Predicting peak river flow has been quite a challenge this year, according to Roaring Fork Conservancy’s watershed educator Kristen Doyle.
Volume of snow, sunshine and temperature swings are all key components of runoff and with the snowpack still at 16 percent remaining, there is quite a bit left to melt. This year’s snowpack has broken the top 10 on record for how long it has persisted into summer, she said.
Instead of one giant runoff event, Doyle predicted a few peaks this season, which is relatively common for the Roaring Fork watershed. While multiple peak runoffs are not necessarily better or worse than one large event, more often than not it’s a good thing for the health and overall cleaning of the river.
Multiple peaks in runoff with a large flow can prove to be beneficial in the long run, as each peak serves as a “spring cleaning,” washing away sediment and pollutants and clearing up cobble and gravel beds on the river floor.
This, in turn, creates a great environment for macro-invertebrates and fish populations, and bolsters the overall health of the river. In an arid climate such as Colorado, the landscape also benefits from multiple peaks during runoff.
“Our valley is still recovering from the Lake Christine Fire and a large runoff could have produced terrible erosion and lots of sediment into the river system,” Doyle explained. “This spring’s slow melt has actually been a good thing.”
This season, river levels are registering at 40 percent above average, with the Roaring Fork at Glenwood Springs hitting a peak just shy of 8,000 cfs on June 15. Water levels dropped slightly and then rose to around 7,500 cfs on June 21. Another spike in river flows may be on its way following more snow that fell at high elevations overnight on Saturday and warmer temperatures to come this week.
The water year-to-date precipitation for the Roaring Fork River basin is at 125 percent of average, according to Doyle. This spring also has been above average for precipitation and below average for temperature, though weather forecasters are calling for more normal averages in the coming months.
“Having a lot of excess water in the system definitely helps in terms of ecosystems and riparian areas, as well as bolstering reservoir levels statewide,” Doyle said.
According to the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s website, the valley’s watershed contributes 279 billion gallons of water each year to the Colorado River, and while this has been a great year of precipitation, the trend of drying in the West is a long-term process that will be hard to reverse.