Know Your Streamflow: The importance of tracking peak flows

In 2023, the Uncompahgre River reached its annual peak flow above Ridgway Reservoir on June 7 at 1:15 a.m. (and again at 2:15 a.m.). Last year’s peak flow was 930 cubic feet per second (cfs). The year before, the peak flow was reached on May 16 at midnight, and was 619 cfs.

In the photo below, you can see the difference in the Uncompahgre River at the same location at Rollans Park during two different years at Ridgway RiverFest. In the left photo taken June 25, 2022, the streamflow is lower, water is much clearer, people could easily stand in the water, and the mountains have very little snow. In the right photo taken on June 24, 2023, the streamflow is higher, water is full of sediment, people could more easily boat, and the mountains have lots of snow.

Uncompahgre River at Rollans Park in Ridgway, comparison of streamflow in 2022 and 2023

Based on this winter’s precipitation and snowpack, do you think Uncompahgre River flows will be more like 2022 or 2023?

Peak flow is the greatest amount of water that flows in a stream at any one time within a year. The timing and amount of water of the peak flow moment are two unique metrics that help us understand streamflow conditions in a watershed. For example, this information helps demonstrate how much rain and snow are captured in a river basin, though other variables such as sunlight and soil moisture affect the peak flow amount as well. By tracking and understanding peak flow trends, water users and managers can better plan for various activities such as building infrastructure, irrigating crops, releasing water from dams, fishing and paddling on streams, and many more.

Please remember to enter the Uncompahgre River Classic peak flow prediction contest by May 1 (for free)! You could win great Patagonia gear and bragging rights as the most drip streamflow forecaster of the year.