Yampa River stream flows see possible peak

Ranchers are already responding by irrigating earlier than normal, and some are contemplating drastic measures like selling off cows early

Fish Creek gushes along the Skyline Trail. The snowmelt brought the Yampa River flow to 1,730 cubic feet per second Sunday afternoon, which very well could be the peak flow. Last year, the river peaked a day earlier at 3,110 cfs.

There are two spots on Mount Werner that Erin Light looks at each spring to get a rough estimate about when the Yampa River may see peak stream flow.

“A lot of times, it is very close. When those two spots come together, it is probably within a day or two that it will peak,” said Light, the regional division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Looking at the Steamboat (stream flow) gauge, I would say we are probably done.”

Stream flows for the Elk and Yampa rivers likely have already peaked, Light said, pointing to high flow marks Friday and Sunday. It is possible this isn’t the peak, as a spring storm could bolster water levels, but Light said it seems unlikely that is the case this year.

This spring has many remembering the 2002 drought year, which is one of the worst in recent history for Colorado. Light was new to the Yampa Valley then when calls on the river simply were not talked about.

“I figured I would never see the Yampa River go on call during my career,” said Light, who has now had to place a call on the river twice, once in 2018 and last year.

Still, this year is looking better than 2002. On May 25, 2002, there was just 2.3 inches of water in the snowpack in the mountains of the Yampa River Basin, where, on Tuesday, the snow water equivalency was still about 4.7 inches.

But ranchers in the county are preparing for the worst, irrigating earlier than normal and contemplating taking measures like bringing livestock water in tanks and even selling off part of their herd, because they don’t have enough pasture land with water flowing through it to raise them all.

“We kind of knew this thing was coming mid-winter,” said Doug Monger, longtime local rancher who represents Routt County on the Colorado River District board of directors. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out you cannot dump enough water on this ground right now — it is just thirsty.”

Monger said he started irrigating about two weeks earlier than normal, hoping to get as much water out of the river as he can now while the river has strong water flows. He said many of the tributaries used for stock watering are already dropping down to really low levels.

The dry weather has led to less health issues like pneumonia with his calves, but it could also cause Monger to sell off cows earlier than planned, something he has never done before.

“I am right on the verge of having to sell cows, too,” Monger said. “We’re underpopulating a lot of our pastures, and we still have to try to make it to September and October.”

A pasture Monger has just south of Stagecoach Reservoir normally could sustain cows through the whole season, but last year they ran out of pasture and had to get the herd out early. He anticipates having to do that again this year.

On Tuesday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife closed a small stretch of the Yampa River directly below the reservoir to fishing, an effort to reduce stress on fish while stream flows are low. On Tuesday afternoon, flows entering the reservoir had dropped to about 8 cubic feet per second. The same day last year flows were over 60.

“That is just unheard of,” Light said.

There is more water flowing out of Stagecoach right now than going in, which happens every year but rarely this early. There are already calls on various ditches in the Yampa Valley, and Light said she expects more.

Light is relatively confident there will be a call on the Elk River, which has happened almost every year since 2012. As for the Yampa, it could be different, as the Colorado River District has a $50,000 grant for strategic releases to hopefully avoid a call on the river. Without that, a call would almost be certain, Light said.

“The river is pitiful above Morrison Creek,” said Todd Hagenbuch, whose water rights come from the Yampa just below Stagecoach. “I think it depends on where you are in the Yampa Valley right now as to what kind of access to water you’ve got.”

The upper basin is particularly tough right now, said Hagenbuch, who is the director and agricultural agent for the Routt County CSU Extension Office. He said he hopes return flows from irrigation will boost water levels in the coming weeks, but he doesn’t have an optimistic outlook.

“Given what snowpack is left and the temperatures we’re seeing and the lack of natural moisture that has come, I think we are in for a rough irrigation season,” Hagenbuch said.

Without a rainy summer, Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resource manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, said there could be recreational river closures before Labor Day. Last year, the main stretch of the Yampa was put on call in late August.

The 2002 drought year sticks out for her, too, but what is different now is how much has been learned about water management in the past 19 years in preparation of a really dry year.

Romero-Heaney said there is enough water to support municipal customers in town, but the more they use, the less there is in Fish Creek, which is an important spawning stream for mountain whitefish. She said she hopes Steamboat residents minimize outdoor watering to take some pressure off the resource.

Keeping an eye out for water leaks around the house — faucets, toilets and outdoor spigots especially — is also important, she said, as these seemingly insignificant trickles can really add up.

“We all need to pitch in,” Romero-Heaney said. “When we all do it or when most of us do it, then we can see a real benefit from the stream, and we can see a real benefit to our water supply.”

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