High waters on the Yampa River forced Devon Dalzell and her son Oliver to change their plans to pass through the Island Tunnel on the Yampa River Core Trail on Thursday morning. Several sections of the trail have been closed to flooding.

Photo by John F. Russell

High waters on the Yampa River forced Devon Dalzell and her son Oliver to change their plans to pass through the Island Tunnel on the Yampa River Core Trail on Thursday morning. Several sections of the trail have been closed to flooding.

Floaters warned of tight fit between bridges and Yampa River current

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— The town stretch of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs can be counted on to flow above 4,000 cubic feet per second throughout this weekend’s Yampa River Festival and into next week, and that’s good news for paddlers, with one small catch.

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Several inches of standing water inside the Island Tunnel blocks access to parts of the Yampa River Core Trail for bikers and other pedestrians. The tunnels along the trail often flood as the spring runoff fills the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs.

“The bridges are tight. The scary one is the Iron Horse (railroad) bridge,” kayak instructor Barry Smith said Thursday. “Last night we had some issues, just because someone didn’t know.”

Smith was referring to the fact that the river has risen to the point that there is no room for an upright kayaker to float beneath it. Expert kayakers can roll upside down, wait a few seconds and execute an eskimo roll to right themselves below the bridge. But that’s not an option for an inflatable kayak, let alone a full-size river raft, Smith said.

“For the unsuspecting canoeist or rafter or drift boater, it could be bad,” Smith said.

On Thursday evening, he said, police responded quickly after a report that a kayaker had capsized at the bridge and was separated from his boat. The man was safe, but Smith pursued the boat, paddling for miles downstream before catching up to it on a small island in the midst of private ranch land he has access to along Twentymile Road.

If anything, the spaces between the river current and the bridges of Steamboat Springs are destined to get tighter. The river was flowing at 4,110 cubic feet per second beneath the Fifth Street Bridge early Thursday afternoon. And the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center expects it to rise significantly above 4,400 cfs during peak times of the day Friday through Sunday. Beyond that, the river is tentatively poised to get even higher by June 5, but still remain below the flood level of 7.5 feet.

Natural Weather Service Meteorologist Aldis Strautins — who has issued a flood warning on the Elk River, a downstream tributary of the Yampa — said Thursday’s cloud cover probably helped keep the lid on the Yampa’s flows by shielding high-elevation snow from radiation. However, these clouds, a lingering effect of Hurricane Amanda that is dissipating off the Pacific coast of Mexico, also could bring rain Friday night that would boost the river’s flows, Strautins said.

“The clouds are widespread but the precipitation will be localized,” Strautins said.

Steamboat Springs-based meteorologist Mike Weissbluth concurs that the remnants of the hurricane will accelerate the snowmelt.

“The moisture will keep the nights unseasonably warm, and there will be enough daytime heating in spite of the cloud cover to force afternoon storms through Saturday,” Weissbluth said. “Additionally, weak and hard-to-time waves will enhance storms on Friday, leading to that day being the wettest of the period. The warm rain will accelerate the melting of the upper elevation snowpack leading to further rising of the rivers through the weekend.”

The Elk touched flood stage of 7.5 feet at well above 5,000 cfs overnight Wednesday into Thursday before dropping in its daily cycle to 4,490 by early afternoon.

Strautins explained that the official flood level of 7.5 feet at the gauge just above the Elk’s confluence with the Yampa, was chosen because it is a representative of that stretch of the river. As a practical matter, the actual flood river will vary up and down a river along with the width of the channel, its gradient (steepness) and the structure of the river banks, he said.

“It’s not easy for us trying to come up with one value for an area,” Strautins said. “The Elk River has some lowland flooding most years. Do we want to (issue a flood warning) every year because of that? (Moderate) flooding can be beneficial to ranchers by irrigating the hay meadows.”

As the Yampa River Festival and near peak river flows coincide this weekend, Smith suggests that casual recreational floaters consider staying upstream of the railroad bridge near the Iron Horse. They could put in at River Creek Park near the stoplight on U.S. Highway 40 at Walton Creek Road and float as far downstream as Rotary Park or Fetcher Park, both on floaters’ right. And remember that the current is too swift and cold for safe tubing.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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