Warmth accelerates irrigation

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— Rancher Jay Fetcher was thinking about irrigating his hay meadows Tuesday, a full month ahead of schedule.

"It's not so much because the ground is dried up, but because the water is available now," Fetcher said.

The snowpack in the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs responded almost immediately to the warm temperatures this week and there are growing signs spring runoff will be short-lived this year.

"There's not a lot of snow up there, but what is up there is plenty dense and wet," Lori Jazwick said.

She is the district conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Ser-vice in Steamboat. She and colleague Vance Fulton, who has been monitoring snowpack for many years, made the final snow measurement of the year on Rabbit Ears Pass on April 26.

An Internet graph tracking the snowpack on Rabbit Ears Pass shows the curve taking a steep nosedive on Sunday. With afternoon temperatures reaching 72 degrees in Steamboat on Monday, and forecasts in the 70s Tuesday and Wednesday, the trend appears to be entrenched - the annual snowmelt has begun.

Jazwick and Fulton are more interested in the amount of water contained in the snow than in the actual snow depth.

The 17.2 inches of water at the measuring site on the pass is 58 percent of the average 29.9 inches on April 30.

"Vance said he's seen it worse than this year," Jazwick said.

But Rabbit Ears isn't the worst of it.

At 8,700 feet in the upper Elk River Valley, another NRCS snowpack measuring site reflects just 2 inches of moisture compared to the average of 15.4 inches.

Jazwick said she and Fulton struggled to get their truck into the Butterhill snowpack measuring station on the upper Elk.

"It was the muddiest he'd ever seen it," Jazwick said.

At Crosho Lake, at an elevation of 9,100 feet on the edge of the Flat Tops, there was just three-tenths of an inch of moisture in the remaining snow. That's 4 percent of the average 8.2 inches.

The moisture situation isn't quite as bleak above 10,000 feet at the measuring site on Buffalo Pass. There is still 31.4 inches of water stored there. That's 60 percent of average.

Jay Whaley of the CSU Cooperative Extension office in Steamboat Springs said despite the mild weather, soil conditions in the valley do not appear to be suffering. However, he said that's an informal impression, not one backed with scientific measurements.

"We've had some good moisture this spring and we had some good moisture last fall," Whaley said.

Fetcher said the wet autumn of 2006 has carried over some beneficial soil conditions. This spring he has seen mixed signals. He removed some old fence posts this week and was happy to see the postholes had water in the bottom of them. On the other hand, he's already noticing that new precipitation is quickly sinking into the ground.

"Two weeks ago, the rain was puddling on the surface. That's a sign of a high water table," he said.

Part of the reason to go ahead and irrigate his hay meadows in early May is to make the most efficient use of the irrigation water he's entitled to.

"Later in the spring, it takes a lot more irrigation water to really soak the meadow, he said.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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