Monsoon helps West Slope but not Steamboat as Yampa River briefly placed on call for 3rd time | SteamboatToday.com
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Monsoon helps West Slope but not Steamboat as Yampa River briefly placed on call for 3rd time

The Western Slopes drought conditions got better in the last week, but much or Routt County is still in exceptional drought.

A call was placed on the Yampa River for just the third time ever last week, but monsoonal moisture over the weekend allowed water managers to quickly lift the call Monday.

The call, which means senior water rights holders downstream are not getting their legally entitled shares of water, was put in place as flows near Fifth Avenue Bridge in Steamboat Springs dropped below 50 cubic feet per second, and the river had warmed to more than 80 degrees last Thursday. Near Maybell in Moffat County, flows were under 40 cfs, compared to the 263 cfs that was flowing in the river at this time last year.

But the call was lifted at 11 a.m.on Monday when flows had rebounded to back near 100 cfs in Steamboat and to more than 150 cfs near Maybell. When a call is placed, junior rights holders are required to curtail their use.



“We have gotten some improvements from this recent rain,” said Erin Walter, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but of course, any rain we get helps.”

While just the third call ever, all three have come since 2018. The call last week is also the earliest in the year that one has ever been put in place, with last year’s restrictions being added near the end of August.

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Meteorologists say the Western Slope is experiencing one of the more robust monsoon seasons it has had in years. This can be seen on the updated U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday, which shows a decrease in the amount of the Western Slope that is in the highest level of drought it records.

“I think it was heavily influenced by the monsoon push that we had within the last 10 days,” Walter said. “A lot of areas were able to jump back up towards their normal for seasonal precipitation norms.”

While about 15% of Colorado was in exceptional drought last week, this week’s map shows that has dropped to just over 6% of the state. Still, most of the area still considered under exceptional drought is in Northwest Colorado, including much of Routt County.

The state is seeing a record number of flash flood warnings this season, with 259 already having been issued by early August, according to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet, housed at Iowa State University. The second-most warnings in any single year since 1997 was 176 in 2013 when most came in September.

“Heavy rain at once defiantly increases the chance for those mudslides and debris flows because the soil just can’t absorb the precipitation as quickly,” Walter said. “It does help with the stream flows.”

But while some areas are getting significant rain — the area over the Grizzly Creek burn scar in Glenwood Canyon received 4 inches of rain in five days — the Steamboat area actually received below-average rainfall in July.

Steamboat saw 1.34 inches of rain in July, while the average is near 1.7 inches. The area is lagging more than 4 inches behind on precipitation total so far this year. Though it can reach as far as Idaho and Montana, Walter said monsoonal signals tend to taper off as they get farther north.

The weather pattern is changing, though, and drier weather seems to be on its way. Walter said a cold front will likely bring a lot of smoke to the area Friday, which could be paired with afternoon thunderstorms, but Walter said the system does not have the monsoonal moisture the area had been seeing.

As river flows started to decrease again Thursday, the Colorado River District announced it will work with the Colorado Division of Water Resources to hopefully avoid another call on the Yampa this summer.

A release of 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir west of Hayden was an attempt to postpone another call, but that is unlikely to prevent one for the rest of the year.

The releases are part of the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which is releasing water from Elkhead and then studying the impact it has on the river’s health and agricultural uses.

“We worked quickly with multiple partners to secure these releases,” said Amy Moyer, director of strategic partnerships for the Colorado River District. “This is how we are navigating extraordinary times and connecting with all our water users.”


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