What exactly was the weather that caused the Colorado floods? — Brendan Heberton

Drought news: All that %$^&! rain helped in some areas #COdrought #COflood


From The Denver Post (John Ingold/Bruce Finley):

Colorado’s recent flooding rains have made significant inroads into the state’s persistent drought, in some cases eliminating concerns about water shortages. State climatologist Nolan Doesken said a new drought forecast will show “markedly better conditions for all of the state.” His report will be finalized Tuesday. “Drought as we know it will be ended at a number of locations,” said Doesken, who is based at Colorado State University.

For many water managers, that is welcome news, although not something they are cheering too heartily, given the destruction that came with the quenching rains.

Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson said higher stream flows and lower irrigation water use by customers means the utility has been able to bank water in its reservoirs at a time when supplies usually are being drained. Denver Water’s reservoirs are now at 94 percent capacity — compared with 90 percent capacity in a typical September. “We’re now heading into the fall and winter with higher reservoir levels than we did last season, putting us in a better position for filling our reservoirs next year,” Thompson wrote in an e-mail.

Steve Berry, a spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities, said its reservoirs also have been helped by the rain, although it will be a few weeks before the utility can quantify the benefit. More than anything, Berry said, the rains have sated the soil’s thirst, meaning more spring snowmelt likely will flow into reservoirs. In recent years, Berry said, “the ground was so parched that it would just draw in any moisture that fell.”

But the rains’ benefits don’t appear to have applied evenly across the state.

The speed of the floodwaters coursing down the South Platte — along with the amount of debris and sediment being pulled along — means irrigators in northeast Colorado are forced to keep their [headgates] closed. Reservoirs along the South Platte in northeast Colorado, such as Julesburg Reservoir near Sedgwick, are still far from full, with no new water flowing in. When water in the river slows down, irrigators may be able to open their gates. But until then, farmers and ranchers are left frustrated by all the water they must fight but not touch.

Cattleman Vance McCormick filled sandbags Monday to protect his home near Sedgwick from the raging river. Earlier this year, he cut his cattle operation by 25 percent because drought parched his pastures. “It’d be nice” to be able to top off reservoirs, McCormick said.

Colorado Springs and other points south are digging out from the #COflood

Storm pattern over Colorado September 2013: Graphic/NWS via USA Today
Storm pattern over Colorado September 2013 — Graphic/NWS via USA Today

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Wayne Heilman/Andrea Sinclair):

A nearly 10-hour power outage affected 3,700 customers in Security-Widefield, and officials are certain it was water-related, Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said Monday. According to reports, the thousands of customers lost power at 4:32 p.m. Sunday and Utilities fully restored service by 2 a.m. Monday. “We’ve been dealing with electric vaults getting water infiltration and areas where debris has washed up against a pole, causing damage to the equipment,” Berry said.

Another concern for Utilities crews has been the exposure of gas lines because of road erosion. A 40-foot-wide and 25-foot-deep sinkhole opened underneath a driveway on the 2700 block of Flintridge Drive on Sunday night, Berry said.

A nearby gas line was exposed, and gas was temporarily shut off to the residence while Utilities assessed damage. “As of 8 a.m. Monday, there was no word of any damage to the gas line, so the gas was restored,” Berry said. “But if the sinkhole continues to cave in, there’s no telling what could happen.”

A silver lining, if there is one, he said, has been the performance of the city’s wastewater system in the face of the massive walls of water that have roared down creeks and waterways. Berry said $165 million was invested on improvements to the system, and they worked. “There are lots of places where our utility services cross creeks, and the system has held up tremendously well.”

Colorado Springs got off relatively easy in other areas, too. The Denver Post reported that coal deliveries to and from Colorado are suffering delays of up to 72 hours due to washouts over railways between Denver and Boulder County. “We have not faced this problem, as we’ve been fortunate that the disaster hit us when the demand for coal isn’t quite high; it’s not the height of summer or winter, and customers aren’t cranking their air conditioning or their central heat,” Berry said. “We’re able to meet demands without problems now. If the floods keep up, then it will become a problem.”

