Summit County snowpack totals above average with latest storms |

Summit County snowpack totals above average with latest storms

Rising snow totals, including 73 inches in December and 27 more in January at Copper Mountain Resort through Monday afternoon, have the region set up well for an above-average water year. The skiers don't mind it either.
Tripp Fay / Copper Mountain Resort |

The Acre-Foot

The standard measure for water supplies in the United States. A single unit is calculated as 1 acre of surface area, or around the size of a football field, at depth of 1 foot deep, and is the equivalent of about 326,000 gallons. The average American family uses approximately that amount of water annually.

The snow in Summit is not supposed to let up the rest of the week, and that’s a welcome sight for skier and water advocates alike.

Arapahoe Basin and Loveland ski areas each reported 11 inches Sunday to Monday, and Breckenridge Ski Resort noted a respectable half-foot as well. Both Copper Mountain and Keystone resorts touted a very healthy 9 inches over that same time. The month of January has been particularly kind to the region’s ski meccas, with Copper receiving 27 inches in just the first nine days of 2017, and Keystone more than 30.

“It has certainly been a snowy winter season at Keystone,” Sara Lococo, spokeswoman for Keystone Resort, said by email. “January is shaping up to be a great snow month as well, as we’re already received 32 inches.”

The 81 inches Keystone — the area peak that typically averages the lowest annual total — reported for December made for the third-snowiest single month in the resort’s history. After a slow start to this year’s ski season, powder hounds could not be happier and serious accumulations appear in the week’s forecast.

“After this series of storms, we could be over 8 million acre-feet and well into a strong runoff.”Eric KuhnGeneral manager of the Colorado River District

Snow meteorology website predicted no fewer than 7 more inches at each of the five local resorts by Tuesday morning. That number could easily balloon to well over a foot at each location, and at this point the flurries aren’t scheduled to stop until at least the weekend.

More and more snow is great for both the resorts and the local economy, assuming the roads can be maintained to levels that allow the visitors and locals to get around. But it’s the rising reserves from all the falling precipitation in the community that has all the water wonks most excited.

“Oh, they’re huge,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, of the recent snowfalls. “And there’s some reason to be optimistic, because the rest of week is supposed to be wet. Next week we may dry out a little, but into the weekend and looking out into January, the above-average precipitation should continue.”

Kuhn’s organization is a Glenwood Springs-based public water policy agency in charge of maintaining the Colorado River Basin, which provides water to millions and millions of people across multiple western states and Mexico. Strong snowpack years usually result in good summers for water, as commonly measured by what ends up in Lake Powell in northern Arizona before ultimately reaching Mexico’s Gulf of California.

In the meantime, Kuhn and crew monitor daily projections for water runoff produced by the basin forecast center. Current models suggest that if even only average water from the sky in the form of snow descends in the region through the rest the cold season, levels at Lake Powell should reach 7.42 million acre-feet. That’s about 300,000 more than a median year once runoff is officially totaled in July, and there’s a good chance well more than average snow will fall through April and May.

“This current tropical system we have is very wet,” said Kuhn. “It’s a warm, Pacific front that came to California and raised snow levels in the Sierras quite a bit, and they’ll go up a little here, too. After this series of storms, we could be over 8 million acre-feet and well into a strong runoff.”

That total wouldn’t be a record, but it would be the biggest water year since 2010-11, which had significant snow totals here in Summit County. That’s the season Breckenridge Ski Resort, with its average annual total of 353 inches, reported an all-time high with an incredible 520. Copper, with a yearly average of 304, declared a record of its own, with 390 inches.

Should 2016-17 meet or surpass present expectations, that would be four straight average-or-better seasons in what is otherwise considered a relatively dry stretch. Anymore, average water years between 90-110 percent of normal Lake Powell levels are deemed satisfactory for fulfilling the appetite from those western states with rights to the vital resource.

Of course, the snowpack can shift dramatically year to year, and there’s no telling how exactly it will play out this season before the start of May. The ski resorts, and their eager patrons, want only for the snow to keep falling. Following a slightly below-average 2015-16, another record year would be greeted warmly by both, in addition to these devoted water watchers.

“Things can still drop off,” said Kuhn. “We’re in a relatively wet period though, and nobody’s been complaining in Colorado about the ski conditions for a while, or the runoff. It’s looking up, but let’s see what happens in February, March and April — the rest of the snow season.”

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