Updated: August 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm
An aggressive battle plan to reduce the threat of flash floods in the Pikes Peak region has officials and work crews scrambling on all fronts.
Heavy equipment and workers in hard hats armed with shovels have been feverishly working along U.S. 24 to reconstruct washed-away slopes in an attempt to slow the surge of dangerous water and debris before the next storm rages over the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
In the Pike National Forest, just a few miles from the four-lane artery that connects Colorado Springs to Teller County, the effort isn't as visible, but the work is just as crucial to protecting life and property.
After the fire, officials knew there would be flood problems below the ash-laden slopes in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. In the fall, crews mulched and seeded the burned terrain. And during recent storms, retention ponds and debris traps built on public and private lands have proved their worth.
But more work is needed, particularly on the steep lands above the channels that drain into populated areas.
As recent floods have shown, work below can be undone if the water and debris aren't slowed farther upstream.
El Paso County, Colorado Springs and Colorado Department of Transportation officials said recently that everything they do to keep raging waters and debris from destroying homes, highways and potentially lives depends on the condition of the burned Pike National Forest.
"We have to be able to respond," El Paso County engineer Andre Brackin said. "We have to have people equipped and trucks on call 24/7."
County and CDOT crews have responded twice this summer to flash floods racing down the burn scar.
On July 1, a wall of water, mud and rocks spewed out of Williams Canyon, destroying homes and leaving Manitou Springs' Canon Avenue in shambles. On July 10, the rains hit and the mud flowed - this time out of Waldo Canyon.
U.S. 24 was closed for more than three hours, and emergency crews evacuated multiple victims from vehicles, using makeshift ladder bridges to rescue them. No one was injured in the flood.
Heavy machinery at work
In unseen, deep canyons east of Colorado Springs, steep, rocky terrain makes it nearly impossible to get to channels, especially with heavy equipment.
Forest Service and contract hand crews work on the thousands of acres most susceptible to heavy runoff. They've been "doing what they can," placing downed trees horizontal along the slopes and installing wattles - long rolls of hay netting - to slow runoff during heavy rains.
Some green ground cover has sprouted, but Forest Service official Steve Sanchez noted the roots don't go deep and "unravel with the storms."
Sanchez said the soil "got cooked, sterilized." That makes it easy for flowing water to pull the ground apart and send debris rushing down the slopes.
Sanchez stood on Rampart Range Road last week, pointing to long channels just a few inches deep in the eroded ground that he referred to as "rilling." Those tiny channels cover the upper slopes like a web. Sanchez said that if heavy rains expand the rilling, it will create an exponentially dangerous situation as floodwaters move downhill. The Forest Service worked throughout the year to minimize the danger, he said.
The plan now is to focus farther down the mountains.
Since the two flash floods in early July, bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks have made progress on six watersheds that the Forest Service considers most dangerous.
Those areas, which are Williams Canyon, Waldo Canyon, Camp Creek, Douglas Creek, Wellington Gulch and Sand Gulch, were pinpointed by Wildland Hydrology, a company that conducted the Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply study in the months after the Waldo Canyon fire burned more than 18,000 acres and destroyed 347 homes.
The WARSSS study was released in early May.
Last week,, crews in hard hats, hiking boots and bright orange vests worked along Wellington Gulch. The work there and in the other watersheds that dump rainwater into heavily populated areas - such as Manitou Springs and Mountain Shadows - began during the days just before the Fourth of July, said Dana Butler, a Forest Service hydrologist.
Sanchez, Butler and Forest Service spokeswoman Barb Timock said the sense of urgency was heightened after about half an inch of rain fell over the burn scar in a half-hour the afternoon of July 1.
When it's done, the Wellington Gulch project will have nine large sediment retention ponds spaced at least 100 feet apart. The area between the catch basins should force the fast-flowing water to spread out over large swaths of slope and slow down.
That is the model that was used in the other channels.
Butler said three catch basins were built on Forest Service land in Williams Canyon, and there could be more constructed depending on how well those hold up. Crews regularly hike the canyon, clearing channels and placing more wattles and horizontal logs along the slopes.
In Waldo Canyon, Forest Service crews and contractors work closely with Summit Ministries, which owns land between the forest and U.S. 24. Butler said two "big basins" were recently built adjacent to the private land and another was completed farther upstream.
Work recently began on a fourth retention pond in Waldo Canyon after mud and debris poured onto U.S. 24 on July 10.
"Right now, we're focused on saving life and property," Butler said.
Along Camp Creek, west of the Glen Eyrie and the Navigators campus, three retention ponds have been installed. Sanchez said four will be added.
In the north and south Douglas Creek watersheds, contractors are reshaping the flood plains on public land, and private landowners such as the Flying W Ranch used volunteers to help build retention ponds of their own.
Sanchez said the Forest Service has received about $6.2 million in Burned Area Emergency Response money for the projects - $5 million came in 2012 with the remaining $1.2 million allotted this year.
Forest Service officials and contractors say the work is not moving as quickly as they'd hoped.
Butler and Sanchez said that most days in July have been more half-days because rains usually develop by early to midafternoon, creating slippery slopes and hampering the ability for maneuvering large machines.
Butler said the workers have evacuated four times because of flash flood advisories over the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has focused on cleanup since the first flash flood came out of the burn scar July 30, 2012.
Four feet of mud flowed out of Wellington Gulch and covered all four lanes of U.S. 24 near Cascade. Crews spent 12 hours clearing the roadway, and engineers were on scene the next few days, scratching their heads and trying to formulate a plan.
