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April 15, 2013
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Spring storm pounds mountains

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Let the record show that on the first day of Colorado Severe Weather Awareness Week, we got lots and lots of severe weather.

In fact, the storm pounding the state is forecast to last about as long as Colorado Severe Weather Awareness Week, through Saturday.

Of course, no one needs to point out that the storms hit the day after the lifts stopped running for the season in Vail and Beaver Creek. Vail Resorts has no plans to reopen Vail Mountain, even with the storms, said Liz Biebl, ski company spokesperson for Vail Mountain.

The additional irony that the federally funded National Weather Service had its hands full on April 15, Tax Day, was lost on no one, especially meteorologist Joel Gratz with the weather website opensnow.com. Gratz was in Vail to compete in pond skimming on Vail Mountain's closing day.

"First on the list is a nod to our federal government, who pays for much of the weather infrastructure that we take for granted. They finance satellites, radars, weather stations, and the computer models that use this information to make forecasts. There are many private companies that do work in this area as well, but most of the big ticket items are paid for by Uncle Sam," Gratz said Monday morning.

Since the American people paid for the weather infrastructure with their tax dollars, the data should be free, and it is.

It's another good reason to love America more than Europe, where organizations pay lots of money for access to weather data, Gratz said.

And that's why we can tell you, for no additional cost than your American tax bill, that by Monday evening the snow had let up a little. Tuesday will see less snow before another storm rolls through Tuesday and Wednesday. It's supposed to clear up Thursday and Friday before another storm hits us Friday night through Saturday night.

Shelters from the storm

As for the roads, Interstate 70 was closed much of Monday over Vail Pass from East Vail to Copper Mountain, leaving motorists stranded. Some found shelter in Vail and Edwards, where the Salvation Army set up accommodations in the Vail Interfaith Chapel and the Edwards Interfaith Chapel.

Westbound Vail Pass reopened at 5:30 p.m., and the eastbound direction opened about an hour later.

Dan Smith is with Vail Mountain Rescue and the Salvation Army, and has been doing shelters for a long time. They had eight people in the Vail shelter around 5 p.m. Monday and were expecting to get much busier.

The shelters in Vail and Edwards can each accommodate 150 people, Smith said.

Sonnenalp catered dinner at the Vail shelter and the Edwards Religious Foundation cooked for the crowd in Edwards.

The shelters are supposed to run for 48 hours, but they'll stay open as long as the need to, Smith said.

"We'll be open and manned as long as there's a need. It's what's necessary in a small mountain valley," Smith said.

The Vail shelter was open three days one time, years ago. The longest in recent memory was 23 hours in 2005, the night before New Years Eve.

It's free, but feel free to make a donation to the Salvation Army to help cover the costs, Smith said.

Snowplows running 24 hours

Vail Pass had been buried under 2 feet of snow in the 24 hours prior to 2 p.m. Monday.

CDOT banned commercial vehicles from Highway 91 and Highway 24 to Leadville, to keep those roads from being clogged by big rigs, Ashley Mohr, CDOT's spokesperson for the region including Eagle County.

CDOT snowplows are running 24 hours, with the drivers switching out at noon and midnight, Mohr said.

"We're doing everything we can. Hunker down and don't travel if you don't have to," Mohr said.

CDOT had 40 snowplows working Monday afternoon along the I-70 mountain corridor, Mohr said, 75 plows working in the northern mountains, and 130 across the Front Range and Eastern Plains.

Two inches an hour

In the mountains, snow fell at close to 2 inches per hour at times Monday. When combined with wind gusts of 30-40 mph, travel became dangerous, if not impossible, said Anthony Sagliani, meteorologist for AccuWeather.com.

Snowfall of 12-24 inches is likely across our area, Sagliani said.

Along the Front Range the storm started as rain, but turned to snow as cold air rolled down from the north on the Jet Stream.

"Your best course of action will be to avoid traveling during this storm. If travel is absolutely necessary, be sure to have a winter weather survival kit with you in your vehicle," Sagliani said.

The kit should include a flashlight, blankets, hand warmers, food and water, flares and a snow shovel.

And while it may not look like it today, we're still in a drought. It's getting better, especially compared to last year. On Monday the snow-water levels were 15.1 inches at the SNOTEL site on Vail Mountain. That's where they measure how much water is contained in the snow we get.

The normal snow-water equivalent for April 15 is 21.2 inches, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"The bigger thing is getting more time of keeping the snow up high and not yet starting to melt," said Diane Johnson with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Service. "This snow is wet and heavy, and that's better for us this time of year.

The local snowpack peaks around April 25, Johnson said.

"The longer the snow sticks around up high, the further down the road we get for streamflows," Johnson said.

Last year's unusually early melt combined with hot and dry conditions meant streams were flowing in May at levels normally found in mid-July. Plus, people started using water outdoors much sooner in the year than normal.

"Outdoor use creates the largest water demand in the public water system, and has the biggest impact on area streams," Johnson said. "That's why we monitor streamflows, air and water temperature, and weather outlooks, among other things, on a daily basis and try to balance the available water supply with how much water the community is using."

Even if Mother Nature cooperates and we somehow get back to normal water levels, we'll be normal, Johnson said, and normal still means things like odd/even water days for lawns and landscaping.

"But we're thankful that everyone's landscape is getting a lot of natural moisture right now!" Johnson said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Apr 15, 2013 11:13PM Published Apr 15, 2013 11:11PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.