Yampa and Elk rivers experience second surge

Current water flow in the Elk and Yampa rivers is just shy of the year’s peak back in mid-May

Charlie’s Hole near the Bud Werner Memorial Library, reflected high flows of almost 3,000 cubic feet per second on Friday, June 10, 2022.
Spencer Powell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

It’s been about three weeks since the Yampa and Elk rivers peaked, but this week water flow is comparable to those levels. With a hot weekend in the forecast prompting rapid spring runoff, levels may rise even higher.

On Thursday, June 9, the Yampa River at Steamboat Springs United States Geological Survey monitoring site recorded a flow of 2,810 cubic feet per second, just shy of the 2,950 cfs measured on May 18, this year’s current peak.

“There always seems to be two surges,” said Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports. “I love making predictions, but, you know, I’m the last person in the world that’s gonna say, ‘Oh, it has already peaked.'”

Van De Carr said there’s still a chance Steamboat will see a new peak water flow over the weekend, as 80-plus degree temperatures are forecasted until a Pacific storm is expected to bring temperatures back into the 60s in the middle of next week.

On Thursday, the City of Steamboat Springs sent out a news release warning river-goers of the potential dangers of the weekend’s high river flow.

The city warned the Elk River could reach 5,000 cfs Thursday or Friday, June 10, and while it hasn’t reached that mark, the public should still take caution when planning recreation on the roaring waters.

According to the city, minor flooding is occurring at the confluence of the Elk and Yampa rivers.

The Elk River near Milner flowed at 4,270 cfs on Friday, quite a bit less than the robust 5,010 cfs measured on May 19, but still a lot compared to most rivers.

“It’s just this little, bitty river and it just freakin’ rips,” said Van De Carr.

The Elk River is only 34 miles long, six miles of which are Class III rapids.

The City of Steamboat Springs warns that due to high water flow, the Yampa is spilling over in certain areas, and even flooding at the confluence of the Elk and Yampa rivers as of Friday, June 10, 2022.
Spencer Powell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“It’s unbelievable how much water that 30-mile-long river carries,” said Van De Carr.

Van de Carr said the Elk River in particular can be dangerous during high flows because there is a lot of debris that gets swept up.

Both the city and Van De Carr encourage caution when recreating in these rivers, not just because of the water flow, but also because water temperatures are still low.

The Yampa River at Steamboat Springs has been within range of the low 40s and low 50s. According to a hypothermia table provided by the University of Sea Kayaking, dry suits are recommended for water below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Within the 40 to 50 degree Fahrenheit range, people typically lose dexterity in under five minutes, experience exhaustion or unconsciousness in 30 to 60 minutes and would have an expected time of survival of one to three hours.

Van De Carr expects a few more weeks to pass before tubers can safely float the river, especially if wearing only swimming trunks or suits.

The city warns that when the water flow is above 2,400 cfs, several bridges over the Yampa pose low-clearance safety risks, such as the railroad bridge behind the Flour Mill Apartments, the Fifth Street Bridge and the bridges downriver near Steamboat II and the Steamboat Golf Club.

The city asks floaters to wait until water flow drops below 700 cfs, and commercial outfitters won’t rent tubes to the public until the water has calmed to that level.

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