Above-average snowpack surrounding Steamboat needed by dwindling reservoirs in Utah, Nevada | SteamboatToday.com

Above-average snowpack surrounding Steamboat needed by dwindling reservoirs in Utah, Nevada

Snow Surveyor Christine Shook visits a SNOWTEL site in North Routt County late last month. The SNOWTEL stations measure the amount of snow and water content and send the information to the state office, where the data is recorded and published online. The most recent reports have water stored in the snowpack in the combined Yampa and White river basins at 125 percent of the median for Feb. 12. On Rabbit Ears Pass, it is 142 percent of the median.

— The Park Range just east of Steamboat Springs has seen heavy snowfall during the first half of February, and every bit of water in the snow piling up in the mountains is critical because a couple of the largest reservoirs on the lower Colorado are below 50 percent of capacity.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported Wednesday that the snowpack on Rabbit Ears Pass is 142 percent of the median for Feb. 12.

However, contrary to some reports, Rabbit Ears Pass did not see 113 inches of snowfall Feb. 7, nor did nearby Buffalo Pass, at 10,500 feet on the Continental Divide, receive 70 inches in 24 hours Feb. 10.

The reports are attributable to automated sensing devices that primarily are used to measure snow density, and from that, the amount of water in the standing snow.

They also give snow depth readings that sometimes can give erroneous readings, said Mage Hultstrand, assistant snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver.

"They are ultrasonic devices, and any time there is a lot of moisture in the air (heavy snow falling), they basically can't send a signal, and because of that, they are reading their offset," she said.

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When she mentions the "offset," Hultstrand is referring to the distance between the surface of the snowpack and the sensor on top of a 200-inch pole. That's the false measurement that indicated the snow depth on Buffalo Pass on Feb. 10 was 195 inches deep, compared to 125 inches the day before.

The 125-inch reading probably was accurate: Nick Bencke, of the U.S. Forest Service, visited the Tower measurement site on Buffalo Pass on Tuesday and took snow depth readings in two spots. He came up with depths of 135 inches and 132 inches.

The automated measuring sites are useful, Hultstrand said, but her agency ultimately relies on visits to each site to confirm the data, which is important to planning for the summer's water supply.

Late this winter, federal budget cuts threatened to reduce the number of snowpack measuring sites the NRCS could monitor in the future, but a consortium of water users has rallied to help fund the hand measurements.

Local snowpack linked to Western water shortage

Outside the scope of winter recreation, the snow on Buffalo Pass is significant to municipalities and irrigators all the way down the larger Colorado River Basin. The snow that melts from Buffalo Pass in June will flow into the Yampa River, which joins the Green River just east of Colorado's border with Utah. The Green in turn flows into the Colorado in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, not far upstream from Lake Powell, which stores much of the water that is set aside for states such as California, Arizona and Nevada.

Steamboat Springs Attorney Tom Sharp, who recently completed his tenure on the Colorado River District board of directors in 2013, said Colorado's snowpack is acutely important as the levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead (below the Grand Canyon) are in steep decline.

The River District's January newsletter reported that Lake Powell was at 40 percent capacity and Lake Mead was at 48 percent, raising the possibility of crises at both reservoirs. River District General Manager Eric Kuhn said that at Lake Powell, the fear is that if the long-term drought pattern continues, water levels could fall below the intake for the turbines that generate electricity at Glen Canyon Dam. That could cause electricity rates across the West to spike.

At Lake Mead, the fear is that the city of Las Vegas could not access municipal water supplies.

"Unless those declines are reversed, there are major consequences to the river system, and it will be obvious to all that there is no hydrologic capability to have a new large trans-basin reservoir built on the west slope to divert (water) over to the east slope," Sharp wrote in an email.

Anyone interested in the future of water supplies in the Colorado River Basin is invited to attend Thursday night’s public meeting of the Yampa-White-Green Rivers Basin Roundtable at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

If you go

What: Meetings of the Yampa-White-Green Rivers Basin Roundtable: A series of four public meetings in four Northwest Colorado towns to gather residents’ thoughts about the best ways to meet the increasing demand for water.

The local meetings will feed into a statewide effort to document a water plan for the future of Colorado.

When and Where: The Yampa-White-Green Roundtable will meet in three communities from 6 to 8 p.m. in the following locations:

• Thursday in Steamboat Springs at the Steamboat Springs Community Center, 1605 Lincoln Ave.

• Feb. 19 in Craig at the American Legion Hall, 1055 Moffat County Road 7.

• Feb. 24 in Meeker at the Rio Blanco Fairgrounds, 4-H building meeting room, 779 Sulphur Creek Road.

After this series of meetings, public input also will be welcome at the Basin Roundtable meetings held at the American Legion Hall in Craig on March 12, May 14 and June 18. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.

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