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‘Unusually anemic’ snowfall does not look good for upcoming seasons

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Posted: Friday, February 1, 2013 7:29 am

A second winter in a row of “unusually anemic” snowfall does not look good for the upcoming seasons, water officials said Jan. 23.

Typically this time of year the mountains receive an inch of moisture a week, yet weekly totals through Jan. 23 mostly ranged from 0.1 to 1 inch along the Western Slope, with a few isolated pockets receiving 1 to 2 inches, the Water Availability Task Force’s January drought update reported.

While the mountains did receive increased precipitation in the last week of January, it was “not enough to make up the monthly deficit.”

Despite beneficial moisture in December that boosted snowpack to 70 percent of normal, a very dry January has resulted in snowpack declines in all of the state’s major river basins since Jan. 1.

In Salida January yielded only 0.01 inch of precipitation throughout the entire month. January usually has an average precipitation of 0.33 inch, historical Mountain Mail records show.

Although the 2012 calender year ended with a month of good precipitation and average temperatures, the year will go down as the second warmest year on record in Colorado, the January drought update reported.

In 2012 temperatures regularly came in 3 to 5 degrees above normal, resulting in an annual average of 48.6 degrees, a close second place to 1934, in the height of the Dust Bowl, which averaged 48.9 degrees.

If the Chaffee County area has a drought this year similar to last year’s conditions, “that would be a record,” Terry Scanga, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District manager, said Jan. 31.

This area has never seen two back-to-back drought years of last year’s severity, he said. If the drought continues, irrigation rights will see the impact first, probably near July.

If irrigation rights start seeing problems, crop prices will go up even higher than last year, Scanga said.

However, the area still has enough time in which a change in weather conditions could end the drought before the beginning of the agricultural season, he said.

For the first time in 9 years, ENSO-neutral conditions are likely to dominate through the winter months, which means neither El Niño nor La Niña is influencing weather patterns. Without their influence, it is difficult to determine when the current drought regime will be broken in Colorado, the Water Availability Task Force report said.

While a strong intraseasonal event could help transition back to El Niño by spring, it could also bring additional moisture before then, Klaus Wolter reported Jan. 23 to the Colorado Water Conservation Board Water Availability Task Force.

“There is currently no capability to predict such an event more than a week or two in advance. There is nothing on the horizon for now, despite one brief flicker of hope earlier this month,” he said.

Wolter is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Diagnostics Center and the University of Colorado Boulder.

“My forecast for late winter, January to March, shows below-normal odds for moisture in much of (Colorado), still consistent with a cold North Pacific (PDO) in conjunction with a warm North Atlantic (AMO),” Wolter reported

Positive AMO and negative PDO values go a long way toward explaining our dry fall and early winter. Given the continuing PDO-AMO setup for drought, pessimism remains justified for at least the next few months, he reported.

The statewide Surface Water Supply Index values for December range from a high value of -1.1 in the Yampa/White Basin to a low value of -3.0 in the Arkansas Basin, with a value of zero representing near-normal water supply, the Colorado water supply conditions update from the Colorado Division of Water Resources reported Jan. 23.

The Surface Water Supply Index, known as SWSI, developed by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, is used as an indicator of mountain-based water supply conditions in the major river basins of the Colorado.

The index is based on snowpack, reservoir storage and precipitation for the winter period of November through April. During the winter period, snowpack is the primary component in most basins.

Snowpack improved in all basins compared to Dec. 1 numbers, although snowpack is still below normal throughout the state, the update reported.

With the exception of reservoir storage in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins, all components of the SWSI (reservoir storage, cumulative precipitation and snowpack) are below normal for the Jan. 1 numbers.

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