Study finds February storm was 6th-wettest since 2000, but researchers still concerned about drought

Yampa River file photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — While researchers are still sounding the alarm about drought this summer, a group of researchers from around the Yampa Valley found the snow that fell between Jan. 30 and Feb. 13 to be the sixth-wettest two-week period since 2000 with 15 inches snow water equivalent across the Yampa River Basin.

The study was led primarily by Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes and a participant in the Yampa River Basin Rendesvouz.

Ralph said the Upper Colorado Basin, including the Yampa River, is incredibly important to understanding water around other parts of the Western United States, which is why his center in San Diego took interest in the topic.

“What causes precipitation and how it varies from year to year is important to a lot of people in the water management arena,” Ralph said. “The Yampa River Basin, as remote and removed as it is, is really connected through the snow, and it’s a vital part of western water.”

Ralph and his colleagues teamed up with Nathan Stewart, an associate professor of sustainability studies at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, to study the Yampa River from a more general standpoint.

“(We studied) everything from a physical standpoint about the weather to how the community responds and interacts with the water,” Ralph said. “Learning about Colorado is something I’d like to do, and the upper Yampa River Basin is a great place to start exploring that.”

As for the storm in February, Ralph said the precipitation collected was equivalent to one-fourth the amount of annual snowfall in a typical year.

“In just two weeks, to get one-fourth of the total annual precipitation was a big event,” Ralph said. “It means that without that two-week period, it’s likely that the snowpack and the Upper Yampa River Basin would have been more like 60% of normal rather than 80% of normal.”

While the winter season is not completely over yet, Ralph said it is likely the Yampa Valley will finish with 80% of its usual annual snowpack.

“It’s certainly better than it would be if that two-week period hadn’t happened,” Ralph said.

Still, researchers say Yampa Valley residents should be deeply concerned for wildfires and other drought-related issues this summer, as the United States Drought Monitor has the entire state of Colorado in the “exceptional drought” phase, the most extreme of the five drought phases.

“We came into summer 2020 with an above average snowpack, and we still went into drought,” said Madison Muxworthy, soil moisture, water and snow program manager at the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. “Coming out of this year, we really need to be looking at our soil levels and what our precipitation is.”

Muxworthy said while the storm likely made some difference, residents should still be doing everything they can to conserve water by planting native plants, planting gardens that have vegetation already accustomed to the environment and cutting back on outdoor irrigation.

“That’s a big area for people to think about,” Muxworthy said. “If people are watering their lawns every day, that’s a lot of water going toward things that are not native to our environment.”

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