September 2013 flood: “It’s a nightmare we keep trying to wake up from” — Kitty Wang

Evans Colorado September 2013 via TheDenverChannel.com
Evans Colorado September 2013 via TheDenverChannel.com

From The Denver Post via the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Joey Bunch/John Aguilar):

As Colorado hits the two-year mark since a historic deluge swelled rivers and creeks to overflowing, killing 10 and causing nearly $4 billion in damage across 24 counties, frustration is a theme for a surprisingly large group of folks still dealing with the storm’s aftermath. Hundreds of mobile home park residents in Evans, a city of 20,000 south of Greeley, are unable to return to communities that have been effectively scraped off the map.

The major access road into Glen Haven is still being put back together, causing repeated daily hour-long delays that result in unending headaches for locals and drive away tourist traffic headed to or from nearby Estes Park.

Only three of 17 homes in James town destroyed by a manic James Creek have been completely rebuilt, and a part of the population has relocated or hasn’t yet moved back to the tiny mountain town.

And then there are the dozens of Lyons residents, locked in a seemingly endless bureaucratic arm-wrestling match with town officials over attempts to get permits to rebuild their homes.

They confronted town leaders at a public meeting earlier this month demanding a more streamlined process for evaluating and approving their engineering and hydrology plans so they can move forward.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on this project, and we haven’t laid a shovel in the ground,” said Kitty Wang, who with her husband has lived in Lyons for 13 years and still awaits a floodplain development permit for a new house. “It’s a nightmare we keep trying to wake up from.”[…]

Molly Urbina, the state’s chief recovery officer, acknowledged that despite the billions spent to make repairs and provide compensation to victims of Colorado’s most costly natural disaster, problems remain.

The state, she said, has not forgotten about those still suffering.

“When we talk about disasters, we talk about a marathon, not a sprint,” Urbina said. “We continue to coordinate with local communities to assess and evaluate needs and priorities and to advocate for additional resources.”

Some of those resources have come from groups like Foothills United Way in Boulder County, which has raised $4.9 million in donations and spent about $363,000 for mental health services. The charity still sits on nearly $2 million to help cover the costs of at least 333 open cases in Colorado’s hardest-hit county…

Urbina said estimating costs for a disaster the size of the 2013 floods, which destroyed 1,852 homes and 203 businesses and created more than 18,000 evacuees over a five-day period starting Sept. 10, 2013, is a “complex, long-term process.”

“We understood that this would evolve as recovery priorities and projects became more clear,” she said.

The dynamic nature of the floods’ impact has played out in dramatic fashion since the one-year anniversary, with the cost of rebuilding in Colorado swelling by a third to nearly $4 billion.

The $1 billion spike, Urbina said, reflects the fact that initial cost estimates done in the months following the flood were rough. In the past year, more detailed estimates of what it would cost to fully repair and restore roads and watersheds in the state were made.

Specifically, watershed recovery master plans performed over the last year revealed that the true cost of improving flood-impacted watersheds would amount to some $600 million.

Last February, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced $56.9 million will come from a federal program to help restore stream corridors and prevent future flooding.

The remainder of the increased cost estimate since last year — around $400 million — came about as the result of detailed design and engineering work, which more clearly outlined the cost of building roadways that can better withstand future flooding, Urbina said.

Work will begin soon to redesign U.S. 36 from Estes Park to Lyons at an estimated cost of $50 million.

Also, individuals and local governments have found damage they initially didn’t know about or thought private insurance would cover, according to the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office…

A new normal is also being pieced together in Evans, where the Eastwood Village and Bella Vista mobile home parks were turned from once-vibrant low-income neighborhoods to empty, weed-choked lots by the floods. It’s not certain what will happen to the two properties, though Bella Vista’s owner is working with the city to re-establish itself at the same spot on 37th Street.

Here’s a look at several survivors from Isa Jones and Pam Mellskog writing for the Longmont Times-Call via the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Meanwhile the Big Dam repairs are nearly complete. Here’s a report from Saja Hindi writing for the Loveland Reporter-Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Crews are putting the finishing touches on repairs to the Nelson Big Dam and expect to have them completed in the next few weeks.

