Storms around Vail last weekend gave a big boost to our snowpack numbers | VailDaily.com

Storms around Vail last weekend gave a big boost to our snowpack numbers

Daily file photo

This story has been corrected to reflect the percentage of median snowpack at Vail Mountain. Also, "normal" snowpack is a median, not an average.

EAGLE COUNTY — A heavy storm last weekend did more than put smiles on the faces of local powder hounds. That storm, by itself, put down 18 percent of Vail Mountain's current snowpack.

According to the vail.com website, Vail Mountain has received 23 inches of snow in the past seven days, virtually all of it from that weekend storm.

Elsewhere on Vail Mountain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's snow-measurement site recorded 14.6 inches of "snow water equivalent," enough to finally surpass the record-low snow season of 2011-12.

Still, the site is recording a total well below the 30-year median — just 70 percent.

The news is better at the measurement sites at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass. Those sites are the closest ones to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively.

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At Copper Mountain, the measurement site is at 95 percent of the 30-year average. At Fremont Pass, the total is 111 percent of average.

Even better news

Beyond total snowpack, though, there's better news when compared to the record-low season.

Spring always brings a steep decline in the snow-measurement graphs. In 2012, that graph line fell to zero on April 7, nearly two months before the average snowpack melts to nothing at the site.

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said that early meltdown in 2012 was an indication of just how warm and dry that winter was.

This season, the snowpack, while still low, is at least still rising, with more snow in the forecast. If the weather stays relatively cool for the next few weeks, then the area's water supplies might be OK, if not exactly good, for the rest of the season.

But weather plays a huge role. Dry, windy conditions can quickly suck up snowpack. And, for the upper valley, most of the water supply is stored in that snowpack.

While the weekend storm was welcome, "It's not like we're in the clear," Johnson said.

But the Upper Colorado River watershed — of which the Eagle River is a part — is in better shape than big parts of Colorado, especially in the southern portion of the state.

From about Interstate 70 south, much of that part of the state has drought conditions ranging from "severe" to "extreme."

Is it still a drought?

Johnson said there's currently some debate in climate- and water-watching circles about whether we should call what we're experiencing a drought.

"We've been in this cycle for 18 years now," Johnson said, adding some believe dryer conditions are becoming normal.

In response, the local water district, and others around the state, are working on permanently changing water use by customers.

Peter Goble disagrees. Goble, of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said current conditions are "definitely" a drought.

Goble said the center's models show that winter precipitation in the Rocky Mountains is tending toward a slight increase, with a slight decrease in summer.

The problem seems to come from a warming climate. The last 15 years have been the lowest on record for streamflow, Goble said. That seems to be due to evaporation caused by sun and wind.

Last weekend's storms were still more than welcome. Goble called the storm a "game-changer" in terms of snowpack. While snowpack is still well below normal through most of the state, Goble said the next drought map from his office will have some changes. Locally, some of the areas in Eagle County will drop back one level in its classification. Areas that most recently were in "severe" drought will drop back to "moderate," while the area around Vail may revert to the lowest classification, "abnormally dry."

Even with that, Johnson said this might be a good summer to look into more efficient landscaping and irrigation.

"If you never use your lawn, you might want to think about landscaping that uses less water," Johnson said.

It's possible to use less water and still have a yard that looks good, she said.

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

The forecast

Here’s a look at the National Weather Service’s forecast for Vail, as of Wednesday, April 11.

• Thursday, April 12: Breezy, with a 60 percent chance of evening snow showers.

• Friday, April 13: A 50 percent chance of snow showers.

• Saturday, April 14: Sunny, but cool, with a forecast high of 39.

• Sunday, April 15: Mostly sunny, with a high of 48.