A look back at the Spring Creek flood

Fort Collins, Spring Creek flood July 28, 1997

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Kevin Duggan):

It was a Monday. The day felt sodden and clammy after heavy rain in the foothills and around town the night before. The ground, which had been baked hard by weeks of hot, dry weather, was saturated.

There were rain showers of varying intensity throughout the day, especially on the west side of the city and around Laporte, but the rain really started to come down around 5 p.m.

It continued for hours, coming in pounding waves. Water ran fast and deep in the streets while lakes formed in unexpected places in the darkness…

If you didn’t live near the creek or the CSU campus, you might not have realized anything happened.

Spring Creek Flood retrospective

Fort Collins flood July 28, 1997

Here’s a retrospective about the July 28, 1997 flood from Erin Udall running in the The Fort Collins Coloradoan. Click through to read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The water reached over heads, its strong current carried cars from roads and pulled people from their doorsteps or out of the grasp of loved ones.

Witnesses could hear yells for help, see trailers wash off their foundations and smell the propane that streaked the debris-filled floodwaters.

“It was emergency sensory overload,” retired Poudre Fire Authority Captain Steve Fleming said, as he recalled the night Fort Collins’ ankle-deep Spring Creek turned the small city into a scene of tragic flooding, fires and fatalities.

As July 28, 1997 ended and a new day began, Fort Collins was faced with a new city — one full of twisted debris, totaled cars and forever-changed families.

Twenty years later, walk through the events of that night with this timeline of the Spring Creek Flood. See how heavy rain turned a creek into a deadly river. Watch as a festival-like atmosphere — with people kayaking in the streets — gave way to a somber city the next morning. And revisit the places that were washed away and rebuilt.

How it started — Heavy rainfall pounded parts of Fort Collins, with isolated storms wetting the city on July 27, 1997. The following day, it was about to get worse.

Nolan Doesken — Colorado Water Foundation for Water Education President’s Award Presentation 2011

The flood moved Nolan Doesken to create CoCoRaHS. Here’s a report from Kevin Duggan from The Fort Collins Coloradoan. Here’s an excerpt:

In the wake of the flash flood, which killed five women, injured 54 people and caused $200 million in damage, Doesken wanted to understand the storm and how events played out as they did.

Through the Coloradoan and other media outlets, he asked community members to report as accurately as possible rainfall amounts at their homes and businesses. High school students went door to door looking for reliable measurements.

About 300 reports were collected.

While the official weather station at Colorado State University measured about 6 inches of rainfall, data collected from the community revealed that 10 to 14.5 inches of rain fell on the west side of the city during a 30-hour period.

During the same period, the city’s east side received about 2 inches.

The heaviest rainfall centered on the area near Drake Road and Overland Trail and the foothills. The deluge set a record for rainfall over an urban area in Colorado that still stands.

The variance in rainfall totals across the city inspired Doesken to find ways to correlate weather radar estimates of rainfall amounts with what happens on the ground. And the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow, or CoCoRaHS, network, began.

Volunteers use rain gauges, aluminum-wrapped hail pads and rulers to measure precipitation. Daily results are reported through the program’s website, maintained by the Colorado Climate Center at CSU.

Since its start in Larimer County in 1998, CoCoRaHS has spread across the country to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Canada and the Bahamas.

Data from reports are used in a variety of areas, including weather forecasting, water management, transportation planning and mosquito control.

CoCoRaHS and other observation networks provide important information for weather forecasters, said Thomas Trunk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Office of Observations in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Milton-Seaman Reservoir expansion update

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

Expanding the 5,000-acre-foot capacity reservoir has been on Greeley officials’ to-do list for more than a decade. But the type of work the city is planning takes a lot of time, mainly because it involves the federal government.

If everything goes without a hitch, Greeley officials have circled 2030 as the year they’ll increase Seaman to 10 times its current capacity…

Here’s why:

» Greeley has never expanded any of its six reservoirs, and most have been around for nearly a century.

» Increasing Seaman to 53,000 acre-feet of water from 5,000 acre-feet will put Greeley in position to satisfy the city’s water needs for decades. (An acre foot of water is enough water for two families to use for a year). The city uses between 25,000-30,000 acre-feet of water per year: That’s expected to reach 40,000 acre-feet by 2030.

Harold Evans, chairman of the water and sewer board in Greeley, likens the Seaman’s expansion to the kind of planning that has kept water flowing from the city’s Bellvue Treatment Plant area since 1907…

Right now, Greeley is working with a consultant and in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop an environmental impact statement.

