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Snowstorms help to replenish water supplies in Southwest Colorado

A storm Wednesday will bring more snow, but water managers remain cautious about another dry year
Snow covers rocks along the Animas River north Durango in 2019. Recent snowstorms in Southwest Colorado have helped to replenish the region’s water supplies, but runoff estimates are still below average, said Steve Wolff, general manager for the Southwestern Water Conservation District. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Southwest Colorado is preparing for more snow after 6 to 9 inches fell on parts of the region Sunday.

A new storm system beginning Wednesday could deliver a few inches of snow to lower elevations and up to a foot of snow on mountain passes. But even amid the recent flurry of snow, the Southwestern Water Conservation District remains concerned about water supplies after a dry January and February.

“Every little bit helps,” said Steve Wolff, general manager for the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

National Weather Service forecasts show snow beginning in Southwest Colorado Wednesday afternoon and evening before intensifying into Thursday.

Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs will receive minimal snow; National Weather Service projections show 2 to 3 inches of snow for both Durango and Cortez and 4 to 6 inches for Pagosa Springs, said Ben Moyer, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Another storm will sweep through Southwest Colorado beginning Wednesday. Forecasts show 2 to 3 inches of snow in Durango and Cortez and 4 to 6 inches in Pagosa Springs, said Ben Moyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. (Courtesy of National Weather Service Grand Junction)

But parts of the San Juan Mountains could receive up to 15 inches of snow, he said.

Graphics from the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction forecast 8 to 12 inches for Red Mountain, Molas and Coal Bank passes and 9 to 13 inches for Wolf Creek Pass.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and National Weather Service have both warned that the cold front could bring freezing temperatures and snow squalls – short bursts of intense snow and strong winds that produce whiteout conditions – that could make travel challenging over mountain passes.

“We’re still not 100% sure, but the environment is unstable and we’re going to be getting colder. The combination of the two is going to lay the groundwork for some snow squalls,” Moyer said.

However, the snow and cold will be short lived. By the weekend, temperatures will climb back into the 50s with dry weather, he said.

The region’s immediate return to warm and dry weather comes as the recent snowfall has just begun to replenish water resources.

From Jan. 1 until late February, snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins remained stagnant after storms in late December produced higher-than-average accumulation.

In February and March, snowpack in the four basins dipped below average before the recent storms helped return snowpack to 101% of the average 25 days out from the basins’ peak on April 2.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and National Weather Service have both warned that a cold front moving through Southwest Colorado could bring freezing temperatures and snow squalls – short bursts of intense snow and strong winds that produce whiteout conditions – that could make travel challenging over mountain passes. Parts of the San Juan Mountains could receive up to 15 inches of snow, according to Ben Moyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. (Courtesy of National Weather Service Grand Junction)

For the San Juan Mountains, “we’re showing snowpacks anywhere between 80% of normal to 120% of normal, so not bad,” Moyer said. “They’re kind of close to normal, so that’s good news. But we would like them to be way above normal to make up for the dry years we’ve had recently.”

Parts of Southwest Colorado received 1 to 1½ inches of water content from the snow last weekend, but figures that show snowpack as a percentage of normal have to be taken with a grain of salt, Wolff said.

2022 is the first year that agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are using new averages to compare snowpack. Every decade the agencies calculate new 30-year averages to account for changes in the climate and weather.

But with climate change reducing snowpack in Colorado, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the new averages taking that downward trend into account, any percentage of normal for snowpack this year is relative.

“Our index just changed, so 100% (snowpack) this year would have been something lower last year (like) 90% or 80%,” Wolff said.

A snowpack graph Tuesday for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. After recent storms, snowpack for the basins is at 101%. But according to Steve Wolff, general manager for the Southwestern Water Conservation District, “100% snowpack does not mean we’re gonna see 100% runoff.” (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service)

While the recent snow has been a boon for Southwest Colorado’s water resources, other metrics point to some cause for concern.

NOAA’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center shows below-average water supply forecasts across Southwest Colorado. Those forecasts employ the agency’s new averages which already account for less water.

Current projections show the Animas River tracking at 82% of average, the Dolores River at 73% of average and the Piedra River at 66% of average as of Tuesday.

“The other thing to keep in mind (is) if you look at the runoff forecasts, which are getting to be fairly good quality at this time of year, they’re still showing 65 to 70% runoff because the soil is still dry,” Wolff said. “We still have to fill up some of that sponge yet.”

As Southwest Colorado prepares for another storm, he warned that the next round of snow will not solve the water challenges the region is forecast to face this summer.

“We’ll take everything we can get,” he said. “But 100% snowpack does not mean we’re gonna see 100% runoff. We did get some snow and we’ve got more coming in. Just hope for more.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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