Snowpack holds key to refilling reservoirs

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— Pat Davey was on his way out the door Friday morning to conduct the first full snow survey of the winter. He was likely to find varied results.

It is much too early in the winter to reach any conclusions about the precious moisture stored in the snowy mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs, Davey said. But after a summer of unprecedented drought, water managers all over the western United States are keeping close watch on snowpack reports. Melting snow next spring will be depended on to refill drought-depleted reservoirs.

Davey works for an office of the federal government in Steamboat Springs called the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Toward the end of each winter month, Davey and colleague Vance Fulton make a loop through the mountains north and south of Steamboat. They visit well-established sites where they take core samples of the snow and weigh it to determine how much moisture it contains. When they speak of snowpack, they are referring to moisture content, not to the depth of snow.

Among the different snow measuring sites the two men visit are a handful with remote sensing devices. Data from those sites are gathered and updated daily on the Internet by the Portland, Ore., office of the NRCS. Data for the Yampa and White river basins, which include Steamboat, can be found at: ftp://ftp.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov./data/snow/update/colorado.txt.

Davey is such an old hand at this work he confessed he hasn't even glanced at the Internet site this winter. He knows the winter's true pattern won't really be evident until February and March.

Early returns from the Internet sites show that basin-wide, snowpack is at 85 percent of average.

Those statistics may not seem to reconcile with above-average snowfall totals reported by the Steamboat Ski Area. But Steamboat is known for its light, dry snow. And snow depth does not equal snowpack.

A closer examination of the early trends shows that snowpack varies significantly around the area.

At Dry Lake, just four miles northeast of Steamboat, snowpack measures 8.1 inches, or 98 percent of normal. Dry Lake is at the base of Buffalo Pass. The Tower snow-measuring site on the summit of Buffalo Pass is usually one of the snowiest in the state. Water content there is 17.2 inches, or about 89 percent of the 20-year average of 19.3 inches.

Just south of Steamboat Springs, on the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, snowpack is 107 percent of normal. The measurement on Dec. 27 was 10.1 inches of moisture compared to an average of 9.4 inches.

Measurements in the Flat Tops, further south of Steamboat are also on the plus side. At Crosho Lake, south of Phippsburg at an elevation of 9,100 feet, the 5.3 inches of water content in the snow is 120 percent of normal.

Not far away as the eagle flies, at Ripple Creek, the snow at 10,340 feet contains 10.7 inches of water, 109 percent of normal.

However, at the Lost Dog site on the upper Elk River, the 7.8 inches of moisture is just 66 percent of the average 11.9 inches.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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