Reservoir levels also are up from the excess rainfall. “We’re not in a position to say the drought is over, but this will help us long term, going into winter,” Berry said. “The soil moisture is saturated and in the coming winter, snow will build up on the ground, giving us a better chance for runoff. That will certainly help keep the reservoir levels up.”

First person: Estes Park woman records intense flooding on Main Street (via Fort Collins Coloradoan) #COflood

Here’s an Estes Park photo gallery from the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Surge of water moving downstream to Nebraska, some Denver-Julesberg oil and gas operations washed-out #COflood


From The Denver Post (Mark Jaffe):

Colorado’s richest oil field — the Denver-Julesburg Basin — is buried in floodwaters, raising operational and environmental concerns, as state and industry officials work to get a handle on the problem. Thousands of wells and operating sites have been affected — some remain in rushing waters, officials said. “The scale is unprecedented,” said Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “We will have to deal with environmental contamination from whatever source.”

Any pollution from oil fields likely will be mixed with a stew of agricultural pesticides, sewage, gasoline from service stations and other contaminants, King said. “As far as we know, all wells affected by flooding have been shut,” said Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.

The basin, one of the most promising onshore oil plays, has been the target of an estimated $4 billion of oil industry investment, with about 48 rigs operating when the flood hit.

Companies are using boats and helicopters to check sites not accessible by road, Schuller said. “As water levels recede, operators are assessing any damage and addressing it,” she said.

The major public health risks will come from contaminated water and sediments, said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a Natural Resources Defense Council staff scientist. “The aim is to find where there may be significant pollutants and where they are heading,” said Rotkin-Ellman, who studied industrial contamination in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is setting up a clearinghouse to log the status of every well and operation, said Matt Lepore, the commission’s executive director. The commission also is using its mapping technology to identify well sites along the South Platte River for inspection. “Mapping is a really good first step — it locates where the problem could be,” said NRDC’s Rotkin-Ellman.

The commission is forming teams — including inspectors, engineers and environmental specialists — to focus on locations north and south of the South Platte.

Still, the specter of pollution has raised concerns among environmentalist and community groups. “With the Texas Gulf Coast, they know in advance a hurricane is coming,” said Irene Fortune, a retired chemist who worked for British Petroleum and is now running the Loveland City Council. “To have something this inland, this level of flooding in an area with high oil and gas development, it’s new territory,” Fortune said.

Gary Wockner, executive director of Save Our Colorado, said, “Every flooded well needs to get inspected. “The COGCC needs to pass new regulations for drilling in floodplains to better protect people and the environment.”

There are more than 20,000 wells in th e DJ-Basin and surrounding areas and 3,200 permits for open pits in Weld County, according to state data. A review of the pit permits, however, found a significant number are old permits that may not be operating — most were to hold produced water that contains salts and metals from wells.

Major operators in the basin said they were able to shut all the wells hit by the flood. Encana Oil & Gas (USA) has shut about one-third of its 1,241 wells, the company said. “We have plans in place to inspect all of our facilities,” Doug Hock, an Encana spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We’re using (geographic information systems) to help prioritize lower-lying facilities that may likely have greater impacts.”

Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the second-largest operator in the basin, shut wells and stopped drilling activity. “The majority of our drilling, completions and workover activities in the affected areas of the field have been shut down,” the company said on its website. “Restarting the activities is expected to be significantly delayed due to road and location conditions,” the company said.

The well sites are designed to withstand harsh weather, said William Fleckenstein, a professor of petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. “The actual wells are meant to hold pressure on the inside. They’re designed to be fluid-tight,” Fleckenstein said. Concern arises when tanks are knocked over or damaged, Fleckenstein said. The “worst-case scenario,” however, would be damage to a high-pressure gas line, which would leak hydrocarbons in the air and be “very explosive,” Fleckenstein said.

The impact of the flood waters has been uneven in the basin, said the oil and gas association’s Schuller. Some areas are untouched, and some facilities are still surrounded by flowing water, Schuller said. “It may take some operations a week to get back up,” Schuller said. “It may take a year for others.”

