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One Of The Heaviest Snowstorms On Record Hits Rocky Mountains

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

People in Colorado and Wyoming are digging out from a record blizzard this weekend. The snowstorm knocked out power, closed roads and forced the cancellation of thousands of flights and vaccinations for COVID-19. But some scientists say it could help the states recover from a severe drought. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: I'm out here in Denver, Colo. The sun has finally come out. And we're going to do the ultimate test to see how much snow fell. Stick in that tape measure right into the snow, going all the way down. Wow, looks like about 18 inches.

The storm brought even more snow to other parts of the state. Twenty-seven inches fell at Denver International Airport. According to the National Weather Service, that makes it the fourth-largest snowfall in Denver's recorded history. Rochelle Adams is now clearing piles of the stuff off of her pickup truck. She's glad warmer weather is already helping melt things a little bit.

ROCHELLE ADAMS: I guess it's not so much help because it makes it slushy, so it's heavier. But it's totally worth it.

BRASCH: The wet, sloppy snow ground the state to a halt on Sunday. But scientists say that also means desperately needed moisture. Drought conditions affected the entire state heading into the storm. Russ Schumacher is Colorado's state climatologist.

RUSS SCHUMACHER: And so it may not be enough to get us out of the drought completely, but it's going to be a big help here.

BRASCH: Schumacher says the state's Eastern Plains saw the most snow. That's likely good news to farmers and ranchers in the region. But west of Denver, Colorado's mountains saw only a few inches.

SCHUMACHER: In those parts of the state, this storm wasn't really all that meaningful.

BRASCH: That's important since Colorado's mountains are famously upstream of everywhere. About 40 million people rely on water from the Colorado River, which, as you might guess, originates in the Colorado Rockies. Karl Wetlaufer monitors the snowpack in the Southwest for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He says it's getting close to normal, but the drought over the previous year didn't just fuel huge wildfires; it also dried out the soil.

KARL WETLAUFER: So when that snow does start to melt, we're still expecting that really dry soil moisture condition to absorb a lot of the water.

BRASCH: Water which would normally make it into streams and rivers and flow to Nevada, Arizona and California. So while Wetlaufer says the snow is a help, it's still not enough.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOYCE KWON'S "SONG OF PLATITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.