Saturday, August 17, 2019

Snowpack high but so far streamflow below normal

Conditions could lead to flooding

by Mark Reaman

The local snowpack in the high country is abnormally high for this time of the year and, while that is having a good impact on the local drought situation, it could ultimately lead to dangerous flooding scenarios.

According to Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) general manager Frank Kugel, the Snotel (Snow Telemetry) measurement for Schofield Park is showing a snow-water equivalent to three and a half times normal for early June. “There is 41.2 inches of water with a snow depth of 79 inches,” Kugel said early this week.

A year ago on May 30, 2018 Kugel said there was no snow reported at the Schofield Snotel site. That six and a half feet of snow there now could be dangerous if there is a sudden warm-up that melts it quickly.

As a result of such readings in the high country, the skiing may still be great but the future could be dodgy.

“Up until the last few days, snowpack was basically three times normal, while streamflows were less than half the normal for the date,” he explained. “The longer the delay in runoff, the greater the risk there is for flooding. According to [longtime rancher] John Rozman, he has never seen a year like this where in June the snowpack was so high while the streamflow was below normal.”

Add to that the concern that heavy avalanches might have deposited debris in local streams that could ultimately block and clog rivers, and flooding becomes an even greater concern.

Crested Butte chief marshal Mike Reily said the town is aware of the potential danger from the remaining snowpack. “Deputies regularly check the creek to make note of its level, changes in turbidity and for any obstructions,” he said. “This is in addition to the monitoring done by public works. Public works is ready to respond if we discover any obstructions. And depending on how the creek flows we are prepared to place sandbags.”

Reily said the town is keeping an eye on the water in Coal Creek and hopes it stays in the channel within its banks. He said, looking at the weather forecast, “I’m a terrible meteorologist and not much of a betting man but I believe the historical peak is around June 10 for Crested Butte and the prediction is for cooler temps to continue, which might push the peak runoff out a bit.”

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center predicts the peak on the East River at Almont will occur between June 8 and June 14.

Data indicates that river flows have increased significantly the last seven days as the weather has warmed up. In fact, Kugel said, the projected high flows on the Gunnison River “have caused us to postpone the Saturday portion of the Gunnison River Festival [at the Gunnison Whitewater Park] until August 24.” Other events associated with the festival have since been postponed to August 24 as well (see page 36 for details).

The good news is that the local reservoirs will look a lot different from last summer. Kugel said both Blue Mesa and the Taylor Park Reservoirs are expected to completely fill this summer. He said Taylor Park may fill to the brim in early July, about a month from now. As for Blue Mesa, it should reach its high point later in July, filling at the end of the month.

The main reservoirs down river are also benefitting. “Lake Powell storage has increased from 37 percent capacity in mid-April to 43 percent currently and is projected to reach 54 percent later this summer. Lake Mead was at 37 percent capacity last December, is currently 40 percent and is projected to decrease in storage in the near term,” Kugel explained. “There is no expected release from Blue Mesa solely to boost reservoir levels downstream.”

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