River levels are holding their own thanks to Vail’s high mountain snow
By Scott Willoughby
There’s a reason they’re named the GoPro “Mountain Games.” It’s because these sports take place in Mother Nature’s playground, the high hills of Colorado where the spring sun magically converts snow into water and inertia is driven by gravity’s pull. Nowhere is that more evident than in the whitewater kayak, raft and SUP events that have served as the cornerstone of the Mountain Games since they began. And it’s not going to change in 2018. (story continues below chart).
Whitewater athletes understand nature’s fickle disposition and recognize it as part of the appeal of paddle sports. Adapting to the ebb and flow of the natural world is just another part of the challenge that makes river-running so appealing. We’re constantly adjusting to the conditions, understanding that we can’t control them. Of course, a little insider info never hurts either.
That’s where Diane Johnson comes in. Johnson, the Communications and Public Affairs Manager of Vail’s Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, is here to help explain the science behind snowmelt and put this year’s whitewater expectations for the Mountain Games into perspective: the good, the bad and the… ‘ya know, it’s really not that bad’.
“The Colorado River may have already peaked at Cameo and the Utah state line, but all we really care about for the Mountain Games is our local watershed. And right now it looks like we’ll make it through alright,” Johnson said. “We’re not Durango or Telluride. We’ve still got some snow up high. It’s still certainly in the melt phase and there’s still water to give.”
Eagle River Water and Sanitation keeps close tabs on Gore Creek — where the majority of the Mountain Games whitewater events take place — and the Eagle River, which includes flows coming out of Homestake Creek, site of the Steep Creek Kayaking Championships. By now, everyone knows better than to expect a big water year, but according to the three U.S. Geological Survey stream gages used to forecast flows in the local watershed, things could be a lot worse.
In fact, just 6 years ago they were worse, and the Mountain Games’ whitewater events went off without a hitch.
“In 2012, Gore Creek peaked with a daily mean average of 259 cfs on May 23. Yesterday’s (May 16) daily mean was 379 cfs on Gore Creek. So we’re 120 cfs higher now than we ever were in 2012, and there was still enough water to hold the events that year,” Johnson said. “The Fremont Pass SNOTEL (Snow Telemetry) site, which is closest to the headwaters of the Eagle River, still has 16.1 inches of snow water equivalent. Historically, it’s taken about three weeks to get to full melt out from 16.1 at Fremont, which puts us right at the steep creek race date.”
That timing is by design. While Mountain Games organizers may not have any say as to how much snow will fall over the winter, they have a pretty good handle on when it’s most likely to melt. That’s one of the primary reasons why the GoPro Mountain Games typically serve as the first event on Colorado’s whitewater circuit. With an elevation above 8,000 feet, it pays to be at the top of the water chain.
“June 5th or 6th is the historical peak water flow for these locations. So it’s usually great timing for the event,” Johnson said, adding that the outlook for high season summer is far less rosy than late spring. “Even in a low water year, we may be on the downside of the peak during the Mountain Games, but it’s still not way outside of when water is available.”
And certainly not to be forgotten is Vail’s ace in the hole — the contest hole, that is. The Vail Whitewater Park’s state-of-the-art inflatable bladder system was installed more than a decade ago as a variable solution for paddlers in lean water years. By adjusting the air bladders to channel river flows through the heart of the man-made feature used for the GMC Kayak Freestyle event, pro paddlers are able to pull off jaw-dropping tricks for the fans lining the banks of Gore Creek, even in fairly low water.
Believe it or not, the frothy freestyle feature even manages to contribute water to the GMC Downriver Sprint competition that takes place upstream on Gore Creek. As Johnson points out, the wave at the Vail Whitewater Park was the critical component used to secure a recreational in-channel diversion water right from March through October – for 400 cfs during May, June and July – by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District since 2002.
That means if the mountain snow makes enough water available upstream, it is required to flow downstream through the park. And Mother Nature would want you to hop in and play.
So – what does it all add up to?
“Right now I’m very optimistic that our whitewater events will go ahead as planned,” said Vail Valley Foundation spokesman Tom Boyd. “No one can predict the future 100%, and it’s true the rivers are lower than average, but we anticipate enough water for this year’s Gore Creek kayaking, SUP, and raft events, and Homestake’s Steep Creek Championships. And there’s still climbing, running, biking, expos, free concerts, food + beverages, and plenty more to enjoy no matter the water conditions.”
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