Steamboat, CPW officials to discuss when Yampa River closure could lift
High temperatures initially closed the river in July, and flows are still below benchmarks laid out by the city.
The Yampa River has been closed to commercial outfitters and recreational users for nearly three months now, and flows are still much lower than the nearly 120-year average for this time of year.
On Sunday morning, the Yampa was flowing at about 72 cubic feet per second, which is actually higher than the 63 cfs flowing on this day last year. But water experts say comparing single years doesn’t reveal much because factors like strategic water releases can vary so much year over year.
When looking at the entire period of record for the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs, including data that dates back to 1904, the average for Oct. 3 is 123 cfs.
“Although last week’s rain provided a little bump, the Yampa River flows through town are still far below average for this time of year,” said Julie Baxter, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “We’re at 72 cfs, so the river is flowing a little more than half its average for this date.”
The Yampa Valley and most of the West are dealing with a decadeslong drought with no end in sight, and despite strong rain in September — more than 3 inches of precipitation, the most of any month this year — drought will persist.
Baxter said city staff are meeting with Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials Monday to discuss river conditions and the recreational closure.
“The city will follow municipal code and CPW recommendations in determining when to lift the closure,” Baxter said.
City regulations state that the river may be closed if flows drop below 85 cfs, dissolved oxygen in the water is less than 6 milligrams per liter or if the water temperature rises above 75 degrees for two consecutive days. On Sunday afternoon, the river was about 57 degrees at the measurement station on the Fifth Street Bridge.
The latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor has nearly all of Routt County in “extreme drought,” which is the second highest level of drought recorded, though this is actually a step down from the “exceptional drought” that most of the county was in earlier this year.
Erin Light, Division 6 engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said there are several factors she looks at to try to get an early look at what next summer may look like in terms of water.
“Predictions are already showing a dry 2022, so this is not promising, but there are several factors that would make for a good season next year,” Light said in an email. “Moisture this fall to boost the soil moisture profile, average or near average snowpack, spring precipitation and summer monsoonal rain.”
Light said is it much too early to tell how next spring and summer with shape up in terms of water, but while the recent rain has been welcome, it has been far from enough to pull the area out of drought.
Still, soil moistures are looking better now than they did this time last year.
In October 2020, Northwest Colorado had some of the driest soil in the U.S., with much of the area, including Routt County, estimated as being in the top 1% for lowest soil moisture, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Predication Center.
But that same measurement for September of this year shows that while still dry, other parts of the country, such as in Northern California, are in a worse spot.
Soil moisture is measured by calculating the depth of water within 1 cubic meter of soil and is displayed in millimeters of water per meter of soil. Last year, the Yampa Valley was about 80 mm/m below normal, where this year it is about 20 mm/m below normal. Part of North Routt County has normal soil moisture readings, according to the September update from the prediction center.
But Baxter said soil is still dry, and reservoirs are at really low levels.
“The winter weather that will help with river health and drought conditions are about average snow precipitation, cold temperatures that help the snow to accumulate and a cool spring that results in a slow runoff,” Baxter said. “However, even a really big snow year this winter will likely only interrupt drought conditions temporarily. We need a few normal to big years back to back.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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