“It was essentially a winter flash flood on a continental-scale river” — Robert Criss

December 2015 precipitation in the Mississippi River Basin via Weather.com.
December 2015 precipitation in the Mississippi River Basin via Weather.com.

From Science Daily:

…only a day after the flood on the lower Meramec peaked, water levels on the Mississippi at St. Louis were the third-highest ever recorded. A few days later, record flood stages were recorded downstream at Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Thebes, Ill.

Why was the flooding so bad? Most news reports blamed it on the heavy rain, but Robert Criss, PhD, professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, said there was more to the flood than the rain.

“I think there was significant magnification of the flood levels on the Meramec by recent developments near the river,” he said. “Sure it rained a lot, but what happened here cannot be explained by the rainfall alone.”

The flood on the middle Mississippi River, in turn, was remarkable for its short duration and the time of year. “It was essentially a winter flash flood on a continental-scale river,” Criss said. “The Mississippi has been so channelized and leveed close to St. Louis that it now responds like a much smaller river.”

In the February issue of the Journal of Earth Science, Criss and visiting scholar Mingming Luo of the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China, take a close look at data for the New Year’s flood, treating it as a giant natural experiment that allowed them to test their understanding of changing river dynamics.

“Flooding is becoming more chaotic and unpredictable, more frequent and more severe,” Criss said. “Additional changes to this overbuilt river system will only aggravate flooding.

“In the meantime,” he said, “inaccurate Federal Emergency Management Agency flood frequencies based on the assumption that today’s river will behave as it has in the past greatly underestimate our real flood risk and lead to inappropriate development in floodways and floodplains.”


#Snowpack news: The Feb. 1 #Colorado Basin Outlook Report is hot off the presses from the NRCS

Click here to read the report. Here’s an excerpt:


Colorado’s snowpack remains at above normal levels heading into February. A stream of moisture brought heavy snow to much of the state over the last few days of January, favorably amplifying the snowpack in all major river basins. Preceding this storm, many SNOTEL stations in the southwest basins and along the Continental Divide had received less than normal snowpack accumulations. However, the latest storm produced between 1 and 4 inches of SWE for the majority of Colorado’s SNOTEL sites. Although there are a few individual mountain locations that maintain a snowpack that is below the median, all of Colorado’s major river basins are at above normal levels. The combined San Juan, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan River basin holds the greatest snowpack, with respect to normal, at 122 percent of median, in part due to the bountiful snowpack in the San Miguel River basin, which is the highest in the state at 150 percent of median. This is in stark contrast to last year at this time when the combined southwest basins’ snowpack only amounted to 66 percent of the median. The combined Yampa, White, and North Platte basin ranks lowest among the major river basins, but is still above normal with a snowpack at 103 percent of median. Although there is a substantial portion of the winter still ahead, most of Colorado’s basins are currently on track to have a healthy snow accumulation season.


Thanks to a storm that impacted Colorado over the last few days of January, statewide mountain precipitation for the water year remains above normal. As of February 1st, water year-to-date precipitation (WYTD) for Colorado is at 109 percent of average. January precipitation was divided among the major river basins in Colorado; basins east of the Continental Divide generally received less than average precipitation while basins west of the divide received near or above average accumulations. The Rio Grande River basin had the lowest January precipitation relative to average at 73 percent. The Arkansas and South Platte basins were also below average at 78 and 87 percent respectively. However, this lack of precipitation was not enough to diminish the benefits from the wet December that these basins experienced, and all still have above average WYTD precipitation. The combined Yampa, White, North Platte River basin experienced the greatest January precipitation with respect to normal and received 114 percent of its average monthly levels. This boosted the basin’s WYTD precipitation to 99 percent of average. The Gunnison and Colorado River basins also saw above average January precipitation each at 107 percent and the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, San Juan River basin was slightly below normal at 94 percent of average. Each of these river basins also have WYTD precipitation that is well above average, continuing the positive precipitation trends for Colorado.


February 1st seasonal streamflow forecasts for most major basins in Colorado are predicting near to above normal volumes. Forecasts for rivers flowing from the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado are consistently the highest forecasts in the state. Vallecito Reservoir inflow has the smallest forecast in the region at 108 percent of normal and Gurley Reservoir inflow has the highest, at 122 percent. The Upper Rio Grande, also in southwest Colorado, follows close behind and has no points forecast to have below normal streamflow volumes with the highest being Saguache Creek near Saguache at 116 percent. The rest of the major basins in the state have forecasts surrounding, but generally near, normal values with a slightly decreasing trend from south to north throughout the state. The lowest percent of normal streamflow forecasts are currently on the Little Snake River, a major tributary to the Yampa that flows in northwest Colorado, but has much of its snow accumulating headwaters in Wyoming. Forecasts on the Little Snake range from 80 to 87 percent of normal. This general south to north decreasing trend also follows the snowpack accumulation trend, which is commonly observed during strong El Nino cycles, such as the one which has been experienced so far this winter.

