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September 22, 2020

High Water Returns Timed with Warmer Daytime Temps


Long-time Lake City locals and water experts are shaking the heads this week with the unusual phenomenae of not one but two high water peaks in the Lake Fork River in recent weeks separated by an intermission in which water levels dramatically dropped.
It’s anyone’s guess why high country water melt apparently peaked at approximately 1,775 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Friday, June 9, and then precipitously dropped to a low of just 1,050 cfs by last Wednesday, June 15.
Since last Wednesday, and corresponding with peak daytime temperatures in the 80s, water levels in the Lake Fork steadily increased to an unprecidented second high water level early Monday morning, June 19, when the lower Lake Fork Gateview gauge clocked the water flow at 1,700 cfs. Peak temperature in Lake City on Monday was 85-degrees.
After the early morning peak on Monday, water levels in the river began dropping and had reached 1,420 cfs by afternoon.
The long-term mean for water flow in the Lake Fork on June 19 is 984 cfs, upper and lower records being just 124 cfs in 2002 and a roaring 2,140 cfs which occurred way back in 1949.
Long-time water observer Bruce Heath terms this week’s second high water as “befuddling,” Heath noting that the traditional natural gauge — Snyder’s High Water Mark high above Henson Creek — actually lost its last trace of snow on June 12. Traditionally, once the last snow disappears from the location, high water has been reached.
Snyder’s High Water Mark is named for a late 19th Century Lake City blacksmith, Harmon Snyder (1852-1923) whose blacksmith shop was powered by a large waterwheel which was set into Henson Creek near the Silver Street Bridge. Snyder’s blacksmith shop was located at the spot now occupied by Butch and Irma Hurd’s residence, corner 1st and Silver Street, and through years observation of the mountainslope snowfield, Snyder could accurately gauge when high water had been reached.
Upper Gunnison Water District Manager Frank Kugel explains the lull in water level in the Lake Fork last week as the result of cooler temperatures and attributes Monday’s rapid increase in water volume to a corresponding increase in temperature. The second high water mark on Monday, according to Kugel, directly correlates to clear skies and solar radiation on the remaining snowpack.
Kugel confirms that water level dropped from a high of 1,700 cfs on Monday to a peak of 1,550 cfs which was recorded at the lower Lake Fork Gateview gauge at 2:15 a.m. on Tuesday, June 20. As of Tuesday, the water surface elevation at Lake San Cristobal stood at 8,994.54’ which is 6” below capacity.
Kugel states that the outlet gates at San Cristobal have remained in lowered position thus far through high water this spring.
The Lake Fork and other tributaries are rapidly filling Blue Mesa Reservoir, with the reservoir gaining on average one-foot vertical depth each day. The reservoir now stands at 85 percent capacity and water is 12’ below the spillway.
Lake City locals, Bruce Heath included, have their own opinions as to why two separate high water dates would be chronicled in 2017. Heath’s reasoning is that a high country ice layer occurred as the result of unusual rain which fell in the area both in late December and early January this past winter.
Heath surmises that the first water peak occurred earlier this month as the result of melting snow above the ice layer, while this week’s second water rush resulted as snow melted beneath the ice layer.

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