Mountain News: Swollen Colorado rivers run wild and dangerous 

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY STEVE BOWEN / SHUTTERSTOCK - GO WITH THE FLOW Snowmelt runoff has caused rivers across Colorado to overflow this year.
  • Photo by Steve bowen / Shutterstock
  • GO WITH THE FLOW Snowmelt runoff has caused rivers across Colorado to overflow this year.

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.

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.

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 last Wednesday in Homestake Creek. In a half kilometre 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 June 17, later than the long-term average for peak flows. In recent years, there has been earlier runoff. But the date of peak runoff varies wildly.

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 73 metres farther downstream, but the man's body did not for three hours. The dog did later, and it was alive.

Beyond the individual tragedies, the big runoff in Colorado has implications up and down the Colorado River. Instead of three 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.

Duelling experts debate wisdom of Squaw town

TRUCKEE, Calif. — The argument about whether to create a municipality at the base of the Squaw ski area is now at the stage of duelling experts. Some experts are testifying that incorporation will cost a lot of money, and those paid experts on the other side disagree.

The debate was triggered by the announcement by KSL Capital Partners, owners of the ski area, of plans to sink $50 million in upgrades and greatly expand the bed base. Currently, because there is no town government in place, officials from Placer County would review the development plans. If a town is created, elected and appointed officials would ultimately decide on development.

Citing public records, The Sacramento Bee reports that in a 12-month period ending in April, a political action committee backed by the ski area owners spent about $570,000 in an effort to derail the incorporation bid. Those supporting incorporation have spent $70,000 in the last two years.

A consultant hired by KSL Partners finds that municipal expenses in just the first year of operations would exceed revenues by $1.7 million. But incorporation supporters reject that report as "flawed by incorrect assumptions, mathematical errors and internal inconsistencies."

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