Colorado’s healthy snowpack promises to offer some relief for strained water supplies ~ ColoradoSun

Colorado’s statewide snowpack is above average weeks ahead of normal seasonal peak

Shannon Mullane

Mar 14, 2023

Fresh snow covers the Sawatch Range along Colorado 24 outside Twin Lakes, near the headwaters of the Arkansas River on Feb. 21, 2023. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The Western Slope snowpack has piled up to its normal peak weeks ahead of usual, and with more snow in the forecast, the healthy supply promises some relief to receding Colorado reservoirs, experts say.

Rivers in western Colorado help feed the Colorado River Basin, which provides water to 40 million people across the West. The basin is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years — by some estimates, it would take three average snow years with zero consumption to get reservoirs in the basin back to normal. This year, the snow is deep in the mountains that serve as headwaters for the Colorado River with some areas even reporting historically high snowpack levels.

“To me, the most impressive thing about this year’s snowpack is that, typically, in a normal year we reach our normal peak around April 1. We’ve already reached that peak snow value in early March, and we’re still trending upward,” said Paul Miller, service coordination hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. “So we’re well ahead of schedule, so to speak, and we still have some time to add to the snowpack.”

The numbers look good on the Western Slope. The snow-water equivalent — the amount of liquid water in snow — was at 147% of the historical average in the Gunnison Basin, and 136% of the average in the Yampa and White basins as of Monday. The snow-water equivalent in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins in southwestern Colorado was 149% of average, the highest statewide.

As of Monday, Colorado’s statewide snowpack was 127% of median from 1991 to 2020, according to SNOTEL data compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

From above, satellites are also tracking the total snow-covered area in Colorado, said Adrienne Marshall, a computational hydrologist at the Colorado School of Mines. 

“That’s essentially as high as it’s ever been in the last 20 years, which is when we have the satellite record for, for this time of year,” said Marshall, who specializes in using different data modeling techniques to understand how climate change is altering water resources.

However, in eastern Colorado the Arkansas Basin’s snow-water equivalent was 78% of the historical average, and the South Platte Basin was at 106% as of Monday. 

“We’re looking at a lower-than-average peak snowpack for all of those mountains that will ultimately feed into the Arkansas River, so that’s one concern,” said Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist. “That means you’ll have less runoff, less available for irrigation, water supply. Rivers might be lower this summer.”

For the Colorado River Basin, how snowpack levels ultimately translate into spring water supply depends on factors like remaining snowfall and soil moisture.

Unusually wet weather patterns in the forecast for the rest of March could continue to boost numbers in the basin and across the state, Miller and Bolinger said. Over the next couple of weeks, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is projecting about 1 to 2.5 inches of snow at higher mountain elevations. Lower elevations can expect between 0.5 and 1 inches of rain and/or snow.

“I really don’t see anything right now that would flip that situation and take us into a drought,” Bolinger said.

However, the basin has seen some of the driest soil on record in recent years, Miller said. As spring runoff occurs, parched soil sucks up moisture, leaving less to travel downstream and replenish reservoirs in need. Although soil moisture conditions looked slightly better in November compared to 2020 and 2021, large chunks of the state are still reporting conditions that are drier than usual, based on historical data. 

Even considering drier soil, hydrologists still expect to see flows that are well above average throughout the basin, Miller said. 

While helpful, the healthy snowpack is not going to lead to recovery on the huge downstream reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Bolinger said.

“They’re too big,” she said. “They’re too massive. This is just one year.”

These massive water savings accounts have been dwindling during the ongoing drought, now in its 23rd year, prompting a state of emergency for water users across the West. In 2021, Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County conducted emergency releases to help bolster water levels in the drought-depleted Lake Powell. The move dropped Blue Mesa’s water level and kneecapped the local summer economy. 

This year, Lake Powell will likely end the 2023 water year, which closes Sept. 30, at an elevation of about 3,555 feet, or about 32% of its capacity, according to Bureau of Reclamation forecasts in February. That’s about 35 feet higher than its elevation on Monday. 

Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate hydroelectricity when Lake Powell’s elevation reaches 3,490 feet, its minimum power pool elevation. Dead pool, when water can’t flow through the dam, is 3,370 feet.

By some estimates, the Colorado River Basin would need three years of normal snowpack and absolutely no water use to refill all the reservoirs, Miller said. 

With current levels of water use, “we’d probably need to have this kind of year consecutively for, oh gosh, probably six or seven years,” he said.

In Colorado, the snowpack is promising some good recovery for reservoirs around the state, Bolinger said. But water district managers and water users are still keeping a cautious eye on incoming precipitation.

Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance, said the snowpack looks good now, but the next few months hold no guarantees. For the Arkansas River Basin, “it’s a feast or famine watershed,” he said.

“At least who I talk to, nobody is taking this that the drought is over,” Peterson said. “It’s all just, ‘This is a gift. We got a year. It buys us some time to figure out all of our other problems.’”

Ken Curtis, the general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said people in his southwestern Colorado district see the promising snowpack but are reluctant to be too hopeful.

“So far it’s been positive, but everybody’s probably a little shell-shocked still. Like, a ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of thing,” he said. 

In southwestern Colorado, which has seen some of the driest soil moisture levels in the state in recent years, drought has been “hitting on all cylinders,” Curtis said. In 2021, McPhee Reservoir in Curtis’ district was forecasting 27% of its historical 35-year average runoff. At one point, irrigators were forecast to receive just 1 inch per acre of irrigation water, or 4.5% of the 22 inches per acre provided when the reservoir fills completely. 

