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Going With the Flow

As spring melts into summer, water users along the St. Vrain could find themselves up the creek.

Part 1 of a seasonal series

Spring, Longs Peak to Lyons

In the waning days of March, two storm systems approach Colorado from opposite directions. One, carrying evaporated water from the Gulf of Mexico, has been held at bay by a high-pressure system in Texas that has acted as a dike. But then a low-pressure system over Arizona and New Mexico pushed the high-pressure system to the northeast, and now, as the meteorologists say, "the Gulf is open," with moisture-laden air pouring through the breach in the dike, heading right for the Front Range.

The second system has formed off the coast of Oregon and Washington, drawing moisture from the Pacific Ocean and then carrying it aloft into the jet stream, the high-altitude current that moves west to east, counter to the Earth's rotation. The jet stream, which undulates along its path like a snake, now bends to the south, pushing that moisture down toward the Rocky Mountains.

It's the sort of spring weather pattern that gives Colorado forecasters fits. In Kansas, a rain cloud moving over the flat plain is just a rain cloud moving over the flat plain. But in this state, there are so many variables, most attributable to the mountains.

As a result, some television weathermen are now calling for a bit of rain, or maybe a little snow; others see the likelihood of a few inches in the city and maybe twice that in the mountains. Most agree that whatever happens, it will come as a quick hit before the storm systems knock themselves out or move on. Instead, the storms dump more than a foot of snow on the northern and central mountain and linger over the Denver area, causing more than a hundred fender-benders during the rush hours. A Texas man dies near Salida, when the van he's riding in slides into the path of an oncoming snowplow. Springtime in the Rockies.

The next day, gray clouds still shroud the summit of 14,255-foot Longs Peak as Tim Carney crouches at the trailhead leading up the mountain, strapping snowshoes to his fleece-lined boots. A scientist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Carney looks up at the clouds and gauges the likelihood of getting caught by a sequel to yesterday's storm. Although a few last snowflakes filter down through the tall conifers, the weather system has left the mountains -- headed, he hopes, for the parched farmland out east. He signs the visitor's log, picks up a long canvas bag, and begins plodding through the fresh powder into a shadowless, muffled world.

A couple miles into his climb, Carney comes to yet another switchback. He pauses to catch his breath and listen to the trickle of a stream that briefly intersects this point of the trail before skipping off down a ravine. Snow-covered boulders pop up like mushrooms along the waterway, but the stream itself is hidden beneath a sheath of ice and snow.

According to a topography map, the stream is Alpine Brook. But from here, these waters will be known by many different names, one cascading off another. Alpine Brook flows into Tahosa Creek, which flows into Cabin Creek, which flows into the north fork of the St. Vrain, which is either a creek or a river depending on the map. A couple of canyons away, the middle and south forks of the St. Vrain are gaining force. The three forks rush down out of the sandstone foothills and converge in the town of Lyons, 5,000 feet lower in elevation than where Carney now stands.

Twenty miles past Lyons, beyond the farm community of Hygiene and the burgeoning city of Longmont, the combined St. Vrain River picks up Boulder and Coal creeks. A few miles still further east, the St. Vrain empties into the north-flowing South Platte River at Platteville.

From there the South Platte turns northeast, absorbing the contributions of other watersheds -- the Big Thompson and Cache La Poudre rivers -- as well as more than a dozen smaller streams as it flows past booming Greeley and the dryland farm communities to the east. The South Platte exits Colorado at Julesburg.

Two hundred miles across the border, the South and North Plattes converge, then continue nearly straight east until the Platte pours into the Missouri River just south of Omaha. In St. Louis, the Missouri joins the Mississippi, which flows south into the Gulf of Mexico -- the body of water responsible for much of the previous day's dump of snow.

Up on the slopes of Longs Peak, Alpine Brook is a very long way from the big, muddy river that passes through New Orleans. The crystalline sound beneath the white blanket of snow is intoxicating, hypnotic, an invitation to break through the ice and scoop up a handful of the cold, clear water. But Carney, who left Queens some 25 years ago to study at Colorado State University and then settle in the West, knows better than most native Coloradans that except in rare times of surplus, every drop of water in the South Platte corridor -- from the Continental Divide to Colorado's borders and well beyond -- has already been claimed.

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