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Casper – According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), snowmelt from winter accumulations in the high mountains is the source of about 75 percent of Wyoming’s water supply.
    Because of its importance, several methods are employed throughout the winter months to monitor snowfall trends and also that snow’s “snow water equivalent” (SWE).
    “The SWE tells you how much water is there in the snow, and that means a lot more than how much snow there is,” says NRCS Water Supply Specialist D. Lee Hackleman. “You can figure out the density of the snow by figuring out the SWE and how much total water is held in the snow.”
    Hackleman says a lot of times measurements will be taken at a site and the snow depth will have gone down but the moisture content will have actually gone up.
    To track snow depth and water equivalents in Wyoming, Hackleman and his team take measurements from snow courses and SNOTEL sites throughout the state.
    Snow courses are sites where periodic measurements are taken to track snowpack accumulation patterns. These sites, of which there are about 800 in the West, are each measured by hand. Sixty-six of them are located in Wyoming, and Hackleman says most of them are reached by snowmachine and they’re visited for five or six months during the winter.
    SNOTEL sites, on the other hand, rely on meteor burst telemetry to relay their data to a master station in either Boise, Idaho or Ogden, Utah, from where it’s sent by telephone to Portland, Oregon.
    According to NRCS, meteor burst telemetry relies on the physical phenomenon that enables radio signals to be reflected off ionized meteorite trails 50 to 75 miles above the Earth’s surface. Utilizing this principle, sites as far apart as 1,200 miles can communicate with one another for very short periods ranging from fractions of seconds up to several seconds.
    Because it’s not dependent on radio waves, the usual interference from mountains and terrain is not an issue for a meteor burst system, which are able to transmit data up to several times per day.
    “The SNOTELs give out a reading every hour year round, and along with snow they measure wind, solar and total precipitation data,” says Hackleman.
    Beginning to modernize their snow surveys in 1977, the NRCS began the SNOTEL project, a name derived from SNOpack TELemetry, to measure and transmit snowpack, precipitation and temperature data on a daily basis throughout the West.
    Currently over 700 SNOTEL sites are operating, with most of them powered by solar panels and only visited a few times each year. Of those, 83 are monitored by Wyoming in the state, plus two in South Dakota.
    Once SNOTEL  data arrives in Oregon at the National Water and Climate Center, it’s analyzed and interpreted by computer programs known collectively as the Centralized Forecasting System. From there it’s made available to NRCS offices and the general public through the Internet.
    Of this winter’s data, Hackleman says, “We got up to a little over 100 percent of average for a little while, but we’re back down to 98 percent now. The areas that are doing the best are in Yellowstone and the Little Snake and Upper North Platte, which are all above 110 percent snowpack. The worst areas are still the Upper Green and the Wind River.”
    “I think we’re supposed to get some moisture in the first two weeks of March, but then they’re talking dryer than normal after that,” he noted. “We’re supposed to be a little warmer than normal, too. We just hope it’s not like it was two years ago where it quit snowing the first of March.”
    In the Feb. 25 snowpack and precipitation report, the NRCS reported snowpack remains much above average for most locations across the West. “This is a very unusual year where snow is abundant in almost all regions of the West,” the report reads. “In some areas, such as in the Cascades and Sierra mountain ranges, low elevation snowpack is even higher in percent of average, with concerns persisting about the vulnerability of the snowpack to rain on snow events.”
    To view NRCS SNOTEL and precipitation reports, visit or by following the link from Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

After snowstorms and rain, with deep snow melting in many areas of the Midwest, more than a dozen rivers have flooded, especially along the Nebraska and Iowa border.  

Flooding is severe because of heavy snow accumulations earlier this year, followed by sudden rise in temperatures. Snow melt, ice jams and rainfall washed away roads and bridges, hindering travel and isolating some communities.

John Wilson of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says several places were severely impacted.  Some of these areas went through serious flooding a few years ago, especially along the Missouri River.  

“The damage was more concentrated at that time, along that corridor, but not so bad a few miles farther away – depending on how far the river went out of its banks. The flooding this spring is over the whole eastern half of the state and includes Iowa and Missouri,” he says.

