Coloradans are getting their first glimpse of this year’s snow season, and according to climate experts, it’s off to a lackluster start, measuring just 60% of normal.
Snow in the mountains is a sign it’s time to bundle up or break out the winter sports gear. But Colorado’s mountain snowpack also provides water to millions of people across the country. This season is starting at a deficit: Snowpack is below normal, soils are too dry and drought conditions are creeping into more areas of the state.
“Overall, we don’t like starting off slow. It makes it harder to make up these early deficits that we see,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist, during a state Water Conditions Monitoring meeting Tuesday. “But it’s also a reminder that it is still early in the cold season, and we have a lot of season left.”
As of this week, Colorado’s statewide snowpack was about 60% of the median from 1991 to 2020, based on data collected by SNOTEL stations managed by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Although data is sparse this early in the season, this network of 114 stations across Colorado offers reliable annual estimates of snowpack between about 9,000 feet and 11,600 feet in elevation from October to August. Last year at this time, snowpack stood at about 89% of the median.
This year, Colorado’s winter and spring will be impacted by strong El Niño climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean. Usually, an El Niño year brings wetter conditions to much of the state in September, October and November. But that didn’t happen this fall, Bolinger said.
“Which is just a reminder that this isn’t a perfect relationship,” she said.
Typically the El Niño also leads to drier conditions in the northern and central mountains, like the Steamboat Springs area, and wetter conditions through the Eastern Plains and southern Colorado, like around Purgatory Resort.
Last winter, Purgatory Resort had its longest ski season ever and saw more than 31 feet of snow, which was more than fell in 2019, the last big El Niño year. Last weekend, 14 inches of snow dumped on the resort in four days.
“It was dry up until that point, so we’re pretty happy about that,” spokesperson Theresa Graven said. “We’re definitely hopeful and excited about the prospect of a strong El Niño. … But Mother Nature can do what she wants.”
Over the next three months, winter temperatures are expected to be normal, with short warm and cold snaps, and there’s a slight chance that Colorado could see above-average precipitation, especially in the southern areas of the state, Bolinger said.
Take that with a grain of salt, she said, because it could still go either way.
“I have no doubt that we’re going to get some big storms. I have no doubt that we’re going to have decent ski conditions at a lot of places,” she said. “I also think that we will see drought worsen in some spots.”
Without precipitation, the moisture in soils starts to dry. Data showing drier soils is popping up throughout Western Colorado and the Eastern Plains. Southern areas of the state might get enough moisture from the El Niño weather patterns to recover, but drying conditions in northwestern Colorado could deepen, she said.
It doesn’t help that the atmosphere is sucking up more moisture than usual at this time of the year. A higher evaporative demand — which combines temperature, wind, sunshine and humidity — typically means that snow might melt more quickly and, in areas without snow, the vegetation dries out faster, Bolinger said.
As of Nov. 21, about 43% of the state was completely drought free, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s better than this time last year, when only 16% of the state’s landscapes were free of drought.
This year, most of the areas experiencing drought are on the Western Slope, but Eastern Plains counties are abnormally dry and could fall into drought conditions. About 27% of the state is in moderate, severe or extreme drought.
Parts of Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties are the only areas of the state experiencing extreme drought conditions. Historically, these conditions come with larger wildfires, limited ski seasons, fish kills, less water for crops, low water storage in reservoirs and other impacts.
Dry conditions now can also impact the water supply next year.
Drier-than-normal soil conditions get sealed in over the winter as the snowpack accumulates, said Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lakewood. When the snow melts in the spring, part of the runoff goes to thirsty soils before it reaches the streams, canals and reservoirs that deliver it to more ecosystems, farms, cities and industries across Colorado and the West.
The western portion of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, for example, are going to see dry soils.
“Even if we do have a decent snowpack accumulation this year … I’m thinking these deficient soil moistures and stream flows will need to be recharged and will eat up some of that, hopefully, positive, above-normal snowpack,” Domonkos said. “But we will be starting off at a deficit, would be my guess, based on these below-normal soil moistures.”
Fortunately, Colorado’s reservoirs are in good shape thanks in large part to the above-average snow and rain the state received last year. The state’s water storage was at 100% of its median from 1991 to 2020. Many reservoirs, like Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest reservoir, were at or above their normal storage for this time of year. Lake Dillon, which provides water to the city of Denver, was below its normal water storage as of Nov. 1.
Water storage was also below normal — but above recent historical lows in 2021 and 2022 — in the Gunnison River Basin and the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan combined river basin in southwestern Colorado.
“I don’t expect that we’re going to have the stellar, magical year like we had last year,” Bolinger said. “But we do still have a lot of season to go, so we still have a lot of opportunities to get in some more snowpack.”
This Fresh Water News story was produced as part of a collaboration between the Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado and will also appear at coloradosun.com. Fresh Water News was launched in 2018 as an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.