Better late than never, snow eases drought

Recent snowfalls on the peaks above Ouray may help the low snowpack in western Colorado.

On average, Colorado gets only about 8 percent of its seasonal snowpack in April.

This April, “we blew (that) out of the water, which is kind of what we needed to do,” said Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado.

It wasn’t enough to end the drought. And it didn’t share the wealth equally across the state. But the recent moisture that fell in late-season storms in good parts of the state’s high country significantly improved conditions that continued to look dire as recently as the start of the month.

“That’s been very welcome news,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs.

As of late last week, the rain gauge at his Glenwood-area house had recorded about 4 inches of moisture for the month, more precipitation there than in all of October through March, he said.

Recent storms have resulted in substantial snowpack improvement in the Upper Colorado River Basin and improved the outlook for Grand Valley irrigators. Unfortunately, conditions remain a fair amount drier in more southern basins within the state, he said.

Some of those basins have snowpack levels that are about two-thirds of normal.

Still, the statewide snowpack made a considerable comeback in a mere matter of weeks. Snow accumulations were abysmal last October and November. An above-average December improved things a little, but the statewide median was stuck in the low-70 percentiles from Jan. 1 through April 1.

Today, it’s at 92 percent.

“We received well above average snowfall and accumulation in April, which is what we needed, and which we thought was highly unlikely,” Hultstrand said.

Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said he can’t emphasize enough how good it was to get the two major storms that hit the state this month.

“I think everybody’s going to be pretty happy, but we’re still in drought conditions,” he added. “It takes a long time to get into a drought and it takes a long time to get out.”

Water-watchers universally are welcoming the recent moisture in measured tones.

“We’re still in the same wait-and-see mode,” said David Reinertsen, assistant manager of the Clifton Water District, which relies on Colorado River Water stored upstream in Green Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling.

“These added snowstorms have definitely helped the upper mountain snowpack and water equivalency but we’re nowhere near where we are in a bumper year.”

Colorado suffered through a low snowpack season a year ago, but that followed plentiful precipitation in the 2010-11 season that had left reservoirs full and able to ease the impact. With many reservoir levels more depleted now, that cushion no longer exists.

Clifton Water and some other water utilities in the Grand Valley continue to ask customers for voluntary water conservation now, in hopes that mandatory restrictions can be avoided.

Denver Water, a major user of Colorado River water, imposed twice-a-week watering and other restrictions at the start of April.

“Obviously, we’re grateful for this snow, it’s been a huge help,” said Jim Lochhead, the agency’s manager and chief executive officer. “But we’re still planning on dry conditions for the summer. We really don’t know how this will all work out until we see how our reservoirs end up filling.”

While the improved snowpack levels are encouraging, some caveats also need to be applied to the statistics. For one thing, Hultstrand notes that the NRCS switched this year to a new 30-year period against which it compares current levels. That period, from 1981-2010, was drier than the last comparative period, which included the wetter 1970s. So a snowpack that’s at 100 percent of the current median is less than 100 percent of the past measure.

Also, current snowpack is being compared to levels that in most years already have begun to shrink by now, which Hultstrand said can be a little misleading. Another way to look at the current amounts is to compare them to median peak levels. By that measure, the Upper Colorado River Basin as of Wednesday was at 95 percent of the peak median, versus 109 percent of the median for April 24. The Gunnison basin is at 76 percent of peak, versus of 89 percent of median for April 24.

Statewide, snowpack is at 80 percent of the median peak, Hultstrand said.

Yet another complication involves some recent dust storms that have darkened snowpack in much of western Colorado. That can result in snowpack melting off much more quickly, Phillips noted.

That’s due to dark-colored snow reflecting less sun and absorbing more. But the impact can at least be delayed if more snow has fallen on top of it.

For now, anyway, the start of the runoff season has been delayed by cool temperatures, which also have minimized use of irrigation water to date. Temperatures are expected to go up in coming days, but Reinertsen said the delay in irrigating helps let reservoirs build up their storage.

This year’s delayed runoff stands in stark contrast to last year, when the already-meager snowpack started melting in March. A year ago on Wednesday, the Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack was just 37 percent of median for that date.

Phillips said last year the snow-water-equivalent in that basin probably peaked at around 11 inches and was down to five or six inches by this point in April. This year it’s above 14 inches and has yet to even start melting, he said.

David Boyd, a local Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said the spring moisture “has helped quite a bit” in terms of moderating the fire danger this year. But he added, “Predictions now are for an average fire year in this area, but that is still several hundred fires with the potential for large fires. The lower-elevation desert areas received some moisture, which will lead to more green-up and growth of fine fuels like grasses. As the weather warms, those grasses will cure and be fuel for wildfires if there is an ignition source.”

This winter’s snow pattern was unusual but not entirely unexpected by some. Back in November, meteorologist Joe Ramey, Phillips’ coworker, said the winter was shaping up to be a “No Niño” winter, as opposed to an El Niño or La Niña one. He was referring to varying climate patterns dictated by equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean water temperatures.

No Niño winters, meaning ones that show either La Niña or El Niño tendencies, are tough ones in terms of predicting snowfall, he said. But he pointed out that the four previous No Niños in Colorado were characterized by stormy Decembers and Aprils with drier periods between them.

It turns out, December 2012 and this month both produced above-average precipitation.

Ramey “hit that one pretty well,” Phillips said.

Told of Ramey’s November comments, Hultstrand said, “He should get a raise, I guess.”


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