Snowpack could be savior for some drought-sticken areas
It was a perfect storm; an unusual combination of heavy snow and bitterly cold temperatures but it has all maintained a vital snowpack in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. The precipitation made only a small dent in improving eastern Colorado’s drought, however the over-loaded snowpack in other parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska will be a blessing when it melts into the ground since many areas have been so dry since last year.
Pummeled with 60 inches of snow this winter, and snow still 14 inches deep — Spencer rancher Lowell Fisher in north central Nebraska desperately needed this moisture.
“So the beauty of this is, it will turn to water. The snow has been so hard and dense on the level, that we needed a 150 horsepower tractor four-wheel drive to push snow just 30 feet and then it just stopped the tractor,” Fisher said at his ranch in Boyd County. “There doesn’t seem to be any frost underneath the snow, so it will go into the ground,” said Fisher who could finally push through the snow while walking on it in late February. At 82 years old, Fisher actively runs his longtime Hereford cattle breeding stock, sells bulls and females, and grows grass and hay.
Most of Nebraska remains in drought status, including some extreme and exceptional drought. Southeast Nebraska had some rain to slightly ease the moisture deficit. However, this winter’s snowfall with several inches above average across central, western and northern Nebraska is welcome news for surface and subsurface moisture recharge heading into spring.
“Late winter snowpack across the northwest half of Nebraska should promote higher river levels into the early spring. Mountain snowpack in the upper Platte Basin is sitting at or just above normal with almost two more months before peaking, which should help extend higher river flows into late spring,” said Michael Moritz, warning coordination meteorologist, National Weather Service, Hastings, Neb.
East of the Panhandle, the northern half of Nebraska has frost depths from 4 to 15 inches, while the southern half of the state is largely frost free.
“This snowmelt will help ease long term-drought impacts temporarily, especially if there’s another 10 days of above freezing daytime temperatures to thaw out soils and remove the frost inhibiting soil moisture recharge,” said Al Dutcher, Nebraska Extension agricultural climatologist.
For Colorado rancher Robert Farnam who has a commercial cattle herd near Woodrow in the northeast part of the state at the Morgan/Washington County line, his ranch has been covered up with 50 inches of snow since early December.
“It’s short-term pain for long-term gain. This is the most moisture we’ve had in a decade. We’re feeding a lot more hay because of the snow and cold, but I am looking forward to green grass in the spring and keeping wells producing water,” said Farnam, a fifth generation rancher.
Looking at the drought monitor from Feb. 21, and stepping back through last October, there have been some improvements, mainly across far northeast Colorado. That area saw widespread D3-D4 drought conditions in October, and currently has improved to D1 to a small sliver of D3 over Phillips and Sedgwick counties.
“The biggest improvements in northeast Colorado have been from the I-25 corridor, east across Weld, Morgan, Logan and Washington counties, which have seen conditions go from D2, to D0-D1. This is likely due to the above normal precipitation seen beginning in December through February,” said Kyle Mozley, meteorologist, National Weather Service, Pueblo, Colo.
Heading west, the central Rockies snowpack is above normal and likely to stay that way through the end of March. If it remains that way through the end of April, it’ll help reservoir recovery on the Platte watershed. “However, that doesn’t guarantee reservoirs will reach full pool, but should be sufficient so that irrigation supply deliveries are sufficient for the 2023 growing season,” Dutcher noted.
The northern Rockies began the season producing a good snowpack, but slowly moved on the downslide toward normal to below normal snowpack.
Conditions in southeast Colorado worsened this winter from eastern Kiowa County, south across Prowers and Baca counties which were in D0-D2 conditions in October, and worsened; to D2-D4 as of Feb 21. For areas along the Arkansas River Valley, D2 conditions formed across Pueblo County, while D1 drought spread across the remainder of southeast Colorado.
“One big thing to note in regards to precipitation in winter months; they are typically our driest months across eastern Colorado. Even if we were at normal for precipitation for the winter months, it would likely have little impact on improving drought conditions,” Mozley said.
Much this spring will depend on how quickly La Nina flips to El Nino. The impacts on the Plains may not be felt until next winter, Mozley said. Soil moisture is low across Fremont, northern Weld County, and far southeast Colorado.
To monitor Colorado’s drought conditions, go to https://climate.colostate.edu/drought/index.html#soil.
The story for Wyoming is similar to Colorado — with the rain shadow impact in the east, but an increased snowpack westward. Since the end of August 2022, east central Wyoming; particularly Weston and Niobrara counties have fallen to 1 to 2 inches below average for precipitation, with a few areas near the state line up to 2.5 inches below. Likewise the higher elevation in mountainous northwestern Wyoming (northern Winds, Tetons, Absarokas) are more than 2.5 inches below average.
Conversely, the central part of the state from Fremont County south through western Sweetwater and western Carbon counties has 2.5 inches above average snowpack. The same holds for the northern Bighorn Mountains.
“Snowpack, especially in the south central and southwestern parts of the state is above to well above median. As of Feb. 26, only the Upper Green (at 98%) and the South Platte in Wyoming (at 80%) are below median,” said Tony Bergantino, director, Wyoming State Climate Office and Water Resources Data System at the University of Wyoming. The Little Snake Basin in south central Wyoming actually reached its seasonal median snowpack value almost 50 days early and continues to grow, Bergantino said.
While it’s good for potential water supply come spring, unfortunately this snow coupled with bitterly cold temperature waves between -20 F to -30 F in December and January caused livestock losses. In central Wyoming, temperatures plunged below -40 F.
With the sparseness of Wyoming, an appeal is going out for readers to consider joining Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network or CoCoRaHS. All that’s required is to set up a gauge that will be provided for Wyoming readers, and let the climate office know what precipitation you get, or don’t get. To provide volunteer reports, go to cocorahs.org or contact Antonius@uwyo.edu.
“This snowpack is such a double edged sword. I’m concerned about going from drought to flooding if we get rain on top of snowpack,” Bergantino said. “I’m hoping we get good soil moisture with it, and that we get a nice orderly melt-off where it melts a little in the day and not as much at night.”
As Farnam put it, “Last year, we had dirt drifts 3 feet high. No blowing dust this year!”