Pictures of flooded well and drilling sites and damaged or floating tanks have been appearing on several social-media sites. “We’ve seen the pictures but don’t know the locations,” Schuller said. “If people provide the locations, we will check them.”

From the Omaha World-Herald (Nancy Gaarder):

Nebraskans are collecting sandbags, building levees and plugging culverts as they prepare for floodwaters pushing down the South Platte River from Colorado. Uncertainty surrounds the flood threat because of a lack of accurate information and the unpredictable consequences of floodwaters in a drought-depleted but debris-choked river. “The magnitude of flooding could be unprecedented,” Earl Imler of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said in a statement released Monday.

Factors creating the uncertainty:

» Lack of accurate information. The power and volume of the flooding in Colorado has broken or exceeded the capacity of flood gauges, so officials don’t know how much water is headed east.

The first useful assessment of South Platte River levels occurred Sunday in Fort Morgan, Colo., said Bob Swanson of the U.S. Geological Survey in Nebraska. But even that reading was inadequate because the river had already dropped at least 2 feet, he said.

Fresh readings Monday night at Julesburg, Colo., were expected to better assess the threat to Nebraska.

» Drought. Severe and extended drought has left the South Platte River virtually devoid of water, so there is plenty of room to accommodate floodwaters. In some areas of Nebraska, the river isn’t expected to overflow its banks, the National Weather Service said.

» Debris. This is the big wild card. As drought depleted the river, trees and shrubs grew, and debris piled up. As the surge of water moves through, it will probably dislodge the vegetation and debris, piling it against choke points in the channel, such as bridges. If that happens, the choke points could send water spilling across the valley.

“When that water hits bridges along the South Platte, it will be difficult for it to stay in the channels,” said Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. “Debris in the water is going to be the biggest issue and could contribute to additional flooding.”

Here’s one thing officials do know: At Fort Morgan on Saturday evening, the river rose about 9 feet in two hours as the bulk of a roughly 15-foot surge came through.

From The Denver Post (Tom McGhee/Ryan Parker):

The toll going into Monday was six presumed dead. But on Monday the Colorado Office of Emergency Management said a body recovered from El Paso County raised the total to seven. The body was found by Colorado Springs authorities about noon Monday in the West Fork of Sand Creek on the east side of 4600 Town Center Drive, said Barbara Miller, spokeswoman for Colorado Springs police. She did not release any more details except to say foul play was not suspected.

Hours later, Idaho Springs police said an eighth victim had been claimed by the floods. An 83-year-old man was killed Monday afternoon when the ground collapsed beneath him and he was swept away by Clear Creek, Idaho Springs police spokesman Jim Vogt said. The man’s body was recovered 3 miles downstream. The man is considered a victim of the flood because the water level of Clear Creek is well above normal, Vogt said.
The grim statistics: three dead in Boulder County, two in El Paso County, one in Clear Creek County and two missing and presumed dead in Larimer County.

The weather favored rescue crews Monday, and helicopters began carrying people stranded in remote parts of Boulder and Larimer counties to safety. “We were really hampered (Sunday) due to weather,” said Carrie Haverfield, spokeswoman for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.

Monday morning about 1,000 residents were stranded in Larimer County. By early afternoon, 110 people had been evacuated, and officials expected to take 300 to 400 more people to Fort Collins from communities cut off by floodwaters since Thursday.

As of Monday afternoon, the total number of residents unaccounted for in Boulder County was 183, according to the Boulder OEM. In Larimer County, 260 are unaccounted for, meaning they have not checked in with friends, family or authorities, according to the sheriff’s office.

According to early state emergency management office estimates, 17,994 homes have been damaged and 1,502 were destroyed along a 200-mile stretch of the Front Range, but the numbers could change as the waters recede and emergency workers reach more isolated areas.

For example, in Larimer County, it’s estimated that 1,500 homes have been destroyed and 4,500 damaged. An additional 200 places of business are destroyed, and 500 are damaged.

Monday night, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management reported 111 homes had been damaged and 119 had been destroyed. In addition, 28 commercial properties had been damaged, and one had been destroyed.

