Vail Valley’s snowpack is only one part of water picture for coming year | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley’s snowpack is only one part of water picture for coming year

Even after big winter, Vail's snowpack is still a bit below average

Whitewater enthusiasts are excited about a big winter leading to a solid paddling season on the Eagle River, but a hot spring could lead to low stream flows.
Linda Guerette|Special to the Daily

By the numbers:

Here’s a look at the “snow water equivalent” in local snowpack as of April 10.

19.5 inches: Vail Mountain.

19.2 inches: Copper Mountain.*

22.7 inches: Fremont Pass.*

34 inches: Peak snow water equivalent recorded on Vail Mountain, in 1993.

12.4 inches: Lowest-ever snow water equivalent recorded on Vail Mountain, recorded in 2012.

* Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass are the closest measurement sites to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively.

EAGLE COUNTY — Storms boosted the area’s snowpack this week, but have we already seen the season’s peak?

If so, then the site on Vail Mountain that measures snow-water equivalent will fall just short of the 30-year median. That’s right; even after a winter of solid, sometimes abundant, snowfall, Vail Mountain at the moment is just below historic norms for snowfall. As of Wednesday, there were 19.5 inches of snow-water equivalent on the slopes. The median peak of 22.6 inches comes on April 25.

There’s still good snow, of course, but that snow has more work to do this year, providing the bulk of the upper valley’s water supplies. High-elevation snowpack serves as the reservoir for much of the valley. That means the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District would like to see a bit more snowfall, a cool spring and good rainfall through the summer.

Better to peak late

A later snowpack peak is better, both for summer recreation and water supplies for the remainder of the year.

According to data compiled from U.S. Department of Agriculture SNOTEL, Vail Mountain snowpack peaked at 14.7 inches on April 10, 2018. In 2017, the snowpack peak was 20.3 inches, but the peak came on March 11.

Both those years were far better than the spring of 2012: The Vail Mountain measurement site peaked on March 4 and went zero on April 7.

Special to the Daily

A warm spring will quickly evaporate that snowpack, leading to low streamflows. It can also lead to watering restrictions designed to curb over-use in outdoor watering.

When the summer rains didn’t develop in 2018, the Eagle River posted near-historic low streamflows. That led the district to send warning letters to hundreds of customers telling them to cutback on outdoor watering or face fines and possible disconnection.

The dry summer also dried out the ground in the region. That means part of this year’s snowpack will have to be absorbed before running into local streams.

The dry summer of 2018 drove home the need for summer rain in addition to winter snow, according to Diane Johnson, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager.

While Vail’s snowpack is doing pretty well, the snow measurements are much better at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass — the sites closest to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River, respectively. Both those sites are more than 130% of the 30-year median numbers.

Again, that’s good news. But for both recreation and water, the coming weeks will be almost as important as the snowfall so far.

“Last year we were waiting (to see) what happened,” Johnson said. “Copper and Fremont had OK years, and Vail was down (in snowpack) but not horrible.”

Then the dry spring came.

The long drought

The Rocky Mountains have been in a drought cycle now lasting more than 20 years, leading some, including Johnson, to think that what we have isn’t a drought, but a cycle in which the region is becoming more arid. That reality is going to require some different thinking.

“People really need to be adopting water efficient practices all the time,” Johnson said. Since irrigation water used in the district’s system generally doesn’t make it back to the river, Johnson said people need to rethink their outdoor watering practices.

“The fact is we’re in a changing, warming climate,” she said.

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