Updated: May 13, 2014 at 8:35 pm
If floodwater and debris come charging out of Waldo Canyon this summer, the torrent hopefully will run under U.S. 24 near Manitou Springs and not on the roadway into traffic.
A newly constructed, massive culvert will help to ensure that flood events like those that stranded motorists for hours in 2013 don't occur again. Although the highway was hit hard during three flash floods in July and August of last year, the road served as a barrier between the steep, ash-laden slopes of the Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar and western Manitou Springs.
Manitou officials admitted Tuesday that the notion of an unimpeded flow through the culvert has brought tension to many in the town of about 5,000 people.
"I don't think city staff feels it, but I know some residents do," said City Administrator Jack Benson.
Benson and Mayor Marc Snyder tried to reassure Manitou citizens and potential tourists that a repeat of last year's flash-flood season is not an option for 2014. They said two years worth of flood mitigation done in the aftermath of the fire and other ongoing projects should all but guarantee that debris from the Waldo Canyon burn scar stays out of Manitou. The fire, which started in June 2012, burned more than 18,000 acres in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.
"We're looking at handling all the debris," Benson said confidently, echoing Roger Miller, the town's flood mitigation projects manager.
Miller and Benson each said the CDOT culvert, which is about 10 times larger than its predecessor, will come with debris barriers on either side of U.S. 24. And farther downstream, before Fountain Creek dumps over Rainbow Falls and into Manitou Springs proper, a large sediment detention area has been uncovered. El Paso County crews and volunteers with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte found mitigation work that had been done in the 1930s when clearing debris from the 2013 flash floods.
City crews also began a project earlier this month along Canon Avenue, which was hit by multiple debris flows during last summer's storms. Walls of water and mud poured out of Williams Canyon, damaging about 70 homes and destroying four more, Benson said.
The Williams Canyon project is finally taking shape after months of design work and funding solicitations. The project will cost $5.3 million. About $1.9 million will come from the Department of Local Affairs, and another $1.9 million has been granted through the Emergency Watershed Protection program. The rest of the money will come via Manitou Springs and El Paso County.
The city of Manitou Springs acquired four properties for the Williams Canyon endeavor. Two were bought at the mouth of Williams Canyon to build a large sediment detention pond. The others are on Narrows Road and will allow Williams Creek to be widened. When the project is done, a series of debris barriers will slow the flow, and the large pond will be complemented by a smaller pond upstream.
Mayor Snyder said all the projects focus on stopping debris flows, not the water.
"Our issue is the sediment," he said, noting that historically the town has "handled high-water events very well."
Benson also points to millions of dollars of work done by multiple agencies higher upstream as more assurance that Manitou Springs is safe. He talked Tuesday about the hundreds of hours of volunteer work to line the steep slopes with log erosion barriers. The city administrator also praised the U.S. Forest Service for installing several sediment detention ponds in multiple watersheds north of U.S. 24.
In addition, contractors have been removing sediment from Fountain Creek. Workers manning heavy equipment moved eastward, finishing about two-thirds of the work. Upon completion, about four feet of sediment will have been removed from the bottom of the entire creek from western Manitou Springs to the "Welcome" arch on the east end of town.
The work was paid for by disaster money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the $780,000 project should ensure that "high-water" events remain a nonissue.
"We need that capacity back," Miller said.