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Mild Winter Could Hurt Colorado Water Supply, Economy

Photo by Kirk Siegler

Colorado’s snowpack is nearing the lowest it’s been in decades.  The mild winter is bad news for powder skiers and snow-dependent businesses in the state.  It’s also a concern for millions of people across the Southwest who depend on melting snow for their drinking water and farms.

Snowpack a ‘Virtual Reservoir’

Mage Skordhal shields her eyes from the unforgiving high-altitude sun as she snowshoes into a “Snotel” monitoring station on Berthoud Pass, at 11,000 feet along the Continental Divide west of Denver.

“This site gets used for basin averages for the upper Colorado, the headwaters of the Colorado,” says Skordahl.

Hydrologists like Skordhal, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, have been visiting this site, taking snow depth samples for sixty years.  The method itself hasn’t changed much since then.  They still use a hollow, metal tube and probe it into the snow at precise locations.

“That’s 8 inches, yeah, 8 inches of water,” she says, jotting the numbers down.

Gaging the depth and water content here is important because much of this snow will melt and flow into the Colorado River, eventually winding its way to taps from Denver to Los Angeles.

Think of it like a virtual storage reservoir.

“In the western states, about 75% of our water comes from the snowpack,” Skordhal says. “That’s a lot.”

So when the snowpack measured here at the headwaters of an arid region is at just over half of normal?  It’s time to take notice.

“We still have a lot of season left, but it’s not a good start,” Skordhal says.

Water Utilities on Alert

70 miles east, up and over the Continental Divide from the Snotel site is Dana Strongin’s office at Northern Water.  Her agency pumps melted snow through a maze of pipes and reservoirs that feed thirsty cities and farms in northeastern Colorado. 

“The big thing that I’ve heard our engineers say is if we have to have a dry year, which we’re never excited about, this is a great year to have it,” Strongin says.

Northern officials and their counterparts at other agencies in the region aren’t worried yet because last winter was so snowy.

“But if this year lags, and next year lags, yeah, we can lose levels in our reservoirs and get a little concerned,” Strongin says. “A good portion of the 2000s was pretty rough on our storage.”

So it’s not a crisis yet if you’re in the water business.  But what about the West’s winter recreation economy?

Ski Resorts Hurting

At the base of the Winter Park Ski Area in Grand County, a few snow boarders and skiers slide into the lift.  Like many western ski resorts, Winter Park has been left pretty high and dry so far this year.  Barely a third of the mountain is even open, and resort officials say they stopped making snow in December. 

“We’re in the industry of Mother Nature,” says Mistalynn Lee, the resort’s spokesperson, who says a fairly strong holiday season has helped businesses in the area get by.

Still, nearby Vail Resorts has attributed a 15% drop in skier visits to the dismal snow.  The situation is worse in Lake Tahoe, California.  Just about the only resorts doing well are Taos, New Mexico and Whistler, British Columbia. The jet stream has sent the big storms to the far north and south. 

But here in Winter Park, Mistalynn Lee hasn’t given up on winter.

“This is very early still in the season,” Lee says. “We have four months left in our season and our snowiest month is in March.”

The ski industry is good at sounding optimistic in dry winters like this, since in Colorado alone, skiing generates about $3 billion a year.

Skiers Less Optimistic

Back on Berthoud Pass, a popular jumping off point for backcountry skiers, Rob Thorsheim of Golden is fixing climbing skins to the bottoms of his skis, readying to head up the mountain sans chairlift.

“Normally you’d have three or four foot snow banks all around here,” Thorsheim says.

Thorsheim’s friend Helayn Storch says she has a ski pass to a nearby resort, but so far hasn’t been using it due to the poor conditions.

“Because if you can’t ski bumps, why ski,” Storch says.

The two are a little more candid than the officials when it comes to the snowfall so far this year. 

They say it’s been…depressing.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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