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Low winter snowpack totals concern water users

“Hopefully we’ll get a big storm in April and it will bail us out”

By Alissa Johnson

Spring-like weather in February has taken its toll on the local snowpack, creating conditions similar to last year’s. Once again, if the basin is going to “catch up” when it comes to snow water content and local water supplies, a big spring storm will be required.

“Our snowpack is dwindling more quickly than normal this time of year,” said Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Watershed Conservancy District.

“It is rather troubling. From early February through [Monday, March 14], there has been very minimal precipitation, coupled with warmer-than-average temperatures. That has caused the snowpack to be melting rather than accumulating, which is troubling water users for the coming season,” he continued.

billy barr, business manager at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, confirmed that as of last weekend, total snowfall in Gothic was 28 percent below normal: 221 inches compared to an average snowfall 305 inches year-to-date.

Snowpack was 36 percent below normal. barr, who has been collecting data since the winter of 1974-75, said that placed this winter at the bottom of the barrel—40th out of 42 winters for total snowpack as of Saturday, March 12.

By Tuesday, a small snowfall had bumped it up the list, placing it slightly better than four other winters.

“It’s definitely one of the lower winters. This is very similar to last year the way the whole winter has gone, except that early in winter we had a lot of cold weather. Lately it’s been a lot of hot weather, which is why today seems so completely unenjoyable,” barr said of Tuesday’s return to winter conditions.

According to Kugel, regional SNOTEL sites show that snow water content is below average as well. The Butte site on Crested Butte Mountain is at 92 percent of average and Schofield Pass is at 84 percent of average. Water year-to-date precipitation is even lower for both locations.

“To get a complete picture of a site you need snow water content and water year-to-date precipitation. Normally they’re pretty close,” Kugel explained.

At Schofield, however, water year-to-date precipitation is 74 percent of average. Kugel said that lower percentage could reflect a dry period last October and early November, which could have left soil dry heading into winter.

“If soil is drier than normal, it adversely affects runoff. More of the melt goes in the ground rather than running into the streams,” he said.

He sees that same discrepancy at a few other locations around the basin. And while official projections suggest that Taylor Reservoir will fill by the end of June, Kugel doesn’t believe that reflects current conditions.

“That was with a higher forecast so at this point it looks like operations may need to be curtailed if we want to have Taylor Park Reservoir fill. It’s starting to have an impact on the reservoirs. Currently the storage amount is in good shape but there may need to be adjustments to have a fill on both reservoirs,” he said, referring to Blue Mesa Reservoir as well.

While this week’s snowfall does help, both barr and Kugel suggested that spring storms are going to be required to boost water supplies. Last winter, when the valley was in a similar situation, snow in April and May did make up the difference. According to barr, May was the heaviest snow month—something that never happens.

“March is the last of the heavy snow months, and April is just miserable,” barr said, implying that the season makes it awfully hard to stay sane, even making everyday objects like forks and knives dangerous.

“It’s why I eat with chopsticks,” he joked. “It’s less dangerous.”

It seems, however, that spring precipitation may be the valley’s best hope. According to Kugel, both next week and the week after are projected to be warmer and drier than normal, but the long-term forecast may offer some respite. “It’s still early. Hopefully we’ll get a big spring storm in April and it’ll bail us out,” he said.

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