Water year recap: Big winter, late spring kept Yampa River flowing strong until summer
You can tell by the hay: round bales stacked at the edge of fields, ‘Hay For Sale’ signs laying against more stacks of square bales and sheds full of alfalfa. A good water year means that many cows will be happily munching on Routt County hay through the winter.
“We had a really good hay crop, and I think that’s true, for the most part, around the Yampa Valley. When you drive around, you see a lot of really full hay sheds, and ours is no different,” said Jeff Meyers. Meyers raises cattle with his wife at the Coyote Creek Ranch about 13 miles south of Hayden. He also serves as an at-large member of the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable.
Each water year goes from Oct. 1 to the following Sept. 30, meaning, on Monday, the 2019 water year ended, and on Tuesday, the new one began.
Cool spring temperatures melted snowpack off slowly, giving irrigators time to use that water before it flowed passed. The river ran high and fast at about 1,000 cubic feet per second through Steamboat Springs from the time the snow started melting in late April until early July, according to U.S. Geological Survey data recorded at the Fifth Street stream gauge. A mix of rain and summer snow on the summer solstice brought the river one of its latest peaks on record at the Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat, flowing at 4,180 cfs on June 21.
This extended the rafting season on the stretch of river through town, but it delayed tubing season until July 15. The river also closed for only a day this summer, when flows fell below 85 cfs on Aug. 29. The city of Steamboat Springs and Tri-State Generation and Transmission released water to increase hydropower production at the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir and boosted flows through town, allowing the river to reopen the following day.
Impacts on agriculture
The late runoff was a boon for Meyers, though Erin Light, the Colorado Division of Water Resource’s Division 6 Engineer, said that wasn’t the case across the entire Yampa River basin.
“Some areas did really well, and other areas seemed like all the snow just soaked right into the ground,” Light said. “It would certainly make sense that would occur, given how dry we were the previous year, that a lot of snow just soaked right into the ground. That definitely was a factor in some areas.”
Meyers said the snow-soaked ground helped his pastures recoup from a hot, dry summer in 2018.
“Of course, it’s not just the hay crop, but it’s also the pastures,” he said. “After 2018, they really needed a break, and they got one. This year was really great that way.”
The late June moisture also might’ve impacted some ranchers, though it didn’t bother Meyers too much. He delayed putting cows on leased land southwest of Steamboat Lake for a week to let the grass grow once the snow melted.
“Certainly, that did affect some people: a few people with mountain permits from (U.S.) Forest Service, and some of the higher (Bureau of Land Management) permits,” he said. “It slowed that process down.”
A winter thick with snow and a spring full of rain broke a 20-year streak of drought conditions in the state of Colorado, though slight rainfall in late summer brought back abnormally dry conditions in late July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Routt and Moffat counties are currently in abnormally dry conditions, according to the Drought Monitor.
Impacts on reservoirs
Local reservoirs filled up this year. With less overall demand from irrigators, Upper Yampa Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride said the district will start this winter with their two reservoirs — Stagecoach and Yamcolo — “as full as we want to be.” That level is typically slightly lower than the reservoir’s capacity in order to protect dam infrastructure from ice damage.
On the bigger scale, the above-average snowpack also created an above-average runoff into the Colorado River and eventually, Lake Powell. The Yampa River is part of a network of rivers that help fill Lake Powell and allow Colorado to meet its obligations under the Colorado River Compact.
The compact is an interstate agreement, which requires that Colorado contribute a certain amount of water to Lake Powell on a 10-year rolling average. In recent years, below-average water years have increased concern that Colorado won’t contribute enough water to Lake Powell to meet its legal obligations. Should that happen, an interstate call would be administered, requiring water users in Colorado to reduce use to send more water downstream to meet its obligations.
The past water year has made that outlook a little brighter, but water managers are still worried. Meyer emphasized that it would take two or three more years with the same above-average snowpack we saw last winter to lift Powell up to its capacity.
“It’s not likely to happen,” he said. It’s far more likely though that we’ll get a string of average water years, which fill it more slowly, or below-average years, which could actually deplete the reservoir, he added.
Looking to the future
McBride jokes that “those who know, know they don’t” when it comes to water. With a decent year under the Yampa Valley’s belt, the lack of moisture at the end of summer means drought could still be creeping in.
Light said the Elk River has been on call for about an entire month, meaning some water users with newer water rights can’t use their water in order to leave enough water for people who hold older water rights. She also pointed to the fact that low precipitation in late summer closed the Yampa River through Steamboat earlier this year.
“Regardless of how much snowpack we have, if we don’t have any rain or flows, our streams, then the rivers, are going to get really low,” she said.
Meyers is preparing for the possibility of another drought year and more after that.
“Thinking about it from the whole basin and the whole state perspective, I think we as a community, we have to make our plans around the judicious use of water,” he said. “The hydrology forecast that we use for those plans is just drier conditions. We may have a good year, like this year, and we may fall back into a terrible drought like the year previous, and there will be a lot of years in between that. Overall, I think the trend is for drier, and we would not be responsible if we didn’t plan for that.”
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