#Snowpack news: Too early to panic?

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

So far, Mother Nature hasn’t gifted Colorado with much snow overall, and that’s following a dry summer that has left Montrose and other counties locked in exceptional drought. Because it is early enough in the winter season, though, water users and hydrologists aren’t panicking.

“It’s concerning, but we’ve survived before. We’ll survive again,” Steve Anderson, manager of the Uncompahgre Water Users Association, said. “It’s a lot easier to run the project when you’ve got lots of ammunition. I certainly hope we get some snowpack this winter, and we’ll go from there.”

The water users association, or UVWUA, stores its water rights allocations in Ridgway and Taylor Park reservoirs. This past spring, it was faced with a “hole,” when, because of less snow and colder weather in the high country, there was not enough water to feed the project in April. The association at the time took some from its storage to meet contracts; it was able to meet demands for its irrigation season.

As of Monday, Ridgway Reservoir held 52,185 acre-feet of water and sat at an elevation of about 6,837. Taylor Park stood at 67,491 acre-feet and about 9,308 elevation, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data.

“We don’t have a full reservoir, but we’re awfully close at Taylor,” Anderson said.

The big bucket for the Aspinall Unit, Blue Mesa Reservoir, was at 7,464 elevation and 399,755 acre-feet on Monday. It’s sitting lower than what BuRec would like and the hope is for a winter of at least average precipitation.

“If we have another year like this year, operations will be challenging,” BuRec hydrologist Ryan Christianson said.

Normally, the bureau is releasing water from Blue Mesa to hit winter targets, but is about 25 feet below where hydrologists like to be for the winter.

When it comes to how full Blue Mesa is, though, at 48%, that’s typical for the lower part of the year.

Currently, there are about 2 inches of snow-water equivalent as the snowpack starts to build for the season. Over the course of a winter, there is typically 15 to 20 inches and it is not unusual to have only a few inches at this time of year, Christianson said.

The basin is about 15% of average for its typical median peak for snowpack, which tends to peak-out in early April. The basin has several months to catch up; however, below-average runoff is anticipated.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Preliminary data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey program pegged the statewide snowpack level at 82% of median on Tuesday.

Powderhorn had hoped to open the day after Thanksgiving Day but temperatures were too warm before then for it to make snow with its new system. But it’s now saying on its website that the Bill’s Run and Peacemaker trails will be open top to bottom thanks to its new system making snow “when Mother Nature has refused to cooperate.”;


NRCS data for snow measurement sites helps explain the challenges Powderhorn and some other Colorado resorts are facing. At Grand Mesa sites, measurements of snow-water equivalent are around half of average, with snow depths ranging from 5 to 14 inches.

Snowpack as of Tuesday was 73% of median for the Upper Colorado River Basin in Colorado and 71% in the Gunnison River Basin. Snowpack levels in basins in the state range from a low of 65% of median in the Yampa/White basins to 118% in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. That runs a bit counter to expectations for this winter, a La Niña winter characterized by below-average surface water temperatures in the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean. Such winters tend to result in more snow in northern Colorado than southern Colorado.

Only one week ago today, the state’s snowpack was at 97% of median. The level of drop since then reflects not just a dry pattern in recent days but how quickly the percentage can change early in the snowpack season when overall accumulations are relatively low. Snowpack levels in the state generally don’t peak until sometime in early April.

Brian Domonkos, NRCS snow survey supervisor in Colorado, said he believes about 40% of the state’s snowpack typically accumulates by Jan. 1. This year’s snowpack is off to a slow start in a season where water-watchers hope to see it exceed average peak accumulation because of the drought that currently is gripping the entire state. Much of western Colorado, including eastern and southern Mesa County, is in exceptional drought, the worst category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

That results in poor soil moisture, which means when the snow melts next year, more of it will be soaked into the ground and less will reach streams, just as happened this year when a fairly average snowpack in Colorado resulted in below-average runoff because of dry ground. This year, “the spigot turned off in April and May and then it got warm into June,” and that was followed by a monsoon season that failed to produce appreciable moisture, said Jim Pokrandt with the West Slope’s Colorado River District…

Warmer temperatures in the summer and fall aggravated things. That has further heightened the desire for an above-average snowpack this winter for the sake of farmers and ranchers, municipal utilities and others dependent on Colorado River water flows, given the inadequate runoff seen this past year.

As I’ve said before, average isn’t good enough anymore,” Pokrandt said…

Pokrandt said it’s still early in the snowpack season, too early to panic about how things may shape up. For the short term, though, there are no big storms on the horizon…

Longer term, the federal Climate Prediction Center is forecasting below-average precipitation in Colorado over the next 30 days. The same goes for its 90-day outlook for southern Colorado, whereas it is forecasting an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation over that timeframe for northern Colorado.

Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for December 4, 2020.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map December 4, 2020 via the NRCS.

Leave a Reply