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Where Colorado's snowpack stands as water, fire concerns grow heading into summer

Federal officials considering host of measures to address Colorado River Basin shortages
Posted at 4:15 PM, Apr 18, 2022

DENVER – Colorado’s statewide snowpack sat at 92% of median Monday compared to the last 30 years but is already past its peak amid water concerns in the Colorado River Basin and more than a dozen wildfires that have burned across the state over the past two weeks.

After a mild Monday in the lower 60s in Denver, temperatures through the rest of the workweek are expected to be in the 70–80-degree range. Winds upward of 10 miles per hour are expected through the week, creating more fire danger in a month where there have been high wind and red flag warnings issued on the majority of days for parts of eastern Colorado and the Front Range.

Conditions in the mountains will be cooler than the plains, but temperatures are expected to stay mostly above freezing even at night over the next few days, and little precipitation is expected until a possible snowstorm this weekend.

Snowpack across the West as of April 18, 2022.

Colorado hit its median snowpack peak on April 8, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It sat at 92% of median levels on Monday, with just two of the state’s eight river basins – the Gunnison (101%) and Upper Colorado Headwaters (100%) – at or above median levels.

The Laramie and North Platte (98%), South Platte (92%), Yampa and White (92%) basins were all slightly below median levels. And the Arkansas (85%), Upper Rio Grande (84%), and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan (80%) basins were slightly further below median levels.

Statewide, the snowpack’s trajectory is about on par with median levels for the period of 1991-2020, according to USDA/NRCS data.

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Statewide snowpack levels over the past several years compared to the median levels and this year's snowpack.

The snowpack is in a slightly better place at this point than it was last year, slightly worse than this point in 2020, and about right in between the above-average year of 2019 and well-below-average year of 2018. It is at 81% of the median peak for the period of 1991-2020.

Peter Goble, a research associate at Colorado State University who also works at the Colorado Climate Center at CSU, said the snowpack is slightly better than last year, and as the climate warms, the West should expect shorter snow seasons and lower peak snowpack levels.

“Climate change isn’t a snowpack killer here in nearly as immediate of a sense since our snowpack is built at such cold temperatures,” Goble said. “We expect that to be the norm with climate change, as well. Even as it warms, we’ll have dry years. Certainly, recently, we’ve tended to favor the dry years. But that’s not necessarily a long-term trend.”

Another dataset shows southern Colorado is well behind its normal precipitation levels for the month of April so far based on SNOTEL measurements. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan (48%) and Gunnison (49%) have both received about half the normal precipitation they typically receive by this point in April. And the Upper Rio Grande (59%) and Arkansas (61%) basins have fared slightly better this month but are still well below normal levels.

April precipitation across the West so far this month in terms of snow water equivalent.

Meanwhile, the northern four basins are all near or above normal precipitation for the month. The Laramie and North Platte (138%), Yampa and White (106%), and South Platte (97%) were all close to or slightly above normal levels. The Upper Colorado Headwaters basin sat at 89% of normal in terms of April precipitation as of Monday, according to the USDA/NRCS data.

Southern Utah and eastern Nevada, part of the Colorado River Basin, have also been extremely dry so far this April and are seeing snowpack levels below 50% of median for this time of year. While snowpack in Wyoming and Colorado, where the headwaters of the rivers that feed the Colorado begin, is still close to median levels in most spots, every basin in Utah and Nevada was below 90% of median as of Monday.

“It's not enough to refill some of the big, thirsty reservoirs on the west slopes, like Blue Mesa or like McPhee Reservoir,” Goble said. “And it’s certainly not enough to make a big dent in the larger Upper Colorado versus Lower Colorado Basin – the Lake Powell and Lake Mead situation.”

Federal and state officials in the Colorado River Basin states are concerned about inflows into the major reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – after water rationing was implemented last year because of water shortages and drought and after the U.S. Department of the Interior released water from Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge to prop up Lake Powell levels.

The Colorado Sun reported last week the U.S. Department of the Interior could hold back hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in Lake Powell to keep the reservoir above the level where it can generate electricity – at 3,490 feet above sea level. It sat at 3,522 feet as of Sunday. One acre-foot is equivalent to just less than 360,000 gallons of water.

The Sun reported the Interior Department was asking for feedback from the Upper Basin states on plans this week and that those states were working on a drought response plan that will be finalized in May.

An April 1 water forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center said as of the start of the month, snow water equivalent levels were between 75% and 105% in the Upper Colorado River Basin and 65%-85% of normal in the Great Basin. But forecast ranges for water supply were all below 100% of normal.

Monday’s latest water supply forecasts show levels in the 70-90% range generally across Colorado’s Western Slope, moving into the 50-70% range the further southwest one goes.

Don Meyer, the senior water resource engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said he believes many of the reservoirs on the Western Slope will not fill up this year, and said the ongoing drought in California and conditions in the river basin this year could further stretch water resources this year.

Meanwhile, drought in Colorado has remained mostly unchanged over the past three months. Eighty-three percent of the state is experiencing moderate or worse drought – with only the metro area and parts of the Western Slope seeing abnormally dry conditions. Most of the western half of the state is seeing moderate or severe drought, according to last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor release.

Drought conditions in Colorado as of April 12, 2022.

Last year, researchers published a study saying the American West is now the driest that it has been in at least 1,200 years – including a decades-long megadrought that continues. Ben Livneh, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Department of Civil Engineering, said Colorado and other parts of the West would need several years of strong precipitation to break out of the drought.

“We should count our blessings that we have the snow that we do this year,” Livneh said. “We sort of need a few more years like this one and even bigger years to start kind of digging out of the long drought that we’re in.”

The drought and gusty winds that have persisted across most of the state over the past week-plus have caused more than a dozen fires on the eastern plains and in the foothills.

Fire weather watches are again in effect Monday for the eastern plains and Palmer Divide because of relative humidity levels dipping into the single digits and 15-25-mph winds that could gust up to 35 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control will present their 2022 wildfire outlook for the state on Friday, which will factor in the snowpack and drought conditions along with what else wildfire and forest officials have learned from the historic fires over the past two years. Climate scientists say the snowpack will be one of the primary factors in determining how severe the wildfires could get this year.

“The snowpack helps dictate what kind of fire season is likely, or things of that nature,” Goble said. “So yeah, it’s a big deal in Colorado.”