Colorado records above-normal snowpack for second consecutive month
Ryan Summerlin February 7, 2014
A significant storm across Colorado during the last week of January was enough to boost the snowpack numbers for the month to above average.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service of Colorado, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducts a monthly snow survey throughout the winter, in order to help estimate how much water will be available in the spring and summer.
Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow survey supervisor, said the southwest basins and the Upper Rio Grande basin were especially in need of the boost from the recent storm, having received very little snow since early in December.
Summit County is part of the Colorado basin, which reported snowpack 116 percent of the median. That’s 177 percent over the snowpack at this time last year. The reservoir storage in the Colorado basin is at 98 percent of average, better than last year’s 66 percent of average storage.
Across Colorado, the Feb. 1 snowpack was reported to be 107 percent of the median.
“The snowpack is above where it typically is this time of year,” Hultstrand said. “So 107 percent statewide just means it’s up 7 percentage points from the median. It’s not a lot above where we normally are.”
Across the rest of Colorado, the Feb. 1 snowpack ranged from 100 percent of median in the Arkansas basin, to 126 percent of the median in the South Platte. The reservoir storage in Colorado has improved since the last measurement; statewide storage is currently at 90 percent of average.
The snow survey department was formed in the 1930s in response to the Dust Bowl, Hultstrand said. The state was looking for accurate water supply information, based on snowpack.
The snowpack is measured two different ways — the first is 120 automated SNOTEL sites, mostly at higher elevations, functioning as weather stations and generating hourly reports. The stations can weigh the snow to see how much water is in the snowpack, Hultstrand said.
There are also 102 manual sites people travel to once a month, to fill in the gaps from the SNOTEL sites. They stick a hollow metal tube in the snow, and weigh the core to get the snowpack. The type of snow can also drastically affect the snowpack measurements: A light fluffy snow doesn’t contain as much water as the heavy, denser snow, Hultstrand said.
In areas like Upper Colorado, the current percentage is higher than the state average, 121 percent of the median, Hultstrand said. That’s a comfortable number, she said, so that the next few months don’t have a lot to make up for.
“Having this early season be really good so far — and this last storm really helped — that good base will help us not go into February and March worried about a deficit,” Hultstrand said.
However, there still has not been enough snow to bring the snowpack in some regions back to normal. Two basins, the Upper Rio Grande and San Juan, were the only ones in the state to report below-normal snowpack: 82 percent of median for Upper Rio Grande and 79 percent for San Juan basin.
Streamflow forecasts for the spring and summer seasons are expected to improve, compared with last month’s, for the northern part of the state, but decline for those two basins.
According to snow reports submitted by 345 U.S. resorts to www.OnTheSnow.com, Breckenridge Ski Resort’s 123 inches of snow in January was 22 inches more than its closest competitor. Since Jan. 1, Breckenridge has received almost 11 feet of new snow.
Hultstrand said most water providers hope for at least a normal year, if not above average. At a lot of points farther downstream, water providers in other states pay attention to the snowpack because a low snowpack means a lot less water for them, she said.
“The good news about (early snow) is, when we have an early-season deficit like last year, it is really hard to reach normal conditions by the spring, since it tells us how much water is going to be available,” she said.