Snowpack near record on Independence Pass
May 4, 2011
ASPEN – The relentless snowstorms in April created a near-record snowpack east of Aspen and record levels elsewhere in northern Colorado, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said Tuesday.
The snowpack at the agency’s Independence Pass site as of May 1 was the third highest for that date in the last 74 years, according to research by Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor. Records for the site go back to 1937.
The water content in the snowpack at the Independence Pass site was 24.8 inches on Sunday, Gillespie said. That level was topped only by readings for that date in 1947 and 1957, he said.
In more recent times, the snowpack at Independence came close to this year’s level in 1995 when the water content was 24.20 inches.
The snowpack at Independence Pass was 159 percent of average for May 1, the agency reported.
The NRCS measures snow at seven automated SNOTEL sites in the Roaring Fork Basin. Despite its name, the Independence Pass site is located about 10 miles east of Aspen at an elevation of 10,600 feet rather than at the summit of the pass.
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Elsewhere in the basin, the snowpack was 223 percent of average at Nast Lake; 187 percent of average at Kiln; and 161 percent of average at Ivanhoe. All of those sites are in the Fryingpan Valley, between 8,700 feet and 10,400 feet in elevation.
In the Crystal Valley, the snowpack was 204 percent of average at North Lost Trail near Marble; 168 percent of average at McClure Pass; and 142 percent of average at Schofield Pass. Those sites range from 9,200 to 10,700 feet in elevation.
Basin-wide, the snowpack was 164 percent of average, the NRCS reported.
The heavy snowpack could affect life in the Roaring Fork Valley this spring and early summer – like keeping people off snowed-in roads and trails in the backcountry. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been releasing more water earlier than usual to make room in Ruedi Reservoir. It wants to avoid over-topping the dam. At the least, that means anglers should expect high water levels in the lower Fryingpan River throughout the spring.
Road crews are uncertain yet if the high snowpack will affect efforts to open Highway 82 over Independence Pass by Memorial Day weekend, according to Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stacey Stegman. She was at a meeting last week where she consulted with supervisors for the road crew.
“They said right now they’re not really sure” if the pass will open by Memorial Day weekend, she said.
Crews are scheduled to start triggering avalanches next week to make conditions safe for clearing the highway, she said. The results of the avalanche control as well as the weather in coming weeks will play a big part in determining when the road opens.
The NRCS reported that record snowpack levels were recorded May 1 at sites throughout the Colorado, Yampa, and North and South Platte basins, all in the northern part of the state.
“Of particular interest is a new all-time record snowpack at the Tower SNOTEL site which, on average, receives the greatest snowfall of any location in the state measured by the NRCS,” the agency said in a press release. “This site, located on Buffalo Pass in the Park Range northeast of Steamboat Springs, reached a total accumulation for this season over 200 inches deep, with 72.6 inches of water content. This exceeds the previous record reading of 71.1 inches of water equivalent measured in 1978.”
At Cameron Pass, west of Fort Collins, the old record set in 1971 was shattered this winter.
“Even many of the old-timers have never seen some of the depths measures across northern Colorado this month,” said Allen Green, state conservationist with the NRCS.
It is a different story in the southern part of the state. Snowfall was below average in April, as it was each month since January. Snowpack was below average in the river basins down south.
Statewide, the snowpack is 135 percent of average, but that figure is deceiving because it varies so much from north to south.
“For most of the state, this spring’s runoff and summer water supplies will be excellent,” the NRCS said. With the exception of the Rio Grande basin and areas in the southwest, “runoff volumes for the April through July period are expected to range from slightly above average to near record levels,” the agency said.