GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Whitewater enthusiasts are gearing up for what’s so far looking to be a good season on area rivers, while emergency officials are urging proper precautions for river users as the waterways swell with the seasonal melt of the high country snowpack.
“The water is big right now,” said Geoff Olson, co-owner at Blue Sky Adventures river outfitters in Glenwood Springs. “The rivers have been flowing about three times the normal rate for this time of year, and we’re expecting a good season all summer long.”
The high water levels mean rafting companies can run stretches of the Roaring Fork River that typically are too low for commercial rafting later in the season, Olson said.
It also means some good, early season whitewater activity along the stretch of the Colorado River from Grizzly Creek in Glenwood Canyon through No Name, which features some class 3 rapids this time of year, he said.
As of Friday afternoon, the Colorado River at Dotsero east of Glenwood Canyon was flowing at just over 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) with a gage depth of about 11.5 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey streamflow data website, at www.waterdata.usgs.gov.
The Colorado River at that location has been rising steadily over the last week, from less than 10,000 cfs and a depth of about 8.5 feet on May 23.
Likewise, the Colorado River below the confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Glenwood Springs was running at 21,200 cfs Friday afternoon, up from around 12,000 cfs at this time last week. The depth in the wider downstream river channel is pushing 10 feet.
The Roaring Fork River itself was running at more than 5,300 cfs just above the confluence in Glenwood Springs on Friday, while the stream depth was pushing 6 feet. That was up from about 2,500 cfs and a depth of 4.5 feet a week ago.
As river enthusiasts flock to the water, the Glenwood Springs Fire Department is urging caution and reminding people to use a life vest, or “personal flotation device” as swift water rescuers refer to them.
“With the increasing numbers of people using our rivers and neighboring lakes, there is also an increased risk of personal injury and death,” according to a statement Friday from the fire department. “While some accidents are unavoidable, many can be prevented by a few simple precautions.”
That includes knowing one’s limitations and learning how to swim, and what to do if tossed from a raft or other vessel and caught in the rapidly moving water.
“This is going to be a high water season, and if you don’t have the right equipment, knowledge or skills, wait until the water levels drop,” the fire department urged. “If you are unsure of your skills, book a trip with one of the many local commercial companies to take you down the river.”
So far this spring, a combination of warm days followed by a few cloudy days over the past week has kept the snowpack from melting too rapidly, as it did during the record runoff year in 2011 when late-season snows in May kept adding to the snowpack.
“It was a little too big that year and got to be kind of stressful for us,” Olson said. “We’re definitely keeping an eye on that, and are aware when to run certain stretches of river and when not to.”
In late June 2011, the Colorado River below the Roaring Fork peaked at close to 30,000 cfs, resulting in flooding near Rifle and creating low clearance for rafters trying to pass beneath some bridges in the area.
Recent warm days interspersed with clouds and rain has meant the snowmelt is proceeding at a pretty steady pace, said Aldis Strautins, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
“It has slowed slightly with the cloud cover the last two days, but it’s staying warm,” he said. “Once you have a series of warms days and the snowpack goes into melt phase, it’s hard to slow it down.”
Temperatures are expected to creep back above normal again next week, which will speed the melting, Strautins said.
And, there’s still a lot of snow in the high country, said Mage Hultstrand, snow surveyor for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver.
As it stands, the snowpack in the Colorado River Basin is more than 200 percent of normal for this time of year, boosted by late-season storms over the last two weeks, she said.
As of Friday, just 54 percent of the basin snowpack had melted.
“So, we’re only about halfway done,” Hultstrand said. “In a normal year, we usually have about 77 percent of the snowpack melted by this time. It’s definitely melting pretty fast out there now.”
The big difference between this year and 2011, however, is that more late-season snowstorms three years ago added to the snowpack. That resulted in a much later peak snowpack than usual, which extended the peak runoff into late June.