Steamboat Springs Routt County farmers and ranchers won't begin irrigating their hay fields in earnest for another month. But already there are signs they'll need a little more help from precipitation than usual to grow their crop.
The May 1 Yampa River Basin Snow Survey released by the federal government shows that last year's snowpack was sub-par, and this year's snowpack is significantly worse in some places.
Basin wide, the water content of the snowpack is 73 percent of the 30-year average. But that number doesn't tell the true story for Routt County hay producers.
Vance Fulton of the U.S.D.A. said it's necessary to break the report down by drainages to understand the implications of a below-average snowpack for local farmers and ranchers.
"Last year was no great shakes and we're down even from last year," Fulton said. "The lowest (elevation) sites are most significant to us locally. The smaller drainages are going to run out of water quicker."
Fulton explained that the basin-wide water content that is 73 percent of average is buoyed by relatively high water content on the Continental Divide. But the water stored above 10,000 feet is of more significance to water users as far away as Arizona. More of the water used by local irrigators is taken from smaller tributary streams which are fed by lower elevation snowpack. And that's where the potential for trouble lies.
Snowpack measuring sites like Crosho Lake, Lynx Pass and Dry Lake are holding water that ranges from 42 to 54 of average, according to the data gathered by Fulton and colleague Pat Davey.
At Dry Lake, about six miles northeast of Steamboat, the water content of the remaining snow is just 7.4 inches compared to 14 inches at the same date last year. The 30-year average at Dry Lake is 17.7 inches of water stored in the snow on May 1.
CSU Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said local hay growers will need some well-timed moisture to get their crop off to a good start.
"That's essentially a big reservoir of frozen snow up there," Mucklow said. "The combination of low snowpack and no rain could signal a pretty tough year."
If the growing season of 2001 turns out to be a dry one, it would come on the heels of a dry hay-growing season last year, when Routt County received below average rainfall. Brian Avery, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction confirmed that Steamboat received .73 inches of rain in June 2000 and .71 inches in July. The 90-year precipitation average for both months is just above 1.5 inches. Avery said in the case of both last June and July, all of the rain that fell came within a two-day span in the middle of the month.
Mucklow said June and the first two or three weeks in July are the critical times for irrigating the hay crop. By the end of July, farmers and ranchers are pulling the water off the fields to allow them to dry in preparation for cutting the hay.
Bob Plaska, Division 6 water engineer with the Colorado Water Resources Division, said it's a fortunate circumstance that the growing season of the Routt County hay crop fits well into local runoff patterns.
Plaska said if local irrigators have a problem it will typically result from stream and river levels dropping below the level of their irrigation head gates. At that point, they are unable to draw water from the stream to irrigate their fields.
Historically, in farm fields downstream from Stagecoach Reservoir, water levels have never dropped to the point that an administrative "call" on water rights has been necessary, Plaska said. That means senior water rights holders have never had to formally exercise their right to the water over junior users.
"I think we'll have a decent runoff on the bigger tributaries, although it could be early and of short duration," Plaska said. "There's a good chance the reservoirs will fill. Yamcolo and Stillwater (near the headwaters of the Yampa) were drawn down last year, but there's pretty good snowpack on the Flat Tops."