Ski areas desperately need snow as drought intensifies in Summit County

A storm rolls in over Frisco on Monday night. The storm is expected to continue until midday Tuesday and bring about 2 inches of snow.
Photo by Taylor Sienkiewicz /

Despite some snowfall in the past week, Colorado’s drought continues to wear on.

The U.S. Drought Monitor places the southern half of the county in extreme drought while the northern half is in exceptional drought, the worst level on the scale.

The Drought Monitor lists large fires, extremely low reservoirs, increased water temperatures and worsening pasture conditions as impacts of an extreme drought. For exceptional drought, the anticipated impacts include widespread dust storms and topsoil removal as well as large agricultural and recreational economic losses.

Precipitation has been below normal in Colorado since Oct. 1, and drought conditions have “expanded where long-term precipitation deficits continued to mount,” according to a Drought Monitor summary for Dec. 8. Statewide reservoir storage is below normal, and in the past six months, the southwest region of the country, which includes Colorado, experienced its hottest and driest June to November on record.

As for the snowpack, the Upper Colorado River Basin is at 70% of its normal snow-water equivalent, a measurement of how much water is in the snowpack, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Paul Schlatter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder, said Summit County has seen only 50% of its normal snowfall for this point in December.

Looking back to November, precipitation totals were on opposite ends of the spectrum depending location in the county, Schlatter wrote in an email. The northwest part of Summit County along the Blue River saw 25% to 33% of normal November precipitation while a whopping 125% of normal precipitation fell to the southwest. Precipitation was around normal along the Interstate 70 corridor, Schlatter said.

Map from Natural Resources Conservation Service

The unseasonably warm and dry fall has made it difficult for ski areas to open additional terrain with either man-made or natural snow. The lack of terrain compounded with capacity restrictions have created headaches for ski area operators and their guests heading into the holidays, even leading to canceled reservations at Breckenridge Ski Resort last weekend.

Breckenridge has recorded 54 inches of snowfall this season as of Monday, Dec. 14. By the same date in 2019, the resort had recorded 68 inches, according to On the Snow data. At Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, 35 more inches of snow was recorded by Dec. 14, 2019, compared with this year. Ski areas don’t begin recording their seasonlong snowfall totals until they are open, so lower totals this year also could be attributed to delayed openings. Breckenridge opened five days later this year than in 2019. A-Basin opened 29 days later than last year, in part due to a water shortage that impacted its ability to make snow.

A change in the weather pattern brought as much as a foot of snow to Summit County ski areas over the weekend, and more snow is on the way.

Schlatter listed the precipitation chances this week in Summit County, which include a light snowstorm Monday night until about noon Tuesday. The storm is expected to bring about 2 inches of snow with potentially 3 inches at the ski areas. He said conditions will be dry with high temperatures around freezing until early Friday, when 1-2 inches of snow could fall by the end of the day.

“It’s not going to be a whole lot of liquid with the snow very fluffy and light,” Schlatter said.

He added that the small amount of precipitation won’t do much to quell the drought.

“You’d need several big storms,” he said.

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