Snow Runoff Sets Summer Season Up for Success


Elsa Tullar

View from the Sheer Bliss lift on Snowmass Mountain.

As the 2022-23’ ski season comes to an end, Aspen has been left with record-breaking snowfall, promising a thriving summer season.

The snow runoff in Colorado plays a crucial role in shaping the upcoming summer. As the snow melts in the spring and early summer, it feeds into the state’s rivers and reservoirs, providing the primary water source for the region. The water is used for various purposes, including irrigation, drinking water, and recreational activities such as boating, rafting, and fishing. In past years since 2002, the snow runoff has hit all-time lows, leading to restrictions on fire, water usage, and potentially agriculture and tourism. 2002, 2012, 2018, and 2020 were some of Colorado’s driest years on record. The outdoor recreation industry contributes to about 2.2% of the U.S. national gross domestic product. Water resources are essential to support these recreational activities, however, due to Colorado’s drought history, there has been an increase in cancelations for hotels, and tourism around the whole state has decreased. However, if the snow runoff is high, like this year, the stress surrounding the health of ecosystems and industries that rely heavily on these water sources is relieved, and drought risk is reduced.

This past winter delivered an impressive amount of snow to all four mountains, which is essential to have a happier and healthier summer. Our valley has been prone to wildfires, and throughout Colorado and Utah, water levels in reservoirs such as Lake Powell have been decreasing at an alarming rate. The Lake Christine wildfire that occurred in El Jebel on July 3, 2018, burned over 12,500 acres of land. This destructive wildfire destroyed many residential buildings and shows how dry the vegetation surrounding Colorado has been. However, due to a record-breaking winter, these reservoirs have the potential to increase in level, and fire danger could be significantly lowered in the upcoming months.

Upon finalizing the snowfall numbers for this year, it can be observed that there has been a significant rise in the amount of snow compared to previous years. The 2022-23’ winter season is coming to a close with a total of 412 inches. Compared to the 2021-22’ season ending with a total of 350 inches and the 2020-21’ season with 257 inches. Not only did this winter provide some incredible ski days, but the runoff as spring comes around will contribute to levels in large bodies of water.

Although the Rockies experienced a record-breaking winter, it may not be enough to replenish the Colorado River leading into Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Recent data collected by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) shows that the heavy precipitation in the Rocky Mountains is projected to boost the spring runoff in Lake Powell to 117% of an average year. While this winter’s snow may provide a temporary boost to major reservoirs, it will not provide enough water to fix the southwest’s long-term imbalance.

The largest manmade reservoir in the US, Lake Mead, is fed by the Colorado River, and recently, it has reached its lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s. Since Lake Mead’s peak water level in the year 2000, the reservoir has fallen more than 146 feet, and now the lake is only 29% full. Additionally, the Colorado Rivers’s second largest reservoir, Lake Powell, is currently at 23% of its capacity.

The southwest has been struggling for many years to achieve a balanced summer season where there is the appropriate amount of precipitation to fill reservoirs and hydrate vegetation while simultaneously avoiding floods. Colorado is entering the summer of 2023 with positive a positive mindset. Even though we are coming out of a record-breaking winter, this doesn’t mean that our reservoirs are in the clear. This summer, continue to take wildfire precautions seriously and use water responsibly to protect our beautiful state of Colorado, and remember that it is still in a vulnerable condition.