Potential early peak in snowpack could lead to warmer water, low flows in Yampa River this summer

Snow is melting and making its way from the high mountains into the Yampa River. With the melt starting earlier than normal this year, it could lead to low flows and warm water in the Yampa this summer. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The amount of water in the snow throughout the Yampa River watershed has started declining, indicating that snowmelt is well underway and potentially foreshadowing a summer of low flows in the river.

This measurement, called snow water equivalent inches, generally starts increasing in October and continues to grow until April when the snow starts melting. This point is often referred to as a peak, but it is too early to tell if the snowpack has peaked yet this season.

Last Saturday, this measurement reached 16.5 inches, the highest it has been all season, but has since declined to 14.5 inches on Wednesday, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. If 16.5 inches ends up being the peak for this season, it will have peaked seven days earlier and with about 3.4 inches less water than the 30-year median peak.

“Generally, when we start to have warm temperatures at night and the thaw gets started, it is hard for it to get cold enough for the thaw to turn off again,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resource manager for the city of Steamboat Springs.

It’s too early to consider this the peak because it could still snow more, which has happened in previous years. In 2018, snow water equivalency appeared to peak on April 1 at 17 inches, but a snowstorm days later resulted in that year’s peak being 19.7 inches, just shy of the 20.1-inch 30-year median.

This graph depicts snow water equivalency inches for the Yampa River Basin in 2020-21 (black line). The lime green line represents the 30-year median for this data. The red line is the data for 2018, which saw a late season snow bolstering water inches, and the blue line is 2012, which is a notable drought year. (Natural Resources Conservation Service)

“We talk about miracle May. A lot of times, we will get these wet cold, rainy May’s that sustain the snowpack and the moisture up high a little bit longer, but again, the thawing has begun earlier than we would like,” Romero-Heaney said.

Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he wouldn’t say it is a concern at this point but is definitely something to keep an eye on.

It is relatively normal to see things starting to melt at this time of year, he said. What remains to be seen for Domonkos is how much precipitation will come this spring and early summer.

“If this melt continues, and we don’t see those additional storms, then, yes, it might become a bit concerning, especially with the low snow we are seeing this year,” Domonkos said.

There have been worse years. In 2012, snow equivalency peaked in early March at just 14.3 inches. Still, Romero-Heaney said these low snow years seem to be happening with more frequency.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resource manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, said they sometimes talk about “Miracle May,” which refers to a May with colder, rainy weather, which can slow the melt and keep more snow at higher elevations for longer. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“Our spring thaw feels like it is coming a little earlier than it used to, and that does bring a set of challenges with it,” said Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension Office.

While climate variability is something that has been dealt with in the West for generations, the data does suggest that overall things are becoming warmer and even more variable in terms of how much water is available, Hagenbuch said.

“Now is the time for us to start adapting to the change,” Romero-Heaney said.

Romero-Heaney said the early melt would not affect the drinking water supply because they plan ahead for bad years, but this does impact the Yampa’s overall health.

“The sooner the snow melts, the sooner runoff happens, then the hotter and lower the Yampa flows later in the season,” Romero-Heaney said.

The river is warmer simply because there is less water to be heated up. When heat from the sun is more concentrated in less water, it can have severe affects on the river’s aquatic life. The city is already working with partners to be able to release more water into the river this summer, something they have started to do nearly every year.

Steamboat is evaluating how its water supply will be sustainable in the future and working on projects like reforestation around the Yampa River in hopes to keep it cooler in hotter summer months.

What will be important to watch is how strong reservoir levels are and how much precipitation is in the next few months, Domonkos said.

“We’ve got another one, two, maybe even three months where we should get some precipitation that could really help out, but if we don’t get that, that is going to play a big role,” Domonkos said.

Where this may have the most drastic effect is for agriculture producers in the valley, because it will be hard to get adequate irrigation water when they need it later in the summer, Hagenbuch said.

Getting moisture in mid-May to mid-June would be particularly fruitful for producers and set them up for a productive season, especially because most of the grasses that grow in this region are cool-season grasses, Hagenbuch said. These grasses will keep growing if they have water, but when that dries up, so will the grass.

“Farmers and ranchers are resilient bunch, and they will figure out how to get through this — as they always have,” Hagenbuch said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.