Publication Date January 19, 2018

Colorado's Wimpy Winter Has Skiers, Water Managers Grumbling

United States
Vail Resort uses snowguns to make snow near the Riva Bahn Express Lift. Low snowpack and warmer temperatures this winter have put more pressure on snowmaking this winter for many Colorado snow resorts. Image: Grace Hood, CPR News

From powderhounds to Colorado’s water managers, the new year has brought worry. The record-low snowpack in parts of the Rocky Mountains is the culprit. Snowfall at the end of 2017 in Beaver Creek, Vail and Park City, Utah was the lowest in more than 30 years.

Damon Miller of Denver has skied in the state for decades and laments that runs have exposed rocks and trees. He usually gets his first run in before Christmas. Not this season though. He just got in his first turns of the season, mid-January, at Keystone.

“Even when you look around at the mountains and trees around here it’s obviously low coverage compared to what it normally is,” he said. “It’s pretty apparent.”

Colorado statewide snowpack is at 60 percent of average, which means that this year, snowmaking is a necessity for ski areas. The overall lack of snow has also been hard on the box office. Vail Resorts, Keystone’s owner, reported a 10.8 percent drop in visits across its North American resorts and Canada. Lift ticket revenue was up slightly thanks to pre-ski season Epic Pass sales.

The worry for weather watchers is that Colorado recorded its third warmest year on record in 2017. Last November was the state’s warmest ever for that calendar month.

Even where Colorado saw significant snow, Russ Schumacher, the state climatologist, said, “it’s still remained relatively warm.”

Schumacher and others acknowledge the role climate change and those warmer temperatures will play across the West. The thing that’s more difficult to predict is how winter snowfall might change. Right now, Schumacher said some spots near the Continental Divide have near average snowpack. But move farther south to the Gunnison River basin and there are places setting new records for lack of snow.


Nineteen other states depend on water from river basins that depend on Colorado’s snowpack. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center predicts water levels significantly below average for 2018 — And that’s prompting more questions.

In the past few months, the drought has deepened across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. If it continues through the winter, it’ll be another factor that worries water managers. Increased drought also raised the specter of dust The more dust there is on snow, Jeff Derry of the Center for Snow and Avalanche pointed out, the faster and earlier it can melt.