Wet weather forecast through holiday week in Southwest Colorado (2023)

Saturday, Dec 25, 2021 5:00 AMUpdated Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021 10:32 AM

More rain, snow expected after parts of region dig out

Wet weather forecast through holiday week in Southwest Colorado (1)

Drivers head north on a snowy U.S. Highway 550 on Friday. La Plata County residents could see significant snow toward the end of next week as storms roll in and the temperature drops. Avalanche danger will ebb and flow, but remain high in the backcountry, according Ethan Greene, the director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center. (Cody Olivas/Durango Herald)

Cody Olivas/Durango Herald

Wet weather forecast through holiday week in Southwest Colorado (2)

Drivers head north on a snowy U.S. Highway 550 on Friday. La Plata County residents could see significant snow toward the end of next week as storms roll in and the temperature drops. Avalanche danger will ebb and flow, but remain high in the backcountry, according Ethan Greene, the director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center. (Cody Olivas/Durango Herald)

Cody Olivas/Durango Herald

A white Christmas was never in doubt for much of Southwest Colorado, but Friday’s storm added fresh snow and freezing rain throughout the region.

A rain-snow mix at lower elevations left roads in better shape than in the mountains where the storm dumped inches of snow.

Holiday travel on Saturday could still be hazardous for some, but snowplows with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the city of Durango have been working around the clock to ensure that travelers reach their loved ones safely.

Residents of Southwest Colorado will get a brief break from the weather on Saturday, but a series of storms rolling across the western United States will bring more precipitation in the coming days starting on Sunday.

As more snow and rain fall next week, avalanche danger will remain high, with officials expressing particular concern for those venturing into the backcountry.

Travel conditions and preparations

Road conditions made travel difficult throughout much of Friday ahead of the Christmas holiday.

“The majority of the calls today were slide-offs, and there were some accidents into the guardrail,” said Sgt. Chris Burke with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.

“We just ask that drivers watch their speed,” he said. “Try to get everything you need when you’re in town, so you’re not making multiple trips. And absolutely do not mix drinking and driving.”

CDOT treated roads with a liquid brine in preparation for the storm.

Road conditions ahead of Christmas Day remained hazardous in areas, particularly at higher elevations, but snowplows from CDOT and the city were working ahead of the holiday.

“We are on a 24/7 cycle right now with full coverage,” said Lisa Schwantes, a spokeswoman for CDOT.

At least one snowplow was to patrol Colorado Highway 145 at Lizard Head Pass to clear snowfall throughout Friday evening after avalanche mitigation efforts by CDOT, Schwantes said.

Plows were also patrolling the U.S. Highway 550 corridor along Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain passes.

While crews have been out in full force, they have faced obstacles from those recreating in the backcountry.

“This morning we definitely had some issues with vehicles that were parked along the side of the roadway on U.S. Highway 550, in particular Coal Bank Pass,” Schwantes said Friday. “We understand that backcountry users are chasing powder, we get it. But they need to be smart about where they are leaving their vehicle because we’ve got our plows and their top priority is on the traveling lanes of the highway.”

Skiers and snowboarders who leave their cars along the highway could be snowed in by snowplows or ticketed or towed by law enforcement.

“It really disrupts our mission of getting the roads open when we’ve got to deal with vehicles on the side of the road,” Schwantes said.

Around Durango, the snow and rain mix has helped the city keep roads clear.

“A lot of us were expecting the storm to be much heavier than it was. It was raining this morning when we were expecting to have 5 to 6 inches if not a foot of snow on the ground. I think that worked in our favor,” said Tom Sluis, a spokesman for the city of Durango.

“I know there's a lot of snow on the horizon, but there have not been any emergencies or anything that we have not been able to handle to this point,” he said.

The city is using its usual plowing procedures ahead of more snow next week, which includes working with other departments to ensure that roads are clean.

Durango announced on Friday it would offer $500 monthly bonuses to address a snowplow driver shortage. The hope is that these financial incentives can help the city recruit and retain drivers during the winter months. Both new and current snowplow drivers are eligible.

The shortage caused no problems for road clearing efforts on Friday.

“Everything is under control,” Sluis said. “If it gets really heavy, we will post publicly the snow routes just to remind people where our priorities will be, but we haven’t had to do that yet.”

With holiday travel on Saturday, Schwantes said drivers need to be ready for any weather or road conditions.

“During the winter months when there’s potential for weather, always be prepared. Make sure you’ve got supplies and extra clothes and snacks and water in your car,” she said. “We really advise folks to look at the weather forecasts, look at the road conditions on the cotrip.org site. That will help you determine whether or not you want to make your trip.”

“Just be patient and give yourself extra time when we’ve got conditions like this,” she said.

More wet weather and snow ahead

An atmospheric river brought Friday’s precipitation, but warm temperatures turned would-be snow in Durango into rain, limiting the snowfall totals that higher mountain elevations have seen.

“These atmospheric rivers that have been coming in from the southern Pacific have been warm and this particular system has been very warm,” said Jeff Colton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “It’s been just a couple of degrees too warm for lower elevations to really pick up heavy snowfall.”

With atmospheric rivers, the rain-snow line, which determines if precipitation turns to snow, can be anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 feet depending on the location, he said.

Saturday will be dry, but another set of storms will begin rolling in again on Sunday.

Three separate storms will affect Southwest Colorado next week.

“Theyy’re just lining up storm after storm,” Colton said.

The next storm could bring a tenth to a quarter of an inch of rain on Sunday and last through Monday.

Another system will roll in on Tuesday and Wednesday with the potential to bring more snow to western Colorado. Durango could see 2 to 4 inches on Tuesday and Tuesday night, Colton said.

Toward the end of the week on Friday and the New Year’s holiday, western Colorado will see its best chance for significant snow as temperatures drop.

“Right now, that one looks pretty good for potential heavy snow, especially in the mountains, but even the lower valleys may pick up a little better snow next weekend,” Colton said.

Avalanche danger will ebb and flow but remain high throughout the week as precipitation continues to fall.

“It’s really the amount of snow that we’re getting in a short amount of time,” said Ethan Greene, director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“When we pile up a bunch of snow in a short amount of time, then the structure really just doesn’t have a chance to adjust and it breaks and we get avalanches,” he said.

The greatest risk is posed to those who want to recreate in the backcountry.

“We probably won’t have as many problems for the roads (during the week), but it’s a really dangerous time for people in the backcountry,” Greene said.

“People should get information on current conditions and really make sure that whatever they’re planning to do matches the current avalanche conditions for the day,” he said.

Skiers and snowboarders need to have an avalanche rescue transceiver, a probe pole and a shovel, Greene said.

Those who plan to recreate can visit colorado.gov/avalanche for updated conditions.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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