#Snowpack news: “…we are thinking about #drought every day” — Ed Warner

Westwide SNOTEL February 11, 2018 via the NRCS.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dave Buchanan):

A weak-but-effective La Niña pattern has been pushing western storms north of the Interstate 70 corridor, a situation which blesses the ski slopes of Steamboat but leaves Powderhorn with a curtailed schedule.

A small bump in precipitation in January brought the statewide snowpack to 64 percent of median as of Feb.1, but even that for the moment doesn’t much brighten the outlook for summer flows in the Gunnison River…

With the Gunnison Basin reporting at 49 percent of median, there already is an undercurrent of concern about water supplies this summer…

Last year, there was some early fretting about possible drought and it wasn’t until well past mid-December that the snows arrived. By January snow levels were waist-deep and the runoff proved to be one of the highest in a decade.

We’re already a month past that schedule this year, but what is the new normal?


Lake Powell, according to Greg Smith with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, is at 56 percent of capacity with inflow projected at 47 percent of average during the runoff season.

These estimates indicate the reservoir may release more water downstream (8.23 million acre feet as part of the Colorado River Compact) than it receives.

The Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Blue Mesa through Crystal Dam in the late fall to reach a predetermined elevation to minimize winter icing problems upstream of the reservoir.

Once that level is reached, release levels into the lower Gunnison river usually stabilize for the rest of the winter.

Recent cutbacks in Crystal releases has the Gunnison (as of Thursday) at about 678 cfs, which is close to as low as the Bureau wants to reach.

But if the snowpack doesn’t start to grow, the bureau may be faced with further cuts in Crystal releases to save summer irrigation water.

During the recent Aspinall Unit Operations meeting in Montrose, someone in the audience turned to Ed Warner, manager of the BuRec’s office in Grand Junction, and asked if his team had started thinking about drought contingency operations.

Warner shifted slightly in his seat and said, “I’d say in response to that that we are thinking about drought every day.”

From The Summit Daily (Allen Best):

…in Colorado, ski areas just a few hundred miles apart have dramatically different situations. Summit County was close to average, even before this week’s snow. Snow helped southwestern Colorado, where Telluride on Tuesday reported 12 inches of snow in 12 hours.

But as of late January, local river drainages in the San Juan Mountains were just 34 to 36 percent of average. Farther north, near Grand Junction, the Powderhorn ski area cut back its operations to Thursday through Sunday, to better conserve snow…

California has it tough, too. At Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, hydrologists last week found just 13 percent of average snowpack, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Only twice since record-keeping began in 1946 has there been less snow: 2014 and 1963. No skis were necessary to get to the site; boots were sufficient.

The problem lies off the shore of California in the form of what climate scientist Daniel Swain of the California Weather Blog calls the “strong, persistent, broad and anomalous ridge of atmospheric high pressure.” Several years ago he coined it the “ridiculously resilient ridge.” Go to WeatherWest.com.

In a Feb. 1 posting, he reported a snow drought across most of the mountainous interior of the American West caused in part by below-average precipitation but more importantly by above-average temperatures.

It’s been sizzling in Southern California. Daytime temperatures have soared above 90, overnight lows stayed above 70. In the Sierra Nevada, the temperature range was different, but the band of temperatures was also anomalous.

Swain predicts that the ongoing warm and dry spell will likely melt what little snow currently exists below about 8,000 feet in elevation.

Base elevation of Northstar is 6,330 feet; Squaw Valley 6,200 feet; Heavenly 6,255 feet. Mammoth is at 9,000 feet, although the town center is 7,500 feet.

Swain warns against expecting the atmospheric high pressure to dissipate before mid-February — and maybe not then. “It’s still possible that a robust storm sequence in late February (or another “Miracle March”) could bring a remarkable turnaround in short order. But while that possibility remains on the table the odds are long.”

In New Mexico there are already questions about potential for forest fires. If past is prelude, this could be a tricky year.

Dr. Ellis Margolis, a research ecologist, has studied tree rings and photographs of aspen stands, which commonly appear after major blazes, in assembling a history of fires in the Taos area during the last 400 years.

