Rainy start to May not yet enough to stem Yampa Valley’s water concerns
Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday. More rain is expected Wednesday afternoon and over the weekend into next week.
“I would say there is more chance for rain than not,” said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website SnowAlarm.com.
Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.
“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.
If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.
“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”
This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.
Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.
“You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks.
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.
Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat, said it is too early to know if this May will bring enough rain to alleviate water concerns, but she hopes the cooler, wet weather will continue.
Spring storms are not uncommon in the Rocky Mountains as the jet stream moves north. Weissbluth said the jet stream separates cold air from the north and warmer air from the south, with storms coming when there are kinks in the jet stream.
“The jet stream is moving back north after being more to the south in the winter, and as it moves over us, we are prone to storms,” Weissbluth said.
As the northern hemisphere warms through the summer, the jet stream will continue to rise, eventually migrating up into Canada. There are early indications that some storms further south are starting to bring up moisture from Mexico, showing that monsoon season is starting.
While monsoons are typically connected to large amounts of rain, the term actually refers to a seasonal reversal of winds. Winds are switching to come from the south and east rather than north and west. This has not yet developed enough to bring the Yampa Valley rain, but Weissbluth said it could lead to wetter storms in about six weeks.
Thursday and Friday are expected to be a brief departure from spring weather, and highs will be in the 70s with lots of sun. A storm brings unsettled weather back for the weekend, and it could be wet and cool from Saturday through the middle of next week.
“It is going to start more hit or miss and showery, but it looks like we have better chances for precipitation on Monday and Tuesday,” Weissbluth said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Yampa River’s temperature was 72 degrees at a spot in the Chuck Lewis Wildlife Area south of Steamboat. That’s about 15 degrees higher than the typical average.