How dry I am: Aspen precipitation down 12% in 2020, downvalley even drier

Pitkin County remains in extreme, exceptional drought

Luke Phillips, 6, cross-country skis on the track at the Aspen Golf Club with his family on a bluebird day on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A lackluster start to winter left the Aspen-area high and dry for precipitation in 2020.

The National Weather Service station at the Aspen Water Plant was down 12% in total precipitation for the calendar year, according to a report released Monday. The annual average is 22.54 inches of precipitation. The water plant recorded only 19.80 inches this year.

The water plant in Castle Creek Valley, at 8,161 feet in elevation, picked up more precipitation than lower elevations in the Roaring Fork Valley. Another National Weather Service station at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport recorded only 9.17 inches of precipitation for the year. That was only 53% of the average of 17.26 inches.

Despite a handful of awesome powder days, the drought isn’t showing signs of easing up so far this winter.

“As we close out 2020, snowpack in the Roaring Fork Watershed is below average at 82 percent or normal for this time of the year,” the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy wrote in its snowpack report on Friday. “Snow Water Equivalent across the state is also tracking below average at 80 percent or normal.”

The snowpack at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen is 80% of average, according to an automated snow telemetry station maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In the Crystal River Valley, Schofield Pass is at only 70% of average and McClure Pass is at 67%.

The Fryingpan Valley is faring better. The snowpack at Nast Lake is at 125% of average while Ivanhoe Lake was at 100%.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday shows the western half of Pitkin County in “exceptional drought,” the highest level. The eastern half of the county is in “extreme drought,” the second-most severe. Nearly all of Eagle County and Garfield County are experiencing “exceptional drought.”

Don’t look for a massive change in Aspen’s weather anytime soon, according to meteorologist Cory Gates.

“The first 15 days of the month my guess is snow will fall short of normal,” Gates wrote in his January outlook. He later added, “The last 16 days of the month, I think we have normal snow to a bit above normal. I’m coming up with 47 inches at the ski areas for the month of January. Normal snow for January at the ski areas is 50 to 52 inches. So basically, I have 5 to 10 percent below normal snow for this month.”

Snow is forecast for Tuesday.

Snowfall at the ski areas was between 86% and 90% of normal as of early January, Gates wrote.

The water plant recorded slightly more snow in December than the average of 25.17 inches. However, the precipitation for the month was slightly below average because of the low snow moisture content in most storms. Fluff is good for riding, not so good for busting a drought.