Snowpack in Yampa River Basin down 31 percent

Official hesitates to make a prediction about what numbers mean for the entire season

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— The hills around Steamboat Springs are a lot like a savings account, but instead of cash, they store water. This winter, the balance in the account is running low.

Vance Fulton of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Steamboat Springs reported that the snowpack in the Yampa River Basin was down 31 percent from the historical average on Feb. 1.

The term snowpack does not refer to actual snow depth, but instead to the amount of water stored in the snow.

Buffalo Pass on the Continental Divide just north of Steamboat is one of the snowiest spots in the state along with Wolf Creek Pass in extreme southern Colorado. Fulton said the trip he and colleague Pat Davey took to the "tower site" on Buffalo Pass the last week in January reminded them more of November than Feb. 1.

Fulton said they built a brand new shack on Buffalo Pass this year to house their instruments. They built the shack on stilts that put the doorway 10 feet in the air in summertime.

"It's very tall in summer," Fulton said. "We do that hopefully so we can find it in winter. There have been some years when we had to dig down to get in the door."

That wasn't the case this year. The men climbed a few rungs up the ladder to enter the shack.

"Right now, it looks like it does at Thanksgiving in other years," Fulton said.

The weakest snowpack in the county is in South Routt. That trend was particularly noticeable at the Bear River Snow Course, just below Yamcolo Reservoir and just south of Yampa. The snow depth there is 22 inches compared to 26 at the same date last winter. The water content is just 3.9 inches compared to the historic average of 7.2 inches.

"At Bear River the snow is just sugar all the way to the ground," Fulton said. "Up north, there's much more consolidation of the snowpack and there are definite layers that will hold (a man's weight)."

The historic Butter Hill snow course north of Columbine is a good example of the stronger snowpack in extreme northern Routt County. The snow depth there is 31 inches, one inch more than the same date last year. That converts to 7.6 inches of water compared to the historical average of 8.9 inches.

The NRCS is a federal agency that keeps tabs on snowpack, so downstream water users and managers of reservoirs can make educated decisions about how much of the precious resource they can look forward to.

Fulton stopped short of predicting what this month's snowpack means for the entire season there's just too much winter remaining.

"You look at this information and you think you see historic trends," Fulton said. "But you just can't do that."

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