Snow is falling, but will the next few months bring enough moisture to avoid severe summer drought? |

Snow is falling, but will the next few months bring enough moisture to avoid severe summer drought?

Grass and vegetation can be seen in areas normally covered with snow at this point of the winter can be seen across Steamboat Springs as residents and visitors to the area continue to wait for the next big storm. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Based on recent data and statistical modeling, there is only a 10% chance spring precipitation will be robust enough to bring a normal water supply to the Yampa Valley heading into the summer, said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District.

There’s also a 10% chance of reaching record low water supply levels for the Yampa River, Kanzer warned.

And in terms of the drought bell curve, Kanzer said the fringe areas on either side of the middle are increasingly important, as the entire curve looks to be shifting toward a higher propensity for less precipitation and warmer temperatures.

Making summer drought predictions in February is certainly early, Kanzer noted, with the forecast season just beginning.

But the current snowpack is already well below average for the Yampa River Basin.

Based upon data from SNOTEL sites around Routt County that are maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the area is currently tracking in the range of 75% of what’s typical for this time of year. It should be noted 75% of snowpack does not translate to 75% of water supply season volume.

Runoff primarily occurs between April and July, and that’s the data to show the water flow that makes up about 80% of the whole year’s balance, Kanzer said.

During those key months, the reservoirs across the state and Western U.S. play a critical role in capturing the runoff.

The Yampa River, Kanzer said, has a relatively low amount of storage. And a lot of that flow is essentially gone from the system by July, he said.

Entering this winter with what Kanzer described as “about six to nine months of record dry soil moisture conditions,” the moisture level of soil will also play a critical role in how the summer looks.

The soil is so dry it will soak up a lot of the moisture before it has a chance to run off into streams and rivers.

The above normal temperatures of recent years — some record setting — also causes more evaporation.

“The droughts that we are seeing are becoming that much more severe because of the temperature component, they’re warmer,” said Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist in an interview with KUNC.

Todd Hagenbuch, director and agriculture agent for the Colorado State University Extension Office in Routt County, said he’s seeing data suggesting drought seasons like in 2002 and 2012.

“They were rough,” he said.

And given a very dry fall for 2020, and very low soil moisture levels, “We are starting way behind the eight ball.”

Widespread impacts

The visual evidence of a low snow year were painfully obvious ahead of this week’s snowstorm. Grass was showing where typically it is buried under several feet of snow this time of year.

It’s also obvious when considering ski conditions, snowmaking needs and impacts on other winter recreational activities. It’s evident in smaller aspects of daily life, like time spent shoveling and plowing and whether or not the dog can easily hop over the fence.

As the snow melts, the implications only grow, especially on agriculture, summer recreation activities reliant on the river, wildfires and overall water supply and environmental health.

With a call being issued on the Yampa River twice in recent years, including last year — the only two times in the river’s history — it’s a “brand new world for users on the Yampa,” Kanzer said.

“The whole river is over-allocated,” he said. “There is not enough for all the water rights on the books.”

As of Feb. 1, Kanzer said the forecast for the Yampa River is to be at 50% to 65% of its normal water supply.

If conditions don’t improve, another call could come earlier in the season, Kanzer said, and potentially impact more people.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever talked drought this early,” observed Hagenbuch, who has been talking about drought preparation on his radio program over the past few weeks.

Regarding planning in the agricultural realm, Hagenbuch said ranchers may think about selling cows earlier than normal, as well as things like grasshopper control and pasture land being at a premium.

In some drought years, ranchers reduce their livestock numbers if they know they may not have enough forage ability, he said.

With last year’s hay crop only yielding about 50% to 70% of average, there’s already a hay shortage, he noted.

Another primary concern is irrigation.

“We just don’t have much storage,” Hagenbuch said. “We store it as snow.”

Across the state and region

Looking at the Colorado River Basin as a whole — of which the Yampa River is part — the numbers are alarming.

A recent article by Yale Climate Connections displayed the headline, “Drought-stricken Colorado River Basin could see additional 20% drop in water flow by 2050.”

The Bureau of Reclamation’s recent quarterly report was grim, showing Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both fed by the Colorado River, at 42% and 40% of capacity, respectively.

Colorado has been experiencing drought conditions for nearly 20 years. About three-quarters of the state is designated as being in extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

It’s the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Bradley Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, statewide snowpack is at about 73% of normal.

“That’s the fourth lowest snowpack that we’ve measured for this date in the past 36 years,” said Brian Domonkos, supervisor of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Colorado Snow Survey, in a KUNC story.

Most scientists are now projecting a continuation of the hotter and drier conditions — accepting a world in which the current drought is not part of a shorter cycle that will balance itself out, but rather part of the enduring impacts of climate change.

“When does drought become the norm?” asked Hagenbuch. “There’s variability, but when do we come to realize that curve has shifted?”

There have been catastrophic floods in recent years, like along the Front Range in 2013.

“I always say climate change is water change,” Udall stated in the Yale Climate Connections story. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”

The good news? Snow has come to the Yampa Valley in the past days and continues in the forecast over the next week.

“It’s too early to panic,” Kanzer acknowledged.

There is still considerable time to see increased precipitation, he said, and forecasts this early are subject to significant error.

“A wet spring will really help out — that’s what we are hoping for,” he said.

Hagenbuch points to the “miracle May” of 2015, when a very rainy May helped to compensate for a dry winter.

The chances are on the slimmer side, both Kanzer and Hagenbuch acknowledged, but it’s still too early to know.

Right now, snow is much better than rain, Kanzer said, in that snow acts as a reservoir by storing the moisture, allowing it a gradual runoff as it melts, whereas “Rain moves through the system quickly.”

And there are indications the months ahead will be wetter than the months behind, Kanzer said. “The outlook is tilting in a positive direction. The next 30 to 60 days are really critical.”

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