Colorado snowpack nears ‘normal;’ greater amount needed to counter drought
February 6, 2019
Your neighbor who says, "we need the snow," is still right.
As Glenwood Springs schools were closed Wednesday due to the latest winter storm, and with most of the state braced for heavy snowfall through the night, new data for January showed Colorado's snowpack for the season so far is nearing normal levels.
In the Colorado River basin, snowpack was 112 percent of normal as of Feb. 1, according to a Natural Resources Conservation Service report released Wednesday. Statewide mountain snowpack improved from 94 percent of normal Jan. 1 to 105 percent of normal Feb. 1.
High January snowfall contributed to the good snowpack, but it's not enough to correct the years of drought or even guarantee a good year for water flow by itself, said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor with the conservation service.
"We're going to need several months of above average to get there," Domonkos said.
"Near-normal runoff will help, but it may not get us back to normal reservoir storage throughout the summer," he said.
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Mid-January marked the halfway point to peak snowpack accumulation, which is usually in April. February snowfall will be an indicator of how positive the year will be for water. But, with precipitation highest in March and April, the critical months of the winter and early spring season are still to come.
"It could go south, but I'm encouraged by where we are right now," Domonkos said. "Hopefully, this above-average weather pattern will continue."
The state as a whole is slightly above normal snowpack, but there are still areas in southern Colorado with below-average snow. The Rio Grande basin is at 81 percent of median snowpack, but still has more than double the snowpack compared with last year.
More locally, as of Jan. 31, snowpack in the Roaring Fork River watershed was at 116 percent of median, according to the latest Roaring Fork Conservancy snowpack and river report.
While the news is good so far, the Colorado River Basin will need quite a bit more snowpack to have a normal runoff year, according to Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer with the Colorado River District.
"The snowpack is currently above average, but in order to get normal or average runoff, we need additional snowpack," Meyer said.
Since 2000, the Rocky Mountains have had sub-average snowpack, and the runoff is getting earlier and lasting shorter amounts of time.
Much of the Colorado River Basin still has drier than average soil, or low soil moisture content, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Before the melting snow reaches the streams and rivers, it has to go over soil that will absorb the water if it's still too dry.
"Soil moisture has to improve in order to provide some impetus for an efficient runoff," Meyer said. That most likely won't happen until the snow begins to melt.
It's difficult to know how much above average the snowpack needs to be to replace the moisture in the soil.
Meyer cautioned that one good season wouldn't be enough to show that the drought trend is ending, and that becomes difficult as climate change leads to more variability, he said.
"The experts are telling us that the climate models are showing increased variability of all the climatological parameters, including water in the river," Meyer said.