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Know the West

Snapshot of a drought in progress

Southwest Colorado's snowpack is dismal and melting fast.


Southwestern Colorado took on the feeling of spring in late January of this year. Skies were sunny and temperatures reached into the fifties for a few days in a row, nearing sixty degrees on one day. Though the warm spell was unseasonable, it wasn’t at all unusual. We even have a name for it: The January Thaw, a little respite from the chill and the snow of winter when we find south-facing decks where we can store up some vitamin D before winter returns for its brutal second half.

But this year, the January Thaw not only stretched beyond its usual two weeks — the mercury topped 40 degrees on 23 days that month — but also extended into the rest of the “winter.” We had a December thaw; I saw a dandelion blooming in Durango on Dec. 8. We had a February thaw, during which six 60+ degree days closed the nordic center at 9,000 feet and brought golfers onto the greens at 6,600 feet. And we had a March thaw, more like a scorcher, which coaxed apricot and even apple blossoms out, surely to be killed by an April frost.

All that warm sunshine in place of what normally would be serious snow days have pretty much desiccated this corner of the state. And this is how it looks:

Those colorful lines show snow water equivalent (SWE), or the number of inches of moisture stored up in the snow on the ground, across the four river basins in the southwest corner of Colorado. The numbers are the product of both precipitation and temperature: An area conceivably could get above average precipitation but end up with below average SWE if the precipitation fell as rain or if the snow melted unusually fast. This year, indicated by the dark blue line at the bottom, has been dismal on both counts. It hasn’t rained or snowed much, and above average temperatures ensured that the snow that did fall didn’t stick around. As a result, the SWE, or snowpack, is just 65 percent of average for this time of year, and it’s the lowest of the past four below-average years. In fact, as these graphs show …

… this year’s snowpack is the sparsest since 2002. (The graph on the left shows water years from 2008 through 2011; the graph on the right shows 2002 through 2005.) That, of course, was one of the driest years ever across much of the West, leading to record-breaking mega-fires and kickstarting the decade of diminishing levels at Lakes Powell and Mead (see the blue line in the graph on the right). As the graphs show, it’s unusual to see the snowpack increase after April 1, and we're going into another potentially record-breaking warm spell as I write this at the end of March. So without some bizarro weather reversal, we can expect a pathetic spring runoff, crappy boating, a nasty wildfire season and a rough summer for farmers and water managers. The good news is that other parts of the state aren’t looking quite so parched. The bad news is that this corner of the state is critical to the region’s water supply, holding the headwaters of four major tributaries of the Colorado River, and the snowpack across the upper Colorado River Basin is universally below average.

Yellow shows 50-80 percent normal SWE; green shows 80-120 percent normal; red shows less than 50 percent normal.

Both Lakes Mead and Powell are going into the runoff season at perilously low levels: Mead’s surface elevation is 70 feet below what it was in the spring of 2003, following the disastrous 2002 water year, and the Bureau of Reclamation guessed earlier this month that it will fall as low as 1,073 feet in June, a record, and two-feet below the trigger point for shortage declarations. For now, the Bureau believes the level will rise above the trigger point by the end of the year, thus holding at bay delivery curtailments for another year. But unless the West gets a really wet summer, that will come at the expense of water storage in Lake Powell, and you can only rob Peter to pay Paul as long as Peter (in this case, Lake Powell) has something to steal, and he’s quickly going broke.


Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.