Recent snowstorms, followed by even more snowstorms, are providing much-needed moisture and even some optimism that perhaps this winter could bring relief from the persistent drought that has been gripping the region.
“We’re certainly hopeful and optimistic at this point. It certainly looks a whole lot better than it did a year ago, for sure,” said Molina rancher Carlyle Currier.
He noted that one National Resources Conservation Service snow measurement site on Grand Mesa, at Park Reservoir, was at about 160% of normal Monday.
“We’re not that far below what it peaked at last winter, better than three-fourths of what it peaked at the first of April ... so that’s really wonderful,” said Currier.
That speaks to the paucity of snow last year on Grand Mesa and in much of western Colorado, but also to the recent abundance of snowfall that has vastly improved the state’s snowpack status in just a matter of weeks.
That boosts hopes for more spring runoff that will benefit farmers and ranchers, municipal water providers and the environment.
While ski areas including Powderhorn Mountain Resort coped with meager snowfall at the start of the season, that started changing earlier this month.
Even after storms started improving snowpack, it remained as of Dec. 10 at about four-fifths of normal in the Gunnison River Basin and about three-quarters of normal in the upper Colorado River Basin and four combined basins in southwestern Colorado.
As of Monday, snowpack had grown to 118% of median in the Gunnison River Basin, 104% in the upper Colorado River Basin and 112% in the combined San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan basins.
The Arkansas River has the lowest snowpack of any major basin in the state, at 76% of normal.
The snowfall has caused short-term headaches, such as for travelers.
On Monday morning, the Colorado Department of Transportation closed Interstate 70 on Vail Pass to do avalanche mitigation work.
Also on Monday, the National Weather Service in Grand Junction warned of a new winter storm starting Monday that could make for treacherous roads in the mountains, and said some mountain ranges could get several more feet of snow by the week’s end.
“As inconvenient as it can be, I don’t think anybody’s going to complain about some additional water on the ground,” said Lucas Boyer, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Junction.
Currier, who is president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said this year’s snow has fallen on ground that was a lot wetter from rain in the fall. When last winter’s snowpack melted, it soaked into dry soils, reducing how much reached reservoirs and irrigation ditches.
MORE TO COME
Currier takes heart in the additional snow in this week’s forecast.
“We hope it keeps coming,” he said.
Boyer said about the current weather pattern, “We’ve got this big deep trough that’s transitioning over the western U.S., and we’re right kind of in the base of that trough. It’s ejecting little pulses of energy right across Colorado, so as soon as it hits the mountains, it pretty much creates a snow event for us.”
Until that trough shifts to the east, the area is going to stay in this active weather pattern throughout the week, with periodic lulls, he said.
Weather models suggest a change with a return to a high-pressure weather system after that, he said.
The system has been favoring snow higher in the mountains, where there were reports of 6 to 8 inches for the most part having fallen over the previous 24 hours, Boyer said Monday.
Powderhorn got only 2 inches in that timeframe, but collected 10 inches of snow on Christmas Eve, he said.
Grand Junction also received its first official measurable snow of the season on Christmas Eve, when an inch fell at the National Weather Service office at the Grand Junction Regional Airport. On average, the city’s first measurable snow falls on Nov. 17; the latest-ever measurable snow in the city didn’t arrive until Jan. 5.
Grand Junction officially got 0.03 inches of precipitation Sunday, a lot of that consisting of snow that melted when it hit the ground, Boyer said.
Backcountry travelers should be aware that the danger of avalanche remains considerable in much of the Colorado high country, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
This includes Grand Mesa, where, as across much of the region, an avalanche watch was in effect until 8 a.m. this morning.
An avalanche killed one person near Cameron Pass on the Front Range on Christmas Eve.
Over the long term, the federal Climate Prediction Center says in its one-month outlook that there are equal chances in most of Colorado for above- or below-normal precipitation and temperatures. Its three-month seasonal outlook is for equal chances of above- or below-normal precipitation and temperatures in northern Colorado, but it says the odds lean toward below-normal moisture and above-normal temperatures in southern Colorado.
Currier said this year is reminding him of 1977, which was extremely dry but was wet in the fall and was followed by an extremely wet winter.
“I hope it does the same thing” this winter, he said.