Area snowpack close to historic norms
By the numbers
250 inches: Season total for snowfall on Vail Mountain.
240 inches: Season snowfall total at Beaver Creek.
90 percent: Snowpack totals, compared to average, across the Upper Colorado River Basin.
15 inches: Water equivalent of the snowpack atop Fremont Pass, at the headwaters of the Eagle River.
EAGLE COUNTY — What feels like an up-and-down snow season has actually delivered a good bit of snow to the higher elevations. Still, we could use a bit more winter.
A March 5 report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service indicates that a two-week spell of wet, snowy weather across Colorado did wonders for the snowpack — which provides not just good skiing, boarding and sledding but water supplies for the next year. Statewide, there was nearly double the snowfall usually received between Feb. 20 and March 1. That snowfall was most pronounced in the southern mountains, coincidentally, the part of the state that most needed a good wallop of white stuff.
GOOD NEWS AT FREMONT PASS
In and around Vail, snowfall in that two-week period wasn’t as substantial as it was in southern Colorado, but the valley still received plenty. Overall, the state received two inches of “snow water equivalent.” Snow measurement sites at Vail, Copper Mountain and on Fremont Pass all received 1.5 inches or more.
That boosted snowpack totals to near, or just above, their historic averages. At Vail Mountain, the total is about 90 percent of average. At Fremont Pass, the total is 117 percent of the historic average.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the Fremont Pass numbers are perhaps the most important for the district. The district provides water and sewer service to customers from East Vail to Edwards, with most of those people living west of Dowd Junction. The district can pump water from one end of the district to the other, but the Eagle River provides most of the district’s water supply. With Fremont Pass at the headwaters of the Eagle, that snow field is critical.
What’s also critical is when the snowpack starts to melt — the later the better. Early warm weather can mean lower streamflows in late summer and fall. Early warm spells can also result in flooding.
Johnson noted that spring flooding in 2010 wasn’t due to snowfall, but early, sustained warmth. There was actually more snow in 2011, but a cool spring kept flooding to a minimum.
High-elevation snow also doesn’t mean much until it melts. That’s why the U.S. Drought Monitor, a service run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, classifies the western two-thirds of Eagle County as either “abnormally dry” or in “moderate drought.”
Wendy Ryan, of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said while snowpack numbers improved — greatly in some areas — the drought classifications didn’t change much due to the wet weather in February and early March.
If the current stretch of warm weather holds — the forecast for Vail shows warm temperatures and only a slight chance of precipitation during the next five to seven days — Eagle County and the state might be in some trouble. Snowpack numbers still need to be climbing.
But the good news is that climate predictions contain some moisture. Ryan said that the forecast into the week of March 23 shows a good chance of above-average precipitation for most of the western U.S. The 90-day forecast also holds a decent chance of above-average precipitation.
Also, for the past couple of weeks, temperatures have cooled from the record highs seen in early February, Ryan said.
That’s what’s going to be needed.
“We hope to see an above- average March and April,” Ryan said.
While there’s still about a month left in the ski season, Johnson said she understands those who are yearning for the seasons to change.
“But we need a lot of winter still,” Johnson said. “We need the snow up high, and it needs to stick around.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.