Winter's sudden arrival in the form of more than a foot of snow last week offered a tinsel-silver lining on at least two fronts -- a glimmer of hope for parched lakes and topsoil and a bounty of fresh powder for winter recreation enthusiasts.
Washington County, like much of Minnesota, has been in a severe drought pattern for much of the past year. The 15 to 20 inches of snow that fell across the county last weekend contained about ¾ to 1¼ inch of precipitation, said Greg Spoden, state climatologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
For December, "that's about a month's worth of precipitation in one event," Spoden said, and the most in a 24-hour period since July. "It's as if Mother Nature had forgotten how to precipitate -- but she relearned quickly."
Because the ground was frozen, little of that moisture will permeate the soil. "It isn't going to save us. We're still going to be very dependent on a very abundant spring rainfall," to make up what is a serious soil moisture deficit, he said. While Washington County was part of wide swath of the state's midsection that got snow, drought-stressed regions of the northwest and south didn't benefit.
The other good news from the snow, Spoden said, is that the ample insulation it now provides will keep frost depths shallow. That means frost will leave more quickly in the spring, and those rains that come will soak in better and more quickly.
This weekend promises to unleash much pent-up anticipation for winter recreation enthusiasts, who suffered through a relatively snow-free season a year ago, something Spoden calls "brown ground syndrome." Even though ski areas made snow and conditions were fine for skiing, the mood was affected.
"There's an emotional trigger to having snow on the ground -- at least that's my take on it," Spoden said.
That won't be a problem this season. And Washington County is awash in opportunities to enjoy the winter.
Already at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, cross-country ski enthusiasts were out in force last week to take advantage of new powder, 5 1/2 miles of lighted trails, nearly 11 miles of other cross-country ski trails and a handsome new Nordic Center building at the trailhead that was completed this year and opened on Dec. 10. The building includes a fireplace, vending area, locker rooms and space for skiers to warm up.
"Everybody's been cooped up and they're ready to go," said Mike Polehna, the county's parks manager. "... the phone's been ringing like crazy."
County crews were scrambling at all the parks right after the snowstorm to get the ski trails groomed and set the base.
Similarly, the county has skiing trails at Big Marine Park Reserve, Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park, Pine Point Regional Park and St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park.
"We're going to have a very busy winter," Polehna said.
It's the same story at the county's two state parks, Afton State Park and William O'Brien State Park.
Gene Groebner, the manager at Afton, said trails were being groomed on Tuesday after the storm. The park has 18 miles of ski trails and 4 miles of snowshoe trails (though snowshoers can go anywhere except on groomed ski trails) and 6 miles of winter hiking trails.
At William O'Brien State Park, ski trails are groomed for both traditional skiing and skating-style skiing. There also is a 1 1/2-mile snowshoe trail loop.
Hardwood Creek Regional Trail, a 9 1/2-mile multiple-use trail in northwestern Washington County, and Gateway State Trail, which runs through Oakdale and ends at Pine Point Regional Park, also are open.
At Afton Alps, the privately owned downhill ski area in Denmark Township, the man-made powder got a substantial boost, and snow depths were reported at 25 to 35 inches. Many of the trails were also open.
Finally, ice fishing enthusiasts who had a rough go of it last year are now optimistic, said Rich Robinson, owner of Mike's Baits on 8 in Forest Lake.
"Only a few guys are venturing out," on larger nearby lakes, which still have open spots, he said.
He expects ice conditions to improve this weekend.
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson