Snowpack is unlikely to recover
Future powder days won’t significantly impact water content
February 8, 2012
Steamboat Springs — There remains ample time for Steamboat Ski Area to experience some memorable powder days this winter, but the chances that the snowpack in the surrounding mountains can climb to average levels are dwindling fast.
And with the diminishing chances of average snowpack comes the likelihood the spring runoff feeding the Yampa River where it flows through Routt County also will be subpar.
The latest basin outlook report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lakewood relies on its surveys of the amount of water stored in the snowpack in the combined Yampa, White, North Platte and Laramie river basins, combined with historical data and current weather trends, to conclude there's only a small chance that the water carried in those river systems this summer will reach average.
"Based on historical data there is a less than 10 percent chance that the snowpacks in these basins will recover to average conditions by the end of the season," the report issued by state conservationist Phyllis Ann Phillips concluded. "April to July runoff is expected to be well below average at all forecast points except for the Laramie River near Woods Landing, which is expected to be 85 percent of average."
It went on to say, "A closer look reveals that the Yampa and White river basins are faring a bit worse than the combined basins. These basins measure just 60 percent of average (snowpack) on Feb. 1 while the North Platte and Little Snake basins reported 69 and 67 percent, respectively."
Snowpack and skiers
The term snowpack refers to neither seasonal precipitation nor the depth of the snow on the ground. Instead, it's a measurement of the water content in that standing snow.
However, skiers and riders are more interested in the outlook for powder days.
Just a year ago this week, city snowplow crews had finished clearing 2 feet of fresh snow off Lincoln Avenue and were preparing to use dump trucks to haul much of that white stuff back onto Steamboat's main drag to allow the Winter Carnival street events to take place.
The snow report for Feb. 8, 2011, reported 37 inches of snow at midmountain in the preceding 72 hours and a base of 88 inches at midmountain, hitting 301 inches for the winter, according to Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.
It's a different picture this winter, with grooming crews doing their best to hang on to a packed powder surface at Steamboat Ski Area. As of Wednesday, Steamboat was reporting a 35-inch base at midmountain and season snowfall of 110.25 inches.
Ski area records show the average seasonal snowfall here going back to 1979-80 is just more than 308 inches.
The average monthly snowfall for the last half of the ski season is: February, 63.7 inches; March, 52 inches; and April, 19 inches.
The last three winters have spoiled local skiers, producing a three-year average of 67.4 inches in February, 62 inches in March and 29.25 inches in the abbreviated skiing month of April.
Reservoirs are healthy
If there is a bright spot in the snowpack outlook, it's that area reservoirs contain 120 percent of average water storage.
The Web page of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District shows the water level elevation at Stagecoach Reservoir is currently 7,197 feet, compared to 7,204 feet when the reservoir is full.
District Manager Kevin McBride said the positive condition of water storage at Stagecoach is attributable to the strong water year of 2011 that still was adding to the reservoir in autumn.
The reservoir's recently expanded storage capacity also is helping. The district added to the height of the dam and filled the expanded reservoir for the first time last year. This week's level is 7 feet below full but only 3 feet below the old capacity.
"It's still an open question whether we'll fill, but we could easily fill with 50 percent" of average snowpack, McBride said. "And we're very close right now to having the water needed to meet our contract obligations. That's because of the raise" in capacity.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com