Officials: Rivers high but flood danger low

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— A warm spring and early snow melt have caused Routt County's two rivers to rise earlier than usual, but officials don't expect any flooding.

Chuck Vale, the emergency services manager for Routt County, has been watching levels on the Yampa and Elk rivers and said this spring's runoff is normal.

Nonetheless, the timing is early 10 to 15 days earlier than usual.

The Yampa and the Elk usually peak about the last week of May or the first week of June, but both rivers are at high, near-peak levels this week, Vale said.

Thursday's unexpected snow storm shouldn't increase those levels and may even ratchet down the pace of the spring melt, Vale said.

"I don't believe this storm will make any impact on the rivers, but the cool temperature helps slow down the melt," Vale said. "This cool weather pattern is kind of annoying, but it's perfect for snowmelt because it allows the waterways to adjust."

This spring's gradual snow melt should protect the Yampa Valley from a sudden flood.

"Usually what causes flooding is a cool spring where a lot more snow stays in place. That hasn't been the case this year. It's been coming gradually," soil conservation technician Vance Fulton said.

Another sign that the snow melt is under control is that Fish Creek Reservoir is filling up as usual, according to Mount Werner Water Manager Dan Birch.

Snowpack in the Yampa River basin was consistent with years past, when measured in late April. The reading of 94 percent of average for the area included high readings at Rabbit Ears Pass, which was 122 percent of average, and lows at Lynx Pass, which was 52 percent of average.

Since the end of April, the snowpack has dropped, but Fulton said Thursday's snow storm shouldn't impact the overall picture.

"This time of year, if we get a big storm it can make the readings jump up temporarily but it doesn't mean a whole lot," Fulton said.

Snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins was 59 percent of average on Tuesday, compared to a statewide average of 52 percent.

Mike Gillespie of the Natural Resources Conservation Service said the snowpack has dropped noticeably from readings in early April.

"We've definitely been seeing the warm temperatures lead to quicker melting than usual this spring," Gillespie said.

National Weather Service hydrologist Brian Avery confirmed that temperatures the last few weeks were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than usual, which caused the snow to melt quickly.

"But it was dry. If we'd had rain on top of that, we would have had an even greater rise (in river levels)," Avery said.

Avery said today's cold temperatures should give way to warmth on Saturday and more seasonal temperatures through next week.

As far as predictions for next ski season, Avery said it's too early to tell, but he did say forecasters are calling for a warmer than normal summer across the country.

It's around this time of year that the sheriff considers whether to close Routt County's rivers to recreational use because of high water. Emergency Services Manager Chuck Vale said the last time the sheriff closed the rivers was in 1997 because of low area flooding caused by a combination of rain and rapid snowmelt.

"We usually start to watch the height of the river when the tourists come to town for Memorial Day, about the same time as the peak," Vale said.

Three areas of concern for county officials are the Yampa River through Steamboat, the Yampa through Hayden and the Elk River.

"We're not there yet, but as the river keeps going we're always concerned with safety," Undersheriff Dan Taylor said. "If it gets to that critical point, we'll shut it down."

To reach Michelle Bales call 871-4208 or e-mail mbales@amigo.net

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