High Country snowpack improves, but a lot more snow is needed

Long-range forecast calls for continued drought in Colorado

Scott Miller
Vail Daily
Blue sky and sunshine greeted skiers in Copper Bowl at Copper Mountain Resort on Thursday, Feb. 25, before a storm rolled into the area Saturday night. Forecasts are calling for a warm and dry March.
Photo from Copper Mountain Resort


Here’s the good news: February was a good month for snowfall in the High Country. Here’s the bad news: It wasn’t enough to break free from current drought conditions.

A snowy February managed to provide a good bit of catch-up moisture to local snow measurement sites. The snow-water equivalent, or the amount of water held in the snowpack, at those sites is moving closer to normal, as measured by the 30-year snowfall median.

But heading into March and April, among the area’s snowiest months, it’s easy to fall behind.

For instance, the Saturday, Feb. 27, snow-water equivalent at Copper Mountain Resort was at 89% of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The usual snowpack peak in the area comes April 26.

The snow-water equivalent in the Blue River basin as measured at snow telemetry sites at Copper Mountain Resort, Fremont Pass, Grizzly Peak, Hoosier Pass and Summit Ranch.
Map from the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Little help on the horizon

While this winter is at least close to seasonal norms at the moment, there might not be much help coming in the immediate future.

Beyond snowfall throughout the day Saturday, Feb. 27, there isn’t much on the horizon, according to OpenSnow meteorologist Sam Collentine.

“The month of March will begin with dry conditions and much milder temperatures compared to what we experienced in February,” Collentine wrote Saturday morning in his Interstate 70 forecast blog.

To break our current drought, snowfall and cold temperatures will need to be sustained “over a long period of time,” according to Ben Moyer, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office.

That isn’t in the forecast.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center’s 30-day forecast, issued Feb. 18, is calling for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for Colorado.

The climate prediction is different than a standard weather forecast, looking instead at longer-range trends.

That long-range forecast combined with current snowpack levels has climatologists concerned

“We need above-average peak snowpack to start chipping away (at the drought),” Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said.

Current snowpack is better than it was, she said, but it’s “unlikely” we’ll see the kind of recovery needed.

Almost as important as the snowpack itself is the moisture content of the ground covered by that snow.

Dry soil hurts streamflows

In the spring, soil moisture is the first thing replenished by melting snow. Thirsty ground means less runoff for streams. That means less water flowing to reservoirs.

Complicating the deficit in soil moisture has been a four-year stretch in which the area’s summer monsoon rains in July and August haven’t developed, Bolinger said. Those rains help keep the ground moist and help maintain streamflows.

Losing those monsoonal rains also has dried out plant life. That’s contributed to the devastating wildfires that have hit Colorado in the past few years.

Bolinger noted that a dry summer, combined with warm temperatures lasting into October, helped create conditions ripe for wildfire. October wildfires used to be something of a rarity in Colorado, Bolinger said, adding “now it’s a reality.”

The current pattern has been “painful,” Bolinger said.

“It’s going to be a tough year in terms of irrigating, and I’m very concerned about the wildfire season,” she said. “Keep your fingers crossed for the monsoon.”

This story is from The Summit Daily News contributed to this report.

The snow-water equivalent in the Colorado River basin, which includes Summit County, is at 86% of normal.
Map from Map from the Natural Resources Conservation Service


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