Tubing at LaVerne M. Johnson Park in Lyons during a less dangerous period on the creek. Photo: David Strom/Town of Lyons

In a tragedy on the Boulder Creek, a nine-year-old child fell off his tube on June 11, 2023, and drowned. Although there was no tubing ban in place when the incident happened, the water was likely running near or above the high range generally recommended for the activity, based on local streamflow data. The tragic accident is the fourth water death in the state so far this year.

The incident highlights potential dangers as water levels are higher than average all over the Boulder area and the state, after ample snow totals this winter and storms this spring.

After the most deadly year on record for water deaths in Colorado last year — with 42 deaths, up from 22 the year before — Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued a reminder last month for all recreationists to wear a life vest. And anyone thinking of making their way down a river should keep an eye on quickly shifting and unpredictable flow reports — and possible flooding.

The Town of Lyons issued a flood warning to residents late last week, when the streamflow of Saint Vrain Creek neared a potentially hazardous threshold. The weekend storms weren’t realized but expected rain all week keeps the advisory relevant.  

At 1,200 cubic feet per second (CFS), the creek can cause localized flooding, and residents in the floodway were told to be prepared for evacuation over the weekend as the gauge hit 1,080 CFS late on the night of June 8, when water levels are highest. That is more than 150% of the norm. 

Because of all the rain leading up to this point the ground is already saturated, making flooding more likely. 

Preceding the flood warning, the water hit a lower-level threshold on June 7 for the third year in a row, triggering a tubing ban on the Saint Vrain Creeks, which are tributaries of the South Platte River.

The ban was issued by the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office after flows reached 700 CFS, which is the threshold for such a ban. It applies to single-chamber floats like inner tubes and rafts, where a puncture would cause the whole thing to deflate. At around 500 CFS the water reaches class III, which requires technical skill to navigate. That means it’s above the high range recommended for tubing and even above what’s recommended for kayaks.

When the deadly accident happened on Boulder Creek, the water was likely running near or above 500 CFS, according to the streamflow data. Above 500 CFS, things only get faster.

Despite the tubing ban, people were still on the St. Vrain Creek over the weekend. Whitewater Attainment, for instance, experienced fast rapids during day one of its swiftwater rescue certification course on the creek in Lyons, calling it an “awesome start.”

June tubing bans may be new norm

With a changing trend in snowpack that is moving spring melt out of the system earlier and faster, it may be the case that June tubing bans on the Saint Vrain (and dangerous conditions on other Boulder-area creeks) we’ve seen over the last three years is something we should come to expect. 

As Saint Vrain Creek at Lyons was nearing flood heights on June 8, the gauge at Boulder Creek and Orodell, a hotspot for whitewater kayaking class III and IV just east of Boulder, was 65% above average. That was a record high for the day since 2010.

Meanwhile, the Colorado River above Grand Lake reached a height of 7.7 feet, which is only a few inches away from “flood stage.” And foot bridges and trails along and crossing the river are flooded. 

With more rain expected this week, the streamflow levels will rise. The Saint Vrain Creek rose 20% two days in a row, while Boulder Creek at Orodell rose 57% on June 8, and dropped back to normal levels on June 9. It has been up and down since.

Jenna Sampson is a freelance journalist in Boulder, Colorado. When not dabbling in boat building or rock climbing you can find her nursing an iced coffee in front of a good book. Email: jsampson@fastmail.com.

Join the Conversation


  1. Why is the child drowning eight not mentioned until eight paragraphs into the story? Doesn’t it exemplify the danger and serve as prevention?

  2. Was the child wearing a life vest? If not, that is one level of tragedy. If the child was wearing a life vest and pinned down by the rapid flow of the creek then it was hinted at but not entirely clear from the article how dangerous the rapid flow is. When I clicked on the “streamflow data” link I only got a dead link. It could be my old computer.

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