LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Snow scientists identify April 6 as the typical date to best evaluate the snowpack levels for the runoff to the Colorado River each year.
This year, with a month to go, things are looking good. And it’s about a lot more than just how deep the snow is right now.
The snowpack — snow water equivalent (SWE) — is currently at 134% of normal in the Upper Colorado River Basin according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. A look at recent reports on snowpack levels over the past few weeks (see the blue box in the center of each image below):
Karl Rittger, a research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, analyzes all kinds of data on snow and brings it to the public through his “Snow Today” website, part of the National Snow and Ice Data Center through the University of Colorado Boulder.
Rittger’s analysis shows that recent weather has left a “bright” snowpack in the Rockies that isn’t absorbing too much of the sun’s energy — and so it’s melting slower and will last longer. That is, if these trends continue.
Besides the snow depth, Rittger looks at the amount of land covered by snow. That’s important, even if that water never makes it to the Colorado River drainage system that reaches all the way to Lake Mead.
“We’ve got more area than we usually do covered with snow,” Rittger said.
The reason that’s important: Any precipitation or snow cover helps keep dust down. Dust particles absorb the sun’s energy and make snow melt faster. But if the dust never makes it to the mountain snowpack surfaces, the snow “albedo” — brightness — remains high and reflects more of the sunlight.
You can go to the website and see comparisons to previous years, and look at different factors that affect snowmelt. In the video at the top of this story, Rittger goes through some of the things he watches for snow in the Colorado Rockies and other regions.
Rittger’s website offers tools to look at snow in ways you never imagined. And it’s important in understanding what’s happening as climate change brings hotter, drier weather to the West. The website uses satellite imagery which is more useful as the science grows. Measurements taken on the ground are plotted on points on the map.
“What you see here is that on the western portion of the Upper Colorado on into Utah there, we have very high values” for snow cover, he said. He sees more normal conditions near Denver.
The Upper Colorado River Basin feeds the river, providing water for 40 million people as it passes through Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and on to Arizona, California and Mexico.
That snow that you see on the mountains around Las Vegas? It doesn’t amount to enough to affect the water level in Lake Mead. And pictures of record snows in California? When it melts, it’s headed to the Pacific Ocean — not Lake Mead. It’s all about water stored in the snowpack in the Rockies.
Conservationists say the Colorado River Basin is getting about 20% less water than before the megadrought that began in 2023, and temperatures along the path of the river are about 2.5 degrees higher.
After two decades of drought, the “normal” — a 30-year average — isn’t what it was before the year 2000. And scientists emphasize that climate change isn’t going away. One good year for snowpack levels will not undo years of drought.