‘The foundations to some of these tanks actually washed out underneath them’ — Dan Kelly #COflood

Production fluids leak into surface water September 2013 -- Photo/The Denver Post
Production fluids leak into surface water September 2013 — Photo/The Denver Post

From NPR (Grace Hood):

“So as the water crested there was a tremendous amount of I think earth moved in some cases to where the foundations to some of these tanks actually washed out underneath them,” says Dan Kelly, vice president of Noble Energy’s operations in the area.

The company reported four spills, amounting to almost 9,000 gallons of oil. In some instances the floodwaters quickly swept the oil downstream. In others, the company had to sop up the spilled oil or use vacuum trucks. Kelly says his company is still trying to gain access to a few sites.

“Due to the water, due to the currents, due to some of the other issues with potential pollutants — bacteria and some of the things we’re very concerned with — we have not aggressively pursued trying to get into some that still have risk,” he says.

The bacteria he’s referring to — from raw sewage and animal excrement from feed lots — have also spilled into floodwaters. Overall, state officials are warning people to stay away from the water. But not everyone can make that choice.

Riding on horseback, one of the few ways to get around near the South Platte River, rancher Kody Lostroh searches downstream from one oil spill area for a cow he lost in the floods.

“There’s a ton of junk in the water right now,” he says. “It’s just another thing we have to deal with.”

In total, state officials are tracking 12 of what they call “notable” oil releases in the region. Colorado’s oil and gas regulatory body has multiple teams in the field assessing the affects of floodwaters. Energy companies themselves are conducting aerial surveys of their equipment.

Some sites remain unreachable by land because roads are too muddy or have been destroyed. Overall, state officials estimate about 1,300 wells remain shut down.

From The Denver Post (Allen Best):

The recent rainfall along the Front Range was phenomenal, by some estimates a 1,000-year event in terms of duration, volume and area. But the flooding?

Not so much, at least as measured by an obelisk along Boulder Creek in downtown Boulder.

Human memories about weather are unreliable. During many years living in Vail, how often did I hear that the latest powder storm was absolutely the best ever? Plenty. Flooding is like that, too, but maybe in reverse.

The turquoise obelisk in Boulder provides a better measure against long-term memory loss. Located near the Broadway bridge, it provides benchmarks for flood levels. The water this year lapped against the 50-year marker. Above it are others: 100 years, 500 years and, much higher yet, Big Thompson, a reference to the giant flood in that canyon between Loveland and Estes Park in 1976.

I was at the Big Thompson disaster. I was living in Fort Collins then and was among scores of young men (sorry, women, those were different times) with strong backs who could be summoned in case of forest fires. My only fire was at an old sawmill site in the foothills. The joke was that one of us had set the fire because we were so desperate for minimum-wage work.

Then came July 31. It was hot that night in Fort Collins. It hadn’t rained a drop.

I was living above Gene’s Tavern, just two blocks from the Larimer County Courthouse. When the call came, I was at the sheriff’s office almost immediately. It was 9 p.m.

Being among the first at the command center at the Dam Store west of Loveland, near the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon, I was assigned to a pickup dispatched to look for people in the water near the turnoff to Masonville. Already, the river was out of its banks. From the darkness emerged a figure, dripping and confused. “I went fishing at Horsetooth (Reservoir) and was driving home and then there was all this water,” he sputtered. He was befuddled. So were we.

Our leader decided we’d best get out of there. From what I saw the next morning, that was an excellent decision. Water later covered the road there, too. I spent the night at the Dam Store as the water rose. Helicopters were dispatched, but there was little that could be done. Our lights revealed picnic baskets, beach balls and propane bottles bobbing in the dark, roiling water that raced past us, but never any hands summoning help.

In the morning, we found those hands. The bodies were stripped of clothing and covered with mud. The first I saw was of a woman who we guessed was 18, not much younger than I was then. This thin margin between life and death was startling in my young eyes.

Eventually, 144 people were declared victims of the flooding that night (although one turned up alive in 2008 in Oklahoma).

Estes Park got some rain, but not all that much. The larger story was partway down the canyon, in the Glen Haven and Glen Comfort areas, where the thunderstorm hovered. In just a few hours, it dropped 10 to 14 inches of water.

Downstream in the canyon, just above the Narrows, some people were unaware that anything was amiss until they went outside their houses and saw the water rising in their yards. It hadn’t even rained there. One cabin I saw a few days later was stripped of doors and windows but stood on its foundations, a mound of mud 5 or 6 feet high in the interior. I seem to recall a dog barking as we approached, protecting that small part of the familiar in a world gone mad.

At the old hydroelectric plant where my family had once enjoyed Sunday picnics, the brick building had vanished. Only the turbines and concrete foundation remained. In a nearby tree, amid the branches maybe 10 or 15 feet off the ground, hung a lifeless body.

The river that night carried 32,000 cubic feet per second of water at the mouth of the canyon, near where I was stationed. It happened almost instantaneously — and then it was gone. It was a flash flood.

This year, the flows peaked at 10,000 cfs, but were more sustained and, according to reports, the damage inexplicably greater in portions of the canyon. There were horrors, too, but this year there was time for warnings.

After the 1976 flood, rain gauges were sprinkled in the foothills of the Front Range, up to 7,500 feet in elevation, where most heavy summer rains occur. That telemetrically transmitted information alerts police chiefs and sheriffs to flooding potential. That warning system may have saved lives this year.

