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Snowpack remains high for most of state

While snow may be playing havoc with your commute to work or just getting out of the driveway, it keeps piling up in the mountains.

That’s a good sign for this year’s water supply — if it lasts.


Statewide, the snowpack reached 123 percent of average as the most recent round of storms moved through. That’s a slight improvement from the end of January, a dry month that saw a drop in snowpack.


The Arkansas River basin climbed above average in snowpack, although the Lower Ark Valley is entering its third month of severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande basin remains the driest area of the state, with snowpack at 87 percent. Snow levels increase toward the northern part of the state, with most ski areas reporting 5-8 feet of snow —  some are boasting 24 inches of new snow in 72 hours. Some Snotel sites showed levels of well over 100 inches in the northern mountains.

In the Roaring Fork basin, which provides supplemental water imports for the Arkansas River, snow levels are at 133 percent of average.

“We’ve gained an additional 5 percent of additional snow,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. “This last storm brought significant snow, but if it doesn’t snow for five days, we may be back to average. We’re kind of where we were two years ago, but we can’t make any sort of forecast until May 1.”

Snowpack in the Upper Arkansas basin is at about 70-90 percent of peak levels (the depth typically reached in mid-April), while it remains at 40-70 percent in the southern mountains, said Pat Edelmann of the Pueblo office of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Lots of things could happen to the snowpack between now and when it begins to melt. The snow could be eaten away by sublimation — the process of frozen water in snow turning to gas without a liquid phase — that often happens during warm chinook winds. Large dust storms can cause the snowpack to melt by decreasing the reflectivity of the snow.

It could also get hotter and drier. The three-month outlook for Colorado is calling for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation.

“Or, you could get one big storm, and it will set you right for the rest of the winter,” said Wendy Ryan, a researcher with the Colorado Climate Center. “The good news is that reservoir storage levels are good.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported that statewide reservoir levels were at 100 percent at  the  end  of  last month, but only about 91 percent of average in the Arkansas River basin, and 79 percent in the Rio Grande.

In Colorado, 80 percent of the state’s surface supplies of water originate from melting snow, and supplies are expected to be average this year, according to Allen Green, state conservationist for the NRCS.

“Without those big storms back in December, most of the state would be well below average right now,” Green said. “At this point, they’ve allowed us to endure a dry month, yet maintain good snowpack readings everywhere.”

Chris Wodack