#Snowpack news: February storms have improved the outlook

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

From KOAA (Alan Rose):

Several Colorado ski resorts are now reporting more than 2 feet of fresh powder this month, and more is on the way.

It’s a welcoming sight as we’re now more than halfway through the ski season, and still lagging behind.

In just the past week, Vail has reported nearly 2.5 feet of fresh snow.

Places like Breckenridge, Aspen Snowmass, Beaver Creek and Copper Mountain all picked up between 20-25 inches of new snow this past week.

Crested Butte, Keystone, Winter Park and Monarch are all reporting around 1.5 feet of fresh snow…

Home to Wolf Creek Ski Area, the Upper Rio Grande Basin is the only region that’s above average. Currently, Wolf Creek is reporting a base depth of 88-95″, nearly double that of Breckenridge, which has a base of 46″.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 9, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

Vail Mountain is reporting 29 inches of new snow in the past seven days. That’s been enough to boost the measurement site on Vail Mountain — which measures “snow water equivalent,” the amount of water in snow — to 88% of the 30-year median. The same site on Jan. 18 showed snowpack at just 69% of that 30-year median.

The numbers were roughly the same at sites on Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass, the sites closest to Vail Pass and the headwaters of the Eagle River, respectively.

Tom Renwick, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said the Central Rockies, including the area around Vail, could see between 6 and 12 inches starting late Monday and continuing to Wednesday…

West Drought Monitor February 2, 2021.

The drought persists

But even if the local snowpack nears normal levels, the fact is that Eagle County remains in a prolonged drought period.

Even with normal snowfall, the ground is parched underneath that snow. That means much of the snowpack will melt into the ground before it runs off into local streams.

With that and other factors in mind — including summers when expected rainfall hasn’t materialized — local water officials are urging customers to adapt to a continued dry climate…

[Diane] Johnson’s email notes that reducing outdoor water use is particularly important. Outdoor irrigation uses far more water than indoor domestic use, Johnson wrote. And, while almost all water used indoors eventually returns to local streams, very little water used for outdoor irrigation returns to streams…

It’s all part of being able to “adapt to an aridifying environment,” Johnson wrote. That holds no matter how much more snow this season may bring.

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Kari Dequine Harden):

Based on recent data and statistical modeling, there is only a 10% chance spring precipitation will be robust enough to bring a normal water supply to the Yampa Valley heading into the summer, said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District.

There’s also a 10% chance of reaching record low water supply levels for the Yampa River, Kanzer warned.

And in terms of the drought bell curve, Kanzer said the fringe areas on either side of the middle are increasingly important, as the entire curve looks to be shifting toward a higher propensity for less precipitation and warmer temperatures.

Making summer drought predictions in February is certainly early, Kanzer noted, with the forecast season just beginning.

But the current snowpack is already well below average for the Yampa River Basin.

Based upon data from SNOTEL sites around Routt County that are maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the area is currently tracking in the range of 75% of what’s typical for this time of year. It should be noted 75% of snowpack does not translate to 75% of water supply season volume.

Runoff primarily occurs between April and July, and that’s the data to show the water flow that makes up about 80% of the whole year’s balance, Kanzer said…

The Yampa River, Kanzer said, has a relatively low amount of storage. And a lot of that flow is essentially gone from the system by July, he said.

Entering this winter with what Kanzer described as “about six to nine months of record dry soil moisture conditions,” the moisture level of soil will also play a critical role in how the summer looks.

The soil is so dry it will soak up a lot of the moisture before it has a chance to run off into streams and rivers.

The above normal temperatures of recent years — some record setting — also causes more evaporation…

Todd Hagenbuch, director and agriculture agent for the Colorado State University Extension Office in Routt County, said he’s seeing data suggesting drought seasons like in 2002 and 2012…

And given a very dry fall for 2020, and very low soil moisture levels, “We are starting way behind the eight ball.”

As of Feb. 1, Kanzer said the forecast for the Yampa River is to be at 50% to 65% of its normal water supply…

Looking at the Colorado River Basin as a whole — of which the Yampa River is part — the numbers are alarming.

A recent article by Yale Climate Connections displayed the headline, “Drought-stricken Colorado River Basin could see additional 20% drop in water flow by 2050.”

The Bureau of Reclamation’s recent quarterly report was grim, showing Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both fed by the Colorado River, at 42% and 40% of capacity, respectively.

Colorado has been experiencing drought conditions for nearly 20 years. About three-quarters of the state is designated as being in extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

It’s the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Bradley Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, statewide snowpack is at about 73% of normal.

“That’s the fourth lowest snowpack that we’ve measured for this date in the past 36 years,” said Brian Domonkos, supervisor of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Colorado Snow Survey, in a KUNC story.

Most scientists are now projecting a continuation of the hotter and drier conditions — accepting a world in which the current drought is not part of a shorter cycle that will balance itself out, but rather part of the enduring impacts of climate change.

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