Vail area snowpack gets a boost from recent storms

But snowpack readings are still below average

Skiers and boarders rejoice as heavy snow fell on a spring powder day Tuesday in Beaver Creek. Snow came down heavy throughout a majority of the day.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The snow this week has provided a nice boost to area snowpack, but the numbers are still lower than normal, and soil moisture remains very low.

The latest data about the snow water equivalent in area snowpack shows a nice lift in this season’s graph lines. And those graph lines are still trending up — for now.

By comparison, the snowpack in the 2011-12 snow year — the lowest on record —peaked in early March, and the Vail measurement site had melted off by April 9, 2012.

This season is much, much better than that. With a little luck — and a few more storms — the snowpack may hang around until late May or even early June.

But current estimates aren’t rosy.

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The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center’s forecast through the end of April calls for a chance of warmer-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation for Colorado. That forecast is different than a standard weather report. Meteorologists don’t like to predict with confidence much more than a week ahead.

Matthew Aleksa, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, said there’s always variability in the Climate Prediction Center’s estimates.

And, he added, Western Colorado will continue, at least for a while, on its normal spring weather rollercoaster. After the storms earlier this week, the forecast calls for warmer, drier weather for a couple of days, with a fast-moving system coming through the state Saturday and Sunday. That storm could drop another 1 to 3 inches in the higher elevations near Vail. Another system could arrive in this part of Colorado April 22 or 23, Aleksa said.

That snow fuels the ski economy, of course, but it’s also crucial for our water supplies. That requires not just snow, but cool temperatures.

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, noted that Eagle County’s snowpack is its primary “reservoir” for water supplies. The snowpack also supplies local streams, but that supply has been dropping due to the region’s persistent drought.

Before melting snow drips into streams, the soil holding that snow has to be moist enough for water to run off. And local soils are very dry right now, and have been for some time.

Johnson said she learned at an April 13 workshop that soils around Colorado are roughly 40% more dry than normal. That means less water will flow into streams.

“A 75% snowpack no longer equates to 75% streamflow,” Johnson said.

This has become a consistent pattern in recent years, she added.

“We’ll have a good year here or there, but overall, nature’s giving us less,” she added.

There’s only so much residents can do about lower water supplies, Johnson said. The most effective tactic is using less water on landscaping.

“You have to decide whether you want water in the river or on your landscape,” Johnson said.

We can all be grateful for storms in April, particularly after a warm spell in March. We need more snow in April, and a storm here and there in May. But we probably need to learn to get by with less.

By the numbers

88%: Vail Mountain snow measurement site percentage of 30-year normal snow water equivalent as of April 14.

85%: Copper Mountain snow measurement site percentage of 30-year normal snow water equivalent as of April 12 (the most recent data available).

88%: Fremont Pass snow measurement site percentage of 30-year normal snow water equivalent as of April 14.

The Copper and Fremont sites are the closest measurement sites to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

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