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Can the low snowpack in Southwest Colorado rebound?

Basins are 33 percent of normal, but there’s time for a turnaround

Southwest Colorado’s snowpack this winter is on track to be one of the lowest in recent history, but if past years are an indication, there is time for a turnaround.

As of this week, snowpack in the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan basins was at 33 percent of normal, tied with the Upper Rio Grande basin for the lowest snow totals in Colorado. The state as a whole is at 60 percent of normal.

But water managers are quick to mention one interesting and important stat: about 50 percent of the entire San Juan River basin’s snowpack comes from just 10 percent of the storms to hit the region.

Translation: Southwest Colorado needs only a handful of major storms to drop heavy snow to restore a sense of normalcy to snowpack levels and relieve the region of dreaded water issues that come with drought years.

But as the winter weather has yet to arrive, pressing into late January, these storms have to actually materialize to kick off the about-face.

“Whereas the northern mountains get dustings every other day, we get big events from the Southwest, all at once,” said Susan Behery, a hydraulic engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, who is based in Durango. “But the longer we go into the season without any snow at all, the less likely that seems.”

Tayrn Finnessey, a climate-change risk management specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said this winter’s lack of snowfall for Southwest Colorado is a “classic La Niña” year.

“In La Niña years, storms tend to track north,” she said.

There are precedents for this year’s lack of snow.

Take 2002, one of the driest years in Southwest Colorado history, which will forever be tied with the Missionary Ridge Fire that ripped through the San Juan Mountains, burning almost 73,000 acres.

This year’s snowpack is about half of what it was at this time of year in 2002, according to SNOTEL records from the Molas Pass gauging station, about 60 miles north of Durango in the high country.

In 2002, drought conditions didn’t actually hit until later in the season, paving the way for dangerously combustible conditions in the summer.

More comparable snowpack years to this winter would be in 1990 and 2000. But even in those years, snowpack did see a jump by the end of the winter, with peak numbers at about 15 inches and 18 inches, respectively.

“Is there a chance we could come back?” said Brian Domonkos, a snow survey supervisor with the National Resources Conservation Service. “Yes. But our chances are dwindling quickly.”

There is precedent for Colorado basins receiving late winter snow to compensate for a dry start. But given that winter is about half over, it is not likely we will hit those normal averages, Domonkos said.

And, it is notable to mention that past years at least displayed cold temperatures. Not so this year. In January, for instance, the month is on track to be 7.4 degrees warmer than historic averages, according to the National Weather Service.

In his 14 years with the service, Domonkos said this is probably the lowest snowpack he has seen in the majority of Colorado basins. It is statistically abnormal, he said, but not anything weather watchers haven’t seen before.

“We have to keep a real close eye on what’s going on,” he said. “The only way we’ll be able to plan and adjust – and adapt – is by watching these events closely and making smart good decisions.”

Water managers in Southwest Colorado are already watching to see how this year’s snowpack will play out for the many and varied water users of the region.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Behery said the most-recent forecasts are predicting spring runoffs into Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs will be at about 45 percent of historic averages, and the forecasts will continue to drop with the absence of snow.

As a result, it’s unlikely that either reservoir, of which thousands of irrigators rely on, will hit capacity this year. Both reservoirs are about 50 percent full because of carry over from last year’s strong snow season.

John Simpson, an assistant division engineer with the Department of Water Resources based in Durango, said it’s too early to tell whether strict water restrictions will be enacted on the area’s waterways.

The Department of Water Resources is the state entity that administers all water rights to water users. In years where there is not plentiful water available, that’s when the division must give priority to senior water-right holders, potentially leaving others in the lurch.

“In extremely dry years, if you are not priority, a lot of users are left in a difficult situation,” Simpson said. “But there’s still time. We’re still optimistic.”

Of course, anecdotes are aplenty when remembering winters past.

In the 1976-77 winter season, Purgatory Resort didn’t open until Jan. 6 and was forced to close about a month later. According to The Durango Herald archives, lift attendants on Christmas Day 1976 climbed atop Windom Peak, a local Fourteener.

Kim Oyler, spokeswoman with Purgatory, said the mountain has about 70 percent of its trails open with a base of 19 to 32 inches. In the absence of snow, snowmaking has been crucial to keeping the mountain open this year.

“It has been a challenging season,” she said. “But we’re making the most of it with great events and offering our guests a lot of activities.”

Silverton Mountain, North America’s highest altitude ski area with a peak of 13,487 feet, didn’t have its first operational day this year until Thursday.

As is the case with weather, there are too many variables to draw too many conclusions before all is said and done. Just three years ago, strong spring rains eased a bad snow year in what became known as the “Miracle May.”

“It doesn’t take a lot to get us back on track,” Simpson said. “But we have a ways to go this year.”

Alex Mickel, who has owned Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours for almost 25 years, said it’s premature to get concerned. The region may get hit with a ton of late-season snow, or the spring rains may redeem the area with water.

“Usually, the atmosphere finds a way to balance itself out,” Mickel said. “I’ve seen a lot of years start off like this year. You have to take a wait-and-see approach. It’s all we can do at this point.”

Yet that is little solace to the skiers and snowboarders around the area trying to keep as optimistic an outlook as possible. Backcountry enthusiasts, especially, have been limited this winter.

“It basically hasn’t been a great season,” said Mitch Dorsk, a backcountry split-boarder and employee at Backcountry Experience. “Hopefully, it will change after this weekend.”

Forecasters are calling for up to 16 inches of snow this weekend in the high country of the San Juan Mountains.


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