DENVER – Snowpack in the mountain valleys where the Colorado River originates was only a little below normal on Wednesday, marking one of the few bright spots in an increasingly grim drought gripping much of the West.
Measurement stations in western Colorado showed the snowpack at 90 percent of the long-term average.
By contrast, reporting stations in the Sierra Nevada range in drought-stricken California showed snowpack at 50 percent or less in early February, the most recent figures available. Some detected no snow at all.
Mountain snow in Colorado is closely monitored because a half-dozen Western waterways, including the 1,400-mile Colorado River, start in the area. The river and its tributaries supply water to millions of people in seven states and Mexico.
Much of the river comes from mountain snow that accumulates during winter and melts in the spring.
"It's looking pretty dismal over much of the West, but there are some areas where we're OK," said Mike Strobel, manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Snow Survey, which uses about 2,000 reporting stations in the western U.S. and some in Canada to measure snow.
Mountain snow depth usually peaks in early April across the West. However, it's unlikely many of the hardest-hit mountains will get enough precipitation by then to recover, Strobel said.
In the Pacific Northwest, warm temperatures have brought rain instead of snow, so the mountains aren't accumulating snowpack for the spring runoff, when farmers and water managers need water to irrigate crops and refill reservoirs.
Snow accumulation in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana has been relatively good.
"Not spectacular, but not miserable, either," Strobel said.
Snowpack in the Colorado valleys that feed the east-flowing South Platte River were at 102 percent of average.
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