Six months after September flooding washed over homes, businesses and lives, residents and officials are scrambling to prepare for a spring runoff season that could be wildly unpredictable. That’s because the flooding that took 10 lives, closed 30 state highways and interstates and caused at least $1 billion in damages also drastically altered rivers and streams that carry melted snow to towns and cities, say officials. Some riverbeds were moved several football fields from where they had rested for generations. Floodwaters made some channels wider and deeper and able to carry more water, while others are now shallower and narrower and will funnel less water.
“It’s like your bathtub at home,” said George Gerstle, Boulder County’s transportation director. “If your bathtub is reshaped, it’s not going to hold water like it did before.”
This is causing unprecedented problems for those shoring up damaged canals and channels and rebuilding roads by early May. It’s hard to predict where all that water from the foothills and mountains will go when it starts barreling downhill.
“We’ve faced higher-than-normal snowmelts,” said Johnny Olson, incident commander with the Colorado Department of Transportation Infrastructure Recovery Force. “But we’ve never faced it when the roadways don’t have the right elevation or there is instability in the slope and banks of the river.
“Because of that, we’re not sure how the river is going to react.”
The signs are already there for a huge runoff. Snowpack in some areas is running almost 250 percent of normal. The ground is still saturated where floodwaters ran especially heavy, and unusually high water tables are forcing springs to pop up from under the ground in the foothills. A full-blown spring runoff event is likely to happen if temperatures in early May are unusually warm followed by heavy rainfall, said Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.
“This will happen. This will be a reality,” Chard said.
To prepare, communities hit hardest by the September flooding began piecing together plans this winter to deal with the inevitable runoff.
In Lyons, which was split in half by the flooding, contractors and crews are stabilizing the banks of the North and South St. Vrain and building berms to protect homes and businesses, said Lyons Mayor Julie VanDomelen. So far, the town has spent $657,000 for immediate efforts to shore up stream beds, and another $571,000 is being earmarked to spend on private property through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program, VanDomelen said. She and other public officials in flood-damaged communities say they’ve been able to work with county, state and federal officials to make sure flood-prevention funds and resources are flowing.
There were some hard negotiations, however.
“With FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), they don’t usually work on future flood events,” said VanDomelen. “But we told them, ‘No, this is going to happen.’
“So now, we have a framework to work with.”
Colorado’s flood-ravaged communities got more federal help Friday, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would provide an additional $199.3 million in recovery funds. The money comes through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program to support long-term recovery efforts in areas of Colorado with a great extent of “unmet need,” primarily in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties.
Debris removal and shore stabilization are ongoing in Estes Park, while farther east in Weld County, Evans is hosting Flood Preparedness Week on Monday through Saturday. Such an event probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention before the September floods, which totaled or severely damaged 200 mobile homes and 60 houses. Up to 2,500 people were displaced.
“In Colorado, flooding wasn’t really on the radar screen, and it certainly wasn’t here,” said Kristan Williams, city of Evans spokeswoman. “But this year, it is.”
Evans has spent nearly $1.7 million in its recovery efforts and is awaiting full reimbursements from FEMA and the state. The city is also working to get debris removed from two heavily damaged mobile-home parks.
Flood Preparedness Week, meanwhile, will focus on morale-boosting and practical ways to prevent flash flooding. Author Mark Hoog will speak on resiliency Wednesday. Then on March 22, residents can learn about financial programs for flood victims and the importance of tetanus shots, and view a sandbagging demonstration.
“It’s things people will need to know in case this happens again,” Williams said.
This winter, crews from Boulder County went through 3,000 flood-damage reports and walked 90 miles of creeks and drainages to pick the most likely problem areas during a spring flood. They found 200 hazardous spots that need the most attention. Those include streams that need realignments, debris removal and culverts replaced. In at least two areas, a home is either in a stream or jutting out over one, said Chard. Officials hope to get everything flood-ready by May 1. Meanwhile, they implored rural county residents in a series of public meetings this week to report any signs of early flood activity.
“I need your eyes on the mountain,” Chard said. “If you see something, let us know.”
Early May is also the deadline for CDOT crews to finish preparing flood-damaged state and federal roads for spring runoff in the foothills. On Monday, the first of 10 two-hour blasting operations is planned from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at mile maker 11.2, west of Pinewood Springs near Estes Park. The work is part of flood reconstruction between Lyons and Estes Park on U.S. 36. On average, the highway will be moved inland about 20 feet, away from the St. Vrain River.
“We are still in the process of getting that roadway on bedrock and making it more stable,” said CDOT’s Olson. “It’s all part of our efforts to protect the public as much as we can.”
Meanwhile, in the Boulder County foothills, Jamestown residents and crews have worked hard to stabilize and remove debris along the James and Little James creeks, said Mayor Tara Schoedinger. The town’s nearly 300 residents were forced to evacuate during September’s floods, and Schoedinger’s next-door neighbor, 72-year-old Joey Howlett, was killed.
“It was a horrible, bad day,” said Schoedinger, who praises the hard work of her constituents as spring flooding approaches.
“It’s certainly something we’re concerned about, but I don’t think anyone is panicking,” she said. “We all have a job to do, and we do it.”
She thinks they have done a good job clearing the streams that feed the town.
“We’re just more worried about what is coming for above us,” Schoedinger said.