Vail-area snowpack is lagging behind averages

We’re supposed to get more snow this weekend, but we need a lot

A snowcat pushes man-made snow around Bachelor Gulch on January 11 in Beaver Creek. The season is lacking the average snowfall so far to date.

Here’s the good news: There’s snow in the forecast for the weekend. The bad news is we need a lot to catch up with 30-year averages.

The latest data from snow measurement sites on Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain — the nearest measurement site to Vail Pass — and Fremont Pass — the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River — shows snowpack is far below the 30-year averages.

The Vail Mountain site is at just 69% of the average “snow water equivalent” snowpack. Copper Mountain Mountain and Fremont Pass are better, but not by much.

As of Jan. 18, the current snowpack on Vail Mountain is only 69% of the 30-year average.
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The snowpack is likely to get a bit of help this weekend.

The National Weather Service’s latest forecast for Vail calls for snow developing Jan. 21 later in the day, with snow showers likely through the weekend.

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This graph shows the Vail area is significantly behind in snowfall during the current “water year,” which runs from roughly October through May.
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Kris Sanders, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said it looks like the weekend snow could be “fairly widespread” over the Western Slope, particularly on Saturday.

What’s needed, though, is a return to the Vail area’s historic pattern of a few inches of fresh snow every few days.

Hope on the horizon?

There may be a bit of hope as the winter goes on. There’s a La Nina pattern in the central Pacific ocean this season — cooler than normal water temperatures. Those conditions tend to bring moisture into Colorado from the northwest. That hasn’t happened so far this season.

Meteorologists don’t forecast conditions much more than a week in advance. But Sam Collentine, a forecaster for OpenSnow, in an email wrote that there are some trends worth watching.

Collentine wrote that a pattern called the Pacific North American is currently in a “negative” phase. That tends to bring colder and wetter weather to the western U.S. and drier weather to the eastern part of the country.

In addition to the above pattern a “negative” phase of an Arctic oscillation could bring colder air down from the Arctic. That tends to trap colder air.

“Overall, these two (patterns) are positive indications for active weather and better chances for snow here in Colorado,” Collentine wrote.

If more snow does come, it may still not be enough to recharge local streams.

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, has for a number of years watched the snowpack graphs.

“If you follow the (30-year average) line, the normal grows incrementally every day,” Johnson said. “Every day we don’t keep up with what we should be getting, we’re falling behind.”

Spring could be rough

Johnson noted that the snowpack at this point in the season was worse in 2012, 2013 and 2018. But, she added, this year so far makes four significant low-snow years since 2010. There have been several other drought years since 2000.

“This comes back to the aridification of Colorado and the Colorado River Basin,” Johnson said.

What that means is that the district — which serves the upper valley west to Edwards — has to continue to work to change customers’ behavior. That means being more efficient about outdoor watering and ultimately using less water for that purpose.

“We’re always reminding folks of where we live,” Johnson said, adding that this part of Colorado always has been a semi-arid zone.

While resort operators and water providers ultimately have to count on nature, Johnson said Vail’s expanded snowmaking system actually helps in the spring.

Water used in the fall and early winter to put snow on hillsides ultimately comes back to the streams in the spring.

“We need water in local streams, to take care of the community and to take care of those streams,” Johnson said. “The water in the streams is so important… we know already it’s going to be tough.”

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