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill 6 months later — The Durango Herald

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Durango Herald:

On Aug. 5, 2015, contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. Six months later, questions about the effects of spring runoff, Superfund status and remediation remain unanswered.

Coyote Gulch has been reporting since August 5. Here’s the link to the Animas River category. Take a little scroll back in time.

Dolores River: Water Protection Work Group formed to protect ag and muni interests

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The newly formed Water Protection Work Group was created in response to a proposed National Conservation Area for the lower Dolores River.

The WPWG seeks to protect municipal and agricultural water supplies in Montezuma and Dolores counties from any consequence arising from NCA legislation.

Participants include Phyllis Snyder, Larry Don Suckla, Zane Odell, Doug Stowe, Greg Black, Don Schwindt, Drew Gordanier, Bernard Karwick, Bob Bragg, Keenan Ertel and Gerald Koppenhafer.

The recently released their minimum requirements and recommendations to David Robbins, a Colorado water attorney who has reviewed the NCA proposal.

“Prior public promises that the NCA ‘is not about taking water’ are appreciated and allow us to move forward with some assurance,” the group states in a memo. “Ambiguity and conflicting provisions must be left out of the NCA draft legislation.”

Some of the recommendations include:

The group wants the preamble of the NCA to be more specific about the Dolores River’s importance as the region’s sole water supply.

A proposed advisory committee in the draft NCA legislation requires more thorough definition.

The draft NCA bill must be written to explicitly prohibit any federal express or implied water rights on the Dolores River.

The draft NCA bill must release the Dolores River, upstream from the confluence with the San Miguel River, from consideration under the Wild and Scenic River’s Act. The recommendation also stipulates that no wild and scenic river portions below the San Miguel confluence can reach upstream water rights.

The NCA shall not affect the Dolores Project or the operation of McPhee Reservoir in any way.

The draft NCA bill has language prohibiting the building of large scale water projects. The WPWG recommends that large scale water projects be defined to exclude all existing projects, diversion, structures and water rights. Also, they recommend that the proposed NCA must not impact future projects under Colorado state water law that do not exceed 50,000 acre feet of annual use.

The group also wants written into any NCA legislation that management plans will not impact or influence releases or spills from McPhee dam, the water upstream from McPhee Dam, or the Dolores Project.

In April 2015, a legislative subcommittee of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group released a draft bill that would designated a portion of the river an NCA and another portion a wilderness area.

In exchange, the river’s suitability status for a wild and scenic river below McPhee dam would be dropped.

The proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area would stretch from below the dam at Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock, Colo., and include the river and public land on both sides.

The draft bill also proposes to designate the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area, a 30,119-acre swath of remote canyonlands that has been managed as a BLM wilderness study area for decades.

According to the draft, the Wilderness Area boundary would be located at the edge of the river, and no portion of the Dolores River will be included in it.

However, the draft bill shows the Dolores river would be part of the NCA, including where it runs through the wilderness area.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

#Snowpack news: This week’s storm = 37 inches of powder at Aspen’s ski areas

Westwide SNOTEL Feburary 4, 2016 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL Feburary 4, 2016 via the NRCS.

From The Greeley Tribune (Nikki Work):

A snowy week across the state added to Colorado’s already positive snowpack numbers, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The whole state is above the historic average for snowpack, and the river basins that impact Weld County — the South Platte and the Upper Colorado — are both more than 10 percent above normal. These levels impact what the summer water supply will look like for the area, according to Brian Werner of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

As of Thursday, the South Platte River Basin was 12 percent above the historic average, and the Upper Colorado River Basin was 15 percent above average.

Reservoir storage numbers are up as well, with nearly every basin in the state above average as of Feb. 1. Werner said it’s important to use both snowpack and reservoir numbers to examine future water supply, because once the weather warms up in the spring and summer, and the snowpack melts, the pressure will fall on the reservoirs.

The South Platte River Basin is up 5 percent, and the Upper Colorado River Basin is up 9 percent. As a whole, the state is up 10 percent.

For the southern part of the state, which has suffered from drought for several years, these numbers are cause for hope. Werner said at a recent water meeting, he saw water officials from the southeast and southwest counties smiling for the first time in a while.

However, Werner said it’s too early to get comfortable, because while the averages are up in comparison to previous years, the most important months for snowpack are March and April, because that’s when the wettest snows of the year come. Werner said he’s seen winters where the snowpack numbers have been up early in the winter, but a dry spring has derailed hopes of a good water year.

In order to see one of those, we’ll need to see more snow, he said.

Though it’s too early to get cozy, Werner said he anticipates a good water year for farmers and ranchers, who have been sitting mostly pretty since the massive drought in 2012. If the snowpack and reservoir numbers stay on track, farmers shouldn’t have to worry about water supply restricting their acreage, he said.

