Yampa, Elk rivers roar
Scientists say much of high-altitude snow not yet melted
April 14, 2006
Steamboat Springs — The Yampa and Elk rivers near Steamboat Springs surged with melting snow this week.
The unusual flush of snowmelt boosted streamflows to nearly four times typical levels and launched kayakers into a frenzy of early-season wave surfing.
However, there are indications that the true spring runoff, resulting from 10 feet of snow piled on the Continental Divide, has yet to begin.
Joe Dungan, a hydrography technician with the U.S. Geological Service in Meeker, said area rivers are being fed by snow melting at low and mid-elevations.
“You can see it if you look at Elkhead Creek above Elkhead Reservoir” (between Hayden and Craig), Dungan said. “I’m being told it could peak within three to five days. That’s at mid-level.”
Elkhead Creek peaked at about 1,700 cubic feet per second Thursday night and retreated along its diurnal cycle to just more than 800 cubic feet per second at midday Friday. The daily median streamflow on April 13 and 14 on Elkhead Creek is about 250 cubic feet per second.
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Remote sensing devices maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service show 10 feet of snow remains on the Continental Divide at Buffalo Pass. Although snow depth receded this week, the snow wasn’t melting — the water stored in the snowpack remained steady at about 53 inches.
The stretch of the Yampa River at the Fifth Street bridge peaked Thursday night at 1,800 cubic feet per second and retreated to 1,540 cubic feet per second by late morning. The median daily streamflow for this date is close to 450 cubic feet per second.
Thursday and Friday’s streamflow put the Yampa in the 90th percentile for the date based on 98 years of record.
It was a similar story on the Elk River near its confluence with the Yampa east of Milner. The river leapt to 2,800 cubic feet per second late Thursday night and dropped to 1,550 cubic feet per second at 11 a.m. Friday. The median flow for this date is 600 cubic feet per second.
Despite the heavy flows, the Elk, at a gauge height of 4.43 feet, was well under flood stage of 7 feet.
Dungan said his colleagues have determined that the high-elevation snowpack has become heavy with stored water.
“The moisture is way above normal,” he said.
Snow depth at the Natural Resources Conservation Service site on Buffalo Pass declined from 144.6 inches on April 7 to 131.2 inches Friday. However, snow water equivalent increased slightly to 53.8 inches, a sign that snow settled but didn’t significantly melt or evaporate.