High Country snowpack still lower than normal; prospects uncertain for relief
EAGLE COUNTY — March and April are Colorado’s snowiest months. But a persistent dry spell doesn’t show any immediate signs of breaking.
The latest readings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s snow measurement sites at Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass show a mixed bag of “snow water equivalent.”
While Vail Mountain continues to have adequate snow for skiing and snowboarding, the measurement site continues to give below-average readings.
On Monday, March 5, the Vail Mountain site showed only 9.8 inches of snow water equivalent, below even the 12.5 inches recorded in the historic drought year of 2011-12. In that drought year, the snowpack at Vail Mountain peaked on Feb. 28 and then fell quickly. The Vail Mountain measurement site was melted off by April 8.
There’s better news from Copper Mountain — near the headwaters of Gore Creek — and Fremont Pass, near the Eagle River’s headwaters.
At Copper Mountain, the snow water equivalent is 79 percent of normal. The Fremont Pass site is right at the 30-year average.
While there’s more snow at the highest elevations, it doesn’t really matter where the snow and its water sit.
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson said the district routinely moves water around the district — which stretches from East Vail to Edwards — depending on where it’s needed.
WATER FLOWS TOWARD NEED
That need involves meeting demand, of course. Water can be pumped from Edwards to Vail during ski season to meet needs when the town is full. Conversely, water can be pumped from Vail to Eagle-Vail, Avon and Edwards during warm months, when people are using water for landscaping.
Aside from meeting human needs, the district can also put water into Gore Creek and the Eagle River to maintain streamflows.
That work gets done even in wetter years.
“We’re stewards of our streams,” Johnson said. “We’ll change operations to leave more water in the streams.”
It’s still hard to tell just what kind of snowpack the season will bring. But, Johnson said, the district is confident in its plans for dry years. The last dry year was only six years ago, after all. Plus, technology available to both water managers and customers has improved.
Part of that technology allows users to see changes in irrigation use almost immediately. Customers who use devices that determine how much irrigation a lawn, garden or flower box needs can quickly see what they’re saving.
But, Johnson said, planning for dry conditions also interrupts other work at the district. More snow would be nice. Even rains in May and June would be helpful.
“But we like snow best,” Johnson said.
While the district has some reservoir storage, much of that storage is reserved for maintaining streamflows, not for human use. Snow melting off hillsides and recharging underground aquifers keeps water where it needs to be.
We’re all hoping for more snow in the next several weeks, and it’s hard to tell just what those weeks will bring. Still, the outlook isn’t particularly promising.
Andrew Lyons, a meteorologist in the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said the winter-long dry pattern seems to be holding.
An area of high pressure around the Southwestern United States and over the Pacific Ocean has been pushing storm systems to the north of Colorado all winter. That pressure ridge hasn’t moved much.
Lyons noted that we’re in the second year of a “La Nina” pattern — which develops due to cooler-than-average temperatures in the central Pacific. Those systems tend to bring more snow to Colorado resorts north of Interstate 70. Historically, though, the second year of La Nina patterns tend to be more dry than the first year.
Lyons said the current pattern has about run its course, which means the long-term outlook is uncertain.
The 90-day outlook from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center isn’t encouraging.
That forecast calls for a better-than-average chance of higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal precipitation.
Still, it’s springtime in Colorado. Just about anything can happen.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org @scottnmiller.
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