Snowmelt is underway above 9,000 feet on Rabbit Ears Pass east of Steamboat
Steamboat Springs — A hydrologist working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lakewood confirmed March 20 that high elevation snowmelt is contributing to early spring runoff conditions in the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs.
“On Rabbit Ears Pass, that may have been occurring since March 15,” Karl Wetlaufer said. “The Yampa was flowing barely above median (for the date) until the 15th,” when average daily temperatures on the pass rose above freezing.
Snow has been disappearing from the valley floor at a rapid rate this month, but travelers headed over Rabbit Ears can also see plain signs of an early runoff above 9,000 feet. Ken Brenner, a member of the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he was startled on Friday to see that snowbanks that would normally cover Walton Creek in its headwaters on Rabbit Ears, had opened up and the creek was flowing vigorously.
Snowpack measurements — the amount of water stored in the standing snow — are also in rapid decline on the pass. Rabbit Ears has had some of the highest percentage snowpack readings of the entire winter in the Park Range that dominates views from Steamboat. As recently as March 4, after the last significant bout of snow here, snowpack there stood at 94 percent of median for the date.
Those numbers have steadily declined to 76 percent Monday. However, some of that must be attributed to the fact that snowless days are passing at a time of year when the snowpack is typically still growing, according to Wetlaufer. As a result, snowpack on a percentage basis would be down to some degree with or without melting taking place.
Still, Wetlaufer said, streamflow in the Yampa tells the story of how early and how far runoff has progressed.
The Yampa, where it flows beneath the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat, was flowing at 496 cubic feet per second at 5 p.m. Monday and on its way up toward a daily peak in the middle of the night. That’s more than three times the median flow for the date but still well below a record.
With the addition of major tributaries like the Elk River and Elkhead Creek, the Yampa just downstream from Craig was surging to 1,820 cfs late Monday afternoon. That’s more than double the median for the date.
Adding to the complexity of this spring’s runoff picture is the fact that the highest snow measuring site in the Park Range, the Tower site at 10,500 feet on Buffalo Pass, stands at just 69 percent of median. Tower is an indicator of how much potential there is for late spring/early summer runoff. The water stored in the standing snow there is the equivalent of 28 inches compared to the median 40.7 for March 23.
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