Spring runoff 2018 in Steamboat Springs defies the odds
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There are clear signs in late April 2018 that spring runoff will be different than it was in 2017, when the snowpack that feeds the Yampa River and its tributaries peaked unusually early March 12.
Despite subpar snow accumulation in the heart of winter 2017/18, the snowpack in the mountains near Steamboat Springs — and with it, the water supply that refresh the river — has continued deeper into the spring than is normal.
Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service told Steamboat Today in May 2017 that snowpack typically peaks in this region April 10. The good news for irrigators and paddlers is that the snowpack has continued to build into April 2018.
Improbably, the meager snowpack that accumulated in January and February has been compensated for by heavy spring snow at elevations above 9,000 feet. And that bodes well for filling reservoirs and fueling kayak play parks.
The Yampa peaked at 2,640 cfs in 2017.
The view of the upper Yampa Valley from the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass this week belies the amount of water yet to flow from the southern end of the Park Range and feed spring runoff in the Yampa River.
From a pullout on U.S. Highway 40, it was plain to see April 21 that the valley floor was completely devoid of snow and low elevation runoff from the hay meadows is complete.
The Yampa River was flowing well below the median for the date at 320 cubic feet per second April 22, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But that same day, the river began to rise steeply until it reached 600 cfs on April 24.
That flow was still a little more than 200 cfs below median for the date. But the current trend doesn’t necessarily signal a weak spring runoff.
The Conservation Service was reporting Tuesday that the water stored in the remaining snow in the mountains of the Yampa/White River Basin has climbed to 89 percent of median this spring. On the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass, the number is 93 percent of median.
Colorado snow survey supervisor Brian Domonkos reported this month that Northwest Colorado represents the healthiest snowpack in the state. And the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, predicts the Yampa will begin to climb through April 29 to almost 700 cfs when the National Weather Service expects daily high temperatures on the valley floor to range into the mid- to high-60s on Friday and Saturday.
However, high temperatures in the upper Yampa Valley are expected to return to the low-50s again May 1 to 3, and the river will settle down with it. The River Forecast Center expects flows in the Yampa at Steamboat to return to the mid-400 cfs range in early May.
The average peak flow on the Yampa where it is measured at the Fifth Street Bridge is 3,070 cfs and occurs between May 19 and June 10.
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This first year of the Yampa River Fund has been a whirlwind and one of great anticipation of the things to come.