The Drought Diaries: Reprieve?

By Eilene Lyon

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

–Robert Frost Dust of Snow

March 14, 2019

The skiing at Wolf Creek was totally awesome! The layer of powder was perfection. The weather just super. A great time was had by all. Heading up the pass in the morning, the Texas-plated vehicles lined the road to put on tire chains, but we cruised on up in four-wheel drive. It’s good to be a Coloradoan on a day like today.

IMG_0365
The snow-packed, icy road leading to Wolf Creek on March 14, 2019.

For once, I’m glad I bought a season pass for Purgatory Resort, our local ski area. It’s been a great winter. But not many places can boast the type of snow found at Wolf Creek, on the Continental Divide. It was really an epic day.

During most winters, frequent storms produce moderate amounts of dry, powdery snow. Consequently, the mountain resort developments of the Southern Rockies rank among the top destinations in North America for downhill and cross-country skiers and snowboarders. More important, however, the mountain snowpack is the lifeblood of the watersheds of the Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Canadian, the Pecos, the North and South Platte, and the Arkansas rivers, specifically because of its depth and water content. – Audrey DeLella Benedict The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies

That’s really the crux of it. The snowpack is key to holding enough moisture to get the state through the coming dry months. How fast or slow it melts is critical to our economy, not just for agriculture, but for tourism, an increasingly important sector. Warmer temperatures too early in the season are only one factor. Spring usually brings strong winds, and if they blow sand and topsoil from Arizona and Utah, the dun-coated snow will melt quickly.

Video: Flyover shows Red Mountain Pass buried by heavy snow, avalanches

Snow_Water_Equivalent_Percent_NRCS_1981-2010_Average_March_28_2019
The snow-water equivalent as of March 28, 2019 compared to the 1981–2010 average shown for each watershed. Green to blue is above average. Most of Colorado falls in the 125–150% range.

It seems like the entire country, and certainly the western part, has had above-average precipitation this winter. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, in the first three months of this year the Upper Colorado Basin has had 123% of average precipitation. Compare that to last year’s 71%.

P1150418
This is about as deep as it gets at our house. That odd mound in the center of the photo is the top of a patio table.

Nearly half the runoff came from Colorado and another third from Wyoming and Utah. Arizona and New Mexico contributed very little; Nevada and California, nothing at all. – Marc Reisner Cadillac Desert

The Colorado River Compact was devised in 1922 during a peak period of precipitation and runoff. California was, and is, the most populous of the basin states and claimed an out-sized portion of the river’s water, while contributing nothing. At the time, no large reservoirs existed.

Now we have Lake Powell and Lake Mead, but these enormous basins are both downstream from Colorado. Once the water leaves this state, it doesn’t return any time soon. Therefore, a slow, steady runoff can make or break us.

For now, we have exceptionally good snowpack. Whether it will be enough to ease the drought in the long run remains to be seen. The entire region depends so heavily on this one silty river.

20190326_usdm
The Four Corners region has been upgraded from Exceptional (D4) to Severe Drought (D2) or better.

If the Colorado River suddenly stopped flowing, you would have four years of carryover capacity in the reservoirs before you had to evacuate most of southern California and Arizona and a good portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. – Marc Reisner Cadillac Desert

P1150424
Black Ridge, across from our house, still has some snow cover. It’s pretty much gone here at the lower elevations.

Feature image: The Putterer on a beautiful ski day at Purgatory recently.

Other posts in this series:

The Drought Diaries

The Drought Diaries: Insects

The Drought Diaries: Too Little Water/Too Much Water

The Drought Diaries: Bathtub Rings

 

 

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