The record-low snowpack in parts of the Rocky Mountains is the culprit. Snowfall at the end of 2017 in Beaver Creek, Vail and Park City, Utah was the lowest in more than 30 years.
Even where Colorado saw significant snow, Russ Schumacher, the state climatologist, said, “it’s still remained relatively warm.”
Schumacher and others acknowledge the role climate change and those warmer temperatures will play across the West. The thing that’s more difficult to predict is how winter snowfall might change. Right now, Schumacher said some spots near the Continental Divide have near average snowpack. But move farther south to the Gunnison River basin and there are places setting new records for lack of snow.
Jeff Lukas, with the Western Water Assessment, is watching not just snowpack levels but the water in that snowpack.
“Your senses are triggered,” he said. “But you don’t push the alarm bell yet….”
For him snow is like a bank account for the arid West. Every year water managers capture snow melt in reservoirs. If the snow starts running off early or evaporates in warm weather or there’s not enough of it, then Lukas’ alarm bells will start going off.
For the moment, he’s less than plussed about the situation.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll get back up to average over the next three to four months and end up with a peak snowpack that’s near normal. So basically all of our potential futures are below average. And the question is, how far below?”
Nineteen other states depend on water from river basins that depend on Colorado’s snowpack. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center predicts water levels significantly below average for 2018 — And that’s prompting more questions.