Snowmelt to peak this week and will have big impacts

Peak flows expected this week, county closes portion of Gunnison River

By Aimee Eaton

Streams and rivers in the Upper Gunnison River basin are swollen this week as spring snowmelt nears its peak. That can bring both fun and danger.

In the name of safety, the Gunnison County Sheriff’s department closed the Gunnison River Wednesday between Almont and North Bridge at Highway 135 to all water vessels until further notice.

According to a sheriff’s department statement released Wednesday, “This closure of the Gunnison River, between Almont and North Bridge is due to safety concerns, large debris, high water and unpassable bridges. The Gunnison River, below North Bridge is still open to the public, and it is highly recommended only professional water recreational users be navigating the rivers at this time. It is strongly encouraged to wear personal protective equipment, including a life jacket, and to exercise extreme caution.”

The main fork of the Gunnison at the Gunnison gage was reporting 4,420 cubic feet per second on Tuesday. That’s the equivalent of about 33,063 gallons of water flowing down the river every second. The East River at Almont, where it joins the Taylor River to become the Gunnison, was reporting 2,470 cfs on Tuesday.

In contrast, average flows from June through August on the Gunnison are usually between 2,500 and 400 cfs, and the East River runs between 1,300 and 200 cfs in the same time period, according to the United State Geological Survey stream flow database.

Frank Kugel, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, said both the Gunnison and the East are projected to reach their peak flows this week, and while those peaks aren’t going to break any records, they will be above the average.

“The Gunnison usually peaks around 2,500 to 3,000 cfs, so this amount is not that unusual,” said Kugler.

The USGS 100-year-record agrees. Data from the record shows the Gunnison River’s peak flow was higher than 4,420 cfs in about one out of every three years.

To better manage and plan for the upcoming peak flow, Kugler has requested that the United States Bureau of Reclamation—the agency that controls discharge from the Taylor Reservoir—delay its scheduled release increase until after the weekend.

The agency is going to think about it, and noted that a delay in the increase would likely require higher flows the following week; however, these flows would again be well within the historical range.

The higher than average river flows are indicative of the water situation throughout the Upper Valley. The June 2017 Reservoir Forecast and Observations issued by the National Weather Service Colorado Basin River Forecast Center showed May precipitation in the Gunnison Basin as 105 percent of normal, and flows into the Blue Mesa Reservoir were 110 percent of average. Looking ahead toward mid-summer, flows into Blue Mesa are expected to remain higher than average at about 124 percent.

The additional water could spell good things for summer conditions in the backcountry, especially for our local flora.

“Our snowy winter has already had an impact on flowers in the southern end of the valley,” said Michelle Bivens, program director for the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. “Anyone who has been riding or hiking around the Almont Triangle or Hartman’s has seen unusually colorful and prolific displays of Indian paintbrush, scarlet gilia, and phlox. If you haven’t been out that way it’s really is worth the trip down valley to see them. I think it is safe to assume our wet winter had something to do with this bloom. “

According to Bivens, who spoke with long-time bloom cycle observer Ben Pritchett of Colorado Backcountry, the bloom in the upper valley—including areas around town, along the valley floor, sunny southern exposures or on windswept ridges at high elevations—will likely resemble normal years. But this might not be the case in high mountain meadows and bowls where snow has accumulated in deep pockets.

“Unless our weather takes a dramatic turn toward a heat wave, the snow will stick around in patches until late July/early August.” said Bivens. “This could result in greater flower diversity and a longer bloom cycle. Instead of one intense ‘peak bloom’ where all of the flowers are blooming at once, we may see waves of blooming as the snowfields recede. While the peak may be less dramatic, the overall bloom season will be longer, and you could find early bloomers like glacier lilies alongside mid-summer bloomers, like larkspur, due to these receding patches of snow.”

As for the river closure, it is not known when it will reopen. The statement from the county notes that “You may see several other closures at other locations around the rivers. Including the pedestrian walkway under Highway 50, near the Twin Bridges, is closed until conditions are deemed safer.”

Be careful out there.

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