Odd weather ushers February out Steamboat's back door with forecast for warm snowfall

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— March seems poised to come in with an identity crisis, as a wet winter storm is expected to blow into the Yampa Valley late this week with a mixture of rain and snow on the valley floor and heavy spring snow at higher elevations.

It is still February, and even with St. Patrick’s Day more than two weeks away, it felt like spring under sunny skies in downtown Steamboat Wednesday with the temperature reaching 41 degrees. It was even warmer – 45 degrees – in Craig. Rivulets of melting snow have appeared in pastures in the lower Elk River Valley, and seven miles south of Steamboat, the Yampa River was opening a channel in the ice on the backside of Lake Catamount.

The clear skies on Wednesday were expected to give way to clouds as soon as Wednesday evening with rain and snow to follow.

The National Weather Service issued a hazardous weather outlook Wednesday for Colorado’s Western Slope expected to persist perhaps through Tuesday, March 4. Forecasters anticipate the northern mountains, including those surrounding Steamboat, are in for a stormy weekend. But the storm's energy is likely to shift to the north on Monday and Tuesday.

Meteorologist Joel Gratz, of OpenSnow, expects Steamboat Ski Area to receive snowfall measuring from 1 to 4 inches in each of the 12-hour periods Thursday through Sunday nights.

Forecaster Jim Daniels wrote Wednesday morning that the jet stream should bring snow to most of the Colorado Rockies by Thursday afternoon, but the early emphasis will be on the central and southern mountains with the valleys due for rain changing to a mix of rain and snow.

Looking at the five-day forecast, Daniels’ colleague Chris Cuoco predicted the snow level would drop to 7,000 feet Saturday morning.

“Snow and rain should remain widespread through Saturday, Saturday night and early Sunday morning,” Cuoco wrote. “Precip should diminish through Sunday night,” but on “Monday and Tuesday the area should remain under a west/northwest flow with showers,” over the Northern Colorado mountains.

Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, confirmed that his agency recently has increased releases into the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir, a few miles upstream from Catamount, while using the dam’s generators to make electricity. Those flows, which were higher than normal for this time of year at 48 cubic feet per second Wednesday afternoon, likely contributed to the river’s inroads on the ice at Catamount.

“The flow out of Stagecoach did go up,” McBride said. “It’s a combination of an awfully warm late February and ramping up the flow for a few weeks to make space and to make green power in the process."

McBride said the Conservancy District is trying to balance of variety of conservation goals and water needs in the midst of a drought cycle, but he’s cautiously optimistic that the winter’s snowpack will be enough to fill the district’s reservoir at Stagecoach. Still, recent weather has been something of a wild card.

“It looks like we’ll be able to fill,” McBride said. “The unusual is the usual in the West. What we really need is a crystal ball.”

Stagecoach drains about 206 square miles, and McBride said the Conservancy District keys in on a relative handful of snowpack-measuring sites monitored by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service that have proven over time to correlate well with the spring runoff needed to fill the reservoir.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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