Run and done?

'Boat boaters and weather experts weigh in on early Yampa runoff

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Dan Piano takes advantage of the rolling whitewater of the Yampa River in late March. U.S. Geological Survey measurements for the river show it has been flowing well above its 97-year median daily flow since March 9.

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Local kayaker Adam Mayo plays in the frigid waters of the D-hole in the Yampa River last week. Early runoff has boaters already heading to the water.

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Courtsey Nick Hinds

Steamboat's Nick Hinds plays in a wave above Pourover City on the Cross Mountain Gorge section of the Yampa River, just west of Maybell. During this April 1 run, the Yampa was flowing at nearly 2500 cubic feet per second, more than 1000 cfs higher than the 90-year median daily flow.

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Courtsey Nick Hinds

Steamboat paddler Scott Gerber celebrates his 58th birthday in style - surfing the unseasonably ample waters of the Yampa River above Cross Mountain Gorge's Pillow Rock on April 1.

On the 'Net

Visit www.friendsofthey... for information on the Yampa River Festival.

For more information on the Paddling Life Pro Invitational, visit www.paddlinglife....

McBride recommended visiting the NRCS for updated statewide readings and water supply forecasts at www.co.nrcs.usda.... or the Colorado Water Congress for links to Colorado streamflow measurements at www.cowatercongre...

— Kevin McBride and his hydrologist buddies at the Stormwater Quality Program in Fort Collins used to have a springtime office pool to guess the state rivers' peak runoff days.

Now the district engineer for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is less forthcoming with his predictions.

"It's a total guess. You never know when those warm days will hit," said McBride, who also said he is willing to make an assessment based on data from the area's various streamflow gauges and Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL stations: It's going to be a low-water year and an early peak unless we get hit with significant precipitation.

But the data are hard to ignore.

U.S. Geological Survey measurements for the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs show it has been flowing well above its 97-year median daily flow since March 9.

McBride said last week that a lower-elevation SNOTEL site in the Flat Tops has as low a water content reading as it has had since its 1987 installation. Data from higher-elevation sites, such as the NRCS Tower site on Buffalo Pass, aren't reassuring either - on Monday, the snow water equivalent measurement at the Tower site read at only 64 percent of the 23-year average.

Perhaps the shock of the early runoff is due to early winter predictions. In early December, Klaus Wolter, a respected scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the late-starting El Niño weather phenomenon would mean a drier December and January, but "thumbs-up for late February and March," in terms of above-average precipitation.

But El Niño suddenly died.

"Under the typical El Niño pattern, we get an increased chance of above-average precipitation in the spring," said Joe Ramey, a forecaster for the NOAA's National Weather Service. "But in late February, we started to modify our forecast - the warm Equatorial water off the Peruvian coast went neutral, cooled down below average, and El Niño died quickly : it was unusual how fast it changed, but now we're heading into a drier, La Niña cycle for next winter."

Now, Ramey said, the NWS April outlook is much warmer and drier.

"We're talking about increased chances of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation," Ramey said.

The early March loads of snow that suddenly led to warm temperatures and clear skies only reinforce the Yampa River's telling numbers.

"The snowpack's normal peak, when you have the highest amount of water in the snow, happens in mid-April," said Brian Avery, hydrologist at the NWS Grand Junction office. "We've likely already seen the peak. The snowpack in the Yampa River basin is 70 percent of normal. We were at 115 percent of normal last year."

So, what do all these numbers mean for the area's local boaters?

"Well, from the recreation standpoint, it means you've got to get out and take advantage of it on every sunny day," said Steamboat river runner Kent Vertrees. "But we also need cool days to prolong the runoff."

Boaters such as Chan Zwanzig, who have studied the river from the seat of a kayak for more than 30 seasons, aren't hitting the panic button yet.

"It's still dependent on the overall temperatures, even if the snowpack is down," Zwanzig said. "I think it means 10 days off the back end of the season of boatable levels for quality kayaking. That's my only gauge - last year, it was July 15 for Cross (Mountain Gorge) and the last week of June for the play holes in town. It will be 10 days earlier this year for both."

Zwanzig, like many other avid boaters, already has been making the haul to Cross Mountain Gorge, just west of Maybell, for the past two to three weekends, where the Yampa already has risen to and above what he calls "just a wonderful play level."

Barry Smith, who operates Mountain Sports Kayak School, knows even though it's early, the water runoff is going to start flowing "no matter what." He advised that there's no time like the present to get on the water and get those paddling muscles into shape.

"I went out on the river and surfed last week - it was great to get out, stretching the whole back and shoulders," Smith said. "You need to roll your shoulders, get your muscles loosened up and start feeling balanced in your boat again. Even if you just get out and paddle the easy stuff, it's good to get your balance keyed in before the water gets high."

The big river events will come early in the summer as well. The Paddling Life Pro Invitational, which will be held as a freestyle event only this year, will be May 28, and the 27th annual Yampa River Festival will be held from June 8 to 10.

For the meantime, local boaters willing to swap ends in the frigid waters can take full advantage of the early runoff action.

"The day the mountain closes, people are going to come from all over and other states just for the play features in town," Zwanzig said. "They should be here already."

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