Colorado snowpack levels are in decent-shape statewide, trending worse on the western slope but only running 2% to 14% behind east of the divide. This weekend’s massive snowstorm hitting the state, mainly east of the divide, should take the snowpack above schedule.
Though not even a big snowstorm on the books and another headed toward Denver can restore moisture to the needed level. The city, its surrounding area and almost all of Colorado remain in a severe drought.
Colorado has made some progress in the last few months as 1.5% of the state went from drought conditions to just dry. Sadly for Colorado, 98.5% of the state is still in a drought, with nearly 57% of the state in extreme or worse drought conditions.
“The current drought developed quickly and intensely last spring and the summer of 2020,” Russ Schumacher, the Colorado Climate Center Director, said. “Last winter was near normal in most ways, but then the spring was warm and dry, so the mountain snow melted early, and streamflow in the rivers ended up being much less than what one might have expected given near-normal snowpack.”
The month of August was the driest and extremely hot on the western slope. The expected monsoon rains, which never came coupled with the hot months of September and October, contributed to the intense fire season.
“Zooming out, this is all part of a generally dry period going back to about 2000,” Schumacher detailed. “We’ve had major droughts and wildfire years in 2002, 2012, 2018, and 2020, with some modest wet periods interspersed. Overall, the drought has hit hardest in western Colorado and across the southwestern US, where the last 20 years are among the driest ever.”
A paper in the journal Science suggested that the Southwest’s drought is the worst since the late 1500s.
“Getting out of the drought completely will probably take multiple years of wetter than average conditions, or else a sequence of really extreme storms,” Schumacher said. “In the winter of 2019, when we had snowstorm after snowstorm in the mountains, it ended that drought more quickly, but those kinds of events don’t happen very often.”
The snowstorm that will pummel Denver in powder won’t hit Colorado’s area that needs the moisture the most. However, a storm bringing snow that will be measured by the yard in some places can’t hurt. Experts are at the “anything helps at this point” stage of the drought.
“The snowpack isn’t bad right now. It’s about 90 to 100% of normal in the Front Range. We’re not too bad, but the storm will definitely give those numbers a boost,” Lisa Kriederman from the National Weather Service said. “It will definitely help the drought some, but the drought is long-standing, and it won’t get rid of it completely. It will improve but won’t take the drought out of Colorado.”
The drought is the worst, where the snowpack is also dragging the most. Large parts of western Colorado are experiencing conditions where “agricultural and recreational economic losses are large.” The plains aren’t in much better shape than the Western Slope, as much of Colorado’s farmland is being hit hardest. The high country is dry, too, especially along the Colorado River.
“Our moisture deficits going back to last spring and summer are so deep that a single storm isn’t going to end the drought completely, but it can certainly go a long way to improving conditions,” Schumacher said. “This storm could be a big one for the Front Range and eastern plains, and it is coming at a good time. We need these spring storms along the Front Range and plains to recharge soil moisture going into the growing season.”
The San Juans trail more than any other region in snowpack, running at only 78% of normal. Nearly the entire four corners region is in stage three of four droughts, the highest possible.
“It doesn’t look like it’ll be a particularly big storm for Western Colorado. So while the snowpack along and east of the divide will get a much-needed boost, places like the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, which are starting to dip well below average again, likely won’t see a huge improvement from this storm,” Schumacher said. “And beyond this storm, the outlooks for the rest of spring and summer are still not very promising, so there’s the worry that improvements may be temporary rather than longer-lasting.”
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