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Spring melt continues to boost local water supply

Snow melting quickly but not a record yet

By Alissa Johnson

It wasn’t that long ago that snow banks obstructed intersections and the hills outside of town were white. But with springtime melt in full effect, the peak snowpack behind us, and the dust season upon us, the snowpack is shrinking. Things still look good, though, for summer water supplies, and adjustments are being made to manage spring streamflows.

“The snow certainly is going away quickly,” said Frank Kugel, general manger for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Yet despite chatter around town that this has been the quickest snowmelt on the books, Kugel says it’s too early to tell.

The snowpack is still above average when it comes to snow water content. As of Monday, April 10, the three SNOTEL sites measuring snowpack in the Taylor Park Reservoir drainage show a snowpack at 131 percent of normal, and the five units in the Blue Mesa drainage indicate a snowpack at 144 percent of normal.

Closer to home, the unit on Crested Butte Mountain is at 152 percent of normal, and Schofield Pass was at 150 percent of normal.

“Schofield Pass remains the most snow water equivalent of any SNOTEL reporting in the state and has been for most of the season,” Kugel said, indicating that it’s at 49.5 inches of water content. “We hope it comes out nice and gradually throughout summer to best benefit recreation and agricultural users, and reduce flooding concerns.”

Kugel said the short-range weather forecast is calling for warmer and drier than normal conditions, and while that will likely lead to more melting, it could actually be a good thing when it comes to flooding concerns. Had snowfall continued at the rate seen earlier this winter, there would be a higher risk of flooding.

Another significant factor affecting the snowmelt is the prevalence of dust events, where spring winds carry dust from the southwest onto Colorado peaks, accelerating snowmelt. While the peaks around Crested Butte appear substantially less pink than they have in the past, dust season is under way.

Jeff Derry, executive director at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, said four dust events have been recorded so far this season. The first two took place in March and were pretty light—Derry said they weren’t very noticeable until the snow surface warmed and coalesced dust onto the surface.

The third event, which took place on March 31, “was a nasty, heavy event.” And the fourth event took place on April 9, just as Derry was helping finish up the Colorado Dust on Snow program’s second statewide tour assessing dust events.

“The San Juans have all four dust events, Park Cone [near Taylor Park Reservoir] has three for sure and likely all four, but lesser intensity than the San Juans. Berthoud and Willow Creek appear to be dust-free towards northern Colorado,” he said. There’s also a very light presence of dust from the first two events at Rabbit Ears Pass, Loveland Pass, and Hoosier Pass.

In general, the dust events are concentrated more toward the San Juans and decrease in severity as they move north and east.

“That’s kind of the typical scenario. They come out of the southwest, hit the San Juans first and hardest, and get lessened as they travel north and east,” Derry said.

In terms of the number of events, Derry indicated that this has been a pretty light dust on snow season so far. But he called the two most recent events game changers. “They are also at or near the surface right now, and we have pretty warm, sunny conditions in the forecast,” he said.

While it remains to be seen how that factors into this season’s spring runoff, at home in the Gunnison Valley, Kugel is optimistic. “We’re still looking very good for water supply,” he said.

In fact, the flows out of the Taylor Reservoir were increased from 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 150 cfs on April 5.

“The concern was that Taylor Park Reservoir is likely to fill, and in the operating plan, one of the objectives is to prevent a spill at Taylor Park Reservoir [to prevent] the flushing of Mysis shrimp downstream into Blue Mesa Reservoir,” Kugel explained.

As summer approaches, the preliminary plan calls for flows as high as 550 cfs out of Taylor Park, a boon for local rafters and kayakers. Kugel emphasized that is tentative, however, and the plan will be adjusted as needed after the May 1 forecast.

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