Troubled waters: As summers become hotter and drier, Steamboat looks for new ways to prepare for an uncertain future
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This winter was a harsh one for local rancher and Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger.
Periods of dense snowfall and several massive storms made it difficult to keep his cattle fed, but he also knew the plentiful moisture was a sign that come summer, his hay meadows near Hayden should have plenty of water for a good harvest.
But as the months of spring waned, so too did the precipitation. The weather has only gotten drier and hotter this summer, leading Monger and his fellow ranchers wondering what to do with their hundreds of acres of thirsty crops.
“We are all struggling figuring out how to get water,” he said.
A 20-year drought
Routt County is not the only place feeling parched. Colorado is among the states experiencing the worst drought conditions this summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About 34% of the state, mostly the southern portion, is suffering from extreme drought.
Compared to the rest of Colorado, Routt County actually is faring better under a 20-year drought that some experts are calling the new normal. Only a small part of Routt County, the southeastern corner neighboring Garfield and Eagle counties, is listed as abnormally dry, according to the latest data.
In April, snowpack in and around Steamboat Springs also measured slightly above average, which gave local river researchers and farmers hope for the coming months. But by June, snowpack had dipped to 69% of normal, according to Snotel measurement sites managed by the National Resources Conservation Service, owing largely to a long bout of hot weather that quickly melted mountain snow.
Since then, things have only gotten drier and hotter. From June 1 to July 10, overall precipitation for the Yampa River watershed was just 42% of the 30-year average, according to the Conservation Service. Combined with the neighboring White River and Little Snake basins, the regional watershed is the driest in the state, according to Brian Domokos, Colorado’s snow survey supervisor with the Conservation Service.
Storms have been in the forecast, but they either turn out to be much milder than predicted or don’t come at all, said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the weather site snowalarm.com. His models suggest Steamboat could receive rain next week, but previous flops have him skeptical.
“I’m not putting much faith in that forecast at this point,” Weissbluth said.
Impacts on Routt County
So what does all of this mean for residents and visitors? A place like Routt County cares deeply about the health of its rivers and streams, not just for leisurely raft trips and fishing, but for the very lifeblood of the community.
Ranchers like Monger understand just how profoundly a dry year can harm everything from a hay harvest to fish populations. The Yampa River, the largest waterway in the county, recorded peak flows on June 2. On that date, a measurement site at the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat recorded the water flowing at 3,860 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Up to that point, the flow had been above the median. Since then, it has dipped far below the 110-year normal. On Friday, for example, the river was flowing at about half the rate of the median, according to USGS data.
Downriver, Monger has seen his irrigation ditches run dry as a result of the low water levels. To make matters worse, unusually high winds have sapped even more water from his ranch. He wondered, somewhat jokingly, if Wyoming had adopted the county because of the blustering winds.
As a result of the abnormal weather, he and his family are rushing to cut their hay before it dries and turns to inedible straw. This year’s harvest is coming almost two weeks earlier than usual, Monger said, marking the second year in a row he has struggled with arid conditions.
Other ranchers are facing similar difficulties. Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat’s water resources manager, described one local operation that, in a typical year, harvests about 700 bales of hay. This summer, it produced just 90 bales.
“We are definitely seeing a reduction in productivity as a result of this dry summer,” Romero-Heaney said.
Drier conditions can lead to other issues such as wildfires, as a recent incident exemplified when a blaze erupted Wednesday along the Yampa River. Officials think it was caused when a river user tossed a cigarette butt that ignited a dry layer of brush along the bank.
Recent months, she added, have taught a lesson snow and water researchers have learned in recent years: a wet winter does not necessarily mean water levels will stay healthy the rest of the year. Historically, experts looked to snowpack as a primary indicator to predict stream flows. Just as, if not more important, is continued precipitation from rainfall in the spring and summer, Romero-Heaney said.
The next generation of water management
This revelation suggests that current systems of measurement might be inadequate for understanding and predicting future environmental conditions, particularly as scientists raise red flags about unprecedented climate change.
Such was the focus of the latest seminar from the Yampa Basin Rendezvous, held virtually Thursday. As a panel of experts from Colorado, Utah and California agreed, the tools they typically use to measure seasonal changes are becoming less and less accurate.
One of the panelists, Dr. Jeffrey Deems, is a researcher with the National Snow & Ice Data Center who studies snowpack in Colorado. As the state faces a decadeslong trend of warmer winters, looking to historical records is proving insufficient for informing future policies.
“Things are changing rapidly, and our ability to deal with them is not proceeding at pace,” Deems said.
He spoke to the need of a next generation of water management that takes a broader look at the region’s and the nation’s watersheds, rather than focusing on individual measurement sites. One of his projects, called the Airborne Snow Observatory, uses specialized aircraft equipped with sensors to collect data on snowmelt across entire regions of mountains and their waterways. The data has helped communities to better manage their water supplies.
For example, Deems described how the Kings River Water Association was able to avoid a flood declaration in 2019, which led to savings of $100 million, by basing its dam release policy on forecasts from the Airborne Snow Observatory instead of traditional measurements.
Weathering a lack of storms
With the Trump administration showing little commitment to climate action, state and local governments have been leading the charge to mitigate the effects of climate change while preparing for an uncertain future.
Locally, the city of Steamboat and the Mount Werner Water & Sanitation District have adopted the 2020 Water Conservation Plan, with the goal of ensuring healthy supplies of water in the long term. In the next 10 years, the plan seeks to reduce per household water usage by 10%.
Some strategies to reach that goal already have been implemented, Romero-Heaney said. This summer, a new watering schedule has limited residents within city limits to using water for outdoor landscaping three days each week. The schedule is based on people’s street address, with no outdoor watering on Wednesdays. There are certain exceptions, such as allowing residents to use drip irrigation or watering by hand. Public parks and schools are exempt from the schedule.
Residents can report people they suspect are violating the new limits using an online form on the city’s website.
Steamboat is working with the Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to preserve healthy water levels on the Yampa River, even in dry years. A grant from the Yampa River Fund will help with that effort this summer, allowing water releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels.
Monger, who sits on the board of directors for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, has some ideas of his own to better manage local rivers. He proposed building smaller, off-channel reservoirs along more waterways, such as the Elk River. Doing so, he said, would control spring flooding and allow for more gradual releases of water throughout the dry season.
Such an option is unpopular among others who argue dams and reservoirs can have negative consequences, such as harming river ecosystems and degrading water quality.
There is no panacea to the water crisis. Solutions will require a holistic approach that considers the many interconnected factors influencing the natural world and communities, according to Romero-Heaney. She and other water experts have a long road ahead, but she believes their goals are attainable.
Her resolve in fighting for a healthy Yampa River has only hardened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the blows it has dealt to the city’s budget. The river is one of the most popular destinations in Steamboat during the hot summers, hosting the full spectrum of recreationists.
“It has offered a place of solace,” Romero-Heaney said of the river, not just for locals, but for anyone who dips their feet in and feels, for a moment pure as prayer, cool relief.
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The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.