Winter weather

“We had an open winter in January, with above-normal temperatures, then it turned cold and started snowing,” Wilson says. “We had the eighth coldest February on record, since 1895. The ground was frozen, and the snow got deep and didn’t melt.”

He continues, “Then, we got rain and rapid melt. It was the perfect line-up of things that could go wrong to create the flood.”

“Many people got hit with the flood right in the middle of calving season, so that was a problem, along with the loss of pasture. Some of pastures are silted over and buried in debris,” Wilson says. “There have been some huge losses.”

Anecdotal reports

Wilson says he has heard reports from near the South Dakota border in Nebraska where a dam that feeds into the Missouri River broke. 

“The flood washed out the dam.  The rancher had about 250 cows that were soon to calve, and he was going to lead them to higher ground.  He went out to their pasture with his tractor and a round bale to lead them to higher ground,” Wilson says. 

The cattle were following the rancher, when he looked back to see a wall of water coming at them, right after the dam broke. 

“He dropped the bale and got out of there as fast as he could with the tractor.  He got away from the water, but it swept away all 250 cows,” Wilson says. “In the days following, they found dead cattle for miles downstream.”

Continued impacts

The flooding isn’t over, with more rain in the forecast, Wilson adds. 

“With all the rain in the Dakotas, some of that snow pack will be melting and coming downstream.  Many places still had one to two feet of snow in late March.  Whatever doesn’t drain into the Red River will be coming our direction,” he says.

With all the mud and moisture, there is concern for diseases like foot rot, pneumonia, mastitis, etc. Wilson emphasizes the stress these cattle have gone through makes them more vulnerable to many diseases.  

Feed impacts

Feed supplies have also been damaged.

“Hay was scarce to begin with, just because of the deep snow we had earlier. Fall pastures were snowed under, and ranchers couldn’t run cattle on cornstalks as long as they wanted to,” he explains. “They had to supplement hay and tried to find hay.  Hay is even more scarce now, with the floodwater damaging a lot of what was left.”

“I recently talked with a guy who runs a dehydrator plant, processing alfalfa hay into pellets, and it is situated right along a creek that goes through our county,” Wilson says. “He had 700 round bales of alfalfa plus a large pile that had already been ground up, and all of that has been ruined by the flood.”

Now, the challenge is disposing of damaged feed products. 

Another property on Logan Creek had piles of cornstalks, stored for feed this spring, but all the feed was washed away and is caught in fence lines bordering his fields, Wilson says.

There were many cornstalks floating around in the flood, jamming into and taking out a lot of fences. 


Country roads were also damaged.  

“A road near my place now has gullies in it several feet deep. Where the main track was and the ground firmer, we can still see the gravel, but on each side of those tracks, the softer ground washed away. It will be a huge expense to the county to repair these roads,” he says.

Fortunately, there were no highways in Wilson, Neb. area that washed out. However, the rest of the state hasn’t been so lucky. 

One of the larger communities south of Lincoln was isolated for almost three days because all the highways leading in were impassible or washed out or a bridge had washed out.  

“Finally, the National Guard sent a convoy with big trucks to bring in groceries because the store shelves were bare.  About one-quarter of the town itself flooded, with terrible damage to infrastructure,” he says.


Farmers and ranchers in many parts of the state were unable to get to some of their animals to feed them. Some of the available feed is no longer safe for livestock to eat.  

“Anything that was exposed to floodwater now has to be destroyed, according to our Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.  Ranchers can burn it if it’s on their own ground or a contiguous piece of ground, but they can’t haul it five miles down the road to another piece they own to burn it there,” according to Wilson.

Feedstuffs that can’t be burned may be disposed of via composting, or they must be hauled to landfills.   

“This is a huge expense,” says Wilson.

Livestock health

Nutritional stress is going to be a big problem for many animals.  

“Some cattle in various parts of the state are now isolated because of roads and bridges out, and people can’t get feed to them,” Wilson reported. “In some places, livestock don’t have access to water now that the snow has melted and the floodwater receded.”  

