Summit County’s snowpack surges following recent storm, though it remains below average. Here’s when and how that could change.
Despite a drier start to the season, weather experts don’t see a need for concern just yet
This past weekend saw the biggest boost — yet — to Summit County’s snowpack for the 2023-24 winter season.
Despite briefly hitting the 30-year median in early November, the county’s snowpack has hovered well below that average in recent weeks. But double-digit snow totals between late Thursday and early Monday caused levels for the Blue River Basin, which includes all of Summit County, to surge.
Its snowpack currently stands at 84% of the average, according to Dec. 4 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It hasn’t started great, but we’re not at the lowest levels historically, either,” said James Heath, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, about the winter season. “This year, we had such a warm fall. … The last couple years, I can remember some major snowstorms in early October, and that just didn’t happen this year.”
By this time last year, the county’s snowpack was already above average, a trend it sustained until mid-April. Despite the slow start, Heath said it’s far too early to know how next year will shake out.
Statewide, snowpack is at about 96% of the average. Heath said it likely won’t be until January that he and other experts have a better understanding of what that will mean for the rest of the season.
There are more than 130 days remaining until the snowpack’s median peak on April 17.
“If you’re somebody who’s concerned about this early-year low snowpack … I wouldn’t even be concerned at all because those can change drastically,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Entrekin.
“Typically, it’s going to be the later winter, early spring months that are going to impact what your snowpack and reservoir levels are going to be,” he added.
Entrekin gave the example of 2003, a year where conditions “were horribly dry, even in the mountains.” It took a major snow storm in the third week of March to boost snowpack well beyond the average.
Summit County’s next chance for snowfall could be later this week, Entrekin said. Following warmer temperatures expected for Tuesday and Wednesday — with highs between 40 and 50 degrees — the county will see a cooling off on Thursday with snow possible later that night and into Friday.
“It’s not a horribly strong system, probably not as ambitious as the last one we saw,” Entrekin said, adding that it could produce between 4 and 8 inches, though forecasts could change before then.
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Though this past weekend’s storm brought snow totals to county ski resorts that spanned 12 to 23 inches, conditions were also more on the dry side. The storm’s snow to water ratio was about 15 to 1, meaning for every 15 inches of snowfall there was only one inch of water, according to Entrekin.
Snowpack usually sees the most accumulation from wetter snow with a smaller ratio, though it doesn’t mean it can’t still meet or surpass its average with the conditions seen last weekend.
“If we’re getting more frequent or drier snow, it’ll add up just as much as one major wet storm,” said Heath, the water resources division engineer.
This winter season also marks the return of the El Nino weather pattern, which typically brings heavier, wetter snow to southern areas with lighter, drier snow in the north. A La Nina, which has gripped Colorado for the past three seasons, usually has the inverse effect.
For example, Wolf Creek Ski Area, tucked away in the southern San Juan mountains, saw above-average snowfall during five out of the past seven El Nino seasons, according to an analysis by OpenSnow.com. In the north, Steamboat Ski Resort saw above-average snowfall during three of the seven El Nino seasons, which aligns with the pattern’s influence on the jet stream.
Still, in the central mountains there’s less of a correlation.
“We kind of sit in that middle ground where we’ve had big and dry years in both a La Nina and El Nino season,” Heath said. “It’s not a guarantee that we’ll end up with one or the other.”
As for what it all means for runoff season, which typically begins in April and May for lower-elevation areas and can last into the summer for mountainous regions, Heath said it may not have a very big impact.
While data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the state’s western, eastern and southern areas are either somewhat dry or in a drought; the Front Range and central mountain region remain drought-free.
In drier areas, like the Western Slope, Heath said initial snow runoff could be absorbed by parched soil, which acts as a sponge, before it makes its way to reservoirs.
But thanks to heavy snowfall last season and a precipitous spring and summer, many reservoirs throughout the state already have reserves that are all but guaranteed to help them fill and spill this summer.
“Even with average to below-average snowpack, we should have some fairly high runoff,” Heath said.
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