State of Yampa: Current low snowpack is similar to other dry years; rain will be key

Amount of water in the Yampa Valley’s snowpack may have already peaked

Golden resident Trent Miller fights a mountain whitefish in the Yampa River near the Fifth Street Bridge on Sunday, March 27, 2022.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017.

Storms forecasted for the middle of the week could bolster the snowpack, but if this peak holds, it would be earlier and at a lower level of water than in 2018 and 2021, which were both dry years.

Each of those years, the main stem of the Yampa River was put on a call, meaning water users downstream did not get their allotted flows. Strategic releases from reservoirs helped stave off an extended call last year.

Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.

The black line represents the snow-water equivalent for 2022's snowpack, which saw a potential peak on Friday, March 25, 2022, at 16.9 inches of water. This is earlier and at a lower level than 2018 (the aqua line) and 2021 (the blue line).
Natural Resources Conservation Service

This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said.

“Our snowpack is not telling the entire story,” Light said. “We also need spring precipitation and we need monsoonal rains, and that’s where I see a problem.”

Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by. Doug Monger, who represents Routt County on the Colorado River District’s board, encouraged people to pray for rain amid such a weak snowpack.

Tracie Detwiler takes advantage of a day last fall to test the waters of the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs. The river had just opened to fishing after being closed since July 8 because of warm water temperatures and low flows.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

However, Light also pointed to climate projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that cast doubt on the likelihood of “a miracle May,” as some people have called it, with the next three months looking warmer and drier than average.

In 2020 when the snowpack was stronger, Light said, a lack of rain in the late summer left soils dry heading into the winter, which set the area up for an exceptionally dry start to the summer.

While last year’s snowpack ended up at 89% of the average over the last 30 years, dry soils meant runoff was much weaker, with the in-flow into Lake Powell being just 32% of average.

But last year’s soils were wetter than in 2020, as the end of last summer saw a stronger monsoonal push. This has most of Routt County facing moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought monitor, a lesser level than the county was at this time last year.

The tubing season lasted just past the Fourth of July last year, as low snowpack and a lack of spring rain forced Steamboat Springs and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials to close the river to recreation.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Water is scarcest in the summer, which makes those monsoonal rains so important, Light said. She emphasized that one storm doesn’t make a dent.

Releases from reservoirs were key to avoiding an extended call on the river last year, Light said, and some water is slated to be released again this year.

The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year.

Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week.

Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.

“I’m really hesitant to say that Yamcolo and Stillwater will fill,” Light added. “Maybe there is a chance that Stagecoach will fill.”

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