Local snowpack good, for now
EAGLE COUNTY — We all know snow is good, but so is cold weather.
So far this winter, snowpack numbers at area snow-measurement sites are running close to historic averages. Compared to last year’s snow-short winters that’s a lot.
Beyond the shortage of snow last winter, the Vail Valley — and most of the rest of Colorado’s Western Slope — experienced warmer-than-average temperatures. That was bad, so was the lack of rain that followed the snow-short winter.
The warmer-than-average winter meant snow stayed around only at higher elevations. That was bad news for area water supplies, which rely in large part on streamflows through the spring, summer and fall. The lack of rain only exacerbated the already-low flows.
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said that last winter the snow-measurement sites at Copper Mountain — the closest to Vail Pass — and Fremont Pass — the closest to the Eagle River’s headwaters — showed above-average snowfall virtually all winter. Those sites are located higher than the one at Vail.
The Eagle River district provides water and wastewater services to the valley from East Vail to Edwards, including Minturn.
Looking at those numbers, district officials thought the runoff would be adequate into the summer.
Little snow, less rain
Then it got warm and summer rains didn’t come.
By fall, streamflows — already low that time of year — were significantly lower than average.
Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said warm weather and low rains affected streamflows across the Western Slope.
The news remains grim in the southwestern part of the state.
According to the most recent federal drought map, the southwestern part of the state is in either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Eagle County is still listed as being in a “severe” drought.
Bolinger said in the case of southwest Colorado, the drought there is so severe that it will take more than mere snowfall to cure the long-term problems. Essentially, the ground is so dry that it starts to impact other environmental factors, including streamflows.
Dry ground — including in Eagle County — points to more than drought, Johnson said. Experts in the field are no longer talking about drought in the West — the drying pattern is nearly 20 years old now. Instead, Johnson said experts are now calling this pattern one of long-term “aridification.”
The combination of reduced precipitation and dried-out soil are combining to create long-term effects, she said.
Bolinger said southwest Colorado will need average snowfall over at least a couple of winters for that area to recover.
That water shortage will affect more than just that part of the state.
Many parts of a whole
Much of western Colorado feeds the Colorado River system. That river is governed by a multistate compact that requires the state of Colorado to deliver a specific amount of water to downstream states.
Bolinger said that means if Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison can’t deliver enough water into the Colorado, other areas will have to provide more water into the river.
Bolinger said the Yampa River in northwest Colorado in 2018 started the summer looking like there would be adequate supplies through the summer. Because of lower flows elsewhere, supplies on the Yampa were restricted by the end of the summer.
In this area, one winter with normal snowfall might be enough to recharge reservoirs and, perhaps, ground moisture.
But, Johnson said, snowfall is only one part of a broader picture.
“Snow only gets you so far,” Johnson said. “We need an average year for snowfall, then an average year for rain in the summer.”
And the cold temperatures need to linger.
Bolinger said that temperatures have been colder than normal on the Western Slope to start the current water year — which generally runs from late October into May of the following year. October and November of 2018 were cooler than normal, Bolinger said, with the trend extending into December.
Those cool temperatures help to more evenly distribute snowpack, Bolinger said. That’s good news for everything from soil moisture to runoff.
We’re now about one-third of the way through the current water year.
Bolinger said January and February will be make-or-break months for continuing to build snowpack for the coming spring, summer and fall. A dry January is hard to recover from, she said.
And, Johnson said, people need to root for continued cold weather.
“I’m so glad it’s cold,” Johnson said, adding that she often surprises people who complain about frigid temperatures.
“People will say, ‘It’s so cold,’” Johnson said. “I tell them, ‘yeah, that’s great.’”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.
Paul Cuthbertson, a lifelong local of Eagle and Summit counties, died while skiing up to the Polar Star Inn to meet some friends for a celebration of his 21st birthday on Friday night.