Area snowpack level still below average

Thanks to a warm dry March, Colorado snowpack totals — including that in the combined San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel river basins — have fallen below average for the first time this season. And, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), it comes at a most critical time for area water managers.

The NRCS typically reports state and individual basin snowpacks at the beginning of every month between October and May. Last Friday, the agency issued a statement showing the April 1 statewide snowpack at 96 percent of average, down from 120 percent of average on Jan. 1. The combined southern basins (San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel) fell from 135 percent of average on Jan. 1 to just 86 percent (of average) by April 1.

Since the first of the year, the statewide snowpack has steadily decreased every month. So, too, has that of the combined southern basins, with the largest dips occurring in January (19 percent) and March (20 percent). In fact, as of April 1, only the Colorado, White and Yampa river basins showed above-average snowpacks, with each reporting 104 percent. Those, after January’s statewide readings were the highest since 1997.

This year’s substandard snowpack adds to a series of mediocre winters over the past 12 years. In all but two seasons, according to the NRCS, April 1 snowpack totals have measured below average. Unfortunately, as yearly amounts typically approach their maximums by that time, they are the best indication of what water managers can expect in terms of spring runoff and seasonal water supplies.

If there’s one saving grace this year, it’s that reservoir storage is very near average, or above, in all but the Rio Grande Basin just over the Continental Divide. By April 1, statewide storage was slightly above average at 103 percent, while the Rio Grande was reportedly 87 percent of average. Preliminary indications suggest the combined southern basins were 107 percent of average at the time.

While the NRCS released its April 1 snowpack data last Friday, a spring storm moved across the state over the weekend, adding significant accumulations in most areas. By Tuesday, precipitation totals measured close to or above average in all state basins. Happily, the combined southern basins — which still registered Colorado’s lowest readings — had risen to 97 percent of average.

Even as the 2009 snowpack has only hovered near normal thus far, Mother Nature still has time to add to it. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, Pagosa Springs and vicinity can expect overcast skies with a 50 percent probability of rain and snow showers today. High temperatures should reach the low 50s, while tonight’s readings will drop to the mid-20s under mostly cloudy skies.

Tomorrow should be partly sunny and mild with a high near 60, but things will deteriorate again by nightfall. With a low in the lower 30s, increasing clouds will bring a 30-percent chance of rain or snow showers, as another trough moves over the area through the weekend. As the system approaches, expect winter weather advisories across southern Colorado.

Looking ahead, local weather guru Toby Karlquist is calling for yet another system by Tuesday or Wednesday. As it now appears, however, mild temperatures will dominate and precipitation could be minimal. Beyond that, the following week should bring partly to mostly sunny conditions, with daytime temperatures in the low 60s.

Though regional precipitation typically subsides in April, the Wolf Creek Ski Area averages 465 inches of snow in a typical year. By press time yesterday, it needed just 48 inches to equal that amount. Since the pass below its base facilities averages 55 inches during the combined months of April and May, it’s feasible to assume our surrounding high country will see at least average snowfall this year.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed.

chuck@pagosasun.com