#Snowpack workshop: Understanding Snowpack and its Role in Western Water — Roaring Fork Conservancy

Westwide basin-filled snowpack map February 26, 2017 via the NRCS.
Westwide basin-filled snowpack map February 26, 2017 via the NRCS.

From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (Scott Condon):

A dozen Roaring Fork Valley residents got an up-close look Sunday at how the weird weather has affected the snowpack this winter.

The group trudged into the aspen woods at the summit of McClure Pass during the cold morning to conduct an old-fashioned snow survey — ramming a hollow metal pole into the ground by hand power to take a core sample. Derrick Wyle, a soil conservationist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, then walked the citizen scientists through calculations using markings on the pole and by weighing it to determine the snowpack density.

The exercise confirmed that Colorado’s typical Champagne powder has been closer to Sierra Cement this winter. Warm temperatures have often produced a rain-snow mix this winter as well as a series of 50-degree days in February.

The average of the nine samples indicated a snow depth of 38 inches and a snow-water equivalent — the amount of water contained within the snowpack — of 14 inches. That produced an average water density of 37 percent…


The Natural Resources Conservation Service and Roaring Fork Conservancy have teamed up for the past five or so years to present the workshop, called, “Understanding Snowpack and its Role in Western Water.”

While Wyle took the students through a mock snow course survey, Mitchell worked with the group to dig a snow pit and analyze it for clues to the snowpack composition.

The digging initially was easy with 3 inches of light powder covering the surface. That was the snow that fell in recent days.

The fluff soon gave way to a thick, crusty layer that Mitchell said was baked and solidified during the long dry, warm spell in late January and February.

Closer to the ground, more than 3 feet below the snow surface, the consistency was looser again.

Mitchell planted thermometers at different layers of the snowpack and took equal-sized samples from the top and lower down in the dense layer. She mixed the snow samples with equal amounts of water and boiled them over Jet Boil burners she brought into the field. Once the snow was melted, it showed that the higher density layer, indeed, produced more water.


Mitchell said getting people into the field is essential to Roaring Fork Conservancy’s mission to inspire people to explore, value and protect the Roaring Fork Watershed — an area that stretches from Independence Pass to Glenwood Springs and includes the Crystal and Fryingpan rivers and all their drainages.

The watershed is about 1,400 square miles.

“It’s about the size of Rhode Island,” Mitchell said.

And about 30 percent of it is federally protected wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited, according to Mitchell.

The conservancy holds a number of workshops and field trips over the course of the year, highlighted by its popular summer float trip on the Roaring Fork River.

Sunday’s program was designed to drive home the point that the snowpack “is a natural storage system for water,” she said…


From now through spring, everyone from river guides to farmers will watch the snowpack to help gauge runoff.

So far, snowpack levels are impressive, thanks to the non-stop snow over the first three weeks of January. The pace of snowpack accumulation slowed significantly in February, but it still remains well above median at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen as well as at three sites each in the Crystal and Fryingpan drainages.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service relies primarily on automated Snow Telemetry sites now for data, including one on McClure Pass. Wyle gave a brief tour of the facilities there Sunday. The site transmits data each hour on snow depth, cumulative precipitation and snow water equivalent.

However, Wyle and his counterparts around the state still ski or snowshoe to select sites each month for a manual check of the automated data. He and his colleagues in the Glenwood Springs office do field tests at Nast Lake up the Fryingpan Valley.

Sunday’s field operation provided a glimpse of how the snow survey workers gather their data…


All the automated Snow Telemetry sites in the Roaring Fork Watershed are measure well above the median. Here are the measures as of 3:30 p.m. Sunday. The first number is the snow water equivalent in the snowpack, the second is the percentage of median.

Independence Pass, 14.8 inches, 119%
McClure Pass, 16.8 inches, 130%
North Lost Trail, 19.8 inches, 157%
Schofield Pass, 41.8 inches, 172%
Nast Lake, 11.6 inches, 184%
Kiln, 12.5 inches, 138%
Ivanhoe, 16.4 inches, 164%

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service

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