Colorado is off to one of its worst starts to a snowpack season in decades, with the state at just 57 percent of median as 2018 begins.
Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado, said Tuesday that according to one of the agency's data sets that goes back 33 years, this is the second-worst start to a snowpack season in that time, with only the 2000 water year being worse.
Water years begin in October of the previous year. Domonkos said that as of the start of January, Colorado typically is about 43 percent of the way through its snowpack accumulation, so it needs well-above-normal snowfall the rest of this season to make up its current deficit.
"It looks like that could be a bit of a stretch" to expect, he said.
Southern Colorado "has stayed extremely dry," while northern Colorado has fared a bit better but is still somewhat dry, Domonkos noted.
Said Ben Moyer, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Junction, "The northern mountains have been doing pretty good. They're still below normal but I think they're holding up the state for us right now" from a snowpack perspective.
NRCS data Tuesday showed the South Platte River Basin leading the state with snowpack at 86 percent of median. The Upper Colorado was at 69 percent, the Gunnison was at 39 percent and basins in far-southwest Colorado were at just 23 percent.
The more generous snowfall in northern Colorado is consistent with this being what's called a La Niña year, a reference to cooler water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affect U.S. winters. By contrast, El Niño winters, where those water temperatures are warmer than normal, tend to bring more moisture to southern Colorado than northern Colorado.
Moyer said the recent trend has been one of storms coming out of the northwest and across the northern Rockies.
"It creates some glancing blows of winter storms across the northern mountains of Colorado," he said. "Even those systems have been pretty dry, relatively speaking."
Moyer said a persistent ridge of high pressure over the West Coast has been blocking storms from coming in from the southwest. The forecast shows that ridge breaking down this weekend, allowing a trough of low pressure to move in late Saturday and into Sunday, bringing some precipitation to the state, he said. He said more snow could arrive around the middle or end of next week.
One promising sign is that late January and early February appear to be a little more active period in terms of precipitation in Colorado in La Niña years, Moyer said.
"We can always hope, but it doesn't mean it's going to happen this year," he said.
He said it's early enough in the season that a lot can change in terms of snowpack accumulation, "but it's not a good start."
Domonkos said he's getting nervous over how this year's snowpack is shaping up, and some big storms are needed to make up the current deficit.
Conditions had been even worse before some snow fell in late December. Statewide snowpack had been at 48 percent of median as of Dec. 21.
Domonkos said there still are "way more than a handful of sites" at which the NRCS measures snowpack where less than an inch of snow-water equivalent has been recorded.
The agency's Mesa Lakes site on the Grand Mesa had just 1.1 inches of snow-water equivalent Tuesday, compared to a Jan. 2 median amount of 6.7 inches. Powderhorn Mountain Resort has been able to operate only on limited terrain so far this season, as has been the case for some other ski areas in the state, including Sunlight Mountain Resort outside Glenwood Springs.
Besides its importance to downhill and Nordic skiers, snowmobilers and other recreationalists, snowpack is also crucial to water supplies for agricultural operations, cities and other users. Fortunately, the state headed into this winter in fairly good shape in terms of reservoir storage. The NRCS says that as of the end of November, statewide storage was at 118 percent of average.
Storage was above average in every basin, including the Colorado River Basin (110 percent of average) and the Gunnison (108 percent of average).