From Westword (Chris Bianchi):
…the drought status does signify the the potential for some major issues if we don’t get needed moisture in the next few months, particularly heading into the drier summer and fall months and fire season.
The mountains are struggling, as any powder-day chaser knows. Colorado’s snowpack is a key source of drinking water, and it also helps deters wildfires come spring and summer.
Statewide, as of Friday, the state’s snowpack sat at 60 percent of average, with the biggest deficits in the southern part of the state. The San Juans have been particularly hard-hit, with the southwest mountains sitting at only about a third of their typical season-to-date snowfall. The northern mountains are also below average, though recent storms have helped them get back to a solid flurry or two away from typical levels for this time of year.
The Climate Prediction Center’s official three-month outlook leaves most of Colorado looking drier than average and continuing the persistently dry pattern across the state, and particularly across the southern parts of the Centennial State.
There’s probably a key buzzword you’re hearing non-stop as to why it’s been so dry and snow-less: La Niña. Okay, that’s technically two words, but it’s a reference to cooler-than-average Pacific Ocean temperatures and a domino effect of global weather impacts.
The West Coast has experienced a fairly typical weather pattern for a La Niña winter: a wet, active spell for the Pacific Northwest and a bone-dry pattern for California and the inter-mountain West. However, storms have trended to push further north than usual, even for a La Niña winter, leading to the huge snowfall deficits. It’s kept Colorado’s northern mountains close to seasonable levels, but it’s left the southern Colorado mountains hungry for snow.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
As of this week, snowpack in the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan basins was at 33 percent of normal, tied with the Upper Rio Grande basin for the lowest snow totals in Colorado. The state as a whole is at 60 percent of normal.
But water managers are quick to mention one interesting and important stat: about 50 percent of the entire San Juan River basin’s snowpack comes from just 10 percent of the storms to hit the region.
Translation: Southwest Colorado needs only a handful of major storms to drop heavy snow to restore a sense of normalcy to snowpack levels and relieve the region of dreaded water issues that come with drought years.
But as the winter weather has yet to arrive, pressing into late January, these storms have to actually materialize to kick off the about-face.
“Whereas the northern mountains get dustings every other day, we get big events from the Southwest, all at once,” said Susan Behery, a hydraulic engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, who is based in Durango. “But the longer we go into the season without any snow at all, the less likely that seems.”
Tayrn Finnessey, a climate-change risk management specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said this winter’s lack of snowfall for Southwest Colorado is a “classic La Niña” year.
“In La Niña years, storms tend to track north,” she said.
There are precedents for this year’s lack of snow.
Take 2002, one of the driest years in Southwest Colorado history, which will forever be tied with the Missionary Ridge Fire that ripped through the San Juan Mountains, burning almost 73,000 acres.
This year’s snowpack is about half of what it was at this time of year in 2002, according to SNOTEL records from the Molas Pass gauging station, about 60 miles north of Durango in the high country.
In 2002, drought conditions didn’t actually hit until later in the season, paving the way for dangerously combustible conditions in the summer.
More comparable snowpack years to this winter would be in 1990 and 2000. But even in those years, snowpack did see a jump by the end of the winter, with peak numbers at about 15 inches and 18 inches, respectively.
“Is there a chance we could come back?” said Brian Domonkos, a snow survey supervisor with the National Resources Conservation Service. “Yes. But our chances are dwindling quickly.”
There is precedent for Colorado basins receiving late winter snow to compensate for a dry start. But given that winter is about half over, it is not likely we will hit those normal averages, Domonkos said.
And, it is notable to mention that past years at least displayed cold temperatures. Not so this year. In January, for instance, the month is on track to be 7.4 degrees warmer than historic averages, according to the National Weather Service.
In his 14 years with the service, Domonkos said this is probably the lowest snowpack he has seen in the majority of Colorado basins. It is statistically abnormal, he said, but not anything weather watchers haven’t seen before.
“We have to keep a real close eye on what’s going on,” he said. “The only way we’ll be able to plan and adjust – and adapt – is by watching these events closely and making smart good decisions.”
Water managers in Southwest Colorado are already watching to see how this year’s snowpack will play out for the many and varied water users of the region.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s Behery said the most-recent forecasts are predicting spring runoffs into Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs will be at about 45 percent of historic averages, and the forecasts will continue to drop with the absence of snow.
As a result, it’s unlikely that either reservoir, of which thousands of irrigators rely on, will hit capacity this year. Both reservoirs are about 50 percent full because of carry over from last year’s strong snow season.
John Simpson, an assistant division engineer with the Department of Water Resources based in Durango, said it’s too early to tell whether strict water restrictions will be enacted on the area’s waterways.
The Department of Water Resources is the state entity that administers all water rights to water users. In years where there is not plentiful water available, that’s when the division must give priority to senior water-right holders, potentially leaving others in the lurch.