Extreme drought persists for Summit County
Ryan Summerlin March 22, 2013
It’s hard to believe, with a soft, slushy snow accumulating on the slopes and the streets, that Summit County is still in the throes of an extreme drought to rival that of 2002, a historically dry year in Colorado.
Snowfall has been steady, if not spectacular, local resorts have enjoyed regular powder days and in some parts of the county, precipitation is exceeding average for the month of March.
But experts are watching the state’s snowpack and snow-water equivalent with waning hope, as the window of opportunity for the wet season Colorado needed to recover from current drought conditions slides closed.
“It’s getting late in the season where it’s a very small chance we could ever get back to normal,” National Weather Service Hydrologist Triste Huse said.
The snow-water equivalent in the Summit County area is still short of even the dry 2011/2012 season that launched the current drought.
Snowpack conditions are only 70 percent of average in the local Upper Blue River Basin, and 77 percent of average in the Upper Colorado River Basin as a whole – on par with both the 2002 and 2011 drought years.
“We’re starting to run out of time,” NWS meteorologist Todd Dankers said. “We haven’t really seen any big major snowstorm on the horizon.”
March and April are, on average, the snowiest months of the year in Summit County – delivering a mean 26 and nearly 28 inches of snow respectively over the last 30 years.
Last year’s drought conditions solidified and the stage was set for a dangerous fire season when March warmed to unseasonable temperatures and moisture stopped altogether, eliminating most of the below-average snowpack that had built up earlier in the winter.
But this year could be a different story, experts say.
Three weeks in, the month of March has already brought much better precipitation than it did last year and forecasters say long term projects show the possibility of a wetter-than-average spring.
“There is some indication that spring has a little bit more precipitation than normal,” Dankers said. “You can’t really tell if there’s going to be a huge storm that comes through in April or not. If we get one, we’ll be lucky. If we don’t’ we’ll just deal with the water we have.”
Which isn’t much. A dry summer depleted well-stocked reservoirs across the state, prompting utility officials to talk about mandatory water restrictions this summer.
But water experts say the reservoirs have been able to capture some of the runoff from recent warm periods that caused some of the existing snow to melt, although that moisture won’t be there to help alleviate fire danger this summer.
Temperatures climbed into the low 50s this weekend before falling off again as snow returned earlier this week.
Summit County garnered as much as 5 inches of snow at lower elevations during a late week storm that let up Thursday afternoon. Forecasters say there is likely more of the same coming through the weekend and into next week.
Today may be a short break in precipitation, with snow returning on Saturday and Sunday and another system dropping into the mountains on Tuesday. Some models show the possibility of more snow late next week.
“We’ll probably pick up 2 or 3 inches of snow each day, and it will be a pretty snowy weekend, but there are no major storms,” Dankers said.