Vail Valley streamflows still uncertain; guides stress safety on local rivers
May 17, 2017
• In a boat? Wear a life jacket.
• New to rafting? Start on easy stretches of stream.
• Need advice? Guides are usually happy to give it.
• Fishing? Just 6 inches of fast-moving water can knock down a human.
EAGLE COUNTY — This time of year is when the valley's recreational focus turns from slopes to streams. And like our weather this year so far, local streams are behaving in unusual ways.
Streamflows have risen quickly this season, thanks to warm weather, and may be close to seasonal peaks, depending on where you are.
As of Monday, the Colorado River between the Pumphouse campground and State Bridge was running at 2,200 cubic feet per second, the lower range of "runnable," according to americanwhitewater.org.
Several miles downstream, the Colorado River between the Hanging Lake exit off Interstate 70 and the Shoshone Power Plant was running at 5,070 cubic feet per second.
Both of those streamflow readings were declines from the previous day's reading.
Monday flows on the Eagle River had also declined from the previous day's reading, with the stretch between Edwards and Eagle running at 1,560 cubic feet per second, the lower range of runnable for rafts.
Those streamflows should decline even more this week, given the weather forecast. According to the National Weather Service's forecast for Avon, daytime temperatures were forecast to drop into the mid-40s from Wednesday through Friday. Those lower temperatures are expected to be accompanied by a solid chance of rain or snow.
The good news from the temperature drop is that snowpack will linger on the hillsides a bit longer.
The better news is that delayed runoff also lessens the chance of flooding.
Eagle County Emergency Management Director Barry Smith said at the moment, there's no real flood danger in the county.
Smith said he watches overnight low temperatures from Leadville as a kind of guide to whether high-elevation snowpack is about to start melting in earnest. If overnight lows in the higher elevation stay below freezing — 32 degrees — then the snowpack will mostly stay in place.
So far, those overnight lows have stayed cold.
Even with an average snow year — or below-average in some locations — Smith said flooding worries can still arise with a warm spring.
"I never worry about the amount (of snowpack), but how quick it comes off," Smith said.
While rivers haven't run big so far this season, Peter Gordon, a guide and manager with Timberline Tours, said he's still expecting a good season. It's early, at least as far as summer tourism is concerned, but Gordon said flows through Glenwood Canyon are high at the moment, but "super manageable" for guided tours.
And, while school is still in session in most Colorado schools, Gordon said Timberline has already run several river trips.
Commercial rafting companies with paying customers tend to play it safe, but that's not always the case with individuals.
There's already been a swift-water rescue this season. That came Saturday, when a raft carrying four people got hung up in the middle of the Eagle River at Edwards. No one was hurt, but three of the four people on the raft weren't wearing life jackets.
Gordon, a native of New Zealand who spends his summer guiding river trips here, said he tends to see more private boaters in this country. And, he said, too many of those private boaters will float into trouble.
Floating toward trouble
Gordon said a commercial guide can make even a tricky stretch of river look easy to navigate. That can lure inexperienced boaters into trouble.
"You need to start on easy stuff and work your way up," Gordon said.
Gordon recommends http://www.mountainbuzz.com as a great resource for advice. He also said local guides are usually happy to offer advice about local rivers.
"Of all the outdoor activities, I believe rafting has the most risk," Gordon said. "The river is so dynamic. It's always changing."
While wade fishing doesn't pack the hazards that can come with rafting, as little as 6 inches of fast-running water can sweep the feet out from beneath a human. It's wise to be cautious.
Like rafting, Minturn Anglers general manager Dave Budniakiewicz said inexperienced anglers can quickly find themselves in trouble.
"Safety is the No. 1 thing for us," Budniakiewicz said, adding that outfitters are always ready to recommend safe options when the rivers are running high and fast.
Budniakiewicz said the fishing has been good this season in a lot of places.
"The smaller creeks are still fishing well," Budniakiewicz said, adding that salmon flies are starting to hatch on the upper Colorado River.
The Eagle River is running pretty clear, especially upstream from Red Cliff, Budniakiewicz said.
But even in seemingly calm waters, Budniakiewicz said anglers need to watch themselves.
"Respect for the river is No. 1," he said. "It's a lot more powerful than you know, and you never know how deep (a stream) is when it's silty." If you're unfamiliar with a stretch of stream, he said, "Just ask."
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.