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A promising snowpack yields hope for drought recovery

click to enlarge Plentiful snow on Pikes Peak, part of a healthy - snowpack statewide. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Plentiful snow on Pikes Peak, part of a healthy snowpack statewide.

Drought's cruel grip eased slightly in Colorado over the last few months, as record snowfall inundated parts of the state.

"It's not too bad a start to the year," said Michael Gillespie, who monitors the state's snowpack for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "[It's] the best snowpack you've had in some time."

Across the state in early February, the snowpack stood at 109 percent of its 30-year average, nearly double the amount measured in February of 2002, the worst year of the recent multi-year drought.

"[Southern Colorado] is in excellent shape to make some good progress in drought recovery," said Brett Gracely, water resource planning supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities. The snowpack thus far is "encouraging," he said. But he adds that the drought's toll on city water supplies will still be felt despite a season of abundant snowfall, and it's too soon to predict if water restrictions will be lifted.

Colorado Springs' water storage supply, the bulk of which comes from the Western Slope, stands at just 55 percent of capacity, Gracely said. Under normal conditions, reservoirs would be 70 percent full at this time of year. In addition, much of the snowfall in Colorado this year has tumbled in parts of the state unrelated to Colorado Springs' water supply. For example, the usually dry Four Corners area of the state boasts 153 percent of average snowpack.

A good snow in early winter does not necessarily translate into plentiful water flows for the rest of the year, said Nolan Doesken, research climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center. "What matters in snowpack is how much is there when the snowmelt comes," he said. "Last year the snowmelt scared us to death because it started in March."

Had it not been for a "marvelously wet April," he said, that unusually warm March would have had dire consequences for area water supplies.

Across the West, the drought is by no means over. While this winter the central and southern regions of the Rocky Mountains saw "slow but steady relief," according to Agriculture Department monitoring stations, parts of Wyoming and Montana saw "dryness and drought expanded and intensified."

-- Dan Wilcock

  • A promising snowpack yields hope for drought recovery

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