Subpar snowpack cause smay water shortages
Snow experts predict Colorado will need snows that are 125 percent of average over the next two month just to reach average by April 1.
January’s snowpack readings across the state showed a slight decrease in the amount of snow. Mid-January provided two snowless weeks, which took the snowpack from above average to 88 percent of average.
In Eagle County and the rest of the Upper Colorado River Basin, things are a little better and snow depths vary significantly.
Curiously, some of the lower-elevations where snow is measured – at spots called “snow courses” – are deeper than those checked in higher elevations. But the snowpack at all area snow courses should be boosted this week by a series of winter storms.
Across the Colorado River basin the snowpack is at 82 percent of the long-term average. The snow course on Vail Pass is 92 percent of the 30-year average while the snow on the McKenzie Gulch snow course, at 8,500 feet south of Eagle, was 127 percent of the 30-year average.
And in Avon, longtime weather watcher Frank Doll measured 25.6 inches of snow in January in his back yard along the Eagle River. That’s about five inches more than normal, Doll said.
But in Denver’s South Platte drainage, it’s a vastly drier picture. The snowpack moisture there is just 65 percent of average for this time of year – conditions that are similar to the winter of 2002 that spawned the worst drought in three centuries and a wave of destructive wildfires.
“Of greatest concern to water managers across the state is the well-below average snowpack totals in the South Platte Basin,” said Mike Gillespie of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “With the lowest snowpack in the state, this summer’s runoff has the potential to nearly repeat that of 2002.”
The lack of snow there becomes more critical because reservoir levels are still drawn down from the 2002 drought and won’t be able to gird water supplies should another dry year occur.
Clear, cold days in mid-January saw the snowpack in the Colorado River drainage shrink from more than 100 percent of average to their present, subpar levels.
The moisture content of the snow – or how much water it will produce – on the Vail Mountain snow course on Jan. 31 was 9.4 inches, 83 percent of long-term averages. At the headwaters of the Eagle River on Fremont Pass, the moisture content is 77 percent of average.
“The streamflow forecast for the Eagle River at Gypsum is 79 percent of average, April through July. That’s not real good,” Gillespie said. “Reservoir storage in the Colorado basin is at 86 percent of average, but that’s better than last year.”
Statewide only the snow in the mountains of southwestern Colorado is deeper than average. Successive heavy storms have piled up snow there that’s 102 to 104 percent of the long-term average.
In the Arkansas River basin the snowpack is 77 percent of average while in the Gunnison River drainage it’s 101 percent of average.
“Without a significant improvement in snowfall during the next few months, nearly all of Colorado’s water users can expected short supplies this summer,” Gillespie said.
To have an average year, it has to snow heavily for the next two months, he said.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed,” Gillespie said. “The next couple of months are critical for catch-up mode. We’ve still got 40 percent of the season ahead of us.”
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.