Steamboat snowpack reaching peak: Measurements slightly above average
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Snowpack in the Steamboat Springs area is approaching peak levels, but experts say this week’s storm could lead to even higher accumulations in the mountains.
A snowy winter and continued spring moisture should bode well for river flows and local agriculture, the experts added.
Average snowpack for the Yampa River hit its peak around April 4 at 25 inches of snow water equivalent, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Since then, snow has been slowly melting, with average snowpack falling to about 23 inches of snow water equivalent on Saturday. But with heavy snowfall this week — forecasters predict up to 18 inches of accumulation by Friday — snowpack has once again been on the rise.
As of Thursday, average snowpack rose again to 24.3 inches of snow water equivalent, according to the data.
These fluctuations point to the difficulty in determining exactly when snowpack has reached its peak in the Yampa Valley, according to Andy Rossi, district engineer with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. It is not unusual for heavy snowfall to continue well into spring. The area’s contrast of low- and high-elevation terrain also makes it hard to get consistent measurements for the entire Yampa River basin.
“Every storm that comes through in the spring can either delay the runoff, or it can increase snowpack at the higher elevations,” Rossi said.
The Conservation Service has nine measurement sites for the local basin. While sites at lower elevations are showing degrees of melting, sites at higher elevations, where melting occurs later in the year — particularly in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and on the top of Buffalo Pass — show the snowpack continuing to climb.
Those higher-elevation measurement sites likely will not reach peak snowpack for another month, predicts Brian Domonkos, Colorado’s snow survey supervisor with the Conservation Service.
All of this bodes well for the Yampa River and the people and industries that rely on healthy water supplies, such as local agriculture, Rossi said.
“Water supply in the reservoirs look to be in good shape,” he said, adding that natural river flow should be able to meet farmers’ needs until well into the summer.
The recent bout of cold weather has stagnated the melting process, which consequently has reduced river flows. Since Tuesday, the Yampa River has been flowing at just above 500 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge at Fifth Street in downtown Steamboat Springs. This marks a decline from Sunday, during the period of warmer weather, when the river was flowing about 900 cfs.
For reference, at 2,400 cfs, portions of the Yampa River Core Trail flood and, at 3,600 cfs, portions of the baseball fields at Emerald Park flood, according to the National Weather Service.
Overall, the Yampa and White rivers have received above-average snowpack this winter, according to the Conservation Service, 110% of the median as of Thursday. That has eliminated drought conditions in Routt County, based on the U.S. Drought Monitor, a positive signal for a reduced risk of wildfires this summer.
Meanwhile, the southern parts of the state are recording moderate to severe drought conditions.
“Severe drought was expanded over southeast Colorado this week and moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions were pushed eastward,” the Drought Monitor said in its latest summary. “This area will need to be watched for further degradation in the weeks ahead.”
More moisture is in the forecast for the Yampa Valley, according to local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website snowlarm.com. Warmer weather could turn the snow into April rain showers as early as Saturday, Weissbluth predicts. Cooler temperatures later next week could lead to more snow, particularly in the mountains.
To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.
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