Martin Luther King Jr. weekend snow storms bring much-needed boost to Colorado’s water supply

High winds, low temperatures and tons of snow: The weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day brought big storms to Colorado that disrupted daily life and added a much-needed boost to the state’s water supply.

Prior to last weekend, the state’s snowpack — a vital water source for all Coloradans — was lacking. December was the seventh warmest December on record. The snow in most of the state’s river basins was well below average with some basins experiencing record lows. But the recent winter storm boosted much of the state closer to average conditions.

“There’s areas that are still below average, but not as far below average,” said Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist based at Colorado State University. “If you asked me a week ago, things looked a lot more concerning than they looked today.”

The storm system came from the northwest, picked up moisture from the atmosphere and dropped about a foot of snow across much of the Western Slope. Routt County, for example, got 20 to 30 inches of snow over the weekend.

Wind gusts reached 65 mph in areas above 10,000 feet. The highest winds clocked in at 118 mph near Copper Mountain on Saturday. Roads closed. Hundreds of flights were canceled. Motorists faced whiteout conditions. Weld County saw its temperatures drop to 36 degrees below zero Monday night. Since Friday, 300 avalanches have been reported.

“I still have not experienced above freezing temperatures yet, since Friday,” said Bolinger, who is based in Fort Collins.

A helpful boost for Colorado’s snowpack

Colorado is still catching up from a slow start to the snow season and the warm December temperatures. Last weekend’s storm dropped 1 to 2 inches of snow-water equivalent, the amount of liquid water that remains after snow melts, across the state.

As of Wednesday, Colorado’s snow-water equivalent was 90% of the historical median, based on data from 1991 to 2020, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

River basins across the state are all hovering below the historical median. The Upper Rio Grande Basin, which extends south from the river’s headwaters near Creede, had the lowest snowpack at 72% of its historical median, as of Wednesday.

The Colorado headwaters, where the Colorado River starts on the Western Slope, had the highest snowpack Wednesday with 95% of its historical median.

So far, the weather hasn’t been closely following the El Niño pattern, which tends to favor snow in southern Colorado and skip northern Colorado, Bolinger said. Still, she’s keeping a close eye on the northern basins for signs of snow drought.

Climate experts are anticipating that winter precipitation this year will likely be slightly below average, with the caveat that there’s a lot of time left in the season for things to change.

“This storm will obviously boost up those water supply forecasts,” Bolinger said. “But this is a good reminder that we still have a lot of season left. We could have a lot of things happen between now and the beginning of April that will adjust … that water supply forecast.”

A map comparing snow across Colorado

What’s next for the Colorado River Basin

The new snowfall in the Colorado Headwaters Basin and northern Colorado is a good sign for the Colorado River, said Paul Miller, a service coordination hydrologist at the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

The snowpack in that basin frequently supplies the Colorado River Basin with about 25% of its overall streamflow. That basin, in turn, provides water to 40 million people across seven Western states, 30 Native American tribes and parts of northern Mexico.

Snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, contributes up to 95% of the water that ultimately flows into the Colorado River, Miller said.

The Upper Basin snowpack is about 88% of its historical norm, which is a nice recovery from the beginning of the month when it was at about 65% of normal, he said.

“We’re trending upwards. The storm system that came through in the last week or so was really beneficial to the basin,” Miller said. “Last year at this time, just for some perspective, we were at 146% of normal.”

More water is also helpful to the Colorado River Basin’s system of reservoirs, which act as savings banks for water users in drier years.

The water level at Lake Powell, an immense reservoir located on the Utah-Arizona border, is expected to drop this year. Powell ended September 2023 at about 3,574 feet in elevation. By September 2024, it will fall to about 3,563 feet.

The drop is mainly due to the Bureau of Reclamation’s current plan to release 7.48 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell for Lake Mead, in accordance with current interstate water sharing rules.

One acre-foot supports two families of four to five people for one year.

These elevations are nowhere near the reservoir’s full capacity of about 3,700 feet, but they are above the 2022 water levels, which hovered between 3,522 feet and 3,539 feet in elevation.

These historic lows heightened concerns among the basin’s water managers about a water supply crisis. At 3,490 feet, the power plant at Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity for about 5 million customers across Arizona, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

More storms to come

Areas of Colorado will continue to see snow storms through the end of the week and into the weekend, said Lucas Boyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The Western Slope, which eventually feeds water into the Colorado River, will get snow showers Thursday and Friday before a short lull. Over the weekend, another storm will come up from the Southwest bringing snow to the mountains in southern Colorado.

That means snow into the beginning of next week for some areas of the state, Boyer said. This next storm, however, will carry less moisture, which means it will have a smaller impact on the state’s water supply.

“It will move the needle, but it’s not going to be a seismic shift,” Boyer said.

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