Fort Collins: Spring Creek Flood spurred increased flood preparedness

Fort Collins, Spring Creek flood July 28, 1997

From KUNC (Jackie Fortier):

As the evening wore on, people living in two trailer parks just south of campus began to panic. Located in a low gully near Spring Creek, between College Avenue and a 15-foot railroad embankment, the trailers had begun to fill with water.

“The rain kept falling hard on the same areas that had just had the heaviest rain so it was building this flood surge,” said state climatologist Nolan Doesken…

Over the course of 24 hours, 14 inches of rain fell in southwest Fort Collins in a highly-localized storm.

“And if anything that was what set the 1997 storm apart, everything was already soaked before it started — I mean really soaked — and then it dumped five hours of heavy rain, with the last hour being the heaviest of all,” said Doesken.

Most of the water was building up behind the 15-foot railroad embankment near Spring Creek — where the trailer parks were.

“Spring Creek is tiny. When you look at it, you can almost jump over it most times of the year,” said Marsha Hilmes-Robinson, floodplain administrator for the city of Fort Collins.

During the flood, the railroad embankment was holding back 8,250 cubic feet of water per second.

“Think of each cubic foot per second being one basketball going by a location in one second,” Hilmes-Robinson said. “So we had 8,250 basketballs flowing into the area behind the railroad embankment every second. That’s a lot of water.”

The railroad embankment couldn’t hold. One of the culverts that had intentionally been filled blew out and water pounded through and eventually over the top. As the rain continued to pour through the night, residents of the trailer parks clung to trees and huddled on rooftops before rescuers in rubber rafts could reach them.

“Then there was the fires, because some of the trailers had floated and the gas lines had been ruptured there was another explosion at a liquor store just to the north of the mobile home park, and then the train cars derailed,” Hilmes-Robinson said.

Four train cars full of lumber and grain had been knocked off the tracks at the top of the embankment as the water began to go over the top.

Rescuers worked through the night saving hundreds of people. Meanwhile at Colorado State University, 40 buildings were flooded, sustaining damages over $100 million, including to the newly renovated Morgan Library and the Lory Student Center.

In all, five women died in the Spring Creek Flood and 200 homes were destroyed, including both trailer parks. Damages to the city and campus totaled $200 million.

Since the Spring Creek Flood, an extensive rain gauge network has been installed in the foothills and in the city as an early warning system. The city has also taken an integrated approach to new projects, according to deputy director of the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office Iain Hyde.

“When a new bridge or culvert or park is built, [Fort Collins] build risk reduction into that process, really thinking about floodplain management and sound regulations, and those actions are reducing risk but they’re also reducing risk for flood insurance for members of the community as well,” Hyde said.

Now a gleaming apartment complex and strip malls sit where the trailer parks were. But the new construction had to meet need code regulations put in place after 1997, says Marsha Hilmes-Robinson.

“Those city codes required the buildings to be raised by 18 inches above the 100-year floodplain,” she said.

Flood mitigation also means giving the water somewhere to go. Fort Collins has used sales taxes to purchase two-thirds of the land in the 100-year Poudre River floodplain within city limits, turning it into natural areas and parks. The idea is to give the water somewhere to spread out and slow down. So far, it seems to be working.

Blog series from @ConservationColorado: #Colorado, We Have a Problem

Summary of Observed Wet & Dry Surface Water Hydrology via SCW

From Conservation Colorado:

A Deep Dive Into Our State’s Water Challenges and What to Do About Them

…as many Coloradans could tell you: we have a problem with our water resources. But what exactly is the problem? How did it start? How bad is it? And — the question of the century — how can we address it?

