Steamboat Springs The snow at the summit of Buffalo Pass never has been deeper than it was Friday morning.
Mike Gillespie, Colorado Snow Survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver, confirmed that the snow depth at the Tower measuring site stood at 180 inches, or 15 feet, setting a record for measured snow depths there that go back to the mid-1960s. The previous record was the 175-inch snow depth recorded on April 25, 1978.
“It will be a welcome change when these storms let up,” Gillespie said Friday. “We certainly have enough water supply.”
He acknowledged that the heavy snowpack comes with the potential for flooding late in spring, depending on weather patterns and how the deep snowpack melts.
The National Weather Service in Grand Junction issued a flood advisory Friday morning for central Routt County and Steamboat Springs, in effect until 10:30 a.m. Monday.
The advisory was based on continuing rain and snow showers with daytime temperatures above freezing.
“Excessive snowmelt runoff will cause minor flooding of small creeks, streets and roadways,” the Weather Service cautioned.
Although the snow depth is at record levels, the amount of moisture in the snow on Buffalo Pass, 68.2 inches, is less than what was measured on April 25, 1978, when it was 71.1 inches.
Fresh snow settles daily, and today’s reading likely differs after settling and the addition of fresh snow late Friday afternoon.
Evidence of the unusually deep April snowpack was clear in less scientific terms at the summit of Storm Peak at Steamboat Ski Area. The bronze helmet on the bust of the late Steamboat skiing great Buddy Werner was barely protruding from the snow Thursday, though it is mounted on a post that towers above a tall person on a summer day. And all but the crossbar on a large trail information sign was buried in a photograph taken Friday by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. photographer Larry Pierce.
“Mountain crews have been up top over the past week, with one individual saying that the summit stake read 160 inches” Tuesday, ski area spokesman Mike Lane said Friday. “Larry Pierce took a photo of the summit stake measuring 149 inches yesterday before any more snow fell overnight. I don’t think we have ever seen snow that high on the Buddy statue. I know I’ll never doubt tapping or touching Buddy’s statue for good luck and good snow ever again.”
At Sunshine Peak, the ski patrol headquarters also was wearing a thick cap of snow reminiscent of a January blizzard above 10,000 feet.
The snowpack (moisture in the snow) at the Tower site is 134 percent of average for the date, but on a percentage basis only, some of the most profound measurements are at sites below 9,000 feet. The most notable of those is near Dry Lake Campground at the base of Buffalo Pass, where melting snow feeds streams including Soda and Spring creeks, which flow through Old Town Steamboat Springs. The moisture near Dry Lake at 8,400 feet measures 171 percent of average, the equivalent of 35.5 inches of water on the ground.
“We’re really seeing snowpack that is well above average at lower elevations as well as up high,” Gillespie said.
Up north on the edge of the west side of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, the Elk River measuring site stands at 160 percent of average. And in South Routt, Lynx Pass at 8,880 feet is at 148 percent of average, and Crosho Lake, outside Phippsburg at 9,100 feet on the edge of the Flat Tops, is at 163 percent of average.
The west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass is at 157 percent of average with 105 inches of standing snow.
Gillespie said the trigger that will signal the onset of spring runoff from high elevation snowfields, usually in May, is the arrival of overnight low temperatures that do not go below freezing.
“The thing that really helps to control runoff is cool nighttime temperatures,” Gillespie said. “When we exceed 32-degree minimums, we’re getting melting around the clock, and there’s little to slow it down.”
That’s when the potential for flooding from historically high flows is at its greatest.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com