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Yampa River reservoirs should fill to capacity in a suspected strong water year

Suzie Romig
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light from the Colorado Division of Water Resources was among the presenters on March 23 at the Upper Yampa State of the River event in Steamboat Springs. Light said water levels this year are tracking with the strong water year of 2011.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

A state water official predicted a strong water year on the Yampa River during a presentation at the Upper Yampa State of the River Thursday.

Division 6 engineer Erin Light, with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said she expects no water calls from senior water rights owners this year, and that the division’s largest reservoirs will fill to capacity as well.

The current snow water equivalent percentage of normal in the Yampa and White river basins sits at a healthy 147%, including a boost during the past week from several days of heavy, wet snow.



Light and many others are hoping for a gradual snowmelt and spring water runoff this year similar to that seen in 2011. So far in 2023, the water level trajectory is following the same path that occurred in 2011, which was a very strong water year with only two calls across the division.

“We are trending very closely with the snowpack in 2011, so our flows could be very similar to that year, with the caveat that it is highly dependent on weather conditions throughout the spring and summer,” Light explained.



Using the Maybell gauge in central Moffat County as a measuring point for annual water flow volumes for the Yampa River, the top 10 highest water years in a century of records include, from first to 10th, 2011, 1984, 1917, 1929, 1997, 1921, 1957, 1986, 1985 and 1983.

The two best water years in 2011 and 1984, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources records for Yampa River flows, resulted in different results in the spring and summer. In 2011, the snowmelt and spring runoff was more gradual and did not peak at Maybell until the week of June 7. But in the next highest water year in 1984, the runoff came much faster and sooner with the water volume peaking the week of May 17 at Maybell followed by a sharper decline.

The engineer calls the amount of snowfall in the lower elevations of the Yampa Valley this winter “amazing,” but no snow monitoring stations currently exist on the valley floor to assist with predictions for spring runoff.

The Upper Yampa State of the River evening of water- and river-related presentations drew a crowd on Thursday, March 23 in Steamboat Springs and was presented by Community Agriculture Alliance and the Colorado River District. A similar event took place Wednesday, March 22 in Craig.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“We want a slower runoff, so we don’t have a lot of flooding,” Light said of her hopes for 2023.

The historical annual average of Yampa River water through Maybell for the past 100 years of record keeping is 1.1 million acre-feet, but 2011 saw double that amount at more than 2.2 million acre-feet. For this year, Light expects at least 1.5 million acre-feet to pass the Maybell gauge.

The next highest water year in 1984 saw 2.19 million acre-feet pass through Maybell but with early and fast decline.

The engineer cautioned audience members to “not get too excited,” because the rate of runoff this spring is uncertain, annual water averages vary widely through the decades and 2024 could be a dry year, such as seen in 2012 following the record-breaking 2011.

Light predicts Stillwater, Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs in southern Routt County, Fish Creek Reservoir east of Steamboat and Elkhead Reservoir east of Craig will fill to capacity levels. Although Fish Creek Reservoir, a main water source for Steamboat, currently is only filled to 42.8%, Light said that is a normal seasonal low, and Fish Creek Reservoir will have no problem filling this year.

Stillwater Reservoir remains on a fill restriction due to repairs needed and was drained for work in late summer 2022. So, Stillwater will only fill to its allowed restriction and currently sits at 23% of capacity, Light said.

So far this March, Yamcolo Reservoir is filled at 60% capacity, Stagecoach at 74% and Elkhead at 72%, Light reported.

Colorado SNOTEL snow water equivalent percentage of normal on March 25, 2023, shows a healthy 147% in the Yampa and White river basins.
National Water and Climate Center/Courtesy photo

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