Where's the Snow in Pagosa Springs?
Why isn't it snowing? When will it snow next? When (if ever) has our snowpack been this bad? These are all questions buzzing around Pagosa Springs especially if you just purchased a new snow blower or season pass at Wolf Creek. Currently, Pagosa Peak appears snow-free from town and Wolf Creek Ski Area is struggling to maintain their meager 16 inch base. As a Colorado native and resident of Pagosa Springs since 1999, I expect a deep snowpack to add beauty to the dormant landscape, and provide my family and I with a fresh selection of outdoor activities. In fact, my favorite thing to do on New Year's Day is go cross country skiing with my family, but instead, I'm sitting on the couch typing. We're still enjoying the outdoors - yesterday we went mountain biking and today I went hiking at Coyote Hill Nordic Area, but I'm dying to hang up my running shoes and mountain bike and clip into my skate skis!
Pagosa Peak from Lake Hatcher on 1/1/2018
The lack of snow can be blamed on a stubborn ridge of high pressure that has been camped on the West Coast since early December (http://weatherwest.com/archives/tag/ridiculously-resilient-ridge). No one knows what causes this "ridiculously resilient ridge", but it's clear that the snow won't return until the ridge departs and stops diverting storms to our north and south.
Notice the big blue H on the West Coast. Graphic credit: NWS
Most snow measurement in Colorado are collected at high elevation SNOTEL sites. Water supply managers rely on the SNOTEL measurements to forecast and operate our elaborate water storage and distribution system. An important quality of the snowpack is the snow water equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water in the snow if it were melted instantaneously. The closest SNOTEL site to Pagosa Springs is the Upper San Juan site located at 10,200 feet, about 2 miles from the summit of Wolf Creek Pass (https://wcc.sc.egov.usda.gov/nwcc/view?intervalType=+View+Current+&report=WYGRAPH×eries=Daily&format=plot&sitenum=840&interval=WATERYEAR). Usually, our snowpack begins to accumulate in early November and reaches a maximum around April 15th, at which point it begins to melt, supplying spring runoff to the San Juan River.
2.7in of SWE (dark blue line) compared to the 14in average (light blue line) Graphic credit: NRCS I can't tell you when it's going to snow again, but I can determine whether the local snow conditions have ever been this bad before. As a watershed science graduate and data/spreadsheet nerd, I try to answer hydrology-related questions using historical data that's not subject to our selective memory. I plotted the January 1st SWE verses the April 1st SWE from 1979-2017 to determine how this year compares, and also project how the rest of the snow season might end up.
As it turns out, 2018 ranks as the 4th slowest start to the snow season - 2000, 1996, and 1990 were worse. Currently, the Upper San Juan site is reporting 2.7 inches of SWE, and based on the past 38 years of record, we've averaged about 13.7 inches of SWE by this time of the year. The graph reveals great variability in the snowpack, but in general, a slow start to the snow season means we will finish below average on April 1st. Surprisingly, the worst drought on record started off with more snow than 2018! In 2002, the meager snowpack melted in April and only generated a peak spring runoff of 296 cfs on April 15th (compared to about 2500 cfs in late May). The Missionary Ridge Fire also occurred in 2002. Hopefully, the stubborn high pressure ridge will break down soon and will be replaced by successive atmospheric river events. An adequate snowpack is imperative to provide adequate water to fill our reservoirs, decrease our wildfire risk, boost the local economy, and enable me to skate ski at Coyote Hill soon!