By Jim Mimiaga
Journal Staff Writer
Ten days and several nights of snowstorms in the past 51 days has put Cortez above normal for snowfall in the 2018-19 winter season.
But because of an abnormally dry 2017-18 winter, Southwest Colorado remains in the worst drought category of “exceptional,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“We’re off to a good start, but we are still playing catch-up,” said Jim Andrus, local weather observer for the National Weather Service. “It will take more generous months of precipitation to get us out of the exceptional drought.”
Since the beginning of the winter season on Nov. 1, Cortez has received 23.6 inches of snowfall, Andrus said. The average winter snowfall through January is 21.2 inches of snowfall, so Cortez is already at 111 percent of normal as of Jan. 2.
For all of last winter season, Cortez recorded a total of 8 inches of snowfall, or 22 percent of average.
With the storms came a cold snap. On Jan. 2, Cortez had a low of minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest Jan. 2 in at least 10 years, Andrus said.
December 2018 was a very wet month, with total snow water equivalent measured at 1.8 inches, or 207 percent of the average .88 inches, Andrus said.
Yearly precipitation totals have been dropping since 2016. Precipitation for 2018 was 10.09 inches, or 80 percent of the average of 12.75 inches.
In 2017, Cortez received a total of 11.27 inches of precipitation, or 88 percent of average. In 2016, total precipitation was 102 percent of average.
This winter has started strong. Snowstorms hit Cortez and surrounding towns on Nov. 11, 22, 30, 31; on Dec. 6, 7, 25, 26; and on Jan. 1, 2.
The holiday storms – Christmas through New Year’s – brought the heaviest snowstorms to the area, in all dumping more than a foot of snow in Cortez and more than 3 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
Chain laws went into effect on area passes, and the increase in snowpack triggered an avalanche warning from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center that lasted until Wednesday morning. The threat of an avalanche for the southern and northern San Juans is currently rated “considerable,” the third-highest of five levels.
People triggered several large avalanches in the San Juan Mountains before the New Year’s storm. With all the new snow and wind, triggered avalanches will be larger and more dangerous than a week ago.
Back-to-back storms over several days and nights created snowpacked, icy road conditions in Montezuma County and contributed to multiple accidents between Christmas and New Year’s.
On Dec. 28, there were at least four accidents, including three within 4 miles of one another on U.S. Highway 160. New Year’s Eve saw a three-car accident on South Broadway.On Dec. 26, four people suffered multiple fractures when the Ford Explorer they were in was hit head-on by a box truck that had lost control on ice on U.S. Highway 160 east of Mancos. An El Niño weather pattern, indicated by increasing Equatorial Pacific temperatures, is developing and increasing the probability that winter storms will continue to track more south and hit the Four Corners area.
Recent storms have been dipping more southward, an indication the El Niño effect is kicking in, said Kris Sanders, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
“More storms are lining up for your area and could bring more snow to the San Juans,” Sanders said.
The 30-day forecast shows temperatures will be near average, he said, and there is “a hint” that precipitation will be slightly above average.
In the Dolores Basin of the San Juan Mountains, snowpack was at 84 percent of average as of Jan. 2, according to Snotel devices that measure snowfall at different elevations. A dry November contributed to the below-average tally.
Last year at this time, the Dolores Basin snowpack was just 26 percent of average and ended the winter season at 50 percent of average, according to Snotel reports. Last year was a drier La Niña weather pattern, indicated by cooling Equatorial Pacific temperatures, which increases probability that winter storms will take a more northerly route that miss the Four Corners area.
In the 2016-17 winter, the Dolores Basin snowpack was 124 percent of average for the season, a banner year that filled all the reservoirs and led to an 85-day whitewater boating release in the Dolores River below McPhee Dam.
The up-and-down winter seasons and persistent drought are to be expected, Andrus said.
“Welcome to the Southwest climate,” he said.
The Four Corners and Southwest Colorado remain in the worst category of exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest posting, on Dec. 25. But the area of exceptional drought has been shrinking the past two months.