SANTA FE, N.M. — Some ski areas touted an “endless winter” as forecasters on Tuesday called the snow that has been falling along the New Mexico-Colorado border a good sign for cities and farmers who depend on one of North America’s longest rivers.
The National Weather Service provided a favorable water supply outlook for the basin that feeds the Rio Grande, saying snowpack in the mountains where the headwaters form is about 135 percent above median levels.
That marks one of the best seasons in years and is a drastic turnaround from the previous winter, which resulted in record low flows in 2018. That’s when officials had to intervene to keep the river flowing through New Mexico’s most populous area during the summer months.
Extreme drought had blanketed much of the region for the previous 18 months, putting pressure on water managers along the Rio Grande and the Colorado River to ensure adequate drinking water supplies for millions of people in the West.
Drought also plagues the Colorado River, and the seven states that rely on its water are seeking federal legislation to implement a plan to keep key reservoirs from shrinking further.
It was water imported from the Colorado River through a major diversion system that helped keep the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque last summer.
Management of the Rio Grande is at the heart of a U.S. Supreme Court battle between New Mexico and Texas.
Water managers in both states remain cautious about how much of a boon the snowpack will be as it melts. The key will be how fast the soil is replenished with moisture, which will affect how much runoff makes its way to the river this spring.
Greg Waller with weather service’s West Gulf River Forecast Center said improvements are beginning to show up in the soil closest to the surface.
“Think about it,” Waller said, “most of the state of New Mexico is normal according to soil moisture calculations after last year’s just really horrible drought and how much precip has had to fall to catch us up and bring us up to normal.”
The ski runs above Santa Fe have received nearly 260 inches so far this season and more than 80 inches in the first two weeks of March. The conditions are “as good as it gets,” Ski Santa Fe spokeswoman Jessica Fox said.
Looking back through the resort’s records, Fox said there hasn’t been another time in the last decade that the resort has extended its season past the first weekend in April. This year, the season wraps up April 14.
Waller described last year’s conditions as brutal, saying extreme and exceptional drought – the two worst categories – were present throughout the Rio Grande Basin.
The latest map shows improvements in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
Other factors that could affect how much runoff the river sees will be whether warm rains fall onto the snow this spring or if dry winds vaporize the snowpack before it has a chance to melt.
Regardless, Waller said the models are calling for above-normal precipitation over the next three months and users along the Rio Grande can expect to see a water supply that’s above normal this year.