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Officials pleased with Ute Pass mitigation work, but say that 'true test' is yet to come

By: matt steiner matt.steiner@gazette.com
July 17, 2014 Updated: July 17, 2014 at 5:56 pm
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Crews clean up a mudslide Thursday, July 17, 2014, that closed Chipita Park Road next to Ute Pass Elementary School after heavy rains Wednesday evening flooded the burn area of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

As officials up and down Ute Pass praised more than a year's worth of flood mitigation work Thursday morning, at least one breach in the protection exposed itself after two strong storms hit the Pikes Peak region and the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar Wednesday.

Mud and debris poured out of the Sand Gulch watershed along the burn area, raced past Ute Pass Elementary School, closed Chipita Park Road and washed away Bob Wetzel's driveway.

The erosive flow that came with rains in the area after 7 p.m. Wednesday damaged Wetzel's property for the second time in two years. The 60-year-old, who has lived in the home since 1976, said flash floods hit his driveway and threatened his house on June 30, 2012.

That storm covered his entire yard with more than two feet of mud and debris. This time, however, a much smaller amount left deep ditches in his driveway and covered a 50-yard section of Chipita Park Road.

"It was not nearly as bad as it was the last time," Wetzel said, noting that large flood barriers installed by the Coalition for the Upper South Platte kept his home safe from debris Wednesday.

Wetzel said he drove to Colorado Springs between Wednesday's bouts of rain. He thought the torrential weather was done for the night. But officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation closed U.S. 24 for a second time shortly after Wetzel reached the city. He said his wife Kim Wetzel was home when the mud flow came around 8 p.m. She stayed through the storm and left for the night shortly after U.S. 24 reopened after midnight.

John Chavez, the El Paso County storm water quality coordinator, said some mitigation work had been done in Sand Gulch before Wednesday's storms and more is planned. He pointed to the flood barriers built to protect the homes of Wetzel and his neighbor and said a small debris net and pond were built just north of U.S. 24 by CDOT.

Chavez said the county plans to do more work higher up the mountain near the burn scar. Work on at least one sediment detention pond and more erosion barriers will begin in August, he said.

Other areas along Ute Pass were left cleaning up superficial mud and light debris from roads and private property Thursday morning.

Green Mountain Falls Mayor Lorrie Worthey and Cascade Fire Chief Mike Whittemore said late Wednesday night that mitigation work done high up the mountains to the north had apparently done its job. They both said Fountain Creek flowed quite high but did not overflow.

Chavez was in Cascade early Thursday morning to see how mitigation projects along Topeka Avenue fared.

"I did not sleep well last night, I'll tell you that," Chavez said before boasting about a large sediment retention pond and barriers that were built to slow stream flow high above Cascade to the north.

Chavez said the pond was about 60 percent full and kept large amounts of water, mud and debris from reaching the highway.

"I'm very pleased," he said. "We took the first full test of all this work last night."

Chavez may have smiled and said several mitigation projects, including those near Manitou Springs passed a "test" on Wednesday, Manitou Springs Fire Department spokesman Dave Hunting said the storms weren't a true gauge of how well the mitigation work will hold up.

"I think the potential for a much stronger storm still exists," Hunting said.

Fountain Creek in Manitou Springs pushed the limits, but did not come crashing out of the channel Wednesday night. City crews and private property owners were cleaning up light mud and debris Thursday morning. Hunting attributed partial work already done in Williams Canyon and extensive projects by the U.S. Forest Service and CDOT for keeping the town safe.

According to the National Weather Service, Manitou received some of the highest reports of rainfall from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday. The city of more than 5,000 people was hit with 0.95 inches during that time.

Officials and weather forecasters say the region below the Waldo Canyon burn area is better prepared than in 2013, when three flash floods left Manitou Springs and areas along Fountain Creek scrambling. Many echo Hunting and continue to be hesitant to call the limited aftermath of Wednesday's storms a definite victory.

The Gazette's news partner, KKTV chief meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, agreed with Hunting and erred on the side of caution Thursday afternoon.

"That was not a true test of what could happen up there," Bledsoe said.

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