Authorities sound alarm on potential for flooding

Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey watches rafters on the Colorado River at the Blue Heron Boat Ramp. Depending on the weather, officials are concerned about the potential for high water from now through early June in the area.

A slow-to-melt snowpack that is the largest in more than a decade and strong odds that the Colorado River will overrun its banks have Mesa County officials preparing to fend off rising water levels and warning novice river runners to stay off the water.

A report issued Wednesday by the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center elevated the chances that the river will flood at Cameo in De Beque Canyon to 90 percent and predicted a 50 percent chance that the river will hit a peak flow of 37,000 cubic feet per second. That would fall just below the 1984 historic peak flow of 38,000 cfs.

“We haven’t seen potential water like this in many years,” county Emergency Manager Andy Martsolf said during a news conference along the banks of the fast-moving river at the Blue Heron boat launch.

Martsolf and Sheriff Stan Hilkey said primary areas of concern for flooding include Plateau Valley communities, Rosevale and Dike roads west of downtown Grand Junction and portions of Interstate 70.

A series of late spring storms added to an already historic snowpack, while cooler-than-normal temperatures this month have delayed runoff and kept much of the snow locked in place. Ideally, weather-watchers say, temperatures would gradually rise, permitting the snow to slowly but steadily melt into streams, creeks and rivers.

The snowpack statewide was 135 percent of average on May 1, the highest since 1995. The snowpack in the Colorado River basin climbed to 151 percent of average, the highest since 1993, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Officials who expect the river to peak in mid-June are busy monitoring water levels and coordinating with public works departments to plan for high water. Martsolf said the county has 12,000 sandbags in stock and that another 10,000 are on the way. Officials and students at the Collbran Job Corps Center are filling 1,000 of those bags. Barricades are in place in case authorities need to close roads.

Palisade Public Works Department employees this week connected a berm in Riverside Park between the Colorado River and the town’s sewer lagoons to try to prevent water from rushing through the park and surcharging a Grand Valley Irrigation Co. canal.

Authorities said citizens who live in low-lying areas near Plateau Creek or the Colorado and Gunnison rivers should begin protecting their property and preparing in the event they need to evacuate. Planning is particularly critical for horse owners due to the outbreak of equine herpes, which will discourage horses from being grouped together.

With temperatures climbing and Memorial Day weekend approaching, Hilkey said the river should be the domain only of experienced and prepared river users who have personal flotation devices and multi-chamber rafts. Blow-up inner-tubes, like those he spotted for sale recently at a local drugstore, shouldn’t be taken on the river.

“This is not the time to be on the river if you’re an inexperienced river user,” he said.

While officials are paying close attention to what’s happening in the lower elevations, the sheriff also advised outdoor enthusiasts to be careful heading up into the high country. Due to high snow levels, many backcountry roads may still be impassable and vehicles can become stuck, he said.


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