorms tend to happen in spring and fall while the mid-winter months drier than normal

Because Colorado is between the polar jet stream, causing warmer temperatures up north, and the subtropical jet stream, causing cooler temperatures in the south, it’s tough to determine if Colorado will see any major changes.

According to UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research), the chances of having a wetter than average winter is roughly the same as having a dryer than average winter. “A single big storm surrounded by dry spells could leave a two- or three-month period close to or even below average, obscuring the impact of that one big storm.”

 

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