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iSeeChange: Rain and Snow - Signs of a Wet Winter?

Travis Bubenik/KVNF

For this week's iSeeChange report, we looked into the recent flurry of rain and some snow, and what, if anything, it might tell us about the coming winter.

After historic rains and flooding devastated the Front Range, western Colorado recently got its own brief taste of storms. The town of Hotchkiss saw some minor flooding, and a short but heavy storm with pea-sized hail swept through Paonia over the weekend.

Along with those rains came the exciting sight of the season’s first snow on the mountains. Some showed up on Lamborn on Monday, the San Juans were blanketed over the weekend, and North Fork resident Cedar Keshet saw the peaks of Coal Mountain and Mount Gunnison turn white late last week.

All of that raises one obvious question – are we in for a wet winter?

"I've lived in Colorado and in the West long enough to say I don't know," says Keshet. She lives up on Fire Mountain Road and works horses in Crawford. She first saw the white peaks at home on a rainy day last week

Credit Cedar Keshet
Snow on the peak of Coal Mountain, as seen from Cedar Keshet's front porch.

"On days that it's rain I stay in my studio and paint," says Keshet, "and I love watching weather. This time of year my eyes are already like, 'where's the snow?'"

Meteorologist Joe Ramey works at the National Weather Service’s office in Grand Junction. He says despite all the recent rain and snow, we shouldn’t get too excited yet.

“The Trend really looks like a better chance for below-average snowfall,” Ramey says. His models say we’re in for a dry winter, but like Cedar, he makes it clear that anything can happen.

“Every winter is unique in Colorado,” he says, “but everything I’m looking at unfortunately says below-average snowfall is probably the best forecast for this winter.”

Ramey says most predictions on whether we’ll have a wet or dry winter depend on whether we’re in an El Niño or La Niña year, what Ramey calls the “900-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to forecasting for the cold season.

Forecasters get a general idea of what winters will look like by studying sea temperatures off the coast of Ecuador in the South Pacific. If they’re below normal, it’s an El Niño year; if they’re above normal, it’s a La Niña year. And if they’re about normal, we’re in what Ramey calls a “No Niño” year, otherwise known as La Nada.

“What I’ve found looking back through the climate record is that No Niño yeas are really wildcard years for Colorado,” says Ramey.

Those wildcard conditions usually show up in the kind of extremely dry years we've been seeing recently. With El Niño conditions storms tend to hit southern states the hardest; with La Niña it's the northern states. But when there’s a neutral year, those storms can concentrate pretty much anywhere:

“If Colorado happens to be in the storm track for that year, we can be very wet,” Ramey explains. “If it happens to be out of the storm track we can be very dry.”

So basically, and however depressing it may sound, a wetter-than-usual September doesn’t mean we’re in for a good snowpack year, and it definitely doesn’t mean we’ll see much relief from the drought anytime soon. 

Jim Pokrant with the Colorado River District says that while the historic rains in eastern Colorado might wind up easing water demands some, and helping river flows in that part of the state, that storm still won’t significantly help our water shortages.

“You don’t want to say it’s inconsequential,” says Pokrant, “but you can’t lose sight of the fact that you need a big snow year to really say there’s a good water year.”

“We need a couple good snowpack years to really break the drought.”

But even though we're a long way from full drought recovery, it's hard not to get a little giddy as the seasons change.

Keshet says in her experience people often get excited about a winter full of snow after a rainy early fall, only to be disappointed. But she’s also seen the opposite, where September rains are “just the tip of the iceberg” for winter snows.

“I’ve seen all different things so I don’t predict,” she says. “I let professionals guess.”  

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