Trails high and dry


— When Don Markley, owner of Steamboat Lake Outfitters, took his family on a pack trip near Sand Mountain, he noticed something unique.

"It is dry out there already," he said.

Usually, most of the higher portions of the trail are covered with snow during this time of the year, but this year only small drifts remain and most of the ground is dry, Markley said.

"You can ride next to a snow drift and kick up dust," he said. "I'd say we are about two weeks ahead."

Vance Fulton, conservation technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the melt is about two weeks ahead and the phenomenon is being caused by two factors: a warmer spring and less precipitation in March.

National Weather Service data show average temperatures in April and May being a few degrees warmer than historical figures. May's historical average is 53.3 degrees; this year it averaged 57.1 degrees. April's historical average is 65.1 degrees; this year it climbed to a 69.7 average.

Plus, there wasn't as much snowpack in the high country this year to melt, Fulton said.

"Typically around here, the peak of snowpack is between March 1 and April 1," Fulton said.

However, precipitation in that month was off. An average March in Steamboat Springs is about 2.13 inches of precipitation.

This year March had 1.1 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

The result is that nine of the 14 Snowtel sites, which are devices the NRCS sets up to measure snowpack in Routt County, are measuring zero snowpack. Plus, the sites showing snowpack levels are way below the historical average for this time of year.

The Tower site, which is on Buffalo Pass, shows a snowpack of 2.9 inches. Its average is 31 inches.

Bison Lake has a .9-inch snowpack and historically has about 14 inches for March, according to the NRCS.

The early melt means an early fill for Fish Creek Reservoir.

"Fish Creek (Reservoir) is full and spilling and has been for two or three weeks," said Dan Birch, manager of the Mount Werner Water District.

He agreed that the melt is about two weeks early this year, but assured the low snowpack won't have an affect on Steamboat Springs' water supply.

What the low snowpack and early melt is affecting is water flow in the Yampa River.

Fulton said the river's flow usually peaks around the first week in June. This year the U.S. Geological Survey shows the Yampa River peaking in late May, with the 27th having the largest flow through town at 2,600 cubic feet per second (CFS).

"It never really peaked this year," said Peter Vandecarr, owner for Back Door Sports and an avid kayaker who keeps track of the Yampa's water flow.

"Usually, we will peak around 4,000 (CFS)," he said.

Vandecarr said he remembers years in the late '90s that the peak was close to 6,000 CFS.

Furthermore, precipitation in April and May this year is less than last year, which was a precursor to a drought in most of Colorado. In Steamboat Springs, April produced 1.37 inches of precipitation this year, 1.72 inches last year and historically averages 2.28 inches. May had .94 inches of precipitation this year, 1.7 inches last year and historically averages 2.11 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Agricultural Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said the dry conditions are causing some concern for agricultural producers.

"The dry-land hay is in pretty tough shape," he said. "It's just not growing very well."

Plus, if the river flow is too low, senior water right holders down stream could put a hold on the water, leaving junior water right holders in Routt County without water to irrigate hay, Mucklow said.

Last summer, Routt County hay producers were off 30 percent with their irrigated crops and some dry-land hayers lost their whole crop due to a drought and a late frost, Mucklow said. He explained this year's early dry weather isn't looking to offer much relief; but a June frost hasn't happened, which is promising.

National Weather Service forecasts, which predicted the dry spell last summer, shows summer temperature and precipitation levels to be normal and not drought is predicted.

"The forecasts are all based on normal weather patterns," Meteorologist Jeff Colton said.


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