River watchers overflowing with elation

by greg massE
Post Independent Staff

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The largest snowpack in years has Western Slope water managers cheering the heavy spring runoff.

“Certainly it’s been wonderful,” Colorado River Water Conservation District spokesman Chris Treese said. “It’s not what we expected or planned for. This spring has really turned around in ways we can’t plan for in the future.”

Treese called this spring’s runoff “truly made-to-order.”

Cooler weather and bountiful precipitation during the spring preserved snowpack in the high mountains and lessened the need to use reservoir water.

“Everyone’s doing what they can to store water,” Treese said.

Amazingly, after Ruedi Reservoir was drawn down to its lowest levels ever in 2002, predictions show that the water storage facility on the Fryingpan River will nearly fill this year.

And Dillon Reservoir on the Blue River in Summit County, which was close to empty after the 2002 water season, is projected to completely fill, Treese said.

Even with all the good water news, there is still the danger that the rains could stop and the reservoirs could be drawn down again, Treese said. Last year the state’s reservoirs were mostly full in the spring, he said, but hot, dry weather emptied them quickly. If the rains cease, the same situation could occur this year.

He also told the grim tale of what happened to Utah’s promising snowpack this spring.

“In Utah, they had a near-average snow year, but while we were getting wet weather, they had a dry, hot wind that sucked 60 percent of their snowpack into the air,” he said.

All that winter snow disappeared in little more than a week.

Fortunately, Colorado is largely past that point, even if the weather gets dry, hot and windy, but Treese said the river district always has to be on guard for such weather anomalies.

“We’ve always got to look at the worst-case scenario and hope otherwise,” he said.

Flows well above 2002 peaks

The Colorado, Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers are high now and are expected to peak in the second or third week in June, Treese said.

This spring’s river flows are already well above last year’s high-water marks on the Colorado, Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers.

Last year, the Roaring Fork River peaked on June 1 at 6 a.m., maxing out at 2,480 cubic feet per second, or cfs, in Glenwood Springs.

Cubic feet per second is a measure of water moving past a fixed point. One cubic foot holds 7.5 gallons, and in a day’s time, a flow of 1 cfs would fill a football field with 20 inches of water.

U.S. Geological Survey records show that in an average year, the Roaring Fork River’s flow tops out at about 5,500 cfs. The river was already up to 4,540 cfs on Tuesday.

Records for the Colorado River below Glenwood Springs downstream of the Roaring Fork confluence are available back to 1967. Last year’s peak was the lowest in that period, topping out at just 4,320 cfs on the morning of June 1. But this year the river has already more than doubled that peak. It hit 11,300 cfs on Tuesday and it is expected to keep rising. The river’s average peak is around 12,000 cfs.

The highest peak on the Colorado River below Glenwood Springs since 1967 was in June 1984, when it topped 30,000 cfs.

The Crystal River also has already beaten last year’s meager peak. The Crystal, which peaked at 1,600 cfs in 2002, has already reached as high as 2,750 cfs this year, hitting that mark on Tuesday.

The news is good, but flows still fall short of average.

According to the National Weather Service Colorado Basin River Forecast Center May report, the Fryingpan River is predicted to put out 115,000 acre feet of water during runoff, or 82 percent of average. The Roaring Fork River is expected to yield 550,000 acre feet of water, or 77 percent of average.

Contact Greg Masse: 945-8515, ext. 511

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