River drops, flood threat recedes

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— The half-inch of rain that soaked Steamboat Springs on Sunday put the exclamation point on a memorable spring runoff.

Routt County Emergency Preparedness Director Chuck Vale announced Monday that the Yampa River likely has peaked for the season.

Boosted by the rain, most of which fell before 7 a.m., the river rose above 5,000 cubic-feet-per-second about 10 p.m. Sunday night. Vale said computer models prepared by National Weather Service forecasters in Salt Lake City show the river won't go any higher this season. The Salt Lake City office has a special focus on streamflows and runoff, but the experts have been mistaken before.

"Yes, the river has peaked," Vale told the county commissioners Monday. "Yes, the rain affected us. I asked all the experts on May 20 and they said no problem, and they were wrong."

Daily high temperatures and precipitation are the wild cards that can't be accounted for when predicting what the river will do are, Vale said.

There was minor flooding across the county, Vale said, but his personal records tell him it was nothing out of the ordinary for big runoff years.

Loris Werner said that in the 59 years since his family moved into a home on Soda Creek in old town Steamboat, he had never seen as much water running through the property as there was Sunday. The home is reached by small bridge and the swollen creek was beginning to flow over the rough-hewn planks Sunday morning.

"We sometimes see water coming between those two sheds, but I haven't seen anything like this since we moved here in 1944," Werner said.

Vale said crews from the city did a good job of removing logs that were piling up against the Yahmonite Street Bridge over Soda Creek. Those logs threatened to cause worse flooding.

Road supervisor Paul Draper said his crews built a temporary foot bridge so Elaine Gay could get across Green Creek to her Pleasant Valley Ranch. Draper said the crews made a couple of attempts last week to stabilize Routt County Road 18C, where Gay typically crosses Green Creek, but it rose too high during the evening to allow the fix to work.

Gay, who is in her mid-80s, spent one night by herself in her home. Although the creek never flooded her home, the Yampa had knocked out her telephone service.

"That was unacceptable," Draper said. "Something had to be done."

County crews brought in two 35-foot long wooden beams left from the old Tree Haus Bridge. They used the timbers to span the creek so Gay could be helped across the water.

Soda Creek, Green Creek and the Yampa weren't the only waterways giving property owners fits.

John McRoy, owner of Saddle Mountain Ranch, said he moved four pairs of quarter horse mares and colts to high ground to escape the flooding Elk River on Sunday. McRoy took action when the east fork of the Elk River sent water into his horse barn. He moved his animals to a neighbor's place.

"There was 2 to 3 inches of water in the barn, which is no big deal, but we didn't want to lose any colts. They're still pretty small to be fighting the water," McRoy said.

McRoy's property is straddled by the main or east fork of the Elk, and the smaller west fork. The east fork flooded County Road 44 near its intersection with U.S. 40 west of Steamboat, McRoy said, and that's when things began to get interesting.

"When the water comes over the county road it begins to flood my corrals and barns," McRoy said. Culverts under the road aren't sufficient to handle the load as the water rises.

"You'd have to have humongous pipes," McRoy said. "The only thing we can do is open the driveways."

McRoy used his backhoe to cut ditches to protect his home, then cut a gap in his driveway. That allowed the water to escape and flow toward the west fork.

"The water (level) came within 2 to 3 inches of coming into our home," McRoy said. "We stayed up all night. You're afraid to go to sleep."

Up to 15 homeowners along the lower Elk River near Saddle Mountain called 911 over the weekend to report rising floodwaters. Vale said the low-lying pastures near the junction of U.S. Highway 40 and Country Road 44 typically flood every three years or so.

Water was thundering over Fish Creek Falls during the weekend. Bob Stoddard of Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District said Fish Creek was at 750 cfs on Monday afternoon, but peaked at 1,000 cfs Saturday and Sunday.

At 1,000 cfs, the water flowing by the filtration plant on Fish Creek in a 48-hour span is sufficient to meet the municipal needs of Steamboat Springs for a year, Stoddard said.

Vale said the main source of flooding along the Yampa in city limits has proven to be the Walton Creek Basin, which drains a significant portion of the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass. When Walton Creek begins to taper off, the Yampa is sure to follow. Flows coming from Stagecoach Reservoir show runoff from the distant Flat Tops is not driving runoff in the Yampa, Vale said.

McRoy hopes he has seen the worst of the runoff of 2003.

"We're prepared for it now, but I actually think it's over," McRoy said. "I'll be disappointed if it comes back up."

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