Eagle County part of statewide decline in drought severity
More than half of Eagle County is now classified as drought-free.
By the numbers
141 percent: Colorado River basin’s “snow water equivalent” compared to the 30-year median as of March 14.
128 percent: Snow water equivalent in the Yampa and White River basins.
156 percent: Snow water equivalent in the Gunnison River basin.
143 percent: Statewide snow water equivalent.
Source: U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
EAGLE COUNTY — The first two weeks of March have turned this winter from good to great.
After the 2018 drought, “This is the winter we’ve been waiting for,” Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bollinger said. That’s true in Eagle County, of course — Vail and Beaver Creek have had 24 and 30 inches of snow in the past week.
But it’s also true in southwestern Colorado, where feet of snow have covered hillsides and highways.
Virtually all of that snow will become water in the coming weeks, which is why those who watch water supplies measure snow in what’s called “snow water equivalent.”
The changes in the state’s snowpack and its water content have brought significant changes to the state’s map of drought conditions.
After spending a long time in some level of drought, more than half of Eagle County is now classified as drought-free. The rest of the county is in the lowest category, “abnormally dry.”
In fact, even southwest Colorado, which had long been put into either the “extreme” or “exceptional” drought categories, has seen a significant shift on the drought map. Only a couple of small slivers of the southern part of the state are listed as being in “extreme” drought.
Bollinger said the change is based on confidence in the state’s snowpack.
“With each passing week, we’re seeing more and more snow,” Bollinger said. “And that’s one less week you’d be looking at an early melt.”
Every week of snow and/or cold temperatures bring increasing confidence that the snowpack will translate into available water.
Snow, cool temps key
Locally, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District depends on long-lasting snowmelt into local streams. Lots of snow and a cool spring help ensure adequate supplies throughout the year.
On a state level, snow fills our reservoirs, which store water for the Front Range and allows Colorado to fulfill its obligations under a multi-state compact governing the use of the Colorado River.
Bollinger said those reservoirs give the state a two- to three-year drought cushion. But a lot of those reservoirs are quite low at the moment.
Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison was very low last summer. Bollinger said that reservoir might not refill all the way, but may come close this year.
The same is true with many reservoirs around the state.
This year’s snow provides a decent amount of breathing room for Colorado users, but the news isn’t as good as the Colorado River flows toward Mexico.
“There’s no breathing room there,” Bollinger said.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead together make up much of the water storage for lower-basin states. Bollinger said Powell will see some much-needed runoff this year. But Lake Mead “may never (fully) recover),” Bollinger said.
For Colorado, the biggest part of the coming runoff season is how quickly the spring warm-up comes.
Seasonal temps on tap
There’s good news on that front, too.
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the 30-day outlook calls for mostly seasonal temperatures in this part of Colorado.
On the other hand, weather forecasters don’t like to make predictions more than about seven days out. Even that has become more difficult in recent years.
Scott Stearns, a forecaster in the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said it looks like this area will have seasonal temperatures for the next week or so, with another storm system coming in about the middle of next week.
Stearns said weather modeling has improved over the past 30 years or so. But, he added, forecasting has become more difficult in the past two or three years.
“Day four and farther out hasn’t been as reliable,” Steans said.
For now, though, it looks like we’re getting what we need: snow and cool temperatures.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.
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