Hot temperatures mean fast and early meltdown |

Hot temperatures mean fast and early meltdown

Cliff Thompson
Vail Daily/File Photo Swelling streams are drawing whitewater sports enthusiasts to the Eagle River and its tributaries.

“Early” and “fast” are two descriptions being used by water officials to describe how the 70-degree days have affected the melt-off of the water-giving mountain snowpack lately.

“We’ll be melted off at least a month early at this rate,” said Mike Gillespie of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which tracks snowpack levels. Snowpack acts like a giant frozen reservoir and supplies 80 percent of Colorado’s water. “It’s quite a bit earlier than last year and dropping like a rock.”

The warmer-than-average temperatures are causing snow at the two snowpack measuring sites for streams flowing through Eagle County, to disappear at 2 to 3 percent of its total each day.

Snowpack on Vail Mountain is shrinking quickly with 43 percent of average, or 10.5 inches of meltwater, remaining. In an average year, the snowpack there has 24.2 inches at this time of year. The highest percent of average on this snow course – 77 percent – occurred in April.

At the higher-elevation snow course on Fremont Pass, at the headwaters of the Eagle River, the remaining snowpack contains 13.8 inches of water, or 71 percent of average.

The good news is that should be enough water to fill the nearby 3,000-acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir east of Camp Hale, water officials said. Eagle Park is a source of winter releases of water into the Eagle River that is then used for snowmaking at Vail and Beaver Creek resorts. Black Lakes, which hold 300 acre feet atop Vail Pass, are also expected to fill. An acre foot is enough water to cover a football field approximately a foot deep and is considered to be enough water for a family of four for a year.

Snow levels in March mimicked those prior to the drought of 2002, considered the worst in more than 300 years. Unlike 2002, more snow fell this April and helped bring the snow levels to 70-80 percent of average across the Colorado River basin, which flows through north-central and northwest Colorado.

All the melting means the Eagle River is beginning to swell. Since May 1 the river has quadrupled in volume and now is 30 percent greater than average. Gore Creek, too, is beginning to swell and Tuesday was flowing at 391 cubic feet per second.

Last week at Avon, the Eagle River hit 1,010 cubic feet per-second, a level that’s beginning to attract attention from whitewater enthusiasts.

“It’s 3.5 (feet) on the Dowd Chute, and it’s now runnable,” said Darryl Bangert of Lakota guides. With the warm, dry weather, rafting companies have been running the Eagle and other rivers since March. Bangert is waiting for the high-elevation snow to begin charging the rivers.

“Watch for the temperatures up high to stay above freezing at night,” he said. “That’s the trigger. It’s all weather-dependent.”

Snowpack for the South Platte River basin, a primary water source for Denver, is now down to 55 percent of average and shrinking rapidly, said Gillespie. There, temperature in the 80s are causing the snow to vanish.

During the drought of 2002, an unprecedented 0.13 inches of moisture fell from April through July. That aridity, coupled with warmer-than-normal temperatures and strong winds, further depleted the snowpack.

Conditions so far this spring are wetter than that, water experts said. But not much.

Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached by e-mail at or by calling 949-0555, ext. 450.

What’s going on:

Warmer-than normal temperatures are accelerating the rate of melt of mountain snow and runoff is probably going to peak nearly a month early.

Support Local Journalism