Storm helps ailing snowpack recover
December 18, 2002
Just when it looked like the Roaring Fork River basin was sliding toward another mediocre winter, the latest storm boosted the snowpack back up to average.
The snowpack for the basin ? which includes the Crystal and Fryingpan drainages as well as Roaring Fork Valley ? was at 100 percent of average yesterday, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. It had dropped to 96 percent of average Monday, before a storm had dumped up to 8 inches of snow on the mountains surrounding Aspen by noon.
A promising start to the winter had boosted the snowpack as high as 68 percent above average by mid-November. But an 11-day dry spell from Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 as well as almost a month of sparse snow had water managers, not to mention skiers, fearing the worst.
“The last three weeks have been really dry,” said Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor for the conservation service.
The federal agency has scores of computerized snow measuring devices in Colorado’s mountains, including seven in the Roaring Fork River basin.
Snow survey data shows the snowpack at the 10,600-foot elevation of Independence Pass is 17 percent above average for this time of year.
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Three sites in the Fryingpan Valley were also above the 30-year average. But the spotty nature of the early season storms created a snowpack below average on Schofield Pass in the Crystal drainage.
Snow has been spotty across the state. Many of the river basins in the southern half of Colorado remained below average Tuesday.
The summit of Wolf Creek Pass, typically one of the snowiest spots in the state, was only at 65 percent of average snowpack. Red Mountain Pass north of Durango was at 87 percent of average while Lizard Head Pass outside of Telluride was at 95 percent.
On the other end of the spectrum, Copper Mountain ski area’s snowpack was 26 percent higher than average, according to the snow survey. Vail Mountain was at 99 percent of average snowpack as of Tuesday morning.
Gillespie said the snow season is only about one-third finished, so it’s too early to assess the winter. Federal agencies still consider Western Colorado to be suffering from drought.
“We’re still in bad shape,” said Gillespie.
Conditions were so dry last winter and summer that an average snowpack this winter will do little to ease conditions, he said.
Conservation service officials believe the soil moisture deficit is so severe that an estimated 15 percent of the snowpack will be soaked up before runoff starts, Gillespie said.
Colorado’s reservoirs also require a wetter than usual winter to replenish reserves. Ruedi Reservoir, 14 miles east of Basalt, recently dipped below 48,000 acre feet. Normally at this time of year, it would be at about 85,000 acre feet, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data. The reservoir has a capacity of 102,000 acre feet.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]