Sheriff warns about Yampa

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County officials stopped short of closing the Yampa River to casual floaters Monday, but that doesn't mean Sheriff John Warner thinks the swollen river is safe.

"People floating the Yampa in anything other than whitewater craft, and without personal flotation devices, are risking their lives," Warner said.

The National Weather Ser-vice in Grand Junction kept a flood warning in effect through today for people living along the Yampa and Elk rivers in Routt and Moffat counties. And a pair of county roads between Steamboat Springs and Milner was damaged by flood waters.

Warner and Routt County Emergency Services Director Chuck Vale conferred Monday and agreed the flows in the Yampa haven't crossed the threshold that warrants an official closure.

The Yampa was flowing at 3,060 cubic feet per second Monday, according to data tracked by the U.S. Geological Service. That compares to the mean for the date of 2,100 cfs and the record of 4,260 cfs.

Warner urged casual floaters who don't have whitewater equipment and skills to stay out of the river.

Members of a four-person canoe party that overturned on the Yampa near Hayden on Saturday were hypothermic when rescuers got to them, the sheriff said.

"Right now, in my opinion, it's not the amount of water flowing that's as dangerous as the temperature," Warner said.

Frigid snowmelt poses an immediate danger to people who aren't wearing wet suits and makes it more difficult to swim to shore.

Barry Smith, who operates Mountain Sports Kayak School, agreed with Warner that paddling the Yampa right now is for experienced whitewater enthusiasts.

"I saw two guys in inner tubes go through the C-Hole," Smith said. "The danger is there's really nowhere to pull out. The eddies are in the willows."

The Elk River, one of the main tributaries of the Yampa, broke records for flow and damaged two county roads west of Steamboat Springs and north of U.S. Highway 40.

The Elk, which flows into the Yampa west of Steamboat Springs, crested at 6,620 cfs Monday morning, establishing a new record for the date. The old maximum streamflow was 5,040 cfs, and the mean for this date is 2,422 cfs. The typical flow for May 23 is 2,400 cfs. By mid-morning, the Elk had threatened to undermine a bridge on County Road 44 and damaged nearby C.R. 42.

County Engineer Lou Gabos said road crews responded promptly to the Roper Bridge (also known as Trull Bridge) west of Steamboat and north of U.S. 40 where C.R. 44 crosses the West Fork of the Elk.

"It needed immediate repair," Gabos said. "It's nothing we can't handle. It has happened before."

Gabos said the damage near the bridge wasn't visible from the road. The current scoured a large "void" or hole next to the abutment. Road crews excavated further, filled the void with rock, covered it with fabric and added road base. The work was completed, and the road was open as of 2 p.m.

Further upstream there was damage to a section of C.R. 42, which closed for repairs at about 11:30 a.m. and will remain closed until the water goes down. Gabos said the section of road is west of Four Mile Bridge.

The road washed out about eight inches deep along a 200-foot stretch, and water continues to wash across it.

"If you drive onto the shoulder, you'll get stuck," Gabos said.

Homeowners on both sides of the washout still have access to their property, and there are no emergency-access issues, Gabos said.

On the main stem of the Yampa, west of Milner, road crews pulled floating tree trunks away from the pilings on the MacGregor Bridge on C.R. 205. The tree trunks and the way in which they deflect the current put added stress on the old bridge, Gabos said. C.R. 205 leads from U.S. 40 to the landfill. The MacGregor Bridge is scheduled for replacement this year.

Smith said the high flows in the Elk produced some thrills for expert kayakers during the weekend.

"We paddled a section we call 'Little Lava' (after a notorious rapid in the Grand Canyon). It's perfect," Smith said. "It was really neat to see it. There were some huge waves. I hadn't seen it like that in a long time. The Elk goes and goes and goes. It can be a deceiving river."

As much fun as the river was during the weekend, Smith would prefer a change in the weather that would slow the snowmelt and prolong the whitewater paddling season.

"Hopefully it will cool off a little bit," Smith said.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a high of 82 degrees today, but even with temperatures moderating to the low 70s Wednesday and Thursday, the heavy snowmelt is expected to continue.

--To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross @steamboatpilot.com

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