The snowpack that will drain this spring from the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges into the Arkansas River is slightly above normal and is poised – with help from anticipated weather patterns – to deliver a healthy recreation season in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, according to Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area officials in Salida.
That assessment came Wednesday from Tom Waters, AHRA park manager, and Bob Hamel, a member of the AHRA Citizen Task Force and former rafting outfitter.
However, two days earlier a SNOTEL report said Colorado’s snowpack is 127 percent of normal, and only one of the state’s eight drainage areas – the Arkansas River drainage – shows a snowpack below 100 percent of historical averages. The Arkansas River drainage has just 78 percent, according to SNOTEL, an automated system of snowpack and related climate sensors operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Arkansas River drainage, consisting of the Upper Arkansas River Valley and virtually the entire southeastern quarter of the state, covers nearly 25,000 of Colorado’s 105,00 square miles. And that expanse is at the heart of the snowpack contradictions.
While the 2022-2023 Upper Arkansas Valley snowpack, or “snow water equivalent,” in the Sawatch and Mosquito ranges is above normal, the same can’t be said for parts of the Sangre de Cristo Range, said Hamel. Southeastern Colorado rivers such as the Purgatoire (aka Purgatory) flow generally northeast from the Sangres to the lower Arkansas River many miles east of Pueblo, where moderate to severe drought conditions exist.
Without considerable help from spring storms in the southern Sangres the next two months, that lower section of the Arkansas – and the downstream farms and communities that rely on that snowpack – could see less water than normal this year.
Hamel said news reports, SNOTEL numbers and the massive size and diversity of the Arkansas River drainage area sometimes create confusion for outfitters and other businesses keeping a keen eye on snowpack numbers affecting the Arkansas River. Water levels in the lower Arkansas can differ greatly from those in the upper Arkansas.
An example of the contrasting snowpacks feeding the Arkansas River Basin is the current 28 percent of median at Apishapa near the Spanish Peaks and 127 percent at St. Elmo in western Chaffee County, according to SNOTEL. The snowpack on Pikes Peak, which flows into the lower Arkansas River, is also below historically normal levels.
“The outfitters take that information and interpret it in their own way,” Hamel said. “They (SNOTEL and the media) aren’t misleading anyone. It is what it is, and that’s the frustrating part of being tagged with the 78 percent number. It’s just a lot of information and people aren’t able to break it down.”
Waters said the AHRA relies on a customized measurement system that indicates a current snowpack for the Upper Arkansas River Valley at 105 percent of normal.
“We have an equation that we use at the office for snowpack and what we’ve identified as the area that affects the upper basin – the headwaters to Lake Pueblo – and it’s based on SNOTEL sites, but it’s used a little bit differently than the entire basin average,” he said.
Waters added that a strong snowpack is crucial to multiple entities within the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
“It’s beneficial to everyone that uses the Arkansas River,” he said. “When you look at that list, the agricultural component will come out as one of the biggest winners. That’s a benefit to the entire region. Another benefit is the environmental component, and that’s everything from the riparian areas that see water during the higher flows of the runoff and the regeneration of those areas, to the entire ecosystem – from the tiny macroinvertebrates (a major food source for trout in the Arkansas River) all the way up to the fish and birds.
“And then obviously the visitors to the area and the recreational component – that nonconsumptive use is something that is really important to people’s lives and also to the local economy,” Waters said. “That good water season brings people into the area, which provides outfitters with people to take down the river and restaurants to sell sandwiches to and T-shirt companies to sell T-shirts to.”
Hamel said he’s anticipating a busy recreation season this year for Salida and the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
“It’s going to be a great year for that,” he said. “The soil moisture content is better than it has been in the last few years, which enables the (melted) snow to make it all the way down to the river. And it helps keep wildfires down because trees are healthier. High runoff also benefits the fishery by cleansing the riverbed.”
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