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Publish Date: 3/7/2005

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Longs Peak, with spotty snow cover, is pictured from U.S. Highway 287 just north of Longmont on Sunday. Times-Call/Lewis Geyer

Summer water limits not likely


With clear skies, dry weather and not much need for a coat, Colorado’s wettest and usually snowiest month has so far been a treat for short-sleeve lovers.

But those concerned with spring runoff filling reservoirs are hoping the storm clouds gather soon and start dropping wet, late-season snow.

“The first part of March is looking more like golf weather than ski weather,” said Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Though the weather’s great for golf, the 12 reservoirs in the district together are 12 percent below average water levels, a reminder to Werner that Colorado’s drought, or at least its impact, is sticking around.

But Longmont storage is still doing pretty good, said Ken Huson, water resource engineer for the city.

“We are going to be OK this summer,” he said. “We should have plenty of supply.”

Watering restrictions aren’t likely, Huson added, mainly because the past two springs produced good water, and the St. Vrain River produced decent runoff throughout the year.

Statewide, the snowpack is above its historical average, as well. But those numbers may incorrectly paint a picture of the Front Range soon swimming in abundant runoff waters.

Fact is, local snowpack numbers are down.

The snowpack in the South Platte River Basin, which collects water running off mountains between Denver and Wyoming, is 80 percent of average, said Don Graffis of the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Although that’s better than last year, he said it’s still below normal.

An even closer look reveals that the St. Vrain River Basin snowpack is estimated to be 76 percent of its 30-year average. That’s still a little better than last year, Graffis said.

As of Friday, Graffis said, snowpack measurements in the St. Vrain Basin average 29.5 inches, up from 22 inches last year at this time. The 30-year average is 38.9 inches.

That’s not all bad. Like Huson said, local rivers carried runoff throughout the winter thanks to warm weather, which could account for low snowpack numbers right now.

It’s a different story in southwestern Colorado, which is basically padding the statewide snowpack statistics. Surveyors in southwest Colorado measure snowpack at 148 percent above average, Graffis said.

He added that such measurements are a welcome change for folks in that area, who felt the brunt of a dry-winter trend during the first part of the 21st century.

Colorado will benefit from the wet southern snowpack, but much of that water also will run out of state and eventually into Lake Powell, Graffis said.

That’s good for Lake Powell, which is 33 percent below capacity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

And what’s good for Lake Powell is good for Colorado, Werner said, because water rights to the lake are senior to the Big Thompson water rights that much of northern Colorado depends on. The more the lake fills up, the more water that can be left for junior users in this state.

It’s just not as good.

“A good March and April can turn all this around,” Werner said.

In fact, some researchers believe that snowpack levels are moot points until March and April, when one-third of the year’s precipitation falls.

For example, an average of 14.5 inches of precipitation falls in the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District each year — which includes land north of the Denver metro area to Wyoming and west of the foothills to Nebraska.

March gets 2.7 inches of precipitation, or 18.6 percent of the annual total.

April’s 2.1 inches accounts for 14.5 percent of annual precipitation.

Graffis said the snow will likely fall, but whether it will bump up averages to normal is an unanswered question.

Everybody remembers March 19, 2003, when the biggest snowstorm in nearly a century buried much of the Front Range in feet and nearly singlehandedly saved the snowpack.

“There’s always a possibility, but I won’t say that it will,” he said.

Of course, when snow will fall this March is a pretty good question, too.

On Friday, the National Weather Service had no snow forecasted for the mountains or plains in the near future, giving short-sleeved golfers another few days to work on their swings.

Douglas Crowl can be reached at 303-684-5253, or by e-mail at dcrowl@times-call.com.

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