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Local water supply for summer OK, for now

By the numbers

58 percent: Snow water equivalent level at Vail Mountain, compared to the 30-year median.

103 percent: Snow water equivalent level at Copper Mountain, compared to the 30-year median.

103 percent: Snow water equivalent level at Fremont Pass, compared to the 30-year median.

3.94: Water level, in feet at the measurement station on the Eagle River at Avon.

Source: Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

EAGLE COUNTY — The snow is pretty thin on the front side of Vail Mountain. But there’s still a good bit of snow elsewhere, and that’s good news for the valley’s summer water supply, even as drought continues to grip much of the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Snotel measurement on Vail Mountain on Monday measured just 58 percent of the 30-year median snowfall at that site. That’s not good, but there are a couple of qualifiers to the data.

QUALIFIERS

The biggest is that while the measurement site is in the same place it has been for decades, the terrain around the site has changed, largely due to deforestation caused by pine beetles.

The second qualifier is there’s still a good bit of snow elsewhere. As of Friday, Vail Resorts announced that more than 1,900 acres of skiable terrain are open for the final week of the ski season.

SNOW COVERAGE

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said snow cover on the mountain ranges from bare ground in some places to feet deep in others.

That’s good news, since the district relies mostly on stream flows in the Eagle River to provide water to its customers. Still, the 30-year median numbers show that snowpack continues to climb into late April. That isn’t happening this year.

OTHER SNOTEL SITES

But the snowpack continues to hold in areas that feed the Eagle River. The water and sanitation relies on information from Snotel sites at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass because of their proximity to snowpack atop Vail Pass and the headwaters of the Eagle River near Tennessee Pass. Those sites are both just above the 30-year median figures.

And, while melting has started at Vail, this year’s figures are still ahead of the historic drought year of 2012. That year, the Snotel site at Vail had melted completely before April 8. This year, there was still about 12 inches of water in the snow at that site. Melting hadn’t yet started at the higher-elevation sites.

Johnson said this year’s snowpack is also holding up because, for the first time in several years, there hasn’t been some sort of giant southwestern dust storm that has settled over the Rockies. Those storms accelerate snowmelt.

While water supplies and streamflows seem adequate locally, the western U.S. continues in the grip of a long-term drought that began in 2002. Johnson called it “worst 15-year period for snowfall” in centuries.

‘RED FLAG’ WARNINGS

A map of Colorado released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows most of the state still in some sort of drought. About two-thirds of Eagle County falls into either the “abnormally dry” or “moderate drought” zones. Most of western and southeastern Colorado is in the “severe drought” category.

Those conditions have already prompted the National Weather Service to issue several “red flag” warnings for fire danger. Forecasters on Friday issued a hazardous weather forecast for a big part of the state, including Lake and Chaffee counties, as well as most of San Luis Valley, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The warning was for “near critical” fire weather conditions for those parts of the state.

FORECAST

Again, the news is better for this area. While it’s unlikely the local snowpack will grow as we continue to move into spring, the forecast does hold some encouraging news.

Joel Gratz, the Colorado meteorologist for the website Open Snow.com, posted a forecast Friday indicating that the Vail Valley might be in line to catch some snow from a system forecast to hit the Rockies on Wednesday. It’s still uncertain what the storm might bring, but Vail skiers may yet enjoy one more powder day.

And, barring a regional dust storm or rapidly rising temperatures, it looks as if water users, from golf courses to rafters to people getting a glass from the kitchen sink, will have access to an adequate supply.

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


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