Rafters, beware: Rivers running fast, cold

Near-peak flows mean high risk for users

A group of friends that recently graduated from Grand Junction and Fruita Monument high schools launch their rafts and kayaks into the Colorado River on Friday.

Area waterways already charged with spring runoff are expected to rise sharply in coming days and create dangerous conditions for river users as water levels reach their projected annual peaks.

Mesa County officials are warning the public to expect a two-foot surge in water levels on the Colorado River this weekend.  Warm temperatures will contribute to the increase, as will a coordinated release of water from reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin to benefit endangered fish.

Strong currents, cold water and debris dislodged by heavy flows will increase the danger of river travel, and the county is urging people to use caution on or near the river.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department recommended that non-experienced boaters stay off the river, and said canoes, inner tubes and inflatable boats with single-chamber flotation should not be used under current conditions. It also said people always should use life vests on the water and refrain from drug and alcohol use on or near rivers.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to increase patrols along the river this weekend.

Peak flows are expected early next week and should be right around average, said Bryon Lawrence, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. But average peak runoffs still demand plenty of respect from river visitors in western Colorado.

“We always tell people several things this time of year, and one is never underestimate the force of fast-moving water,” Lawrence said.

“And the waters are very cold. I think sometimes people underestimate that, too,” he said.

The snowmelt-swollen Colorado River has a water temperature of about 50 degrees right now, meaning hypothermia can set in fast, Lawrence said.

He said the National Weather Service encourages people to use extra caution along area riverbanks because weak shale banks can crumble and cause people to fall into rivers.

A reminder of runoff-related dangers came on Wednesday near Glenwood Springs as a Glenwood Canyon Resort employee fell into the Colorado River when he and two other employees were trying to cross it in a cable car and the high water touched and tipped the car. They weren’t wearing life jackets. A search for the man was indefinitely suspended on Thursday.

The Colorado River usually peaks between May 29 and June 18, so this year’s peak should arrive around the normal time, Lawrence said.

Officials are predicting the river at Cameo will peak Monday night or Tuesday morning between 17,100 and 18,900 cubic feet per second. Its depth there could reach 10.5 feet.

In years where conditions allow, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other reservoir operators have agreed to joint releases during peak river flows to help flood river shallows upstream of Grand Junction. Those shallows are considered critical spawning habitat for the humpback chub, razorback sucker, bonytail chub and Colorado pikeminnow.

Despite below-average snowpack this year, reservoir storage levels remain good, Lawrence said. Also, a cool spring helped preserve what snowpack there was, and spring storms in the central and northern mountains enhanced it, he said.

Flooding isn’t in the forecast, though. The only area of concern is the Elk River near Steamboat Springs, and even there it’s unlikely to flood, although it may fill the riverbank in places, he said.

Garfield County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Phil Strouse said it’s a good idea for fishermen to wear life jackets along riverbanks under current conditions.

He also encourages people not to be alone on or near the river, and to let others know of plans for river-related activities to help expedite a response in case of a missing-person report.

Carly Stillman, a guide at Blue Sky Adventures in Glenwood Springs, said the U.S. Forest Service prohibits raft companies from floating the rapids just downstream of the Shoshone exit of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon when the Colorado River is flowing above 5,000 cubic feet per second.

Her company puts in a few miles downstream instead. This time of year it also runs trips on the Roaring Fork River, which during lower flows is too low and rocky to run, she said.

Her company rents out inflatable kayaks as well, but she suggests that inexperienced boaters not use them this time of year.

“Right now, because the water is flowing so fast, it’s recommended that you stay on the raft,” she said.

Kayaker Phil Nyland said boaters continue to use the popular whitewater park feature on the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs even during high water. But casual boaters may not be ready for the cold water, he said. He said proper wet or dry suits are important during runoff. It’s also good for boaters to scout rapids and keep an eye on each other for signs of hypothermia, he said.

People who end up in fast-moving water also should be careful when standing up near the shoreline to get out, as they can get legs caught in rocks and rip-rap features, causing an injury, Nyland said.

Recognizing your skill level and being aware and prepared to act decisively when problems arise is crucial, Nyland said.

“I think for the most part people need to have that awareness at all river levels. At high levels there’s even less of a margin for safety if things go wrong,” he said.


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