From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
Parts of the West are currently experiencing one of the driest and warmest winters on record. Snowpack is far below normal levels in southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and California, leaving some to worry about this year’s water supply.
To get a sense of this year’s snowpack, head to a place like Berthoud Pass, an hour drive into the mountains west of Denver. The pass, which straddles the basins for both the Colorado and the South Platte rivers, is home to a SNOTEL site. SNOTEL — a portmanteau of “snow” and “telemetry” — is the system of hundreds of snow measurement sites throughout the Western U.S. that estimate the amount of water held in mountain snowpack.
The site is a short snowshoe hike up a hill off the highway, in a small clearing in the trees. The Berthoud Pass site was set up in the first generation of SNOTEL sites dating back to the late 1970s.
“This is at the higher range of where we do measure snow,” says Karl Wetlaufer, the assistant snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver. “We’re well over 11,000 feet here.”
Each SNOTEL site is a Rube Goldberg setup of meters and tubes designed to measure the weight of the snow. When snow falls it compresses pillows on the ground, filled with a sweet-smelling liquid anti-freeze. The liquid is displaced by the snow’s weight, and from the weight scientists can figure out the most important aspect of mountain snowpack: how much water is in it. The process is mostly automated, but the sites still require maintenance…
“Just driving up through the mountains as we gain elevation there’s definitely noticeably less snowpack than we would expect as we approach the site,” Wetlaufer says. “And intuitively you can just feel that we have a lower snowpack.”
That’s even worse news considering Berthoud Pass — currently at 80 percent of average — is one of the better sites for snowpack in the entire Colorado River watershed, which supplies water for about 40 million people in seven states.
“The hole we’re in now in terms of the snow deficit is going to be really hard to pull out of,” says Jeff Lukas, who studies long-term climate shifts at the Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
If you add up the numbers at all the SNOTEL sites in the upper Colorado River, snowpack is at 63 percent of average. It’s well below normal, halfway through the snow accumulation season. Essentially, time is running out to make up that deficit, Lukas say…
Forecasts for river flows by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center are already taking the current diminished snowpack into account. Most streams are projected to be lower this spring, some just slightly, with others extremely below average. Inflow to Lake Powell, the first major reservoir the Colorado River empties into on the Utah-Arizona border, is projected to be 54 percent of average this spring and early summer.
The good news for upstream water managers is that most smaller reservoirs in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are storing above average amounts of water, boosted by drought-busting wet weather in the winter of 2016-2017.
“We can weather one bad year,” Lukas says. “But in other parts of the West or even downstream in the Colorado River Basin, Lakes Powell and Mead are both sitting well below capacity.”
All that bad snowpack news means downstream states like Arizona, Nevada and California are anxiously looking toward the Rocky Mountains. The Colorado River — fed by snowmelt — provides roughly 40 percent of the Arizona’s water.
“We closely watch this. We know how important it is,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “It’s a huge piece of Arizona’s water budget, and a life blood for the state.”
Of all the states that rely on the Colorado River’s water, Arizona is in arguably the worst position to handle a dry year. Its reservoirs are currently sitting below average, yet to recover from a long-term drought that’s plagued the southwest for more than a decade.
On a scale of zero to 10 — where zero is not worried at all and 10 is panic mode — Buschatzke says he’s moderately worried about the state’s ability to withstand a dry winter.
“I am probably at about a seven right now,” he says.
Add in the projections for climate change that show a future where the river’s supply is sapped even further, and thinking about the river’s future can be anxiety-inducing…
Back at Berthoud Pass, snow surveyor Karl Wetlaufer writes down measurements, using an aluminum tube to take core samples from the snowpack, and then weighing it. This more old-school method of measurement is still in use by surveyors across the West.
Wetlaufer isn’t panicking yet. There’s still plenty of winter ahead of us. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for some big storms to change everything. But the window for those Hail Mary snow storms is closing, he says.
From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):
From powderhounds to Colorado’s water managers, the new year has brought worry. The record-low snowpack in parts of the Rocky Mountains is the culprit. Snowfall at the end of 2017 in Beaver Creek, Vail and Park City, Utah was the lowest in more than 30 years…
Colorado statewide snowpack is at 60 percent of average, which means that this year, snowmaking is a necessity for ski areas. The overall lack of snow has also been hard on the box office. Vail Resorts, Keystone’s owner, reported a 10.8 percent drop in visits across its North American resorts and Canada. Lift ticket revenue was up slightly thanks to pre-ski season Epic Pass sales.
The worry for weather watchers is that Colorado recorded its third warmest year on record in 2017. Last November was the state’s warmest ever for that calendar month.
Even where Colorado saw significant snow, Russ Schumacher, the state climatologist, said, “it’s still remained relatively warm.”
Schumacher and others acknowledge the role climate change and those warmer temperatures will play across the West. The thing that’s more difficult to predict is how winter snowfall might change. Right now, Schumacher said some spots near the Continental Divide have near average snowpack. But move farther south to the Gunnison River basin and there are places setting new records for lack of snow.
Jeff Lukas, with the Western Water Assessment, is watching not just snowpack levels but the water in that snowpack.
“Your senses are triggered,” he said. “But you don’t push the alarm bell yet….”
For him snow is like a bank account for the arid West. Every year water managers capture snow melt in reservoirs. If the snow starts running off early or evaporates in warm weather or there’s not enough of it, then Lukas’ alarm bells will start going off.