High-country meltdown depletes snowpack
The snowpack in the high country is in the midst of a meltdown. Yesterday’s early opening of Highway 82 over Independence Pass east of Aspen tells the story. So do snowpack monitors across the state, tracked by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.On May 9, shortly after a spring storm unloaded on the high peaks that surround Aspen, the snowpack on Independence Pass was 5 percent above average. Tuesday, it was at 19 percent of average – in other words, 81 percent below average.A high-pressure system and hot weather parked in Colorado late last week, turning high-country snow into the gushing current now thundering down rivers and creeks around the state.”Until a week ago, things looked great,” said Phil Overeynder, Aspen’s utilities director. He keeps close tabs on the local snowpack and the flows of local rivers and streams on which Aspen relies for much of its municipal water supply.
Any chance of a lingering snowpack to feed rivers and reservoirs with a long, steady runoff is disappearing by the day, if not the hour.The snowpack on Independence Pass contained 1.1 inches of water Tuesday. “It’s just got about another day left and it will be melted out,” said Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor at the NRCS. “It’s been melting out at, at least, an inch or an inch-and-a-half a day.”That’s not to say there’s no snow left at 10,600 feet, where the station on the pass is located. But on the station platform, where snow is weighed to calculate its moisture content, the snow cover is about to disappear, Gillespie said.”Given the temperatures that we’ve got, it’s not unusual,” he said.
The Colorado River Basin, which encompasses the Roaring Fork drainage, has dwindled to about one-third of the snowpack it boasted at its peak last winter, according to Gillespie. The same can be said statewide.The Roaring Fork basin snowpack was at 88 percent of average on Tuesday, buoyed by the readings at the Schofield Pass station at the headwaters of the Crystal River, where the snowpack was still 35 percent above average. The snowpack at Ivanhoe in the upper Fryingpan Valley was 45 percent below average.The Natural Resources Conservation Service had forecast a below-average runoff in the Colorado River basin this spring, but expected the runoff in the Roaring Fork to be close to average. Those expectations haven’t changed, but the runoff is likely to occur in a more compressed period if the current heat wave doesn’t let up, Gillespie said.Paddlers may see the highest water of the season a little earlier than they expected.”If we continue with the temperatures and the snow continues melting at this rate, we may see the peaks a week or so early,” Gillespie said. “It would certainly be nice to have a more extended runoff. We don’t always get that luxury.”
Yesterday afternoon, the Roaring Fork below Aspen was running at 1,030 cubic feet per second, compared to 396 cfs last Thursday afternoon – the first day of the extended warm spell. The Crystal was running at 1,810 cfs Tuesday afternoon in the Meatgrinder section, up from 812 last Thursday. The Colorado River at Shoshone in Glenwood Canyon was at 7,290 cfs yesterday, compared to 3,120 cfs last Thursday.The Roaring Fork at Glenwood Springs was running at 5,240 cfs yesterday. The Fork was expected to peak at 5,900 cfs at Glenwood Springs, according to the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. The Roaring Fork’s peak typically falls between June 3 and 18, but it appears likely to come sooner rather than later this year, said Tom Pagano, a water supply forecaster with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.”Since it has gotten so hot, it’s all coming down at once,” he said. “Yeah, it’s definitely sort of early and rapid.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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