Irrigators could be dry

Survey gives snapshot of moisture picture

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— A late burst of snow during the past few days of January helped to improve the snowpack situation in Routt County, but the water stored in the mountains surrounding Steamboat still lags behind the 30-year average.

"The good news to me is that the sites that have the most snow are those that are high on the Continental Divide," said Vance Fulton of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Fulton and his colleagues monitor snowpack at a dozen sites scattered between Columbine in north Routt County and the Bear River snow course in south Routt County.

They record snow depth at each of the sites, but their primary interest is the "snowpack," a term that refers to the amount of water contained in the snow on the ground.

The two numbers can vary; in some years, 50 inches of snow on the ground contain more water than in others.

Throughout the Yampa River Basin, the snowpack as of Feb. 1 was just 84 percent of the 30-year average.

But the snowpack at the individual sites varied widely, from just 63 percent of average at the Elk River Snotel, northwest of Steamboat, to 103 percent of average at the Crosho Lake Snotel southwest of Yampa.

The term "snotel" refers to the fact that some of the snowpack measuring sites collect data through remote sensing devices. They use technology called radio telemetry to literally bounce radio signals containing snowpack data off the tails of meteorites and back down to an office on the Front Range.

Fulton said the trend he has observed while visiting snow measuring sites around the county is that snowpack is closer to historical numbers at the higher elevations, with the lower elevation sites lagging farther behind. That could be bad news for local farmers and ranchers.

"That snow at high elevation probably has the most effect for people in Arizona," Fulton said. "Local irrigators need snow everywhere if they're irrigating out of the small streams. We're going to have to get some nice snowstorms to catch up."

The snowpack at Crosho Lake on the edge of the Flat Tops appears to be an anomaly. On Feb. 1, snow depth there was 33 inches and contained 7.8 inches of water. That compares to 30 inches of snow on the same date in 1999, which contained 7.5 inches of water.

The average water content there is 7.6 inches of water.

Not far away, at the Bear River Snow Course, the snow depth is just 26 inches with 5.2 inches of water, which is just 73 percent of average.

As usual, some of the strongest snowpack numbers are on Buffalo Pass, visible to the northeast from downtown Steamboat.

At Dry Lake, at relatively low elevation on the west side of the pass, the snow depth is 57 inches and contains 13.5 inches of water 97 percent of normal.

Near the top of the pass, above 10,000 feet, the snowpack is within 10 percent of normal.

Snow depth at the Tower Snotel is 86 inches and the water content is 27 inches, compared to the average 30 inches of water.

It's not uncommon for the snow depth at the Tower Snotel to exceed 110 inches of year.

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