Early-winter snowpack is strong, but drier conditions expected in February

'Don't get too excited' about early-season snow, meteorologist says

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
A healthy snowpack covers the San Juan Mountains just south of Red Mesa, Colo., on Dec. 31, 2019.
  • The snowpack in the region was 134 percent of normal as of Dec. 30.
  • That is the highest figure of any of the four most recent water years.
  • The snowpack contains nearly 11 inches in snow water equivalent, a figure that is 217 percent of last year's number.

FARMINGTON — If you feared the Four Corners area was in for a dry winter this year after last year's bountiful snowfall total, the past several weeks likely have provided you with a pleasant surprise.

As of Dec. 30, the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins snowpack summary on a website operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that the snowpack in the region is 134 percent of normal for Water Year 2020. That is the highest figure of any of the four most recent water years, which are the only ones posted on the site.

The snowpack contains nearly 11 inches in snow water equivalent, a figure that is 217 percent of last year's number. Last year's snowpack was relatively late arriving, failing to reach even the average total until the middle of February. But from that point on, it went gangbusters, topping out at nearly 30 inches of snow water equivalent in early April and remaining strong well into the early summer.

'A little bit early to get too excited'

Don't expect a replay of that situation this year, says Andrew Church, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

"It's a great sign now, but it's a little bit early to get too excited," he said of the snowpack.

The Four Corners region is expected to receive average to perhaps above-average precipitation through January, Church said, but a drying trend is expected to set up in February.

The snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins is at its highest point in several years as 2019 comes to an end.

"We have the Pacific Ocean essentially being kind in terms of how fast it is cooling," he said, explaining that those conditions have allowed storms to track further south this winter.

But that likely will change in February, he said.

"The storm track will head north, and we'll start to dry out," he said.

Even so, the early-winter precipitation has been good news for New Mexico after a dry summer and fall. Church noted that every major watershed in the state is showing an above-average snowpack right now. That's the first time that has happened in recent memory, he said.

"That's great to see at the end of December," Church said.

Rebounding from a dry five-month period

Prime conditions exist at some southwest Colorado ski areas. As of Dec. 31, Purgatory Resort was reporting a base of 51 inches, while the Wolf Creek Ski Area boasted a base of 81 inches.

While Farmington hasn't seen anywhere near the amount of snowfall that has fallen in the high country to the north, it has rebounded from an abnormally dry five-month period that began in the spring. An almost-nonexistent monsoon season in the Four Corners meant Farmington received only approximately ¾ of 1 inch of precipitation over that five-month period ending in early November.

Southwestern Colorado has seen a healthy amount of precipitation in the early part of winter, but conditions are expected to turn drier by February.

Since then, nearly 2 inches of moisture has fallen here. Church said the city recorded 8.1 inches of precipitation this year at the Four Corners Regional Airport — slightly better than the 30-year average of 8.04 inches. He said this was the first time since 2015 that Farmington has exceeded that average.

More:San Juan County falls back into severe drought status after hot, dry summer

But San Juan County, and most of northern New Mexico as a whole, remain locked in a drought. According to the online U.S. Drought Monitor, the entirety of the county is in a severe drought, which is the third-most serious classification on the monitor. That classification also covers parts of McKinley, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Taos, Colfax, Union, Mora and Harding counties.

Various other parts of the northern half of the state are classified as being in a moderate drought or being abnormally dry. Most of southern and eastern New Mexico are showing normal conditions.

In the short term, Church said a significant storm system is expected to pass quickly through the area on Jan. 1, increasing the chances for a dusting of snow in San Juan County, particularly during the evening hours. Motorists traveling on U.S. Highway 550 near the Continental Divide could see snowfall totals of 2 to 3 inches, he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.