Concerns Cited Over Continuing Low Snow Levels

What a difference a year makes.
This week last year, in the opening weeks of 2017, Lake City and elevations near Gunnison in the Gunnison Valley were literally wallowing in snow.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife was gearing up to bait deer and elk which were congregating on Highway 50, and in Lake City SnoCats were bogged down in excessive snow on Hill 71 as they embarked on an emergency mission to deliver batteries to the high elevation communications site.
Flash ahead a year to the fourth week of January, 2018, and the comparison between then and now is startling and dramatic. Virtually no snow and the local vista up until last weekend’s 4-3/4” snowfall was gazing out on dry grass, the vestiges of last summer’s dried cottonwood leaves, and only a slight haze of snow in shady, north-facing locations.
Simultaneous with the lack of snow were warmer than usual nighttime temperatures, Lake City incongruously not clocking its first below-0 fahrenheit temperature until just last week.
According to the long-time weather observer Phil Virden, we have had only five days cumulative thus far this winter in which we reached typically sub-zero temperatures: -2 on January 17 and 18, followed respectively by -5, -7, and -5 on Jan. 22, 23, and 24.
As a consequence of warmer temperatures and minimal snow cover, Upper Gunnison Water Conservation District Manager Frank Kugel intimates that the outlook is dire unless we receive
substantial snowfall in the remaining winter and spring months.
Referring to the Ute Indian snow dance which occurred in Lake City earlier this month, Kugel smiles, noting, “I’m hoping the Utes can come back on a weekly basis and give us more snow.”
On a more serious note, the water district manager says he is concerned that if present weather conditions continue, “we could experience water shortages this coming summer.”
In instances of a shortage of adjudicated water in the Gunnison Basin, a “call” is made by owners of senior water appropriations which, in a worst case scenario, would require curtailment or reduction of water use by more junior water users.
In terms of water storage in the Upper Gunnison Basin, 2016-17 was an excellent snow year. As a result of abundant snow and water, both Taylor Reservoir and Blue Mesa Reservoir were near brink-full. As of Monday this week, Taylor Reservoir in Taylor Park remains at 70 percent of storage capacity, while Blue Mesa stands at 68 percent storage capacity.
According to Kugel, the Gunnison Basin — meaning the Gunnison River and its tributaries from Blue Mesa dam and above — currently stands at 69 percent of long-term snowpack with 6.2” moisture content. Snow levels and moisture are marginally better in the northern Gunnison Basin as compared to Lake City and the Lake Fork Valley to the south.
Snow reading sites in the northern basin include Butte SnoTel at Crested Butte Ski Area where snow depth has increased from 14” to 20” between January 6 and Tuesday this week, representing 62 percent of long-term snowpack. Scofield Pass had a whopping 116” of snow this time last year, snow levels now reduced to 45” depth with 12.2” water as of Monday this week.
Cochetopa Pass has 5” snow depth as of this week, compared to 13” this time last year.
Lake City’s bellweather gauging station is Natural Resource Conservation Service’s SnowTel site located at 11,560’ on Slumgullion Pass. Slumgullion, according to Kugel, is registering just 51 percent of long-term snowpack even after last week’s snow dusting.
To illustrate the minimal progression of snow on Slumgullion, the SnowTel site recorded 12” of snow with 2.7” water on January 1, minimally increasing to 13” snow and 3.1” water on January 9.
As of last week and prior to the weekend snowstorm, Slum clocked a grand total of 17” snow depth and 3.4” water.
On Tuesday, January 23, this week, snow depth at Slumgullion had increased to 22” of snow containing 4.0” water.
By way of dramatic comparison, on January 1, 2017, there was 28” of snow with 6.5” water at the Slumgullion SnoTel site and those totals increased to a memorable 46-47” depth and water slightly over 10” by January 16 a year ago.
In addition to Slumgullion, another indicator of overall water health on the upper Lake Fork is located on a knoll overlooking Wager Gulch on the route up to Carson.
The Wager snow gauge, somewhat windswept, recorded 8” of snow with 2.3” water on January 16 but minimally climbed to 13” snow and 2.8” water as of Monday, January 22 This time last year, mid-January,
2017, there was 28” of snow/6.6” water at the Wager Gulch site.
Looking back, the winter of 1976-77 was the last comparable year when snow failed to materialize in the Lake Fork Valley and Gunnison Basin. Snow depth was in fact so poor that year that the decision was made to implement telemetry readings with the start of remote SnoTel sites such as the upper Slumgullion gauge.
Colorado Soil Conservation Service conducted manual snow surveys in 1976, seven of the basin’s eight snow stations recording all-time low snow readings in early March, 1977. The Soil Conservation Service’s Penniston Park reading in March, ‘77, was just 9.3” snow compared to a 29-year average of 29.2”
Snow depth in Lake City, as reported in the Lake City PIONEER newspaper in 1976-77, consisted of 3” in November, just a trace in December, and 2” in January, followed in February by a five-day snowstorm starting Feb. 22 totaling 15-1/2”.
Unlike the present winter, in 1976-77 Lake City did experience multiple nights of double-digit below zero temperatures, including -10 on December 25, -18 Jan. 8 and 9, and -20 on Jan. 12.
“After the winter of 1976-77,” according to Kugel, “we needed a better handle on how snow and water content was tracked.”
Kugel also refers to another comparable low-snow year in the region, 1989-90 when snowpack in January was almost identical to this year — just 58 percent of long-term average.
Ironically, Kugel says the winter of 1989-90 actually turned out to be a “good snow year” with progressively heavier snowfall which occurred during later winter and into the spring.
While the Gunnison Basin stands at 69 percent snowpack this week, snow conditions are even worse for our neighbors to the immediate south on the Upper Rio Grande. As a whole, the Upper Rio Grande Basin has received just 28 percent of normal moisture this winter. Although Wolf Creek summit was “dumped on” this past weekend, it still has only 27 percent of long-term moisture.
Elsewhere in the Rio Grande Basin in the vicinity of Creede, 11,600’-elevation Beartown SnoTel site had 7” snow and 4.7” water on January 16, climbing to 22” snow and 5.7” water on January 22.
Beartown stands at just 20 percent of long-term moisture; this time last year, Beartown was virtually inundated with 65” snow depth, in part the result of a single 11” snowfall which occurred on January 11, 2017.
Other Creede area snow and water measuring sites are 9,400’ on the Upper Rio Grande which stands at 27 percent long-term moisture: on January 22 the site logged a total of 7” snow and 1.2” water compared to January 16 when there was not a trace of snow.
The Middle Creek gauge, also near Creede, elevation 11,250’, increased from 5” on January 16 to 13” snow depth on January 22. This time last year, Middle Creek boasted 43” snow depth.