Early snowpack — best it’s been in more than a decade

Scott Miller
Vail Daily
Good early snow is great news for skiers and snowboarders, but it's also good news for water supplies in the coming year.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

It’s been more than a decade since the early snowpack numbers in the High Country told a positive story.

This year’s snowpack, so far, along with continued cool weather, is laying down a solid base for the spring runoff season.

Diane Johnson, a spokesperson for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said Vail Mountain’s Jan. 4 snowpack, measured in snow-water equivalent, sits at 10 inches.

The last time the snowpack was that deep on Jan. 4 was in 2011. Numbers in the decade-plus since then generally ranged from less than 5 to 8 inches.

Streamflow from Gore Creek and the Eagle River from Vail and Minturn to Edwards provides much of the water for those communities, so the district keeps a close watch on measurement sites operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain, and Fremont Pass. Those are the closest measurement sites to the headwaters of Gore Creek and the Eagle River.

Johnson noted that the Copper Mountain site is about even with past years. The Fremont Pass site is lagging a bit but is still more than 90% of the 30-year median snowpack.

All those snow measurement sites are about 45% of the way to peak snowpack, she said.

Snowpack elsewhere in northwest Colorado is also telling a positive story.

Peter Goble, a climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said the main stem of the upper Colorado River is running at about 129% of the 30-year median. Snowpack in the Yampa and White River drainages currently stands at about 148% of the median.

But, a lot can happen between now and the usual snowpack peak in late April or early May.

Goble noted that the region saw “similar” snow conditions about a year ago, then conditions turned much drier than normal in January and February.

A dry winter creates a couple of problems beyond its effects on snowsports. First, the more snow, the better for spring and summer streamflow. But, perhaps more important, is soil moisture. If the soil is dry, a lot of snow goes into the soil before it can run into streams.

In dry years, “normal snowpack doesn’t equal normal runoff,” Goble said.

In fact, he said, this year’s good early snowpack news started before the first snow fell.

“Snow conditions (in October) were better than we’ve seen over the past number of years,” he said. “We’ve had some really warm, dry falls in recent years.”

Weather forecasts are only accurate out to about seven days. But, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center’s 30-day forecast is calling for about average temperatures and a chance for above-average precipitation for northwestern Colorado.

For now, though, there’s a chance of at least some snow between now and the weekend.

Matthew Aleksa is a meteorologist in the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service.

He said a strong storm is expected to hit California this week. But, he added, much of the precipitation from that system will be “wrung out” by the time it arrives Thursday evening in Western Colorado.

That system could leave between 4 and 8 inches of fresh snow in this part of the state by the time it rolls out Friday. Those snow totals will be “much less” than the snow carried by the previous system.

“We aren’t going to be measuring it in feet,” he said.