Valley’s snowpack level well ahead of normal

EAGLE COUNTY — Think back to Dec. 1. Ski slopes around the region had opened late, if at all, and most of us were worried about the season to come. Today’s news is very different.

After a remarkably snowy period since Dec. 1, the news is much, much better. The snowpack around Vail — and throughout the upper Colorado River Basin — has not only caught up with the 30-year median, but has surpassed it.

At the measurement site on Vail Mountain, the amount of water in the snowpack there, the snow water equivalent, on about Jan. 1 had matched the peak snow water number from the drought year of 2011-2012.

The snow water number on Vail Mountain was 13.9 inches on Monday, well above the 30-year median number of 10 inches.

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said there’s good snowpack news around the region.

The district keeps its closest eye on the snow measurement sites at Vail Mountain, Fremont Pass and at Copper Mountain. The Fremont Pass site is important since it’s the headwaters of the Eagle River. The Copper Mountain site is the closest official measurement site to the top of Vail and Shrine passes, the headwaters of Gore Creek.

The snowpack at Copper Mountain right now is 155 percent of the 30-year median, and the Fremont Pass site is at 140 percent of that median number.

Johnson said the entire Upper Colorado basin is at 145 percent of the 30-year median, and the Colorado basin feeding the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Meade is at more than 160 percent of the median.

“Is that enough to counteract a 17-year drought? No, but it’s still good,” Johnson said.

The graphs of a winter’s snowpack usually climb on a fairly gradual slope, then fall as if from a cliff in the spring. This season’s snowpack chart has climbed virtually straight up since Dec. 1. The Vail Mountain site is already at more than 60 percent of the median snowpack peak.

“At the beginning of December (after a very dry fall), we thought maybe we could catch up, but it would be hard,” Johnson said. “Now we’re out in front of it.”

Word of Warning

All of that snow is good for the coming months, since our region’s snow fields are, in essence, our water reservoirs. But the heavy snow of the past several weeks has been hard on road crews and has made life more dangerous than usual for those who play in the backcountry.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center Monday reported considerable avalanche danger in the Vail and Summit County area. That means dangerous conditions exist, and users should be careful in picking routes.

While the snowpack is in good shape for now, we’re still in the midst of the annual snowfall season, and snowpack doesn’t usually peak until about the end of April. And, while there’s almost certainly more snow to come, the outlook is uncertain.

Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said the patterns look to be a bit drier until Feb. 2.

But, at least for the next several days, temperatures will take a snowpack-preserving dip.

After that, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, which uses models to predict weather trends, sees a less-certain trend.

A weak La Nina pattern of cooler-than-average water in the Pacific Ocean west of Ecuador never really established itself well enough to influence weather patterns into North America, Stackhouse said. That leaves the climate models into the spring calling for an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation.

The precipitation uncertainty persists into the March-April-May period, with a slight chance of above-normal temperatures.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and @scottnmiller.

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