Vail Mountain’s snowpack is just 26 percent of normal right now, and won’t improve

The Eagle River flows past Wolcott in the spring of 2015. The Eagle River Watershed Council has begun talking with regional stakeholders about an emerging integrated water-management plan for the Eagle River.
Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

By the numbers

80: Percent of the 30-year median snowpack in the upper Colorado River watershed as of April 1.

107: Percent of the 30-year median in the same area on April 1, 2017.

26: Percent of the 30-year median snowpack on Vail Mountain on May 10, 2018.

More than 50 percent: Percentage of Colorado in some form of drought right now.

Sources: Colorado Climate Center, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

EDWARDS — As a snow-short winter turns into a pretty-dry spring, don’t expect much relief as spring turns to summer. Still, a state climatologist believes we’ll get by — for now.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger was one of the speakers at a Wednesday, May 9 State of the River seminar sponsored by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

While we tend to worry about local streams and reservoirs, Bolinger lent some broader perspective to the current situation.

Much of the state is in some form of drought, Bolinger said. That ranges from “abnormally dry,” which includes much of Eagle County, to the “exceptional drought” conditions mostly seen in the southwest corner of the state.

As of April 1, snowpack on the upper Colorado River — of which the Eagle River valley is a part — stood at 80 percent of the 30-year median.

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Upper elevations held most of that snow, with lower elevations showing lower totals, Bolinger said.

Melting sooner

Given higher-than-normal temperatures so far this year, what snow there is is melting sooner than normal.

On Vail Mountain, the usual melt-off date comes in roughly the first week of June. At current melting rates, the snow at the Vail Mountain measurement site will be gone sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The news is better at other areas that feed the Eagle River and Gore Creek.

The measurement site at Copper Mountain is the closest to the headwaters of Gore Creek. There, both the snowpack and the melt rate are tracking at near-normal levels.

On Fremont Pass, the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River, snowpack is actually running a bit ahead of the 30-year median.

That melting is leading to “relatively normal” streamflows right now, Bolinger said. But, she added, this may be about as good at runoff gets this year.

“Recreation will be impacted,” she said. “Rafting may be impacted.”

And, Bolinger said, some people who hold junior water rights under the state’s “first in time, first in line” priority system may have their water supply cut back or eliminated.

Wet summer only temporary relief

Given that local water supplies depend on stream flows, even a wet summer would provide only temporary relief. And, looking at National Weather Service climate forecasts, the Mountain West is looking at the prospect of warmer-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall.

“We have our fingers crossed that this can be wrong,” she said.

While the region seems headed to a warm, dry summer, Bolinger said the state’s reservoir storage is still in reasonable shape.

The danger, she said, is if the state experiences a second straight winter will lower-than-normal snowfall.

“A second winter like this will put a lot of stress on all of the state’s water supplies,” she said.

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

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