Yampa’s flows are strong in Steamboat, but not in South Routt | SteamboatToday.com

Yampa’s flows are strong in Steamboat, but not in South Routt

Yampa and Elk rivers both flowing above average

The Elk River was running at about 3,300 cubic feet per second around 4 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Both the Elk and Yampa River in Steamboat are running above average, but water users in South Routt are already seeing runoff decline.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

While warm days and nights are fueling strong flows in the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs, the pace of runoff is expected to dip this week.

For irrigators in South Routt County, the quick runoff has already led to a call curtailing some water uses on the Yampa River upstream from the town of Yampa. Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said the call put in place Monday, May 16, means Yamcolo Reservoir near the Flat Tops won’t get close to filling.

“That’s at least two weeks earlier than we see in an average year,” Rossi said of the call, which means senior water rights holders downstream are not getting their shares of water. “We’re most likely done filling for the season to any significant degree.”

The weather, particularly overnight temperatures, plays a major role in how quickly the snowpack melts off. If overnight lows drop enough, it can stall melting and prolong the snowpack. If temperatures stay elevated, melting continues through the night.

The swift pace of melting can be seen on the Yampa, White and Little Snake River Basin’s snowpack data showing the basin has lost nearly 3 inches of snow-water equivalent in the last four days.

Erin Light, division engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said many of the basin’s SNOTEL sites are melting off rapidly, and both the Yampa in Steamboat and the Elk River west of town are running above average.

At the Fifth Street bridge in Steamboat, the Yampa was flowing at nearly 2,200 cubic feet per second, while the Elk River west of town was at about 3,300 cfs around 4 p.m. Tuesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The black line depicts the snow-water equivalent in the Yampa, White and Green River Basin, which has been rapidly declining. The basin has lost 3 inches of water in the last four days.
National Water and Climate Center/Courtesy

“That all has to do with how that snow comes off,” Light said. “There is a volume of water sitting up there in that snow, and it is going to come off faster with warmer temperatures and warmer overnight lows.”

The runoff forecast for the Yampa and White river basin has been dropping all year, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, which is part of the National Weather Service. While in January, runoff was looking to be above average, that has dropped to about 75% of average as of the agency’s May forecast.

That average is lower this year too, Rossi said. The average is calculated over a 30-year span, but that span now contains 22 years of drought, which has driven the average down. This is true for the snowpack’s averages as well, Rossi said.

“There may have been a little bit of a false narrative going on about how well the snowpack was doing,” Rossi said. “It’s pretty good, but it’s not great.”

Rossi said some of the high elevation snowpack is holding on okay, but the rapid melt is clear at lower elevations. The Bear River SNOTEL site at about 9,000 feet has been completely melted off since Thursday, May 12, the earliest since 2012.

On Tuesday, May 17, water was flowing into Stagecoach Reservoir at a rate of about 39 cfs. Rossi said the average for this time of year is close to 100 cfs, but this year’s flow is about double the 20 cfs seen last year.

The Yampa’s flow gets stronger at the confluence with Morrison Creek, which is running so strong it washed out a head gate, said Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension Office. Morrison Creek joins the river on his family’s property.

“Ideally, from an agriculture perspective, we’d want to make sure it’s freezing at night to hold onto that snow for as long as possible,” Hagenbuch said. “We’ve had warm days and warm nights, and that really narrows the window you have to irrigate.”

Light anticipates runoff flows will decline later this week as temperatures drop with snow in the forecast later this week.

Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said high temperatures in Steamboat are expected to drop into the upper 30s on Friday, May 20, which is about 25 to 30 degrees below average.

“I would say any snowfall in town in May is significant,” said Weissbluth, who runs SnowAlarm.com. “As far as impacts, the roads are very warm, and snow will melt on contact.”

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