I’ve been walking on the prairie east of town lately (the roomy Big Horn Basin stretching off sixty miles to the Big Horn Mountains), and it’s as dry as dust. Literally. When I kick the ground it rises up in little bursting clouds. Whistle Creek — never much to begin with — is dry. As we saw last week, the wild horses aren’t doing well. The antelope — masters of prairie survival — are bunched up in their normal, small winter herds and nibbling at sagebrush (an inexhaustible supply in Wyoming) for lack of grass. The location of what water there is, is no secret to them. In severe weather they’ll congregate in sheltered draws and valleys to wait out the storms, though there is a lack of these this winter.
Along with the rest of the Mountain West, Wyoming is stoically withstanding a fourth year of drought. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t rained or snowed in all that time, but since 1999 we’ve averaged about 65% of normal precipitation. In Cody, about ten inches per year, rather than the normal fifteen (most of Wyoming is considered by climatologists to be desert even in normal years). That ongoing deficit means that we need a normal year’s rain-snow all at once just to catch up.
In the mountains, snow depths are consistent with the aforementioned numbers. According to recent statistics, the Shoshone River drainages of the Absarokas west of Cody are 68% of normal. In the Wind River Mountains to the south it’s 60%. The mountains feeding the upper Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park have 69% of normal snowpack. In the Park, the controversial snowmobile season is having its ups and downs, as the Park Service keeps closing sections of roads as the snow melts and exposes pavement, then reopens them when fresh snow falls. Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska, told the Casper Star Tribune that “Wyoming would need 150 to 200 percent of normal snowfall” this year just to begin to recover from the drought.
The villain preventing recovery — this year anyway — seems to be El Niño. The periodic weather phenomenon slams storms onto the West Coast with flooding rains and heavy mountain snows. They then turn south and reform, and move up the East Coast bringing the snowy Northeasters noted this winter. Being off this storm track leaves the Northern Rockies and Plains high and dry. The coming summer will be yet another bad forest fire season in the Northern Rockies.
The reservoirs are in rough shape. Locally, Boysen (Wind River Mountains drainages) is only 37% of normal. Jackson Lake (Tetons) is lower still at 29%. Buffalo Bill (Shoshone-Absarokas) is better off at 56%, but when the chinook blows, Cody has a dust problem as gauzy clouds are lifted off dry sections of the reservoir.
I hiked the river trail through Paul Stock Park near town the other day. The air temperature was about 60 degrees, and I wore a light jacket. The sun-glistened river was punctuated by a few wading fly fishermen. Very unusual for January. The river was busy with drifting curtains of “hatching” gnat-like insects (not being an entomologist, I couldn’t identify them) that had trout sipping the surface on the spring-like midday. Again, very unusual. Hence the fishermen, especially on weekends. The water is low and clear, perfect conditions from an angler’s point of view. The Shoshone flowing through Cody is “tailwater”; Buffalo Bill Dam is five miles up the canyon, and flows are governed by the seasonal irrigation needs and conservation vagaries of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. In winter, those flows are kept low, with just enough water released to keep the fishery healthy. Anyway, from what I could see it was a great day to be a fly fisherman. If I remember correctly, the half dozen I passed were all wearing sunglasses.
We had a cold wave in late October. Zero mornings and twenty degree afternoons. A few inches of snow fell over a couple of days. On Halloween, little kids were all bundled up under their costumes for Trick or Treating. It hasn’t been that cold since then.