Community Agriculture Alliance: Rivers rise as rain and snow hammer Yampa River basin
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
For all snow, water and river junkies out there, last weekend’s weather was one of the most intense and bizarre we have seen in some time. Twenty or more inches of snow in the high country, inches of rain, massive lightning, cold temps, snow in downtown Steamboat Springs marked the official beginning of summer in the Yampa Valley.
Since 1983, the year of all water years in the Colorado Basin, 2011 was the next wettest on record. This year is now very comparable.
This is a reality of ours. Living on the spine of the continent, high up in elevation, this offers extreme variability in our climate as is. We have always experienced broad shifts in annual snowpack, rain, temperature and river flow, and the perfect scenario like last weekend is never out of our reality. We already had a deep snowpack remaining from winter and spring. Then, throw in a low front with adequate moisture and low temperature and residents woke up to snow on first day of summer.
The trick with last week’s storm is that is wasn’t all snow. We typically see river levels drop when we get cold fronts, because they shut down the snowmelt with colder temperatures. But in this case, it poured rain leading up to the snowfall which spiked our rivers, creeks and streams to their seasonal peak flows.
River flows in the Yampa Basin are notorious for having large fluctuations in their seasonal flow. With limited storage reservoirs in the basin, there isn’t the capacity for water managers to store the runoff. When the conditions are right, and Mother Nature sends us her wrath, it’s not out of the ordinary to see river levels spike.
In early June at the Yampa Basin Rendezvous that was held in Steamboat Springs, we learned all about snow, water, rivers, climate modeling and the resiliency of communities to handle shifting climate aridity. We learned from scientists that the future we can expect in the Yampa and greater Colorado River basins in general, will only continue to be more variable, extreme and a bit wilder than what we are all used to.
Years of hotter and dryer climate, drought and low river flow, followed by periods of extreme snow and rainfall along with heavier flooding seems probable in our future, and it is what many of the modeling trends are indicating. What we saw last weekend is just a glimpse into our extreme weather reality and is something that we will all have to get used to.
Kent Vertrees is the board president of the Friends of the Yampa.
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