This year, CDOT has continued to shore up slopes hit by the 2012 flash flood, and it responded to the July 1 and 10 flash floods.
The state agency began reconstructing the slope near Wellington Gulch this year and had to rebuild it again after rain poured down the hill about a month ago.
Dave Watt, a CDOT engineer, echoed Brackin's assessment of the conditions that everyone is dealing with. It all depends on the Forest Service work upstream, he said.
A cut-off wall installed near Cascade was undermined July 10, forcing CDOT crews to redo some work and clear out debris under the wall.
According to Watt, other mitigation efforts along U.S. 24 also have required repair with each flash flood.
Work farther west, near Sand Gulch and Ute Pass Elementary School, also was damaged. Forms for a concrete cutoff wall had minor damage, Watt said.
The July 10 slide that came out of Waldo Canyon and stranded motorists in rushing mud and water plugged a culvert next to U.S. 24 and caused mayhem for about three hours. Watt said crews cleared the road as fast as they could and have since cleaned out the 72-inch pipe and reconstructed the channel.
"We knew that what we're building is vulnerable in the middle of construction," Watt said. "And what we're building cannot accommodate every event."
Until the slopes are stabilized, the pattern of reaction and reconstruction will continue, he said.
Other efforts have not been damaged, but weather alerts and heavy rain can force workers to evacuate and slow progress.
Watt said a project underway for a couple of months near Manitou Avenue at Rainbow Falls was slowed as work stopped during heavier rains. CDOT is shoring up U.S. 24 from below.
The embankment is being reinforced at the lowest point near the falls. Wire mesh is being draped farther up the slope to maintain the integrity of the more than 100-foot slope. And a wall has been completed next to U.S. 24 to give added support to the roadway.
Watt said workers have evacuated the site multiple times to ensure their safety.
CDOT's work in the Ute Pass corridor was covered by $5.1 million in transportation contingency funds that came shortly after the Waldo Canyon fire ended.
It has gone to help mitigate damage post-Waldo Canyon fire, cleanup, traffic control, the WARSSS study, construction and mitigation plans, Watt said.
A county and city concern
County and city officials said flash flood mitigation work they sponsored on private and public lands stood up well as water, mud and debris poured out of the burn area July 1 and 10.
The county and Colorado Springs city engineering department sponsored several projects along Fountain, Camp and Douglas creeks, some of which have been completed.
Brackin said most of the county's work was done with the help of volunteers from the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a nonprofit that has helped with post-fire restoration on other fires including the Hayman fire that destroyed more than 138,000 acres of public and private land in summer 2002.
El Paso County helped put trap bags on private property along Fountain Creek and U.S. 24. Some of those locations include Sand Gulch near Ute Pass Elementary School, Rampart Terrace, Fitz Gulch and on land behind the Cascade branch of the Pikes Peak Library District.
Brackin said those 6-foot-high barriers have helped protect property.
"These channels on private property are what need to be stabilized," he said, noting that private land makes up the buffer zone between public forest and U.S. 24.
Much of the money (75 percent) for those projects came from the Emergency Watershed Protection program. Brackin said the county spent about $100,000 and used CUSP volunteer hours to provide the 25 percent match to get the EWP money.
The county also has worked with CDOT since the fire was contained in July 2012 to stabilize bridges and structures and keep channels and culverts clear of debris along the Fountain Creek corridor.
"The process to keep things conveyable is just constant," Brackin said. "Crews are up there all the time."
Much of that work has been paid for through the county's day-to-day work fund. Brackin said an emergency fund of more than $1 million was established in case larger storms hit the burn scar.
Colorado Springs also sponsored mitigation projects on private property that stood up to rushing waters July 1 and 10.
A 21-foot-tall, 80-foot-wide debris net was built in the canyon along Camp Creek to protect Glen Eyrie Castle and keep debris from rushing downstream and threatening homes along 30th Street in western Colorado Springs.
City engineer Tim Mitros said that during the July 1 storm the net caught about 8 feet of mud, logs and rocks that were cleaned out by Colorado Springs workers last week.
Colorado Springs also sponsored 10 sediment retention ponds built on the north and south Douglas Creek channels at the Flying W Ranch.
Jason Moore, director of operations for the Flying W, toured five ponds on north Douglas Creek with The Gazette shortly after the July 1 storm. The first of the basins was filled with water and mud with less debris collected in each successive pond, leaving the fourth and fifth empty.
Moore said the construction "did exactly what it was designed to do," adding that if it weren't for the mitigation work, a culvert along Flying W Ranch Road might have plugged and left the Mountain Shadows neighborhood cleaning up mud and debris.
Both projects were done with EWP money, with the city, the Flying W and volunteer hours making up the required 25 percent match.
Greg Langer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service said $111,000 in EWP funding went toward the Flying W basins. The mitigation work done at Glen Eyrie, including the debris net and reconstruction of a flood plain near the castle, cost "well more than a million dollars," Glen Eyrie Group executive director Jack McQueeney said.
Despite the success of some mitigation efforts and the continued work on more, officials from all jurisdictions in the Waldo Canyon flood zone are worried about the potential for catastrophe.
Sanchez paused while touring the forest last week.
He looked to the sky as clouds began to build and reiterated the urgent need to complete some of the larger projects.
"We haven't had 'The Event' yet," Sanchez said. "There's going to be a nasty flood some place, some time on this burn scar."