Snowpack up, but drought persists

LARAMIE — Despite recent snowfall across southern Wyoming the last couple weeks of last year, the state enters the New Year in a drought that’s held since 2020.

This is the 36th driest year of the past 127 years for Albany County, with drought conditions ranging from abnormally dry to extreme, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Matthew Brothers, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Cheyenne, said Albany County is in what is classified as a moderate drought, with surrounding areas like Laramie County experiencing more extreme drought conditions.

According to a report from Wyoming National Resources Conservation Service, snowpack in Wyoming is at 88% of the median. In 2020, snowpack was at 80% of the median and 107% in 2019. The numbers are an aggregate of the whole state, with some areas recording lower and higher numbers.

Jim Fahey, a hydrologist at NRCS, said the median is taken over the past 30 years of snowpack data and that the most current numbers come from the years 1991-2020. A value of 100% of the median would be considered normal or average.

Fahey said that for this time of year, the area is doing pretty well for moisture, with only some areas in the east stuck lower than the median.

The Laramie watershed is nearly normal at 88% of the median, which is an improvement from this time last year when it was between 70% and 75%, he said. A large portion of the precipitation came in the past two weeks. Before that local snowpack was at 62%.

“We’re looking for a better runoff this coming spring,” Fahey said. “We’ve got better conditions coming into the water year, which starts Oct. 1.”

Fahey said that a wet October resulted in higher soil moisture, which is important that time of year. The months of December and February are typically drier, with a large amount of precipitation happening between late February and April.

Although snowpack has been on a positive trend since last year, Fahey said it’s difficult to tell whether a good snowpack alone will be enough to mitigate fire risk and other challenges that come with drought. Instead, spring moisture will largely determine how much it could affect the drought.

Brothers said the spring poses the best chance for precipitation, noting that Wyoming could remain in the La Niña weather pattern at least through the early spring, which would result in more mild weather.

That said, predicting long-rage weather and climate patterns may have a lot of science and technology behind it, but it’s still not exact, Fahey said.

“In baseball, if you hit .300 you’re a good hitter,” he said of the predictions. “I’ll be lucky if I can hit .200 sometimes.”

Aaron Voos, a spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service, said recent fluctuations in moisture in the Medicine Bow National Forest have not been out of the ordinary, and that it is normal for the Forest Service to adjust with conditions each year.

He said that what’s more important than levels of snowpack is the way it runs off in the spring. If too much melts at once, it could result in flooding and leave sufficient moisture to sustain the forest through the summer.

For example, he said that in 2020, the snowpack was high but ran off too quickly and was a factor in leaving the area drier than normal when the Mullen Fire started.

One sure benefit of a high snowpack is the increase in runoff that can provide more water supply to reservoirs, canals and irrigation. Fahey said that in the past, even a snowpack that start out at 150% of the median can still end up with a high danger fire season if there’s a drought come springtime.

Fahey said droughts can happen erratically in this part of the county. Wyoming’s last long drought was between 2000-09. After a reprieve from 2014-19, the region has returned to drought conditions.

While there isn’t enough data to tell if climate change has had an impact on the most recent drought, snowpack levels have increased in elevation over the past 20 years, which is a result of warming, Fahey said. Snow also is melting out earlier.

While experts hope for a wet spring to reduce risk during the upcoming fire season, the only way to find out if the drought will continue is to watch and wait.