Lawn Lake dam break inundated Estes Park — Loveland Reporter-Herald

Lawn Lake Flood
Lawn Lake Flood

From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Kenneth Jessen):

In 1975, a Colorado dam inspector hiked the half-dozen miles to the Lawn Lake dam and reported that it was in need of a thorough inspection after the snow melted. Another inspector reported two years later that the dam was in fair condition and suggested that its owners make repairs.

On Aug. 8, 1978, a third inspector reaffirmed the marginal rating for the dam and recommended that it be observed when the reservoir was full.

The caulking between the outlet pipe and the release valve started to allow water to trickle along the outer surface of the pipe. Once a small channel had eaten into the earthen dam under pressure, it rapidly expanded.

On July 15, 1982, the Lawn Lake dam failed catastrophically. The release of water was heard by campers along the Roaring River. One man below the dam was swept to his death in the churning water.

The wall of water forced large boulders down 2,500 vertical feet to Horseshoe Park acting as battering rams. The forested banks of Roaring River where scoured away in a landslide of thousands of tons of material.

Much of the impact of the flood was absorbed by the broad expanse of Horseshoe Park. An alluvial fan quickly formed at the mouth of Roaring River. The debris was pushed across Horseshoe Park damming the Fall River and forming a shallow lake.

Fortunately, Steve Gillette was collecting trash at the Lawn Lake trailhead. It was 6:23 a.m. when he sighted the flood coming toward him and alerted park officials.

In an interview with the Loveland Reporter-Herald, he described the noise like that of a plane crashing. Gillette said that it looked like a mudslide of the type you see in the movies.

The vast volume of water poured into Fall River and picked up finely divided glacial silt in the process.

Below Horseshoe Park was the Cascade Dam. The force of the water first backed up behind the dam, and then suddenly toppled the 17-foot high structure at 7:42 a.m. This amplified the intensity of the flood and a wall of water raced through the Aspenglen Campground killing two people.

The mud and water coursed through motels and restaurants, then hit downtown Estes Park. The entire width of Elkhorn Avenue became a river of mud-filled water combined with a great deal of debris. It did an extraordinary amount of damage as entire inventories for the summer tourist season were washed away or ruined.

State inspectors were partially to blame along with the Park Service. Much of the responsibility, however, had to be borne by owners of the dam, the Farmers Irrigation Ditch & Reservoir Co. Its 16 stockholders became worried about legal action, but they were protected by their corporation.

National flood insurance covered only 20 property owners out of some 275 affected by the flood.

High-profile trial lawyer Gerry Spence was hired by Estes Park property owners to represent their interests. He quickly concluded that the entire assets of the ditch company consisted of little more than their $1.4 million insurance policy. This money was turned over to the court system to be disbursed.

Immunity against lawsuits was evoked by both the federal government and the state of Colorado. Damages topped $30 million, which ultimately had to be absorbed by businesses and individuals.

Low interest rate loans were made available. Other federal assistance included unemployment payments, temporary housing, up to $5,000 for out-of-pocket living expenses and food stamps. However, very little compensation was received by anyone financially injured by the Lawn Lake flood.

Less than 10 cents on the dollar was paid to flood victims, forcing the permanent closure of many businesses.

The Lawn Lake disaster became the perfect opportunity for the Park Service to dismantle selected dams.

Lost Lake dam was dismantled followed by the Pear, Sandbeach and Bluebird dams. Spared were Lily, Sprague, Snowbank and Copeland.

More infrastructure coverage here.

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