Roaring Fork River flows will double this week; river runners should prep for high water
Swift-water rescue teams from Roaring Fork Valley fire departments responded to two incidents Monday — and now things are about to get really interesting.
The Twin Lakes Canal Co. will end diversions to the East Slope and increase releases into the Roaring Fork River starting tonight. About 625 cubic feet per second that is typically diverted to Twin Lakes at this time of year will be released into the Roaring Fork River.
“They’re going to ramp up slowly so we don’t get it all at once,” said Pitkin County emergency manager Valerie MacDonald.
The increased releases will begin tonight from Lost Man Reservoir and a dam on the Roaring Fork River. On Wednesday, water will be released from Grizzly Reservoir into Lincoln Creek, which feeds the Roaring Fork.
“It will take a day to get it all out there,” Bruce Hughes, general manager of Twin Lakes Canal Co., said about the release of 625 cfs into the river.
That means the water level will be considerably higher by Thursday. The end of the diversion coincides with runoff hitting a peak after several days of warm temperatures. The Roaring Fork River was flowing at 441 cfs Monday morning near Aspen. The end of diversions will boost it above 1,000 cfs through town.
Farther downvalley, after the confluences of the Fryingpan and Crystal rivers, the flows will be much higher.
The high flow isn’t raising concerns about flooding as much as for safety of river runners and people playing in and near the water.
The swift-water rescue teams of the Carbondale and Basalt fire departments responded to Aspen Glen on Monday at about noon when nine people got stuck on an island after their raft was snagged.
Aspen Fire Department’s swift-water rescue team was paged Monday afternoon to assist a man stranded on a rock in the Roaring Fork River about 10 miles east of Aspen. He was rescued by friends and refused medical attention.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said river runners must be aware of conditions and how it will drastically change. He said the department already has responded to five incidents this spring. He estimated 10 incidents are normal for the spring and summer.
“Unless you’re very experienced you shouldn’t be in the river right now,” Thompson said. “Commercial companies have experienced guides. Private parties need to be experienced” or wait until water levels recede.
Basalt rescuers have responded to one incident at the new whitewater park and are aware of another self-rescue. Pitkin County placed two features in the river in the stretch across from the Elk Run subdivision.
The swift-water rescue team was training there when a boater got stuck in the hole. The team tossed him a line and got him out. He might have gotten out himself, Thompson said, but other watercraft have gotten stuck there and flipped.
“People are getting Maytagged there,” Thompson said.
Veteran river runner Royal Laybourn of Missouri Heights said the features at the Basalt Whitewater Park have changed the characteristics of that stretch of the river in high water.
“Previously this section was rated class II, suitable for novice boaters,” Laybourn said. “At this week’s flows, experienced class III and IV boaters in a variety of craft are being trapped and flipped.”
At lower flows, the design will be fine, he said. But there’s a problem at flows at the current level and higher because there is no alternate route around the features, he said. There should be a “sneak” route created on the left bank after the water goes down, according to Laybourn.
For now, signs should be posted at popular put-ins alerting boaters to the danger, he said.
“Boaters may decide to run this section of the river based on previous experience,” Laybourn said. “The new waves at high flows are currently significantly raising the difficulty rating to ‘experts only.’”
MacDonald said people also will have to “use extreme care” at popular spots on the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen such as the Punchbowl and Grottos.
“The rivers are high and fast,” MacDonald said. “Watch your kids and your dogs. Rocks are slippery, banks are unstable, the water is freezing — it’s definitely not a good time for a swim.”
This is the third year in a row that Twin Lakes Canal Co. must stop diversions at high runoff. Hughes said they have been “wet” years so there hasn’t been as great of capacity to divert water.
“We’re starting with a fuller bucket,” he said.
Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott said there’s plenty of room in the Roaring Fork River before it reaches flood stage, so he’s confident there won’t be flooding this year.
“I believe it has the capacity to handle it,” he said.
Just in case, the department is taking precautions. Basalt officers are checking water flows at night and checking bridge supports to make sure trees and other debris aren’t snagged and affecting flow. The town also placed sandbags where the new Basalt river park is being created east of the Rocky Mountain Institute building.
A multi-jurisdictional mud-and-flood incident management team coordinated by Pitkin County has been meeting since early May to discuss potential flooding issues. Minor flooding is anticipated at North Star Nature Preserve, which is typical.
The increases on the upper Roaring Fork River creates more of a concern for safety, Knott said.
“It just increases the danger,” he said.
Knott and Thompson stressed that anyone entering the water should wear a personal floatation device and scout the river ahead of them for obstacles and holes and such. People should avoid standing on the riverbank. What has been stable in the past could be treacherous in high water.
One bit of good fortune is the timing of releases from Ruedi Reservoir into lower Fryingpan River. The releases were dialed back from 625 cfs to about 230 cfs by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Knott and Thompson said in case of flooding, first responders would focus on protecting public infrastructure and saving lives. It will be up to property owners to safeguard their property.
“I think people have gotten that — plan to take care of yourselves,” Thompson said.
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