Yampa Valley snowpack moves ahead of 30-year median

Last week’s snow blanketed the areas around Steamboat Springs and turned the hay meadows and pastures off Routt County Road 46 into a winter wonderland.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

A flurry of storms to end 2021 bolstered the snowpack in the Yampa Valley, bringing the amount of water that snow represents above the 30-year median.

The snow season had been disappointing until just before Christmas, but data from the National Water and Climate Center shows the snowpack for the Yampa, White and Little Snake River Basin is at 112% the median Jan. 3 relative to years since 1991.

Each of the basins on the Western Slope are above average as well, all benefiting from weather pattern change that replaced a high-pressure ridge with a steady stream of storms from the southwest.

“What happened sort of mid-December was a complete pattern flip,” said Kris Sanders, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Rather than storms being forced to the north around Colorado, as they were earlier this snow season, Sanders said recent storms have been coming across California and the Desert Southwest up to Colorado, bringing a more direct line of snow.

On Monday, Jan. 3, the water and climate center reported snow in the basin’s mountains represented an equivalent of 9.1 inches of water, slightly above the median of 8.2 inches. The snow water equivalent in the basin never exceeded the 30-year median last winter.

Each of the Western Slopes river basins are ahead of the 30-year median for snow water equivalent. The Yampa, White and Little Snake River Basin, which includes Moffat County, is at 112% the median.
Courtesy/National Water and Climate Center

Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website, said it seems a larger proportion of snow is falling at higher elevations than normal. While the snowpack looks strong, December actually saw about 10 inches less snow than Steamboat typically would, according to the National Weather Service.

He pointed to the disparity between the snow base at the middle of Mount Werner and the summit, which were at 40 and 68 inches, respectively Monday, according to Steamboat Resort.

“Usually we don’t see that big difference between mid and the top, and that could be reflective of why the valley may still be drier,” Weissbluth said.

The added moisture was reflected on the most recent update to the U.S. Drought Monitor last week — with Moffat County mostly blanketed by level three, extreme drought or level two, severe drought, but almost all of nearby Routt County now at level one, moderate drought — after spending much of last summer at the driest level the monitor records.

Drought conditions have lessened on much of the Western Slope, with the most recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor putting most of Routt County at a level of moderate drought. However, Moffat remains severe to extreme in most places.
Courtesy/U.S. Drought Monitor

This above-average moisture has Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension Office, cautiously optimistic about how things are shaping up for spring runoff.

“Not as bad as in 2020, but we did enter this season with very dry soils,” Hagenbuch said. “I’ll be interested to see, regardless of the amount of snow we get, how much (runoff) actually reaches the streams before it is soaked up.”

Last year, snow water equivalent peaked at the end of March, almost two weeks earlier that it typically would. Ideally, the area would get a much better than average snowpack this season, Hagenbuch said, but with as dry as it has been, one close to average would be a step in the right direction.

Weissbluth said the unsettled pattern will continue this week, with snow starting Tuesday and likely continuing through Saturday. These storms will likely have a northwest flow, which is generally the best pattern for snow in the Yampa Valley.

After it starts Tuesday, Weissbluth said there could be 2 to 5 inches at mid-mountain by Wednesday morning and another 7 to 15 inches by Thursday. The storm will likely include sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph and gusts up to 50 mph, potentially complicating travel.

“We’re in for a really good period of snow,” Weissbluth said. “We do really well with northwest flow, and I think we’re probably going to see some big numbers, especially at higher elevations.”

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