The masonry arch dam, built in 1895, is located west of Loveland’s water treatment plant, and was significantly damaged in the September 2013 flood.

The dam diverts raw water to the city’s water treatment plant, provides drinking water for the Johnstown water treatment plant, and irrigates about 20,000 acres of farmland in Larimer and Weld counties.

The Consolidated Home Supply Ditch and Reservoir Co. owns the 60-foot-plus dam, which didn’t suffer major damages in the 1976 flood, but the 2013 waters left a lot of damage.

The dam is also identified as a Colorado Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, so crews had to make sure not to change the historic aspects of the dam substantially. That included using stones from the same quarry as the original stones.

Crews are working on Phase II of repairs now, according to Home Supply board member Gary Gerrard, which encompass the pointing or refacing of the dam (grouting stones on the face of the dam), a need caused by years of erosion. Once that’s completed, he said, crews will close the gate.

The dam was operational April 1, 2014, in time for the spring runoff, and repairs continued while it was in use, aside from taking a break in the winter months…

Some of the repairs after the flood damaged the dam, Gerrard said, included restoring the crest elevation, mitigating future flood effects by strengthening the dam with concrete abutments and installing a new spillway that configures water to go around instead of on top and updating to 21st century technology such as an automatic gate that fluctuates with river flow.

Because the flood damaged the dam’s main gate, the company was also able to replace other gates not damaged by the flood that were almost unusable and rusting because they were first put in 1915.

Funding for the repairs came from the city of Loveland, the Home Supply board, the Colorado Water Conservation board and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city committed to paying 50 percent of the costs not covered by federal and state grants. The conservation board committed to covering uncovered costs through long-term low-interest loans.

The total cost of repairs, Gerrard said, is about $3 million. Of that, $2.2 million is expected to be covered by federal aid.

Gerrard said the entities were able to keep costs low through “the methods of construction and the ability we had to be able to make decisions in the field, and the cooperation we had from all the entities to react to the things we found out in the field.”

Because officials could make decisions quickly, there weren’t a lot of construction holdups, he said.

From KWGN:

“That’s the main thing to reach out for help. They (Larimer County Long Term Recovery Group) connect you with the people you need (Loveland Housing, in particular). We had volunteers from Lyons, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida,” said Aleta.

Today, the Hammond’s have a little less privacy. The flood took out about half the trees and bushes along this road. And what was a pasture with a barn now looks like an outcropping of rocks.

That creek that once rushed with danger is nearly dry, but the family’s gratitude is overflowing.

People lost their homes, a few lost their lives. So we were very, very fortunate,” said Aleta…

The state repositioned U.S. 36 and Little Thompson River to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

The Hammonds say they still have work to do on their property, like foundation work, and cleaning off grit inside tools and motorcycles.

From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Jessica Benes):

Where the Little Thompson River used to be 70 feet wide in places, it was blasted to 300 yards, according to Gordon Gilstrap of the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition.

The September 2013 flood devastated areas along Front Range rivers and streams, and while not nearly as many houses were lost on the Little Thompson River, landowners still are recovering from the deluge that destroyed vegetation, wildlife habitat and landscapes.

Some landowners along the Little Thompson call it “the forgotten river.”

“It’s been an interesting journey,” said Gilstrap, who helped set up the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition after the flood. “The Little Thompson has been an unknown river because no county or state roads run along it for any distance. It is all privately owned.”

Deirdre Daly, president of the coalition, said that because the river isn’t in a town or county that is leading the charge for river repair, the restoration has been almost entirely driven by the people who live on it…

The Little Thompson headwaters come in from several areas but are mostly above Big Elk Meadows below Estes Park, separate from the Big Thompson.

“It was a small working river,” Gilstrap said. “It provides drinking water to Big Elk Meadows and Pinewood Springs, irrigation to a lot of farmland. It has always been a small, quiet little river.”

The water pushed woody debris down the river, knocking out everything for hundreds of feet on both sides of the river.

