Dust in snow causes early melting in region's high country

April 16, 2010
photo - Dust stains snow near Monarch Pass with hues of pink and brown.  Photo by Kevin Hoffman, The Mountain Mail, Salida, CO
Dust stains snow near Monarch Pass with hues of pink and brown. Photo by Kevin Hoffman, The Mountain Mail, Salida, CO 

The snow is melting in Colorado’s high country, swelling creeks as they bubble out of the mountains and into rivers, on an annual journey to the faucets of Colorado and cities throughout the West.

A little early, it seems.

For the second year in a row, heavy winds out of the south and west have coated the mountains – the source of Colorado Springs’ water – with a layer of reddish-brown dust from the deserts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The dust absorbs heat from sunlight and melts the snow more quickly.

Snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin, 107 percent of average three weeks ago, was at 87 percent Friday. The Upper Colorado River Basin dropped from 78 to 73 percent of average in the same period. At the same time, river levels are rising. The flow of the Arkansas River near the mouth of the Royal Gorge doubled in the past week, from 400 cubic feet per second to 800. In southwest Colorado, melting snow combined with a fresh storm caused flooding fears for this weekend.

“The combination of the dust being on the surface (of the snow) and the warm air temperatures, we’re getting a pretty good surge,” said Kimberly Buck, assistant to the director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton.

In the desert regions south and west of Colorado, agriculture, development and off-roading have destroyed plants and the layer of crust that hold down the fine soil, and winds again have blown the dust hundreds of miles to the barrier of the Rockies. Most of the dust came in windstorms March 30 and April 5, Buck said.

“Our watershed operators have reported seeing dust in our watersheds, but this is an intermittent phenomenon, and basically just results in a little different runoff pattern,” said Wayne Vanderschuere, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities.

Utilities has reservoir space available to capture the runoff, he said. Utilities’ storage was at 79 percent of capacity at the end of March.

“The water supplies are in real stout condition. Compared to where we were just a few short years ago in the drought stretch, things are looking real good,” he said.

For the state’s river-rafting industry, an early melt-off could be devastating, since most people don’t start rafting until temperatures warm in late May. But river runners aren’t worried.

“There are so many factors – when and if (water providers) have to move water, late storms, temperatures in the high country,” said Bob Hamel, with Arkansas River Tours in Cotopaxi and chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. “Obviously brown snow absorbs more heat and melts faster, but so many other factors combining do not make that the biggest concern for us.”

And there was good news in the forecast. A spring snowstorm Friday was expected to drop up to a foot in southwest Colorado and a few inches in the central mountains, enough to cover the dust.

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