Dry soil last fall, low snow this winter add stress to the Yampa Valley water supply

An angler lands a fish on the Yampa River as it flows near downtown Steamboat Springs on Sunday afternoon. The river was crowded this spring day, but lack of snowfall this winter could keep anglers out of the river later this year if it is put on call again. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One of the wetter spots in Colorado, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is east over the mountains from Steamboat Springs in Larimer County.

Much of that county is in the lowest level of drought, called “abnormally dry,” thanks in part to historic snowfalls on the Front Range earlier this month. If Larimer County is dry, the trek west to Routt County — through part of the state that saw several record wildfires in 2020 — might test which drought-related adjectives apply.

The drought monitor goes with “extreme” and “exceptional” to describe drought conditions in Routt County. Most of the Western Slope is looking at a similar situation, with the western third of Colorado being shades of ruby red and maroon on the latest map released by drought officials last Thursday.

After having a call put on it for the second time in three years in 2020, state water officials are now considering whether the Yampa River has enough water to fulfill rights held by people downstream of Steamboat Springs. What is most concerning to officials isn’t just the low amount of snow seen this winter, but also how dry the ground was before it started falling.

In the Yampa and White River Basins in Northwest Colorado, the snowpack is about 87% of average in terms of snow water equivalent, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but there isn’t much snow forecasted for the next few weeks, and the average peak in the snowpack generally comes around April 10.

“There is not a whole lot of winter left to make up the difference,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resource manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “A lot of it really comes down to whether or not we get good rain in the spring and summer.”

Last updated on March 25, the U.S. Drought Monitor places much of the Western Slope of Colorado in the highest two categories. The five levels are exceptional drought (maroon), extreme drought (red), Severe drought (orange), moderate drought (tan) and abnormally dry (yellow). White would have dictated no drought conditions, but all of Colorado has some degree of drought.(Screenshot)

Rain is key at maintaining soil moisture, Romero-Heaney said. Because the soil was so dry last fall, she anticipates a lot of the melting snow will be soaked up and water runoff will be lower than normal.

This means stream flows will be lower, likely requiring release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to support the health of the Yampa River later in the season. Romero-Heaney said more often then not, since 2013, they have needed to release water into the Yampa.

If enough of that spring and summer rain does not come, Romero-Heaney said the valley could see a summer much like the last, and “we start to run out of water for all the uses in the basin.”

Municipal customers running out of water is not a concern at this point. Whether there will be enough water for all the agricultural uses in the basin while also keeping the river healthy is in question though, Romero-Heaney said.

“Our soil is our greatest reservoir for water, so the more it gets depleted year to year, then the less water that is available for the streams, vegetation, agricultural crops, and also there is less water heading down to the Colorado River,” Romero-Heaney said.

The 90-day outlook doesn’t look poised to reverse any of these trends either. The outlook is below average on precipitation chances and predicts above-average temperatures, said Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension Office.

Hagenbuch is anticipating a quicker snowmelt this season, which will give agriculture producers a flush of water early in the season but would mean limited water later in the season when they really need it. If temperatures are warmer as the outlook suggests, plants will need more water to grow, as well.

“It is kind of a double-edged sword; you have got less water, and you have got crops that need more,” Hagenbuch said. “It sets up a situation where you might not be able to get the crop growth that you would normally expect.”

Hagenbuch said he would not be surprised if the Yampa is called again this year, and predicted municipalities in the county would likely put water use restrictions in place earlier then they have in the past.

Despite lower snow totals, Andy Rossi, general manager at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he anticipates they will be able to fill Stagecoach Reservoir this year. That said, Rossi is not expecting to be able to fill Yamcolo Reservoir, which is primarily used for agriculture.

The likelihood of being able to fill a reservoir in the spring has a lot to do with how much water was in it in the fall, Rossi said. Stagecoach sees much less use when compared with Yamcolo, which used almost 100% of its agricultural water contracts last year.

“The reservoir is drawn way down, and so to be able to recover the reservoir, it takes that much more water,” Rossi said.

In repeated dry years, it can be increasingly hard to fully recover a reservoir until that streak ends, and there is a wetter year. In these dry years, potentially this summer, it can become difficult to meet the need of all the agricultural water diversions, Rossi said.

“It is not a comfortable place to be, it is not a great place to be, but the basin has been in this form of a drought before,” Rossi said. “It is not great for the water users, especially the agricultural community. It has a serious impact on them.”

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