EAGLE COUNTY — Flooding in the Vail Valley is never a sure thing. Still, it’s good to be prepared.
Most of the time, warm days melt the snow and cool nights keep snow from melting too quickly. But the valley can have stretches of very warm days or several days when overnight lows stay above freezing. That accelerates the snowmelt and can cause streams to rise quickly.
Much of the Vail Valley is relatively immune to high water, but there are some low-lying areas to keep in mind. Vail’s Gore Creek can run out of its banks in several areas. A few neighborhoods in Gypsum and Minturn can see water creep perilously close to homes and other structures.
Town of Vail officials have started handing out sandbags to residents this week — and has a handy pile of sand people for people to fill those bags. Stores also sell bags for those who live in other low-lying areas, although sand supplies can be a little tricky.
KEEPING AN EYE OUT
High water can affect more than homes, of course.
“Our main concern as streams rise is keeping an eye on the pipes we have that cross the rivers,” Diane Johnson, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager, wrote in an email. “We have six aerial crossings where sewer mains span the river so large debris in the stream could pose a hazard to those mains if the water gets really high. District staff will check these locations at the end of each day and early each morning when water levels start rising.”
Johnson also wrote that district staff is on call 24 hours a day to answer calls about rising water.
And, while rising water will often show up in the daytime, high water can come just about any time.
“Another thing that makes us nervous is rain,” said Chris Sutton, a battalion chief with the Eagle River Fire Protection District. “The snowpack this time of year is already saturated (with water) anyway right now. A big rainstorm can really get the streams to rise.”
Barry Smith is Eagle County’s emergency preparedness manager. He said he starts to get anxious about stream levels during stretches of warm weather this time of year. And Sutton said the fire district — which serves residents from Tennessee Pass to Wolcott along the Eagle River — has people out every day looking at stream levels, tributaries and culverts that might be clogged.
Smith, of course, is a keen observer of streamflow data, as well as daytime highs and nighttime lows. Most of us aren’t. But, he said, he tends to watch nighttime lows in Leadville when those low temperatures are above freezing for a few nights in a row. That isn’t expected to happen during the next several days.
Still, it’s not a bad idea to be prepared if you live in low-lying areas.
“We’re prepared to deal with (high water) the best we can,” Smith said of local emergency-service agencies. “I just hope people are taking the steps they need to.”
Those steps range from making sure flood insurance is paid up to having access to sandbags. But, Smith said, property owners can also put landscaping in place that could keep water away from homes and structures.
Presumably, residents and property managers in low-lying areas and areas near tributary creeks know water could be on the rise pretty much any time this time of year. The good news, though, is that high water tends to flow quickly, and there are few, if any, places in the valley where floodwaters pool.
The fact that flooding happens quickly leads to another possible danger for people who play on the rivers.
“We really ask people to be aware and be safe on the streams,” Sutton said. “We’ve seen even small rivers and streams can be dangerous.”
That’s why fire departments and Vail Mountain Rescue work on their “swift-water” rescue techniques this time of year. Like just about everything else river-related in the spring, you just never know.