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CFS, Flows, and Safe Wading

07/12/12 at 01:18 PM by Vince Puzick

When you check out the “Where to Go” link on the Angler’s website and head to one of the many rivers or streams listed there, you will see a “Current Flow” report for the specific river or stream.  But what is “Cubic Feet per Second” (cfs) and what does it mean for wading the river?


A basic primer on cfs:  The number of CFS (Cubic Feet per Second) is a measure of the volume of water passing a specific point each second of time.  The value is determined by multiplying the cross sectional area of the stream, in square feet, times the speed or velocity of the water, in feet per second.  One cubic foot per second (cfs) is equal to the discharge through a rectangular cross section, 1 foot wide by 1 foot deep, flowing at an average velocity of 1 foot per second.  It is also approximately 7.48 gallons per second. 


So consider these flow levels as of 9:15 on July 12th:

  • Blue River below Breckenridge:  50 cfs
  • South Platte near Lake George (Elevenmile Canyon):  228 cfs

Imagine a box 25 feet wide by 2 feet deep filled with water and traveling at a rate of 1 foot per second.  You have the equivalent of the Blue River.  Now imagine that same box is 16.6 feet wide by 3 feet deep.  You still have a flow rate of 50 cfs – but in the narrower space you have deeper water.  The speed of that water will increase, too, as it forces itself through narrower space. 


Now imagine a box 76 feet wide and 3 feet deep filled with water traveling at 1 foot per second.  You are standing in the South Platte in Eleven Mile Canyon.  Wading in that flow will change in difficulty depending on the width of the river.  If the river is 55 feet wide, then the depth changes to about 4 feet. 


You can also check out Colorado’s Surface Water Conditions at the Colorado Division of Water Resources website.  It’s a little difficult at first to navigate, but you can use the “My Stations” link to target your most frequented fishing spots.  These gages are “real time” measurements collected every 15 minutes. 


So what does this mean for wading?  A flat stretch of water may be relatively easy to wade.  Squeeze  that water through a narrower canyon, though, and you need to be more confident in your footing.  One stretch of water may be easy wading but just upstream you may find a stretch that is more challenging – if  not impossible – to wade.  As the saying goes, “you never step into the same river twice.”  Likewise, a river that was wadeable last time out may be near impossible to get across this time.


Tips for Safe Wading:

  • Be mindful of stream bank erosion when you access the water. When you climb down a stream bank, be careful not to damage vegetation or the stream bank structure. Unless it is an officially designated access point, don't use a worn down stream access path. Continuing to wear away a path to the water looks bad and is bad for the stream.
  • Follow your instincts when deciding whether to cross water. If it doesn't seem like a good idea to cross, it probably isn't. Go back up on the bank and try to find another place to cross, even if it means taking more time or walking further.
  • Tighten your wading belt. If you do fall, your wading belt will slow the flow of water into the legs of your waders. It's harder to maneuver in water once your waders fill up.
  • Use a wading staff. It's a very handy piece of equipment to have in tough wading situations. A wading staff helps you steady yourself in the current and acts as a “third leg” when you are moving, so you always maintain two points of contact with the ground. You can also use it to check water depth and poke around for holes in your path.
  • Check the water depth with a stick, wading staff, or try to judge it visually before stepping in. Fast water is very hard to navigate once it gets up to knee height.
  • Wading across rocky bottoms requires athletic movements, so get in an athletic position. Once you are in the water and before you even take a step, bend your knees and then keep them bent. They don't have to be fully bent, just slightly, so your knees aren't locked, like you are skiing. This helps you shift your weight from foot to foot while maintaining your balance in the current.
  • If you are fishing with a partner in a strong current, lock elbows to cross. It helps steady both people and provides a stronger base of support. It's important to maintain a tight connection at the elbows though. If you don't, you might as well be holding hands and that won't keep two people on their feet if one starts to slip. This works even better with more than two people.
  • Pay attention to where you are and where you are going. Evaluate your position before making your next move. Look around you and use your polarized glasses to look under the water to find the most efficient path to your destination.
  • Go slow, take your time. Move only one foot at a time. Make sure your foothold is steady and secure before picking up the other foot.
  • Never cross your feet. This is actually a good rule of thumb for most types of movement. If you cross one foot over the other, you are more likely to lose balance and fall. The most secure way to move is to side-step.
  • In a strong current, search for footholds in the spaces between rocks. Feel your way along the rocks with the bottom of your boot until you find a solid spot for your foot. Rocks are usually too slippery to stand on securely.
  • On a fairly flat bottom, shuffle your feet as you move so you don't step in a hole.
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