Moffat County remains in drought conditions, though situation has improved |

Moffat County remains in drought conditions, though situation has improved

Snowpacked trees line the banks of the Yampa River near downtown Steamboat Springs in 2017.
Scott Franz/file

CRAIG — Statewide, Colorado is facing one of lowest snowpack years in recent memory, but Northwest Colorado is faring better than other parts of the state.

As of April 10, snowpack in the Yampa and White River Basin was at 89 percent of normal, which is nearly the highest it’s been this water year, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Colton. To the north, Wyoming’s Green River Basin is at 91 percent of median.

The Stagecoach, Elkhead and Yamcolo Reservoirs are expected to fill or nearly fill.

“We’re pretty fortunate in the northern end of the state that we’re that close to normal,” said Tom Gray, Moffat County’s representative on the Colorado River District Board of Directors.

Now, timing is key. Availability of water through the course of the season is dependent on the timing and amount of spring precipitation and melting snowpack.

Currently, water managers are bypassing water from rain and snowmelt through Stagecoach Reservoir, because it can’t be filled until the ice on top of the water has melted; ice flowing through the dam’s spillway would damage the infrastructure of the reservoir.

On the Yampa, managers don’t want to see too much too soon. Gray said the Yampa typically hits the high water mark around June 1 in Moffat County.

“That’s when the river is usually at its peak, and we certainly don’t want to see that peak move forward too far, because it peaks, and then it falls off, and you have a long summer to go sometimes,” Gray said.

As long as the area gets more spring moisture — and warm temperatures don’t melt snowpack in the Park Mountains too early — Gray said irrigation in the area is expected to be “a little short,” but water is not anticipated to be as scarce as it appeared it might be earlier this year.

“There’s a chance to see some improvement,” Colton said. “March and April typically are two of the snowier months in Colorado as far as the mountains are concerned. It’s not out of the ordinary for us to see some heavier snowfall through the month of April.”

Colton said two wet storm systems are moving into the area. The first, expected to arrive this weekend, could bring snow to the valley floor, possibly as far south as Grand Junction. A second storm is expected the middle of next week. Spring snows are generally wetter, with more moisture content, which is good for the water supply.

For now, Northwest Colorado still faces drought conditions, according to the United States Drought Monitor. The eastern half of the county and a sliver in the northwest corner of the county are in abnormally dry conditions. Most of western Moffat County is in a moderate drought, while the Dinosaur and Massadona areas face severe drought conditions.

In the short-term, Colorado is expected to send enough water downstream to meet obligations under the Colorado River Compact. With Colorado’s southern river basins sitting at about 50 to 60 percent of median snowpack so far this year, the Yampa will likely make up a higher portion of that water.

“We’re all connected through the Colorado River and the Colorado River Compact, and so this year, the flows out of the Yampa and the White, where we have a little better snowpack, are going to make up a higher percentage of the flow that Colorado delivers to Lake Powell,” said Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District.

Long-term, water managers are concerned a multi-year drought would force a “call” on the water Colorado sends downstream. A call would force Colorado water users to curtail use if the state does not contribute 7.5 million-acre feet of water over a 10-year rolling average.

“There’s not going to be a call on the Colorado River this year, but we’ll be getting closer to it because of this year,” McBride said. “By the time one occurs, if we don’t take some action, it’ll be too late to act in a responsible manner.”

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