For river rats, a rare twin peak
PITKIN COUNTY – At least all the cold weather in late May and early June was good for something.
Rafters, kayakers and other river runners are reaping the benefits of a “double peak” now that soaring temperatures and lots of rain have swollen rivers and streams again.
The majority of the snowpack melted early this year, causing the Roaring Fork River and the rivers and streams that feed it to reach peak flows in the third week of May. Then the cold weather that made sun-starved valley residents shiver and shake their heads in disgust preserved the remainder of the snowpack. Water levels climbed late last week along with temperatures and precipitation amounts – creating a boon for the rafting industry.
“It’s great. Most years with the runoff, it goes down and that’s it,” said Ben Levy, a guide with Blazing Adventures, a rafting company in Aspen/Snowmass.
This year the flows went up “super quick” in the spring, Levy said. “We were afraid the season would be over” on the Roaring Fork River.
But wait, there was more to come. Like the economy, the melting of the snowpack hit a recession during the cold snap.
“We got some colder temperatures that shut down the snowpack,” said Tom Perkins, a forecast hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The initial melting of the snowpack by the third week of May saturated the ground, he said. That “set the stage” for when the temperatures warmed again recently and high amounts of rain fell in parts of the mountains.
“All the rain we got fell on soil that was saturated and it didn’t have anywhere to go,” Perkins said.
As a result, the Roaring Fork River’s flow nearly matched May’s peak over the weekend and into Monday. Flow measurements by the U.S. Geological Survey show the Roaring Fork River near Emma reached a peak flow of about 3,800 cubic feet per second on May 19 and 21, then dropped to about 1,500 cfs by June 14. It climbed steadily until it topped 3,000 cfs again starting June 26.
Ruedi Reservoir filled last week so the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was “bypassing” the runoff from the Upper Fryingpan river, according to spokeswoman Kara Lamb. The release from Ruedi dam increased by increments of 50 cfs between early Saturday afternoon until it reached 681 cfs by late Sunday.
“We may have seen the peak of the snowmelt inflow to Ruedi Reservoir over the weekend,” Lamb wrote in an e-mail Monday. “[Sunday], inflow to the reservoir began to slow down. As a result, we were able to begin reducing our releases to the Fryingpan.” Flows were expected to decrease to 510 cfs by late Monday.
Gully-washer rain storms also contributed to the climbing river flows. Perkins said some areas of the high country around Aspen have received 200 percent of average precipitation during June. Levy noted that it has even snowed at higher elevations as recently as 11 days ago.
The high flows are also evident in the upper Roaring Fork River, to the delight of adventurous river runners. The flow would typically be 1,100 cfs just below the confluence with Maroon Creek. It has hit 1,500 cfs in recent days.
Levy said many rafting customers notice the conditions and get excited about the higher flows. The recent water conditions have forced Blazing Adventures to more carefully screen customers again, weeding out young children for example. “Slaughterhouse definitely packs a punch at this level,” said Levy, referring to a challenging area downstream from Aspen.
River runners are enjoying the double peak while its lasts. Levy said it is obvious that the flows have plateaued. Perkins said most of the snowpack has melted, so that will cause a drop in river flows in the next few days.
“I’m sure it’s going to drop like a rock,” he said.
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