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Colorado's Early Season Snowpack Shows Promising Improvement Amid Variable Conditions

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Nutrioso snow course

Dry conditions have dominated the water year until recently, and the below median precipitation and snowpack has led to below median streamflow forecasts for all major basins. The water year is still young and with recient storms there is still time for conditions to improve.   

Denver, CO – January 9th, 2024 – The New Year brings a cautious yet hopeful outlook, following early January storms that have begun to pivot the state from a dry start to a more promising winter season. Recent climatic fluctuations, characteristic of the current El Niño phase, have led to a below-average snowpack statewide. NRCS Hydrologist Nagam Gill offers a hopeful perspective: “The early January storms have served as a pivotal juncture for our state’s snowpack levels, which initially raised concerns. We’re now witnessing signs of improvement, indicative of the dynamic and responsive nature of our watershed to meteorological influences.” As of January 1st, snowpack was at 68 percent of normal, reflecting the need for consistent snowfall to reach average winter accumulations. Yet, the data signals an upward trend, with statewide snow water equivalent improving from 68 to 71 percent of normal in the first week of January. The San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan River basin showed significant improvement, rising from 62 to 71 percent of normal in just a week. “While the Upper Rio Grande River basin remains low, there has been improvement with the most recent storm cycle from 55 to 63 percent of normal. This is a testament to the rapidity with which conditions can evolve,” Gill comments on the potential for swift changes in the wake of each new storm. 

Colorado Mountain Snowpack Summary for January 1st 2024

Streamflow forecasts for January 1st reflect a mixed picture, with some basins like the Arkansas reaching 85 percent of normal and the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan at 68 percent of normal. Late summer precipitation trends offer a glimpse into soil conditions, with July’s drier spell particularly evident in the southern basins, ranging from 22 to 42 percent of median. However, a shift in the late season brought about above-normal rainfall in the northern regions and significantly improved moisture in the south from 63 to 112 percent of median, setting a favorable stage for runoff. Gill remarks, “A late summer uptick in soil moisture, lays the groundwork for priming basins for efficient hydrological response come spring.” 

Contrasting with the snowpack’s slow start, reservoir storage offers a silver lining and is faring better than the previous year, thanks to last season’s generous snowpack. As the year concluded, reservoirs across the state have reported healthy storage levels at 99 percent of median. The Upper Rio Grande and Arkansas basins report reservoir storages at 121 and 112 percent of median, respectively. Gill mentions the broader implications: “These reservoir levels are more than just numbers; they’re a buffer - This increased capacity provides a much-needed buffer against the variability of snowpack accumulation and positions Colorado to better handle the ebb and flow of seasonal precipitation.” 

Colorado River Basin Summary for January 1st, 2024