Steamboat Springs Unseasonably warm May temperatures have reservoir managers scratching their heads while farmers and ranchers turn on the irrigation water early.
"It's unheard of," Colorado State University Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said. "We don't typically turn the water on until June 1. It just shocks me."
John Fetcher, manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, was just as confounded.
"It's a complete aberration," Fetcher said. "We've never had a condition like this. Every farmer in South Routt is pulling water."
While the Yampa River near Craig was carrying streamflows that represented the 90th percentile for this date, Fetcher was acutely aware of the fact that the Yampa just upstream from Stagecoach Reservoir was carrying only 22 cubic feet per second. That compares with typical flows in the 110 to 120 cfs range this time of year.
"It's incredible," Fetcher said. "Now, my prediction (Stagecoach) will fill -- I'm not so sure."
The water level in Stagecoach, about 15 miles south of Steamboat, was down 3.8 feet from the spillway Monday. That means the reservoir needs another 2,750 acre feet of water to fill. At typical flow rates for May, it might take until June 1 for that to happen, Fetcher said.
Mucklow said he drove to Red Creek near Sand Mountain in North Routt County on Sunday to check on some heifers he is watching for an acquaintance. He was startled to find the dirt road was dry and he could drive across a hay meadow that is usually soggy this time of the year. He was equally startled to see that ranchers in the Elk River Valley have already turned their cattle out to pasture. That doesn't usually happen until June 1, either, he said.
The key to the current conditions in the Yampa Valley is soil temperature. Meadow hay begins to grow rapidly when soil temperatures reach the mid 40 degrees, Mucklow said. When that happens, the plants need water, and without any natural precipitation this month, hay growers have no alternative but to irrigate early.
The region desperately needs natural moisture, but it's too soon to say the valley will see a poor hay crop this year, Mucklow said.
The current condition of the Yampa upstream from Stagecoach doesn't reflect return flows he expects to see from irrigation, Fetcher said. Only about 30 percent of the water pulled from the river for irrigation is consumed by hay meadows, he said. He typically expects about 60 percent to come back into the river system.
Snowpack in the highest elevations of the Flat Tops at the Yampa's headwaters has yet to melt, Fetcher said. The amount of water that comes out of the 12,000-foot peaks will determine whether or not the reservoirs fill, he added.
Mucklow said dry-land hay farmers are entering a critical three- to four-week period.
"If we don't get rain, it's going to be tough," Mucklow said.