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January 19, 2013
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Will snow sustain water supplies in Vail Valley?

EAGLE COUNTY - In weather, timing isn't quite as important as location is in real estate, but it's close.

For proof, look no further than this year's snow coverage. The actual snowpack for the upper Colorado River basin is actually slightly below the mid-January readings from a year ago. But when the snow came, it helped local ski resorts open terrain earlier than last season. That was a very good thing during the Christmas holidays.

Still, quantity trumps everything when every snowflake becomes spring and summer moisture, and we're lagging in that department.

The National Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency that measures things such as moisture, reports that snowpack in the region is only 61 percent of the multi-year average, despite above-average snowfall in December.

"This year we really started slow," said Mage Hultstrand, the assistant snow supervisor for the Colorado office of the National Resource Conservation Service. "We got some snow around Veterans Day, and that was pretty much it until December."

The snowy period late in 2012 and early 2013 has passed now, and the long-range forecasts don't show much prospect for more until later this month.

Forecasting beyond 10 days or two weeks is tricky business in any event, but Hultstrand said long-range forecasts for this snow year - which run from October through May - are even more difficult.

The 2011 and 2012 snow years were affected by La Nina weather patterns and held true to form, with big snow in the first of those years and weak snowfall in the second. La Nina patterns - cooler-than-normal surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean - are generally followed by El Nino years, in which warmer-than-normal surface temperatures in the same area create different weather patterns.

But, Hultstrand said, this season is apparently a "no Nino" year. Those rare enough that historic trends basically don't exist.

Given that, long-range forecasting is even trickier than usual.

Which leads us to this: How might this year's snowpack affect future water supplies.

The short answer is "it's too soon to tell," followed immediately by, "we'll be OK for domestic use."

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District provides water and sewer service from East Vail to Edwards. The district relies on a combination of streamflows and wells to handle indoor water needs for both winter and summer.

That indoor use is remarkably efficient, too. District communications manager Diane Johnson said that the district is able to return 95 percent of all indoor use back to the streams.

When the strain comes is in the summer, since outdoor watering returns far less back into the system. That use also tends to come when streams are running high with snowmelt.

Most years, snowmelt ends around the end of June. Last year, the streamflows started dropping in May. The district got by with its usual watering regulations but encouraged landscapers and homeowners to cut back or delay any new planting. Rains in July helped a lot, but water supplies remained tight through the rest of the growing and watering season.

It remains far too early to see how this snow year is going to play out - our snowiest months are March and April. But water-supply watchers are already keeping a close eye on snowfall, snowpack and how much water that snow contains.

The good news is that water supplies are adequate for indoor use for some time to come.

During a recent presentation to the Avon Town Council, water attorney Glenn Porzak said there's enough supply in the streams and reservoirs that the district uses to handle three years like the 2012 snow year.

That estimate was for "normal use," Johnson said. "If we really restricted outdoor use, we could stretch it beyond that. We can meet our demand."

While it's still early to be contemplating another dry summer, resource managers continue to plan for what might come. In the meantime, it would be nice to have some epic powder during the next few months.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 19, 2013 11:06PM Published Jan 19, 2013 11:04PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.