Did the Yampa Valley just have a miracle May?

Steamboat Springs saw 4.53 inches of precipitation in May, more than 2 inches above average

The Yampa River is running bank-to-bank as it cuts through green hay meadows west of Steamboat Springs on Tuesday June 7, 2022, as flows in the river have been boosted by strong May precipitation
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

At the State of the Yampa Address put on by the Colorado River District at the end of March, longtime rancher Doug Monger asked those gathered for the event to pray for some rain.

At that time, Monger said finding mud puddles on his ranch near Hayden was nearly impossible, as any moisture was quickly soaked up by the water-starved soil. A lack of a specific illness among his calves was another indicator of just how dry things were.

“After these rainstorms, finally we got some mud holes, and I had a few sick calves,” Monger said. “It was absolutely awesome.”

Monger, who represents Routt County on the board of the Colorado River District, often uses the term “miracle May,” which refers back to May 2015 when the Yampa Valley saw more precipitation — 6.45 inches — than any other year in the last 30 years. This May didn’t eclipse that mark, but the 4.53 inches that fell last month is now the second wettest May in since 2000.

“I think it was a miracle May myself,” Monger said. “I think this will be huge for us.”

The rain hasn’t just been seen in Steamboat, either. Hayden’s 2.74 inches of precipitation is about an inch more than the 30-year average. Yampa’s 2.17 inches is somewhat less impressive, but is still about 35% higher than average.

“I’m very happy with our flows right now,” said Erin Light, the Division Six Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We’re teetering up around average flows.”

Temperature in May was also below average — 47.3 degrees versus an average of 48.7. Light said last month’s weather also contributed to slowing the rate of melting of the Yampa, White and Little Snake River Basin’s snowpack which is now near average levels — though there isn’t much left at this point.

Waters flowing through the Yampa River west of Steamboat Springs, Tuesday, June 7, 2022 cuts through a green spring landscape. As the snow continues to shrink on Storm Peak many in agriculture are hoping the wet weather this spring will add to water levels in the Yampa River.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The basin is currently sitting at 98% of average for snow-water equivalent left at this point in the year, with about 3.3 inches of water still left to melt. That is the second most of the seven basins in Colorado.

“We should all be grateful that we have the streamflows that we have and just hope they stay long enough to get through the entire irrigation season,” Light said. “But I do think that what we have gotten so far — both snow and springtime precipitation — is not enough.”

The third source of water is monsoonal rain, which typically comes later in the summer. Last year, there was a strong monsoonal push from the southwest, something Light said people should hope for this year as well.

In the short-term, a solid monsoon combined with the water already in the valley could be enough to avoid a larger call on the Yampa River, Light said. The main stem has only been put on a call three times — each in the last four years.

Water fills an irrigation ditch west of Steamboat Springs Tuesday June 7, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Hay production was dreadful last year, forcing many local ranchers to sell off their cattle early because they had nothing left to feed them. Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension office, said he expected this year would be much better, not only for lower lying irrigated meadows, but higher, dry pastures as well.

“It stayed cool long enough to hold the snow a little bit longer, and now we’re able to use some of that irrigation water to our benefit, where we couldn’t have used it if it melted and left the system,” Hagenbuch said. “Those areas you can’t irrigate, you’ll have to rely on Mother Nature to do that and those pastures are in really good shape compared to the last two years.”

Monger said May’s rain helped grass get a jump-start to growing.

“Last year people had half of their crop, a third of their crop,” Monger said. “This bit of rainstorms will truly make the difference.”

But the short-term results are where the positivity ends amid a 22-year, climate change driven, megadrought. Light said she didn’t think last month would have any effect on the increasingly tense situation with water levels in Lake Powell, the reservoir considered the Upper Colorado River Basin’s savings account.

Despite the rain, the June drought outlook from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center still predicts that drought will persist in Northwest Colorado and across a majority of the West. Both the one and three month outlooks for precipitation forecast below average rainfall for the Yampa Valley.

Still, Monger is optimistic: “We’re still maybe having some more miracle May so I hate to say it’s done with.”

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