Pitkin County sheriff can close river if flows threaten, monitoring situation
As the massive Colorado snowpack melts and swells rivers with icy, fast-moving water, Roaring Fork Valley authorities are monitoring the situation and can legally shut down river recreation if they believe public safety is threatened.
“It’s no different than a road,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. “I don’t have a feeling yet (on whether a closure will occur) because the melting has barely even started yet.”
Law enforcement authorities in other parts of the state have shut down portions of the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, the Gunnison and the Slate rivers because of dangerous flows and debris.
And the high waters have already taken a toll. A Texas man died Monday while rafting the Arkansas in Fremont County, and another man died last week on the Eagle River near Avon.
While warmer temperatures appear to be hastening the snowmelt in the southern part of the state, temperatures in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley have been more moderate and the rivers less full and dangerous.
On Friday morning, the Roaring Fork River near Stillwater Bridge east of Aspen was running at 700 cubic feet per second, said April Long, stormwater manager for the city of Aspen. The high water mark for the past five years was about 1,600 cfs, she said, while areas along the river like the North Star Nature Preserve begin to flood at about 1,200 cfs.
DiSalvo and Long both attributed the moderate flows to the cool spring, though Long cautioned that a few days of warm weather or a serious afternoon thunderstorm could cause rivers to rise quickly.
DiSalvo said the Sheriff’s Office has closed a section of the Roaring Fork River only once. That occurred in 2002 on the stretch of river behind the 7-11 in Basalt, when flows became too dangerous for boaters and anglers, he said. State statute allows law enforcement to shut down sections of river deemed dangerous.
“We’re talking daily to people who know water behavior,” DiSalvo said Friday. “It’s definitely on our radar.”
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario also is keeping tabs on area rivers, including the Roaring Fork and the Colorado, though he said Friday he’s not particularly concerned yet.
“We’re keeping an eye out,” he said. “(The Colorado) is actually looking pretty good right now.”
Vallario said he couldn’t remember ever shutting down a section of river because of high water.
While law enforcement is not yet worried about safety on rivers in the Aspen area, they did caution people to be careful around the high water, runoff conditions. Extremely cold water can quickly cause hypothermia, and fast moving water can cause people to fall in.
DiSalvo particularly cautioned people thinking about jumping into the Punchbowl area up on Independence Pass. The popular spot is extremely dangerous during high water and has been the cause of one fatality in recent years, he said.
“Don’t go fooling with the Punchbowl,” DiSalvo said. “It’s not worth it.”
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