Low snowpack in Southwest Colorado could affect spring runoff and the local economy if levels do not rise.
The Southwest corner of the state’s snow water equivalent is 54 percent of normal, according to recent data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Snow water equivalent measures how much water is in the snowpack and is the standard for keeping track of snowpack, John Andrew Gleason, lecturer of geosciences at Fort Lewis College, said.
A potential downside of the snow water equivalent measurement is that it uses a 30-year moving average, Gleason said. As the years get drier, what is considered normal is drier too.
The snowpack for 2018 is very low, Gleason said. Currently, the snowpack is lower than in 2002, the driest year on record in southwest Colorado and when the Missionary Ridge Fire happened.
The snow year is already halfway over, Gleason said. However, March and April is when this region generally gets the most snowfall, he said.
“The best thing that could happen is that it’ll snow,” he said
A heavy, wet snow is the best type of snow for the snowpack because it compacts and contains lots of water, he said.
A low snowpack and warm spring can lead to problems during the rest of the year. A colder spring is ideal so that the snow doesn't melt off too fast, Gleason said.
Warm spring weather has been occurring earlier in the year, Julie Korb, a professor of biology at FLC, said. This dries out vegetation and leads to dangerous wildland fire conditions in the summer and fall, she said.
“In 2002, one of the reasons we had such a bad fire season here was the low snowpack and very little runoff,” Gleason said.
Dust, which decreases the reflectivity of snow, increases the rate of snowmelt in the spring, Gleason said.
As the snow melts and uncovers more exposed ground, there is more potential for wind picking up and carrying dust onto the snow, Gleason said.
Another possible problem is water supply. Reservoirs are currently close to normal, but water managers will drain the reservoirs in preparation for spring run off, Gleason said. It could be a problem if the runoff doesn't fill the reservoirs back up, he said.
Low snowpack also increases avalanche danger because the snowpack is unstable. This was seen in the January avalanche death of a FLC alumnus, Gleason said.
Low snowpack this year can be attributed to the La Niña weather pattern. La Niña years happen when water is cooler in the Pacific Ocean, which sends storms more north of Southwest Colorado, Gleason said.
La Niña years are normal or drier than normal for the Durango area, Gleason said. We are also in the second La Niña year in a row, and the second year tends to be drier, he said.
The perfect storm for this area is a low-pressure storm that sits above us rather than moving east too quickly, Gleason said.
“If you see rains in Los Angeles, and the winds are out of the southwest, that usually will predict a pretty big storm for us,” he said.
The Animas River could see lower flows, impacting rafting and water sport tourism in the summer, Tim Walsworth, Business Improvement District executive director, said.
It is hard to keep track of economic effects of warm winters in real time, Walsworth said. The best indicator of downtown patronage is sales tax, which isn’t immediately available.
Current sales tax figure are only available from last November, he said.
Winter is already a slower time of the year for Durango, Walsworth said.
January and February are usually the slowest tourism months in downtown, Theresa Blake Graven, public relations consultant at the Durango Area Tourism Office, said.
“We’re in a bit of a different situation here in Durango because we’re not like Crested Butte that’s completely dependent on skier tourism,” Graven said. “We have a lot of other stuff going on,” Graven said.
Polar express train bookings were up 10 percent over last year, Christian Robbins, marketing manager at the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad said.
The railroad estimates that 70 percent of the 33,000 passengers come from outside of the area, which leads to money being spent in Durango from lodging and other hospitality, Robbins said.
Downtown Durango’s peak activity occurs in July, and the second-best month is in December, Walsworth said. The winter festival Snowdown can bring needed business to town at the beginning of February, he said.
Snowdown was originally created to bring more more business into town during the slow winter months, Graven said. However, Snowdown tends to bring a more local crowd rather than people from out of town, she said.