Tube to Work Day 2019 is Tardy, but Still Totally Tubular

by Alison Gilchrist, CSTPR Science Writer

Every year, hundreds of people participate in Boulder’s Tube to Work Day, an event for which Boulder Creek is flooded with people ostensibly commuting to work by inflatable device. It’s a yearly extravaganza only made possible by enthusiastic volunteers, a sense of adventure on the part of everyone participating, and an accurate knowledge of streamflow. 

Steamflow is the amount of water flowing in any river or creek—in this case, Boulder Creek—at a given time. It varies enormously based on the amount of rainfall and snowmelt that are adding to the water supply, and sometimes this variation can be unpredictable.

In a prime example of how unpredictable streamflow can mess with even the best-laid plans, this year’s Tube to Work Day (the twelfth annual event) was delayed by a week due to high flows. According to Jeff Kagan, one of the founders and organizers of Tube to Work Day, the ideal streamflow for Tube to Work Day is between 150-200 cubic feet per second. This speed ensures that the water isn’t dangerously high and fast, while still providing a good time.

Jeff Kagan, co-founder of Tube to Work Day’s founders and organizers in 2018.

Kagan has said in the past that if the streamflow is ever over 300 cubic feet per second on Tube to Work Day, the event will be postponed. The U.S. Geological Survey site reported that Boulder Creek was about 660 cubic feet per second on July 2nd, about a week before the event was originally scheduled to take place. As a result, the event was postponed to make sure the creek wasn’t dangerously high.

“We were looking on track through early May, and then we just had a very strange spring and early summer… Right around July 5th I saw the streamflow climb to a record high for that date,” said Kagan. “Knowing that our event was scheduled one week later, it was a pretty easy call to just say ‘we’re going to postpone.’”

Kagan then had to choose a date to postpone until, knowing that it would be hard to exactly predict what Boulder Creek was up to so far in advance (This year’s TTWD is Friday, July 19). Luckily, the research he did with the help of other Boulderites panned out.

“We consulted with the city events manager, the Boulder water resource department, and a water hydrologist up at Betasso,” said Kagan. “I think we chose a good date. The water is still a little higher than anticipated, but it has come down to a much more manageable level.”

Figuring out if and when it’s safe to go tubing isn’t the only reason you might need to know about streamflow, however. Streamflow data allows fly fishermen to choose times and places to cast lines. The data is also used to validate flood models and improve flood forecasts. For both recreation and safety, having accurate information about how much water is flowing in Boulder Creek can be very important.

CSTPR Director, Max Boykoff, participating in 2018’s Tube to Work Day.

One way to find this information is to use the online resource “Rocky Mountains-High Plains Climate Dashboard”, hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Western Water Assessment. From there, you can find multiple resources that have information about streamflow, temperature, snowpack and drought in the Rocky Mountains. The streamflow information is part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water Information System, which collects data from river sites around the country every 15-60 minutes. The data is collected by automatic recorders and manual field measurements and is sent to USGS offices via satellite, telephone, and radio telemetry—quite the data collection feat.

But for everyone coming to Tube to Work Day this Friday, Jeff Kagan has done the work for you—the water will be tube-able, even if it’s quite fast.

“Anyone coming to float—it is not a lazy river, this is not a passive float,” warned Kagan. “There are always a percentage of people who come expecting a chill float, and this is more of a modified white-water experience.”

As Kagan further stressed, everyone should be prepared on Friday with a helmet, close-toed shoes, and a wetsuit. Also, a waiver is mandatory! So if you want to save some time, you should preregister online. But as soon as you’ve done that, the streamflow is yours to measure: if by “measure”, you mean “float rapidly downstream on in the midst of hundreds of enthusiastic commuters.” Have fun!

Tube to Work Day Pre-Registration closes at 10pm on Thursday, July 18. Missed the “boat?” Come to Eben G. Fine b 7:45am on July 19 to sign your day-of waiver.

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