Season of high-water provides lessons in Steamboat
City, county officials reflect as area nears the end of snowmelt
July 9, 2011
Steamboat Springs — This spring has proven to be a memorable season for runoff, and local officials say there are lessons to be learned going into future years of high water.
"The length of how long it was was probably the highlight," Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said. "Instead of a two-week (high-water period), we're still kind of in it. The rivers are starting to go down, but they are still high."
Flooding concerns started to brew even before Steamboat Ski Area closed April 10. People began to talk about the last time Routt County saw major flooding, in 1984.
In early April, the snowpack stood above 130 percent of average in the mountains surrounding the city. By mid-April the first round of flooding occurred as low-elevation snow melted and overwhelmed culverts in parts of the city and county and flooded several businesses downtown.
The spring stayed cool, and the snow kept coming. On May 1, the Tower measuring site at 10,500 feet on Buffalo Mountain measured more than 200 inches of snow with the equivalent of 72.6 inches of water. It was a new statewide record. The record continued to get broken until the snow water equivalent peaked May 29 with 80.1 inches of water.
Property owners took action with sandbags and shovels and prepared for all that water to make its way to the valley floor.
"I think the residents of Routt County took the threat of floods and high water very seriously," Struble said. "I think we got the message out, and I think the public took it to heart."
How quickly the snow melted and how high the rivers and creeks would get was up to Mother Nature.
"I think we were very fortunate with the weather," Struble said. "We would get two or three hot days and then it would cool off for three or four days."
The Elk River just west of Steamboat peaked for the season at 5 a.m. June 7, when it reached a gauge height of 8.14 feet at the Routt County Road 42 bridge. The water was moving at 8,250 cubic feet per second, breaking the all-time record 6,970 cfs set June 8, 2010. It was a 100-year flooding event.
"I thought the Elk would give us more trouble than the Yampa, and that was the case," Struble said. "The Yampa River came close, but it never hit flood stage at the Fifth Street Bridge."
The Yampa peaked the same day as the Elk, but was far from breaking its all-time record of 6,820 cfs. At 8:45 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. on June 7, it reached 4,820 cfs.
"Here in Steamboat it handled itself pretty well," Struble said.
Struble said the areas that were affected by high water this year were essentially the same areas affected in previous years.
Monetarily, Routt County's rural roads, bridges and drainage systems were likely damaged the most this spring, but it was not directly because of the gushing water.
"While we thought that most of the problems would come out of the rivers or streams, it came out of the landslides, which will create problems for years to come," said Paul Draper, the county's road and bridge director.
Repairing the damaged roads and bridges could cost more than $1 million, Draper said, but no engineering work has been done, so he did not want to speculate further about the cost.
"It's just me going, 'Holy cow,'" Draper said. "We're trying to get some dollar amounts together."
To Steamboat City Manager Jon Roberts, it was apparent this spring that some buildings were built "a little low" and did not adequately handle the runoff. He said the city's engineering department should focus more on those issues.
"During the city's permitting process and review for new development, we need to ensure that proper runoff facilities are constructed," Roberts said.
The city also should enhance and maintain its relationships with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service to better enable the city to predict and prepare for high water, Roberts said.
Officials hope private-property owners took something away from the flooding this spring, as well.
Dream Island Mobile Home Park Manager Monica Mackey said there likely would be discussions in the future with the owners of the mobile home park about mitigating flooding.
"It could have got pretty bad," Mackey said. "I think we could have got more water."
Property owners along the Elk such as Saddle Mountain Ranch owner Tony Connell also are looking to mitigate the risk in the future. His ranch was devastated by high water, and it forced a family living there to evacuate the building.
Mitigating future risk there will likely involve cooperation between the county, the Colorado Department of Transportation and property owners, Struble said.
"Who has responsibility, I think that would be decided above my head," he said.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com