Steamboat Springs Federal hydrologists predicted Monday that Routt County’s raging Yampa and Elk rivers were due to stabilize beginning Tuesday. Soda Creek didn’t get the message.
The creek, which drains portions of Buffalo Pass on the Continental Divide and empties into the Yampa River between Little Toots Park and Bud Werner Memorial Library, was behaving itself as of 3 p.m. Monday, but by 7 p.m. it was acting up.
A crowd gathered in Little Toots Park at 12th Street to watch the creek pour out of a tunnel under Lincoln Avenue and gush over a concrete retaining wall. The result was flooding in the park as well as at the corner of 12th and Yampa streets in front of Orange Peel Bicycle Service.
“I’ve lived here 12 years and I’ve never seen that happen,” Kieran Pidgeon said. “That concrete wall is pretty high, but it’s coming over completely unabated.”
Vehicles passed with arms of passengers hanging out of windows and holding cellphone cameras to record the action while some people couldn’t resist wading in the frigid floodwaters. Most of the overflow was finding its way harmlessly to the Yampa River.
The jolt of extra current in Soda Creek was pushing the wave in the kayak feature known as Charlie’s Hole to new heights.
“The wave is bouncing the bow of my kayak,” Chris Arniss said. “It’s like you’re a rock skipping across the water.”
Upstream on Soda Creek, where the water courses past historic homes, the stream was over its banks in some lawns near the junction of Aspen and Yahmonite streets. The water was not immediately threatening any structures as of late Monday evening.
Two blocks downstream, where the creek blasts through tunnels under Oak and 11th streets in rapid succession, small logs had jammed against the entrance to the 11th Street underpass, threatening to back up the roiling water.
A break in the weather
When the weather cools off abruptly Tuesday, so should the threat that Routt County flooding will get worse this week.
Tuesday’s high temperature in Steamboat Springs is forecast to be 70 degrees, a 12-degree drop from Monday’s high.
Kevin Werner, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Salt Lake City, said Monday that streamflows near Steamboat will stabilize at least temporarily this week. He said that based on a forecast for moderate temperatures the rest of the week, his agency had revised flow projections for the Yampa and Elk rivers.
“This is probably the best we could have hoped for given the snowpack that remains in the mountains,” Werner said. “This is the best way we could be melting the snow — sustained high streamflows but relatively cool weather.”
Werner said he expects the Yampa and Elk rivers to remain at high levels throughout the week, but he doesn’t expect them to jump drastically this week as was previously projected.
Aldus Strautins, a service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said he expected the Elk River to reach a new peak overnight Monday before settling down for the rest of the week. Beyond that, he was less certain.
“I’m not ready to say it’s ‘the’ peak,” Strautins said. “Looking at my snow sites in the mountains, there are still places with 30 inches of snow-water equivalent up there.”
At one point, the Colorado Basin Forecast Center thought that flows in the Elk River could approach 10,000 cubic feet per second near its confluence with the Yampa.
Now, the agency projects a potential spike this morning followed by a modest flow of 5,500 cfs from Thursday through Sunday. The Yampa River at Fifth Street will flirt with 4,500 cfs through June 14 before potentially rising again sometime around June 15.
Residents’ rude awakening
The Elk River still was tormenting some rural residents near the stream’s confluence with the Yampa River west of Steamboat Springs early Monday morning.
Victor Medina awoke at 5 a.m. Monday to find one of the plastic containers he had packed the night before floating across his bedroom at Saddle Mountain Ranch.
“The water didn’t come up until 8 a.m. yesterday, so I stayed here and packed my stuff last night,” Medina said. “I thought I would have plenty of time to get out in the morning.”
The Elk River near Milner was flowing at 6,210 cfs at 4:30 p.m. Monday after peaking at 6,860 cfs at 2:30 a.m.
The five-day forecast shows cold overnight lows and highs in the range of 74 degrees through Friday, when the high is expected to dip back to 70 degrees.
Time to leave
Just after 7 a.m. Monday, Medina was standing by his truck at the entrance of the guest ranch located near the confluence of the Elk and Yampa rivers. He was watching 8 to 10 inches of water flow across the property and through the buildings.
“I was laying on my bed when one of the plastic containers I had packed was floating around the room,” Medina said. “I ran outside in my stocking feet to turn the power off and then I decided it was time to get out of there.”
The ranch began flooding Friday, when several other residents elected to move their stuff out. Medina, who is a caretaker there, decided to stay a few more days to see what was going to happen.
Around Steamboat, the Yampa River was rising close to the bottom of the Fifth Street Bridge as well as the railroad bridge spanning the river at Snake Island behind the Iron Horse Inn. Kayak instructor Barry Smith said he had a man walk into his shop and ask to rent a raft. Smith, who does not rent rafts, said he explained that rafting was dangerous right now because rafts do not fit under some of the local bridges. He urged people not to recreate on the river unless they are experts.
A check of neighborhoods where sandbags have been put in place to ward off the rising waters showed no problems at Fish Creek Mobile Home Park nor at the River Place neighborhood on the city’s south side. The water from the Yampa flowing through the entry drive to the Steamboat Hotel was up slightly Monday, but motorists still were able to navigate it and reach U.S. Highway 40.
On the east side of the highway, Walton Creek had begun flooding wetland areas between Chinook Drive and U.S. 40 on Monday. Much of Rotary Park at U.S. 40 and Mount Werner Road remained under water.
South Routt impacts
Town of Yampa Public Works Superintendent Eric Berry said Monday afternoon that his town doesn’t feel a flood threat at present. However, he said he is keeping close watch on the Bear River where it flows by Yampa’s water treatment plant, and on the Yampa River where it flows by the wastewater treatment plant.
“The water is 18 inches from our wastewater treatment plant, but we have a berm holding the water back,” Berry said. “If the Yampa rises much more we will add dirt to that berm.”
Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Chuck Wisecup said the water level went down during the weekend in Oak Creek.
Photographer John Russell contributed to this story
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com