Wet spring aids Eagle County streamflows
May 22, 2013
EAGLE COUNTY — Looking at Gore Creek or the Eagle River recently, it's easy to think it's probably been a couple of years since those streams have carried as much water as they do right now. If you've thought that, you're right.
It's been since the spring of 2011 since there's been this much water in local streams, thanks in large part to a snowy, wet and cool April and May. That's good news. Here's some even better news: Barring a sudden, extended warm-up, local flood danger remains low.
"We're actually in pretty great shape right now," Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller said.
That said, a week of warm daytime temperatures can quickly push stream levels into dangerous territory.
For instance, the snow measurement site on Vail Mountain measured 13.5 inches of "snow water equivalent" May 13. After a week of warm weather — remember how last week was so nice? — there were 5.5 inches at the site Monday.
That, in part, is why crews from the Vail Public Works Department spent some time last week filling sandbags. Bags are also available to Vail homeowners in low-lying areas.
While warm weather can boost streamflows by quickly melting snow, wet weather can send measurements up, too.
For instance, a day of snow and rain Saturday caused a temporary spike in the streamflow measurements at the stations along Gore Creek in Vail and on the Eagle River at Avon — both of which are at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District wastewater treatment plants.
For right now, though, both those stations measured Sunday streamflows at just about their historic averages right now. The Vail station reported 310 cubic feet per second Sunday — right at the historic average for that date. The Eagle River station in Avon reported 1,490 cubic feet per second May 19, higher than the historic average of 1,120 cubic feet per second for that date. Those numbers are significantly higher than streamflows for the same date last year. The difference is that the flows last year were about as good as it got.
Diane Johnson, of the water and sanitation district, said last year's peak runoff came May 23 at both the Vail and Avon measurement sites. Last year's peak flow in Vail was 259 cubic feet per second. That's much, much lower than the historic average peak of 783 cubic feet per second, which, on average, comes on June 5.
The story is similar at the Avon measurement point. There, the average peak runoff comes on June 4, and the average measurement is 2,070 cubic feet per second. Last year, the peak flow was just 917 cubic feet per second.
Worse, streamflows dropped quickly after last year's peak, thanks to both drought conditions and unseasonably warm weather.
Since the valley mostly depends on streamflow — which, ultimately, means relying on snowpack — last spring created some tense times for the valley's water-service providers, as well as landscapers and homeowners.
Still, last year's drought may have helped re-shape the attitudes of some residents.
"We suspect a lot of people haven't turned on their (sprinkler) systems yet," Johnson said. "And I'm not seeing much watering when it's raining."
That's a good thing, because the state remains in a drought.
Federal drought monitors report the entire state remains in a drought, from the "D1," or moderate, conditions in Eagle County to "D4," or "exceptional," drought conditions seen in the southeastern part of the state.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District has even adopted a slogan as a reminder — "Without a doubt, it's a still a drought."
Speaking from his office, Dave Kanzer, the river district's senior water resources engineer, said last year's drought left water deficits everywhere from ground moisture to reservoir storage. With even average winter and summer precipitation, those deficits will take time to erase, he said.
So far, the biggest beneficiaries of the wet spring have been Grand, Summit and, to a lesser extent, Eagle counties, Kanzer said.
But even with just "moderate" drought conditions, the valley's water supplies are looking good, or at least much better than they did last year.
"It's looking like a normal year, with normal (watering) regulations right now," Johnson said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.