This year, a good snowpack would mean more carryover water supply for the next year and extra security if next winter is dry. 

“It looks like we’ve got a good chance of a full supply for the first time since 2019, so that’s great,” he said.

Pronosticó/weather report from Rio Blanco Zendo

just a noticia –

first day of socks …

no snow 

Tim Lane 1943-

Timoteo near his Zendo, Rio Blanco Chile

el pronosticadora with socks

and his sidekick Winnie

The final act


Taste Test Winner .. Crédito total, Edgar Boyles

Drinking only the most prestigious brands here in NZ.~~~


Crédito total de la foto, Bill Liske

You know by this time in life, the last act, one would think or at least hope that your friends while living abroad or adventuring might be spending a bit of time visiting museums or churches or studying architecture, but like dogs, they know better but do it anyway.


Red Mtn. Pass Update – US 550 Red Mountain Pass to Remain Closed Indefinitely

March 11, 2019
6:30 a.m.

Saturday Avalanche Control Work
Produces Incredible and Daunting Results
US 550 Red Mountain Pass to Remain Closed Indefinitely

SOUTHWEST COLORADO ― CDOT avalanche control crews performed helicopter operations Friday morning, March 10th, to address more than 20 avalanche paths on three mountain passes that had the potential of snow reaching the roadway. As a result of this mitigation, incredible amounts of snow and debris have hit the road and require the continued and indefinite closure of US Highway 550 Red Mountain Pass.

Nine out of 13 slide paths had significant amounts of snow hit the highway.  The aircrew reported that the half mile of snow and debris deposit, which already existed on the highway from mitigation of the Brooklyns earlier this week, has now doubled. The depth of the snow slide is now estimated to be 60 feet deep on the highway.
“Today’s mitigation results are daunting. It will mean a lot of work and hundreds of man hours to clear this road. We will need to acquire more bulldozers and look to other CDOT regions to help us out with equipment and personnel.” said CDOT Deputy Superintendent of Maintenance, John Palmer, who oversaw the operations.
Also of great concern to CDOT officials is the West Riverside slide which brought down 40 to 60 feet of new snow over a 300 foot stretch of highway. The snow slide also filled the Riverside snow shed and likely took out several of the lights within the shed.
Palmer added, “These significant runs only reinforce the high avalanche danger warnings issued this week by our partnering agency the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, along with our decision to close this pass for safety. What’s more, slides that have never hit the roadway before, crushed both lanes with tens of feet of snow.”

In addition to Red Mountain Pass being mitigated yesterday, crews also performed avalanche control work on US 550 Molas Pass and CO 145 Lizard Head Pass. Both passes were safely opened to the traveling public by mid-morning. Crews continue to perform shoulder work and snow removal to widen the highways.


By Scott Dance

March 9, 2023

An extended episode of the global climate pattern known as La Niña is over, and scientists suspect a “rapid evolution” to El Niño — known for accelerating planetary warming and inducing extreme weather — could occur this summer.

That is according to the latest analysis from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, which said Thursday that the markers of La Niña all but disappeared in February. La Niña is associated with cooler-than-normal waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean and can promote more intense Atlantic hurricanes.

Instead, surface temperatures across most of the equatorial Pacific have surged in recent weeks, a potential sign of El Niño. For now, scientists say Earth’s climate is in neutral — with neither La Niña or El Niño influencing global weather patterns.

The probable return of El Niño raises concerns about how it could accelerate global warming and crises of climate change. The last major El Niño episode in 2016 sent average global temperatures to record highs and contributed to devastating rainforest loss, coral bleaching, polar ice melt and wildfires.

El Niño events that intense typically occur about once every 15 years on average, so it remains to be seen — if another episode begins this year — whether it could pack such a punch, said Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

“It may not be one of these blockbusters; it may be garden variety,” said McPhaden, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration but is not involved in its El Niño forecasting. “It could have some significant impacts around the world.”

La Niña had been in place since 2020, but for a brief interlude of neutral conditions in 2021.

In the United States, it is known for driving colder and wetter conditions across the northern contiguous states and mild and dry weather in the southern tier. And it has a temporary cooling influence around much of the world, including in Alaska and southern Africa and Asia.

La Niña can also encourage tropical cyclone formation and intensification in the Atlantic basin because it is associated with reduced wind shear — variation in wind speeds and direction at different altitudes — there.

El Niño, on the other hand, can trigger droughts in northern Australia, Indonesia and southern Africa and above-average precipitation across the southern United States, including in Southern California. Atlantic hurricane activity is typically somewhat reduced.

But its larger impact is perhaps its larger warming influence.

Warmer-than-normal surface waters along the equatorial Pacific — the main measure used to gauge El Niño intensity — mean more evaporation along that vast stretch of ocean. That leads to increased water vapor in the air and the formation of clouds, which block the sun’s heat from reaching the ocean and encourage more of that warmth to be trapped in the atmosphere.

Still, El Niño’s arrival remains uncertain, the climate forecasters stressed.

They predict just greater than 50-50 odds of El Niño in late summer, approaching a two-in-three chance by fall. And they note that any predictions made during the spring regarding El Niño or La Niña “are less accurate” because the climate is typically in transition at this time of year.