Despite a warmer and wetter winter than average as measured at Durango-La Plata County Airport, the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains continues to measure significantly below average.
The official measuring station for Durango is at the airport, so numbers rarely sync with what’s happening at altitude in the mountains.
“And either the last storm or the one before that, with the Southwest flow, more moisture fell in Durango than in the mountains,” said John Kyle, data-acquisitions program manager with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
As far as meteorologists are concerned, a climatological winter runs from December through February, but the snowpack is measured from the first snowfall to the last, which generally starts in October, he said.
“I monitor eight airports in western Colorado and eastern Utah,” his meteorologist colleague Joe Ramey said, “and all eight were much warmer than normal.”
How warm was it?
“At the Durango-La Plata Airport, you were 5 degrees above average, which was really driven by the afternoon temperatures,” he said. “And that’s a lot. Sometimes, there’s a 1 to 2 degree difference in one month, but to have that over a three-month average is significant.”
The 5 degrees above average was true at most of the airports Ramey monitors. But Craig’s airport saw temperatures 7.5 degrees above average for the three-month period, and Vernal, Utah, was a whopping 8.6 degrees above average.
Recent warm wet storms have boosted regional snowpack, but more snow is needed.
“We’re a whole lot better than we were two weeks ago,” said Sterling Moss, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango.
After a dry January, the snowpack was about 66 percent of the historical median, but without recent storms, the region would have continued to fall behind average.
However regional snowpack was 68 percent of the historical median March 1, and it is the lowest across all the basins in Colorado.
The local basin includes the mountain areas that drain into the San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel rivers.
Across the entire state, the snowpack is about 87 percent of the median.
The whole state benefited from the storms that dropped about 181 percent of the normal precipitation over a nine-day period at the end of February. This helped bring precipitation levels for the whole state back to normal for the month of February.
“This storm could not have come at a better time,” said Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor for the NRCS.
Winter storms are especially critical as the spring melt approaches.
“Time is dwindling to close the gap and reach typical statewide peak snowpack levels,” an NRCS statement said.
While the snow was beneficial, La Plata County and many Western Slope counties are still in moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The good news is Colorado reservoir storage is 105 percent of average across the whole state.
Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs are both filled to more than 100 percent of average. However, they are not full.
March and April snows could improve the outlook further.
“This is the time of year where we should be gaining significantly,” Moss said.
Despite the lower than average snowpack, the snow/water measurements have been above average.
Ramey said the average precipitation water equivalent for winter at the airport is 3.45 inches, but we came in at 3.97 inches, 0.52 inches above normal.
“You got a lot of that as rain in Durango,” Ramey said, “because of the warmth, predicting the snow/rain line was always difficult this winter.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Ramey said you may see 1 or 2 degrees of variance in temperature in a single month, not percentage.