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Snowstorms boost Colorado snowpack, lessen drought conditions in NE parts of state

Some areas of NE Colorado saw drought levels fall by two categories
Posted at 2:26 PM, Mar 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-20 01:21:51-04

DENVER – Last weekend’s snowstorm was a boon to drought and snowpack conditions in the parts of Colorado that saw the most snow but was nowhere near to fully breaking the drought that has been prevalent for months across the state.

The storm last weekend brought between 1 and 5 inches of water across much of northeastern Colorado, and lowered drought conditions by two levels on the U.S. Drought Monitor scale in some areas of northern Colorado, according to the weekly Thursday release by the Drought Monitor.

“We see benefits all around,” Denver Water water supply manager Nathan Elder said earlier this week. “While it wasn’t a drought-busting storm — it didn’t hit the West Slope hard and didn’t get into the upper South Platte region — it’s a great recharge for Denver and the foothills and puts us in a much better place than we were a week ago.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the percentage of Colorado in extreme drought conditions or worse fell from 56.6% last week to 38.6% this week – much of that change happening on the eastern plains, in northeastern Colorado and in Larimer County, where some areas saw more than 40 inches of snow.

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This map from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the changes in drought conditions between March 9 (right) and March 16 (left) in Colorado after a major snowstorm in northeastern Colorado.

Parts of Larimer, Weld and Logan counties saw their drought levels move from severe drought to abnormally dry after the storm – two levels down – and parts of eastern Cheyenne and Kit Carson counties move from extreme drought conditions to moderate drought.

However, much of southern, southeastern and western Colorado saw little change in their drought conditions because they saw only small amounts snow from the storm that mostly affected the northern Front Range and some parts of the central and southwestern mountains.

All of Colorado remains at least “abnormally dry” on the Drought Monitor scale, while 95.7% of the state is seeing moderate drought. Seventy-one percent of the state is seeing “severe drought” conditions – down from 88.8% last week – while 38.6% of the state is seeing “extreme drought” and 15.1% of the state is still experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions.

“The heavy snowfall brought snow water content close to average for mid-March across most of Colorado and Wyoming. This recent heavy precipitation also eliminated precipitation deficits and resulted in precipitation surpluses for the past 90 days for much of the central Plains,” the Drought Monitor wrote in its weekly update.

Colorado’s snowpack also saw a statewide boost from last weekend’s storm and the storm that hit southeastern Colorado earlier this week – with all basins in Colorado see increased snowpack levels as of Thursday compared to a week ago.

This map shows snow water equivalent data in the snowpack in Colorado's various river basins as of March 18, 2021.

The South Platte basin sat at 100% of the normal snow water equivalent on Thursday – up from 86% of normal on March 10. The Laramie and North Platte basin was at 98% of normal Thursday, while the Arkansas basin was at 102% of normal – up from 90% a week ago. The upper Rio Grande was also above normal Thursday, at 106% of normal.

The Upper Colorado Headwaters (89%), Gunnison (86%), and San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins (83%) all saw increases from last week but were still less than 90% of normal as of Thursday, while the Yampa and White basin was at 92% of its normal snow water equivalent, according to the USDA and NRCS National Water and Climate Center.

Statewide, the snowpack was at 92% of its median for the last 30 years, but it saw a good uptick from what had been below-normal levels for most of the winter season thus far.

Even with the record snowfall, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared 63 Colorado counties as primary agricultural disaster areas due to recent drought in areas.

“Our agricultural community is so important to Colorado and the recent drought has impacted all its members including farmers, ranchers, and other stewards of the land. I’m grateful to Secretary Vilsack for making this designation which will allow eligible farm operations to be considered for certain assistance from the Farm Service Agency (FSA),” Gov. Jared Polis said. “Our agricultural community deserves our support, and I urge us all to recognize their contributions, from the livestock industry to vegetable production.”