Aspen-area snowpack on par with last winter |

Aspen-area snowpack on par with last winter

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – A snowy March, at least so far, has done little to improve the snowpack in Aspen-area mountains. Instead, conditions closely parallel last year’s, when an unusually dry spring bought drought and an early wildfire season to the Roaring Fork Valley and the rest of Colorado.

On Monday, the snowpack for the Roaring Fork River basin stood at 81 percent of median, according to the National Resources Conservation Service. That compares to 79 percent on the same date last year, even though March snowfall has been respectable this year after coming up well short of normal a year ago.

“We’re not that much better off than we were a year ago,” said Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow survey supervisor for the conservation service’s Denver office.

And, for those who think 81 percent of median somehow doesn’t feel like as much snow as it used to – they’re right.

The National Resources Conservation Service this winter changed the three-decade period it uses for comparison purposes to the years 1981 through 2010 (the comparison period was previously 1971 through 2000). That means some wet years in the 1970s were replaced by a much drier period in the 2000s. As a result, this year’s snowpack measurements appear more bountiful than they would have previously.

“Now we’re comparing to a little bit drier record, so it makes our snowpack look a little better,” Hultstrand said.

The purpose of the change, she added, is to keep the comparison relevant to what has happened recently.

For the comparison of the Roaring Fork basin snowpack this year versus last (81 percent versus 79 percent of median), however, she used the same comparison period of 1981 through 2010.)

Hultstrand chalks up the nearly identical snowpack measurements, despite improvement in this season’s March snowfall, to what happened early in the season.

Last winter, the mountains saw more bountiful early-season snows before the weather pattern dried up in December. Snowfall picked up in January 2012 but was subpar in February of last year and all but nonexistent in March.

“This year, it was really, really dry at the start of the season,” Hultstrand said. “When you don’t get that snow at the beginning, it’s really hard to catch back up to average.”

How much snow blankets the mountains by early April, when the snowpack typically hits its peak, will be determined in the next few weeks.

“At the higher elevations, we normally accumulate 20 percent of our snowpack in March,” Hultstrand said.

The amount of water locked in Colorado’s high-country snowpack has ramifications for everything from agricultural irrigation to water supplies for public consumption around the state, not to mention wildfire danger and streamflows important to statewide recreational pursuits such as boating and fishing.

“Unless we get some major snowfall this month, I don’t see us coming out of drought conditions,” Hultstrand said.

A weather system this week could help. On Monday, the bloggers at were predicting 3 to 5 inches of new snow at local resorts on Wednesday night and perhaps another 4 to 7 inches on Thursday.

In the meantime, the typical signs of spring are in evidence around town. Brown spots are starting to appear on the lower slopes of Aspen Mountain and, at the local golf course and elsewhere, cross country skiers are watching their opportunities dwindle at a rapid rate.

In town, 11.7 inches of snow had fallen this month by Monday morning, according to data tracked by the Aspen Water Department. That’s a vast improvement over last year, when just over 6 inches of snow fell during the entire month – virtually all of it in the first two days of March.

Average snowfall for the month at the water plant is close to 27 inches.

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