Eagle County snowpack improves, but a lot more snowfall still needed

Long-range forecast calls for continued drought

Skiers and riders rejoice with the fresh snow on Wednesday, Feb. 17, in Vail. Heavy snowfall in February helped moved snowpack levels at measuring sites closer to average for the winter.

Here’s the good news: February was a good month for snowfall in the area. Here’s the bad news: It wasn’t enough to break us from our current drought conditions.

A more-snowy February managed to provide a good bit of catch-up moisture to local snow measurement sites. The “snow water equivalent” at those sites is currently close to normal, as measured by 30-year median snowfall.

But heading into March and April, the area’s snowiest months, it’s easy to fall behind.

For instance, the Feb. 18 snow water equivalent on Vail Mountain was at 89% of normal. Even after a cool weekend with some snow, the Feb. 22 figure had dropped to 86% of normal.

Diane Johnson, a spokesperson for the Eagle River water & Sanitation District, said at least some snow needs to fall just about every day for the snowpack to keep up with normal levels.

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The Feb. 22 “snow water equivalent” on Vail Mountain was 86% of the 30-year median. That isn’t enough to break us out of the current drought.

The winter of 2020-2021 is so far better than the record-low season of 2011-2012. That year, the snowpack peaked on March 4. The usual peak in the area comes April 25. A warm March and April also quickly evaporated Vail Mountain’s snowpack in 2012, which at the measurement site was gone by the first week of April.

Little help on the horizon

While this season is at least close to seasonal norms at the moment, there may not be much help coming in the immediate future.

Ben Moyer, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, said the next seven to 10 days hold the prospect of a few storms. But, he said, it’s hard to tell just how much snow those storms might bring.

To break our current drought, snowfall and cold temperatures will need to be sustained “over a long period of time.” That isn’t in the forecast.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center’s 30-day forecast, issued Feb. 18, is calling for both above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for Colorado.

The climate prediction is different than a standard weather forecast, looking instead at longer range trends.

That long range forecast has Johnson concerned.

“We’re preparing for drought this summer,” Johnson said, adding that the district is urging its customers to invest in efficient irrigation systems and outdoor plants that don’t require much water.

“Of course we’re stoked for the snow, but it just doesn’t change the trajectory of this year right now,” Johnson said.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger is also concerned about this year’s snowpack.

“We need above average peak snowpack to start chipping away (at the drought),” Bolinger said. Current snowpack is better than it was, she said, but it’s “unlikely” we’ll see the kind of recovery needed.

Almost as important as the snowpack itself is the moisture content of the ground covered by that snow.

Dry soil hurts streamflows

In the spring, soil moisture is the first thing replenished by melting snow. Thirsty ground means less runoff for streams. That means less water flowing to reservoirs and for those who irrigate crops. The Eagle River Valley relies mostly on streamflow for domestic water supplies.

Bolinger added that complicating the deficit in soil moisture has been a four-year stretch in which the area’s summer monsoon rains in July and August haven’t developed. Those rains help keep the ground moist and help maintain streamflows.

Losing those monsoonal rains has also dried out plant life. That’s contributed to the devastating wildfires that have hit Colorado in the past few years.

Bolinger noted that a dry summer, combined with warm temperatures lasting into October, helped create conditions ripe for wildfire. October wildfires used to be something of a rarity, Bolinger said, adding “now it’s a reality.”

The current pattern has been “painful,” Bolinger said. “It’s going to be a tough year in terms of irrigating, and I’m very concerned about the wildfire season. Keep your fingers crossed for the monsoon.”

By the numbers

73%: Percent of 30-year median “snow water equivalent” on Vail Mountain at the beginning of February.

86%: Feb. 22 percentage of median snow water equivalent on Vail Mountain.

91%: Percentage of median snow water equivalent at Copper Mountain.

92%: Percentage of median snow water equivalent at Fremont Pass.

Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District

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