Eagle River Watershed Council: The importance of spring runoff | VailDaily.com

Eagle River Watershed Council: The importance of spring runoff

James Dilzell
The Current
Spring runoff is critical for river ecosystems, replenishing groundwater and Colorado’s economy. What is this year’s runoff season going to bring?
Eagle Valley Wild Project/Special to the Daily

Eagle County is in a period of transition. Lifts have stopped spinning, the aspens are budding and my morning coffee is complemented with a variety of songs from returning birds. My personal favorite is the red-winged blackbird.

James Dilzell

But there is another transition taking place as well, preceded by the receding snow lines and succeeded by the spins and flips of kayakers and the whoops and hollers of whitewater rafters. It’s time for our rivers to transition to higher flows through spring runoff, a critical component of the water year for rivers themselves and for all that relies on them.

This process is a part of the water cycle, which is responsible for moving water around our world – from oceans to mountains, mountains to rivers and everything between, in the form of clouds, rain, hail and snow. The Current column in April describes snow as a storage mechanism or reservoir, holding water as frozen matter until temperatures warm in the spring. This cyclical function creates the beautiful cascades of whitewater in our rivers during runoff.

These often-high-volume flows flush out sediment deposited throughout the summer, fall and winter months, when the flows are lower. Sediment, including dirt and silt, decomposing plant matter, sand and gravel fill the spaces between the larger rocks and structures along the riverbed. Those spaces, known as interstitial spaces, are critical for river organisms like the water bugs, or macroinvertebrates, that make up a large portion of the diets of fish. The flushing-out of those spaces is also critical for fish reproduction, as they are used for spawning.

As snowmelt flows over the land and makes its way into carved river channels, the water seeps into the ground. Not only is this important for the health of mountainside vegetation, but when groundwater is recharged, it also acts as a buffer against the effects of drought. Groundwater helps to augment river flows later in the season, as snowpack and precipitation often dwindles.

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Runoff is also an immense economic driver in our local economy. Whether it’s stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, whitewater rafting or more, river sports just wouldn’t be the same without the foaming water and roaring rapids of runoff. In Colorado alone, river-related recreation brings more than $10 billion to the state’s economy, as well as immeasurable smiles on the faces of residents and visitors.

Due to climate change, the season of runoff has become increasingly volatile, changing drastically from one year to the next. The spring of 2018 saw flows peak around 3,000 cubic feet per second and peaked in May at the Gypsum gage as we came out of a low-snow winter. 2019’s runoff season saw incredibly high flows, peaking in July at over 7,000 cfs in Gypsum. Last year, the Eagle River’s peak flow took place June 2, at 7 a.m., with 3,300 cfs measured.

This variability makes it challenging to forecast, far in advance, what the whitewater season will look like. However, challenges like this can be fun to tackle. If you appreciate runoff, are a river enthusiast or want to support Eagle River Watershed Council’s efforts to protect river health, you can participate in the annual Peak Flow Prediction Contest, with tickets live now through April 22.

The contest is a fundraiser for stream rehabilitation and maintenance projects, as well as engaging educational programs. It provides participants the chance to guess the day and time of the Eagle River’s peak at the Gypsum gauging station. The cfs at peak serves as the tiebreaker, and prizes — such as a standup paddle board, fly rod roof rack and cooler — will be awarded to participants with the guesses closest to the actual peak flow.

To participate in the contest, visit erwc.org/peakflow and purchase your ticket(s) before 11:59 pm on April 22. Winners will be notified after the threat of a false peak flow has passed.

James Dilzell is the Education & Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit erwc.org.

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