Vail Mountain’s runoff season has started early

Seasonal weather, above-average precipitation predicted for next 30 days

By the numbers

16.6 inches: “Snow water equivalent” in Vail Mountain’s snowpack as of April 26.

22.6 inches: Normal peak snow water equivalent on Vail Mountain.

73.4%: Percentage of normal snow water equivalent measured at Vail Mountain on April 26.

130%: Percentage of normal snow water equivalent at Copper Mountain on April 25.

Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. 

EAGLE COUNTY — Snowpack this time of year is a bit like a meal in a Crock Pot — the longer it cooks, the better the food.

On area mountainsides, the hope is for a coolish spring, so the area’s snow melts slowly.

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District looks at three key areas to measure snowpack: Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass. The latter two sites are the nearest measurement sites to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively.

The snowpack, as measured in “snow water equivalent” at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass are both very good — more than 130 percent of the 30-year median.

Different at Vail

Vail Mountain is a different story. There, the snowpack peaked March 25 — 30 days earlier than the normal peak. It plateaued for a couple of weeks, then started to decline April 14.

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Despite a very good snow season, Vail Mountain’s peak was only 92 percent of the 30-year median. As of April 25, Vail Mountain’s snowpack was 78 percent of normal. The warm weather in Vail dropped the snowpack even farther in a matter of days.

Vail’s snow water equivalent peaked at 20.8 inches — again, this is the amount of water in the snow — and sat at 17.6 inches April 25. But there was another one-inch drop from April 26 to April 26, and the measurement site showed a four-inch decline over just 10 days.

The measurement sites at Copper and Fremont had better news. At Copper, snowpack peaked April 14 — two weeks sooner than normal. But the peak was 132 percent of the 30-year median.

As of April 25, the snowpack at Fremont Pass hadn’t yet begun to decline, and was at 135 percent of the 30-year median.

A boost coming?

Snowpack could get a bit of boost over the next several days.

Kris Sanders, a forecaster in the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said systems coming through the area over the next several days could bring cooler temperatures and some moisture to the area. In fact, the air temperature at higher elevations — the Fremont Pass measurement site sits at 11,400 feet — could dip into the 20s and teens as the storms pass through. That means snow could come, and could stick. Cooler-than-normal temperatures are also forecast for lower elevations.

That’s good news for those who watch the snowpack with an eye toward streamflows and water supplies.

Better news lies in the 30-day forecast from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. The latest forecast for this area calls for seasonal temperatures, but a chance for above-average precipitation. That might not build snowpack, but cool temperatures could slow runoff.

In the upper valley, snowpack is essential for water supplies through the rest of the year. In 2018, water supplies were adequate, but streamflows approached near-record lows.

For the coming season, streamflows will need both a slow melt during runoff season, as well as timely summer rains. Those summer rains didn’t come in 2018, leading to both low streamflows and increased wildfire risk.

While this water season is setting up to be a good one — depending on a combination of temperatures, speed of the runoff and the arrival of summer rains — Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District noted that one good season doesn’t make up for nearly two decades in some sort of drought.

The current cycle has lasted long enough that some climate watchers have stopped using “drought” and are now calling this the “aridification” of the mountain west.

What that means, Johnson said, is that water system customers need to think about water use in new ways.

“People need to change their habits,” Johnson said, particularly regarding landscaping and irrigation. While most water used indoors eventually returns to local streams, most irrigation water soaks into the soil and doesn’t return to streams.

As local streams reached critically low levels in 2018, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District issued hundreds of letters to people who were using far more water than they should, almost of all of which went to landscape watering.

Johnson said the district issued on “a couple” of substantial fines, adding that most customers voluntarily complied with orders to use less water.

But using less water needs to become the rule, not the exception, Johnson said.

“There are ways to be efficient and still have beautiful landscapes,” Johnson said. “It means being much more thoughtful in what you plant and how it’s designed. There are all sorts of beautiful, cool things that can be done.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at or 970-748-2930.

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