He found that about 90 percent of the fires broke out in spring and early summer, usually in a drought year. Often the drought year or years had been preceded by wet conditions in prior years, which likely promoted the growth of surface fuels that helped the fire to spread.

From NBC11News.com (Megan McNeil):

People like Connell need to measure the snowpack [on the Grand Mesa] monthly to see how much potential water the City will get from the watershed. They take a pole that weighs 19 pounds and push it into the snow until it hits the ground. It collects snow, and then they weigh the pole with the snow on it.

That tells them how much water they can expect from snow levels. 18 inches of snow makes about four inches of water.

That’s where the northernmost point of the watershed is sitting, and that’s not a lot.

“Since I’ve been up here, in eight years this is the worst, like for example last year at this time, January 1, we had 56 inches right up there at towers,” said [Slade] Connell.

Now, the towers is at 22 inches…

The watershed is currently at 24 percent of its normal snowpack. Some areas have only 4 inches of snow.

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

…the Denver office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service projected Wednesday that streamflows in the combined Yampa and White rivers this summer are likely to be in the range of 50 to 69 percent of average.

The forecast is based on snowpack in the region as of Feb. 1, so there’s still a chance for the snowpack to grow. But Colorado Snow Survey Supervisor Brian Domonkos said it would take a significant reversal in the weather patterns to turn snowpack levels around…

The Yampa/White basin snowpack is 70 percent of median and just 55 percent of last winter’s snowpack as of Feb. 1, according to the Conservation Service. But in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, snowpack is just 34 percent of median. It’s an indication that flows in the Four Corners region will be scant this summer, including on the San Juan River, a popular river trip destination for families in Steamboat Springs.

[Brian] Domonkos reported that landmarks in the Southern Colorado Rockies like Wolf Creek Pass and Red Mountain Pass in the San Juans typically have 5 to 6 feet of standing snow in early February but currently report only 2 to 3 feet.

“What’s more concerning is the considerable number of mid- to lower-elevation monitoring sites that have little to no snow,” he said.

Close to Steamboat, the Tower snow measuring site, at 10,500 feet elevation, typically has some of the deepest snow in the state. The snow there on Feb. 4 was 59 inches deep with snow water content that represented 66 percent of median for the date. It’s the high elevation snow in locations like Buffalo Pass that feeds streams that support the Yampa River well into July.

Near the bottom of Buffalo Pass, the Dry Lake measuring site showed a snow depth of 36 inches with a snow water equivalent that was 72 percent of median.

One of the river drainages in the state projected to have stronger flows this summer is in North Park, just across the Continental Divide and the Park Range from Steamboat Springs, where the mountain snowpack that feeds the North Platte River is a respectable 82 percent of median.

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Rob Story):

Of the eight main watersheds measured by NRCS, only the Upper Rio Grande (at 33 percent of normal) is currently drier than here in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river drainages, where mountain snowpack remains a meager 35 percent of normal.

In year-to-date precipitation, though, the Four Corners region is Colorado’s most parched, having welcomed only 29 percent of normal rain and snow compared to 64 percent statewide…

While most of Colorado currently is classified as “abnormally dry,” the Western Slope is significantly worse. According to the Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan watersheds officially moved from “moderate drought” to “severe drought” on Jan. 2.

In its January summary, NRCS reported Colorado’s snow water equivalent was the second lowest on record…

It’s too early for meteorologists to determine how hazardous the 2018 forest fire season might be. But the numbers look ominous: On Monday, local basins contained less than half the snowpack they did at this time in 2002 — a notoriously dry year that saw massive fires rage all over the West, including the 31,300-acre Burn Canyon fire near Norwood…

As locals know all too well, the southwestern corner of the state has witnessed far less precipitation than northern Colorado. The drought has forced Powderhorn ski area (near Grand Junction) to reduce operations, opening only Thursday through Sunday, to preserve snow. The resort’s current base depth is 16 inches — about 25 percent of its February average.

Meanwhile, Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents 23 resorts, recorded 13 percent fewer visits at its member operations from the beginning of ski season through Dec. 31.

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