San Juan Snowpack ’19: The race to the top

Okay, okay, okay. A week ago, I pointed out that this year’s snowfall, while big, still did not measure up to many a previous year on record. As if to prove me wrong, the gods and storm patterns went nuts-o and dumped a huge amount of new snow all over Colorado, including on the San Juan Mountains. Just take a look at how the snowpack shot up from below average in January to stupendous levels now. If it’s not yet the biggest snowpack on record, that is surely the steepest angle on a snowpack graph ever. I mean, come on!

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So, the thing about that ^^ graph is that it only shows the last three water years, along with average and median snowpacks. And, unfortunately, the SNOTEL website does not allow me to make basin-wide comparisons with earlier years. So the only way to do that is to go SNOTEL station by station. And at Red Mountain Pass, where the snowpack lagged behind previous years as of March 1, the 2019 snow water equivalent is now leading the pack (so to speak).

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The same is true for the Columbus Basin station in the La Plata Mountains: As of March 14, the 2019 snowpack was the biggest on record (stretching back into the late 1980s). At Molas Lake, for whatever reason, this year’s snowpack continues to be lollygagging back in fifth place, or so. Meanwhile, I’ve also started looking at the Cascade station, at the relatively low altitude of 8,800 feet (I’ve stayed away from it in the past because there was virtually no snow there to measure — last year at this time there was a measly 2.8 inches of SWE). And, yeah, I hate to say it, but 2019 is still only in fifth place in the last forty years, with the winters of 1979 and 1980 topping the bunch. Those were some huge winters — I remember them well. Snow forts galore, snow days galore, even in Durango.

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But anyway, enough of that horse race stuff. This is a big winter, packing a powerful punch, avalanche-wise. Red Mountain Pass has been closed for over a week as I write this, with no opening date in sight. The Hinsdale County Sheriff and his daughters were injured when their house was hit by a slide. And on and on.

A massive amount of moisture is stored up in the huge reservoir known as the San Juan Snowpack. And that moisture will end up in the streams. It will be a good rafting season, without a doubt. How good? That depends on how much more snow comes down — remember, the typical snowpack peak is in April, and big storms can continue through May — and on how quickly the snow melts. Here’s a look at peak streamflows in the Animas River for every year since 1889. Notice that the big snow years of 1979 and 1980 led to a healthy runoff, but nothing like the floods of yore.


Temperatures have generally been trending upward (huh? I wonder why?), yet this winter has so far gone against the trend, as can be seen by February’s average and minimum temperatures at the Red Mountain Pass SNOTEL site.

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 9.01.52 AM

If the snow keeps coming down, and the cooler temperatures continue, it will help a lot with the chronic drought that has plagued the region for years. As of a few days ago, southwestern Colorado was pulling out of drought. The same can’t be said for northern New Mexico. At least not yet.


So what’s it all mean? It means there’s a ton of snow, that people should stay the heck out of the backcountry until conditions stabilize, and instead spend their time getting their river-running gear ready for a big water spring.


RLSCoverSmallJonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine DisasterGet a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.


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