Greeley is still about two years away from having a draft of that statement.

In the meantime, Greeley officials are working to secure more water rights. The city doesn’t have enough rights to fill the expanded Seaman Reservoir. They’re 40 percent there, and as Reckentine said, it’s an everyday process. Every year, in fact, Greeley commits millions toward purchasing water rights.

Expanding the reservoir could cost $95 million more just in construction costs, according to an estimate provided in a Colorado Water Conservation Board document.

Water rights come from a variety of places, including retiring farms.

Today, Greeley typically uses its reservoirs as drought protection.

Basically, Greeley has water rights from the Colorado, Poudre, Laramie and Big Thompson rivers. But whether Greeley is able to get all of the water it’s owed depends on the rivers’ flow levels.

In drier years, Greeley would have to do without some of that water. That’s where reservoirs come in. Evans said the first reservoirs were used to finish Greeley area crops when river flows weren’t strong enough to do so in late fall.

Snowmelt and water diverted into reservoirs could be tapped for that purpose. Evans said it’s like putting money in the bank. Pound-for-pound, water’s worth more than money, though.

If and when the Seaman Reservoir expansion is complete, Greeley will likely use some of the water from that reservoir every year.

For Evans, that’s a perfect example, among many, of an investment in the future.

Evans mentions the new pipeline from the Bellvue Water Treatment Plant being installed now, with a lifespan of 75-100 years. The Seaman Reservoir has been around since the 1940s.

ABOUT MILTON SEAMAN RESERVOIR

» Built 1941

» Storage: 5,008 acre-feet

» Elevation: 5,478 feet

» Dam height: 115 feet

» Proposed enlargement date: 2029

» Proposed storage: 53,000 acre-feet

SET FOR LIFE?

The Seaman Reservoir expansion will put Greeley in a good position, but Deputy Director of Greeley Water Eric Reckentine hesitates to call it the final answer.

Greeley has a four-point plan when it comes to water:

» Maintain what you have — Greeley has reinforced water lines with concrete and fiberglass to reduce leaks.

» Secure supply to stay ahead of demand — The Windy Gap Project, which ensured water during lean times, is an example of this.

» Build storage for the lean times — The Milton Seaman Reservoir expansion project is the best example of this.

» Conserve the water you have — Greeley has a state-approved water conservation plan, and the new water budgets are another example of conservation.

THE OTHER RESERVOIRS

Here’s a quick look at Greeley’s other five reservoirs:

» Barnes Meadow Reservoir — Built in 1922 and located across Colo. 14 from Chambers Lake in the Roosevelt National Park, Barnes Meadow Reservoir holds 2,349 acre-feet of water.

» Peterson Lake Reservoir — Built in 1922, and located southwest of Chambers Lake and adjacent to Colo. 156, Peterson Lake Reservoir holds 1,183 acre-feet of water.

» Comanche Reservoir — Built in 1924, and located along Beaver Creek and west of the Colorado State University Mountain campus, the Comanche Reservoir holds 2,628 acre-feet of water.

» Hourglass Reservoir — Built in 1898, and also located along Beaver Creek and west of the Colorado State University Mountain campus, the Hourglass Reservoir holds 1,693 acre-feet of water.

» Twin Lakes Reservoir — Built in 1924, and located southwest of Pingree Park off Colo. 14, Twin Lakes Reservoir holds 278 acre-feet of water.

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

Doug Billingsley doesn’t know what he’s going to do to replicate the peace and quiet of his work when he retires and re-enters the hubbub of normal life. Greeley pays Billingsley to live at Milton Seaman Reservoir, about 15-20 minutes from the mouth of the Poudre Canyon. Billingsley lives in a city-provided house, and has lived there for the past eight years with his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and her caretaker.

Billingsley monitors the Seaman Reservoir. The reservoir is Greeley’s largest, and its water levels can rise and fall quickly. He must ensure the banks and dams are sound and functioning properly, and he’s charged with releasing water down the Poudre Canyon when necessary. Call him the water shepherd.

He’s used to the solitude, if not the quiet.

“I drove over the road truck for 18 years, and was by myself for up to 30 days at a time — I lived in a truck,” Billingsley said. “This is no biggie; this is heaven.”

The city pays him a salary as well as his living expenses. But there’s a catch: He’s on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

The floods of 2013 are a prime example. And Billingsley spent the better part of a week stuck at home after a bridge went out, trapping folks up the canyon. Of course, he had to monitor Seaman’s water levels during the flood, as well.

