Of Droughts and Floods
Anyone who has been watching the news lately is aware that sections of Colorado's Front Range have been devastated by floods over the past week. The news footage has been truly astounding, with roads, bridges, and homes washed away.
I had several friends and family members calling to see how we've been making out here along the Colorado River, thinking that perhaps we've been affected as well. Well we are just fine, thank you. Not only have the heaviest of the rains been concentrated on the eastern side of the Rockies, (and we're on the west), but the Colorado River has numerous dams upriver which help control the flow long before its comes our way. In fact, 60% of the water that should be flowing past my backyard ends up being diverted to the Front Range by what are called "trans-basin" diversions, which is engineer-speak for the Front Range stealing our water.
In a drought year, which is what this was until about two months ago, this water pilfery is a bad thing. It results in less water for our fish and for our farms. When things get wet though, suddenly dams are not the enemy after all. During the winter of 2010-2011, we had a year for snowfall that can still bring a smile to one's face just thinking about it. There weren't any huge storms, but it seemed as though every night another 2"-3" inches fell, all winter long. It was a wonderful winter, with epic ass-deep powder all the time. A-Basin was not only open until the 4th of July, the conditions were actually pretty good until then. But then came spring, and the other shoe had to drop in the form of all that snow needing somewhere to go once it melted.
The water managers who manage the dams from Denver Water, Northern Water and the Bureau of Reclamation did a bang-up job that spring using the water management function of the dams to keep folks downstream from getting flooded. In June the water flowing past my house peaked at 12,000 cfs, and was over 10,000 cfs for over two months. At that level, my backyard was a part of the Colorado River for that entire time, but my house still stands.
Conversely, in dry years like the last two, by restricting flows by capturing run-off in May and June, it ensures that come August and September when rivers that don't have storage upstream become a trickle, the Colorado is still running strong.
This year's anticipated late summer trickle never materialized, thanks to a monsoon pattern that started in July and has yet to let up. For the past month, weather forecasters have been saying that the monsoon pattern is about to let up, and drier weather on the way, and for the past month forecasters have been wrong. Even this week, the dry weather was supposed to start on Monday, and its rained on Monday, Tuesday, and today.
So far though the only result in the wetter pattern has been to put the river off-color, which means cancelled fishing trips. This means lost income, but compared to what folks in Boulder County and along the South Platte drainage are dealing with, I'll take it.
On Sunday I went north to fish the Yampa, thinking that the water below the dam would be clearer than anything around here. It also gave me a chance to peer into the future, to see what kind of water was coming my way from the upriver. The following day I was supposed to be doing my first paid float in two weeks. The following is the email I sent to my client that evening...
I just got back from a fishing trip to the Yampa
tailwater below Stagecoach, which took me upriver from where I live.
This morning the river didn't look too bad, there was about a foot of
visibility. Not quite fishable, I don't go with less than two feet (at
least for a trip you're paying for).
13 miles upriver at
Catamount, there was still a couple of cfs coming in at Catamount, and
two feet of visibility above the bridge. So I though, well if it
doesn't rain again today, and it dries up above Catamount, then we might
be fishing Monday.
On the way back from Toponas, I headed
south towards a black sky. Once over the low pass between McCoy and
Toponas, it started to rain. When I got down the river, I could see it
was bright red. There's a bit of red rock upriver and it must have
rained hard up there. So then I followed the river down, and it was red
until just above the Catamount bridge. From there I could see the
leading edge of the plume, marching downriver from McCoy. That two feet
of visibility was just about to be eclipsed by several miles of bright
The river cleared up again for the next several
miles again, until I got to Pinball and the red rock canyon I usually
float through. It must have rained there too, all of the cliffs looked
like the elevator in "The Shining", with blood red liquid just pouring
off them in crimson waterfalls. All along the river I counted at least
twenty different red rivulets pluming into the green water. The size of
these alluvial fans would vary in proportion to the size of wash it was
at the mouth of.
By the time I got home, the river still
looked pretty decent, even better than it looked this morning. That's
because I was looking at the morning's Catamount water, this afternoon
in my backyard 13 miles away. I told my wife about what was coming our
way, and ten minutes later it changed from green to red.
needless top say, fishing's off tomorrow. The good news is that the
extended forecast looks good. We're supposed to at least four days off
in a row without rain this week, and all it takes usually is three days
to get decent again. It should be good for by this weekend, right up
until when it starts to rain again.
So as you can see, the Colorado River is a rather dynamic and volatile ecosystem, and in wet years a rather unreliable fishing venue. When its on, there's no river I'd rather ply my boat upon, but when once it goes off-color, it takes a couple of days for it to clear and heal itself. Over the ten years I've lived beside it, I've gotten pretty good at predicting its moods, but its kind of like a marriage that way. Just when you think you know what's coming, some rain shower fifteen miles away rears its head like an email from an ex that your wife reads, and all bets are off!