August 16, 2013 Updated: August 16, 2013 at 11:01 pm
From the top of Williams Canyon, it's easy to see how floodwaters Aug. 9 built into a torrent before plunging into Manitou Springs.
It's steep and subwatersheds feed into it from the sides, funneling rain into what amounts to a chute filled with mud, water and debris that roared down onto Canon Avenue.
"At the bottom is Manitou Springs," Dave Rose, spokesman for El Paso County, said during a tour Friday of recovery and mitigation efforts on the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
As officials pointed out mitigation work that has diminished the flow of debris down canyons, they got word that funding had been approved for another significant project: the construction of a culvert under U.S. 24 that will allow floodwaters to go under the highway instead of over it.
On July 10 and Aug. 9, numerous cars were swept off the road in flash floods; Divide resident John Collins died in the August flood.
On Friday, the state transportation commission approved money for a concrete culvert with 10 times the capacity of the existing culvert, said Doug Lollar, program engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation. He said the department will soon solicit bids for the work; an estimate of the project's cost was not available Friday.
It is one of many projects in the works to lessen the damage caused by flooding that is expected to continue for years.
Friday's tour included lower Waldo Canyon, lower Wellington Gulch and the tops of Wellington, Waldo and Williams canyons along Rampart Range Road. These are among the most dangerous areas for flooding since last summer's Waldo Canyon fire, which destroyed 347 homes, killed two people and burned more than 18,000 acres.
It comes a week after thunderstorms set off flash flooding from the fire burn scar that destroyed homes and businesses in Manitou Springs and flooded U.S. 24.
On Friday, officials said it could have been much worse.
Without retention ponds dug as much as a dozen feet deep into the soil and other completed mitigation efforts, the equivalent of roughly 1,000 additional dump truck loads of debris could have been added to the mix of muddy floodwaters.
Williams Canyon and Waldo Canyon are speckled with the retention ponds, also called sediment basins, which aim to snare water, sediment and debris and spread it out to diminish flooding.
The ponds, U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Dana Butler said, "did their jobs."
Millions of dollars worth of mitigation work is ongoing high in the craggy mountains above Manitou.
On any day, 50 to 100 workers and volunteers are at it, said Steven Sanchez, soil and water program leader for the U.S. Forest Service.
"All of this work is being done, and people don't know it because they can't see it."
It's a massive task. Of 113 subwatersheds in the area, 89 are at risk for flooding.
More than 3,000 acres of woodshred and mulch, some made from dead trees from the fire, has been spread.
Trails have been stabilized, channels have been reshaped, revegetation is underway and priority treatment areas have been established based on the amount of sediment and risk to humans.
Friday, heavy equipment pawed at soil and boulders, moving them from flood zones.
A Forest Service employee drove Rampart Range Road, which is closed to the public, looking for bad spots in the road caused by water.
Volunteers labored at cleanup and other work.
The hills were alive with people trying to cut flood risk.
"There are no buffers between the canyons and the communities," said Jackie Parks, spokeswoman for the Forest Service.
More is yet to come. This is the first phase of work that will stretch out for years, as the area, agencies and volunteers deal with the complications caused by the burn scar.
There are three retention ponds in Williams Canyon, and by the end of the summer, five more will be completed, Butler said.
Waldo Canyon has six of nine planned retention ponds completed, and further work is set for the Waldo Canyon Trail and channel reshaping. Three basins have been completed on Camp Creek, with two more planned.
Wellington Gulch has four basins in the upper watershed and four under construction, while three basins are planned for the lower watershed. One is done, and two are under construction.
Three basins are being installed in Sand Gulch
And, of course there's the U.S. 24 culvert work and work to slow flows in Fountain Creek.
The work, U.S. Forest Service Pikes Peak District Ranger Al Hahn said, is a process.
There's no such thing as done.
Storms continue to roll through the area, and the specter of flooding remains.
"We've still got a few years ahead of us," Butler said. "The long term is to have revegetation. That's the only route to success in here, to have a vegetative environment. That is the direction we are going."