Eagle County’s snowpack starting to look more normal
But there’s a literal ‘new normal’ at work
The good news is the local snowpack is starting to build. But what constitutes “normal” snowfall has changed.
The Dec. 29 snow measurement on Vail Mountain stands at 92% of the 30-year median. It’s a big jump in six days. The Dec. 23 number was 65% of normal.
Copper Mountain, the closest site to the headwaters of Gore Creek, stands at 97% of normal, while Fremont Pass, the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River, stands at 110% of normal.
But here are a couple of things to think about:
First, it’s still very early in the snow season — generally measured between the end of October and May of the following year. The snowpack on Vail Mountain — as measured in “snow water equivalent” — currently stands at roughly 32% of the median peak. That peak comes in late April.
As the past week shows, it’s fairly easy to make up snowpack deficits this early in the season.
The other thing to ponder is that the 30-year median has changed, and that number is lower than it once was.
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the National Resources Conservation Service changes the 30-year median every 10 years, creating a literal “new normal.”
A lower median
The 30-year median now reflects the snow years between 1990 and the end of the 2020 snow year. That’s a big change from the 30-year median that included some monstrous snow years in the 1980s. The new 30-year median now includes some of the most snow-starved winters on record, including the all-time low year of 2011-12.
That change has already made a difference in this season’s numbers.
For instance, the Dec. 29 reading at Vail Mountain would have been 89% of the former 30-year median.
Again, the current snowy period is good. Again, though, the bar is set relatively low at this point in the season.
“To keep up with ‘normal’… it means we need a little bit of (snow) each day/week,” Johnson wrote in an email. “When we’re not getting (snow), we fall behind.”
And the long-range projection doesn’t look good.
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through the end of March, 2022, from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center puts virtually all of the Mountain West into the “drought persists” category. On the other hand, the map valid through the end of December also showed the Mountain West in the “drought persists” category.
The forecasters at OpenSnow.com this week predicted continued snowfall for the Mountain West. But forecasters don’t go more than about a week out with any specificity.
Down, down, down
The trend line of the 30-year snowpack median is headed inexorably down.
And, Johnson added, just “normal” snow years won’t be enough to break the grip of what’s now a yearslong drought cycle.
Before snow runs off into streams in the spring, it soaks into the ground, and the ground in the region is very dry. Recharging moisture in the soil means lower streamflows, which means less water flowing into reservoirs downstream from Eagle County.
Given current shortages, it would take multiple big-snow seasons to restore streams and reservoirs in the region. That’s unlikely, Johnson said. Big years aren’t a reality any more, Johnson said.
“We’re just not going to get back to where all these (reservoirs) were full,” she said.
That means people need to change their behavior regarding water use, particularly outdoor water use, Johnson said.
“We need our customers to manage with us,” she said. “It’s about people living a little differently in their landscape.”
Here’s a look at the Dec. 29 snow measurements from the Fremont Pass, Copper Mountain and Vail Mountain measurement sites.
110%: Fremont Pass
97%: Copper Mountain
92%: Vail Mountain
Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District