Weathering a 20-year drought: Yampa Basin Rendezvous evaluates challenges, opportunities for local water

The frigid water of the Yampa River flows under the pedestrian bridge at Ninth Street in April. Though snowpack was slightly above the median earlier in the spring, dry and warm conditions have decreased snowpack to below average for the Yampa River basin.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The 2020 Yampa Basin Rendezvous, an annual conference of scientists, policymakers and organization representatives from across the country, began Thursday with some somber updates on the state of Colorado’s climate and water. 

This year is forecast to be the warmest on record, according to an April report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Previously, 2016 was the warmest year since measurements began in 1880. 

Dr. Carrie Hauser, president and chief executive officer of Colorado Mountain College, said this prediction, which scientists say has about a 75% chance of holding true, has frightening implications for Routt County and communities across the state. As she explained, climate change is taking its toll in various ways, such as declines in snowpack and 20-year drought conditions that many experts are considering “the new normal.” 

Exacerbating the issue is increases in demand for water, particularly along the Colorado River, where Hauser said there are “far too many straws in the drink,” which diminishes the river’s flow and leads to water-starved reservoirs. Last year, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which are along the Colorado River, reached historically low levels, prompting the launch of a new drought contingency plan for 2020.

Kent Vertrees, president of Friends of the Yampa, discussed similar concerns for the Yampa River. While snowpack in Routt County was slightly above average earlier in the spring, it has since dropped to 69% of the median, according to the latest data from Snotel measurements sites managed by the National Resources Conservation Service.

National Resources Conservation Service

In a news release published earlier this week, the Colorado River District said the premature withering of the West Slope’s snowpack caused runoff to suffer, a situation compounded by the lack of spring moisture.

The River District forecasts relatively better conditions for the Yampa Valley, expecting Elkhead Reservoir and Stagecoach Reservoir to fill. Meanwhile, more southern areas, including the Grand Mesa zone and the Gunnison, Uncompahgre and San Juan river basins are recording snowpack levels that are half of what is normally expected this time of year.

“Warmer temperatures, dry soils and disappointing spring and summer moisture are defining how we look at future policies to determine how best to protect Western Colorado water security,” Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said in the news release.

All of this, Hauser said, is proof of the need for more research into how the changing climate affects snowpack, among the myriad of cascading consequences that come from changes in moisture levels. 

As Vertrees added, it also points to the need for sustainable water management. For decades, organizations in the Yampa Valley have worked to enhance the health of its waterways through funding and projects. 

In May, the Yampa River Fund awarded $200,000 in its first round of grant cycles to five local projects aimed at improving its namesake river and tributaries. The money will help in a variety of ways, from planting trees that stabilize banks and cool water temperatures to funding water releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels this summer and fall

“I think we are setting ourselves up pretty well for climate resiliency here in our basin,” Vertrees said.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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