Some water sources may also be contaminated.  

Feedlot operations have a problem with lagoons full and overflowing.  

Wilson says, “It’s too wet to pump manure and spread it on the fields, so this will be another challenge.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“I always look forward to August,” says Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) Wyoming Area Manager John Lawson as 2011’s record inflows into the state’s river systems begin to come to an end.
“We’re in the throes of reducing our releases above Pathfinder Reservoir, and we’re also attempting to reduce releases below Pathfinder, because inflows have dropped off to the extent that we’re comfortable reducing,” says Lawson.
Pathfinder’s level was beginning to come down in late July, and Lawson says he expects its spill to cease by July 31.
“We’re lowering the reservoir’s level, and it’ll be the longest we’ve ever spilled,” says Lawson. “We started spilling in May, and spilled through the entire months of June and July.”
The Pathfinder spill in 2010 stopped by mid-July.
“Compared to what we were getting, today’s inflows aren’t significant, but we’re still getting a considerable amount,” notes Lawson. “Today’s inflows are a lot higher than we’d normally expect, and they’re still coming at a pretty good rate.”
Natural Resources Conservation Service Water Supply Specialist Lee Hackleman says that he continued the Monday Morning Snow Reports several weeks longer than usual, just to show people the changes in snow water equivalent, or SWE.
As of late July, Hackleman says all the NRCS SNOTEL sites are melted out.         “Grand Targhee melted out over the weekend of July 23, and that was the last one to go, but there’s still considerable snow above those sites, and some of that probably won’t melt out this year,” he says, adding that some of the glacier areas might build this year.
“We were projecting some 300-percent runoffs in some places, and I’m not sure if we’ll end up getting that or not,” says Hackleman. “Time will tell, but we’re definitely getting 200-plus in a lot of places.”
Of navigating the challenging situation indicated by Hackleman’s office beginning in February, Lawson says his office managed through it very well, and Glendo Reservoir, in the North Platte River’s lower reach, didn’t reach the levels anticipated by BuRec.
“This year Glendo was about four feet lower than last year, and a lot of that is attributed to two things – we didn’t get the inflow in the lower reach that we were afraid we might, and actions taken by the Wheatland Irrigation District early on made room in their reservoirs for Laramie River runoff, which allowed us to continue to release higher flows out of Glendo during June than we did last year,” explains Lawson. “We benefitted on both ends.”
Lawson says last year’s inflows between Pathfinder and Glendo were 300,000 acre-feet, while this year they were in the neighborhood of 190,000 acre-feet.
Of the happy ending to record snowpack in the region and its flooding potential, Lawson says the early decisions made by BuRec paid off, and weather conditions also helped.
“We had record inflow into Seminoe Reservoir – we forecast 1,950,000 acre-feet, and it looks like we’ll have over 1,970,000 acre-feet this year,” says Lawson, noting the previous record was 1,550,000 acre-feet. “We exceeded the record from 1983/1984 by over 400,000 acre-feet.”
“We really didn’t have as high of a peak flow as last year, but we had a lot more,” he adds. “By coming out slower, that gave us more time to keep evacuating, so we were helped there. We had good decisions made by Reclamation, and Mother Nature did cooperate, considering what she was trying to do to us.”
“We’re feeling pretty good about it, particularly for all those people who could have been affected,” he notes.
Of the other major reservoirs in the state, Lawson says Buffalo Bill in Park County also exceeded all inflow records.
“We’re anticipating we’ll probably have an inflow around 1,240,000 acre-feet, which far exceeds anything in our recent history,” says Lawson. “We managed to get through that without any flooding downstream on the Shoshone River.”
Lawson says avoiding the flooding was a result of keeping Buffalo Bill and Boysen reservoirs at levels the public though were too extremely low early on.
“We got input from people implying we were mis-operating and would never fill those reservoirs. Fortunately they were down, because we needed every bit of space,” says Lawson. “We got up to releases of 8,400 cubic feet per second out of Buffalo Bill, and that’s the highest release we’ve made since modification in 1994.”
Lawson says Boysen was in the flood control pool, but levels are now starting to subside.
