Why a snowy winter doesn’t mean a wet spring

Denver Water’s drought response team warns that above-average snowpack doesn’t mean above-normal runoff
At midwinter, snowpack was rebounding across Colorado, but forecasters were cautious about future supply.

Just as in the game of life, Colorado’s weather and drought outlook can change swiftly. That’s why Denver Water’s drought response committee held its first meeting of 2019 in mid-January—in the depths of a snowy winter—to review snowpack levels and weather forecasts, and to participate in an annual training exercise.

At midwinter, snowpack was rebounding across Colorado after a drier year in 2018, especially in the southwestern part of the state. But Denver Water forecasters were cautious, waiting to see what late winter and spring weather brought in terms of precipitation before speaking with any certainty about summer water supplies.

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Even a strong water year could come with caveats. Low soil moisture and an early spring warmup are two factors that could reduce the amount of snowmelt that runs off into streams and fills reservoirs.

“It’s important for everyone to realize that just because you have above-normal snowpack in the winter, that does not mean you will also have above-normal runoff in the spring,” says Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.

In some communities, dry conditions can lead them to impose summertime watering restrictions that typically limit lawn watering to no more than three days per week, not watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. or at any time when it is raining.

But for Denver Water customers, those rules are in place regardless of hydrological conditions, and have been since 2005, as part of the utility’s effort to make efficient irrigation practices a habit for Denverites. Denver Water drought and supply experts could put in place additional restrictions if conditions warrant.

Water users have responded well to the standard summertime watering rules.

Despite the historically hot temperatures during the summer of 2018, customers still used at least 20% less water compared to similarly hot, dry stretches in past years. They’ve done so by installing high-efficiency fixtures, water-smart landscaping and following summer watering rules.

Jason Finehout, Denver Water’s drought preparedness coordinator, said the midwinter planning exercise, involving experts from across the organization, helps prepare the utility for what might come.

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“Through training exercises like the one in January,” he said, “Denver Water continues to prepare for all scenarios so that we can expertly manage and supply an essential natural resource to sustain our vibrant community—because water connects us all.”

Cathy Proctor is a writer and editor at Denver Water.

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