Soggy start to May prolonging Yampa Valley’s runoff

The Yampa River below the Stagecoach Reservoir Dam. On Sunday, the reservoir was discharging water at a rate of about 40 cubic feet per second, while water flowed into the reservoir at about 75 cf/s.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Cold and wet weather to start the month of May is pushing runoff later into the spring, which hopes to help the Yampa Valley’s water situation for the time being.

Steamboat Springs has seen about 1.5 inches of precipitation in the first week of May, which is more than in the entire month of April. It has also stalled a severe melt off of the Yampa, White and Little Snake River Basin’s snowpack, which is holding just below the 30-year average.

“The past week of cooler temperatures and wet weather has helped push the snowpack and runoff to not go into full swing yet,” said Emily Lowell, the district engineer for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. “Cooler temps will help with slower snowmelt, which is helpful to prolong the runoff that we will have.”

The basin is currently sitting at 91% of its 30-year average in terms of snow water equivalency, though several individual stations such as on Rabbit Ears Pass are reporting totals above average. The Yampa River at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat is flowing at nearly double the rate as it was this time last year — 1,340 cubic feet per second on Sunday, May 8, versus 691 cf/s a year ago.

Holly Kirkpatrick, public information manager with the Upper Yampa water district, said most water users haven’t started irrigating yet, but likely will in the upcoming weeks. She said those in South Routt County are especially watching things as the Bear River generally goes on a call early in the year.

The Bear River flows from the Flat Tops and is the source for Yamcolo Reservoir, before the channel eventually switches its name to the Yampa River near Yampa. Lowell said Yamcolo is about 50% full right now and filling, though they will have to stop adding to the water stored there once a call goes in place.

“We will continue to fill as we are able,” Lowell said, adding that Yamcolo has relatively junior water rights.

Angler Eric Rehnberg of Yampa battles the wind on a blustery Sunday, May 8, for fishing on the Yampa River just below Stagecoach Reservoir.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

At the end of March, officials said Yamcolo likely won’t fill this year. As all of the water in that reservoir is spoken for — primarily for agricultural use — some users likely won’t get their full allotment.

Further downstream, Stagecoach will get close to full capacity, with Kirkpatrick saying the plan right now is to raise the water elevation by four feet. At that mark there would be 33,000 acre-feet of water in the 36,000 acre-feet capacity reservoir.

“And not all of that water in Stagecoach is contracted,” Kirkpatrick said. “We have plenty of water to deliver to all the contracts that we do have.”

The water elevation at Stagecoach Reservoir is expected to rise about four more feet this spring as it fills to just below its capacity of 36,000 acre-feet of water.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Lowell said the basin as a whole looks just below average in terms of snow, and it will likely be similar in terms of runoff this year. Spring weather will play a key role in runoff, she said.

But unlike last week, this week looks to have warmer, drier and windy weather that will increase the rate of melting, said local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website

A large low-pressure system off the West Coast is forcing air up from the southwest, which will boost temperatures to the high 60s for much of the week, and even in the 70s on Wednesday. Then things seem to cool off a bit ahead of another unsettled weekend.

“That was the cold wet spring (weather) that we needed,” Weissbluth said, referring to last week. “It looks like we’ll have these periods of warm and dry in between unsettled weather now, with the warm and dry starting to dominate as we get further into spring.”

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