Missing snow: Colorado snowpack figures falling even lower
Before they trekked up the Poudre River Canyon on Colo. 14 on Thursday morning, John Fusaro and Todd Boldt had a good idea of what they’d get into that day.
As conservationists with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service who conduct snowpack surveys, they, as much as anybody, had been well aware of this year’s lackluster snowfall in the mountains.
Even still, they were taken aback by what they saw that day when they arrived to their destinations to take this month’s readings.
At some locations, where snowshoes and snowmobiles had been needed last year to reach measuring points, the two walked casually in normal footwear across uncovered, dead grass.
“We knew it would be low, but not this low,” said Boldt, who has been making the monthly drives from Fort Collins up to the mountains to conduct surveys for 17 years.
Boldt made that statement early in the afternoon while sitting in his truck at Cameron Pass, a 10,000-plus-elevation spot where they had taken their final readings of the day. The overall snow-water equivalent measurement they had just taken at that location was 50 percent below the 30-year average for late March.
And those were the good numbers for the day.
Fusaro and Boldt had taken readings earlier that showed the snow-water equivalent at Big South was only 7 percent of the 30-year average.
Low snowpack figures this year aren’t isolated to the Poudre River Canyon.
According to the Colorado Snotel Snowpack Update Map on Friday, Colorado’s statewide snowpack was 42 percent below the 30-year average for March 30 – only 2 percent better than it was for that date in 2002, the year of Colorado’s historic drought.
Additionally, the South Platte River Basin’s overall snowpack was 36 percent below normal Friday, and the Colorado River Basin’s snowpack was 43 percent below average – the latter of which is 11 percent worse than it was in 2002, and only 3 percent better than the all-time low for March 30, recorded in 1977.
Snowpack for the South Platte and Colorado river basins supplies most of the water used by northern Colorado municipalities and farmers. The snowpack accounts for about 80 percent to 90 percent of the water in the South Platte and Colorado river basins. The snow at the locations where Fusaro and Boldt were taking their readings Thursday trickles down into the Poudre River and through Greeley before contributing to the South Platte River.
Farmers and water officials had hoped typical March snows would arrive in Colorado this month and bring the lagging snowpack numbers back.
That never happened. In fact snowpack percentages are much lower now than they were at the start of the year – after some improvements in snowpack in February had given a glimpse of hope at getting numbers back up to normal.
Enough water is still in storage from last year’s high snowpack to meet the needs of cities and farmers this year, but many are weary of draining those resources and facing dire consequences if another dry winter comes next year.
Data from Boldt’s and Fusaro’s monthly surveys contribute to the snowpack readings conducted to help figure overall snowpack for the basin, and allow hydrologists to predict the amount of runoff when the snow melts, occurring in the spring.
Their March reading is traditionally considered the most important of the season, as at least 80 percent of the snow the mountains receive is on the ground by this time of year.
“This is certainly nothing like what we saw last year,” Fusaro said Thursday, comparing his view that afternoon to last year’s March readings, when abundant snowpack had accumulated in the mountains.
Following their readings at Cameron Pass, Fusaro and Boldt talked about how the 9-foot-tall snow marker at that site, sitting about 30 yards to the west from their vehicle, was so buried under snow during last year’s late-March snowpack reading that they never even found it.
On Thursday, that same marker was standing a good 7 feet above the snow.
During last year’s March reading, at its lowest point, the volume of the snowpack was 248 percent of the 30-year average in the Poudre Canyon. At the Cameron Pass survey field, the field averaged 105 inches of snow and had a maximum depth of 132 inches – 11 feet – in a couple of locations.
It was only about 40 inches this year at Cameron Pass.
Fusaro and Boldt had to chuckle a bit Thursday as they came across a road-sweeping vehicle on the way to Cameron Pass, as opposed to the snowplows they typically encounter.
At this time last year – and as is the case in many years – the two had to park their vehicle along Colo. 14 before snowmobiling to some of their measuring sites. This year, they parked as close as they wanted.
But Fusaro and Boldt didn’t take delight in the mild conditions that made work easier for them Thursday.
They know that back down the mountains folks are starting to get concerned.
Jon Monson, director of the city of Greeley Water & Sewer Department, said earlier this week the ongoing dry spell for Greeley – at a time residents either are or will soon begin watering their lawns – has led water officials to look at whether or not to send more water from the city’s reservoirs, or save that water for the future and, in doing so, put watering restrictions in place for Greeley residents.
“We definitely want to see some moisture some time soon,” said Mike Hungenberg, a Weld County carrot grower who serves as the board president for the New Cache La Poudre Irrigation and Reservoir Company.
Hungenberg said, as conditions stand now, farmers will only be able to fill their irrigation ditches with snow runoff from the mountains for about four or five weeks – instead of the typical eight or nine weeks – before they’re forced to start using storage water. Last year, farmers were filling their ditches all the way into August, he said.
Hungenberg said this year’s irrigating season could be shortened by a couple weeks.
Like many others, Hungenberg finds at least some comfort in the abundance of water that remains in the area’s reservoirs, thanks to last year’s above-average snowpack.
Dana Strongin with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District explained on Friday that some of the major reservoirs in the area – including Horsetooth Reservoir and Lake Granby – are about 90 to 95 percent full, enough water to meet the needs of northern Colorado water users into next year.
But both Hungenberg and Strongin noted that they would like to see abundant moisture soon and avoid using too much of the water in storage.
Such wet storms have come Colorado’s way late in the spring, Fusaro noted. Two years ago, about 30 inches of snow fell in the first two weeks of May in the upper South Platte Basin, giving a significant boost to snowpack for the region.
“We’ll take anything we can get at this point,” Hungenberg said.