New cap radar to improve local weather and water forecasting

A rendering shows how the radar site will look on Big Mesa.

The Gunnison Valley will soon house a new Doppler radar system that will help fill weather coverage and improve water forecasts throughout the basin. The installation, made possible through a public-private partnership, is set to begin July 15.

Over the past two years, the Western States Water Partnership (WSWP) – the organization designed to fill the funding gaps that exist within local, county, state and federal agencies that imply their ability to address critical water issues throughout the Western US – has worked closely with the county and the Upper Gunnison River Water District Conservancy to bring what will become the first permanent radar to the Upper Gunnison River Basin. The new cap-filling radar will help improve the accuracy of local weather forecasts and snowfall forecasts – provide data that will help local water resource managers as drought persists across the western states.

The radar will sit at Big Mesa on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land south of Blue Mesa Reservoir. The BLM gave its final approval on the chosen site on May 6, allowing the project to officially proceed.

The Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit owner of WSWP, covers the full cost of the $ 1.4 million radar. WSWP will install, operate and maintain the radar in partnership with Boulder-based Advanced Radar Company. After installation, the radar will provide raw data to the National Weather Service (NWS). Using the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the output will then be delivered to local leaders near real time.

The radar’s journey to the Gunnison basin began with a call to Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chavez and Gunnison County Emergency Manager Scott Morrill, both of whom have been pushed to have the current technology in the valley.

The radar system will be a valuable tool for the basin.

“I think anyone lived in Gunnison or Crested Butte for any amount of time knows that the weather service is out of the Grand Junction not reaching into the valley,” Morrill said. “And so there’s significant gaps in radar coverage here.”

The Gunnison community, with the potential to improve airport and emergency services, agricultural practices and ski area operations. The radar could become a resource for wildland firefighters, highway patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation as well, providing more accurate severe weather forecasts.

The radar will also be capable of monitoring and adapting to drier conditions – creating a more complete map of where and how precipitation is falling across the basin. The district relies mostly on SNOTEL sites, limited to snowmobiling sites, and expensive Airborne Snow Observatory flights for surveying snowpack throughout the basin.

“If I think that our basins will be capable of falling in the snow, then I think it will help us to predict the basins of the snowpack, and to determine which basins have the greatest potential. be struggling a bit… I think if people know what’s coming, it’ll help them prepare, ”Chavez said.

Mountain topography and low populations in Colorado and the Western US do not have access to reliable weather data. Large portions of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are in the dark with limited or non-existent access to weather radar coverage. WSWP Project Manager Vern Tharp said their gap radars are designed to fill those voids.

“It’s very difficult to effectively manage what you cannot accurately forecast,” They said.

According to WSWP, 80% of Colorado’s snowpack and water come from mountainous regions that are poorly covered by NWS radars. The closest radar to the Gunnison Valley is over 120 miles away in Grand Junction, its range obstructed by the mountain peaks across the headwaters of the Colorado River.

“We need local assets to help us with our fires, our floods and our water management,” They said. “We need more data.”

In Alamosa, the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District fought for its own gap radar, which is owned by the state. The radar has allowed water managers to improve their streamflow forecasts, which dictate how much they send downstream to meet the obligations of the Rio Grande Compact. District Manager Heather Dutton said forecast errors caused in their community.

“The more tools we have, the better off we’ll be able to manage this resource,” Dutton said.

“I’m very excited that Gunnison is getting a radar and the southwest is working on getting a radar,” she said. “That will be all the sudden light up in the state that’s in the dark.”

(Bella Biondini can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or

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