More snow needed to pull Moffat County out of drought
February 13, 2018
CRAIG — Statewide, Coloradans are facing dry conditions, as a light snow year has had skiers and water managers alike wringing their hands.
But Northwest Colorado is faring better than other parts of the state.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Yampa River basin has received 73 percent of the average amount of snow it typically receives by this time of year. The Little Snake River basin has received 72 percent. In river basins in the southwest and south central part of the state, this number is in the 30s.
The drastic difference in snowpack between the northern and southern parts of the state is thanks to the La Niña winter. La Niña is a weather phase that cools the waters of the Pacific.
A La Niña year influences weather patterns around the globe, but in the United States, it creates a ridge of high pressure in the West. Storms develop in the moist air of the Pacific Northwest, then ride the jet stream on the northern edge of this high-pressure ridge.
National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse calls these storms "northern clippers." They typically hit only the northern edge of Colorado.
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Even with the northern clippers, however, Northwest Colorado is missing some moisture.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Colorado (except a sliver at the northern edge, containing Larimer and Jackson counties) is facing drought or near-drought conditions.
Eastern Moffat County is abnormally dry, which is a pre-cursor to a drought designation. West of Maybell, the county is in a moderate drought. Steamboat Springs is also in a moderate drought, which could have implications for Moffat County, as snowpack in the Park Range melts into Moffat’s water supply.
Stackhouse said it would take 40 to 60 inches of snow for the Yampa/White River basin to reach an average level of precipitation for this water year. Receiving that much snow is not out of the question, though it's unlikely.
With this in mind, Tom Gray, Moffat County's representative to the Colorado River District, cautions the public not to panic before it's warranted. In 2015, he said, Northwest Colorado faced a similar light snow year. Then, there was a "miracle May." Mountain storms dumped snow late in the season and brought the basin back up to the average.
"Not only did this puts some snowpack down, some of it came as rain," Gray said. "Some of it immediately ran off, and it increased the flows in the reservoirs and going into Lake Powell. … That can happen, but that was a pretty unusual May, so we certainly can't count on that."
Gray and others at the Colorado River District are worried about meeting obligations under the Colorado River Compact. Under the agreement, the state of Colorado is required to contribute a 10-year rolling average amount of water downstream to the Colorado River system to help fill reservoirs such as Lake Powell.
So far, Colorado is set to contribute about 40 percent of its average annual contribution, according to Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs at the Colorado River District.
That puts Colorado on track to send the smallest amount of water downstream to Lake Powell in the past 10 years, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. This could cause shortages to water users in parts of California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
"At this point, it looks like it could be fairly severe if we don't start getting some moisture in the mountains," Gray said.
Closer to home, the Stagecoach and Elkhead reservoirs are on track to be filled. These reservoirs are relatively small, however, which makes them easier to fill.
But unless more snow comes, rural Moffat County is likely to feel the impact.
"If you start the spring with not-very-good soil moisture levels, and then, through April and May, if we don't get rain to get some soil moisture, you're that much drier," Gray said.
For farmers, this could mean a weaker hay crop, as water to irrigate isn't there. Dry soil also means dry grasses, which are better fuel for wildfire.
For now, residents of Northwest Colorado can kick off their snowshoes and hope to receive more moisture to avoid a drought. The weekend snowstorms helped.
"Statewide snowpack for Colorado approximately went up 5 percent with this last storm," Stackhouse said in an email. "But that is very preliminary, since we are still collecting and receiving reports with this storm."