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Why the snowpack that feeds local rivers is disappearing

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Only a few patches of dwindling snow remained on Aspen Mountain’s “Face of Bell” run on May 25. Some local residents use a nonscientific rule that when the last patch of snow on Bell Mountain disappears, local rivers have probably peaked.

Despite a decent ski season this winter, the snow that feeds our local rivers is melting faster than usual and spring runoff could peak earlier than the historical average this year.

According to the watershed science and policy nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy, snowpack in the Roaring Fork River watershed fell from about 93% of normal in early May to about 44% two weeks later.

If this trend continues, it could impact everything from the length of ski and rafting seasons to irrigation restrictions and even wildfire danger.

“If the mountains and the backcountry areas are drying out quicker and we don’t start getting some summer rains, then we could see an elevated wildfire risk as well,” said reporter Scott Condon, who recently published The Aspen Times article, “‘Robbers’ eating up Roaring Fork Valley’s once-impressive snowpack.”

Christy Mahon
Ted Mahon, who writes a weekly column for The Aspen Times, backcountry skis on dusty corn snow in the San Juan Mountains in early May. In his most recent column, Mahon writes about how the mountains were hit particularly hard this spring by “dust on snow” events that increase resistance for skiers on the snow’s surface and accelerate snowmelt across the region.

Condon and Times weekly columnist Ted Mahon have been talking to local experts who say strong winds, dust and a persistent drought driven by the human-caused climate crisis are likely to blame.

In a recent column, “Stuck in the Rockies: Making sense of the dust on snow phenomenon,” Mahon describes how a pronounced layer of dust on the backcountry ski slopes is accelerating snowmelt in the region.

“These issues are across the West, and they’re climate issues that are much broader than what’s going on in our valley, but we’re feeling the effects of it here,” Mahon said. “You can only hope that that will lead to other discussions on greenhouse gas and CO2 emission reductions.”

Aspen Public Radio talked with Condon and Mahon about the wider implications of our disappearing snowpack and what it might mean for the future of our watershed.

Listen to the conversation above.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.