Precipitation resets water peak, doesn’t drown out drought concerns
Precipitation in the last week has increased the amount of water in the Yampa, White and Little Snake River Basin’s snowpack, pushing it past the potential peak in late March.
If that March 25 peak had held, it would have been the earliest since 2017, but nearly an inch of rain in April means the peak could come at the latest date it has since 2013.
“This week was like a godsend,” said Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension Office. “I’m not going to say I’m overly optimistic now, but it was certainly better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
The snow-water equivalent of the area’s snowpack stood at 17.6 inches on Monday, April 18, according to the National Water and Climate Center. More moisture is always a good thing, according to Hagenbuch, who said the situation is not as dire now as it seemed each of the last two springs.
This time last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor considered Routt County to be in extreme and exceptional drought. The latest map is less severe with the entire county considered to have moderate drought conditions.
While the snowpack is looking better, it is still at a lower level than last year’s peak of 18 inches of water, and well below the 30-year median peak of 21.3 inches for the basin.
“This is one of the driest springs,” said Doug Monger, Routt County’s representative on the board of the Colorado River District and a local rancher. “You can’t even hardly make a mud puddle.”
Monger is in the middle of calving season with his ranch having about 135 calves born in recent weeks. Wet weather can complicate calving, but Monger said he would rather have the wet spring.
Instead, some of his hay meadows near Hayden are already dry enough to be worked.
“It seems like it’s early, but there’s just no mud puddles, so that’s why I say my farmer’s intuition is, ‘It’s pretty dry,’” Monger said. “It’s good that (calves) are healthy; it’s not good that we don’t have the rains.”
Water officials at the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last month said spring rain would be key to how this water year ends up. So far, precipitation has been near normal for April, and there is more in the forecast for later in the week.
Longer looking climate predictions show the Yampa Valley is likely in store for hotter temperatures and drier-than-normal weather. The two-week, one-month and three-month outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center all anticipate this trend.
The official spring outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in March predicted drought would persist across most of the West.
These predictions aside, Hagenbuch said what happens next month will be key.
“Is it going to be 70s and dry with cold, clear nights? That’s not a good thing,” he said. “Or could we get another week like last week plugged in the middle of late May? It would help all the pasture grasses, (and) it would help buoy stream flows.”
Monger said spring precipitation has an outsized effect on the whole year, and whatever they get now can do the most good. What he would really like to see is a week of strong rain with as much as an inch of water each day. He said it has likely been decades since the area saw weather like that.
“It’s probably been the 22 years that we’re in the drought since we’ve had those kind of spring rains,” Monger said. “Without that happening, it’s just tough.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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While warm days and nights are fueling strong flows in the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs, the pace of runoff is expected to dip this week.