Elk River peak flow expected to be one of the highest in 53 years
Hydrologists with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center are predicting the fourth-highest peak runoff of the Elk River in the 53 years of available U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge data.
“There is strong potential for the Elk River to crest above flood stage,” said Brenda Alcorn, senior hydrologist with the forecast center, a federal agency that is part of the National Weather Service.
The forecast center staff utilizes USGS steam gauge flows, Colorado SNOTEL snow and precipitation data, and satellite imagery to create hydrologic models that forecast runoff.
The only stream gauge on the Elk River is located along County Road 42 west of the Marabou Ranch subdivision and has recorded river flows consistently for 53 years. The water level at the gauge at 11:15 p.m. Thursday showed a peak of 5.5 feet or 2,900 cubic feet per second, or cfs, following significant increases the previous three days.
The high water forecast through the next 10 days at the stream gauge is for 6.85 feet or 4,581 cfs on May 4. The river can fluctuate approximately 1,000 cfs from the warmest to the coolest parts of the day, hydrologists say, and the flood level at the gauge is 7.5 feet or 5,916 cfs.
Overall for the Elk River, the forecast center predicts the end of May for the peak depending on weather conditions, Alcorn said.
Alcorn noted the highest three previous daily average peak levels included 7,000 cfs on June 8, 2011; 6,410 cfs on June 22, 2019; and 6,100 cfs peak on June 9, 2010. The highest recorded one-time data reading at the gauge was 8,590 cfs on June 7, 2011.
The normal time of peak flow for the Elk River is mid-May into the first week of June, Alcorn said. This abundant snow year could indicate a June peak flow; however, a consistently warm May could cause a peak flow in late May. Weather temperatures that vary up and down could delay the peak.
“In a big snow year, sometimes you do get these later peaks because it takes so long to get the snow down,” Alcorn said. “If it warms up and stays really warm, that could make the peak higher. We are expecting warm up starting this weekend and into next week.”
Two of the closest SNOTEL sites help predict Elk River runoff. The Elk River SNOTEL monitor located at 8,739 feet in elevation and situated northeast of Hahn’s Peak Lake currently shows a median of 188% of snow water equivalent compared to the 30-year average from 1991 to 2020. The Lost Dog site at 9,327 feet located off Seedhouse Road on the north fork of the Elk River currently shows 154% of median.
“People need to be talking to their local emergency manager about the possible impacts,” Alcorn said.
Routt County Emergency Operations Director David “Mo” DeMorat said the county is utilizing the most recent seasonal flood plan that was prepared in 2019 to show high hazard areas for possible flooding. DeMorat is not highly concerned about major flooding of homes due from the Elk River, but residents could experience difficulty driving to their homes due to flooding on county roads.
In addition to extensive flooding along Dry Creek in Hayden, flooding occurred this week in portions of the Steamboat Springs along the Yampa River, as well as on County Road 56 from the intersection of County Road 52E to Smith Creek Road.
“My biggest concern, while their house may remain dry, it may be difficult to get to their houses,” DeMorat said.
The spring runoff for areas in Steamboat Springs that can be modeled by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center show predictions of the 28th highest daily peak out of 115 years of records on the Yampa River at the USGS Fifth Street gauge, where the peak water traditionally ranges from May 16 to June 7.
For the Fish Creek gauge downstream of the water treatment plant, the forecast is for the fifth highest flow of the past 46 years, where the peak flow is traditionally May 28 to June 19.
According to SNOTEL data, the overall Yampa White River basin was at 141% of median for snow water equivalent on April 15 this year compared to 89% at the same time in 2022 and 75% in 2021.
Routt County officials provide an online High Water Flooding Preparedness Guide on their Flooding Information webpage.
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