To answer all of these questions, we’re launching a blog series. In it, we’ll address what the issues are with our water and how we can solve them. To get started, let’s take a look at what the problems with water are in our state…

The average rainfall across the state is just 17 inches per year, making it the 8th driest state in the country. Some parts of the state, like the San Luis Valley and some Western towns, are even considered deserts, qualifying with less than 9.75 inches of rain a year…

When Colorado was first being settled in the 19th century, rights to use water (now know legally as “water rights”) were handed out on a first-come-first-served basis to miners and farmers. The idea of conservation, such as leaving water in rivers or planning for the future, was not considered. In fact, people thought it was wasteful to allow rivers to run free…

Another challenge with our water system is the notion of “use it or lose it.” Our laws currently say that if a water right owner does not use his or her entire amount of water each year, he or she could lose ownership of that water in the future. For example, as farmer Bill Ketterhagen, near Gunnison, Colorado, explained to ProPublica: “When we have [water], we’ll use it. You’ll open your head gate all the way and take as much as you can — whether you need it or not.”

Now, with a surging population, limited habitat for fish and other river species, and increasing droughts, people are realizing that human use has profound environmental, economic and social impacts. Water left in our rivers can be more valuable than water removed…

Our recent Rivers Report Card measured the health of eight Colorado rivers. Most of our rivers have less water than they used to — but one river was much larger than it naturally would be. The South Platte River was once a seasonal stream, dry for several months each year. Now, it flows year-round due to water diverted from other rivers, which is used in cities and washed down the drain into the South Platte…

While the problem is huge and progress will be slow, there are plenty of opportunities and innovative ideas that could majorly impact our water. Over the next few months, we’ll be releasing blogs that explain more about each of these solutions. But here are the basics. We need to:

  • Provide greater protections for Colorado’s rivers by creating management plans for streams.
  • Increase urban conservation and water savings, especially in new developments.
  • Encourage flexibility for the agricultural industry to share water rights.
  • Address our antiquated and non-existent laws governing the hardrock mining industry.
  • Close the state’s water supply gap without diverting more water from our western slope.
  • Protect more of our rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects free-flowing rivers from development that would change their nature.
  • Some argue that it will take a drastic drought to spur our state into action. We think that having a little bit of foresight should be enough. We can work together to turn these ideas into reality and protect Colorado’s water for the future.

    The uncertainty of food supply in a world of political conflict and water supply interruptions #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    From The Washington Post (Elizabeth Winkler):

    Global food security depends on trade in just four crops: maize, wheat, rice and soybeans. The first three account for 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake. The fourth, soybeans, is the world’s largest source of animal protein feed, making up 65 percent of global protein feed supply. Their production is concentrated in a handful of exporting countries, including the United States, Brazil and the Black Sea region, from which they are flowing at ever-greater volumes. Between 2000 and 2015, global food trade grew by 127 percent to 2.2 billion metric tons — and growth rates are projected to keep increasing.

    But the movement of these crops hinges on just 14 “choke-point” junctures on transport routes through which exceptional volumes of trade pass.

    Such choke points have been perilously overlooked, said Rob Bailey, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House and co-author of the report…

    Brazil, the world’s other heavy-hitter, accounts for 17 percent of global wheat, maize, rice and soybean exports. But its road network is crumbling. Extreme rainfall could knock out a major transport route. If this happened together with a U.S. flood and a Russian drought, there would be global food shortages, riots and political instability, starvation in areas that are heavily dependent on imports, and recessions everywhere else…

    Disruption at any of these choke points would mean trouble, but if several jammed at once, it could be disastrous.

    Climate change makes such a scenario more likely. While it’s difficult to connect any specific weather event to climate change, models suggest the shifting climate is making such events more common.

    For the United States, the could mean a lot more episodes like the one in August 2012, when Hurricane Isaac closed ports and suspended barge traffic on parts of the Mississippi River…

    Political instability can also cause choke point disruptions. In 2015 and 2016, tensions between Russia and Turkey fueled power plays in the Turkish Straits, and an attempted internal coup led to a temporary shutdown of the Bosporus.

    And disruption of key arteries due to political instability can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle, as food shortages breed further instability. In the Middle East and North Africa, statistical analyses show that food security is a particularly high indicator of political stability. Over a third of grain imports for the region pass through a maritime choke point for which there is no alternate route. But the problem is widespread. The 2007-2008 global food crisis was accompanied by protests in 61 countries and riots in 23…

    To make matters worse, chronic underinvestment in infrastructure has weakened critical networks. Extreme weather and increased trade flows put them at risk of failing. The McKinsey Global Institute places the world’s infrastructure investment deficit — the gap between funding available and funding needed — at $250 billion a year through 2040. (The United States has one of the largest deficits among G-20 countries, according to Chatham House.) But even where there is infrastructure investment, governments often fail to factor in climate risks: A 2016 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that, with very few exceptions, they are largely overlooked even in rich countries.

