The Yampa River pushes its banks west of Steamboat Springs as afternoon thunderclouds build over the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area. Despite recent rain, the Yampa and Elk rivers have peaked, and levels are trending downward, according to the National Weather Service.

Photo by John F. Russell

The Yampa River pushes its banks west of Steamboat Springs as afternoon thunderclouds build over the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area. Despite recent rain, the Yampa and Elk rivers have peaked, and levels are trending downward, according to the National Weather Service.

Rivers trending downward

Snowpack levels much lower than last year, average

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— Recent rain may lead to fluctuating streamflows this week, but the Yampa and Elk rivers already have peaked and are trending downward, according to the National Weather Service.

Jeff Colton, a meteorologist with the weather service in Grand Junction, said both rivers peaked last week, on May 21. The Elk River near Milner rose to 7.4 feet, just above its flood stage, and the Yampa River at Steamboat Springs peaked at 5.7 feet, well below its flood stage, Colton said. The designated flood stage for both rivers is 7 feet.

Although rainfall caused both rivers to surge early this week, they did not rise above last week's peak levels and the overall trend is downward, Colton said. The rivers may behave similarly in coming days; the National Weather Service is forecasting a 20 to 30 percent chance of rain or thunderstorms today, Thursday and Friday.

"There's still some rain in the forecast, so we may see some fluctuations," Colton said.

Steamboat has received 1.82 inches of precipitation this month. The normal amount of precipitation for May is 2.31 inches, Colton said.

At about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Yampa River near Fifth Street in Steamboat Springs was flowing at 2,630 cubic feet per second, compared with a historical mean of 2,240 cfs and median of 2,120 cfs, according to U.S. Geological Survey station readings. The Elk River near Milner was flowing at 3,900 cfs, compared with a historical mean of 2,610 cfs and median of 2,420 cfs.

A flood advisory remains in effect for the Elk River. Colton said that is because the river continues to flow above its "bankfull" stage of 6 feet.

"That will probably be out for a couple more days," Colton said, "and then we'll probably get rid of it."

There is little snowpack left to melt and feed flows in the area, and Colton said he expects local flows to drop dramatically in coming weeks. Colton also noted that June is Steamboat's driest month and typically sees just 1.43 inches of precipitation.

There was no snowpack remaining Tuesday morning at 8,400 feet at Dry Lake, at 8,700 feet on the Elk River or at 8,880 feet on Lynx Pass, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL station readings. The historical snow water equivalent for the three sites on the same date is 4 inches, 2.7 inches and 1.2 inches, respectively.

At 9,400 feet on Rabbit Ears Pass, the snow water equivalent is 4.5 inches, compared with a historical average of 18.1 inches. At 10,500 feet on Buffalo Pass, the snow water equivalent is 35.6 inches, compared with a historical average of 47.1 inches.

Across all sites in the Yampa River and White River basins, the snowpack is just 42 percent of average. Last year, the basin-wide snowpack was 118 percent of average.

Backdoor Sports owner Peter Van De Carr predicted an "unbelievable" year for water sports on the Yampa River this year.

"I think it will be down to : tubing levels by the second or third week of June," he said.

The Yampa River didn't peak until June 4 last year. An earlier peak causes concern that flows will drop very low by late summer, but Van De Carr said it is impossible to predict what the river will do.

"All we do in the river business is hope for the best and prepare for the worst and take whatever the river gods give us," he said.

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