Roaring Fork snowpack solid going into spring
Snowpack in Colorado is holding steady above the 30-year average, according to snow measurements conducted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The state as a whole is roughly 115 percent of normal, with a sub-par winter in the southern mountains (including the Rio Grande, Dolores and San Juan drainages) bringing the average down somewhat. Snow telemetry (SNOTEL) data provided by the Roaring Fork Conservancy shows a snow-water equivalent of 126 percent of normal in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
That’s the equivalent of about 20 inches of liquid water across the valley’s high country, well above peak snowpack in both 2012 and 2013, as well as the 30-year average for the region. It has been a good year for skiers, and it looks promising for healthy rivers and forests into the summer.
April is a key month in forecasting the year’s stream flow. Often it represents the peak snowpack for the Water Year, which runs October through September. This trend has been subverted in recent years. Early melting in 2012 signaled the beginning of one of the worst fire years in memory, while late runoff in 2013 was a small salvation in an otherwise below average year.
Numerous other factors can affect runoff. A forecast compiled by the Natural Resource Conservation Service suggests area drainages should experience runoff of 90 to 149 percent of normal, but warmer than expected temperatures in the late spring could lead to rapid runoff and exhaust snowpack early on.
Although a strong snowpack can help to minimize summer fire danger, a wet spring followed by a dry summer can actually make things worse, as undergrowth grows quickly but then dries out.
Dust storms, a frequent occurrence in recent years, also speed melting. The Colorado Dust-On-Snow Program recorded five such storms in the Rockies so far this year. That’s slightly less than 2012 and 2013, with a clean fall and an average March. April and May are big months for dust storms, so it’s too early to be sure how this year will compare on that metric.
“We’re now entering the thick of it,” Chris Landry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, told the Aspen Times. He called the most recent dust storm on April 1 “a significant event,” but added that subsequent weather will dictate how this dust will play out.
So far, stream flows throughout the region are mostly above average. Discharge at Ruedi Reservoir has been set to 210 cubic feet per second, well over the 45-year average of 137 cfs. That might increase if snowpack continues to accumulate in coming weeks.
“We’re excited and a bit relieved that the snowpack is well above average this year,” said Sarah Johnson, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “It not only helps river and ecosystem health but is directly related to agriculture and the local economy.”
Johnson emphasized the importance of looking at long-term trends even when the short term looks promising.
“This year looks great, and it’s going to help, but I think it’s important to remember that the drought is still going on,” she said. “The averages have continually been coming down due to climate change.”
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A report released this month by the Center for Colorado River Studies says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, officials need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo. Estimates about how much water the Upper Colorado River Basin states will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the white paper.