February either gave generously or withheld stingily when it came to snowpack in Colorado, with little in between, and it was all dictated by a fairly sharp north-south dividing line that unfortunately fell north of Grand Mesa.
“Pretty much north of the Grand Mesa, north of Aspen all got well above-normal” precipitation last month, said Karl Wetlaufer, hydrologist and assistant supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Colorado Snow Survey program.
“Below that was well below normal. There’s really not many parts of the state that got in the middle,” he said.
The Mesa Lakes snow telemetry site recorded its lowest February precipitation in the site’s 34-year history, at one inch of water. The two other sites on Grand Mesa — Overland Reservoir and (Trickle) Park Reservoir — recorded their second- and third-lowest precipitation amounts, respectively, for February based on records also dating back decades.
Snowpack at the sites ranged Monday from 65% of median at Mesa Lakes to 73% at Overland.
Statewide snowpack was at 103% of normal as of Monday, down just slightly from the end of January.
Snowpack is at 111% of median in the upper Colorado River Basin, 112% in the Yampa/White basins, 121% in the South Platte basin and 106% in the Arkansas basin. But the Gunnison River Basin is at 90% of median, the Upper Rio Grande, 94%; and the combined San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan basins, 84%.
Nine snow telemetry sites in northern Colorado had record-high precipitation last month, while six in southern Colorado had record-low amounts.
According to NRCS, the runoff-season streamflows in the combined far-southwest Colorado basins are now predicted to be just 64% of normal, and the forecast for the Gunnison basin is 72% of normal. The Arkansas, Colorado and Yampa/White basins are all predicted to have near-normal runoff volumes.
Reflective of conditions on Grand Mesa, however, the runoff streamflow for Surface Creek at Cedaredge is now expected to be little more than half of average, and the forecast for Plateau Creek is 78% of average.
Andrea Lopez is external affairs manager at the Ute Water Conservancy District, which serves more than 80,000 Mesa County customers. She said the district is concerned not only about snowpack levels on the Grand Mesa but the impact of recent warm temperatures on that snow.
“It’s so warm, that means it’s going to run off quicker than anticipated, so the higher temperatures definitely aren’t helping us at all,” she said.
She said Grand Mesa actually got a mix of rain and snow Sunday, and while precipitation is generally a good thing, rain speeds up the runoff process.
“March is very critical in terms of we’ve got to keep it as cool as we can, but it’s not working for us this year,” she said.
Wetlaufer also is concerned about the recent warm temperatures. Even if they don’t completely melt the snow, they can warm it so when it’s ready to melt it does so faster instead of running off at a more measured pace, he said.
He said spring weather can be highly variable, and conditions could turn back around in areas where snowpack is running behind, but time may be running short for that to happen because snowpack levels in the state typically peak in another month or so.
Still, he said, “A lot can change, in April and May even.”
Ute Water’s two Jerry Creek reservoirs, in the Plateau Creek Valley, were 80% full a few weeks ago. Lopez said that fortunately, Ute Water was able to carry over quite a bit of water in them from last year due to the good snowpack last winter. While that will help with water supplies this year even if snowpack remains well below-average on Grand Mesa, two such years in a row could create what Lopez called a “bad situation” when it comes to reliance on those reservoirs.
She notes that Ute Water has diverse water supplies, including Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt and the Colorado River. But Grand Mesa provides its highest-quality water, with its backup sources being harder water and less tasty.
“Anything other than the Jerry Creeks (supplies), our customers tend to notice,” she said.