Colorado snowpack struggles in south; Colorado River basin at 86 percent

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism
Courtesy of Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies

ALAMOSA – The members of the Rio Grande Basin roundtable got a disheartening report this week about this year’s snowpack and likely runoff in the Rio Grande River basin, as well as an update on a 30-year warming and drying trend.

“We’re going to have low stream flows,” Craig Cotten, the division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources in the basin, told the roundtable Tuesday at its monthly meeting in Alamosa, just a few blocks from the river. “I’m sure we’re going to dry up the Conejos (River) and maybe the Rio Grande, in some spots.”

Cotten shared snowpack data taken from snow telemetry, or SNOTEL sites, around Colorado, which measure the amount, and weight, of the snowpack at specific locations around the state.

The data this week showed a decline in snowpack from north to south in Colorado.

The North Platte River basin, to the northeast of Steamboat Springs, was at 102 percent of the median level for that date.

The South Platte River basin, which includes Denver, was at 93 percent.

The Yampa and White river basins, north of Interstate-70, were at 89 percent.

The Colorado River basin, which includes Glenwood Springs and Aspen, was at 86 percent.

The Gunnison River basin, further south, was at 60 percent.

The Rio Grande River basin was at 40 percent.

And the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basin, in the southwest corner of the state, was at 39 percent.

So while water managers and river users in the northern and eastern part of the state may have more water than their southern counterparts, it’s a bit like passengers in a lifeboat having more drinking water in their end of the boat than the passengers in the other end — it’s nothing to gloat about.

Jeff Derry is the executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, which studies the “dust on snow” phenomenon and how it affects the state’s snowpack.

Derry focuses on information from “snow course” sites, in addition to SNOTEL sites, as the snow course sites measure the snow water equivalent, or moisture levels in the snow, across broader landscape areas and have often done so over longer periods of time than SNOTEL sites.

He showed the roundtable graphs that indicate the snowpack in the southern part of the state, as of April 1, was tracking right at the same level as the very dry years of 1977 and 2002, while the whole of the state, on average, was tracking just above those drastically low years.

The avalanche center’s website has a graph that takes the average of 81 snow course sites across Colorado.

“Water year 2018 is comparable to 1966, 1981, 1999, 2004, (and) 2012,” Derry wrote. “We are faring just very slightly better than 1977 and 2002.”

Derry’s graphs also included long-term trend lines dating back 30 to 80 years, which clearly indicate Colorado’s snowpack has been shrinking and temperatures have been rising, especially on the colder end of the spectrum, meaning the lowest temperatures in winter are not as low as they used to be, especially over the past 30 years.

“It’s getting warmer and we’re seeing less precipitation in the wintertime,” Derry told the roundtable members.

Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. More at