GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Snowpack in river basins throughout western Colorado is well below average for Jan. 9, but the driest conditions are in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Eagle rivers.
"There are a few sites in the Roaring Fork, Eagle and Gunnison basins that are at near record lows for this time of the year," said Ashley Nielson, hydrologist with NOAA's Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, in a teleconference held Tuesday.
Remote snowpack telemetry sites in the upper Fryingpan basin and on Independence Pass show the worst readings. Nast Lake, at 8,700 feet in the upper Fryingpan, has just 11 inches of snow holding 1.1 inches of water, just 30 percent of normal for Jan. 9.
The Kiln telemetry site, also in the Fryingpan basin, at 9,600 feet has 16 inches of snow holding 2.5 inches of water, just 42 percent of normal.
And the Independence Pass telemetry site at 10,600 feet has all of 19 inches of snow holding 3.2 inches of water, just 39 percent of normal.
The deepest snow in the whole Roaring Fork River basin is at Schofield Pass above Marble. Even there, the remote telemetry equipment recorded 39 inches of snow holding 10.3 inches of water, 66 percent of average.
Weather-watchers warn that it is still early in the season, and Colorado historically captures most of its snowfall from February through April.
But Colorado entered this winter with a big disadvantage due to the extreme drought conditions that have prevailed over the past year, Nielson said.
NOAA scientists modeled soil moisture conditions throughout the intermountain West, comparing conditions in December 2011 and December 2012.
"Last December, the soil moisture was in good shape, and everything was above average because we were coming off a good year," Nielson said. "This year, it's much below average, below 50 percent of normal in a lot of areas, because we are coming off a really dry year.
"The snowpack is similar to last year's, but this is the big difference. We have very dry soil conditions right now," she said.
Snowstorms that swept across the state in December pushed Colorado's snowpack up from very low levels, said Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"Conditions could have been much worse if we had not received the moisture we did in December," Philipps said.
The much-needed snowfall in December boosted the statewide average snowpack from just 36 percent on Dec. 1 to 70 percent of average by Jan. 1.
She noted that Colorado's Jan. 1 snowpack was the fourth lowest in the last 32 years.
Forecasters are now looking to another storm system expected to roll into western Colorado later today, bringing snowfall tonight through Friday night and pushing temperatures downward over the weekend.
It's another welcome amount of precipitation, Nielson said.
"It will help the snowpack, but it's not going to bring it back to average," she said.