Conversation about the weather reveals the good and bad this year, but it is not as bad as some might imagine, at least not yet.
The usual street-corner and tavern chatter makes it clear conditions are drier than normal, making possible January mountain bike rides and hiking excursions in sunny 55-degree weather.
But the secret whispered to those in the know is that higher elevations are holding onto deep snow conditions for backcountry skiers. Telluride is having a decent ski season as well, thanks to early winter snows.
Therein lies the silver lining to what local meteorologist Jim Andrus refers to as the “slow-moving drought storm” gripping the Four Corners.
Snowfall measured by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources is showing above normal rates in some key areas.
Devices called “snotels” measure snow depth, and more important, snow water equivalent, a key indication of runoff levels essential for filling McPhee Reservoir in spring. Overall for Jan 21., the snowpack in the Dolores River drainage is at 80 percent of average.
Two snotels are showing above-average readings for water content. The Lizard Head location, at 10,200 feet, reads at 8 inches water equivalent for Jan. 21, or 103 percent of average, based on historical readings on the same day.
And the Scotch Creek location, at 9,100 feet, shows 6.5 inches water equivalent, or 107 percent of the historic average.
“The two doing the best are in the critical part of the drainage,” said Mike Preston, manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir. “If the winter is near average, we are set up to meet our water allocations.”
Another advantage the Dolores River drainage has going into this year is the 2013 monsoon season recharged depleted soil moisture in the mountains. August saw steady rain totaling 3.69 inches, or 269 percent of normal. In September, the region saw 2.92 inches of rain, or 223 percent of normal.
“Overall, we are in a better shape than this time last year,” Preston said. “The hydrologic system is charged up, and we have deep ground moisture.
“Last year, the soil was so dry all the snow was sucked into the ground, but this year with the foundation, when we get snowpack, it will runoff into the river.”
Another advantage over last year is that Naraguinnepp Reservoir, owned by Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., was able to fill thanks to the summer monsoon rains. Now when the snowmelt comes, McPhee will fill up quicker.
But taking off the rose-colored ski goggles, other factors are conspiring against us.
January is zero percent of normal for precipitation; there has only been a trace of moisture in four weeks; it is not an El Niño year — the Pacific Ocean warming that brings wetter weather to the Southwest; and a persistent high pressure ridge off the Pacific Coast is blocking all storms from even glancing the Four Corners.
“It does not look promising, the 10-day outlook is dry,” said Andrus, a National Weather Service observer based in Cortez. “If we get a low-pressure trough to push the jet stream further south it would give us a better chance at some storms.”
Improving over last year, the bar is set pretty low. In 2013, irrigators with local water districts had just 25 percent of their normal share because of low levels at McPhee, Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.