“We’re now on the downside, and we’re reducing releases out of both Boysen and Buffalo Bill, and we anticipate getting out of the flood control pool at Boysen no later than the second week of August,” he explains. “Things turned out rather well, considering the kind of inflows and snowpack we had.”
Planning for the 2011 inflows began in Fall 2010, after the agency was surprised by record inflows the previous spring.
“We went into this year with far better planning for something like this, and last year we made the decision to reduce our total storage in the North Platte system down to two million acre-feet, and that required us to evacuate water toward the end of the water year in September,” explains Lawson. He says his office will take the same approach this fall. “We’re targeting two million acre-feet again as the ending amount, and we’re on track for that.”
Beginning in February again, BuRec will start to watch and evaluate the snowpack conditions very closely to decide how soon to begin to release water from the system, much like they did earlier this year.
Of whether or not the last two springs indicate any sort of a trend, Lawson says he doesn’t know that anybody is willing to step off that cliff and make a prediction.
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – According to Wyoming Bureau of Reclamation’s John Lawson, right now Wyoming’s water conditions contain some of the good, some of the bad and some of the ugly.
    However, whenever people ask him for predictions of what the future holds in the relationship between Wyoming and water, Lawson responds he doesn’t have even a vague idea.
    “Right now the temperature outlook for April, May and June is a statistical average, as well as the precipitation outlook for those same months,” he says, adding, “The ‘EC’ on those forecast maps stands for ‘I don’t have a clue,’ rather than ‘equal chances.’”
    “Right now you’re hearing all kinds of good things about how things are improving, but it’s interesting that we can have something that’s less than average and have it be good news,” says Lawson of this year’s moisture levels. This year the Wind River is at 92 percent of normal, while last year it was at 72 percent.
    Currently the North Platte River is at 111 percent, however, Lawson says to keep in mind that has dropped from its recent 117 percent. “The Lower North Platte, from Pathfinder down to Guernsey, was at 86 percent last year, and it’s at 93 this year,” he notes.
    “If you’re looking at last year compared to this year, it’s good news. But I don’t think it’s great news, from my perspective,” he says. “I’d like to see those percentages a lot higher throughout the next six weeks.”
    Lawson referenced a statement by the Billings Gazette that said Yellowtail, at 97 percent, was encouraging. “I find that ironic, but that shows what we’ve been going through, and continue to go through.”
    He said the good in the state exists in the Shoshone Basin. “This dry period started in 2000, and the 30-year average at that time was over 700,000 acre-feet of inflow. Last year we had 427,000 acre-feet of inflow, and I’m calling this good.” The new levels represent 78 percent of the old average.
    Lawson says Reclamation has had fairly good luck managing Buffalo Bill Reservoir. “The 15-year average has dropped from 460,000 acre-feet down to 435,000 acre-feet, but we’re fortunate in that we don’t have an over-demand on that water.”
    Related to inflows, Lawson says outflow is dropping 10 percent annually on average. However, Reclamation has worked in a collaborative process with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to establish a winter flow acceptable to all parties comprehensively, including fisheries and irrigation.
    Not only is outflow important to downstream users, that water is also used to pay the bills. “Every one of these reservoirs is associated with a power plant system, and they pay the bills,” explains Lawson. “We’re generating about half of what we normally would, and because of the drought power customers are going out to buy power to meet their commitments at a cost of three to four times would they would normally pay.”
    According to Lawson, the ugly part of the state is the North Platte system. “Seminoe Reservoir tells us if we’re going to survive or not. We had a record low flow in 2002 of 118,000 acre-feet, while the average was 799,000 acre-feet. We haven’t been able to get any recovery since then.”
    The entire North Platte system of dams and reservoirs has historically contained 1,615,000 acre-feet on the 30-year average until 2000, when the system held 1,740,000 acre-feet. The year 2007 ended with 706,000 acre-feet in the entire system.
