Snowpack | KUNC

Snowpack

Luke Runyon / KUNC

From the roof of Chuck McAfee’s adobe farmhouse in rural southwestern Colorado, you can see into three other states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Mountain peaks are just barely visible above the horizon.

Even though this part of Montezuma County is considered the high desert, it’s common for these grass and sagebrush hills to be snow-covered into spring. This year they’re bare, and have been since last winter.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

This winter in the southern Rocky Mountains is shaping up to be one for the record books. And not in a good way.

Parts of the West are currently experiencing one of the driest and warmest winters on record. Snowpack is far below normal levels in southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and California, leaving some to worry about this year’s water supply.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

The first official forecast for the amount of water expected in the Colorado River and its Rocky Mountain tributaries this spring is in, and the outlook is grim.

“Well, it’s not looking really great at this point,” says Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Layers of snow in the Colorado, Wyoming and Utah mountains feed the Colorado River basin. Some regions are reporting the driest start to a winter ever recorded. All of the river’s upper basin streams empty into Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border. The lake’s inflow -- all water entering the reservoir -- is anticipated to be 55 percent of average during spring runoff.

Highest January Snowpack For Colorado In Three Years

Jan 14, 2017
SNOWTEL / Natural Resources Conservation Service

After a very dry fall, Colorado’s snowpack has bounced back. Statewide, the snowpack is at almost 160 percent of normal, with the state’s historically snowiest months still to come.

“To have our snowpack where it is right now for the state is a really good position to be in going forward for water supplies into the spring and summer,” said Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor and hydrologist.

The good news extends to cities and reservoirs downstream of Colorado, like Lake Mead in Nevada which has experienced record lows.

Lanna Brake

Don’t tell Kerri Ertman it’s too cold.

“I have a hard time dealing with the people on Facebook talking about wearing flip flops in November,” Ertman said. “It’s like hey, just once it turns to December, start hoping for cold weather. I like the cold.”

Of course she does. Ertman is a snow sculptor. And as the co-founder of the Colorado State Snow Sculpting Competition, she has a lot riding on the weather. But what do you do when there’s no snow?

Lance Cheung / U.S. Department Of Agriculture

At Ollin Farms in Longmont, Mark Guttridge is transitioning from spring crops to vegetables that will ripen in late summer and early fall. Having water later in the summer is crucial for Guttridge, but he knows from experience that that's not guaranteed.

"In 2012, we were in a drought year and it got hot really early just like it did this year in June," he said.

Guttridge uses a combination of ditch and municipal sources to irrigate his 10 acres. The municipal tap is a partial safety net. The part of the farm that relies on water being available in the ditch... that's more vulnerable. Climate change means water from spring runoff is coming earlier, creating new challenges for farmers.

NOAA

The El Niño that brought record warm winter temperatures to much of Colorado will continue into April, meaning more precipitation than usual — especially along the Front Range.

“It’s hanging in there, just barely, which means that we have that setup that’s favorable for a wet spring… It has been wet in the northern and central mountains,” said University of Colorado-Boulder climatologist Klaus Wolter.

“And the wrinkle in this, in 2016, is that it’s a bit warmer than it used to be so at the lower elevations you get maybe not as much snow, but higher up, the snowpack could continue to be above normal conditions.”

The El Niño Has Peaked. Now What?

Jan 6, 2016
NOAA

More storms are likely along the Pacific coast, especially California as we move into 2016. Sea surface temperatures from the El Niño are going down slightly, which will energize the storm track – but not in Colorado.

“And repeated storms, I mean the main thing with El Niño is that you get one storm after another,” said Klaus Wolter, a climatologist with the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“Any individual storm, it would be really hard to say if it is an El Niño storm. The fact that you get a lot of them makes all the difference.”

Colorado's Wet Spring Brought Downriver Changes For The Platte

Oct 14, 2015
Peter Stegen / Platte Basin Timelapse

Wet spring and summer rains soaked much of the High Plains in 2015. The Platte River, which runs through Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska before emptying into the Missouri River, saw historic flooding.

"We were, at the beginning of this year, looking at a really large project this fall as far as clearing bars in the river," said Andrew Pierson, the conservation director at Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska. "The high flow that we had, both volume and duration of flows, did 80 percent of that work for us."

Like other conservation groups on the central Platte, Audubon routinely clears vegetation from the river channel to improve habitat for cranes and other species. All the water though scoured tons of vegetation from the river channel. Now, the newly-created swath of flat, bare sandbars and braided river channels will make an ideal wildlife habitat.

Colorado Is Now Officially Out Of Drought

Jul 16, 2015
Animation By Jim Hill, KUNC / Map Courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor

Just two small areas in Colorado register as abnormally dry on the U.S. Drought Monitor, meaning that the state is effectively drought-free.

The period from July 2013 to June 2015 is the second wettest two-year period in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s 120 years of observation for the state of Colorado -- and that helps. Yet more rain doesn’t always satiate a drought, since too much at any one time means flooding and water runoff. The better solution is snowpack -- the amount of snow that falls over the winter and refills the state’s reservoirs as it melts over the winter.

“What you want is kind of a gradual melting of the snowpack in the late spring and into the summer so that you get that gradual filling of the reservoirs,” explains David Simeral, a meteorologist and author of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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