Yampa River likely peaked after rainstorm

Rain late last week might mean it’s all downhill from here

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— The Yampa River, pushed by 0.71 inches of rain overnight Thursday, jumped to 1,570 cubic feet per second at 7:30 a.m. Friday where it flows beneath the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat Springs. And with the benefit of hindsight, that may turn out to have been the river’s peak for spring runoff 2012.

However, with high-elevation snowpack hanging on in the Park Mountains, water officials aren’t quite ready to commit.

“I think (Friday’s high flow) was a combination of warm temperatures leading in and the precipitation at the end of the week,” said Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. “There’s still some snow at high elevations, and we could still have another peak. Whether it would be a higher peak or a lower peak, it’s hard to tell.”

The river had been on the way down since Friday night and was flowing at 797 cfs at 5 p.m. Monday. And the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City expects the river to remain at fairly consistent flows through May 9.

The river could rebound to just more than 1,000 cfs at midweek, then slip to 750 cfs May 8 to 9, based on the latest projections. Ashley Nielson, a hydrologist with the agency, said April 23 that based on historical data the Yampa River where it passed through Steamboat had a 90 percent chance of peaking at 1,200 cfs, and a 75 percent chance of peaking above 1,400 cfs. Thanks to last week’s rainstorm, the Yampa has beaten that 75 percent proposition.

However, it might be a lot to expect it to rally to 1,800 cfs this season. Nielson rated that peak flow a 50-50 chance a week ago.

The historic average peak flow for the Yampa is 3,070 cfs at the Fifth Street Bridge.

Mage Skordahl, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lakewood, said it’s not likely the Yampa will reach a higher peak this year, but wouldn’t rule it out.

Skordahl’s agency doesn’t look at peak flows in individual rivers. Instead, the NRCS is interested in the total volume of water expected to flow past the various stream measuring gauges in Colorado over the entire course of spring runoff.

That number on the Yampa at Fifth Street is typically about 100,000 acre feet during the four months from April to July, Skordahl said.

The river here already has seen 36 percent of that total flow in the first 25 percent of the timeframe, she said.

“Based on that, it has probably peaked,” Skordahl said. “But there is still some snow at high elevations and you could see another peak if the weather turns very warm.”

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