‘A pretty good monsoon year’: Precipitation in Summit County was strong in 2022, lessening drought and wildfire concerns
Summit County residents experienced a wet summer and consistently snowy winter in 2022 — with modest downstream benefits for the Colorado River compared to neighboring regions
The consistent precipitation Summit County saw throughout much of last summer and fall helped to alleviate drought concerns, lessen wildfire danger and support recreation locally in 2022.
And it should help support a better streamflow this spring, according to Colorado State University climatologist Peter Goble. The wet conditions have likely led the county’s soils to be more moist than in years past, Goble said, meaning they won’t absorb as much of the snowmelt as in recent years.
“In 2020 and 2021, you might have heard that snowpacks are okay but our soils are dry,” Goble said. “But in 2022 we had a pretty good summer and early fall, so it set up the antecedent conditions nicer than in the past couple years.”
Referring to water year 2022, the period between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2022, Goble said last year in Summit County started out with a snowpack that was about normal. Scientists who study precipitation often talk in water years rather than calendar years, he said, because the water year more accurately follows the seasonal cycle of water.
“The runoff ended up being on the disappointing side because the spring ended up being on the drier side, that April to May timeframe,” Goble said. “But then we had a pretty good monsoon year with good summer moisture.”
Last calendar year, a weather station in Breckenridge recorded 27.1 inches of precipitation, 5 inches more than the official normal of 21.77 inches, according to National Weather Service forecaster Chad Gimmestad. The official normal is based on precipitation between 1991 and 2020, Gimmestad said, and is similar to an average.
In August, the Breckenridge station recorded the second highest amount of precipitation — 6.24 inches — since 1893, Gimmestad said, noting a 30-year gap in that dataset. That is compared to a mean of 2.32 inches of precipitation that the station logs in a normal August, he said.
“There were just repeated thunderstorm rains, and I think there were a couple days that had steadier rain,” Gimmestad said. “The rest of the months weren’t that different from normal, but that August rain obviously made everything wet and then it was just a bit above average most of the other months.”
The wet summer last year also helped lower the drought status in Summit County, Gimmestad said. Drought classification is ranked on a five-point scale from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought.
“The only month that was significantly below normal was September,” Gimmestad said, “which came after all that rain in August, so we didn’t have the wildfire issues we might have had otherwise.”
Back in the winter of 2020-2021, most of Summit County was in that exceptional drought category for a brief period. Then, at the end of 2021, the county dropped out of the D2 severe drought category to D1, a moderate drought, Gimmestad said. The summer of 2022 then pushed Summit County from D1 to D0 or lower, he said, noting that the county is no longer experiencing any drought except perhaps on its southeast border.
“For Summit County, I would say you’re not really in drought conditions at all,” Gimmestad said. “The precipitation has been at or above normal. The snowpack is above normal.”
The regular snowfall through much of the end of last year was likely a boon for the local ski resorts, Gimmestad added, since the snowsports industry prefers not to have long periods without snowfall.
Still, while the winter snowpack in Summit County through winter 2022-2023 has been strong, Goble said the county did not see the highs that other parts of Colorado did. The snow water equivalent, a measurement of how much water the snowpack contains, forecast to runoff into the Blue River and Dillon Reservoir is at 90% of average — so just below normal, he said.
Meanwhile, though, the Yampa River, which passes near Steamboat Springs, is 170% of average and the Dolores River, which has its confluence with the Colorado River near the Utah border, is at 196% — almost double — of normal, he said.
“It’s great that Summit County hasn’t had a bad year,” Goble said. “But it’s kind of a bit disappointing that some of those rivers in southern Colorado have had blockbuster years but Summit County has not.”
Goble said this is all good news for the Colorado River Basin, which has experienced more than 22 years of drought driven by human-caused climate change as greenhouse gas emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet.
Fed by the Colorado River, Lake Powell and Lake Mead — two of the largest reservoirs in the country that generate hydropower for millions of people — documented the lowest water levels ever seen last year. Lake Mead fell below 27% of its capacity and Lake Powell fell below 24%.
The snowpack melt this year should raise those levels somewhat, Goble said, noting that the inflow forecast into Lake Powell is about 170% of average this year. But — driven by a great snowpack in Colorado and an exceptional year in eastern Utah — that is only likely to be a temporary reprieve, he added.
“We would need a couple years like this to erase the deficits we see in Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” Goble said. “Years this good can be tough to come by. It’s definitely a long-term problem that will be eased by the water we’ve had this year — but not solved.”
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