Cold, snowy winter brings moisture to WyomingWritten by Christy Hemken
“In January the snowfall wasn’t has heavy on the plains, but it continued in the mountains and one area particularly hard hit is south central Wyoming,” says Day when describing this winter’s weather so far. “Carbon County, eastern Sweetwater County and the northern section of Albany County have seen a rough winter with above-normal snowfall and below-normal temperatures.”
Jack Cobb, a rancher from Savery, agrees. “We’ve got as much snow now as we’ve seen since 1984, and down in the fields I’d say we’ve got two feet and on some of our spring pasture it’s piled up three or four feet.”
Cobb says the worst thing about this winter has been the wind making drifts and packing the snow. “We’ve fed round bales for 20 years and this is the first year I’ve really had to test the tractors. We’ve cleaned and re-cleaned the roads and pushed the snow back, and it’s been a tough year.”
“Twenty-five years ago we fed the cattle with teams, but now everybody’s switched over to round bales so we’re really testing out our tractors and it’s been a challenge for some guys,” he adds.
“It’s affecting the cattle, and we are feeding a lot more hay,” notes Cobb, who says the ranch recounts hay on Feb. 1 to make sure there’s enough to make it through spring. “I had quite a bit extra last fall, but it’s going to be close this year.”
“If the weather doesn’t break in the next couple of weeks it’s going to be pretty tough with calving, because as hard as the snow is it’s going to be hard to make some calving grounds,” says Cobb, adding that it’s something his dad used to do routinely 25 years ago.
“The Little Snake River Valley is comparing this winter to 1984 when we had a terrible spring flood in the valley. We had a lot of snow that winter but it stayed cold through March and April and never melted off, then the first day of May came and the temperature got to 70 degrees,” says Cobb. “I came home from college and water was going everywhere and Baggs flooded. It wasn’t the amount of snow we had, but how it came off.”
Because snow started accumulating late last fall, Cobb says there’s not frost in the ground this winter. “If we get any kind of spring we should have a great start on the grass because the ground’s not frozen at all.”
“It’s just like winters used to be when I was kid, and it’s not anything we can’t get through,” says Cobb, whose dad is spending the winter a few hundred miles to the south this year.
In addition to the snow levels in south central Wyoming, Day says there’s a tremendous amount of snow in the northwest mountains. “Snowpack in the Yellowstone drainage has been above normal all season, and another area with heavy snowfall has been the upper North Platte, which is at 112 percent of normal.”
He says the remainder of the snowpack areas are doing well. “Some areas are lagging a little bit, but nobody’s less than 85 percent of normal and a lot of areas are in the 90 percent range. Statewide, snowpack is within striking distance of being near normal.”
In regard to other weather conditions, Day says it has been windier this winter than last in Casper.
“Over the month of January daily average wind speeds were in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 miles per hour, which is quite windy,” says Wyoming State Climatologist Steve Gray. “We had some gusts over the month regularly getting up into high 30- and even high 40-miles-per-hour range. The bottom line is that it’s been very windy.”
Day says the Climate Prediction Center’s long-range forecast for the next 90 days, or through April, is above-normal precipitation for almost all of Wyoming with the heaviest snowfall predicted in western Wyoming.
“Right now the outlook is favorable for near- to above-normal moisture for the next 90 days and temperatures near to or below normal,” he says. “Once we get done with February our temperatures naturally start to trend up, but there will still be a good four or five weeks where it could still get really cold.”
“We had a pretty cold winter last year, and some parts of Wyoming had one of their coldest Januarys on record,” says Day. “This winter, so far, has tracked close to last winter although it has produced a bit more snow. This makes two winters in a row that have been more of the standard colder winter weather and have been a departure from milder winters that we had from 2000 to 2006.”
According to a recent National Ag Statistics Survey, temperatures for January averaged from 1.3 to 8.3 degrees below normal, with low temperatures reported below zero. Topsoil moisture levels were rated 51 percent adequate or better, which is 15 points above the five-year average. The low temperature of the month of 33 degrees below zero was reported in Greybull.
According to Day, the worst of the drought is over. “The drought really bottomed out in 2003 and 2004, and precipitation, generally speaking, has gone up since then,” he says, but adds, “It’s going to take a while to get out, because there are two droughts, the one where it’s drier than normal and the hydrologic drought, and that won’t be over until our reservoirs are filled.”
He says the last couple years have been wetter, with Casper receiving more rain and snow in 2007 than it’s had since 1998. “The drought has not gotten worse, but we’re not out of it yet. The outlook is better but we’ve still got a long way to go and there are still some dry areas.”
“Given that we’ve been experiencing drought conditions for the last eight years, getting up to average seems like a pretty important milestone since we haven’t seen this type of situation over the last couple years,” says Gray.
“The most important thing to remember is in the areas where we do most of the grazing and livestock production, the greatest amount of precipitation and snowfall is still yet to come,” he continues, saying the state needs a strong finish to winter and a good start to spring.
Without the spring storms last year Gray says the state would have been in bad shape. “The second important point to remember is if things shut down now and we stop getting moisture and we stop seeing it come over late winter and into the spring, we’re going to have some difficulties in water supply and water available for irrigation.”
“The bottom line is the story is yet to be written, and we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he states. “We are doing a little bit better this January than last year at this time.”