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Winter’s snowpack runoff does not look promising

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DENVER (KDVR) — Despite Colorado seeing a normal snowpack of 94%, many streams, rivers and lakes across the state will see significantly less runoff water this spring due to last fall’s drought conditions.

“If there is 94% of a normal snowpack then you expect there to be roughly 94% of stream flow run off, but the forecasts have been lower than most years compared to the current snowpack because we entered winter with a major drought,” Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with Natural Resources Conservation Services, said

Dozens of snow tracking crews are in Colorado’s backcountry this week measuring the depth of the winter’s snowpack, so agencies know more about this year’s water supply.  But despite the high snowpack this year, water runoff expectations are historically low due to two years of high temperatures and low precipitation. 

“Soil across the state is so dry. You can think of it as a dry sponge in your kitchen. You can pour water on it, but it has to be a certain amount full before it will drain out and soil is similar,” said Wetlaufer. “That will inhibit snow melt from actually reaching the rivers. This is a very unique year.”

Several water agencies and NRCS gather snowpack data and climate information manually and wirelessly to determine stream run off and expected water supply. The remote automated system called SNOTEL measured historically low precipitation. 

“About half of SNOTEL had their lowest or second lowest precipitation amounts on record going back 40 years.  April 1 to April 1 has been very notable as very dry,” Wetlaufer said,

NRCS data shows the northern mountains faring better than the southwestern area of the San Juan Mountains, (except Headwaters) where run off is expected at 50 to 60% of average stream flow.

“This year will have a huge impact. Less than 50% in flow into Lake Powell is very concerning,” Wetlaufer said. “We are expecting extremely low stream flow values and that will affect people’s water rights.”

SNOTEL snowpack report is updated based on data from NRCS remote gathering sites.

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