Snowpack levels below average, moderate drought predicted

Staff Writer

SUN photo/Shari Pierce Afternoon sun illuminates Squaretop and the neighboring peaks late Tuesday. Spring is right around the corner, and, as of March 1, Colorado snowpack was estimated to be at 73 percent of normal. SUN photo/Shari Pierce
Afternoon sun illuminates Squaretop and the neighboring peaks late Tuesday. Spring is right around the corner, and, as of March 1, Colorado snowpack was estimated to be at 73 percent of normal.

As of Jan. 1, Colorado has reached its fourth-lowest snowpack level in 32 years.

Across the state, this winter has been dominated by high pressure weather systems, along with a jet stream that has led to a lower-than-average snowpack. As of Jan. 1, the snow surveys released by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) show that snow accumulation is below average across the state.

Reservoir storage is currently below average throughout the state of Colorado, as well. At the end of December, the statewide reservoir storage was just 68 percent of average and 38 percent of capacity.

According to the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey and Water Supply News Release, Colorado’s water year got off to a very slow start. The statewide snowpack in January was 70 percent of average and 91 percent of last year’s recordings. Luckily, the state received much-needed moisture in the month of December.

The mountain precipitation was 112 percent of average for December 2012, however. In the months of October and November 2012, Colorado only received 50 and 41 percent of average precipitation, respectively. These low months caused the year-to-date precipitation for 2012 to be an average low of 68 percent as of the end of December. The areas of the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins reported only 59 percent of average for that time period.

According to the NRCS, the winter storms that did move through Colorado during the month of February improved the statewide snowpack, however, it was not enough to boost the conditions to normal level. As of March 1, Colorado snowpack was 73 percent of normal and 83 percentage last year’s snowpack readings at this same time.

NRCS documented that the greatest decline in snowpack percentage was measured in the areas of the Dolores, Animas, San Miguel and San Juan basins. These areas of snowpack dropped 5 percent from the month before and to 83 percent of normal as of March 1.

This has changed dramatically since February, when the NRCS documented that these same areas were the portions of the state that benefited the most from the recent storms and had the greatest increase in snowpack.

This data collected during the March 1 snow surveys reflects what Colorado can expect for surface water supplies coming in the spring and summer.

According to the NRCS website, unless Colorado sees changes in the weather patterns in March that would bring above-average snowfall and precipitation to the state, there will be little relief from the current drought conditions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) climate prediction center is calling for a persistence in drought. NOAA is also predicting an above-normal temperature probability for the next three months.

The National Drought Mitigation Center released their US Drought Monitor on Feb 21, showing that drought for Pagosa Country is expected to be moderate.

The Snow Water Equivalency (SWE) at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass is currently at 19.3 inches for 2013, with the median from 1981-2010 being 24 inches. According to this, the SWE is four inches less than the median. At this moment, the area is 80.4 percent of normal.

With low snowpack also comes the fear of future wildfires. Pagosa Springs is one month away from last year’s first fire, the East Fork Fire.

Without additional moisture, area forests will be more susceptible to fires.

Kevin Khung, Pagosa District Ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, explained that, “The existing fuel loading we have in our forest hasn’t decreased. Regardless of snow, we have conditions in our forest that have set us up for fires. We have the fuel loading out there for fires. Fuel loading is significant.”

The affects of low snowpack levels also influence the dryness of the grasses. Without adequate moisture reserves, grasses will be drier than normal.

The moisture in the soil affects the amount of runoff expected. More moisture in the soil equals more runoff for the area. Current streamflow forecasts continue to predict well below normal runoff volumes in all of the major river basins of Colorado.

The lack of snowpack and affects on the grasses also influences grazing permits for national forest lands. With drier grasses, less forest land will be available for grazing, causing a decrease in the number of grazing permits sold.

Despite information that points to a very dry summer, the local foresters are declining to speculate on whether or not an intense fire season is expected in 2013.

“You can’t make a prediction,” Khung explained, “this is a day-to-day situation.”