VAIL — Early season storms have Colorado’s winter off to the best start since 2011, said the federal agency that tracks snowpack.
In its January report, the Natural Resource Conservation Service said snow accumulation in the mountains was above normal during October, November and early December.
That puts the Colorado River Basin — that’s us — at 102 percent of normal and 141 percent of the past year’s Jan. 1 snowpack.
The moisture dried up a bit during the second half of December, especially in the south and southwest portions of the state, but the good start to the season still puts the entire state slightly above normal at 103 percent, said Phyllis Ann Phillips, state conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“This is a great start to the 2014 water year,” Phillips said. “As we saw in 2012 and 2013, early seasons deficits are difficult to make up later in the season; so being right where we should be this time of year gives us a head start compared to the past couple of years.”
SNOTEL is how you tell
Most of the annual streamflows in the western United States start as snow during the winter and early spring. As the snowpack accumulates, hydrologists estimate the runoff that will occur when it melts.
It’s all about the snow-water equivalent. That’s the amount of water contained in the snow we get. Powder is great to ski, but heavy and wet snow contains more water.
Snow water equivalent is measured at several SNOTEL sites, including one on Vail Mountain.
Vail Mountain SNOTEL peaks around April 25 most years, said Diane Johnson, with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
“It’s good to be normal. After the last couple years, normal feels good — almost double today from where we were a year ago — that’s positive!” Johnson said.
As of Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent at the Vail Mountain SNOTEL site is 8.4 inches. The 30-year median for this date is 8.9 inches, so we are 94 percent of normal, based on the 30-year median, Johnson said.
Also as of Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent was 191 percent of one year ago.
The past three years break out like this:
Jan. 8, 2013: 4.4 inches of snow-water equivalent.
Jan. 8, 2012: 4.8 inches of snow-water equivalent.
Jan. 8, 2011: 10.0 inches of snow-water equivalent.
Right now, there’s not much difference in snowpack between the major basins in Colorado. They range from 111 percent of median in the Yampa, White and North Platte basins, to 99 percent of median in both the Rio Grande and South Platte basins.
That has led to decent streamflow forecasts for the spring and summer season. Streamflows in the Colorado, South Platte, Yampa, White and Arkansas River basins are currently expected to be in the 90 to 100 percent of normal range. In the Rio Grande, Gunnison and San Juan basins forecasts as of Jan. 1 are in the 80 to 100 percent of normal range.
“All in all, these early season conditions are favorable leading into the bulk of the snow accumulation season,” Phillips said. “If weather patterns persist and continue to provide moisture to our state this could be a good year for water supply and recreation in Colorado.”
Long-range outlooks are wrought with possibilities, says Joe Ramey, meteorologist and climatologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. And by “long-range” and “seasonal,” he said he’s talking about anything more than several hours in the future.
In the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean, El Nino or La Nina put grooves in the atmosphere that the jet stream tends to follow, bringing us a dry winter, a wet winter or a neutral winter.
That’s called El Nino Seasonal Oscillation or ENSO.
Ramey crunched the data and found that since 1950, we’ve had 19 ENSO-neutral years. Most came in below-normal snowfalls. Two were extremely wet, 1992-93 and 1996-97, Ramey said.
In Colorado, El Nino years tend be wetter than average.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“All in all, these early season conditions are favorable leading into the bulk of the snow accumulation season. If weather patterns persist and continue to provide moisture to our state this could be a good year for water supply and recreation in Colorado.”
Phyllis Ann Phillips
Natural Resource Conservation Service