Snowpack dwindling as Summit County enters second year of drought
Ryan Summerlin February 9, 2013
Summit County, along with the state of Colorado, is entering into its second year of drought. This has aversely affected the snowpack, which is at below-average levels throughout the state, according to a report by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The statewide snowpack is at 72 percent of the average for this time of year and 90 percent from last year. For Summit County, in the Colorado basin, snowpack is only at 67 percent of the average for February and 89 percent of where it was last year. This means that the Colorado basin currently has just over half of the amount of snow it should have and just over 10 percent less than it had at the same time last year.
Colorado is not seeing the snowstorms it needs to alleviate the powder deficit. The entire state has been experiencing high-level drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website. Exceptional Drought (D4) has crept across the Eastern Plains, while Summit County is engulfed in red at the Extreme Drought (D3) level.
“When we start stringing drought years back to back, that’s when you start having problems across the state,” said Wendy Ryan, research associate at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “The odds are definitely stacked in favor of having a below-normal snowpack year again.”
The pattern of snowfall has been acting differently this year, Ryan said. In the past, snowfall has been continual, with small amounts falling in between big storms. Recently, however, periods of dryness and no snow have come sandwiched between the larger snowstorms.
“That’s really what sets us back. We should be accumulating about an inch of water a week in the mountains,” said Ryan, but that hasn’t been happening.
One of the factors affecting the weather across the state is the fact that Colorado is currently in a “neutral zone,” meaning it’s not experiencing either of the La Nina or El Nino phenomena.
“Typically when we have a strong La Nina or El Nino, that means certain things for our state. This sort of neutral is kind of unknown and hasn’t happened for eight or nine years,” said Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow surveyor supervisor at the NRCS center in Denver.
The lack of the driving force of the El Nino or La Nina weather patterns can make it harder for forecasters to predict the weather. Some have termed this the “no nino” condition.
The below-average snowpack will directly affect streamflow forecasts and reservoir storage, according to the NRCS report. Although last year was a drought year, the reservoirs were full from the previous year, which was exceptionally wet. As the drought continues and potentially worsens this year, reservoirs haven’t been able to return to full levels and are lowering.
Statewide reservoir storage is at 70 percent of the average for this time of year. Colorado basin’s reservoir storage, which includes Summit County, is at 67 percent of average and 59 percent of where it was last year. As of January, Dillon Reservoir is at 68 percent capacity, compared to last year’s 96 percent.
“We don’t have that cushion of having a previous really wet year to fill our reservoir. We’ve lost that and we need to replenish that storage,” Hultstrand said. “Really to come out of that, we need at least an average snowpack this year. So far we’re not there. We have a couple months left and we hope we get it.”
Snowfall during the Christmas season and end of January helped, said Ryan, but storms will need to continue to alleviate the drought. An approaching storm this weekend looks promising.
“We’re looking at about an inch of liquid throughout the heart of the Rocky Mountains,” Ryan said.
“We’re excited to keep that snowpack growing,” she added. “We’ll take anything we can get.”