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Running out of winter: Vail area snow totals lagging after dry January

Dry soils and lower streamflows remain a worry for the region and local fire departments

The next three to four weeks are expected to bring higher-than-average temperatures and, perhaps, average precipitation to Colorado.
U.S. Climate Prediction Center/courtesy image

The current snowpack is running at just about normal levels in the highest elevations of the Eagle River watershed. But that isn’t great news.

The snowpack readings haven’t been bolstered by significant snow in some time, and there doesn’t seem to be much relief on the horizon.

According to Lucas Boyer, a meteorologist at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, a ridge of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean just off the West Coast of the United States is keeping moisture from heading toward Colorado.



That ridge “has us in this really dry pattern,” Boyer said. That makes it difficult to get significant moisture heading this way. Boyer said current forecasts predict a possibility for a little snow at the higher elevations but not the significant snowfall that’s needed.

“It hasn’t been fun watching this pattern,” Boyer, who calls himself a “snow lover,” said.



Meteorologists generally don’t predict with confidence past seven to 10 days. That’s the job of the U.S. Climate Prediction Center. There isn’t much good news coming from that office. That agency’s most recent prediction for the next three to four weeks calls for “equal chances” of either above- or below-average precipitation for all but the farthest northwest corner of the state. The Climate Prediction Center is also calling for a chance of above-average temperatures for the state.

That isn’t helping the region’s persistent drought.

A U.S. Drought Monitor report from Feb. 1 notes that much of the Intermountain West remains in some form of drought. In Colorado, 19% of the state is in “extreme” drought. Parts of Eagle and Summit counties are listed as being in a “severe” drought.

That’s bad news for streamflows during the spring and summer. A Feb. 3 report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that the upper Colorado River will supply users with between 80% and 105% of normal supplies.

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager with the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said while snowpack is holding at near-normal levels, that could be due to cold temperatures — we’re in the middle of winter, after all — and the fact that the 30-year snowpack median is lower than it was five years ago.

Johnson said lower streamflows, especially given that dry soils will absorb melting snow before it hits local streams, are a continuing worry for the district.

Dry conditions are also a worry for local fire departments. Johnson said a proposal in Vail to require all buildings to have a 5-foot buffer can help. But, she added, more help could come from people changing the way they plant for outdoor landscaping.

Meanwhile, all anyone can do is watch the forecasts and hope for the best.

“As we go through winter, we’ll say, ‘There’s a lot of winter left,’” Johnson said. But starting about now is when there isn’t a lot of winter left.

“This is when we run out of time to catch up,” adding that there hasn’t been a lot of heavy snowfall in the past few winters, leaving the region with just about average snowpack.

“We keep seeing it, and we don’t catch up,” Johnson said. To stretch the limited supplies, “We need folks to think differently about water,” she said.

By the numbers

101%: Percentage of the 30-year median “snow water equivalent” snowpack on Vail Mountain.

105%: Percentage of the 30-year median snowpack at Copper Mountain (the closest measurement site to the top of Vail Pass).

98%: Percentage of the 30-year median snowpack at Fremont Pass (the closest measurement site to the headwaters of the Eagle River).

Source: Eagle River Water and Sanitation District data from Feb. 7.


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