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Colorado snowpack levels favorable, but spring precipitation will be key

March 5, 2014 Updated: March 6, 2014 at 7:21 am
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Marzena Matecki gives her dog, Butters, a little push in the South Suburban reservoir waters to cool off, as he other dog Cherokee, enjoys himself in this July 2013 photo. Water storage levels across Colorado are at 57 percent, well above last year's 47 percent. (Carol Lawrence,The Gazette)

Snowfall can be a nuisance for city dwellers, but at higher altitudes, more is better, just ask Colorado Springs Utilities.

Utilities' March Water Outlook report says snowpack levels are above average and the early season yield projections indicate a positive outlook for the year.

Water storage levels throughout the state are at 57 percent capacity, according to utilities officials. Although that's not an ideal number, utilities spokesman Steve Berry said that's a far cry from where levels were sitting at this time last year.

"Last year we were at about 47 percent capacity, and we were going through a severe drought," Berry said. "It's a good jump, and it's really just below the 30-year average of about 62 percent capacity."

Although winter temperatures fell into the single and negative digits, an increase in snowfall accumulations in the mountains diminished drought conditions in the region, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

According to the National Weather Service's Winter Review, which summarized weather from Dec. 1to Feb. 28, Colorado Springs received 19.1 inches of snow, which is 2.9 inches above normal.

Overall precipitation levels were slightly lower than usual, however, with .96 inches recorded; that is .04 inches below the seasonal average, according to the weather service. Much of the precipitation, .67 inches of rain and 13.6 inches of snow, was tallied in January, making it the ninth wettest and third snowiest January on record in Colorado Springs.

Spring forecasts can get trickier, said National Weather Service meteorologist Kyle Mozley, because weather systems during the transitional season can be difficult to predict and highly volatile. For the most part, rainfall levels in the Pikes Peak region are expected to mimic annual averages, but the weather service did not give specific projections.

"The average annual precipitation in Colorado Springs in March is about one inch, increasing to about 1.4 inches in April, and ramping up to 2.03 inches by May," Mozley said. "It really depends on what temperatures we get, could be snow if it's colder or rain if it's warmer."

Mozley said that higher elevations west of El Paso County, such as Woodland Park, Cripple Creek and Florissant in Teller County received significantly more snow. Woodland Park reported up to 16 inches of snow accumulation for the season. Cripple Creek saw nearly nine inches, and Florissant received up to 6.9 inches, according to weather service observers.

It was exactly that increase in snowfall, utilities officials say, that helped the snowpack levels in the mountain reservoirs and watersheds.

As of Feb. 28, Pikes Peak snowpack levels were at 52 percent, and Rampart Reservoir at 86 percent, bringing local storage levels to 73 percent, according to utilities records. Additionally, snowpack in the Upper Colorado Basin is at 130 percent of average, and the Arkansas Basin level is at average capacity.

Drought conditions and water restrictions imposed by utilities officials encouraged area residents to conserve water, according to utilities records. February water consumption averaged 40.4 million gallons per day, about three percent less than last February. Year-to-date useage averaged 39.9 million gallons per day, a 6.1 percent decrease from last year.

Utilities officials implemented voluntary water restrictions as of Dec. 31, becaise the outlook for spring and summer is positive, but Berry cautioned that the public can't get too comfortable.

"Everything depends on how we do this spring, we're not ready to make a commitment and say there won't be water restrictions again this coming summer, because everything could change quickly," Berry said. "Our customers have done a great job conserving water and that needs to continue. Whether the restrictions are voluntary or mandatory, because of where we live and the conditions we face, it's really important for that conservation trend not to reverse. We'd really like to see people stay in the same usage patterns, regardless of restrictions."

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