The West needs tons of snow to escape drought, and that’s unlikely this winter

Todd Hagenbuch, whose family has ranched near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for decades, fears hard times are ahead for ranchers across the West. (Photo by Alex Hager/KUNC)

Two years of acutely dry conditions in northwestern Colorado have left ranchers without enough hay to make it through the coming winter, forcing them to buy and ship hay in from other regions. (Photo by Alex Hager/KUNC)

The Yampa River flows through Todd Hagenbuch’s ranch near Steamboat Springs. The area historically has relied on deep snow each winter, but climate change is diminishing those snowfalls. (Photo by Alex Hager/KUNC)

When you’ve been coming to the same place for decades, changes are easy to notice.

On this ranch near Steamboat Springs, in northwestern Colorado, the signs of drought are everywhere. Todd Hagenbuch stands beside a silent, dusty creek bed, where golden grasses and scrub are beginning to reclaim the thin channel.

“Typically, you’d see a little water in this throughout the summer,” he said. “It’s been dry all summer long.”

Hagenbuch’s family has been ranching this land for 75 years. This creek runs into the Yampa River, which snakes through the property on its way to the Green River and the Colorado River beyond that.

“It’s quite a shocker,” he said. “I’m in my mid-40s, I remember coming up here as a little kid, moving some rocks around and playing in the water. My kids this year did not get that opportunity, and that’s kind of a sad state of affairs.”

On a working ranch, it’s more than sad. That kind of water scarcity can cut into the bottom line. This year, ranchers near the headwaters of the Yampa have had trouble producing enough hay to make it through the winter. Instead, they have to buy tons of hay, trucked in from other areas.

This isn’t the first year that dry conditions have sowed economic unease, and it won’t be the last.

“If you can get a couple good years with some of the bad years,” Hagenbuch said, “you can overcome some of that. But we’re due for a good year.”

Growers in the West have persisted through the ups and downs of dry years for a long time, but a two-decades-long drought in the fast growing region now is entrenching itself with no clear end in sight.

This year is unlikely to bring any major relief, thanks to “La Niña,” a weather phenomenon in which cold water off the Pacific coast alters temperature and precipitation patterns over the Western U.S.

Its effects are hardly guaranteed, but La Niña winters typically are colder and wetter in the Northwest and warmer and drier in the Southwest. The dividing line often falls across the middle of Colorado.

“In general, it means towards the northern mountains would be more likely to have a better winter season and the southern mountains – the San Juan Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos – might not be able to get as much,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University.

She cautioned that weather is hard to predict with a high degree of certainty, describing the region’s erratic patterns as “a crapshoot,” but historical records suggest it will likely leave the Colorado River Basin warmer and drier than normal this coming winter.

“While we do depend on the (summer) monsoon season,” Bolinger said, “especially to help fill up those soils before we enter the cold season, we really need that snowpack to kind of really dig out like Arizona did with its monsoon season.”

Most of the water in the Colorado River originates as snow high in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, where it slowly melts and trickles down to the places where people divert and use it. This snowpack is in the Roaring Fork watershed. (Photo by Alex Hager/KUNC)

Bolinger was alluding to this year’s historically wet summer in Arizona – where parts of a state with millions of Colorado River water users were drenched by record-setting – and often destructive – rains. July was the state’s second-wettest month on record.

Erinanne Saffell, Arizona state climatologist at Arizona State University, said La Niña conditions consistently deliver hot, dry winters to Arizona – more predictably than conditions in Colorado. Case in point: last winter, when La Niña left Arizona “very, very, very dry.”

“If we have that again,” Saffell said, “then we’re going to maintain that long term drought. We don’t have the opportunity to mitigate some of that.”

Ultimately, even a strong, rainy winter in the desert wouldn’t turn drought around in any lasting capacity.

“Arizona has been in these drought conditions since the mid ’90s,” Saffell said. “To fully come out of those conditions, we would need to have a few seasons of above-average precipitation.”

And in the grand scheme of the Colorado River Basin, wet seasons in Arizona are literally a drop in the bucket. Before going on to feed farms and taps all the way down to northern Mexico, the majority of the river’s water starts as rain and snow high in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. In the long term, Bolinger says climate change will bring shorter winters, higher temperatures and drier soil.

“We know that we are going to have increasing frequency of droughts and we have seen that in these past 20 years,” she said. “That is something that is going to continue.”

In Steamboat Springs, that dry creek bed on Todd Hagenbuch’s property will not be the last one to lose its water. He sees it as a sign of things to come elsewhere in the West.

“Where this would normally be contributing just a little bit, which contributes to the river, which contributes then to the Colorado River and to the overall basin,” he said. “It’s just another signal that things are dry and we shouldn’t expect as much water in the river when places like this are drying up.

Turning things around in the Colorado River Basin and bringing more water to the people who depend on it will take years of above-average rain and snow where it matters most.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.