It’s almost spring: a snowpack synopsis | PostIndependent.com

It’s almost spring: a snowpack synopsis

Jon Nicolodi
Your Watershed

With only a few days left until spring, it's been easier to talk about snow than it has been to touch it. A storm will move in and breeze through, but the snow will be gone quite quickly from all but the most northerly aspects when the subsequent warm days, seemingly standard, take their toll afterwards.

Industries have certainly felt the pressure of it. While we have had some good storms in February, Sunlight Mountain Resort didn't open this year until Dec. 21. According to a recent Post Independent article, Skico, operator of the four major resorts in the Aspen-Snowmass area, is not going to meet its financial goals because of the poor early season snowfall.

The industry has had to be creative and optimistic to keep running smoothly until this February came in, bringing a series of storms that made everything feel a bit more wintry.

But in comparison to years past, how is the snowpack of Colorado truly fairing? Is it as dire as it sometimes feels, and will it really matter once we fully move into spring and we aren't expecting snowball fights and fresh snow on the slopes anyway?

SnoTel sites are automated stations that collect data on snow, operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and there are 115 in Colorado alone. While numerous measurements are taken, the most commonly used is snow water equivalent. Snow height is measured, but it doesn't take into account the density of the snow, which can vary between 5 percent and 20 percent.

The snow water equivalent is measured in inches and can best be thought of as what the depth of the water would be if you instantaneously melted the entire snowpack. Snow height is a favorite measurement of skiers and snowboarders. Snow water equivalent is a favorite measurement of scientists and anyone looking at water beyond the winter, which is a popular notion in Colorado.

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In an end-of-February report, Nick Barlow at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported the snow water equivalent of all of Colorado to be averaged at 73 percent, compared to what it historically is at the end of February.

But not all areas of Colorado are favored equally with snowfall. The Front Range, including the North and South Platte basins, are at 90 percent and 91 percent, respectively. The lower half of the state, including the Arkansas, Gunnison, Upper Rio Grande and the southwesternmost watersheds, are in the low 60s or high 50s, bringing down that state average. The Yampa and the White in northwestern Colorado are at 81 percent of snow water equivalent compared to a median year.

The Colorado River watershed, including the Roaring Fork and any other tributaries joining the Colorado along the I-70 corridor, comes in at 85 percent relative to its median snow water equivalent. On the whole, not too shabby. But not inspirational either.

In most of Colorado, higher-than-average snowfall in February greatly helped these percentages. All of the previous months had been a bit dismal for winter, with November and December being particularly dry. The storms that did come were flanked by warm weather, so large portions of our snowpack melted away. In an average year, that snowpack and its snow water equivalent reach peak numbers by April 9 before melting as a whole, contributing to all of the industries that rely upon a hearty spring thaw, ample soil moisture and flowing water as deep into our dry summers as possible.

The Inside the Chamber column "The Power of Water" of Feb. 4 touts the importance of water to year-round tourism in the region, not to mention the effect it has on agriculture, wildfires and dust events. With only a few days left until spring and our historically snowiest months behind us, the best we can do is hope for a snowy rest of March and April and value and protect what we do have even more so.

Jon Nicolodi is the community outreach coordinator for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. To learn more about the MCWC, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org. You can also find them on Facebook at http://facebook.com/midcowatershed.