In Garfield County and throughout Western Slope, recent storms barely improve winter snowpack |

In Garfield County and throughout Western Slope, recent storms barely improve winter snowpack

Below-normal precipitation predicted into April

Elliott Audette leads a tour of a SNOTEL snowpack measurement site on McClure Pass in February 2020.
Courtesy Roaring Fork Conservancy

“Every little bit helps” is the phrase these days, as any amount of snow or rain the clouds can squeeze out through the remainder of this month and into early April will help with the persistent drought situation.

Unfortunately, recent snowstorms did very little to improve the mountain snowpack. And the near-term prediction for measurable precipitation isn’t promising.

That’s according to several sources of data and predictive models tracked by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey Program.

NRCS Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted in his monthly snowpack report issued March 5 that, “While February snow accumulations did improve the snowpack in many parts of the state, snowpack still remains below normal levels in all major basins except the Rio Grande.”

At that time, the Colorado River Basin was at 84% of median snowpack, and just 71% of last year’s snowpack. Statewide, the median snowpack at that time was 85%, and only 77% of last year.

Then came the big one — sort of.

A major snowstorm the weekend of March 13 that mostly blanketed the the foothills and eastern Colorado with up to 2 feet of snow in places did have some impact on the high country snowpack. When it comes to Western Slope water, that’s where it mostly matters.

Just before that storm hit, on March 10, the Colorado River Basin was at 88% of median snowpack.

Likewise, one of the Colorado’s major drainages, the Roaring Fork River, with its headwaters on Independence Pass east of Aspen, was at 84% of median.

Afterwards, the area basin snowpack had improved to 91% and 90%, respectively.

As of Tuesday, with more localized snowfall in recent days, the Roaring Fork drainage had improved to 94% of median.

The National Weather Service forecast for the remainder of this week is for a 60% to 80% chance of snow east of Aspen through Thursday, and then 90% on Friday, but with snow accumulations of only a few inches.

And, according to the NWS Climate Prediction Center, the 8- to 14-day outlook from late March through early April is for temperatures to be above normal throughout Colorado, with below-normal precipitation.

“Taking that into account and the current percent of normal snowpack, we could estimate that the current numbers could go down 1 to 5 percent, if the forecast pans out,” Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey Supervisor, said Tuesday.

How much of that dwindling snowpack will ultimately translate to water in rivers and reservoirs come spring has to do with the drought that was already well in place before snow began to accumulate this year, he said.

The summer and fall of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in Colorado.

“This led to dry soil moisture conditions and the expectation is that snowmelt runoff will produce lower volumes than would commonly be observed with a similar snowpack,” Wetlaufer observed in his March 5 report.

Before winter even started, snow forecasters were saying Colorado would need multiple years of 150% to 200% of normal snowpack to improve the drought situation.

Added Domonkos, “The biggest role soil moisture currently has is in the significant deficits that exist across Colorado.

“There is currently a significant soil moisture drought that will consume a greater-than-average amount of snowmelt runoff, and leave less to streamflow runoff,” he said. “To add to the complexity, low soil moisture means lower base flows in rivers and streams, which means more precipitation is needed to bring stream flows back to normal levels.”

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