Taking the ‘roar’ out of the Fork
The peak runoff on the Roaring Fork River is expected to happen earlier and be much lower than average this year, a federal agency that makes streamflow forecasts reported this week.
The Roaring Fork’s flow at Glenwood Springs is expected to peak around 4,100 cubic feet per second, The National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center concluded in its April report. The average peak is 6,150 cfs.
The report indicated there is only about a 10 percent chance the peak will meet or exceed the average.
The warm, dry weather in March will rob the river of some of its spring thunder.
“Month after month after month it’s gotten worse,” said Tom Pagano, a Portland, Ore.-based water-supply forecaster for the federal government.
Pagano said lower-than-average peak flows are anticipated throughout the West, with a few pockets bucking the trend. Continued warm weather will really eat into the snowpack and spread the runoff rather than concentrate it.
“It would really take a big chunk out of what might happen,” Pagano said.
The long odds against average peak flow aren’t demoralizing river runners. Jim Ingram, owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting, said predicting peak runoff is difficult. In 2005, for example, a bleak scenario had been unfolding, but the rafting season turned out to be superb.
There was a double peak that year, according to Ingram. The runoff started early because of warm weather, then came to an abrupt halt in late May and early June because of cold weather that kept the upper snowpack intact. Warm weather melted the rest of the snow starting in mid-June and allowed Ingram’s company to keep running the upper Roaring Fork River, and the famous Slaughterhouse-area rapids, until July.
Last year, the snowpack was higher than in 2005, but rapid melting didn’t allow running the Slaughterhouse section into July, Ingram said.
Rich Zeltor, a manager for Blazing Adventures, said low snowpack is useful for making water storage projections and plans for irrigation, but it’s the way that the snowpack melts that has a big effect on the rafting industry.
“Recreationally it’s going to be a hit-or-miss thing,” he said of the coming season on the Roaring Fork River. Zeltor is in Guatemala preparing to return to the Roaring Fork Valley for his 21st year as a rafting guide.
Blazing Adventures and has a Plan B in case rafting on the Fork fizzles: “We have permits everywhere,” Zeltor said. That includes the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, as well as the Arkansas and Gunnison rivers.
The Colorado River’s flows are somewhat protected because of superior water rights the Shoshone power plant holds. That gives rafting companies security that they will be able to provide customers with a quality experience regardless of runoff conditions.
Ted Guy, an avid kayaker from Basalt, best summed up the attitude of river runners:
“You boat when you can and float when you can’t,” Guy said, “and take whatever nature gives ya. It’s usually different from what they forecast.
“I guess the lesson to be learned is, if you get the opportunity take advantage of it because it might not be there the following week,” he said.
The stakes of low runoff go beyond the effects on the rafting and kayaking seasons. River ecosystems need the flushing effect a strong runoff provides, said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit dedicated to monitoring the Roaring Fork watershed and educating people about issues.
“The less of a flush we get, the less of a cleansing we get,” Lofaro said.
Average and above-average runoff flushes sediments and algae from the rivers and also replenishes the adjacent wetlands and riparian areas, he said.
When the snowpack isn’t as high as average and it melts quicker because of warm temperatures, trout may pay the price later in the summer, Lofaro said. It is harder for fish to absorb oxygen from the water when there are low flows and high temperatures, he said. The stress in those conditions can kill them, particularly when they struggle with catch-and-release anglers.
“I don’t want to pull a Chicken Little and tell everyone the sky is falling,” Lofaro said.
On the other hand, people need to be aware that low runoff has implications beyond whitewater and when the water clears up enough to start fishing, he said.
River runners and conservationists agree that the best thing that could happen this spring is for low temperatures to stop the rapid depletion of the snowpack for a few more weeks, then let the mercury rise and send the high country’s bounty down to the rivers.
The Roaring Fork’s “normal” peak is between June 3 and 18. Last year it came May 23. It is almost certain to occur earlier than the normal period again this year, Pagano said.
The National Weather Service will release the next peak flow forecast May 1.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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