Kayaker Kyle Hornor plays in the fast-moving waters of the Yampa River on Wednesday evening. The spring melt has brought the river levels up in the past few weeks and also increased the possibility of flooding.

Photo by John F. Russell

Kayaker Kyle Hornor plays in the fast-moving waters of the Yampa River on Wednesday evening. The spring melt has brought the river levels up in the past few weeks and also increased the possibility of flooding.

Runoff season begins for Routt County with rain in forecast

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Be prepared

- Know if you live in a high water-risk area.

- Purchase flood insurance, if desired.

- Prepare personal emergency supply kits for your home, car and work.

- Have a grab-and-go kit ready if you have to leave your home quickly.

- Keep important papers in watertight containers and have a record of your valuables in a safe place to help with insurance claims.

- Choose a relative or close friend out of the area as a contact person for family members and friends.

- If high water is likely in your area, pay attention to the local media for information.

- Watch for warning signs: increase in height and intensity of water flows, mudslides, debris in creeks, color changes in water or leaning trees.

- Know that banks of rivers and streams may be unstable and dangerous.

- Teach your children about high-water safety.

- Consider arrangements for your pets and any livestock.

- Check on elderly or disabled neighbors to ensure they are aware of the situation.

- Prepare an evacuation plan from your home to a safe area.

Source: Routt County office of Emergency Management

— Routt County is on the brink of runoff season, when rivers and creeks rise as the above-average snowfall finds its way down from the mountains and into the Yampa River, said county Emergency Management Director Bob Struble.

As warmer weather systems and spring storms begin to roll into the valley, the threat of flooding remains average for the season - which also means it can surge at any time.

"I'd say right now we're looking at normal runoff. But that can change with a severe weather event," Struble said. "If you got a thunderstorm that rolled in and stayed over a drainage for a long time or put down a lot of water over a half-hour time, you could have some flooding. But if it's a gentle storm, there's no danger."

The National Weather Service forecast calls for rain beginning today and continuing through Tuesday night. Struble's office released a preparedness guide for Routt County residents, including the proper way to build a sandbag levee and an action plan for the county in case of a flood. The guide is posted on the Web at www.co.routt.co.us/emergency.

The severity of local high water depends mostly on weather conditions as snow melts in late May and early June. Routt County Assistant Planning Director Ellen Hoj cited a piece of local lore as an easy way to predict when the water levels will peak.

"The old-timers will tell you to look at the ski mountain and look at Storm Peak, and when you start to see the dirt, that's when the peak (runoff) is. For 15 years, I've basically been watching that, and it's pretty true," she said.

Hoj said there are two brown spots that appear before the others on Storm Peak, and when the two patches of bare earth combine into one large patch, that's the time to be aware of the dangers of the highest water.

'Snow-eating rain'

Snowfall this year has been above normal, and 53 inches of snow remain on Rabbit Ears Pass with a water equivalent of 28.4 inches, according to Snotel monitors.

Even so, Hoj said the erratic weather of the early spring may help prevent a massive runoff event.

"I think it's been a fairly slow melt-off. It gets cold, it gets hot, it gets cold. That's good," she said.

Nevertheless, a news release from the emergency management office warns:

"Routt County could realize the effects of the melt from mid-April through June. However, no one can predict the spring weather, including warm temperatures and precipitation that will determine the rate of flow in the tributaries, creeks and rivers in Routt County. Local and state officials have been monitoring the flows in the Yampa and Elk River drainages and are prepared to respond to the possibilities of high water situations."

In May of 2008, heavy runoff filled the Elk River to record levels that caused flooding in North Routt County's Seedhouse Road area and at the Elk's confluence with the Yampa River, near Routt County Road 44 east of Milner. County officials and emergency crews distributed more than 7,000 sandbags to hold back the rising waters.

Hoj, one of the owners of the Steamboat Yacht Club restaurant, said she remembers a flood in 1996 that had water up to the windows of the restaurant and flowing under the deck outside.

Instances like that are caused by "snow-eating rain," she said, which happens when spring rains hit snowpack.

Should a high-water situation occur, sandbags are available for purchase at Elk River Farm and Feed, Yampa Valley Feeds and MJK Sales and Feed. The county generally does not provide sandbag services.

"It'll come up pretty quickly," Hoj said. "It'll be fine one day and two days later, they'll have to block (parking lots and roads) off."

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