Colorado isn’t getting enough snow to fully recover drought stricken rivers and reservoirs

For months Colorado’s climatologists said the state would need consistent, above-average snowfall this winter to recharge the state’s dry soils, rivers and reservoirs. It didn’t happen.

Instead, in the more fortunate areas the state saw an average amount of snowpack, which might be enough to moisten the parched ground and maybe refill some of Colorado’s smaller reservoirs, Becky Bolinger, of the Colorado Climate Center, said.

For a glimpse of the bigger picture across the American West, Bolinger, also a climatologist with Colorado State University, pointed to the Lake Powell Reservoir, which is already at a record low.

“We’re not going to recover,” she said.

A drought like the one enveloping the West, which has lasted for two decades, needs much more than a single winter of average snowfall to bounce back, Bolinger said.

Winter snowfall started off strong in late December and early January but lost momentum in the following weeks.

Snowpack data shows that accumulation around Gunnison and Ouray sit at 109% of normal levels, down from 148% in early January. Snowpack around Durango sits at 101% of normal, down from 137%.

Levels around Aspen and Glenwood Springs are 100% of normal, down from 124% in early January and the area around Steamboat Springs sits at 88%, down from 115%, according to the data, collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Snowpack around Denver sits at 96%, down from 114%.

A few more weeks remain until Colorado hits its typical snowpack peak in early April, Bolinger said. But with current weather trends, seeing larger snowstorms that could bump snowpack well above average seems increasingly unlikely.

If current snowpack levels remain constant, Colorado will still likely see a bit more water in its rivers and streams, Bolinger said.

“The good news is that when you do have near-average peak snowpack you’re going to get a decent bump up, even if you don’t get back to your normal levels,” Bolinger said.

To see how much of a bump Colorado will get, Bolinger said she’ll keep an eye on spring temperatures. If all the snow melts at once then dry soils won’t have a chance to absorb much-needed moisture, she said.

A good, drawn-out spring melt can buffer against Colorado’s wildfires and dryer summers, Bolinger said.

“The area of biggest concern for the summer right now is the Eastern Plains,” she said. “They’ve had a lot of dryness throughout the winter and the spring – March, April, May – is a good time to make up some of those deficits and there’s not a lot of hope for that this spring.”

More than 90% of the state is considered to be in a drought, according to data released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center. The rest of the state is still considered abnormally dry.

Most of the Eastern Plains are considered to be in “severe” drought conditions with slivers of “extreme” and “exceptional” drought in the southeast corner of the state, the data shows.

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