Yampa River has peaked in Steamboat, still time to ‘get your paddle on’
It's time for whitewater enthusiasts in Steamboat Springs to get their "paddle on."
Even though the river where it flows through downtown has already peaked for the season, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, is projecting the final push of the spring runoff will continue into the first few days of June.
The river, which was flowing at below 1,000 cfs the morning of May 24, had already jumped to 1,250 cfs by midday May 25 and is projected to go even higher June 1 to 3 when it will be flowing above 1,550 cfs just in time for the 37th annual Yampa River Festival.
However, hydrologists at the Forecast Center report the river won't climb as high as it did shortly after 2 a.m. May 14, when the flow peaked at 2,030 cfs for the season. That compares to a peak flow of 3,880 cfs on June 9, 2016.
Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver, suggested Thursday the below-average peak flow in the Yampa correlates with mountain snowpack that peaked atypically early.
"Across the entire Yampa, White and North Platte, snowpack peak was just about a month earlier than normal," Wetlaufer said. "There were slight resurgences, but it never reached that peak again."
Typically, Wetlaufer said, snowpack — a term that refers to the amount of water accumulated in the settled snow — peaks in this region on about April 10. This year, snowpack in the mountains peaked March 12.
To put the peak flow for 2017 in perspective, the Yampa's seasonal high in Steamboat has reached more than 3,000 cfs seven of the past 10 years. The highest flow in a decade was recorded June 7, 2011, when flows of 5,200 flooded hotel parking lots on the south side of town.
The lowest peak in the last 10 years was the 1,570 cfs recorded April 27, 2012. A recent runoff season that more closely resembles 2017 was that of 2007, when the river peaked at 2,520 cfs.
The highest flow ever measured on the Yampa in Steamboat was the 5,550 cfs recorded in 1984.
The Yampa at Deerlodge Park in Moffat County, just above Dinosaur National Monument, was flowing in 4,350 cfs late this week with a boost from the Little Snake River, which drains the northern portion of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Areas, and was flowing at 1,350 cfs.
The Green River, just before it flows out of Utah and into Moffat County, was flowing at 7,100 cfs, as Flaming Gorge Dam operators counteracted high inflows generated by unusually heavy snow in Northwest Wyoming this winter.
The early May snowfall, along with the unseasonably cold temperatures experienced in the upper Yampa River Basin, are helping to feed the river's resurgence.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that the 8 inches of snow water equivalent — water stored in the remaining 18 inches of snow — on the West Summit of Rabbit Ears Pass May 25 was just 58 percent of median, but that has grown from just 34 percent of median on May 17.
Those figures are even more significant above 10,000 feet on Buffalo Pass where the snow is still 90 inches deep, and the 44.8 inches of water there is 93 percent of median for the date.
Wetlaufer said the benefit of a late surge in snowmelt could be amplified if it also comes with rainfall on the valley floor. That would boost soil moisture, he said, which in turn would satisfy the demands of vegetation and allow more of the snowmelt to make its way into the streams and river.
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