Where does volume of this flood fit into the context of flooding in the last 150 years? That answer will have to wait. Many rain gauges were swept away, so peak flows will have to be calculated during field visits by U.S. Geological Survey personnel. That will take several weeks.

One more banner of comparison was 1965, when rivers and creeks from Castle Rock to Lamar to Fort Morgan flooded.

The flood that swept through Littleton and Denver created a mess, but led to the rethinking of the South Platte River as an asset rather than industrial afterthought.

East of Denver and Colorado Springs, the same storms transformed Bijou Creek from a lifeless expanse of sand into an angry, snarling mass of water. At Fort Morgan, after entering the South Platte River, it nearly submerged the arches of the Rainbow Bridge. This year’s flooding, according to several eyewitness accounts, didn’t even come close.

We’ve had other floods, too. Even in the midst of the Dust Bowl, there were giant floods in eastern Colorado, both on the South Platte and in the Republican River.

My guess is that this flood will be the most damaging ever in Colorado history. Part of this is due to how broad the inundation was, from Colorado Springs to Wyoming. Population growth is also part of the story. Colorado now has 5.2 million people, almost double that of 1970, most of us crowded between Castle Rock and Wellington, a good many in the foothills, those areas so vulnerable to fires but also flooding.

This flood once again points to the importance of land-use planning. Where you put sewer plants does matter. You can’t anticipate every natural disaster, but floods have an element of predictability.

Boulder has had big floods before, most notably in 1894. It also had the direct lesson of Big Thompson and the local influence of Gilbert White, who died in 2006. “Floods are ‘acts of God,’ but flood losses are largely acts of man,” he had said. Boulder has muddy feet, but the consequences would have been much worse had the city not taken his advice and removed structures from along the creek to the west and resized bridges to accommodate more water. The obelisk is in his honor.

John Pitlick, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado, says the flood this year peaked at about the 50-year marker on the obelisk.

In one of his classes, he also noted that rainfall and flooding aren’t one and the same. “It is possible from a statistical analysis to be a 1,000-year rain, but you don’t necessarily have a 1,000-year flood.”

In other words, context matters entirely. Had the water fallen in a shorter time, such as it did in the Big Thompson in 1976, Boulder’s story almost assuredly would have been different. “We might have seen a catastrophe,” he says.

That leaves us in something of a no-man’s land, as Pitlick puts it.

This year’s floods were a big deal but, aside from individual losses, not catastrophic to Colorado. What lessons do you draw for future flood planning? That’s the question for communities along the Front Range in months ahead.

Allen Best of Arvada publishes an online newsmagazine found at http://mountaintownnews.net.

From The Denver Post (Tom McGhee):

The 1965 flood that devastated Denver remains the most costly natural disaster in terms of property loss in state history. It also prompted the building of Chatfield Dam and changed the face of the city.

In 1976, a storm dumped more than a foot of rain over Big Thompson Canyon and killed 144 people. It led to the establishment of safe areas and warning signs. A 1921 flood on the Arkansas River led to the rebuilding of Pueblo and the rerouting of the river.

Though usually tame, the waterways that tumble across Colorado’s rugged terrain have a history of turning deadly. At least three major floods over the past 100 years have left changes large and small in their wake.

It’s too soon to say what transformation could follow last week’s flooding.

“For a historian to predict the future is kind of like malpractice; we deal with the past, not the future,” said B. Erin Cole, assistant state historian. “They say history repeats itself, but it really never does.”

A string of menacing funnels materialized over the foothills on June 15, 1965, as a storm, which dumped 14 inches of rain in a little more than three hours, announced its presence with a blizzard of hail.

Jim Hier and a cousin were driving home from a job drilling wells north of Monument Hill. He looked back over his shoulder.

“South of Larkspur, I looked up at the valley where we had been and the whole valley was a lake,” said Hier, now 71.

The deluge began when Plum Creek breached its banks near the Palmer Divide, Cole said. As the water thundered toward Denver, “almost all the tributaries of the South Platte flooded.”

Hier, 26 at the time, and two cousins rescued an elderly man from the top floor of his home as the turbulent water was sweeping the house away.

The flood splintered homes and barns, drowned livestock and washed out roads. Debris that included butane storage tanks slammed against bridges, plugging the channels beneath them.

In Denver, the 15th Street bridge was one of 16 bridges destroyed. Somehow, the 19th Street bridge, built in the late 1880s, stood firm and remains in place, said Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado Denver

Over two days, the flood spread through 15 counties, inundating 250,000 acres and causing 21 deaths and $540 million ($3.9 billion adjusted for inflation) in damage.

Most of the damage was in Denver, Cole said. “It hit the most densely populated part of the state the hardest,” she said.

After the flood, the public clamored for a dam to protect the city, and Chatfield Dam was built.

As the city began to rebuild, some developers wanted to plant single-family homes along the waterway, Cole said. Instead, high rises went up, and over time parks and bike paths turned the once-polluted river into a popular amenity for residents and visitors.

The highest flood-related death toll was likely reached June 3-5, 1921, when torrential rains drenched Pueblo. Railroad cars were swept away, along with entire buildings, and after a fire started in a lumberyard, the raging waters carried burning planks through the city.

“Hundreds of people died, with some death toll estimates as high as 1,500,” according to the National Climatic Data Center. “Many of the dead were likely carried far down river and never recovered.”

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