Vail’s ‘snow water’ already surpasses 2018’s peak with more snow likely

Even before recent heavy snows, it has been a good winter for snowpack

By the numbers 137 percent: Percentage of normal snowpack in the Colorado River basin*. 135 percent: Percentage of normal snowpack in the Yampa River basin*. 131 percent: Percentage of normal snowpack in the Gunnison River basin. 123 percent: Percentage of normal snowpack throughout Colorado. Source: *The Yampa and Gunnison also feed the Colorado River.  

EAGLE COUNTY — The Vail Valley and the surrounding region were having a good snow year even before the heavy snows of the past week, with the year now looking even better.

While skiers and snowboarders measure snowpack in inches, people in the water business measure it in “snow water equivalent” — the amount of water in all of that snow.

According to an email from Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the Feb. 28 snowpack on Vail Mountain exceeded the peak reached in April of 2018.

The news is better still in other areas.

Peter Goble, of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said there are places in the state — particularly in the southwest — where snow so far has already exceeded the historic averages.

That’s impressive, given that most of the state’s watersheds don’t hit peak snowpack until April.

Goble added that Copper Mountain’s snowpack is already at 88 percent of its historic peak. That’s good news since March and April are the snowiest months in this area.

It also looks like more snow is on the horizon.

Recipe for snowfall

Dennis Phillips, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said a combination of bigger weather patterns is bringing a combination of moisture and cool air to the area.

The moisture is coming off the Pacific Ocean via the southwestern U.S. Meanwhile, the jet stream has dropped, bringing cold air in the region. That adds up to a good chance of both snow, and temperatures cool enough to keep that snow on the ground.

Forecasters a few weeks ago declared an official El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific. Those patterns often bring storms to southern Colorado and the Front Range.

Phillips said he suspects the most recent storm was due to something called a Madden-Julian oscillation. Those patterns can last between 30 and 90 days, and will often pump moist air from the Pacific to the U.S.

That could be good news going into the spring.

Weather forecasts aren’t terribly accurate more than about a week in advance. But the National Climate Center gives the mountain west an above-average chance of above-average precipitation over the next month. Combined with a prediction of average, or slightly below-average temperatures, that could be good news for the area’s snowpack.

Phillips said the trends show a chance for “better than normal” precipitation over the next two weeks or so, thanks to the continued cold, wet pattern.

Drought conditions downgraded

The current snow throughout the state has prompted the Colorado Climate Center to downgrade the severity of drought conditions through most of the state.

Eagle County is still listed as being in a “severe” drought. But the southwest part of the state is no longer in the “exceptional” drought conditions that have lingered for more than a year.

Goble said forecasters at the state climate office have been cautious about downgrading drought conditions through the winter, waiting to see what this season and the spring bring, from sudden heat to wind-driven dust on snow that can accelerate the seasonal melt.

“But at this point, we’re extremely optimistic that drought (conditions) will improve in the Summit and Eagle County areas,” Goble said.

While spring is coming, we need the snow that falls to stick around on area hillsides.

Johnson in an email noted that cold temperatures are helping this year, especially compared to the same period in 2018.

“Lack of snow was bad enough, but warm weather really had it melting,” she wrote.

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

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