Doug Dodge was glad to see the snow start flying last Friday morning.
The Arctic air mass dropped about a foot around Boulder, with more in the higher elevations — a wet break in what has, so far, been an unusually warm and dry winter. The system is accompanied by subzero temperatures — a chilling reminder of what a Montana winter is all about, as the mean temperature for January was 30 degrees, or about seven degrees above average, according to the National Weather Service.
Overall, the storm was expected to bring one to three inches of snow water and up to two feet of snow in mountain locations, according to the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
That is good news for Dodge, as he is the disaster and emergency services coordinator for Jefferson County and one of his areas of concern is wildfire season.
Prior to last weekend’s snowfall, the snow-water equivalent for Jefferson County was 76% of the median for 1981-2010 — and that’s a measure Dodge keeps an eye on. He also notes that the county is considered “moderately dry” by the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee. Snow water is the amount of liquid water contained in the snowpack.
By Tuesday, the snow water equivalent percentage has increased to 94%.
“Hopefully, we will stay cool and continue to get precipitation, so we don’t lose these gains. If you look at the data from the fall of 2020, you can see we were well above average at that time as well, also thanks to a couple of significant snowfall events. As we can see, however, those gains eventually disappeared as the accumulations decreased over time due to warming temperatures and a lack of further precipitation. With the median peak snow-water equivalent typically occurring in mid-to-late April, we still have a long way to go this year. So, while we are very thankful for where we are after this recent system, we are still cognizant that those conditions can and will change by this spring,” said Dodge in an email to the Monitor.
Despite the recent moisture respite, Dodge urges residents to prepare for wildfire season and provides preparation tips on this page, right.
For ranchers the moisture calculation is a bit different.
Boulder rancher Steve Carey keeps an eye on the NRCS site for Rocker Peak, where his ranch gets its irrigation water.
As of Feb. 8, it was 122% of median, up from 99% of the snow water equivalent at the end of January. Carey pointed out that there is still time this winter for more accumulation.
The percentage represents the median from 1981-2010, according to NRCS.
Tizer Basin, on the other hand, was at 78% as of Feb. 8, with it being about 1,200 feet lower than Rocker Peak at 8,000 feet, .
“While everyone may remember the winters of 2017-18 and 2018-19, those were something even my grandparents had not remembered as that bad. The April May snows benefit us more because the ground in lower elevations is thawed and able to accept the moisture and it helps keep the snow up high cooled down and not melt as fast,” said Carey.
Rancher Brud Smith said getting a good depth of snow prior to January is ideal, because it gives it time to pack down, making the run off more gradual in the spring.
How the runoff behaves this year all depends on the weather going forward, said Smith, whose ranch gets its irrigation water from the Elkhorns and the Boulder River.
There could be a heavy snowpack, but if there is a good deal of rain in the early spring, it can come down in a few days and not soak into the ground, he said.
If there is a lighter snowpack, cold nights in the spring could prevent it from melting very fast, he said.
The snowpack could be 10 feet deep up there, but if it rains, it could all run down at once, he said, adding he was happy to see the snow fall.
There’s another reason Smith is happy for the snow. He decided to put off calving for a month and having the cold and snow now — rather than later — helps him think he made the right decision
Going forward, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center shows a 50% probability of below average temperatures and a 50% chance of greater than average precipitation for February.
With more optimistic forecasts for snowfall over the next 14 days and beyond, there are some signs that more favorable weather patterns may return to the state and start this recovery.
“You don’t have to look far back in time to find a miracle February 1 to March 1 snowpack recovery,” said Lucas Zukiewicz, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service water supply specialist for Montana.
“On Feb. 1, 2019, the snowpack looked similar to this year, and after the month our office referred to as ‘Februburied,’ the snowpack was in much better shape on March 1. Come on, Februburied!” he said.