After slow start, snow is catching up in Western mountains

(Caitlin Row/Tahoe Daily Tribune via AP)

DENVER (AP) — After a dry autumn, snowfall is rebounding to normal levels at Western ski areas and in the mountains that feed the vital Colorado River.

Snow totals were encouraging across most of the region Wednesday, especially in Oregon, eastern Nevada and Utah, where it stood as high as 176 percent of average.

“I don’t want to wave ‘mission accomplished’ banners here, but it looks pretty good,” said Klaus Wolter, a climate scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colorado. “Certainly the near term looks good.”

A warm, dry fall forced some Western ski areas to delay opening and prompted the cancellation of some men’s World Cup ski races at the Beaver Creek resort in Colorado.

It also caused some worries about how much snowmelt would be available next spring for the Colorado River, which supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in seven states.

But a series of heavy snowstorms since late November improved snow conditions dramatically across the West. Beaver Creek has now recorded a total of more than 8 feet of snowfall for the season, said Rachel Woods, a spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, which owns Beaver Creek and 11 other resorts in seven states and Australia.

Beaver Creek reported a snow depth of 33 inches Wednesday. Snow compacts under the weight of skiers and other factors, so the cumulative snow total is almost always higher than the depth at any given time.

Resort industry officials don’t yet have numbers of holiday skiers and snowboarders to report, but they say indicators such as hotel bookings are promising.

“We had a white Christmas here,” said Paul Marshall of Ski Utah, which represents 14 resorts. “Between Saturday and Sunday we had a giant storm come in.”

Snow depth remained below average in isolated areas, including the Sierra Nevada range in drought-stricken California and some southern New Mexico mountains.

But above-average snow has fallen across the region known as the Upper Colorado River Basin, which produces about 90 percent of the water in the Colorado River. The Upper Basin covers a large swath of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and smaller sections of Arizona and New Mexico.

As of last week, the last time statistics were compiled, the snowpack was 119 percent of normal in the Upper Basin, said Marlon Duke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages multiple reservoirs on the river.

“I would expect that number would be a little higher right now because we got hammered Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a whole lot of snow,” he said.

With their normally deep winter snows, the Colorado mountains are the heart of the Upper Basin. Colorado’s snowpack ranged from 105 to 125 percent of normal Wednesday.