February’s Vail Valley snowfall will tell us a lot about tourism and water | VailDaily.com

February’s Vail Valley snowfall will tell us a lot about tourism and water

While well-timed snowstorms in January helped with both ski conditions and snowpack, much more snow will be needed to boost both business and summer water supplies.

EAGLE COUNTY — February will tell us a lot about a couple of things.

The first thing is whether there's any chance of getting even sort-of caught up with the area's annual snowpack.

The second thing is whether there's any chance of getting even sort-of caught up with visitor numbers.

Both of those things are intertwined, of course. Snowpack is essential for water for the coming spring, summer and fall. Snowpack is also essential to bring snow-riding visitors.

Let's start with visitors.

While December and January saw declines in bookings, those declines weren't as steep as feared.

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The Vail Valley Partnership is the region's chamber of commerce. The group also closely tracks reservations and runs its own reservation website, Vail on Sale. Partnership President Chris Romer acknowledged that bookings declined in a snow-short December. Still, he said, the aggregate reservations between Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek took a year-over-year decline of less than 5 percent.

January is another story, of course, and full numbers won't be available until about Feb. 10. That report will be telling, Romer said.

Most of Beaver Creek's terrain is available and Vail's Back Bowls are now open, thanks to some January snowfall.

"If bookings are up (for January), that will tell me there was pent-up demand, and people were moving off the sidelines," Romer said.

But flat bookings, or a slight decline from the same period in 2017, will tell a different story.

Longer-range bookings — particularly in March — remain strong, Romer said.

But February is key, he said.

"Without (a strong) February, I don't know if we can catch up," he said. Those numbers may tell lodging and other businesses if there's still high demand or if owners and managers need to adjust their revenue and expenses — staffing and purchasing — to adjust.

February's snowfall will also tell us a lot about the water year to come.

Andrew Lyons, a forecaster in the National Weather Service's Grand Junction office, said a ridge of high pressure — either over California's Pacific coast or in the desert Southwest — has for the past few months been forcing storm tracks to the north of Colorado.

The northern part of the state has done better regarding snowfall, Lyons said. Still, virtually the entire state is in some form of drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor — from "abnormally dry" to "moderate drought."

As is usually the case in years when a La Nina pattern is established in the Pacific Ocean — even like this season's weak pattern — Southern Colorado has borne the brunt of the dry conditions.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said "there's almost zero chance" that the San Juan Mountains will catch up to anything resembling normal snowfall this season.

Still, reservoir storage around the state is in good shape to weather a one-season drought.

But water supplies in the Eagle River Valley are dependent more on streamflows than reservoir storage. The good news, Bolinger said, is that snowpack figures at higher elevations tend to be stronger than those at lower elevations.

The highest-elevation measurement site for the Eagle River is at nearby Fremont Pass, located above 11,000 feet. The snowpack there is currently at just more than 100 percent of the 30-year median snowfall amount.

Still, the current outlook is sobering for the entire Colorado River basin.

According to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center the forecast for stations at Eagle and Gypsum is for spring runoff to be roughly 66 percent of the 30-year medians.

There's still time to make up ground in terms of snowpack, Bolinger said — March and April are the snowiest months. Still, she said, a lot of snow is needed.

Lyons said historical patterns lean toward more snowy patterns in March and April. But, he said, the longterm outlook is for lower-than-average precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures.

What February brings will tell us a lot about the rest of this winter season.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

By the numbers:

99.4 percent: Percentage of Colorado in some form of drought as of Tuesday, Jan. 23.

53 percent: Percentage of 30-year average snowfall on Vail Mountain.

82 percent: Percentage of 30-year average snowfall at Copper Mountain (closest measuring site to the headwaters of Gore Creek).

101 percent: Percentage of 30-year average snowfall at Fremont Pass (closest measuring site to the headwaters of the Eagle River).

Sources: U.S. Drought Monitor; Eagle River Water & Sanitation District