Winter snowpack makes its greatest comeback ever

After a slow, dry start to the snow season, this year’s precipitation rebound became the most dramatic on record.

February 2, 2017 | By: Jimmy Luthye

Call it a comeback.

As far as snow goes, it was a banner December and January in the West, which is great news for our water outlook. And when you factor in a bone dry October and November, the snowy upturn becomes downright historic.

“Looking at the historical record, we really have not had a year comparable to this one,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s senior raw water supply engineer. “Statistically, this year’s snowpack accumulation has been all over the place.”

It all started in October, when Denver Water’s Colorado River and South Platte River collection systems received zero measurable snow for just the second time in 40 years.

In fact, snow didn’t start accumulating in our watersheds until Nov. 17 — later than ever recorded. People protested. It was rough.

But then December and January came in like a wrecking (snow) ball to save the day! Check out this year’s historic turnaround by the numbers (rankings date back to 1979):

Breckenridge Ski Resort sits in the Colorado River Basin.
Breckenridge Ski Resort sits south of Dillon Reservoir in Denver Water’s Colorado River collection system, which saw its 2nd snowiest January on record. Photo credit: Ashley Low.

Colorado River collection system:

  • October: Driest
  • November: 7th driest
  • December: 5th wettest
  • January: 2nd wettest

South Platte River collection system:

  • October: Driest
  • November: 2nd driest
  • December: 4th wettest
  • January: 4th wettest

“Snowpack is like a box of chocolates,” Elder said. “You never know what you are going to get.”

We were curious what kind of assortment we’d seen in the past, so we decided to look back at other sweet snowpack comebacks in recent history:

Dillon Reservoir in the summer of 2000.
Dillon Reservoir in the summer of 2000, after a big snowpack recovery the previous winter.


The late, great Prince could finally party appropriate to the year; John Elway retired; and I was 9 years old. Like this year, we got off to an abysmal snow start, with an absurdly dry October and November. A steady recovery for the rest of the snowy season pushed us slightly above “normal” by April 2000. Not too shabby, but not as dramatic as 2016-17.

Cheesman Reservoir during the 2002 drought.
Cheesman Reservoir during the 2002 drought.


One of our nastiest droughts in history came to a screeching halt in March 2003 when a beast of a blizzard dumped many feet of snow all over the place, nudging the year’s snowpack totals above normal. It was a desperately needed boost, yet it still pales in comparison to what December and January brought in 2016-17.

Dillon Reservoir in April 2013.
Dillon Reservoir in April 2013.


A prolonged drought that began in 2012 meant the start of the 2012-13 snowy season was the bleakest in decades. In fact, in early April 2013, we said we would need 6 feet of snow to get to “normal.” And then it snowed. And snowed. And rained. By the end of May, our situation improved enough to eclipse “normal” for the year. This very late recovery salvaged the year, though we still remained in a prolonged Stage 1 drought until 2014.

2 thoughts on “Winter snowpack makes its greatest comeback ever”

    1. It is still too early to tell exactly what this year’s spring runoff will look like, as our snowiest months (historically speaking) are still ahead of us. While our watersheds have seen a very snowy year thus far, a lot can change very quickly. Denver Water’s reservoirs are not designed for flood control, but our water planners will take measures to help prevent flooding whenever possible during runoff season. For an inside look into how we move Denver’s water, check out: We’re off to see the wizard, the Water Wizard of Oz.

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