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Eagle River Watershed Council: Does above-average snowpack mean above-average runoff?

Melanie Smith
The Current

As the majority of us Vail-area locals have hung up our skis for the season and are trading in our boots for our Chacos, we might find ourselves reminiscing on what played out to be a pretty typical snow year — albeit one with a pretty atypical closure of the resorts — and well, everything else. As you may remember, winter started off pretty strong, with heavy storms dropping flakes into February. After a lull, it started back up again — and it kept coming, even as the COVID-19 response shuttered ski areas around the nation.

Efforts to track snowpack do not stop when the resorts close, however. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and its Snow Telemetry program continues well beyond the typical end-of-the-season parties at the top of Chair 4 and even after the main backcountry ski season turns to slush.

Snowpack in the Rocky Mountains acts as a reservoir for replenishing rivers and streams all summer long and into fall, and understanding the link between a healthy snowpack and stream flows is a critical part of forecasting the water outlook months down the road.

Typically, remote sensing data from SNOTEL sites are combined with field data from manual measurements taken on-site, but the COVID-19 response has limited data collection to remote sensing only.

Current provisional SNOTEL data suggests that the current snowpack is hovering at or slightly above average. This is welcomed news for area rafters, kayakers, anglers and for concerns about wildfire risk. However, the current snowpack does not tell the full story. It’s important to step back and see the big picture, which includes the soil conditions entering into the winter before we even tuned our skis in anticipation of the season ahead.

Last fall was a dry one, and our watershed’s soils were thirsty to take in moisture from the melting snowpack. This will likely affect the quantity of water that reaches streams and rivers and may affect streamflows throughout and after runoff.  Our current snowpack is healthy, and that’s a welcoming presence for the months ahead, but it does not necessarily indicate that high flows will be seen. Experts look at snowpack, temperature and soil saturation data to predict when and at what level rivers will peak. The models they are able to create help to inform decisions about the filling and release of reservoirs, management of wildfire risk and more.

Eagle River Watershed Council’s second annual Peak Flow Prediction Contest is a great chance to apply your skills — or simply participate and rely on luck. This year, national-level partners generously sponsored the prizes to be awarded, which total more than $4,000 — including a Jackson Kayak Rockstar for the grand prize winner.

To participate, simply purchase your tickets on the Watershed Council website and select your guesses for the date and time of the Eagle River’s peak flow at the Gypsum gauge. The cubic feet per second (CFS) will be the tiebreaker. Ticket sales are currently open, and close at 11:59 p.m. on May 10. After the chance of a false peak in the flow has passed, the contest winners will be determined.

All proceeds from the contest support the work of Eagle River Watershed Council, ensuring that relevant and accessible river education is available, that rehabilitation projects continue to restore damaged or unhealthy riparian ecosystems and that data can be collected, managed and shared to ensure that responsible decision-making is taking place.

If you have questions about the Peak Flow Prediction contest or any other efforts of the Eagle River Watershed Council, please reach out to Melanie Smith at smith@erwc.org.

Melanie Smith is the development and communications coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit erwc.org.


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