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Heavy equipment at the edge of a sinkhole on a highway
What started with a small sinkhole and a lane closure on Colorado 133 over McClure Pass on April 29, 2023, was worsened by flooding from nearby Bear Creek causing the road to be closed near Somerset since May 2. Colorado Department of Transportation crews on May 22 were working to place a temporary bridge over the collapsed road. (Colorado Department of Transportation photo)

Floods, swollen rivers, road closures — Colorado’s spring runoff season is in full swing and much of the snow in the state’s mountains hasn’t melted yet.

Colorado saw higher-than-average snowfall build up on the Western Slope this year, a boon for irrigators and other water users who rely on the Colorado River Basin which spans Colorado, tribal lands, six Western states and parts of Mexico. But the snowmelt, with the help of recent weather, is leading to high runoff and its adverse impacts are popping up around the state like a game of whack-a-mole.

Beyond monitoring for mudslides and rockfalls loosened by rain and high runoff, the Colorado Department of Transportation is also watching bridges and roads for possible closures. 

“I’m seeing higher flows in almost every single drainage that we have over here (in western Colorado) than what we’ve seen probably in at least four or five years, if not longer,” said Julie Constan, a CDOT regional director. “We had such a heavy snowpack across the entire western portion of the state, so that’s causing all of the creeks to definitely be running higher than what we’re used to seeing.”

On the Front Range and Eastern Plains, 10 days of rain in May helped with the state’s continuing recovery from drought over the past year. The amount of the state experiencing drought conditions has dropped from 93% a year ago to just 11% today.

But the rain has also combined with snowmelt to cause flooding around Colorado. In northeastern and southwestern Colorado, communities in the White-Yampa River Basin and along the Dolores River have built sandbag barriers to slow encroaching flooding. On May 11 in Denver, Cherry Creek leapt to its highest flow rate since 1980 after intense rain supplemented by reservoir releases, according to media reports.

For anyone traveling, camping or floating the river over Memorial Day weekend, checking road and weather conditions will be key for a safe outing.

Statewide, 42 people died in water-related accidents in 2022, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. As of May 18, two people died in confirmed water-related incidents this year. The state recommends that boaters wear life jackets regardless of age or experience level.

A pile of sand is converted into floodwater sandbags by Otis Van De Carr, 19, left, and his parents Gretchen Van De Carr, seated, and Peter Van De Carr, right, as they prepare for the Yampa River to overrun its banks next to their Steamboat Springs business, Backdoor Sports, on May 6 in Routt County. (Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun)

Campsites could also be temporarily closed. Dinosaur National Monument closed its Pot Creek campsites this month due to the possible failure of an old, earthen dam on private land. The dam is structurally sound, but the area has received so much snow this year that, as of mid-May, runoff inflows increased the reservoir’s elevation to within a few inches of the dam’s crest, Park Ranger Dan Johnson said.

“The state office was concerned that, should that dam fail in the middle of the night when people are camping there, it could create a hazardous situation,” Johnson said, adding that the campsites could reopen in time for Memorial Day weekend campers.

The high spring runoff is also impacting road conditions across the state. In southeastern Colorado, the Arkansas River flooded U.S. 50 near La Junta.

A debris flow at the Hanging Lake exit on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon blocked access to the trailhead for two weeks before it reopened last week. Tuesday morning the Forest Service announced the trail is closed again until at least June 2 because of heavy runoff on the trail.

“The amount of water coming down the trail in many spots is really impressive,” Leanne Veldhuis, Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger, said in a news release Tuesday.  “There is currently no good way around the water, so we have closed the trail until the runoff lessens or our trail crew can mitigate it.”

CDOT is also working to repair a gaping sinkhole that appeared on Colorado 133 near Paonia. Rushing spring runoff overwhelmed a culvert under the highway and caused enough erosion to collapse a section of the road that is roughly 20 to 30 feet wide — and certainly large enough to fit a sedan, she said. A temporary bridge should be installed by early- to mid-June, and permanent repairs should begin this fall.

“Lots of monitoring going on, but so far, the only real major failure we’ve had has been on 133,” Constan said. “It’s a good thing that there’s only been one major failure and everything else pulled together OK.”

So what’s causing high runoff?

This winter, Colorado saw storm after storm add snow to the growing snowpack in the mountains. 

By early April, that buildup peaked. The amount of liquid water in the snow, called the snow-water equivalent, across the Western Slope was 130% to 140% of the median between 1991 and 2020, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. The estimate is based on SNOTEL data collected using a network of high-elevation instruments that measure snowpack. On the Front Range, the snow-water equivalent lagged below its median this winter.

In the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the amount of water peaked in early April at about 150% to 170% of the historical norm. These states are situated upstream of Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, one of the basin’s largest water storage reservoirs. The reservoir’s dam, Glen Canyon Dam, sends water down to Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — which also had an exceptionally wet year, said Cody Moser, senior hydrologist at the forecast center.

