Vail Valley streamflows should be above average for the coming season
Runoff season is starting slowly due to cool, wet May weather
By the numbers:
127: Forecast percent of average streamflow this year on the upper Colorado River.
128: Percentage of average snowpack on the Colorado River headwaters.
37: Percentage of normal Gore Creek streamflow as of May 22.
56: Percentage of normal Eagle River streamflow at Avon as of May 22.
Sources: U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.
EAGLE COUNTY — What a difference a year makes.
Warm weather and scant snowfall in 2018 put local streamflows at near-record lows by mid summer. Streamflows this year are also running well below average, but for a very different reason — cool weather is holding back a lot of snowmelt.
At the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s May 20 State of the River gathering, participants heard a presentation from Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Wetlaufer talked about state and regional snowpack and provided some streamflow forecasts. The news was good on both topics.
Good news statewide
It isn’t just the Eagle River drainage that’s had a good snow year. Across Colorado, the average “snow water equivalent” in the snowpack stands at 186 percent of the 30-year median. After the drought of 2018, that’s fantastic news.
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According to Wetlaufer, Southern Colorado — the part of the state that most needed a big snow year — was the area where the snowpack is greatest. The snowpack in the San Juan, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins — closest to the Four Corners area — stood at 294 percent of the median on May 20.
Wetlaufer said that runoff so far has added about 200,000 acre feet of water to one of the state’s biggest reservoirs, Blue Mesa, near Gunnison. At the end of 2018, that reservoir was at its lowest level since 1984.
River lovers rejoice
All the good news across the state is good news to local fishing guides and raft companies.
Sage Outdoor Adventures has a permit to raft Gore Creek through Vail. That didn’t happen last year. Cole Bangert of Sage said in an average year, the company can run raft trips through Vail for three or four weeks per season, mostly in June.
Bangert said he expects a longer season this year, due both to abundant snow and a slow melt so far.
“We’d be stoked to be floating Gore Creek on the Fourth of July,” Bangert said. In 2011, the company did just that, stopping in the middle of Vail Village to watch the annual Vail America Days parade.
Bangert said the company has taken out a number of rafting customers despite the weather. In fact, the company started rafting operations May 7 and has taken customers just about every day since.
“There’s a misconception that when it’s raining or snowing the rafting will suck,” Bangert said. “It’s actually the opposite.”
The start of the high water season is good news for rafters and bad news for fishing guides.
This year’s slow runoff so far has been good for local fishing companies. Dave Budniakiewicz, the general manager of Minturn Anglers noted that the May 23 streamflow on the Eagle River at Avon was 600 cubic feet per second. That isn’t much for the last week of May.
“The fishing is great right now,” Budniakiewicz said. “We’ve had trips almost every day. Those that are willing to go out in the snow and rain are handsomely rewarded with a very good day.”
Besides fast-moving water, runoff season also clouds streams with sediment, making it harder for fish to see potential food sources.
This year, Budniakiewicz said there will be a few days of fast, murky water, which then clears when the temperatures cool.
At the moment, people can fish the Eagle River all the way to Gypsum, Budniakiewicz said, adding that the river’s running clean and clear down to Wolcott.
The weather will eventually warm. Runoff will start in earnest and the river will flow fast and muddy. Rafters will rejoice and guides will find clear water outside the river corridors.
But Budniakiewicz is just happy to have water, and the prospect that this year’s streams will behave as they usually do.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.