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

The storm that dumped 37 inches of snow on the slopes of Aspen’s ski areas Saturday into Tuesday was the 10th largest storm cycle in 37 years, according to Aspen Skiing Co.’s records. Skico Vice President of Operations Rich Burkley said the last big storm cycle was February 2014.

The storm did wonders for Aspen’s snowpack. It was at 100 percent of normal going into the weekend at an automated measuring station near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. It now stands at 115 percent of average.

In a recent posting on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Aspen zone forecaster Blase Reardon noted that 20 percent of the snowpack that has accumulated so far this season fell during the most recent storm. The avalanche danger spiked with one-fifth of the snowpack accumulating in just 72 hours.

Closer to Aspen, the storm on the last day of January boosted total snowfall for the month well above average, according to weather observer Laura Taylor at the Aspen Water Treatment Plant. She reported that 11 inches of snow fell Jan. 31. For the month, the water plant received nearly 35 inches of snow. The average is 26 inches. Only 5.26 inches of snow fell in January 2015, according to the water department’s records.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported that every major river basin in the Colorado mountains is running well ahead of last year’s snowpack levels. The Colorado River basin, which includes the Roaring Fork drainage, is 116 percent of last year’s snowpack as of Feb. 1. River basins in southwestern Colorado are 185 percent of last year’s snowpack.

Plans to rebuild U.S. 34 still a work in progress — Estes Park Trail-Gazette

Flood damage Big Thompson Canyon September 2013 -- photo via Northern Water
Flood damage Big Thompson Canyon September 2013 — photo via Northern Water

From the Estes Park Trail-Gazette (David Persons):

In spite of what has been reported recently about the work which will likely start in late spring or early summer and last for two years or more, CDOT officials say there are just too many moving parts to say with any certainty just how long the $129 million project will take and how it will impact area residents and businesses.

“We honestly do not know a lot of these answers as the team is working to determine a lot of these variables,” said Jared Fiel, CDOT’s Communication Manager for Region 4. “The big thing to realize is that we have extensive outreach planned for the entire corridor in advance of any of the work starting.

“We will be having public meetings with both residents and businesses as well as a telephone town hall format for users of the corridor such as part-time residents, commuters, etc.”

When asked about the two-year construction time frame, Fiel said it will probably be two years.

“We are working at determining the actual scope and extent of the work to be done,” Fiel said. “Some of our early estimates for some aspects of the job proved to be too low, mainly based on logistics, meaning (as an example) if we are blasting rock in one place, we need to have a location on the corridor that needs that aggregate so we don’t have to pay more to have it shipped out, only to be brought back in later.”

Some have reported that the project will be done in stages.

“Again, probably,” Fiel said. “With the size and extent of this work, we will probably need to do different stages. How those stages (or construction packages) work, when they will happen, and if there will be overlap, are all to be determined.”


One thing that will almost definitely occur is the rerouting of Front Range (Fort Collins and Loveland) traffic to U.S. Highway 36 in Lyons as the major route to Estes Park, adding an extra half-hour of driving time.

“When construction begins in earnest, that is probably going to be a good idea,” Fiel said. “We will have detours available when (and if) we need to do any road or lane closures. We will also communicate this far in advance of any work going on.”

The section of U.S. 34 from Loveland to Estes Park, that winds through the narrows of the Big Thompson Canyon and past several smaller communities like Drake, was heavily damaged by the September 2013 flood event.

During the flooding, watershed runoff combined with flows released from Lake Estes Dam, and surges from debris dam breaches, produced huge flow surges that exceeded a 500-year flood event. As a result, the canyon section sustained widespread, massive damage.

Major sections of roadway were washed away completely, along with access bridges and retaining walls. In the narrows, much of the roadway and grade were undermined, washing out the pavement from below and exposing the wall support structures.

Temporary repairs were completed and the highway was reopened to traffic in both directions on Thursday, November 11, 2013. CDOT and its contractors worked from both the east and west ends of the canyon to assess and repair the damage and restore local access as quickly as possible. Emergency repairs were extensive and included removing debris, re-establishing shoulders and embankments, replacing damaged asphalt, filling washed out sections with concrete fill, repairing local access structures, and repairing damaged drainage structures.

After a couple years of doing research and design work, CDOT is ramping up for the permanent repair and/or rebuilt of U.S. 34. CDOT has named Kiewit Infrastructure Co. to serve as the Construction Manager/General Contractor (CM/GC) for this project.

Permanent repairs will include removing and replacing much of the temporary asphalt, embankment fill, and temporary channel protection; as well as re-vegetating, replacing guardrails, and repairing fencing. Some of the roadway sections that were not destroyed, but experienced flood water overtopping the roadway, will be analyzed and possibly replaced, according to information on CDOT’s website.

For more information about the project and updates, go online to http://www.codot.gov/projects/floodrelatedprojects/us-34-big-thompson-canyon-1.