    “It is a glide path to a perfect storm,” said Bailey.

    In fact, 13 of the 14 choke points have seen some form of temporary disruption or closure in the last 15 years, according to the report. (The only one that hasn’t, the Strait of Gibraltar, may now come under pressure in Brexit negotiations.) This should prompt policymakers to prepare for worst-case scenarios. But as Bailey observed, “We’re not very good at conceptualizing risks which we haven’t yet experienced.” The mentality is very different when it comes to the oil market, where past oil embargoes make the idea of a supply shock more tangible. “People obsess about choke points there,” he said…

    “What is needed is a coordinated international approach like you have in energy markets,” Bailey said. In 1974, the International Energy Agency established emergency response mechanisms to minimize the risk of oil and gas disruptions. Governments and international responders, like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the U.N. World Food Program, should model this with rules on coordination during acute food disruptions. This would include emergency food supply sharing arrangements and smarter strategic storage — where choke points can’t cut off supply.

    But they also needed to take preventive measures, like diversifying production so countries aren’t dependent on a handful of mega-crops and exporters. Funding should support alternative sources and supply routes around the world, as well as climate-resilient infrastructure. But all of this requires long-term planning. It needs to start now — before extreme weather becomes even more frequent.

    Summers are getting hotter worldwide #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    From The New York Times (Nadja Popovich and Adam Pearce):

    The big increase in summer temperatures under the dark red category of extreme heat is “right in line” with what scientists expect to see as the climate warms over all, said Todd Sanford, director of research at Climate Central, a nonprofit science and news organization.

    For each time period above, the distribution of summer temperatures forms what is known as a bell curve because most measurements fall near the average, forming the bump – or bell – in the middle. More extreme temperatures, which happen less frequently, fall in the wings, with heat waves on the right and cold-snaps on the left.

    As the curve’s average – the top of the peak – shifts rightward over time, more temperatures in more places end up in the hot and extremely hot categories and fewer end up in the cold category.

    Dr. Hansen’s curves also flatten out, which some have suggested is an indication of greater temperature variability. But other climate scientists, including Zeke Hausfather, an energy systems analyst at the University of California, Berkeley, have pointed out that this effect is mainly a reflection that some parts of the world are warming faster than others. There is no evidence that temperatures are becoming more variable in most parts of the world after warming has been accounted for.

    Dr. Hansen’s data “really highlight that changes in the average, while they may seem modest, have big implications for the extremes. And that’s what’s going to affect society and ecosystems,” Dr. Sanford said. The findings reveal what has happened so far, and also provide “a glimpse to what’s in our future.”

    @SenBennetCO: Bipartisan Western Senators Request USDA Funds for #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

    Here’s the release from Senator Bennet’s office:

    U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Dean Heller (R-NV) this week led a bipartisan group of six other Western senators in sending a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue requesting the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) direct a portion of recently-appropriated funds for the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program (Watershed Act) to the Colorado River Basin (CRB).

    In the letter, the senators highlight the need to direct Watershed Act funding to the Colorado River Basin to help farmers and ranchers increase efficiency, conserve water, and improve yields.

    The Watershed Act provides technical and financial assistance to states, local governments, and tribes to support off-farm conservation projects that improve resiliency, support water conservation, and protect water quality. For the first time since 2010, the program received $150 million in funding for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 to support new and existing shovel-ready projects, surveys, and planning activities.

    “We request that you provide $75 million of this funding to the CRB over a multi-year period to address critical water infrastructure and drought contingency planning needs in the Upper and Lower basins,” the senators wrote.

    The Colorado River Basin has experienced 16 years of persistent drought and will likely face challenges with water supply and demand in the future. Despite investing more than $6 billion annually in on-farm conservation, USDA programs do not always address the specific needs of Western agriculture. In the letter, the senators state that additional investment in off-farm improvements through the Watershed Act will help address critical water infrastructure needs in the Colorado River Basin and enhance conservation in the West.

