Blue River snowpack sensor sites hit zero on June 17, five days sooner than historical average

Mountains near Silverthorne are pictured on June 15, 2022. Snowpack has steadily melted as temperatures have gotten warmer.
Eliza Noe/Summit Daily News

Blue River snowpack sensor sites are measuring no more snow-water equivalent for the current water year, but when compared to 2021 data, local water is doing better despite the drought conditions meteorologists have reported for Summit County and the state of Colorado.

Data from the National Resources Conservation Service shows that snowpack sensor sites measured zero inches starting on June 17. The 30-year median was just above that level on that date, 0.4 inches, and the median shows a completion of snow melt by June 22.

In recent weeks, this year’s snow-water equivalent levels stayed on par with the median after a late-May snow boosted levels back up from being several inches below. Before that, snow-water equivalent had fallen behind the median. 

On May 20, just before the spring snowstorm, the Blue River basin had just 5.5 inches left, almost half of what was charted for the median, 10.2 inches. By May 28, snowmelt had begun to match that of the median again. 

As of June 17, the Blue River SNOTEL sites are measure zero inches of snow-water equivalent. The black line represents 2022 levels, and the green line represents the 30-year median.
National Resources Conservation Service/Courtesy image

Last year, snow-water equivalent hit zero on June 13. Now, since snow-water equivalent is gone for the year, the Blue River is now considered at a base flow, or the flows that Summit County ends up with through the fall and winter.

“I would say it’s better than it was last year, for sure,” Colorado Division of Water Resources District 5 engineer James Heath said. “But it’s probably not as good as back in the ’80s when we had some really big snow years and some really wet springs. We are still continuing in the 22 years worth of drought that we’ve been in since about the year 2000.”

Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is reporting that outflow for the Blue River in Dillon was between 55-57 cubic feet per second, and the forecast for the next 10 days has that remaining at a steady 58 cubic feet per second.

Tenmile Creek in Frisco measured 251 cubic feet per second. Future flows are expected to range between 227 and 388 cubic feet per second.

Dillon Reservoir inflow has declined steadily, with an inflow of 639 cubic feet per second being measured on June 21. The 10-day forecast is predicting flows as high as 848 cubic feet per second next week. According to Denver Water, the reservoir is 95% full.  

“At north Tenmile Creek at Frisco, the average peak there is around the first of June, so June 6 is the average peak there,” Heath said. “We peaked a little bit lower — still relatively high at this point. It hasn’t come off a lot, but it will.”

Soil moisture has gotten better over last year, as well. When soil is dry when snow begins to melt, that water is absorbed by the soil first before it heads down toward rivers or streams. 

“Snowpack was better over this past winter than it was in the year before,” Heath said. “It also helped that we had some monsoon rains last fall, which helped to improve the soil moisture conditions. So less of the snow melt went into the ground and more of it ran off as surface stream flows.”

This weekend, local forecasts show that Summit County does have a chance for rain, a continuation of monsoonal moisture that has been hitting Colorado. Monsoonal moisture helped keep Summit County from going into wildfire restrictions, and conditions for this weekend will likely do the same for next week. 

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of Summit County is considered under a “moderate drought” status, or a three on a six-point scale. Other parts toward the north and the east of the county are considered “abnormally dry,” which is a two on the scale. 

Across the Colorado River Basin, leaders are facing continued drought that has depleted water supply. Federal officials made the announcement that the seven basin states — including Colorado — must quickly conserve an enormous amount of water and threatened unilateral action if they do not. 

Currently, Green Mountain Reservoir and Dillon Reservoir are not expected to fill. While monsoonal moisture can affect fillage for reservoirs, it is not guaranteed and depends on where the jet streams are and what the temperatures are in the Pacific Ocean.

“Releases out of Dillon are probably going to remain where they’re at in the 50-75 (cubic feet per second) range. It’s not likely that they’re going to increase releases,” Heath said. “Unless we get more monsoons. They’re not anticipating fillings, so it’s unlikely that we’ll have large flows below Dillon Reservoir on the Blue this year.”

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