Photo by John F. Russell
The fast-moving waters of Butcherknife Creek already are pushing the river banks, notice the sandbags at the curve of the creek, as it runs through Stehley Park near downtown Steamboat Springs. Officials warn that the water will continue to rise as snow begins to melt off the higher peaks around Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat Springs Routt County Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale stopped short of saying "flood," but he's nonetheless convinced areas of the county will be subjected to "high-water events" this spring.
During a meeting with the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Monday, Vale talked about the increasing likelihood that high water from spring runoff will inconvenience county residents and perhaps damage property. Vale said the protracted cool spring weather and the snowpack still building in the mountains surrounding the Yampa Valley make it almost a given that streams will overflow their banks.
"There are going to be inconvenient high-water events," Vale said. "There could be property damage, but we're not going to see floating houses."
It doesn't help, Vale said, that the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs was flowing several hundred cubic feet per second below the historic norm on Monday afternoon. It's just a sign that the rivers are not funneling melting snow away as fast as they could be at this time of year.
Measurements made by the Natural Resources Conservation Service create a picture of just how much water is contained in snow that has yet to melt.
The west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass still holds 34.6 inches of water in 72 inches of snow, or 120 percent of the average for May 6. Similarly, the Elk River measuring site holds 18.4 inches of water - 155 percent of average.
In contrast, the Tower measurement site near the summit of Buffalo Pass holds just 95 percent of the average snowpack, or 49.6 inches of water.
Vale is concerned about Butcherknife Creek, which flows through Old Town Steamboat. At the foot of Buffalo Pass, the Dry Lake area holds 21.1 inches of water - 140 percent of average. Snow at Dry Lake will feed Soda Creek, but nearby hillsides will feed water into Butcherknife Creek.
As the valley goes deeper into spring, Vale's greatest concern is that a sustained, warm rain would bring the unmelted snow down streams in a rush.
"Should the rain on snowpack get intense, that's a problem," he said. "That's what got us in trouble in '84."
Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs experienced water flowing down streets and inundating residential yards in 1984.
Vale said he has decided not to use the word "flooding" because he feels it conjures up visions of homes swept off their foundations by raging rivers. That is very unlikely to play out in Routt County, he said. However, he added, it's time to make certain residents and property owners understand they must take responsibility for their personal safety as well as that of their property. The first response of local governments, Vale told the commissioners, will be to secure their own infrastructure, including roads, bridges, culverts and ditches.
Residents should make it their own responsibility to determine whether their property is in a floodplain, determine whether they want to purchase flood insurance, and understand what actions they can take in advance to protect their families and property.
"People need to be prepared to help themselves," Vale said.
"The people who think it can't happen to them, those are the people I want to reach."
Vale and administrative assistant Cheryl Dalton have prepared a high water preparedness guide that is available in their first floor office in the Routt County Courthouse Annex on Sixth Street.
The greatest potential for loss of life in a flood, Vale said, arises when motorists underestimate the danger of driving through a flooded road crossing.
"It doesn't take much water to move a car," Commissioner Doug Monger said.
Residents can determine whether they live in a floodplain by visiting the Web page of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, where they can purchase maps of their neighborhoods. Visit www.fema.gov/business/nfip/mscjumppage.shtm.