After cool spring, Vail Valley rivers rise sharply; set to peak next week |

After cool spring, Vail Valley rivers rise sharply; set to peak next week

A competitor is nearly obscured by the high runoff on the Eagle River near Red Cliff during the GoPro Mountain Games Steep Creek Championships in June 2019. The benefits of our snowpack extend beyond economic and recreational opportunities it supports.
Chris Dillmann |

EAGLE COUNTY — Each day, Darryl Bangert watches the local rivers rise sharply — and sees more people sign up to take river trips with his company, Sage Outdoor Adventures.

“We’re watching the river go through the roof,” he said. “It’s happening.”

The lower Eagle River is offering “phenomenal” conditions for his professionally guided trips, Bangert said, and Sage is starting up trips on Gore Creek, which is only possible in big-water years.

After a bit of a delay due to a cool, snowy spring, the rivers’ peak is finally near. River runners and water managers are celebrating a great year for spring runoff — especially after a relatively low water year last spring and summer.

At the same time, Bangert, other outfitters and public safety officials are well aware of the dangers that come with sharply rising rivers, and urging caution for private boaters.

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One man died Thursday after a private raft flipped near EagleVail.

Birch Barron, Eagle County’s emergency manager, is keeping a close eye on flooding danger, but recreational river use danger is the bigger concern right now.

“The volume and speed of the rivers combined with debris… make me very concerned that the rafting death that we had (Thursday) afternoon may not be the only tragic outcome from the high water, even if it doesn’t reach flood stage,” Barron said.

Delayed runoff

The flow of the Eagle River below Gypsum has more than tripled in just six days — it was flowing at 1,190 cubic feet per second on June 1; on June 7, it had risen to 3,650 cubic feet per second.

Local rivers are expected to peak in the middle of next week — about a week later than normal. Once they reach their peak, they are expected to remain high through next week and even into the week after that, Barron said.

The annual melting of the snowpack was delayed due to unseasonably cool weather in May. In Grand Junction, this May was the fifth-coldest month since 1893, said Tom Renwick, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

In its daily snow reports, Vail Mountain recorded a solid 271 inches of snow during the ski season, with early March snowstorms packing the biggest punch. The total was well above the previous season’s meager 171 inches, but not close to the 10-year high of 459 inches in 2010-11.

As of Saturday, 7 inches of snowpack still remained at the Vail Mountain measurement station, part of the National Water and Climate Center’s Snow Telemetry Network. It’s only the second time in the last 10 years that the snowpack at that station has lasted this late into the spring. In the big snow year of 2010-11, the snowpack finally disappeared on June 17 at the measuring station.

“We’re monitoring to see how (the snowpack) comes down,” said Aldis Stratins, service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “That’s all weather dependent.”

After a few warm days, a cold front should push temperatures slightly lower than average this weekend and into early next week. Beyond that, Stratins is monitoring potential low pressure systems that could bring lower temperatures and more precipitation and cloud cover, which would slow the runoff.

Major flooding not expected

Eagle County rivers are not expected to reach flood stage — even minor flood stage, over the next week, Barron said.

But warmer than expected temperatures could change that, so Barron and other officials continue to observe the situation. He encouraged people to keep close eyes on their homes and properties as the water rises.

Local governments are offering sand and bags to help residents and business owners safeguard their property. They are available in Vail, Minturn, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum.

Vail town workers are doing daily checks of areas prone to flooding, including Black Gore Creek near The Heather and Gore Creek at the intersection of Bridge Road and Lupine Drive in East Vail; Mill Creek near Mill Creek Circle in Vail Village; and Red Sandstone Creek near the Brooktree Condominiums and Buffehr Creek from Circle Drive to the North Frontage Road in West Vail.

‘Banner water year’ for region

The officials that ensure we have enough water while rivers remain healthy are feeling very good about this year.

“It’s a banner water year,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which advocates for appropriate protection, conservation, use and development of water resources in the Colorado River Basin.

U.S. Drought Monitor maps show the entire state out of drought for the first time in nearly two decades. But Pokrandt noted that the West will need many more banner water years to fill up downstream reservoirs including Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

“We’re out of drought in terms of immediacy,” he said “Are we out of long-term drought? I would not say that.”

While it’s been a good snow year, local water officials are hoping for continued precipitation throughout the summer — as well as responsible water use by local residents and businesses, said Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. District officials will be enforcing outdoor water use rules as the summer progresses.

Meanwhile, Bangert is celebrating a season that promises to be one of the best for rafting in the last decade.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “It’s going to be a long, terrific runoff.”

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