Billingsley’s wife loves having him at home every night, and he loves being there.

Apart from animals there’s nothing to bother a Seaman Reservoir caretaker. They’ve seen elk, mountain lions, bears, but none of them hurt anybody, he says.

Federal resolution aims to streamline water storage permits

Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) map July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.

From The Fort Morgan Times (Jenni Grubbs):

House Resolution 1654 would set the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as the agency in charge of permitting water storage projects. That agency then would coordinate all the federal agencies involved in that process, as well as the reducing redundant requirements at state and local levels that currently are part of the permitting process.

While this legislation becoming law could have substantial impacts on some proposed water storage projects in Colorado, it would not be likely to impact the process for the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP)…

“Obviously we support the basic idea of streamlining the permit process,” Brian Werner from Northern Water said of the legislation. “We’re all for finding out how we can tweak this process.”

For example, many of the studies and other preparatory work on a large water storage project like NISP could have been conducted concurrently, rather than sequentially, Werner suggested.

“Streamlining doesn’t mean that we don’t do the studies,” he said, “but we could do it more efficiently.”

[…]

Congressman Ken Buck, R-CD4, voted in favor of the resolution, even speaking for it on the House floor and mentioning proposed water storage projects in Colorado, like NISP, as why he supported it…

House Resolution 1654 would set the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as the agency in charge of permitting water storage projects. That agency then would coordinate all the federal agencies involved in that process, as well as the reducing redundant requirements at state and local levels that currently are part of the permitting process.

While this legislation becoming law could have substantial impacts on some proposed water storage projects in Colorado, it would not be likely to impact the process for the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP).

That proposed water storage project would have Northern Water build two reservoirs, Galeton northeast of Greeley and Glade northwest of Fort Collins. They would provide water to the 15 NISP participants, including the city of Fort Morgan and Morgan County Quality Water District.

“Obviously we support the basic idea of streamlining the permit process,” Brian Werner from Northern Water said of the legislation. “We’re all for finding out how we can tweak this process.”

For example, many of the studies and other preparatory work on a large water storage project like NISP could have been conducted concurrently, rather than sequentially, Werner suggested.

“Streamlining doesn’t mean that we don’t do the studies,” he said, “but we could do it more efficiently.”

Congressman Ken Buck, R-CD4, voted in favor of the resolution, even speaking for it on the House floor and mentioning proposed water storage projects in Colorado, like NISP, as why he supported it.

“Unfortunately, many water storage projects in my state face significant setbacks in permitting due to a long list of regulatory checkboxes,” he said in prepared remarks. “Much of this delay occurs because each level of government-local, state, and federal-requires (its) own studies and permitting checklists, even though many of those requirements are the same or only slightly different.”

The goal would not be to eliminate environmental or safety requirements for getting the permits, Buck pointed out. Instead it would be to seek to get the “different levels of government to work together so that our water projects can earn the permits they rightly qualify for” during the initial permitting process.

The legislation next faces debate in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but a hearing date had not yet been set as of Monday afternoon. That committee includes Colorado’s Sen. Cory Gardner as a member.

#Runoff news: Low-head dam hazards

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Alicia Stice):

In the past 10 years, more than 15 people have drowned on the river from various accidents. Lopez’s death was the first in years involving a low-head dam.

These [weirs] dot rivers across the country, including in Fort Collins, where there is one low-head dam every 1.5 to 2 miles along much of the Poudre.

In Colorado, there is no agency in charge of overseeing safety at these dams. Instead, the Division of Water Resources has a team charged with overseeing the risks associated with large dams at sites such as Horsetooth Reservoir that could pose a hazard if they failed, Colorado Division of Water Resources Dam Safety Chief Bill McCormick said.

“I think these are some of the most dangerous type of structures we have in the country because most people are unaware of the dangers,” said Bruce Tschantz, a Knoxville, Tennessee, water resources engineer who has studied low-head dams extensively. “People tend to overestimate their ability to overcome the current and underestimate the dangers.”

General currents upstream and downstream from a low-head dam. Graphic via Bruce a. Tschantz

In much of the country, low-head dams have been in place for more than 100 years to serve now defunct mills. In Colorado, many of these dams are still active, diverting water into irrigation ditches for agricultural use. While the structures are old, the danger is relatively new.

“The problem of safety around them is more a recent phenomenon as people are using the rivers more,” McCormick said.

The dams slow water upstream and divert it away from the main channel. The water that flows over them creates a rapid on the downriver side that mimics the hydraulics of a washing machine. The water can force victims underwater and spin them around, making it nearly impossible to swim back up to the surface.

