Elkhead Reservoir expected to top spillway again this year similar to 2011 | SteamboatToday.com

Elkhead Reservoir expected to top spillway again this year similar to 2011

Streambank erosion expected in lower Elkhead Creek

Reservoir managers predict Elkhead Reservoir will overtop its spillway on Tuesday, May 2, with water exiting the spillway and outflow at a combined rate of about 2,100 cubic feet per second, similar to the peak in 2011. Shown here is an aerial photo from June 14, 2011.
Colorado River Water Conservation District/Courtesy photo

Last year, Elkhead Reservoir operators carefully managed the reservoir that straddles the Routt and Moffat countyline due to low water issues, but this year reservoir managers are facing challenges due to high water from abundant snowmelt in the Yampa Valley.

Managers predict Elkhead Reservoir will top its spillway in mid-May with water exiting the spillway and outflow at a combined rate of about 2,000 cubic feet per second, or cfs, or about the same level of peak water as in wet 2011, said Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs.

“The current outflow is about 550 cfs with valves 100% open,” Meyer said. “When (the reservoir is) full, the release will be 590 cfs. When spilling, we will likely keep the outlet discharge at 590 cfs, and the rest will go over the spillway.”

Meyer, who has managed Elkhead Reservoir releases since 2007, said high water flows in 2011 recorded 1,800 cfs on May 8 and more than 2,000 cfs on May 16, May 24 and June 4. He expects 2023 spillage will follow a similar path.

Increased streambank erosion along lower Elkhead Creek is expected, but no buildings are threatened, Meyer said.

Downstream landowner Erin Rhoden along Elkhead Creek said the level of water in the creek on Monday, April 24, was robust compared to the previous two years, and landowners along the creek will likely experience some difficulties managing their livestock. Several of the landowners have property and livestock on both sides of the creek.

Rhoden, who has lived next to the creek for three years, may lose some recently installed stock fencing that allows her horses and cows to drink freely from the creek but remain on her property. She said the fencing cannot be removed at this point because she estimates the creek is already about 20 feet wide and 25 feet deep, when in the past two years the creek by her property peaked at about 15 feet wide and 5 feet deep.

Elkhead Reservoir managers are concerned that strong spillage while ice is still on the reservoir might damage the fish net installed in 2016, shown here on Monday, April 24, 2023. The net keeps non-native sports fish such as small mouth bass and pike from flowing out of the reservoir to endanger native fish populations downstream in the Yampa River.
Erin Rhoden/Courtesy photo

Laine O’Neal, who owns Elkhead Creek Ranch below the reservoir with her husband, Tim, said they are hoping the extensive self- and grant-funded streambank erosion work they have completed so far with large rocks and new vegetation plantings will hold against the high water.

Craig Water and Wastewater Director Carl Ray said boaters and recreationalists using Elkhead Reservoir this summer need to pay careful attention for floating logs to avoid damage to boat propellers because this high runoff year will likely bring more debris into the reservoir. When the abundant water joins the Yampa River, higher levels and cooler water will be great for Yampa River users and for native fish, Ray said.

“The big picture is it’s relatively positive with better habitat downstream earlier,” Ray said. “Every year we have to manage for both runoff season when the flows are high in Elkhead Creek and work it out so we fill reservoir completely.”

Ray said the city of Craig, river district and water commissioners with the Colorado Division of Water Resources communicate closely with landowners so the owners can prepare as much as possible.

This year’s abundant snowmelt and runoff also means that the river district will pause the Yampa River Flow Pilot Program, which included water releases from Elkhead Reservoir the past two years in late summer.

An additional concern this year is for the integrity of the fish net installed in September 2016 to keep the non-native sport fish such as small mouth bass and pike from flowing out of Elkhead Reservoir to endanger native fish populations in the Yampa River. Officials are concerned this year’s ice cover on Elkhead may damage the $1.2 million fish net installation, a nearly 600-foot long net that keeps gamefish in the reservoir during high spring runoff.

Ray is still hopeful the reservoir ice will melt off while the water is still below the spillway so the fish net will not be damaged.

Experts say this year’s spring runoff is predicted not to be as gradual as in past years for a variety of reasons ranging from two recent dust-on-snow events to significant temperate spikes that already contributed to flooding in Hayden.

“We count on gentle runoff to make sure there is water in the river later in summer for irrigation purposes or river health, but significant dust events such as the ones we’ve had in April caused the snow to melt much more quickly,” said Lindsay DeFrates, public relations and media specialist for the river district.

The watershed upstream of Elkhead Reservoir drains a 205-square-mile basin, according to the river district that owns or controls water supplies that are available for contract to agricultural, municipal, industrial and other water users.

Elkhead Reservoir managers currently are releasing 550 cubic feet of water per second with the outlet valves fully open to manage the reservoir as well as possible this spring. The spillway, shown here on Monday, April 24, 2023, is expected to be rushing by mid-May.
Erin Rhoden/Courtesy photo

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