Optimism increasing


Optimism increasing

Snowpack, winter storms encourage McPhee managers
Hope in the deep end

Mountain peaks covered in snow may be considered quintessential Colorado, but this winter has not provided an overabundance of the white stuff. Rather, much of Colorado has experienced above average temperatures and far below average snowfall, resulting in bare mountains and brown fields. The exception, it seems, is right here in Southwest Colorado.

According to automated system data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the snowpack statewide is at 76 percent of average. Of the eight river basin regions studied by NRCS, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan region is the only basin above 90 percent of average, calculated at 91 percent as of Feb. 12. The Arkansas and South Platte basins are at 65 and 59 percent of average respectively. North Platte stands at 72 percent, Yampa and White at 76 percent, Colorado at 70 percent, Gunnison at 78 percent and the Upper Rio Grande at 81 percent.

'The rest of the state is in extremely dry conditions,' said Mike Preston, general manager at the Dolores Water Conservancy District. 'Things are really desperate in many places in the state and we have actually been very fortunate.'

Local water managers rely on five snowpack telemetry sites to provide automated information on high country snowpack and moisture levels. Over the past two weeks, Preston said, the numbers have gone from fair to promising.

'Things are beginning to look a lot more encouraging,' he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. 'Two weeks ago the moisture content at high elevations was bouncing around in the low 60 percent range of average. As of Monday it was sitting at 94 percent. The snow water equivalent has just improved dramatically over the last two weeks.'

Preston said the area seems to be benefiting from storms coming in from the south and west which are just brushing Southwest Colorado.

'They aren't really reaching any further into the state or even the northwest mountains in our area,' he said. 'Even in the SNOTELs that we read, the high snow at Lizard Head pass and Sharkstooth are still reading further below average than the rest. The snow is just not hitting there. It is hitting on the southwest facing slopes and it is hitting low. Regardless, we are benefiting.'

The snowpack is encouraging for water users in the area as it comes directly after one of the driest years on record since the local conservancy district started delivering water out of McPhee Reservoir in 1986.

Preston said though the snowpack is encouraging, the water district is working from a large deficit in the local reservoirs, which makes every flake of snow important. Pointing to 2008, the last year the reservoir filled to the point the district authorized a large spill, Preston noted the area's moisture content is good, but nowhere near what would be considered a good year.

'Right now we are averaging 9.5 inches of water equivalent at our SNOTELs,' he said. 'In 2008, which was a great year, they were averaging 18.3 (inches). So we are still playing catch up.'

While the snowpack picture at the moment is encouraging, Preston said there is no such thing as too much snow.

'We need more storm cycles and what would be ideal would be some large storms to keep us up in that range where we are sitting,' he said. 'If we could push that water equivalent up to 100 percent or above, then we would actually be able to meet our allocations and end the year in better shape than we did last year.'

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Snowpack Levels

Eight river basin regions

Statewide: 76 percent of average

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan region: 91 percent of average Arkansas and South Platte basins: 65 and 59 percent of average

North Platte: 72 percent of average

Yampa and White: 76 percent of average

Colorado: 70 percent of average

Gunnison: 78 percent of average

Upper Rio Grande: 81 percent of average

U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service; as of Feb. 12