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Skiers and snowboarders weave between the trees plastered by snow at Steamboat ski area, Dec. 29, 2022, in Steamboat Springs. The Routt County ski area received 17 inches of snow in the previous 48 hours. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Recent increases in precipitation have brought much of Colorado out of drought and led to a solid start for winter snowpack in the mountains. Meteorologists are hopeful this could lead to a successful wet season, and even ease drought conditions this summer — but they aren’t making any calls just yet.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor report indicated that 40% of Colorado was officially drought-free,  a significant improvement from 0% this time last year. 9News meteorologist Chris Bianchi said the improvement was more than welcome.

“We’re not looking at just a blip in terms of drought impact,” Bianchi said. “This is a substantial improvement.”

Heavy snow, mostly west of the Continental Divide, has helped in recent weeks, Bianchi said, but the entire state hasn’t been covered by snow. Still, Colorado is in a much better position overall, he said.

At the end of December, drought conditions were logged in about 86% of the state. The week of Jan. 3, most of the eastern plains still was dry, with severe or extreme conditions recorded along the state border. 

As of Wednesday, statewide snowpack is at 127% of the median level and well above average in all river basins except the Arkansas and Upper Rio Grande, according to the Natural Resources and Conservation Service’s weekly Snow Survey. Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher said these conditions have him cautiously optimistic.

“The mountain snowpack in the winter is critical, because that’s our big natural reservoir of water serving both Colorado and the downstream states,” Schumacher said. “At least at this point in the snow accumulation, the numbers all look really good.”

There’s also reason to be hopeful for good runoff from the mountains in the spring, he said. After a wet summer in 2022, especially in the high country, Colorado entered the winter with better-hydrated soil than the past several years, according to Schumacher. This means that more snowmelt will make it to the rivers instead of being absorbed by the ground.

Schumacher is still waiting to see what the rest of winter has in store. When it comes to predicting drought conditions later in the year, precipitation levels this early aren’t the best indicators, he said. Experts will know much more by April, when total snowpack accumulation is clearer and they can predict water levels in the rivers more accurately. For now, he said, the winter is at least off to a promising start.

Bianchi is also waiting to see what the coming months bring. The heart of Colorado’s wet season, from late February to the start of spring, will have a much greater impact on drought conditions and wildfire risk for the rest of the year, he said. These early-season precipitation levels are not a definitive sign, especially not for communities on the Front Range, he said.

“This would be like the Broncos being at 14-nothing at halftime,” Bianchi said. “A great start, zero qualms about it. The problem is, it’s still only halftime.”

Dr. Benjamin Hatchett, a hydrometeorologist with the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute, said it was very encouraging to see areas with more severe drought classification improve on the Drought Monitor, even if they didn’t lose classification entirely. He’s also glad to see the Rocky Mountains with less drought, since their runoff sustains so many downstream communities in the western U.S.

However, for a drought-stricken state like Colorado to recover substantially and replenish local reservoirs, consistent improvement in precipitation over the long term has to happen, Hatchett said. Otherwise, in the big picture, nothing will change.

“To get out of those problems, we’re going to really need not just one year, but back-to-back, probably three or four years of really good winters,” he said. 

The likelihood of consistently exceptional precipitation over the long term is low, he admitted. In the short term, though, this weather certainly isn’t bad news. Coloradans can expect storms to continue feeding the snowpack over the next 10 days or so, according to Hatchett. Then things look like they may dry out a bit. And for the rest of the winter, he said, forecasting models are much less accurate — in other words, only time will tell.

But Colorado is in a good spot. Even if things dry out more than expected in the coming months, Hatchett said, the state’s head start on snowpack accumulation will be an important advantage.

“We’ve built up a bit of a buffer right now. That’s good,” he said. “We’ve got some snow in the bank.”