Wet spring has huge effect on Yampa River
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A wet spring and winter has pulled Colorado — and Routt County — out of its extended drought.
On May 29, for the first time in 19 years, no part of the state was in a drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Routt County has had some form of drought designation since November 2017.
According to data from a National Weather Service cooperative weather station, Steamboat Springs receives a long-term average of 2.15 inches of water in May.
Data from that station shows the area received nearly double that average, with a total of 4.26 inches in May. This data is preliminary, and the National Weather Service will release its official tally of May precipitation later this month.
Steamboat received 9.3 inches of snow in May, well over the long term May average of 2.8 inches at the station.
That snow hasn’t melted off the mountains, either. The Natural Resource Conservation Services’ snow telemetry site a top the Continental Divide on Buffalo Pass measured 115 inches of snowpack on the ground on Sunday. There were 35 inches at the Rabbit Ears Pass site.
According to the NRCS, the Yampa and White River Basin is at 247% of its average snow water equivalent, as of Friday.
“This has been a pretty active year — a pretty wet winter and spring. … I think that’ll have some influence on the temperatures too because as the sun is melting the snow, it’s not able to heat the ground as much. That could be a reason why our temperatures could be at or below normal for this short-term forecast,” said Erin Walter, a meteorologist at the Weather Service Forecast Office in Grand Junction.
“The warmer temperatures are just going to increase the runoff, so that’s kind of the big threat right now for Western Colorado,” she said.
The river runners’ adage states that the Yampa River peaks when two brown spots atop Storm Peak meet. Those brown spots have yet to make an appearance this spring.
The Yampa River sees an average peak in early June around 2,250 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat, though the peak has ranged from 1,570 to 5,200 cfs in the last ten years.
For much of the last month, the river has flowed relatively consistently between 1,000 and 1,500 cfs through Steamboat, though the Weather Service forecast that the Yampa will rise to about 3,600 cfs later this week amid sunny weather starting Tuesday.
Walters said the forecast for June looks to see average temperatures and a slightly above average chance for “wetter than normal conditions.”
While this year is shaping up to be a good water year so far, climatologists and water managers are still concerned by a trend of drought intensified by warmer temperatures and an earlier spring in the West.
““Just because we have one good year … doesn’t negate the realities we’re seeing with consistent warming trends,” Taryn Finnessey, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board told the Durango Herald on Wednesday.
The 2018 National Climate Assessment, a report compiled by scientists in 13 federal agencies determined that “increased temperatures, especially the earlier occurrence of spring warmth, have significantly altered the water cycle in the southwest region. These changes include decreases in snowpack and its water content, earlier peak of snow-fed stream flow, and increases in the proportion of rain to snow. These changes, attributed mainly to climate change, exacerbate hydrological drought.”
The Yampa River flows into the Colorado River, and then into Lake Powell, where it helps fulfill Colorado’s annual obligation to provide a certain amount of water to downstream states. As of Saturday, Lake Powell was only 43% full, and even with Colorado’s healthy snowpack, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Powell would fill to 54% of its storage capacity this water year. The lower Powell falls, the more concerned water managers become about meeting obligations to other states.