Snowpack Now 168 Percent Average

Although ongoing concerns linger following avalanche destruction at the Justin Casey home and damage to the Denham residence last week, a possible upside to the excessive snowfall is received in the Lake Fork Valley is a dramatic upswing in snow levels and moisture content.
Dense snowfall which occurred in and around Lake City in successive winter storms last week resulted in elevated snowslide danger warnings from Colorado Avalanche Center which as of late last week were rated in the Code Red category, Level 4-High.
Avalanche danger since that time has moderated somewhat and for the North San Juan, including Lake City, and South San Juans was listed as Level 2-Moderate as of Monday this week. Moderate snowslide danger, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center, represents “heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features” warranting close evaluation of both snow and terrain.
Kevin Blecha, Colorado Parks & Wildlife Big Game Biologist in the Gunnison Basin, was queried on th welfare of big game herds in the Lake Fork Valley in light of recent heavy snowfall.
Blecha referenced an upcoming Parks & Wildlife meeting in Gunnison — 6 to 8 p.m. next Monday, March 25 in north ballroom of student center on the Western State University campus — during which more specific updates on winter wildlife conditions will be discussed.
In general terms, however, Blecha states deer metabolism slows in late winter and early spring and herds increasingly live off of fat reserves which have been built up in their bodies.
It is for this reason that it is especially important for humans not to intentionally or unintentionally stress herds and cause the animals to expend additional energy. A diminished food supply is stressful on its own, let along added stress from physical exertion.
While moose and elk are naturally better built for heavy snow conditions, deer tend to migrate to lower elevations or sunnier slopes with less snow and more food potential. An example for Highway 149 travelers are south-facing slopes on Indian Creek adjacent to Miller Flats and on sagebrush slopes beside the highway just out of Powderhorn in the Cebolla Valley.
Blecha adds that long-term deer survival rates are being monitored via radio collars which have been placed on some deer in the Lake City and Powderhorn areas.
In contrast to lack of snowfall last year and a general brown summer with continuing wildfire concerns, summer 2019 is optimistically shaping up to be much wetter.
Last week’s succession of snow dumps dramatically increased the snowpack and water content both in Lake City and the surrounding high country.
National Resources Conservation Service’s (NCRS) upper Slumgullion Pass SnowTel site, 11,560’ elevation, recorded its highest snow depth of the winter last Thursday, March 15, with a whopping 88” snow depth containing the equivalent of 20” water, 162 percent of average water content from 1981 through 2010.
As of Monday this week, the Slumgullion SnoTel site recorded slightly compacted snow, 77” snow depth on March 18, with 20.2” water, representing 168 percent long-term average.
As a whole, the Gunnison Basin is now 155 percent of average long-term snowpack.
Higher than usual snowpack and water content is also recorded at other NCRS snow measuring sites. The Wager Gulch SnoTel site on the route to Carson measured 71” snow depth and 16.4” water content on March 13, slight subsiding to 61” snow and increasing to 16.5” water content as of Monday this week.
Record snow depth and water is also reported from the Upper Rio Grande. The Upper Rio Grande SnoTel site now stands at 180 percent of average with 12.2” water in 47”-deep snowpack on Monday, a slight decrease in snowdepth measuring 54” last Wednesday following last week’s snow storms.
The Middle Creek SnoTel, an Upper Rio Grande tributary near Love Lake in Mineral County, measured 91” snow on March 13, decreasing to 84” snow on Monday. Monday’s Middle Creek reading carries with it 24.6” water which is 117 percent on long-term average.
San Juan Solstice event coordinator Jerry Gray reports that he has already alerted racers registered for this June’s 50-mile run of a likely race route reconfiguration which will probably occur as the result of high water and lingering snow fields. The probably alternate race route, according to Gray will remain at 50 miles while avoiding both Alpine Gulch and Wager Gulch, instead taking racers as far as Oleo Ranch on the Upper Cebolla before rejoining the race route through Vickers Ranch.
In terms of snow depth in the Lake City area compared to past heavy winters, the 2018-19 winter is comparable to heavy snowfall which occurred in 2006-07 which came in early December and decimated deer herds on the lower Lake Fork and throughout the Gunnison Basin and — prior to that — and even heavier cumulative snowfall which occurred the winter of 1983-84.
In 2007, 33.2” snow depth with 7.8” water content was recorded in early January at the upper Slumgullion SnoTel site; by March, 2007, snow on Slum Pass had increased to 45.8” depth with 11.6” water.
In 1984, the 11,560’ SnoTel site at the top of the pass was only in its fourth year of operation, although manual readings were still being taken at a much older Penniston Park snow reading course which is no longer maintained.
Readings at the lower, Penniston Park course increased from 32.1” snow depth with 8.3” water content on February 1, 1984, to 36.9”snow/10.1” water on March 1. The upper Slum SnoTel site recorded 42.9” snow and 12.9” water in January, 1984, increasing to 51.3” snow, 15.9” water in early March, 1984.
Heavy snow the winter of 1983-84 is memorable for snow with blowing conditions around Christmas, 1983, which resulted in a three-day closure of Highway 149 between Lake City and Gunnison. Snow accumulation was also detrimental to old buildings in 1983-84, notable of which was the collapse of the roof at the Swanson House building at the corner of 3rd and Silver Street.
Prior to 1984, other heavy snow years in Lake City included 1978-79, 39.7” snow/9.3” water at the lower Penniston Park site, and 1952 when 42” snow, 11.9” water was recorded.
Retired Hinsdale County Road Supervisor Robert Hurd refers to heavy snowpack which occurred in the Lake City area in 1983-84 and resulting damage which occurred from high water that spring. Hurd says that an incremental increase in temperatures starting in April is preferable to a cold spring and sudden warm up in May.
Runoff in May, 1984, occurred at once late in the month and into early June following a stead warming trend. Warmer temperatures in May, he says, “resulted in all hell breaking loose.”
As new road supervisor with a total staff of five, Hurd says his department experienced a total of 75 culverts which were either washed out or filled, and two bridges, the Rock Creek Bridge on the Cebolla, and the Sherman Bridge on the upper Lake Fork, which washed out.
Hurd reflects on subtle differences which have occurred between winters in 1983-84 and 2018-19. In the early 1980s, he notes “there were a lot few houses than we have today.” In terms of avalanche danger, Hurd says that in 1983-84 the base of the snowpack was much more stable and the size and intensity of snowslides which much less than the present season.
Looking ahead to major spring runoff, the worst flooding in the history of Lake City took place in May and June, 1921, when a combination of a cold spring and warmer late season temperatures and rain occurred.