Drought on hold after snowy April in Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Umbrellas came out in downtown Aspen Wednesday morning, as wet snow turned to light rain.

Put the drought on hold, at least in the Aspen area.

Aspen received its second-highest amount of snowfall for April since 1935 and the second-highest amount of total precipitation since 1951, according to the weather watchers at the Aspen Water Treatment Plant.

The plant recorded nearly 38.5 inches of snow, second only to the whopping 56 inches that fell just two years ago, during the winter that wouldn’t end in April and May 2011. The average is just 15.7 inches.

Total precipitation, including the snow-water equivalent from the snow, was about 4 inches in April. That compares with an average of 2.17 inches.

It rained or snowed on 15 of the 30 days of the month, resurrecting the feeling of “mud season” from years gone by.

The rainy and snowy month created an oddity with the snowpack east of Aspen near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River. The snowpack there peaked on April 18, nine days later than average. So when the snowpack is usually melting out, it was still building in the Roaring Fork basin.

The snowpack was 81 percent of the median east of Aspen on Wednesday and 100 percent of the median for the Roaring Fork basin overall, which includes the Fryingpan and Crystal river valleys, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

So, with all the moisture in April and so far in May, is Colorado still facing a drought?

“We think the answer to that question as a state is, yes we are,” said Drew Beckwith, water-policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit conservation group in Colorado that promotes protection of the West’s land, air and water.

“From a statewide perspective, we’re still smack dab in the middle of a drought,” Beckwith said.

The weather reversal has eased drought conditions in Colorado’s central and northern mountains, but the moisture isn’t spilling into the Eastern Plains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor shows that the southeast quarter of Colorado remains rated in the worst level of drought at “exceptional.” Pitkin County, Eagle County and most of Garfield County have been reclassified to “moderate” drought, the second-lowest in the five-point intensity scale.

But the conservation group acknowledged that it no longer appears Colorado will face as severe of a drought over as large of an area as it did in 2012. The snowpack over the northern half of the state is 92 percent or more of average. It is well below average in the southern part of the state — as low as 28 percent of average in the Lower Rio Grande.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, the late snowfall will make for a great boating season on Ruedi Reservoir. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation forecast about one month ago that the reservoir wouldn’t fill this year, based on snowpack totals. Now it appears that it will come close to filling, said Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the agency. The reservoir is 62 percent full, with the flow of water coming in at 195 cubic feet per second and the release at 109 cfs.