VAIL, Colorado - With plenty of powder days in recent memory, the perception this winter is that Colorado's water supply must be better off than it was last year.
The 2011-12 season was one of the worst winter seasons on record in terms of snowfall, but the statewide snowpack only just passed 2011-12 abhorrent levels. Storms have arrived on weekends and when big crowds are in town, and temperatures have generally remained colder than last year, which proves that drought conditions and snow conditions are not always aligned.
Surpassing 2011-12 snowpack totals isn't really much to celebrate, though, said Diane Johnson, spokeswoman for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. The Water District is already planning for this summer's drought in the same way it planned for last summer, she said.
Last year, the ground was plenty saturated from the previous winter of 2010-11. But because the moisture never came in large enough numbers last winter, the ground this winter is dry.
"The previous year's precipitation was kind of carrying us through," Johnson said.
Currently, the U.S. Drought Monitor rates Eagle County as "extreme," or a level 3, the second-to-worst drought rating behind "exceptional," which is a 4. A year ago, Eagle County was rated "abnormally dry," or 0 on the 0-4 scale.
"We weathered all of that dryness through the summer, through the fall, but there was not enough precipitation (after that), " Johnson said, adding that the Upper Colorado River Basin has been rated a 2 or 3 on the U.S. Drought Monitor since last June.
So is it big news to pass the dismal snowpack totals of last season? Sort of.
"We're still about 20 percent below normal. But with an active week next week and hopefully continuing into mid-April, we shouldn't slip any further and may actually make up a little ground," said snow forecaster Joel Gratz, a meteorologist who runs the powder forecasting site www.opensnow.com.
Making up some ground is possible, but making up enough ground to get Eagle County out of a drought between now and the start of summer isn't likely. The Vail Mountain snowpack telemetry (SNOTEL) station just passed last season's totals last week, Johnson said.
The current basin-wide totals put the local snowpack at 78 percent of normal, and 118 percent of last year.
But last season the snowpack accumulation peaked March 4-8 before declining for the rest of the year, while the snowpack accumulation this season is still rising. It could start to decline any day, or it could continue to rise into April. The average peak date for the Upper Colorado River Basin is April 10.
"Is March a lot different than last year? Yes, and that's great, but it's not going to negate where we're at," Johnson said. "We're still very much in this drought."
The National Resources Conservation Service said earlier this month that "unless Colorado sees weather patterns in March that bring well above average snowfall and precipitation to the state, there will not be much relief from the current drought conditions."
Streamflow forecasts as of March 1, the most current data, show "well below normal volumes for this spring and summer in all the major river basins in Colorado," according to the Conservation Service. Reservoir storage across the state was 71 percent of average as of March 1.
Vail Mountain reported 20 inches of snow in the last 7 days as of Tuesday morning, but it's still not enough for local drought relief.
"We're anticipating a tough fire season again," Johnson said, adding that the Water District is already working on spreading its message to the community about how to best handle the drought and conserve water, especially outdoor uses like watering lawns and washing cars.