State water experts said Thursday there's little chance the Colorado snowpack will climb back to normal, as drought has intensified across the critical high mountains of Colorado, with parts of key watersheds like the Blue River in Summit County, now categorized as being in extreme drought.
"We're going to see more water restrictions ... I think folks will try to step up to the plate to try and keep streams as healthy as possible," said Colorado Water Trust special projects manager Scott Hummer after attending the state's water availability task force meeting in Denver.
Only record-breaking late winter and spring snowfall could bring the snowpack close to average, weather experts said. Some towns could enact water restrictions before the spring irrigation season even begins, with only a 10 percent chance that the Colorado River Basin snowpack — the key to transmountain diversions — will rebound to average runoff.
Some automated SNOTEL sites around the state are at all-time record low levels. While the mountains should be gaining snow at the average rate of an inch per day right now, the SNOTEL data shows that the snowpack has dipped a bit just in the past few weeks, after an unusually dry January. With cold temperatures in the valleys, most streams are flowing barely above historic minimums.
Hummer said it's very rare to see drought conditions in the high country in January, and a red flag fire warning from the National Weather Service this week illustrated conditions. Forecasters said three small fires burned Jan.23 in the foothills west of Golden and Boulder.
Fire warnings in January were extremely rare 30 years ago, but have become more common in the last decade, according to Boulder-based National Weather Service forecaster Mike Baker. January precipitation has only been about 30 percent of normal in the state.
Baker said conditions are similar to the late winter of 2002 when an early snowpack meltdown and quick warmup set the stage for the massive Hayman Fire. The big-picture climate picture is also similar, with the echoes of cool La Niña still pushing the jet stream north of the area.
Baker said the outlook for the next few months isn't completely clear, with some signs that the subtropical jet stream could come to life in the spring, fueling storms especially in the southern and eastern part of the state.
There's also some hope for the short term, with at least a chance of snow the next seven to 10 days, but beyond that, dry conditions could return, said NOAA research meteorologist Klaus Wolter, explaining how a combination of cooler waters in the North Pacific and warmer-than-average Atlantic Ocean conditions favor dry conditions in Colorado.
The same pattern can be linked with other historically dry periods in Colorado's history, Wolter said.