    Although the North Platte Basin sits at 111 percent snowpack in early March, Lawson is hesitant to show optimism. “This time in 2006 we were at a higher percentage of normal, and we only got 546,000 acre-feet of inflow that year out of an average 703,000 acre-feet,” he says. “With that high snowpack percentage we were forecasting 850,000 acre-feet for 2006 and we fell on our face.”
    The snows quit in April, temperatures warmed, causing an early melt-off, and additional moisture didn’t come. “In 2005 we were way below average this time of year, and that year we got 732,000 acre-feet of water. We thought we were going to be down, but then we got heavy, wet snows in the spring and that’s what gave the 732,000 acre-feet,” he says.
    “We’re hoping we’ll get 700,000 acre-feet this year - based on the historic information - but we have a minimum plan of 450,000 acre-feet, which is not unrealistic,” he notes. “It depends on what will happen in next six weeks.”
    The entire North Platte system holds 2.8 million acre-feet of water but ended at 706,000 acre-feet last year. “We could end up at 604,000 acre-feet next September under the minimum predictions,” says Lawson. “Seminoe Reservoir holds one million acre-feet and it’s only 18 percent full today. We could get that up to 265,000 acre-feet this coming September, or we could go as low as 194,000 acre-feet.”
    “The nightmare for us is Pathfinder,” says Lawson. “If we get the minimum plan we could have Pathfinder down to 100,000 acre-feet this September. We ended last year at 171,000 acre-feet, while it holds one million acre-feet.”
    Lawson says irrigators have a dilemma because they’ve been holding off until June to take water. “About one-third of their irrigation is hay, and if they don’t get a watering early on it affects the crop the whole year. If they decide to come on early, and we get a minimum inflow, we’ll have this reservoir at minimum.”
    Lawson says the absolute minimum in Pathfinder is 30,000 acre-feet – a level after which water can no longer flow through the outlets.
    “Seminoe hasn’t come into priority since 2000, so we’ve been living off that to serve the Casper Alcova Irrigation District. Until we get Pathfinder filled, Seminoe will never come into priority, while every year we’re drawing 100,000 acre-feet out of Seminoe,” says Lawson, adding another 100,000 acre-feet of water is lost to evaporation annually.
    Regarding how many good years it would take to fill as the reservoirs again on the North Platte, Lawson says it depends what’s called a “good year.”
    “We were very close to this same mess in 1993 – by September 1993 we had the system down to 700,000 acre-feet, just like we did last year. But, from 1997 through 1999 we got 1.3 million acre-feet into the system – more than double the average,” he says. “If we could get that series that occurred then, in two or three years we could fill it back up.”
    He says one scenario not seen for quite some time are years like 1983 and 1984 where the system received 2.2 million and 2.3 million acre-feet of inflows in consecutive years. “The system only holds 2.8 million, so imagine how you would manage that. And it does change that quick. We could get quick recovery or this thing could extend for a long time.”
    Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

During the week ending April 8, cooler than normal temperatures were seen, according to the Mountain Regional Field Office for the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of USDA. Across the state, 32 of 34 reporting stations reported below average temperatures, with a low of -16 in Yellowstone. 

However, below normal moisture was also reported at 18 of 34 reporting stations. 

NASS says, “A reporter from northwest Wyoming indicated snow stopped any farm progress, and a reporter from north-central Wyoming stated harsh wind and snow was hard on livestock and no field work had yet been done.” 

Western Wyoming also saw a cold, wet week, which made the ground too wet for farming, and stress was seen for those calving and lambing. 

March 2018 precipitation was 100 to 110 percent of average, according to the Wyoming Water Supply Outlook. 

“Current water year precipitation is averaging 100 to 110 percent of normal across Wyoming, and mountain snowpack is 105 to 115 percent of median,” said James Fahey, Wyoming National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist. “Precipitation numbers varied between 142 percent of normal over the Snake River Drainage in western Wyoming to near 68 percent of average over the Clarks Fork/Shoshone River Basin in northwest Wyoming.”

Near normal snowmelt stream volumes are still expected across Wyoming during the upcoming runoff season.

Visit or for more in-depth water and hydrology reports.