Elk River has peaked; Yampa refuses to give up

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— Memorial Day Weekend will turn up the late spring heat in Steamboat Springs with temperatures in the high 70s, and area rivers will respond with rebounding flows. However, the Elk River just above the confluence with the Yampa River east of Milner has peaked for the season, and it’s probable the Yampa River has also peaked where it flows beneath the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat.

“The Elk, I think, has definitely peaked,” hydrologist Ashley Nielson said Thursday afternoon. The Yampa at “Steamboat looks to have a better chance to return to last week’s flows. There’s still high-elevation snow around, but probably not enough to get to the levels of last week. I think the flows will stay sustained for the next week or two.”

Nielson works for the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, where she used computer models to generate 10-day forecasts of future streamflows.

The Yampa was flowing at 1,770 cubic feet per second in Steamboat late Thursday afternoon, down from the apparent peak of 2,610 cfs on May 18. The River Forecast Center expects the warm weekend to boost the Yampa just past the 2,500 cfs threshold Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so a new peak is a possibility.

The Elk is another story. It was flowing at 1,479 cfs Thursday afternoon dropping all the way from a peak of 3,580 cfs on June 17. It too should climb above 2,500 cfs during the next three days, but is not expected to come close to exceeding 3,000 cfs.

The National Weather Service expects sunny skies in Steamboat all the way through Sunday with a high of 81 degrees on Friday followed by 78 and 77 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Overnight lows could be in the low 40s. Temperatures above 9,700 feet on the Steamboat Ski Area, where snow is still much in evidence, will reach the lows 60s this weekend, and will remain in the 40s overnight.

Nielson said she cannot look as far into the future as July 4 in Steamboat Springs to venture how much water might be flowing in the Yampa as summer sets in. But she said after last summer’s drought, a period of consistent warmth in June might actually benefit streamflows more than the alternating cycle of mild and cold weather the valley saw through most of May.

The drought of 2012 depleted soil moisture in Northwest Colorado, and Nielson said that measurement is taken into account in her forecast models for streamflow.

“Soil moisture is a factor. It can determine how efficient a runoff you get,” Nielson said. “A warm spell could help saturate the soil increasing the efficiency of runoff.”

So, consistently warm weather over the next couple of weeks could support streamflows in the medium term.

“It will depend on what the weather does for the next four to six weeks,” Nielson said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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