Snowpack on Rabbit Ears Pass dwindling

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Windblown pellets of snow peppered Michelle Brown and Dennis Scheiwe on the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass earlier this week.

Brown and Scheiwe were conducting the last snowpack measurements of the season for the Natural Resource Conservation Service based in Steamboat Springs. Their work shows that despite some productive March and April snowstorms, the water stored in the dwindling snowpack in nearby mountains is losing ground to historic averages.

An unusually dense snowpack at the Columbine snow course on Rabbit Ears contained about 10.2 inches of water, or just 47 percent of average.

With the exception of North Routt County, snowpack throughout the Yampa Basin lagged behind historic averages throughout the winter. However, the numbers were stronger in February. On Feb. 15, the Columbine site was holding 14.3 inches of water, about 75 percent of average.

Remeasuring at that site Tuesday, Brown and Scheiwe virtually were straddling the Continental Divide as they used a calibrated aluminum tube to extract core samples of the snow and weigh them on a spring-loaded scale.

The Columbine snow course is on the east side of the divide. It's at a spot on the flank of Rabbit Ears Pass just before the Continental Divide hangs a hard right and heads due north through the Park Range. The water in the snowpack there is destined to flow into Grizzly Creek and on into North Park. There, the North Platte River takes shape on its way into Wyoming and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.

Just a short walk away, the melting snow is trickling toward the Colorado River and a far different destiny.

Along a line of about 80 feet stretching between two diamond-shaped yellow signs, Brown and Scheiwe took 10 core samples. Brown, who is new to this game, took meticulous notes, and Scheiwe twisted the aluminum cylinder into the snow all the way to the forest duff. In most places, the settled snow was just shy of 30 inches deep, with a hard crust of ice, perhaps left by freezing rain, halfway down.

"We want to get a sample that includes some dirt and leaves in the bottom of the tube, so we know we got all of the snow," Scheiwe said.

After carefully scooping the debris from the tube, Scheiwe balanced the four feet of aluminum on a scale held by Brown.

By dividing the weight of the snow by the depth on the ground, they determine the density of the snowpack.

They took down the depth of the snow, and the length of the core sample within the tube. Next, they weighed the tube to determine how much water was contained in the snow sample.

The data being gathered by the federal workers is important to water forecasters in distant states, but Scheiwe is reluctant to draw conclusions from the results of his efforts.

"We try not to be in water forecasting," he said. "We leave that to the (irrigation) ditch companies and the reservoir managers."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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