March Meltdown |

March Meltdown

Steve Benson

March is typically one of the biggest snow months in Aspen. This year, it was one of the warmest and driest on record.

According to Brian Avery, a hydrologist and forecaster for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, March 2004 will go down as one of Aspen’s 10 warmest Marches since record-keeping began in the early 20th century. Precipitation was low, too, with only .89 inches falling by March 30 (the average for the month is 2.36 inches, dating back to 1951).

March started off as expected with cool temperatures and snow, but by the month’s second full week, temperatures were approaching 60 degrees. A couple of weeks later, things got downright freaky as the snow vanished, rivers rose and some early-rising bears were seen in Aspen’s West End.

From March 19 to 26, the temperature in Aspen broke 60 degrees six times, with record-high temperatures set March 21-23. On March 20-21, the high both days was 67 degrees.

Below 9,000 feet, thunderstorms and rain were daily occurrences between March 23-25. And the rumblings of thunder were not all that shook Aspen. The Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol performed daily avalanche-control work to prevent massive wet slides from releasing under the weight of the heavy, waterlogged snowpack.

Because the snow was so heavy, the patrol used 5-pound bombs in addition to the usual 2-pound charges. The explosions rocked downtown Aspen, setting off car alarms, rattling windows, and sending dogs into a panic.

Jim Markalunas, a local weather watcher who has lived in Aspen for most of his 74 years, said the warm spell in March was unusual, but not necessarily surprising.

“With March, you may not know what you’re going to get, but you’ll get fooled every time,” he said.

Markalunas can remember Marches that saw 6 feet of snow, and he can recall 60-degree temperatures and blossoming flowers in other years. March 1965 broke a record for the month with 77 inches of snow, Markalunas said, and the following year saw a record-low 7 inches.

“That just goes to show you, you never know ” Mother Nature will always out-fool you,” he said.

He’s right. Last week, with the snowpack melting rapidly and drought worries increasing under the warm blue skies, winter returned with a weekend storm that dropped about a foot of new snow on local ski areas.

But was it enough?

Shrinking snowpack

According to Tony Tolsdorf, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the warm weather had a big impact on the statewide snowpack. Between March 1-26, the average snowpack in the state decreased 20-30 percent.

“It really was extremely unusual,” Tolsdorf said. “As far as our records indicate, that’s the first time percents of average have dropped that much [in March].”

The Colorado River Basin (which runs through the Western Slope) was not hit as hard, with the snowpack decreasing by 15 percent ” an average estimate taken from a number of different snow stations in the region.

On March 30, a snow station on Independence Pass was reporting a snowpack that was 78 percent of average. Meanwhile, the state snowpack was 73 percent of average.

Tolsdorf said the storm March 27-28 added roughly 3 percent back to the statewide snowpack.

While snowpacks in the 70th percentile may seem low, it’s not as bad as 2002, when the statewide snowpack was only 52 percent of average.

So how bad is it?

“It depends on your perspective,” said Mark O’Meara, assistant director for the Aspen Water Department.

“Just like the rest of the state, we’re prepared for a really dry season,” he said. “Everyone’s got that on their mind.

“[But] I’ve seen really wet summers, it can rain all summer long. We may end up with a very average year.”

Tolsdorf echoed O’Meara: “You never know what April will bring, conditions could change almost 180 degrees.”

As for reservoir levels, Tolsdorf said it’s too early to tell how they will fare this summer.

“Reservoirs will not be a big indicator,” he said. “It’s too soon to say anything about the reservoirs.

“But I’m sure that a lot of municipalities’ water managers are looking at some sort of water restrictions.”

Other parts of the state have seen significant runoff already, which according to Tolsdorf is about a month early, O’Meara said Aspen hasn’t been hit too hard yet.

O’Meara said there has been obvious melting, and some clouding of the water in the rivers, but Aspen is “not really seeing any runoff, per se.”

“We’re anticipating a lot of this is going into the ground,” O’Meara said. “It’s going into the ground water. We’ve got good storage. It’s not running off real fast or making rivers go up real high. The soil is percolating that [and] regenerating a lot of the roots.”

The Roaring Fork River flowed stronger than normal during the past couple of weeks ” about 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) higher than average for this time of year ” but by early this week the levels dropped to near-normal.

The measurements were taken from a station near Aspen, which reports an average CFS of 30 for this time of year. Between March 22-27, the river was running in the 40s and 50s, but by March 28, cooler temperatures had brought the flow closer to average.

Early fishing

Despite the increase in melting snow and subsequent strong streamflow, the fishing has been excellent.

According to Will Sands, manager of Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt, anglers can expect a “great slurry of fishing,” on both the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers.

“It’s common for March fishing to be good,” he said. “But this warm weather has definitely enhanced this March.”

Sands, who also guides for Taylor Creek, added that the water is clear in the Pan and most of the Fork.

Midges and blue wing olive flies are hatching consistently on a daily basis between Basalt and Glenwood Springs, with the best hatches coming between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

As for the impact that spring’s early arrival will have on summer fishing, Sands said it’s a wait-and-see process.

“If it remains warm without moisture we’ll get a real early runoff and have great fishing in early June,” he said. “In the short run, we have good fishing earlier, but the warm weather hurts us in the long run.”

A large snowstorm or a wet summer, Sands said, could change everything quickly.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is


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