“These structures are often very deceiving,” said Kenneth Smith, Indiana Department of Natural Resources assistant director…

Simple engineering solutions can make low-head dams built today much safer by breaking up the flow of water as it moves over the dam. Solutions could include a set of concrete stairs or large rocks on the downstream side of the structure. In many cases, those solutions could be added to existing dams, but that can be costly, and it can be difficult to track down the owners of these century-old structures.

Poudre Fire Authority has been in discussions about what might be done to make sure people know about the dangers of the dams, including the possibility of installing signs along the river warning people of where they are.

@NorthernWater proposes $53 million for mitigation for NISP

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

[Northern Water] unveiled a $53 million fish and wildlife mitigation and enhancement plan for the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which proposes to funnel Poudre water into two reservoirs for 15 Northern Colorado municipalities and water districts. Among the involved communities are Windsor and the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District. The city of Fort Collins is not one of the entities that would receive water from the project.

Northern Water’s mitigation plan includes strategies to preserve some of the Poudre’s peak flows, protect wildlife habitat near the project’s larger proposed reservoir, improve the river channel and keep more water than originally planned in the river through Fort Collins.

But that’s not enough, opponents say. Project opponent Save the Poudre argues the Poudre sorely needs the high springtime flows that NISP would use to fill its reservoirs…

Northern Water project manager Jerry Gibbens, who is leading NISP mitigation efforts, highlighted four key parts of the plan for those who don’t get through all 144 pages of the document.

Keep some water in the Poudre through Fort Collins: NISP aficionados have heard of this one. Northern Water plans to run 14,000 acre feet of diverted water down a 12-mile stretch of the Poudre in Fort Collins before recapturing it for storage. The goal is to prevent dry-up spots on the Poudre in Fort Collins and preserve flows between 18 and 25 cubic feet per second.

Preserve some peak flows: Basically, Northern Water would hold off on Poudre diversions for up to three peak flow days each year, depending on whether conditions are wet, dry or about average.

During wet conditions when the reservoirs are full, Northern Water would divert no water from the Poudre during the three peak flow days. On average years, Northern Water would aim for up to three high-flow days with no diversions.

“During dry years when we’re trying to get every drop, we probably won’t have any opportunity to bypass (diversions),” Gibbens said.

Improve the river channel: The plan earmarks money for a channel and habitat improvement plan along the river. Northern Water plans to focus on 2.4 miles specifically: 1.2 miles within a reach of the Poudre from the Poudre Valley Canal to the intersection of Highway 14 and Highway 287, and 1.2 miles in the Watson Lake area north of Bellvue. Northern would fund channel reconstruction and habitat improvements. Northern also identified five sites for riparian vegetation improvement.

Conserve wildlife habitat near Glade Reservoir: Northern Water plans to put a conservation easement on land it owns around the proposed location of Glade Reservoir, the project’s larger reservoir northwest of Fort Collins. Northern plans to buy more land in the area for the same purpose. A conservation easement would protect the land from being sold for urban development, Gibbens said.

The plan also addresses water quality monitoring, water temperature mitigation, fish and bird habitat and a host of other issues. Check out northernwater.org for the full plan – but do it sooner rather than later. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is accepting public comments on the plan for 60 days, until early August.

CPW will hold an open house to talk to the public about the plan at The Ranch in Loveland at 4-7:30 p.m. June 27. Later this summer, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission might suggest changes to the mitigation plan…

Gibbens said NISP won’t hamper the Poudre’s peak flows during about 82 percent of years, either because of Northern’s plans to sometimes preserve peak flows or because Northern Water’s water right is out of priority during peak flow days. Colorado water rights operate on a first-come, first-served basis, so those who own older water rights get to use the water before those who own newer water rights.

Still, NISP would result in lower average springtime flows on the Poudre, according to Northern Water’s projections. Project proponents point out it would also increase low flows during the fall and winter.

“We still will have diversions for water supply purposes, but we feel that this plan really allows those water supply withdrawals and environmental needs of the river to coexist and actually make the river a better river with the project than without it,” Gibbens said.

If approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NISP will yield 40,000 acre-feet of water per year to participants. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to meet the water needs of three to four urban households for a year.

NISP participants include Windsor, Eaton, Firestone, Frederick, the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, Fort Lupton, Fort Morgan, Severance, Lafayette, Erie, Evans, Left Hand Water District, Morgan County Quality Water District, Central Weld County Water District and Dacono.

Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) map July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.