Despite snow, drought conditions remain
April 18, 2013
EAGLE COUNTY – With snowfall measured in feet the past few days, you might think the Vail Valley has turned the corner on its persistent drought.
Despite enough recent snowfall for Vail Mountain to open for bonus skiing this weekend, the mountains that serve as our primary water supply are still running below their historic averages. But those numbers have come up significantly in just the past week or so.
The snow measurement site on Vail Mountain is now reporting “snow water equivalent” about 70 percent of the historic median amount. The measurement site on Fremont Pass, a much larger geographic area that comprises the headwaters of both the Eagle and Arkansas rivers, is closer to 90 percent of its median snow water equivalent right now.
Those numbers are very good news for reasons ranging from fire danger to water supply this summer. The numbers are also significantly better than they were last year, especially when combined with the fact that the spring runoff had already begun by this time in 2012.
Still, Eagle County remains in a deep drought, at least for now. The Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University every week makes a recommendation on how to classify drought conditions in the state. This week’s recommendation is the same as the one for last week, which puts Eagle County, along with most of the rest of the state, in “D3,” or “severe” drought conditions. That’s just one step down from the top classification of “exceptional” drought.
Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, said the recent snowfall might provide an extra “month to six weeks” of normal water supply at the beginning of the outdoor watering season. But, Johnson said, the goal, always, is to “use resources efficiently.”
When this snowy spell does pass, water managers will be concerned about how quickly the valley heats up and melts the snowpack. Last year, the heat came quickly – in fact, the Vail Mountain snow measurement site, at an elevation of about 10,300 feet, was melted off by April 7. Compounding the warm spring was the fact that between about mid-May and July 3, there was absolutely no recorded precipitation.
With that in mind, we’re already way ahead of last year.
But, as we’ve seen, springtime in the Rockies can be a mixed bag for weather. Jeff Colton, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, said another small system overnight into Friday could drop another five to 10 inches of snow in the region. But the seven-day forecast on the Weather Service’s website shows a 50 percent chance of snow or rain in Vail Saturday, then a slight warming trend.
When the warm-up does hit, the recent snow will melt off fairly quickly. It will melt even faster when the sun hits a layer of dust that blew into the valley in the overnight hours between April 16 and 17.
Colton said that dust was kicked up in Arizona and New Mexico, when winds of 60 mph or more blew the dust into the upper atmosphere, where it caught the system that blew into the valley.
How quickly the runoff begins, then peaks, will be the key to whether the water district maintains its regular regulations or imposes tighter rules, Johnson said. Since most of the upper valley’s water supply comes from streams and rivers, “We always have to really manage what the community is using,” she said.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.