Skip to contents
Environment

All of this snow is great, but it will likely be months before we know the impact on Colorado’s drought

Snowpack levels in arid southwest Colorado are below normal so far this year, though much better than at the same point in 2017

The Pallavicini chairlift at Arapahoe Basin carries skiers and snowboarders on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

You’re seeing the pictures of deep snow being surfed by skiers and snowboarders across the state. The Colorado Department of Transportation is working double time to keep high country stretches of highways passable.

But if you were expecting an overnight solution to Colorado’s drought, which has been particularly acute in the southwest part of the state, don’t hold your breath.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows conditions have improved only marginally since the summer and meteorologists and water advocates say whether the snow is adequate to quench the most parched parts of the state won’t be known until spring, when the runoff begins.

Areas of Colorado that most need the snow still are at below-normal snowpack levels compared to the deep snow reported in northern Colorado.

“We have been able to rebound a little bit with these storms,” said Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “Durango is in our forecast area, they are still 8.66 inches below normal (precipitation) for the year so far.”

Snowfall and rain are just part of the equation when it comes to drought, she said. Water consumption also comes into play.

But it’s no secret that last winter and the summer were immensely dry, setting the stage for the state of drought Colorado finds itself in. As of Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 12.35 percent of the state, mostly in the Four Corners area, remains under exceptional drought — no change from the week before.

“Down south they really have just been socked into that exceptional drought since April,” Stackhouse said. “If we could just keep getting these good snowstorms that we are getting right now, that would be great.”

When that snow actually melts in the spring, she said, the needle could be moved significantly. But we might not know until then what the impact is.

The water level of the Ridgway Reservoir, pictured here on Sunday August 19, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins was at 70 percent of normal as of Friday. The Gunnison River basin was at 94 percent of normal. The Rio Grande River basin was at 86 percent of normal and the Colorado River basin — which hydrates much of the the Front Range — was at 133 percent of normal.

The South Platte River basin’s snowpack level was 155 percent of normal heading into the weekend, when more snow fell.

Overall, the state’s snowpack level on Friday was 114 percent of normal, 108 percent of average, and 186 percent compared to last year’s level at this time.

“You have take it with a grain of salt because it is so early in the season,” said John Berggren, a water-policy analyst with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates. “The bulk of the snowpack accumulation doesn’t happen until the next few months.”

A single good snow season might not be enough to end the drought. It might take two, three or four years of good snow in a row to make a real, lasting dent.

“You need more than one great snowpack to pull yourself out the drought, especially on the heels of a pretty bad water year like we had in 2018,” Berggren said.

MORE: Colorado’s hot summer of dry ditches and empty reservoirs has left distressed farmers sweating: Will it get worse?

Still, Berggen said his organization is cautiously optimistic about the coming snow season.

Forecasters are still waiting to see if an El Niño weather pattern will develop, which could bring increased moisture to Colorado. Wetter-than-average conditions usually take hold during an El Niño winter and higher elevations can get more snow.

It’s also true that El Niño can bring warmer temperatures, which could mean an earlier runoff season.

Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said forecasters still expect the pattern to develop as winter approaches and it could last into the spring.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun