Colorado’s ‘May miracle’ produces memorable, if not record, runoff
RED CLIFF, Colo. – It was called the May miracle in Colorado. After a ho-hum winter, it looked certain that the creeks and rivers would deliver a runoff that walked, not ran, that murmured instead of shouted.
In March, the weather became so hot that something happened in the Gore Range that usually doesn’t occur until June. The couloirs on the Grand Traverse, the 13,000-foot ridge overlooking Vail, became so saturated with melted snow that they slid to the ground. It’s called a called a climax slide, and it rarely happens before June.
“It was the most crazy thing I’ve ever seen,” said Darryl Bangert, who has been studying snow and river runoff in the Vail area since 1976.
Then, in mid-May, it started snowing—again and again. And when it didn’t snow it rained, continuing into June.
Last week, that snow and rain was evident as Colorado’s rivers became as crowded as a Chinese train station on a holiday. The rivers thrashed, they gnashed, they splashed in a hurry to get out of the mountains. There have been longer runoffs and higher runoffs, but it was impressive nonetheless.
Taking note of 11 snow-monitoring sites that he tracks, Chris Landry, from the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies, reported that the rivers were more boisterous than the snowpack statistics would suggest. The water in the snow was short of the median for 1981-2010.
“Snowmelt runoff behavior has been (arguably much) more intense than these data would suggest,” he wrote carefully in a posting on his website.
South of Vail, that unruly runoff was evident on June 17 in Homestake Creek. In a quarter mile before it flows into the Eagle River, the creek has an incline comparable to that of a green or beginner ski slope. The water was pounding, droplets flying high into the air. A misstep on the boulders adjoining the water would have meant almost instant death.
In the nearby town of Red Cliff, a long-time resident was asked whether the Eagle River had peaked yet. “Just a minute,” he said, “I have a rock that I can see from my house that I use for measuring the height of the river.” Returning a few minutes later, he observed that the water on the rock was indeed the highest it has been this year.
That was probably peak runoff for the Eagle River, a full 10 days later than the locally acknowledged long-term average for peak runoff. In recent years, the trend has been to earlier runoff.
Bangert, an owner of Sage Outdoor Adventures, said there were much bigger runoffs and longer runoffs, such as those of the early 1980s=. But this was stood out because it was pushed by big rainstorms.
Several people have drowned in rivers and creeks, mostly the result of kayaking, rafting, or inner-tube accidents.
The most unusual drowning occurred near Silverton, in the San Juan Mountains. The victim, who was 19, had moved to Durango to be with his dad. They were walking up a snowfield and the victim slipped and fell into a creek that was running below them, disappearing under the snow. The family dog jumped in behind him, San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad told the Silverton Standard & the Miner.
The creek re-emerged from the snow 240 feet farther downstream, but the man’s body did not for three hours. The dog did later, but it was alive.
Beyond the individual tragedies, the big runoff in Colorado has implications up and down the Colorado River. Instead of 3 million acre-feet, Lake Powell will likely get 6.2 to 6.4 million acre-feet, said Eric Kuhn, general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
That allows the upper-basin states —Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – to release more water from Powell to flow downstream to Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. This additional water in Lake Mead should help water-strapped California.
Now the big question mark is what the El Niño will produce. The last one was in 1997-98, and that is the last good water year for the entire Colorado River Basin.