Yampa Valley faces drought

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Steamboat Springs is almost certainly headed into another year of drought, but water conditions shouldn't be as bad as in the summer of 2002.

"Our snowpack peaked in March, and we're in another significant drought year," Lori Jazwick said. "However, we know we're not going to be as bad as 2002."

Jazwick is the new district conservationist for the Steamboat office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She was speaking to an audience of almost 60 people attending the second annual Yampa River Basin Water Forum at Hayden High School on Thursday night.

The summer of 2002 was the season commercial tubing operators in Steamboat voluntarily abandoned their operations in early July, and Colorado Division of Wildlife officials called for a voluntary ban on fishing in the town section of the Yampa River that lasted 55 days.

Jazwick said current snowpack conditions show the valley is ahead of the trend that emerged in 2002.

The amount of water that remained stored in the snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins June 1 was just 33 percent of average, Jazwick said. But it could be worse -- the upper Colorado River Basin stands at just 22 percent of average.

Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservation District amplified Jazwick's forecast.

"We saw a very steep decline in snowpack in late April and early May," Kuhn said. However, "by this time in 2002 there was no snowpack to speak of at the Tower" measuring site on Buffalo Pass northeast of Steamboat.

Jazwick's agency forecasts that spring and summer streamflows in Routt County will range from 50 percent to 69 percent of average in some parts of the county this year, and less than 50 percent in other places. Things were better last year -- about 70 percent to 89 percent of average. That's in contrast to 2002 when the entire county was less than 50 percent of average streamflows.

Current streamflows on the Yampa River at the Fifth Street Bridge are better than 2002, but not nearly average, Kuhn said.

Of even more concern for the long-term water outlook in Northwest Colorado is the decline of water stored in Lake Powell in Southern Utah. If current trends continue, Lake Powell will be only one-third full at this time next summer, Kuhn said.

The dwindling supplies in Lake Powell raise the question of how Colorado will continue to fulfill its obligation to water users in the lower Colorado Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California, Kuhn added.

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