The Animas River appears to have hit an all-time low.
For the past week or so, the river in Durango has registered the lowest flows ever recorded at a water-level gauge, which has been in operation for 107 years, located behind the Powerhouse Science Center, according to data maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Around Sept. 26, the Animas River dipped below 100 cubic feet per second – the measurement used for waterways.
According to a review of the water-level gauge’s data, the Animas River has never dropped below 100 cfs.
Robert Kimbrough with the USGS in Denver said although the gauge shows the Animas below 100 cfs, the information needs to be confirmed before it can be considered an official record. He did not have a timeline for when that would be finished.
The USGS offices in Durango did not return phone calls Monday seeking comment.
Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, confirmed the Animas appears to have recorded its lowest flow.
“I don’t see where it’s been this low either,” Smith said. “According to the records I have, that’s been the lowest.”
And, as another stark reminder of the prolonged drought in the area, this year is on track to be Southwest Colorado’s second driest water year on record.
Kimbrough said the 2018 water year data has not been finalized, but provisional data indicates this year will be the second lowest on record.
In Colorado, a water year runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
Kimbrough said 2002 is on record as the lowest water year, and 1977 is the third lowest.
“Southwest Colorado has had a rough year,” said Taryn Finnessey, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “Definitely broken a lot of records, not in the positive manner.”
Drought conditions started last fall. Between October and December, a weather station at the Durango-La Plata County Airport recorded 0.32 inches of precipitation, nearly 4 inches below those months’ historic averages.
Then, winter failed to show up, with the San Juan Mountains recording just half the snowpack it receives in a normal year. On Molas Pass, there were only 11 inches of snow water equivalent, compared with the average of nearly 20 inches.
This spring, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed Southwest Colorado in an “exceptional drought” – the highest and most intense category the center has for drought listings.
Lack of rain over spring and summer has kept Southwest Colorado in this category. The same weather station at the airport has recorded about 4 inches of rain since Jan. 1 – nearly 8 inches below normal.
Smith said the low flow on the Animas River can be attributed to a lack of monsoons during July, August and September in Southwest Colorado.
“The monsoons are important to keep the flow up in the late part of summer,” Smith said. “And it just did not materialize this year.”
For months, forecasters held out hope the monsoon would arrive, but a high-pressure system sitting farther west than usual blocked moisture from making it to the parched landscape of Southwest Colorado.
“We had a few good days,” said Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, in a previous interview. “But that high just blocked everything.”
Ever since 2000, weather experts have noticed an alarming trend: less monsoon activity and decreasing precipitation over the San Juan Mountains, Smith said.
“That’s a trend you hope is not going to continue indefinitely into the future,” he said. “I’m not sure what that means for the long haul.”
Peter Goble, a climatologist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, said the cause behind decreasing monsoon activity remains unknown.
“In the grand scheme of things, it still hasn’t been even 20 years,” Goble said. “And the monsoon is a bit of a funky pattern. It’s quite transient and highly variable.”
The lack of snowpack in the winter and precipitation in the summer, combined with above-average temperatures, has wreaked havoc on watersheds throughout the Four Corners, Goble said.
A water-level gauge on the San Juan River near Bluff, New Mexico, for instance, recorded its lowest flow in 92 years of data. And a weather station at Mesa Verde, too, recorded its lowest precipitation total in 120 years.
“We’ve seen some disconcerting records,” Goble said. “It’s a serious situation.”
The seriousness of the situation can be illustrated in the region’s reservoirs: both Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs are nearing 10 percent capacity. Calls to the city of Durango to check on the city’s reservoir were not returned late Monday.
Despite the Animas River’s chronically low flows this year, Rob Genualdi, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resource Division 7, said there have been no water calls on the main stem of the Animas River.
In Colorado, there is a priority system with water rights. Those with older water rights have the authority to cut off people with newer water rights to satisfy their needs.
“No one has said they want junior water rights turned off to satisfy theirs,” Genualdi said.
It’s a different story on the Animas River’s heavily used tributaries – like Falls, Junction and Lightner creeks. Water rights were called on those streams, and in some cases, the creeks dried up.
Smith said the Four Corners is no stranger to prolonged drought. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were some bad snowpack years.
“This is a semi-arid region,” he said. “If you look at the long-term history, we just have periods where we get real dry. It happens. We’ll probably get wet periods again, too.”
The Animas River may see a much-needed bump in flows as remnants of Tropical Storm Rosa are expected to dump a good amount of rain over the region this week. Forecasters also say the first snowstorm of the season may hit this weekend.