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Colorado's Snowpack

posted 2/10/2017

Colorado’s snow pack is our largest and most vital water storage feature. Even in the wake of a long, unusually warm autumn, our snowpack remains whole because of heavy, wet December storms. Basins across the state taut storage so far above the average mark, you would have to go back to the 1950s to find a comparable season.

Although the threat of drought conditions in many regions of Colorado has disappeared, it still lurks along the eastern plains. Dry conditions persist in eastern Colorado despite significant precipitation for the last two months. Lincoln County continues to struggle with severe drought conditions, joined by 35% of the plains regions who report moderate drought conditions.

Colorado’s statewide snowpack climbed to 156 percent of average in January. Basins in the southwest reported the highest snowpack at 170 percent of normal while the Yampa and the White hover slightly lower at 141 percent. Reservoir storage statewide remains high at 105% of normal.

The impact of the drought on the Colorado River Compact and storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead is significant. Both lakes are low and approaching elevations that could trigger curtailment of diversions by Arizona as early as next year. Federal forecasters expect Lake Mead, which feeds the hungry Colorado River, to shrink enough to trigger a federal shortage.  If the lake levels do not recover soon, downstream states could call against diversions by upstream states on the Colorado, forcing reduced diversions for communities until the drought subsides.

The National Weather Service predicts the La Nina conditions that persisted late in 2016 will fade, making room for an El Nino spring that translates to increased precipitation for Colorado. Although it is impossible to predict the strength of the weather pattern, short-term forecasts show less active systems for early 2017.  

Last year was the fifth warmest year in Colorado on record, a clear sign that Colorado is not out of the woods. As we look down the road, we must remember that the key to water management is to enjoy the snowpack and prepare for the worst.

The good news is that the April-June runoff is expected to climb above 10 million acre feet, giving ranchers and landowners something to smile about.

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