Plentiful storms are giving Colorado weather and water watchers a different and much happier story to tell than was the case a year ago.
The state's snowpack is ending February at 114 percent of median, compared to about 94 percent around the start of the year. It's looking increasingly likely this winter will help the state at least somewhat recover from the drought and low water supplies that besieged it last year.
"Things really have been turning a corner this winter," said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.
Just this week, moister weather led to the end of a drought designation in the far-western parts of Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties. Those areas have been downgraded to an abnormally dry U.S. Drought Monitor designation, a step below drought. Most of western Colorado otherwise remains in various stages of drought.
Some of the best moisture news in the state comes in southwest Colorado, which has had some of the worst drought conditions in the state and has struggled for years in terms of snowpack. At the year's start, snow water equivalent levels in river basins in southwest Colorado were around 70 percent of normal. As of Thursday, that region had snowpack of 122 percent of median, tying the Arkansas River Basin for the highest amount statewide.
The Gunnison River Basin, which also had miserable snowpack a year ago and was 90 percent of normal around this year's start, now stands at 119 percent of median. The Colorado River Basin is at 112 percent of median. No major basin in the state is below median.
A weekly climate, water and drought assessment Goble and his Colorado Climate Center colleagues help prepare says snowpack is now above average for almost all of the Intermountain West. The assessment pointed to recent storms that included nearly 2 feet of snow in Durango in 24 hours and 86 inches at Wolf Creek Ski Area in a week, an average of more than a foot a day.
Experts such as Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, warn against becoming overly optimistic about snowpack conditions, noting how quickly weather patterns can change. But forecasts for continued moisture in the short term offer another positive sign, as does the federal Climate Prediction Center's assessment that there is an above-average chance of moister-than-normal weather in Colorado through May.
In addition, an El Niño climate pattern that has been months in developing has officially formed over the Pacific Ocean. Strautins said El Niño winters statistically lean toward wetter springs in central and southwestern Colorado, although this winter's El Niño has been atypical in that it has taken so long to form.
This winter also has seen average temperatures rather than warmer ones. That means more moisture falls as snow rather than rain, which keeps that moisture in place until later in the year when it can be helpful to irrigators. Rain, by contrast, can help accelerate snowmelt, Strautins noted.
Even if the storm spigots turn off, it's worth noting that in some places in western Colorado, snowpack levels have surpassed average peak seasonal values. Peak accumulations usually aren't reached until sometime in early to mid-April, depending on the location and elevation.
Goble said snowpack in the San Juan Mountains currently ranges anywhere from 80 to 115 percent of average annual peak.
"Roughly half of the (measuring) stations are above 100 percent," he said.
On Grand Mesa, stations are recording levels from 73 to 87 percent of average peak, he said. Last year at this time on Grand Mesa, those figures ranged from 29 to 54 percent of average peak.
Strautins called current accumulation levels compared to peak averages "a good sign. That's a good place to be at this time of year."
But he and others warn that even if the state's snowpack remains above average for the rest of the winter, runoff may be more along the lines of average due to the water deficit from last year.
"It takes a while to make that up when you're talking about getting the moisture back into the soils, thing like that," he said.
This year's snowpack also is being counted on to help refill reservoirs.
Strautins said many reservoirs in western Colorado will fill when there's an average snowpack year, even when snowpack was well below average the previous year. Refilling those reservoirs is crucial because they were drawn down last year to help meet irrigation and municipal needs due to the lack of precipitation, and have less water available to help this year if snowpack again is low.
Still, bigger reservoirs, among them Blue Mesa Reservoir, can take longer than a year to refill. And the Colorado River's two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, continue to face systemic shortfalls.
Their water levels are both currently at about 40 percent of capacity, and states within the Colorado River Basin have been developing contingency plans for dealing with the possibility of continued drought.
While one good winter wouldn't be enough to solve drought problems in the Colorado River Basin, it certainly would be a step in the right direction. Goble is encouraged by how this winter has been shaping up, especially considering what the alternative might have been.
"It certainly could have been perilous if we had back-to-back snowpack years like the year we had last year," he said. "Thankfully, so far, so good, and the weather pattern continues to favor us so I'm expecting the next couple weeks will also be above-average accumulations."