Damage assessments in Weld County are continuing, but as of Sunday night an estimated 2,910 homes had suffered at least some damage, and some have been destroyed. In Milliken, at least 45 people lost their homes. In Evans 200 mobile homes and 60 houses were destroyed or totaled. An estimated 2,377 agricultural properties also were affected. As of noon Monday, more than 210 miles of roads remain closed in Weld County. A total of 654 lane-miles of roadway have been flooded and in some cases, destroyed, as have 122 bridges and 64 irrigation canals, spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said.

There was new flooding reported in Logan County, in the northeast part of the state, as water flowing out of the state passes through, said Micki Trost, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has five search-and-rescue teams helping local emergency workers, Trost said.

West Metro Fire Rescue has been “federalized” and is one of the teams working with FEMA, said FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a noon news conference with FEMA administrator Craig Fugate that 21 helicopters were engaged Monday with search-and-rescue missions. The governor said damage analysis has begun. A fuller picture of the costs of the flood could take up to three weeks, Hickenlooper said. Fugate said it could take 30 days.

The FEMA administrator said lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy showed that most of those whose homes are damaged or destroyed can be helped with rental assistance. Where possible, “expedient repairs” are the solution. Fugate said in some cases, FEMA-supplied manufactured housing might be needed.

Boulder, Larimer, Weld and Adams counties have been added to the Federal Emergency Management Agency individual assistance declaration.

In Weld County, sheriff’s deputies are making sure that looters don’t victimize those who have been hurt by the raging floodwaters, and assuring the safety of others, said Steve Reams, spokesman for the sheriff’s office. In Milliken, where the Little Thompson River spilled over its banks, seven freight cars could be seen lying on their side where the tracks ran along the river. In the nearby Evergreen Mobile Park, 32 of 35 trailer homes were destroyed. Tim Solomon, owner of the park, said he has no flood insurance because the property is outside the floodplain. A 6-foot-high wall of water rolled through the trailer park Friday morning. John Vega, a resident, was there Monday salvaging what he could from his home. “There is water in my whole house,” he said. “We don’t know what we can save.”

Flood conditions are spread across 200 miles running north to south along the Front Range. Fifteen counties are in that swath of territory: Boulder, El Paso, Larimer, Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Fremont, Jefferson, Logan, Morgan, Pueblo, Washington and Weld.

As flooding along the South Platte River moved downstream into northeast Colorado, communities braced for unprecedented rising water levels. Officials believe the river crested at Sterling at 1:44 a.m. Monday. The bridge into Sterling from Interstate 76 was closed as the South Platte River washed over the roadway, inundating Sterling’s Overland Trail Museum, a hotel and a gas station. U.S. 6 was closed between Sterling and Fort Morgan. A hospital and downtown buildings were sand-bagged late Sunday. Hundreds of people in low-lying areas were evacuated.

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

The floating mobile homes, washed out highways and submerged cars that embodied the devastating portrait of Weld County’s floods over the weekend were put into numbers on Monday, with Weld County commissioners estimating at least $230 million in damages to properties and infrastructure countywide. “That’s just the preliminary number,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway at a briefing with Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper on Monday afternoon.

As waters continued to recede throughout the day and roads gradually reopened, emergency officials began to transition out of “emergency” mode and into “recovery” mode, sending out 10 crews to do preliminary damage assessments.

County officials estimate more than 7,000 parcels of land were impacted by floodwaters, 2,900 of them residential. Another 2,300 are agricultural parcels, said Jennifer Finch, spokeswoman for Weld County commissioners. She said 355 commercial and 62 industrial properties were also damaged. A total of 140 roads in the county were closed at some point, with 654 lane miles of Weld’s roadways impacted by the flood. That doesn’t count the damage done to some state corridors, namely the section of U.S. 34 midway between Greeley and Kersey that was literally dissolved by the flood. Sixty-four irrigation canals were damaged in the flood, Finch said.

The Poudre River hovered around 7 feet high on Monday, with Greeley officials suggesting a voluntary evacuation along the river until those levels drop over the next few days. After peaking at nearly 19 feet on Friday night, the South Platte River is expected to rise to 17 feet on Monday night and then steadily drop to normal levels, according to the National Weather Service.