However in the Upper Basin above Lake Powell, most of the snowpack is still sitting at 150% to 170% of the norm, Moser said, according to SNOTEL data. 

“Across the northern part of the Upper Colorado River Basin, there’s been alternating periods of sunny, warm weather that generates the snow melt and the higher flows,” he said. “And then we’ve seen those periods alternating with cooler, cloudier weather that’s brought some additional moisture in both rain and snow. It’s helped the snowmelt rate decrease, so it’s been kind of up and down in April and May.”

Southwestern Colorado has seen more continuous warm, sunny weather and thus more snowmelt than other parts of Colorado, like the northwestern region, he said.

Colorado also received higher-than-normal snowpack across elevations lower than 9,500 feet, where snow typically melts more quickly. That thick layer is also frequently downstream of reservoirs which means, depending on the location, the water is going straight into streams and rivers. 

That has led to an extended period of high flows, especially in the White-Yampa River Basin in northwestern Colorado and the Dolores River Basin, Moser said. And when rain falls onto snow, as it has in isolated patches across the state, the liquid water speeds up melting even further.

“We’ve entered into a period of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoons and evenings,” he said. “We’ve had some enhanced melt due to rain-on-snow with some of these storms.”

SNOTEL sites are generally located above 9,000 feet so lower elevation runoff isn’t reflected in basinwide snow-water equivalent percentages. These sites target between 9,000 and 11,500 feet where most of the snowpack typically accumulates. That’s why the snow-water equivalent percentages from SNOTEL data have not changed by much, he said.

“There’s still a lot of high-elevation snow up there,” Moser said.

What’s happening on farms and ranches?

Near Hotchkiss on the Western Slope, Harrison Topp grows apples, cherries, peaches and other fruits on his 60-acre farm. Typically, his goal is to continue irrigating until early September, but in bad water years, his water supply from the Fire Mountain Canal could be cut by early August. 

“We’re just ecstatic about the on-farm season this year,” Topp said. “We’ve got a lot of new trees in the ground, and that’s the most critical thing when it comes to water availability — those baby trees.”

While he has enough water, it’s coming through muddy, which is causing issues with keeping filters clean, he said. 

Water quality is also a larger concern for the whole system. The sediment layer in Paonia Reservoir has gradually built up to the water release outlet, Topp said. That means heavy sediment, which can be abrasive to irrigation systems, is no longer settling in the reservoir. Instead, it’s flowing into the canal and the river. 

“We’re in a bit of a pickle as far as what that’s going to do to our irrigation system,” he said. “I’m not sure yet if we’re going to see problems with that this year in our irrigation systems, but that is a problem.”

Topp also drives to farmers markets on the Front Range twice a week, sometimes leaving at 1 a.m. to start the five-plus hour drive over McClure Pass on Colorado 133 and on to the Front Range via I-70. This year, the large sinkhole is blocking his route. 

“Losing the fastest route is very significant to us,” Topp said. Already, he must drive I-70 through Glenwood Canyon where he has often been delayed. That stretch of highway was impacted by landslides after the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire, and Topp said he frequently sees overturned semitrucks along the route.

“We have dealt with issues in the canyon for years. It’s a real roulette game whether or not we’re gonna make it through,” he said. “And I promise I’m not just being whiny. These are actually pretty significant issues.”

The East River flows south from its headwaters in Emerald Lake north of Crested Butte, Colorado on Thursday. Normally the size of a small stream the East River is swollen with runoff pouring down from the Maroon Bells Wilderness. The East River joins the Taylor River at the town of Almont forming the Gunnison River. Colorado’s above average snowpack is melting, causing streams and rivers to flow bank full. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Further southwest, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise is also receiving its full supply after years of incredibly tight margins. The enterprise typically grows red winter wheat, alfalfa for the dairy industry, non-GMO corn and triticale for their cattle program across 7,600 acres, general manager Simon Martinez said.

In 2021 and 2022, the enterprise received 10% of its water allocation because of the drought conditions. Now, its team is working hard to ramp back up to 100%, he said. 

“It’s very busy. We are planting right now between April and May about 3,000 acres. That doesn’t include the 2,000 we planted last fall of red winter wheat,” Martinez said. “We’re getting every bit of planting we can get in because we have the water, but now it’s a very intensive time-management process.”

The employees are working 70 to 80 hours a week to prepare fields that were fallowed when there wasn’t enough water, and to plant new crops for this year. The Farm and Ranch is also experimenting with kernza, a grain that uses less water and can be used as cattle feed.

Desert farming depends on water from the high country, Martinez said.“It shows that we’ve got to be real careful about our crop selection and our water management, which we are,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to use the best farming practices we can.”

UPDATE: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, to reflect the Hanging Lake trail closure through June 2.

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Shannon MullaneWater Reporter

Shannon Mullane writes about Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. She focuses on the Colorado River Basin, tribal affairs related to water, and West Slope water issues. Born in East Tennessee, Shannon has been in Colorado for a decade or so and is holding down the fort in Durango,...