Peaks in the valleys: For local rivers, it’s all downhill from here on out
You can’t fool Mother Nature, but she can sure fool you. Despite earlier reports by some water experts that local rivers might have hit their peak on May 21, the rivers rose again last week, hitting their true peak on June 1.
The Roaring Fork River peaked June 1 at 6 a.m., maxing out at 2,480 cubic feet per second, or cfs, in Glenwood Springs. The Fork didn’t roar much this year: U.S. Geological Survey records show that in an average year its flow tops out at about 5,500 cfs, making much noise, and doesn’t hit that peak until mid-June.
Many water experts are drawing comparisons to the drought of 1977, when the Roaring Fork River peaked at around 2,400 cfs.
That year “is kind of a benchmark year for water resource planning and management,” said Michael Erion of Resource Engineering, in Glenwood Springs, adding that 2002 “may become a new benchmark year for water supply planning.”
“The peak doesn’t necessarily tell the story, it depends on other factors. Really what is telling is what volume is in the river. So far, in May we were running a little higher than in ’77,” Erion said.
But other indications point to the drought being worse than 1977, he said.
“We won’t know for a couple of weeks,” he said.
This is the third year in a row for low spring runoff, but those who fear an extended drought might take heart in past records. In 1954-56, the Roaring Fork had three unusually low spring runoffs, but in 1957, the river peaked at its highest level on record, reaching about 19,000 cfs as it ran through Glenwood Springs. Records for the Colorado River weren’t kept that far back, so it’s unknown how high it crested that year.
That somewhat extended drought of the 1950s is often looked at by water planners when they are looking at how much reservoir storage is needed in a certain area, Erion said.
Records for the Colorado River are available back to 1967, and since those records have been kept, this year’s peak is the lowest ever. In 1977, the lowest water year on record prior to this year, the Colorado peaked at 4,330 cfs. This spring, however, the peak was even lower, topping out at just 4,320 cfs on the morning of June 1.
The highest peak on the Colorado River below Glenwood Springs since 1967 was in the spring of 1984 when it topped 30,000 cfs. The river’s average peak is around 12,000 cfs.
The Crystal River has just one year of records kept by the USGS, but it also clearly is low this year, as well. The Crystal peaked shortly after midnight on June 1, hitting a high of 1,600 cfs.
While river levels are important to fishermen, rafters, town governments and many others, the exact peak in terms of cubic feet per second is particularly important to those involved in the Predict the Peak contest. Run by Resource Engineering this year, the contest requires entrants to pick the peak of the Colorado River just downstream from the confluence of the Roaring Fork River.
Erion won the contest with a guess of 4,310 cfs – just 10 cfs below the actual peak. He is the first consulting engineer to win the contest since 1994. Employees with Whitewater Rafting and the Colorado River Water Conservation District have won often over the years.
One past winner, David Kanzer, of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, came in second this year with a guess of 4,150 cfs. Paul Bussone, also of Resource Engineering, came in third, guessing 4,085 cfs.
“I have to go down to the (river district) and get the trophy from Don Meyer,” Erion said of last year’s winner.
Besides earning bragging rights, Erion will have his name inscribed on the Predict the Peak traveling trophy. Proceeds from the entry fee are split up between the Glenwood Springs River Commission and a charity of Erion’s choice. Erion hasn’t yet decided which charity that will be, but he said it will have to do with animals.
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