Roy Rudisill, emergency operations manager for Weld County, said the county would probably have to wait until Wednesday to wholly assess the damage, especially in the hard-hit areas of east Greeley, Evans and Milliken.

Commissioners told Hickenlooper their biggest concern at this point is where those displaced from the flood will stay during the coming weeks and months they don’t have a home. With a vacancy rate of less than 1.5 percent in the Greeley area and a similarly tight lodging market, many have nowhere to turn for shelter. “These are people that are not likely to have flood insurance,” Conway told Hickenlooper. County officials have estimated 400 people were housed at the evacuation centers in Greeley, Milliken, Johnstown, LaSalle, Longmont, Erie, Fort Lupton and Niwot at any given time. “They are not likely to have any insurance. And they have lost everything,” he said.

Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer suggested the Governor’s Office use funding from the Community Development Block Grant program, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced is available to use in counties where there has been a disaster declaration. HUD will also offer foreclosure relief and other assistance in Weld. Residents and business owners impacted by the flood are eligible for federal aid, but Kirkmeyer said she fears it will take too long for FEMA money to come through.

Roxane White, Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, said the Governor’s Office must first assess the need statewide, but that could be an option.

The county has also experienced a furor of issues with water and wastewater plants due to flooding. In Evans, thousands of residents have been told not to flush their toilets or shower, thanks to damage to the 1st Avenue wastewater plant, prompting Greeley-Evans School District 6 to close schools on Monday. Evans is in the process of placing port a-potties in schools and configuring temporary infrastructure to get some sewage pumped by Greeley’s wastewater plant.

In LaSalle, too, residents have been asked not to run any water down their drains until 5 p.m. on Wednesday because their wastewater system was damaged, and portable toilets were set up in the community center. Left Hand Water District in southwest Weld County can not reach a portion of residents on its system, and Firestone issued a boil order to its residents as a precaution against residuals of chlorine detected in the water.

Rudisill said there are no reports of missing people that have come through any law enforcement agencies in Weld County. He said the Emergency Operations Center has been forwarding calls for inquiries of missing family members and friends to the Red Cross, but Weld is reporting zero unaccounted people. In the midst of the disarray over the weekend, Rudisill said the county ran out of barricades to keep people from driving down so many endangered roads, and Weld lost three patrol cars doing search and rescue.

First responders received a total of 2,603 calls for service.

In one instance, a family near Kersey was forced to stay in their home Friday night because there was no way for first responders to reach them, Rudisill said.

Weld County Sheriff John Cooke said he’s since had to reorganize his manpower to ensure deputies can get to calls despite the crippling effects the floodwaters have had on roads. “Our biggest challenge will be getting to the locations we need to be,” Cooke said.

He got a bird’s-eye view of damage in the central part of the county on Monday, thanks to a courtesy flight provided by TYJ Global in Platteville. Cooke said he’s been on the ground in many of the hardest-hit areas, but seeing the devastation from above put things into a different perspective. “You can be just a few yards away and everything’s fine, and just a few yards another way and everything’s ruined,” Cooke said.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

Northern Colorado activists have been circulating photos of completely submerged wells in Weld County and tanks that were knocked loose by rushing water. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said in a written statement Monday that “many oil and gas locations have been affected by the flood,” but it is too early to tell the extent of the damage.

“As this event is still unfolding, especially as flood waters continue to move northeast, access is limited and emergency responders are focused on lives and property,” wrote Todd Hartman, the commission’s spokesman, in an email. “It’s too soon to provide specific information about impacts or particular locations.”

Although many well sites are still flooded, some progress has been made on shutting them down, Hartman said.

“In many cases operators have added additional security to tanks, such as chaining, to reduce chances they will float with the flood waters,” Hartman wrote. “They have also been shutting in wells to stop production and prevent overfilling storage tanks.”

Much of the concern is centered around wells east of Larimer County. Prospect Energy, which operates the only oil and gas wells in Fort Collins, was left unscathed by the floods, said Scott Hall, CEO of Denver-based parent company Black Diamond Minerals. The area is wet, but none of the drilling infrastructure was submerged, he added.