High water in Río Grande 'the best thing that can happen for a river'

Rio Grande last reached this height in 2005

By Cody Hooks chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 6/21/19

At the banks of the Río Grande, the force of the river is palpable, touching some primal spot in the psyche that says, "This is special."

And it is. The flow of the Río Grande has …

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High water in Río Grande 'the best thing that can happen for a river'

Rio Grande last reached this height in 2005

Posted

At the banks of the Río Grande, the force of the river is palpable, touching some primal spot in the psyche that says, "This is special."

And it is. The flow of the Río Grande has steadily gotten more powerful all season, thanks to a cooler-than-usual spring that has kept the snowmelt steady.

"It's not historic by any means, but very notable," said Todd Shoemake, meteorologist at the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service.

On Monday (June 17), the river was moving at 4,770 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Taos Junction Bridge near Pilar; it was slightly down as of press time Wednesday (June 19). A cubic foot of water is equal to 7.48 gallons, meaning that every second, the river saw a volume equivalent to the average daily water use for approximately 400 people.

Still, it's not the highest the river has ever been.

Lexi Landers, a hydrologist with the Colorado Snow Survey, said that the "last time the river peaked higher than the current flows was 2005, when the river peaked at over 6,000 cfs in late May."

Landers added that "1995 was also a big year, when the river peaked at over 7,000 cfs in early July."

The high water is exciting for rafters and people who get their kicks on the river.

"This is a magnet for folks right now," said Steve Harris, a river guide since 1974 and founder of Río Grande Restoration, a nonprofit working on the ecosystem health of the river. "This is the high water people have been waiting for for years."

The water is so high it's upped the whitewater classification of the "Racecourse" section of the Río Grande. Harris and Shoemake both urged more caution on the river, due to the fast-moving and cold nature of the water right now. "It just calls for greater precautions and better-trained [guides]," Harris said.

But the high flows have value beyond outdoor recreation.

"The river's not just a big thriller," said Harris. "It's an ecosystem."

In the same way fires are known to shape a forest and improve the health of that environment, Harris said that periodic floods "order the river ecosystem." They reshape the bed of the river, remove blockages and move nutrients downstream; they recharge the banks, make new habitat and are necessary for riparian species like cottonwoods.

"The whole river is adapted to flows like this, and needs years like this. But with climate change, years of drought and overuse [of the water for consumption], you don't get years like this one very often."

Even people who are dependent on gentler flows for their business are encouraged by the río.

"The high water is a great thing," said Emily Roley, manager and guide for Taos Fly Shop. "For fishing, it's not the most ideal conditions. We won't be looking to fish the Río Grande until the fall."

She said that last year's punctuated drought actually made for great fishing on the Río Grande throughout the summer, which wasn't typical. This year, the high flows ought to prolong the fall fishing season not only on the Río Grande, she said, but also the smaller streams throughout the watershed. "Their life is extended a little," she said.

Though the last patches of snow are steadily melting off -- the primary source of water in the Río Grande -- the monsoons are starting to set up for the season.

Shoemake, with the weather service, said there is a "near to slightly above normal chance" for monsoons across the state, according to one of the models used for predicting precipitation.

He again asked the public to be safe when getting out on the river. Aside from the "fast and swift current, the cold temperatures alone ... can be very dangerous," he said.

In Colorado, the state parks department released a warning Wednesday (June 19) for paddleboarders, even when recreating on mostly still water. "On rivers or reservoirs, if a paddleboarder falls off there is no guarantee that the board will remain within reach. In rivers, the board can be pulled away by the current. In lakes, a board can be pushed away quickly by the wind. The danger is amplified on reservoirs and ponds in the afternoons in Colorado when fast-moving storms bring high winds and stir up waves," read the news release.

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