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Early-season snow off to good start in Colorado’s high country

So far, the biggest in-state beneficiary has been Southwest Colorado with 217% of the median snowpack
So far this year, the biggest in-state beneficiary of the early-season snow has been Southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains. The southwestern part of the state registered 217% of the median snowpack as of Nov. 10. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Snowpack on the Western Slope is off to a good start, but experts caution it’s difficult to draw many meaningful conclusions from snow-covered, high country peaks this early in the season.

“It’s kind of like leading a football game by a field goal halfway through the first quarter,” Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher, wrote in an email.

As of Thursday, the statewide snowpack was 140% of the median from 1991 to 2020, and 142% in the Colorado River headwaters area specifically, according to SNOTEL data compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The averages were slightly higher elsewhere on the Western Slope.

Still, there’s a long way to go. Typically, on Nov. 9, Colorado is about 8% of the way to achieving statewide median snowpack, Lukas said. Right now, the state is about 12% of the way there, he said. But, Lukas cautioned that there’s very little correlation between mountain precipitation in October and early November and the final totals across an entire snow season.

In about a third of the past 35 years, early-season snow totals looked something like they do so far this year, Lukas said. The season-ending snowpack across those 12 years, however, runs the gamut, from a handful of average years to a very good 1995 and a dismal 2012.

Nevertheless, it’s better to have snow on the ground than not, he said.

“Every little bit helps. Just like a field goal early in the first quarter,” he wrote. “But it needs to be followed up with a lot more scoring.”

Given the challenges facing the Colorado River, water managers across the region will be watching the snowpack especially closely this year. More than 40 million people rely on the snow that accumulates high up in the mountains in the Colorado River Basin and then flows into the river and its tributaries. The water is also used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland. However, a series of subpar snow years and dry soil conditions paired with sustained water use has drained the country’s two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – and strained the entire Colorado River system.

So far this year, the biggest in-state beneficiary of the early-season snow has been Southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains, a region that has been hard-hit by drought and dry soil conditions the past few years. The southwestern part of the state registered 217% of the median snowpack as of Nov. 10.

“We’re in the best shape we’ve seen for about five years – it’s a good start for sure,” said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the Dolores Project.

In addition to the early snow, a steady pattern of monsoonal rains throughout the summer helped Southwest Colorado quite a bit, Curtis said.

“Depending on how you feel about trends or odds or statistics, we are looking better, and you might say we’re due,” Curtis said.

In 2021, farmers and ranchers who rely on water from the Dolores Project received a 10% supply. This year, the project operated on a 35% supply.

Becky Bollinger, the assistant state climatologist, said it’s good to get a head start on snowpack now so that the state is less reliant on big storm after big storm during the heart of the winter.

“For me, seeing these storms kick off and that we’re a little ahead on snowpack is good,” said Bollinger, who is part of Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center. “In general, I feel pretty positive about this.”

The snow in the high country this week was especially nice, she said, because the next week or so looks like it’s going to be drier across the state. However, temperatures are likely to remain cooler, which is good, Bollinger said. “What that means is that while the snowpack isn’t going to accumulate, it’s probably not going to melt in those mid-to-high elevations,” she said. “When you have those cold temperatures, that will help support the snowpack that’s already there.”

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