Yampa Valley snowpack continues to creep above average, but water still a worry
February 17, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — At 115 percent of the long-term average, the Yampa Valley's snowpack is currently above the norm, but those concerned about forecasts of water available for recreation, agriculture and other uses this spring and summer are still waiting for more snow to pile on.
"What fills the rivers and the reservoirs and the irrigation ditches is the amount for the year," said Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District Manager Kevin McBride. His agency manages water in the Stagecoach and Yamcolo Reservoirs. "What we work off is the total snowmelt, so until the snowpack gets up to average for an average year, we're always worried."
The Valley will need 62 percent of its average snowfall to hit its typical peak. Snowpack usually peaks at about 21 inches of snow water equivalent, which is a measure of how much water is contained in the snow. Snow water equivalent is measured at several weather stations in the mountains, called Snow Telemetry or Snotel sites.
"When we reach 100 percent of average annual snowpack, then I'll be comfortable," said Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports and a board member of Friends of the Yampa. "It is encouraging. The whole town, the atmosphere around our snowpack — it's so much brighter. Folks are in a good mood when it snows a lot. We're all busy and working, and all eight cylinders are hitting."
Snotel sites in South Routt are faring the best, with Lynx Pass and Crosho at 122 percent of average. Columbine is at 117 percent and Rabbit Ears is at 111 percent. On Buffalo Pass, Dry Lake is at 118 percent and Tower is at 116 percent. In North Routt, Zirkel is at 110 percent and Elk River is at 104 percent.
Much of Steamboat's economy is snow-dependent. The same snow that skiers slide over melts into the river water that tubers and paddlers glide through.
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"From my little perspective, it's everything," Van De Carr said. "My little perspective is the skis I sell in the wintertime; the kayaks and rafts I sell in the springtime and the tubes I do in the summertime. It's all tied to our average snowpack, so in the big picture, in the whole global climate change discussion, I’m so dependent on it and so aware of where we are in terms of water content and snowpack. It’s everything to me."
Still, though snowpack at high elevations is looking good, McBride said there is more to consider in planning for the water year. When the snow melts off plays a role in how irrigators have to manage their water. What's more, if snow at lower elevations melts too early in the season, irrigators have to divert water running off from higher elevations earlier to boost soil moisture that would typically come from snow melt on fields.
"(Snowpack's) a little above average," he said. "Things are looking — if they continue this way— they'll be great."