Milder winter doesn’t mean drought

Winter came late to the Wet Mountains this season, but from early December to mid-January it had some truly Arctic moments. Now with milder weather the past few weeks, some local residents are freaking out about moisture and the possibility of a drought.

I’ve lived here in the Wet Mountains for 18 winters, and from what I’ve seen winter snowpack at moderate altitudes (under 10,000 feet) is vastly overrated. In very few years has January-February snow cover at these altitudes provided significant amounts of moisture. Moreover, it’s been the big spring storms in late March, April and even May that make the grass grow in May and June.

There’s usually not much water content in the snow that falls in the coldest months, and often the process of sublimation literally sucks the moisture out of what snow we do get. Moreover, the ground is frozen, the snow insulates the ground from the sun, and so when it melts it runs off and does not soak in.

It’s quite different when a heavy wet snow falls on the bare ground in late March or April. In 2003 we had very little snow all winter but a storm dropped a whopping 7 feet of snow starting March 17. I think we’re still drinking water from that storm. Likewise, we had more than 2 feet April 23, 2004.

colonyNow when it comes to snowpack in the high country it’s a different story. This snowpack at higher elevations does add up, and when it melts in late spring the water feeds the streams and the ditches that irrigate hayfields in the Wet Mountain Valley. Evaporation from this moisture also helps fuel summer thunderstorms.

When it comes to this snowpack, we’re actually ahead of the game. The South Colony SNOTEL in the Sangre de Cristo range registered 117 percent of the Feb. 3 average. The water content is already 71 percent of the average peak, which occurs on April 15. That leaves two months to make up just 29 percent. One or two good spring storms could push the snowpack over that average.

One thought on “Milder winter doesn’t mean drought

  1. The Arkansas river basin shows 131% of normal, even with the recent warm spell. I’m enjoying the dry spell in Leadville!

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