Colorado snowpack is historically low, but Summit County is faring better than most

Jack Queen
Summit Daily
Snow-water equivalent as a percentage of normal in Colorado's eight river basins. Summit County, part of the Upper Colorado River basin, has fared well despite a dry winter statewide.
Special to the Daily / Natural Resources Conservation Service |

Colorado’s snowpack levels are roughly 60 percent of their historical average, and the southern reaches of the state remain in dire straits with only several months left in the snow season. Overall, it’s shaping up to be the state’s worst winter since 2012.

Water managers aren’t quite panicking yet, thanks to healthy reservoir levels that should be able to provide a backstop against drought. But if things don’t turn around soon, some of the many water jurisdictions fed by Colorado’s high-elevation snowpack could be in for tough times.

“There are some parts of the state that are in dire situations,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, a state water policy agency. “I think it would be wise for water providers to look around the corner. We could still get up to 100 percent, but people should certainly start thinking about drought planning.”

As dismal scenes from Crested Butte and Telluride can attest, the southern mountains are faring the worst. The latest data show two river basins in the southwest corner of the state — the Upper Rio Grande and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan — at 34 and 36 percent of average snowpack, respectively. The Gunnison basin to the north isn’t doing much better at 47 percent of historical snow-water equivalent.

The Upper Colorado River basin, which includes Summit County, is currently at a respectable 75 percent of average, owing partly to a La Nina affect that has been pushing storms northward.

A closer look indicates that despite underwhelming snow accumulations at local ski areas, Summit County has been having an unusually strong winter. Measurements by Denver Water show that snowpack on the mountains that drains into Dillon Reservoir is roughly 105 percent of its historical average.

“We’re faring a little bit better than the rest of the state, and in some areas like Summit County, we’re actually doing better than we typically would be this time of year,” said Travis Thompson, a Denver Water spokesman.

In all areas of the Upper Colorado River watershed where the agency collects water, snowpack is at 97 percent of normal, and its sites in the Upper South Platte watershed are at 91 percent.

Summit enjoyed a light dusting Thursday that was expected to continue periodically into the weekend. Weak storms like that have characterized the 2017-18 winter season so far, a stark contrast to the season before, when a series of massive storms pummeled the county in December and January and built most of the winter’s total snowpack.

“We’re inching up and every little bit counts — a couple inches today, a couple inches tomorrow,” Pokrandt said. “Everybody’s looking for a 2-foot dump for a lot of reasons, but we’ll take what we can get. We’re inching ahead. … This year we just haven’t gotten that pineapple express effect that comes across dumping and dumping.”

Light snow showers could linger in Summit until Wednesday, when they will taper off and give way to dry weather through the weekend, according to meteorologist Joel Gratz of

“Some models are hinting that a rogue storm will buck the trend of the storm track staying to our north and east and bring snow to Colorado on or around February 10th,” he wrote in a Friday morning blog post. “This is a low chance, but still a chance.”

Forecasting beyond a couple of weeks is extremely difficult, but weather watchers tentatively predict that the overall dry trend will continue.

“A winter drought is developing across Utah and Colorado, with very low precipitation and poor snowpack conditions accompanied by very warm temperatures and unusually high evaporative demand,” the latest briefing from the federal Western Water Assessment reads. “It is unlikely that the snowpack will recover to average conditions by spring, and very low spring-summer runoff is increasingly likely, especially in southern Utah and southwestern Colorado.”

Still, things can change, and there’s enough time left for Colorado to bounce back from its lackluster snow year. One or two particularly big storms could completely erase months of low accumulations in the data.

“The snowpack measurements as of the beginning of March would be when things would really start getting serious,” Pokrandt said. “So there’s still some time, and at least in (Summit) we’re not that far from average. Maybe if we get to 90 percent snowpack this year we could call that victory. But if things really fall off and we get another prolonged dry period and thawing, then that’ll really get people’s attention.”