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Looming danger: Burned slopes increase risk of flash floods

January 25, 2013
photo - An aerial view Thursday, January 24, 2013 looking west at the charred hillsides above a neighborhood at the top of Mountain Shadows along Wilson Road. At the right foreground of the photo is the North Douglas Creek drainage and at left center above the homes is the Flying W Ranch property. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
An aerial view Thursday, January 24, 2013 looking west at the charred hillsides above a neighborhood at the top of Mountain Shadows along Wilson Road. At the right foreground of the photo is the North Douglas Creek drainage and at left center above the homes is the Flying W Ranch property. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

The scarred hillsides in the Waldo Canyon fire burn area could increase as much as twentyfold the intensity of flash flooding in the streets and neighborhoods below.

In a region with insufficient stormwater systems that is prone to quick, hard summer rains that yearly produce localized flash floods, the burned slopes only increase the chance for disaster.

“Before the fire, it was like we had a golf course on the side of the hill and it absorbed water,” said Gary Heller, maintenance foreman for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). “Now it’s like a parking lot and absorbs nothing. It just carries water.”

And as it goes down the six waterways that flow from the burn area, that water will pick up sediment and other debris that could cause massive damage to homes, bridges, culverts and streets in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Ute Pass — and even farther downstream.

Before the flames were extinguished, experts recognized the flood danger that follows every wildfire would be particularly worrisome here because of the proximity of so many homes and businesses.

Government agencies, environmental groups and volunteers quickly started mitigation efforts — sandbag drives, meetings to educate the public about potential flooding — and funded two studies that will help direct future efforts.

One study is analyzing the burn area and what mitigation methods will work best, while the other is assessing which homes face the most flood danger. Residents affected will be notified when that study is complete this spring.

A regional fire recovery group began meeting monthly in October to coordinate mitigation and funding efforts — and set priorities.

“We really came together — the federal government, the city, county and others —to fight the fire,” said Mark Shea, watershed planning supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities, and a fire recovery group member. “Now we face a risk just as great and we need to continue to work collaboratively.”

Local and state officials have become increasingly irritated at the lack of federal funds available.

“It’s been very frustrating,” said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who represents the district where the fire occurred and much of the flooding could follow. “We know things need to be done but there’s no money.”

The mitigation being done — and what is planned— only goes so far. And the danger looms for years to come.

Ominous event

The first taste of what could happen this year came on July 30 when a fairly common rainstorm sent mud and debris sliding down a hillside onto Highway 24, forcing the road’s closure near Green Mountain Falls.

“Mud was 10 to 15 feet deep at the side of the road,” Heller said. “A pickup (truck) was buried almost to the cab in the middle of the road.”

CDOT kept the road, which carries about 28,000 vehicles a day, closed for 12 hours while workers removed 4,000 tons of debris.

More mud and debris were carried under the highway, into the Ute Pass Elementary playground and up to the building’s edge.

“It was very alarming to see how close that came to the school,” Clark said. “It was scary to think if children could have been in the building.”

Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder said Williams Canyon Creek, which flows into Fountain Creek near Manitou’s downtown area, spilled over its banks.

“Officers with loudspeakers were telling people to seek higher ground but people were grabbing their raincoats and umbrellas and walked down to the creek to see what was going on,” Snyder said. “We need people to take these warnings seriously.”

While the mudslide that closed the highway received ample media coverage, Patty Baxter, emergency manager for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, said the rainstorm had a higher impact on West Monument Creek than it did in Ute Pass.

The storm led to erosion that exposed and damaged a secondary water pipeline of Colorado Springs Utilities, causing $6 million damage. The pipeline is being repaired.

“And that was a fairly common storm,” Baxter said.

It rained about a half-inch in a hour. County engineer André Brackin said a “normal hard rain here is one inch in a hour, so it could’ve been worse.”

That’s what frightens Clark, who said, “I don’t want Manitou Springs to end up in Old Colorado City.”

Nervous neighborhoods

What area could be affected by a mudslide or flash flood? Tana Rice is worried it’ll be where she works.

Rice is operations manager of the Alpine Autism Center, which sits below the entrance for Flying W Ranch. On Tuesday, Rice walked near the center’s playground and pointed up the hill to an empty spot where two homes stood before the fire.

“The fire burned right down to our playground,” Rice said. “We weren’t here that day (June 26) but it was so stressful to see on TV. When I heard the Flying W had burned, I figured we were burned down, too.”

The school survived, but now Rice is concerned about flooding.

South Douglas Creek, one of six area tributaries that are of greatest concern, runs past Flying W Ranch and the center. The other five waterways with a high potential for flooding are Camp Creek, North Douglas Creek, Dry Creek, Fountain Creek and Williams Canyon Creek.

“As bad as the fire was, the aftermath could be worse,” said Greg Langer, district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Asked the odds that any part of the area will experience flooding this year, Langer said, “It’s a crapshoot, a 50-50 chance.”

Fuzzy forecast

Predicting where floods might occur is not easy.

“It’s a pretty tall order,” Brackin said. “There’s so much variability of rainfall. It depends how much it rains, where it rains, if it involves the burn scar.”

Water won’t soak into the burned landscape; it will simply run off and collect dirt and debris as it travels downhill.

Nearly $5 million in grant money — and $5 million more from the Forest Service — launched rehabilitation of the Waldo Canyon burn scar and areas downstream to slow water and debris flow.

