Yampa Valley snowpack near longterm average despite ongoing drought
January 3, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Snowpack in the Yampa Valley is just above average.
As of Dec. 31, 2018, the Yampa and White River basin had 107 percent of the median snow water equivalent, which is a measurement of how much water is contained within the snowpack. At the same time last year, the valley had received 65 percent of the median.
“It’s refreshing to see our snowpack levels kick off at average,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs and a Routt County representative on the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable.
“We just hope that that trend continues, because last year was particularly stressful for water managers and the aquatic life,” she said. “This year is off to a good start, but it’s Colorado, and there really is no normal. We just have to keep an eye on it.”
Steamboat Resort has more snow days than not, with snow falling on 37 of the 63 days the resort has been open. Fifteen of those days were powder days, according to Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. Senior Communications Manager Loryn Kasten.
In Routt County, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s snow telemetry sites have received an average of 34 inches of snow. The thickest snowpack is at the Tower site on Buffalo Pass, with 64 inches. The thinnest snowpack is at the Bear River and Lynx Pass sites in South Routt, both with 25 inches.
Snowpack is nature’s reservoir, but different types of snow contain different amounts of water. While powder hounds look for snow to pile up to play in, water managers watch snowpack’s water equivalency to get a hint at how much water will be available when the snow melts off in the spring. A good snow year means higher, healthier stream flows once the snow melts into water and trickles downstream.
“In an average year, generally the river won't dip below 100 (cubic feet per second), so we won't need to close the river to recreation,” Romero-Heaney said. “We wouldn’t need to implement Stage 2 watering restrictions. It gives us one more year to plan and prepare for the drought years.”
As the Yampa River Basin is part of the larger Colorado River Basin, water managers use good water years to plan for bad water years.
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has experienced an extended drought. During this time, the Colorado River has seen the lowest amount of water flowing into the river and its tributaries over a 16-year period since people started keeping records more than 100 years ago, according to the U.S. Interior Department.
“It feels like this is such a big winter because we haven’t had a big winter in awhile, but then when you look at the data and realize it’s average, it reminds us not to rely on our assumptions and actually look at the data,” Romero-Heaney said.
It’s still early in the water year, which started on Oct. 1, 2018, and will end Sept. 30. The next few months of snowfall will determine whether the Yampa Valley sees another drought-riddled summer.
“Keep doing your snow water equivalency dance,” Romero-Heaney said with a laugh.