Gilstrap said the land along the river was heavily wooded, with a lot of wildlife habitat, especially in the Big Elk Meadows, Pinewood Springs and Blue Mountain areas. Much of that habitat area was lost.

The number of homes lost in the flood was small — two to four — but there was a lot of other damage such as water in basements, homes partially damaged and agricultural fields that were made useless with sediment and garbage debris accumulation.

“A lot of agricultural equipment was lost, and the irrigation ditches took a real hit,” Gilstrap said. “An interesting fact most people don’t know is the Little Thompson was the river that shut down every county bridge between Big Elk Meadows and Milliken — seven public bridges and many other private bridges — so it cut off Northern Colorado from southern Colorado.”[…]

Watershed coalition

Gilstrap helped found the Little Thompson coalition in December 2013, starting with nothing. The group had no money and no knowledge of how to run a coalition.

“Thanks to an amazing group of volunteers that stepped forward to be a part of it, we established the Little Thompson coalition as one of the most effective coalitions in Colorado,” Gilstrap said.

With grant funding, the coalition oversaw the successful completion of a master plan for the watershed, started having meetings, published an active website and Facebook page and coordinated volunteer projects.

“We secured over $1.2 million in government and private-sector grants with a potential of $3 plus million to come,” he said.

The coalition also was able to hire a full-time watershed coordinator, Keith Stagg, and assistant coordinator. Erin Cooper, this summer to oversee grant raising and volunteers, which meant the hard workers such as Gilstrap who had volunteered so much of their time were able to step back.

“We all learned together (at the beginning),” Gilstrap said. “We even learned to say ‘fluvial geomorphic transition’ and other big words like that.”

He said there were two reasons for their success: the volunteers who stepped forward to be on committees while also working day jobs, and support from the state and counties involved.

“Everyone worked together, and that spirit is ongoing more than ever. The volunteers came in from everywhere and did the dirtiest, grungiest work imaginable and were happy as can be if you gave them water and cookies,” he said.

Work still to be done

One of the big problems the river still faces is sediment.

Gilstrap said the Big Thompson River has a rock base, while the Little Thompson has more of a soil base.

When the flood swept down the river from just below Estes Park, sediment traveled down, blocking irrigation canals and changing the bed of the river.

One of the private bridges in Berthoud — called the Green Monster bridge by locals — used to have a space large enough to walk under, and now a person can barely crawled under because of all the new sediment. Julie Moon used to walk her horse beneath the bridge.

“That all plugs up irrigation ditches, rechannels the river,” Gilstrap said. “It’s a long-term fight to understand what will happen with the sediment, how to fight it, how to do restoration so we don’t aggravate the problem.”

He said there is still a lot of farmland with sediment covering valuable cropland.

Natural Resources Conservation Service representatives walked the river and filled out disaster survey reports to define the work to be done. The restoration work will carry on for the next five or more years, he said. The river is also being analyzed for flood and fire resiliency, to be more resilient the next time a flood passes through.

“We’re trying to think during restoration how we can bounce back from them more quickly and not put people in as much peril,” Gilstrap said.

Stagg said the silver lining of the flood is that people are aware of the need for resiliency.

“Everyone wants to see the system put together,” he said.

Gilstrap said wildlife is coming back, and the coalition is looking at revegetation options to establish more wildlife habitat. They plan to use willow cuttings and other “ecotypical” seeds from Daly’s property and neighbors’ to vegetate other areas along the river with native plants.

Finding funding

Major sources of grants for restoration work has come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program through USDA.

Gilstrap said a new round of grant funding from several sources will deliver possibly $47 million across Colorado, and he believes the Little Thompson might see $2 million to $3 million of that. Stagg and Cooper were hired through funding jointly from the state Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We’re one of (several) watersheds that received funding for professional staff,” Stagg said.

Each year, the coalition will receive grants and work on different pieces of the restoration project for many years to come.

“We will get a couple projects done in each round. Each year we will go find another source of money, and do a little bit of project as the years go on,” Daly said.

The Little Thompson even has a “Little Thompson Watershed” sign posted near the headwaters.

“We’ve never had that before,” Daly said. “Before, the river was there and hidden by trees and no one knew what river it was.”

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