    “[This funding] can help correct this bias against western agriculture by addressing previously unfunded water infrastructure and drought contingency planning needs in our states,” the senators wrote.

    @CUBoulderNews: ‘Project #Drought’ taps drones to measure water moisture at #Colorado farm

    From the University of Colorado (Jim Scott):

    CU Boulder engineers, scientists and students are teaming up with Black Swift Technologies of Boulder to use unmanned aircraft in the coming weeks to measure water moisture at a test irrigation farm in Yuma, Colorado.

    The testing will take place at the Irrigation Research Foundation (IRF), a research and demonstration farm in northeast Colorado. The team will fly high-tech sensors mounted on drones that will be able to assess moisture in crop fields at a resolution of about 50 feet across and to a depth of about 8 inches, said Professor Brian Argrow of the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences.

    Pilot Dan Hesseliusl with drone aircraft. Photo credit the University of Colorado.

    The effort is part of Project Drought, a CU Boulder initiative to use drones to improve the understanding and prediction of drought, flooding and agricultural vulnerabilities. The sensor on the drone that will be used in Yuma was developed by a team led by CU Boulder Professor Al Gaseiwski of electrical, computer and energy engineering.

    Project Drought is one of five research efforts initiated under CU Boulder’s Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing (IRISS) project, directed by Argrow. IRISS is a pillar of the university’s Grand Challenge initiative efforts to harness science, technology and innovation to solve key national or global problems. Project Drought is a collaboration of CU Boulder’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV) and the Center for Environmental Technology (CET).

    “The IRISS objective is to fill the gap between the ground and space with sensors and services,” said Argrow, recently named chair of aerospace engineering sciences. “We see Project Drought as a way to succeed in high-precision, high-resolution mapping, ultimately increasing the efficiency of water management.”

    Black Swift Technologies, a company spun out of CU Boulder by aerospace PhD graduates Jack Elston, Maciej Stachura and Cory Dixon in 2011 with the help of a NASA Small Business Innovative Research Grant, developed the fixed-wing SuperSwift drone with a removable nose cone that will fly over the test farm.

    “For us, this project is all about the sensor,” said Dixon, IRISS chief technologist. “We want to explore soil moisture mapping for things like land use, landslides and water runoff. While some farmers don’t have the ability to adequately assess their soil moisture, we can fly over an entire crop field with high enough resolution to give them data that will eventually allow for more efficient water use in particular areas.”

    The team members will combine high-precision drone observations of soil moisture with measurements from NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched in 2015. Although SMAP’s primary radar instrument failed, scientists are still able to use a passive radiometer instrument on board SMAP to produce surface maps with each pixel representing an area roughly 25 miles across, Argrow said.

    The IRF facility in Yuma also has sensors embedded in the soil to chart moisture, which will be compared with data gathered overhead by the SuperSwift drone. Each flight team will include an on-the-ground pilot, a staff member and two students, Dixon said.

    In May, IRISS Project Storm researchers led by Argrow and aerospace engineering Associate Professor Eric Frew, working in Oklahoma, provided the first live-streamed data from a drone—known as TTwistor—to the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) in Norman. The CU Boulder team flew TTwistor into a storm front in northern Oklahoma, which sent back information about wind speed, temperature and other data in real time.

    The goal is to provide real-time data to the NWS to improve forecast and warning capabilities for severe storms, including tornadoes, Argrow said.

    CU Boulder faculty and students have likely flown more research drones in more places in the world than any university in the country, Argrow said. Unmanned CU Boulder research aircraft have been flown in the Arctic, Antarctica, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Peru and Japan.

    “We have about a dozen undergraduates working with us this summer,” Argrow said. “There is no better training for these students than actual field experience.”

    The ‘hard’ truth about soft water – News on TAP

    Before purchasing a water softener for your home, get the facts on Denver’s water hardness, or lack thereof.

    Source: The ‘hard’ truth about soft water – News on TAP