Elk River reaches flood stage; runoff expected to increase this week
May 30, 2011
Steamboat Springs — The Elk River crested its banks near its confluence with the Yampa River in western Routt County early Monday morning. That the river reached flood stage isn't unusual, but Monday's flooding of nearby ranchland and some buildings is the first incident in what forecasters predict could be a prolonged period of high runoff and potential flooding throughout the area.
Temperatures this week are expected to reach the upper 70s by Wednesday, above the seasonal average. The overnight lows are expected to remain above freezing for much of the week.
Routt County Office of Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said warm weather and abundant snowpack doesn't necessarily mean the Yampa and Elk rivers and the creeks and streams that dissect Steamboat will flood. Rather, they could just result in a longer runoff period.
"I think we're going to have high water into July," Struble said Monday. "I don't see all the snow melting in two weeks. Right now, I think everybody is speculating what is going to happen, even our weather people. There are record snowpacks, but no one knows how fast it's going to come off.
"The potential is there for high water," Struble added. "How high is it going to get? I don't know. I don't think anybody knows. We'll find out this week."
The National Weather Service's office in Grand Junction issued a hydrologic outlook that said flooding was possible this week for creeks, streams and rivers in northwest and west central Colorado and northeast Utah. It said the waterways, including the Yampa River, could reach flood stage by midweek and increase to above that level by the weekend.
The hydrologic outlook cited higher than average temperatures — the National Weather Service forecasts a high of 79 degrees Wednesday — during the day and overnight.
"This will result in rapid snow melt of the voluminous snowpack," it said.
The snowpack at the Tower measuring site at 10,500 feet on Buffalo Pass was recorded at 174 inches Monday, with water content at 79.4 inches.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District attempted, with little luck, to manipulate its water storage at Stagecoach Reservoir in preparation for peak runoff. General Manager Kevin McBride said more water was released earlier this month than ever before — 250 cubic feet per second instead of the typical 100 cfs of less — but the reservoir filled right back up anyway.
McBride said a similar tactic was tried unsuccessfully at Yamcolo Reservoir near the Flat Tops, which the district also owns and operates.
"It certainly is a concern with the record snowpacks," he said. "We tried to keep ahead of it, but we had such strong inflows into Stagecoach and we're full. Unfortunately, the dam won't be mitigating the peaks. … With the amount of water compared to reservoir size, we really don't have flood control here in the Yampa Valley."
He said releasing any water now would only increase the amount of water already in the Yampa River.
At the Fifth Street bridge in downtown Steamboat, the Yampa was flowing at 3,350 cfs early Monday afternoon, which easily exceeded the May 30 historical average of 2,380 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But it's still well shy of the record of 4,920 cfs.
City, county preparedness
City Manager Jon Roberts said Steamboat adopted a plan to address high water and flooding. He said as part of that plan, the city bought high water emergency rescue gear for Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.
Roberts said the city also bought bags and sand to provide to residents for free — up to 100 bags — and to protect city buildings.
"Public Works has told me they definitely have enough sand bags and sand to provide for the protection of the public and facilities," he said.
Every other USGS measuring site in Steamboat, Hayden and Craig also showed streamflows exceeding the May 30 historical average, including at the convergence of the Elk and Yampa rivers near Milner, where Struble observed water spilled over the banks early Monday.
On Monday morning, the river nearly reached 7 1/2 feet and flowed at 5,200 cfs, almost double the May 30 historical average of 2,700 cfs.
Struble said the Routt County Office of Emergency Management has provided education to the public about what to do in case of flooding, including protecting their homes and being ready to leave if flooding occurs.
Should flooding occur, he said the most likely time of day is between 2 and 3 a.m. Butcherknife Creek is safe, Struble said, but he said to watch out for Soda, Spring and Fish creeks and especially Walton Creek.
Struble said the county uses a system similar to reverse 911 to alert residents about flooding. County staff also will knock on doors in affected areas. But he doesn't think that will be necessary.
"I don't think we're going to see any property damage or anything like that unless something really unusual happens," he said. "We've gone up to flood stage before and everything's been fine. … The valley is too big and too wide. I think you're going to see the low-lying areas covered up like you did in '96."
To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com
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