Steamboat Springs Soon after entering full runoff stage, the Yampa and Elk rivers likely are approaching their peak flows for the season.
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City was projecting Tuesday that the Elk River just above its confluence with the Yampa River west of Steamboat Springs could reach about 3,600 cubic feet per second Wednesday night.
“That could easily be the peak on the Elk,” Forecast Center hydrologist Ashley Nielson said Tuesday.
The average peak for the Elk River is 3,865 cfs, she added.
As recently as Sunday, both rivers were flowing below the median for the date. But the Elk and the Yampa have surged since as afternoon temperatures have risen into the 70s. The Yampa was flowing at 1,200 cfs on May 12 compared with the median flow of 1,400 cfs, then floated all the way to 1,890 cfs Tuesday afternoon. Nielson expects the Yampa’s peak still is about a week away. That’s the case even though the National Weather Service expects daily high temperatures in Steamboat to continue in the high 70s through Friday.
Despite the mild air temperature, experts caution that the rivers are dangerously cold for people who aren’t equipped with whitewater paddling gear.
Barry Smith, of Mountain Sports Kayak School, urged the public and in particular tubing enthusiasts to be wary of the Yampa’s dangerously frigid water.
“I saw two girls in bikinis yesterday. They had their tubes, and they were headed to the river,” Smith said. “It’s so cold.”
A dunking in the Yampa right now for people not wearing dry suits could lead to hypothermia or worse.
Veteran paddler and river rafter Kent Vertrees said Tuesday that the local kayak armada already has sensed that now is the time to surf the biggest waves of the season at the play holes on Steamboat’s town stretch of the Yampa.
“If you want to get it, everything’s going off right now from Charlie’s Hole to Cross Mountain on the Yampa upstream from Dinosaur National Monument,” Vertrees said.
The Elk was nearly bank full Tuesday morning but still well below flood stage and flowing at 3,080 cfs. Based on weather predictions, the Forecast Center foresees the Elk gradually declining in flows to 2,000 cfs by May 22 before staging a modest rally that shouldn’t be enough to return it to this week’s levels.
The Yampa, propped up by rain showers this week, could peak on or around May 23 or 24 between 2,200 and 2,300 cfs, the Forecast Center predicts.
“There’s a chance it could return to those levels (a little later in the month). With some rain in the forecast, it could bump up. It doesn’t take that much rain for that to happen while we’re in full runoff,” Nielson said.
The average peak flow for the Yampa is 3,070 cfs, but the Elk and the Yampa have seen large swings the past few years.
The Elk peaked at 2,280 cfs on April 27, 2012, after peaking at 8,590 cfs on June 7, 2011. The Yampa also peaked April 27 last year at 1,570 cfs. In 2011, the Yampa peaked at 5,200 cfs on June 7. You can review historic peaks for the Yampa at Steamboat here and for the Elk here.
Vertrees, who is a member of the board of Friends of the Yampa, said he’s confident river levels still will be enjoyable for the Yampa River Festival, which has been moved back a week this year to June 1 and 2.
“With the Yampa being a wild river, we get what we get,” Vertrees said. “We’ll have great water levels. It won’t be huge like 2011, when we were worried about rafts in the raft race getting under the bridges. It will be a great, comfortable flow.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com