Steamboat Springs All of that snow piled up in parking lots around Steamboat Springs is no illusion, but it might be misleading when it comes to gauging the progress Colorado is making this winter toward recovering from last summer’s drought.
The federal agency that helps to forecast water supplies in the Mountain West reported Jan. 4 that the Jan. 1 snowpack in Colorado was the fourth lowest in 32 years. That is in spite of the fact that precipitation in the Colorado Rockies was 112 percent of average for December.
The statewide snowpack was just 70 percent of average as the new year began, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver.
The water year begins Oct. 1, and although the upper Yampa Valley got slammed with piles of cold, dry snow beginning right before Christmas, it couldn’t make up for a dearth of moisture in October and November.
“Conditions could have been much worse if we had not received the moisture we did in December,” Phyllis Ann Phillips, state conservationist with the NRCS, wrote in a news release.
When Phillips uses the term snowpack, she is referring to the amount of water stored in the snow standing on the ground — also known as the snow water equivalent. She said the snow that fell in the last three weeks of December helped the state’s snowpack climb from where it stood at 36 percent of average on Dec. 1.
Locally, the snowpack is stronger than the state’s 70 percent of average, but it varies around the Yampa River Basin.
The NRCS reports that the combined Yampa and White river basins (the White River drains the western end of the Flat Tops, which are visible from Steamboat) stood at 78 percent of average on Monday.
Steamboat Springs depends on snowmelt in the upper Fish Creek drainage for its domestic water supply as the spring runoff fills Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs.
Jay Gallagher, general manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, said Monday that although he expects the storage in Fish Creek Reservoir (by far the larger of the two) to dip to 35 percent by April 1, he is confident the reservoir will fill this spring.
The Tower measuring site maintained by the NRCS on Buffalo Pass essentially represents the Fish Creek drainage, Gallagher said. The NRCS was reporting Monday that the snow water equivalent on Buffalo Pass stood at 67 percent of average with 13 inches of water.
“I’d like to have more,” Gallagher said. “I’ll feel more comfortable when we get over 20 inches,” but he said it should take less water than that to fill Fish Creek Reservoir this spring.
Fish Creek Reservoir, when full to capacity, can hold 4,167 acre-feet of water, and Long Lake can hold 396 acre-feet. Fish Creek Reservoir is drawn down further than it has been at any times since 2000 as a result of a dry summer during which reservoir managers released extra water to maintain streamflows in Fish Creek on its way to the Yampa River.
If the reservoir drops to 35 percent capacity (1,458 acre-feet) on April 1, it would require 17 inches of snow water equivalent at the Tower measuring site to supply the 2,803 acre-feet of water to fill the reservoir, including losses due to evaporation, Gallagher said.
The average snow water equivalent at the Tower site on April 1 is 45.8 inches, Gallagher added, and since 1965, there have been only two years (1977 and 1981) when there was less than 26 inches of snow water equivalent at the Tower site on April 1. Unusually low snow water equivalent years include: 1977, 25.4 inches; 1981, 23.8 inches; 2002, 28.4 inches; and 2012, 28.1 inches, according to Gallagher.
Based on hydrological assumptions used in the 1992 to 1996 enlargement of Fish Creek Reservoir, even if the reservoir were completely empty on April 1 in the midst of a severe drought in the future, 25.4 inches of snow water equivalent in the upper Fish Creek basin would be sufficient to fill the reservoir, Gallagher said.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com