Vegetation slows erosion and water flow and planting has begun. But some experts — including Brackin — expect the drought to continue, heightening the risk of other fires and slowing revegetation.

If flooding occurs in the aftermath of the 18,247-acre Waldo Canyon fire, it isn’t likely until spring or when monsoon season arrives in July. Heller said it could be devastating.

He was the CDOT responder for flooding connected to the 2002 Hayman fire — which burned 138,000 acres in a remote area northwest of Colorado Springs. Flooding occurred every year from 2002 to 2011.

“Flooding ripped out four miles of Highway 67,” he said. “For four years, every rain event we were out there.”

The region has had devastating floods. In 1999, floodwaters disabled the bridge at 21st Street and Highway 24. The area’s biggest floods were in 1965 and 1935, which was deemed a 100-year event.

“We need to plan for the worst, and hope for the best,” said Bret Waters, Director of Emergency Management for Colorado Springs.

“People shouldn’t be scared, just concerned and aware of the risk. Before the Waldo Canyon fire, wildfire and flash flooding were already threats to the community.”

First steps

The Forest Service began seeding the burn scar in the summer and put straw mulch on 3,000 acres. USFS added woodshred to 100 acres, cleaned culverts, removed sediment, installed warning signs and more, at a cost of about $5 million.

Shea said Colorado Springs Utilities has spent about $8.2 million to fix the damaged pipeline and access road near West Monument Creek, and to add sediment catchment basins to spread debris and slow water flow as it moves downhill.

Sediment ponds were added at Flying W Ranch and at Glen Eyrie, which will also construct a debris fence. A debris fence, temporary floodwall and auxillary spillway are planned at the Alpine Autism Center.

Those are part of about $6 million in projects for the city, which also used Air Force Academy cadets and volunteers to build sediment ponds along the slopes of Blodgett Peak Open Space.

CDOT and El Paso County have focused on the Highway 24 area, working to secure slopes along the route and improve drainage.

CDOT’s long-term improvements — work will begin this year — include a concrete retaining wall to manage debris flow and replacing 18-inch drainage pipes with pipes at least twice as large.

“We’re evaluating Rainbow Falls,” Heller said. “It’ll cost $1 million to reinforce the embankment.”

The county plans to add a basin to catch sediment and debris upstream of Rainbow Falls, with work beginning late 2013.

Snyder said Manitou Springs doubled the size of two storm drains to handle the flow from Williams Canyon Creek, purchased three early-warning sirens and removed trees from Fountain Creek that were catching debris.

“People wanted to know why we were removing trees,” Snyder said. “It’s a public safety issue.”

The risk zone

Officials anxiously await results from two studies. The Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply — known as WARSSS — will assess how badly soil was damaged and what can best be done to mitigate erosion and flash flooding.

The WARSSS study cost $425,000 and was paid for by the Colorado Watershed Conservation Board, CDOT, the Forest Service, Colorado Springs, El Paso County and Manitou Springs.

Keith Curtis, floodplain administrator for the region, said a debris flow study — the contract was recently awarded — will help determine areas of concern outside the 100-year floodplain.

“It’ll analyze surface conditions and expected rainfall events and how it’ll play out,” Curtis said. “But it’s not an exact science.”

Baxter said anyone who lives near the 100-year floodplain should get flood insurance. Brackin agrees.

“That’s critical,” Brackin said. “Almost everyone should get it. Floods affect everybody unless they’re at the top of the hill.”

Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, recommends flood insurance.

“If you’re in the burn area or where a major fire occurred, the second disaster is flood,” she said. “It’s extra peace of mind. The question is can you afford to pay out of pocket the damages to home and possessions?”

Walker warned that standard homeowners, renters and commercial insurance policies exclude flood insurance. She said residents should talk to their local agent or consult

Carol Ekarius is executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), which works to protect the water quality and ecologic health of the Upper South Platte Watershed. CUSP has worked to mitigate damage from the Hayman and Waldo Canyon fires, doing much of its work on private lands.

Ekarius said the Buffalo Creek fire in 1996 contributed to 13 flood events of the 100-year variety in a span of 18 months in Jefferson County.

“It took vehicles and houses downstream,” Ekarius said. “Two people were killed.”

The National Weather Service in Pueblo predicts the remainder of winter and spring to be drier than normal, with normal precipitation expected from June through August.

“Because it’s a drier season doesn’t mean there won’t be one big rain that causes a lot of problems,” said meteorologist Kathy Torgerson. “There is no reason for people to let their guard down.”

Recurring headache

Drainage problems permeate the Colorado Springs area and have for decades.

“In the 1980s we had a $350 million problem and a backlog of infrastructure that needed fixed,” said Larry Small, former Colorado Springs vice-mayor and the executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District.

“It was neglected over time and the population of the county grew, so it just got worse. We virtually had a tidal wave of issues as we went along.”

Small said a half-cent sales tax in the mid-80s would’ve helped solve the problem but that went away when TABOR was passed by the city of Colorado Springs in 1991. A Stormwater Enterprise lasted three years but ended in January 2010, leaving no funding mechanism to solve the stormwater problem.

“I hope they put together a continuing task force to figure out how to fund this,” Small said. “We have to deal with it. It’s a solvable problem but we have to make the commitment to find resources and work collaboratively.”

The drainage problem will be highlighted, Small said, if a flood occurs.

Bad news, he said, “is we’re looking at a 30-year time period to catch up on the problem.”

Contact Bob Stephens: 636-0276 Twitter @bobgstephens

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