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“You fall in and you are not getting out”: Rio Grande in southern Colorado closed because of high runoff

Police are warning people to stay away from the raging waterway, which last year was a placid stream. San Luis Valley ranchers, meanwhile, are celebrating.

People ignored and stepped over the police tape signifying that the Del Norte Riverwalk along the Rio Grande was closed due to high and rising water levels. This occurred while officers were at the other end of the Riverwalk. If caught, violators face heavy fines. Note the water level is just under the platform. Saturday June 8, 2019. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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DEL NORTE – Water is flowing so high and fast that recreational access to the Rio Grande river has been shut down indefinitely from near the headwaters around Creede through Del Norte, down to Alamosa and beyond.

The river hit flood stage in Del Norte Wednesday afternoon, a condition that is forecast to persist at least until Monday, according to the National Weather Service. The situation could worsen if there is a stretch of days with temperatures in the high 70s to 80s, and there could be big trouble if heavy rain falls.

Public safety managers in Mineral and Rio Grande counties worry about the risk to rafters and kayakers who this time of year would typically be plying gentle waters as they wind through the San Luis Valley. They’re also concerned for the emergency personnel who might be called upon to attempt any water rescues.

This time last year, when southern Colorado was hard into a multi-year drought, the river flowed slow and placid through Del Norte. This year, conditions are so dangerous that even anglers are being told to stay away.

“With the river as high and fast as it is now, you fall in and you are not getting out,” Del Norte Police Chief Robert Fresquez said. “In the past, when the river was running at a normal rate and we had a drowning, we found the bodies miles and miles downstream from where they fell in.”

Woods and River RV Park along the Rio Grande at the north edge of Del Norte voluntarily evacuated camping spots as water rose. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The situation in Del Norte is emblematic of what’s happening across Colorado as rivers reach their peak after one of the snowiest winters in recent memory. From Vail to Pagosa Springs and Cañon City to Steamboat Springs, authorities are urging people to be aware.

A man from Texas died when the raft he was riding on the Arkansas River flipped on Monday in Fremont County. Last week, another man died while rafting on the Eagle River near Avon.

MORE: With snow still looming in the nearby San Juan Mountains, Lake City prepares for a deadly spring runoff

Back in the San Luis Valley, closures in effect include the popular Riverwalk at the north edge of Del Norte, where people enjoy being close to the flow, walking their dogs and fishing.

“We took a look at the water levels Thursday morning, June 6, and observed it was up to the bottom of the footbridges and within inches of the walkway,” Del Norte Police Sgt.Frank Archuleta said. “The town administration has been looking into it and with the forecast for the water levels to continue to rise over the next few days, we decided to close it for the safety of the public.”

There also has been a large amount of debris flowing down the river — as in whole trees, branches and bushes.

“We don’t have a way of closing the area off completely aside from the yellow police tape at both entrances to the Riverwalk,” Archuleta said. “It’s more of an integrity thing and we ask the public to please honor the closure.”

Del Norte Riverwalk is officially closed due to high water. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Not more than 15 minutes after the tape closure went up at the main entrance on Spruce Street and while officers were still putting up tape at the other end on Pine Street, people were already disregarding the closure by ducking the tape and going out onto the wooden deck that overlooks the river.

Though the Rio Grande flooding still is considered minor, just outside of Del Norte, where the river makes a sharp curve and comes within a few yards of Colorado 160, about 50 yards of rail line had to be moved because of erosion. Heavy equipment was used to shore up the bank and prevent further damage. (The tracks were used only to store empty rail cars.)

Railroad tracks displaced by high water that eroded the river bank lie parallel to Colorado 160 at mile marker 206 near Del Norte. In the background, a truck pulling a horse trailer enters the highway. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Campgrounds along the river in the Rio Grande National Forest near Creede have been closed, including Comstock, Ivy Creek, Park Creek, Rio Grande and Rock Creek. Some commercial campgrounds in Del Norte and South Fork were evacuated and then reopened.

The Rio Grande flows won’t be slowing anytime soon because there is still heavy snowpack in the high country — the equivalent of 29 inches of water is hanging in heavy snow at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass.

The river is already out of its banks in some places, flowing into the pastures of ranches in many parts of the western San Luis Valley. Ranchers said they are glad to have the water as long as levels don’t rise too fast.

The Off Island Ranch, just east of Del Norte, is a designated Centennial Ranch, meaning it has been owned and operated by the same family for more than 100 years. The Rio Grande breaks and flows around it on two sides and makes for lush pasture and fat, happy, grass-fed cattle.

“It’s not bad this time, or any worse than before and it is typical for it to run in front of our house,” Suzie Off said. “Never in my memory has the water come over our 3-foot rock wall in front of our house. We like to say, ‘a river runs through it.’”

Pastures at Off Island Ranch Del Norte flood nearly every year, which makes for lush grass to feed cattle grazing on the centennial ranch. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The worst flood conditions on the Rio Grande in Del Norte were recorded in 1911, when the river hit a peak flow of 18,000 cubic feet per second and a crest of 6.8 feet. On Wednesday, the river was flowing at about 7,980 cfs and hit 5.69 feet, according to National Weather Service records.

Del Norte rancher Cory Off — same family, different spread — said the current flooding is a “good way for the river to cleanse itself. It clears channels that have become plugged up because of many years of low water levels and clears out the willows that have grown where they are not supposed to.”

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