May showers bring normal streamflow in Steamboat despite sub-par spring snowpack

Tom Ross

— Routt County residents who didn’t exactly welcome Friday afternoon’s stiff rain shower with good cheer can just get used to it.

Steamboat-based independent meteorologist Mike Weissbluth doesn’t think the weather will change much any time soon.

“The wet and cool long-range forecast I’ve been talking about since mid April looks to continue through at least the end of the month as Pacific energy continues to enter the West Coast and tap, to varying degrees, the cold air over the central Canadian plains,” Weissbluth forecasted.

The National Weather Service was predicting the overnight low in Steamboat would touch the freezing point Friday into Saturday, but at least the rain mixed with snow expected to fall overnight wasn’t expected to result in accumulating snow. However, it was a different forecast for Storm Peak; the Weather Service was calling for 1 to 2 inches Friday afternoon and another half-inch overnight.

Ranchers and kayakers are rejoicing over the wet spell. Colorado State University Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said the cold moisture this month has been a real gift to agricultural producers.

“Because it has come down slow and steady, it’s soaking in well and should help hay ground and pastures alike,” he said.

It was a tale of two rivers in the upper Yampa Basin Friday, with the Yampa River at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat gradually dropping close to the range of typical streamflows for mid May, but with the Elk River near its confluence with the Yampa east of Milner already flowing well below the median flow for the date.

The Yampa just below the city of Craig dipped below median flows on May 12, and was flowing a 3,770 cfs Friday afternoon. It was flowing at 6,160 cfs at Deer Lodge Park, compared to the median flow for the date of 7,230 cfs.

The 2015 spring runoff season has delivered a lesson about how steady, above-average precipitation can transform sub-par snowpack into near normal river flows. Within the city of Steamboat, month-to-date precipitation stood at nearly 2.6 inches as of May 15, comparing favorably to the normal 2.24 inches for the entire month. And that was before Friday’s rainfall.

The Yampa was flowing at 1,810 cubic feet per second at the Fifth Street Bridge compared to the median flow of 1,520 cfs for the date on Friday (Six days earlier, on May 9, the river was still flowing at nearly 3,000 cfs). It was flowing at 1,980 cfs below Soda Creek Friday, and although the river is trending downward, Charlie’s Hole paddling feature was still ideal for experienced whitewater enthusiasts punching a river-worthy inflatable raft through the wave. Personal flotation devices are a must, and the river is still far too high and cold for tubing.

The Elk was flowing at 1,310 cfs Friday, a full 550 cfs below the median and within the tenth to 24th percentile for the date, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The disparity between the two rivers reflects anecdotal reports of spottier rainfall this month and less snowpack to begin with in the mountains on the Elk’s drainage.

The Elk River snow measuring site at 8,700 feet elevation on the edge of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area typically still has 3 inches of snow water equivalent on this date, but it has already melted this spring. A little higher in the drainage, at 9,320 feet, the Lost Dog site still had 5.2 inches of snow water equivalent, still just 32 percent of the median.

In contrast, the Rabbit Ears site, on the pass of the same name, has 8.5 inches of snow water, which translates to 42 percent of median.

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

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