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Solid start to 2022-23 snow season in Colorado

Water planners optimistic for a strong finish, but cautious.

The winter of 2022-23 is off to a cold and snowy start across most of Colorado, which is good news for the state’s water supply.

So far, water watchers say we’ve had the best start for the statewide snowpack season since 2017. 

However, while some parts of the state, like Steamboat Springs, are seeing the highest snowpack levels in over a decade, numbers in some parts of the state are lagging.

Snowpack is a measurement of the amount of water packed into the snow.

The statewide snowpack stood at 132% of average as of Jan. 31, but depending on where you are, the snowpack levels were dramatically different across Colorado. Image credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Colorado is a big state and it’s not uncommon to see a wide range of snow totals across various regions,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.

For example, the snowpack in the northwest corner of Colorado sat at 151% of normal as of Jan. 31, but the southeastern corner was just at 83% of normal.

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The amount of snow that falls in the mountains is critical in Colorado because that’s where most of the state’s water comes from each year.

Skiers enjoy a powder day at Winter Park Ski Resort in December 2022. The resort saw 85 inches of snow in January and reported receiving 226 inches of snow so far this season as of Jan. 31. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Denver Water provides water to 1.5 million people in Denver and several surrounding suburbs, and 90% of the utility’s water supply comes from snow. The utility collects water from roughly 4,000 square miles of terrain in the mountains and foothills west of Denver in the Upper Colorado and Upper South Platte river basins.

Denver Water collects roughly half of its water from the Colorado River Basin and half from the South Platte.

Denver Water collects water from across 4,000 square miles of forest that spans the Upper Colorado and the South Platte river basins. Image credit: Denver Water.

In the areas where Denver Water collects water, as of Jan. 31, the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin stood at 111% of normal, while the Upper South Platte River Basin stood at 82% of normal.

Seven SNOTEL stations in the area of the Colorado River Basin where Denver Water collects water are tracking above normal (the blue line) so far this season. Image credit: Denver Water.

Seven SNOTEL stations in the area of the South Platte River Basin where Denver Water collects water are tracking below normal (the blue line) so far this season. Image credit: Denver Water.

“The difference in snowpack is why Denver Water has built a large collection system spread across several counties. That way if one area is having a down year, hopefully things are better in another area. And that’s what we’re seeing so far this year,” Elder said. 

Elder said this year the snowfall in the mountains has been steady since November 2022, compared with last winter, which will be remembered for having only a couple big storms that hit over the holiday season and ended up providing the bulk of the entire season’s total snowfall.

“As a water planner, it would be nice to have a steady, predictable snowpack season, but weather doesn’t work that way and each year plays out differently,” Elder said. “That’s why we constantly monitor the mountain snowpack and adjust our water planning accordingly.”

See how Denver Water monitors the snowpack from the air, on the ground and by using automated weather stations. 

Denver Water’s reservoir storage stood at 82% full heading into February, which is average for this time of year. Elder said he’s cautiously optimistic the reservoirs will fill when the snow melts in the spring due to the snowpack so far.

He’s also encouraged by the fact that soil moisture for the state is the best it’s been in eight years

“When the soil moisture is in good shape, it means more water will flow into rivers and streams instead of being absorbed by dry ground,” he said.

Denver Water monitors snowpack throughout the winter season, using monthly measurements gathered by crews on the ground and daily reports from automated weather stations. The utility also gets information about the snowpack from planes surveying its collection system using high-tech equipment. 

Denver Water crews use a specialized metal tube to measure the water content of the snowpack during the winter months. Photo credit: Denver Water.

This year, planes will fly over forests in Summit and Grand counties where Denver Water collects water — and for the first time also will fly over the utilities’ South Platte and South Boulder Creek watersheds.

“We’ve got our snowiest months of the season coming up, and we’re hoping the snow will keep falling,” Elder said. “Snowpack typically peaks around the third week of April, so that’s the key snowpack measurement we’ll be watching."

Elder said that even though water supply looks good now, the winter months are a great time to get your house into water-wise shape indoors by finding and fixing toilet leaks, installing low-flow aerators and replacing old showerheads with WaterSense-labeled fixtures.