Water levels in Colorado declared healthy

Speaker at conference: Snow levels caused unnecessary scares

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— The peaks and valleys of snowfall last winter left water experts in Colorado concerned about water availability for 2009, but thanks to a few late snowfalls and a cool, wet summer, Colorado's water level is as good as any recent year.

Mike Gillespie, the snow supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said there were a couple of times in the 2008-09 winter that snowfall wasn't living up to expectations. In the first months of the season, the snowfall was at or near the record minimum.

Gillespie reported about the state of Colorado snowpack throughout the past year at the Colorado Water Congress' summer conference, held at the Steamboat Sheraton Resort from Wednesday to noon today.

"People start getting a little antsy" when early season snow is below normal levels, he said. "Then, lo and behold, the following month (December) or so we saw huge increases in the snowpack. We accumulated about a quarter of our normal average in the 30 days after that time."

That shot the snowpack from near the minimum to above the 30-year average for several months.

Statewide, snowpack was 17 percent above the 30-year average last year. For the Yampa and White River Basin, April 13 was the peak date, at 14 percent above the 30-year average. That's one day later than the average high point in other years, indicating the snow was sticking slightly longer.

Another dry spell late in the winter caused water-watchers to worry again, but Gillespie said the final months of the season were the biggest concern, as snowpack began melting faster than usual, potentially leaving the state dry later in the year.

"Fortunately, it turned out to be somewhat cool and wet, and it did slow down the melt somewhat," he said.

Chris Landry, executive director of the Center of Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, said the unusually high level of dust on the snow could have contributed to the fast melt-off. When the 12 dust storms that blew through Colorado last year deposited debris on the snowfields, it caused the snow to melt faster than it ordinarily would, he said.

Landry said the snow in the study area had 55 grams of particles per square meter in spring 2009, compared to 12 grams per square meter in 2008. Landry said the source of the dust is not yet known.

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