Though snowpack is near average snowpack, Steamboat still plans for drought years |

Though snowpack is near average snowpack, Steamboat still plans for drought years

The Elk River cuts through the snow-covered Routt County landscape in November 2018. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There’s a healthy snowpack on the ground, but water managers are still making plans for drought conditions.

Snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is at 110 percent of its long-term median snow water equivalency, which is a measure of how much water is contained within the snowpack. Snowpack typically peaks in April, so snowfall — or lack of it — could still force that number away from the median.

Map courtesy the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Water managers aren’t taking time to bask in the powder, however. They’re planning for drought years.

The Yampa River flows into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California. Colorado has obligations to send a certain amount of water to states downstream under a 1922 agreement called the Colorado River Compact. Each year, the required amount of water is released from Lake Powell to fulfill the 10-year rolling average water contribution the compact outlines.

Ongoing, long-term drought has Lake Powell reduced to 40 percent of its capacity of 24.3 million acre-feet of water, and water managers are concerned that Colorado won’t be able to meet its obligations. This would trigger a compact call, which would likely require water users in Colorado to reduce the amount of water they use in order to send it downstream to meet the state’s obligations.

While the state of Colorado has a system in place for how a call is administered — those who have the newest water rights are curtailed first, called prior appropriation — there is no procedure yet in place to administer a call between states, so there is no way to determine how a compact call would impact people drawing water from the Yampa River.

If a compact call occurred and was administered using the same system of prior appropriation that the state currently uses, the city of Steamboat Springs has enough water to provide for current demands for a decade under 2012 conditions — the third worst drought episode in Colorado’s history — according to city water resources manager Kelly Romero-Heaney. Romero-Heaney said this would be a “doomsday scenario.”

“I don’t know if there are many communities in Colorado that can say that,” she said in an update to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Jan. 15.

One of the ways managers seek to minimize the risk of a compact call is demand management, she said. This is a spot where Steamboat has hit beyond the mark. In 2011, the city’s water conservation plan sought to reduce water consumption by 5 percent, said Michelle Carr, city water and sewer distribution and collection manager. The city exceeded this goal, and as Steamboat’s population has grown, it’s demand for water has fallen, she explained.

Chart courtesy the city of Steamboat Springs.

Increasing water rates and implementing water restrictions play a role in this, Carr said.

Romero-Heaney told City Council that Steamboat plans to replace several aged and leaking water mains in 2019, which will reduce the city’s water waste.

The city is making other plans as Colorado is forecasted to see more drought and less available water in the coming years.

The city, in partnership with Mount Werner Water District, Routt County and the U.S. Forest Service is working on a plan to determine how to prevent and minimize the impacts of wildfire on Fish Creek, Steamboat’s primary water supply.

The city is also seeking water rights in the Elk River watershed, building an additional water storage tank on the west side of town and making plans to ensure the water treatment plant could handle additional volume. This is intended to build a more resilient system in case water quality is compromised at another water source.

The city is also taking part in planning for a fund that would seek to pay for reservoir releases of water in low flow years. The Yampa River Stream Management Plan, approved this summer, calls for ongoing habitat restoration projects meant to mitigate the impact of low water, such as planting cottonwoods to shade and cool the river.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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