A ‘banner year’ for runoff on the Yampa River | SteamboatToday.com

A ‘banner year’ for runoff on the Yampa River

The upper Yampa River breaks its banks last weekend near the Stetson Ranch. This photo was taken from Routt County Road 16.
Courtesy Scott Hummer

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Nearly 5 inches of June precipitation and 2 inches of June snow have contributed to keeping the Yampa River flowing near peak levels since the beginning of the month.

Since the river rose to 2,300 cubic feet per second at the Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat Springs on June 5, the river hasn’t fallen below that level, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s a good year, and that’s no surprise to anybody at this point,” Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride said. “It’s a good thing that it comes off and stays at that level for a long time, because the last thing we want to see is one big peak because that means flooding.”

While it’s possible last weekend’s mix of rain and snow filled the river to its peak for the season at 4,190 cfs, local water managers are hesitant to declare that the peak. This would be the highest peak flow since the river hit 4,850 cfs in 2014.

Count McBride and Steamboat’s Water Resource Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney among those who say “maybe.”

“It’s probably peaked from snow melt,” McBride said. “But as we saw last week, you never know what the rain is going to do. So, we get another front like we just got, and who knows?”

“It’s anybody’s guess, but I think it’s probably peaked,” Romero-Heaney said. “I think that rainstorm we had last weekend kicked it into its peak. I could be wrong, though.”

Scott Hummer, Colorado Division of Water Resources water commissioner serving water users in South Routt, said the ranchers he works with say it’s peaked, but he’s still waiting to see.

“Some of my water users have told me they think the river’s peaked,” Hummer said. “I’m not particularly sold that it’s peaked. I think that everything is still totally temperature dependent. We may see a very sustained, higher-flow rate.”

Hummer added that water users in the southernmost end of the district have seen high water — with the Yampa spilling out of its banks and pooling up in fields — that hasn’t been seen for a lifetime. 

“We are light years ahead of where we were last year at this particular point in time,” Hummer said. “Last Saturday (June 22), we saw record all-time inflows into Stagecoach (Reservoir). On Sunday, we saw Stagecoach spill at an all-time record amount, so it’s a much different season than last season, simply based on the snowpack.”

By the numbers

Yampa River flow at noon June 27: 2,690 cfs
Possible peak flow June 21: 4,190 cfs
June precipitation so far4.9 inches
Average June precipitation for this date: 1.55 inches
June snowfall so far: 1.8 inches
Average June snowfall for this date: 0.1 inches

On Thursday, about 200 cfs of water was flowing into Stagecoach Reservoir. The mean for this date — the average of the 31-year record — is 90 cfs.

The difference between this year and last year is stark. Hummer said at this point last year, there was only enough water to fulfill 20 or 30 water rights on the Bear River. This year, there’s enough flow to fill three times as many water rights.

In Steamboat at this point last year, the city was about 10 days away from issuing the first of several recreational river closures that occurred last summer. 

“The difference is just hard to fathom in the field. It really is,” Hummer said.

In Steamboat, Romero-Heaney said the city is still watching tributary streams in town for possible flooding, including Soda, Butcherknife, Fish and Walton creeks.

“It really is weather dependent,” she said. “If we continue to have this steady thaw, that’s a pretty good position to be in. But if we get significant rain, and persistent rain, that’s when we start to see the tributary streams in the community rise.”

These higher flows are a boon for river runners who are still catching big waves on the Yampa and to ecosystems that rely on fluctuating flows. While ranchers are glad to have enough water to irrigate hay, the moisture and low temperatures have likely pushed back the growing season, meaning they’ll cut hay later in the season, Romero-Heaney said.

For those who hope to hit the river, it might be a better bet to rent a raft instead of a tube for awhile yet. Commercial outfitters typically start renting out tubes when the river falls below 700 cfs. The Yampa is still flowing at four times that rate.

Romero-Heaney guessed — based on data from 2011, a similar runoff year — that the river might fall to a tube-able level in mid- to late-July.

And while the water is high now, McBride cautions that it doesn’t remedy years of low flow in the greater Colorado River Basin, which the Yampa is a part of.

“As they say, don’t get too comfortable with just one year of good runoff in the Colorado Basin as a whole, but for users in the Yampa, it looks like a banner year,” he said.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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