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Gazette Premium Content SIDE STREETS: Sandbagging must be a neighborhood effort

Debbie and Jesse Cisneros heard the warning about dangerous flash flooding expected below the Waldo Canyon fire scar in coming years for residents of Pleasant Valley.

That warning goes double for folks like Debbie and Jesse, whose house fronts Camp Creek along north 31st Street.

So when the city sponsored a sandbag giveaway recently, they made several trips hauling filled bags to their home, collecting about 110 and piling them two-high along the curb for the entire length of their property.

'Volunteers came and helped us unload them, ' Debbie said. 'We're still trying to decide where to put them. '

Other neighbors also stockpiled sandbags, employing much different strategies to protect their homes from feared floodwaters.

Some piled them against basement windows. Others propped them up along landscaping features in their yards. Others have built more elaborate sandbag walls, even using thick plastic, along the foundations of their homes.

I wondered who was doing the best job, so I called the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a nonprofit based in Lake George. The folks at CUSP are widely viewed as the experts in flood mitigation in wildfire zones.

Turns out none of the sandbagging I saw in Pleasant Valley was done properly.

Carol Ekarius, CUSP's executive director, said the Cisneroses probably have the best idea of building a sandbag wall at the street.

But their effort, like all the others, wouldn't do the job if the creek jumps its concrete banks. They probably need another 200 bags for a sufficient wall. Many more bags if they need to surround their entire home, which could be necessary if floodwater happened to come from behind. (An inundation analysis of specific properties in area flood zones, commissioned by the city, will give folks like Debbie and Jesse a better idea what they might expect. But it has not been released yet.)

And Ekarius said Debbie and Jesse are missing perhaps the most important component of successful flood protection: full neighborhood coordination and cooperation.

If neighborhoods including Pleasant Valley, Mountain Shadows, Oak Valley and Peregrine, and the communities of Manitou Springs, Cascade and others up Ute Pass are going to survive predicted flash flooding off the Waldo Canyon fire scar, residents better get serious about sandbagging and work together.

'They need to build walls, ' Ekarius said. 'Real walls. Maybe four bags high in Pleasant Valley. And they need a continuous sandbag wall along the entire front of those houses. '

She's talking more than a mile of creek-front from Chambers Way on the edge of Garden of the Gods to Bijou Street on the south where Camp Creek dives underground for the last few blocks of its trip to Fountain Creek.

The walls Ekarius is talking about are not just a line of sandbags piled four-high. They are mini-pyramids, three or four bags wide on the bottom, tied shut and pointing downstream in staggered rows.

As the wall climbs in height, it reaches a point at the top with a single row of bags on top. (See an illustration with attached in the above slideshow.)

Up in Ute Pass, CUSP is leading teams that are building walls eight bags high and more. And CUSP experts have put on free demonstrations in Peregrine and other areas to show how walls need to be built to withstand rampaging floodwaters produced by torrential downpours common in the Pikes Peak region.

CUSP will even schedule free demonstrations for folks who want to learn. Simply call CUSP at 719-748-0033 to ask for help. You won't find any sandbagging advice on city or county websites or distributed at meetings because they want homeowners to consult erosion experts to learn how to best protect their individual properties.

Of course, a lot of people can't afford to hire experts. I'd like to see free sandbagging demonstrations sponsored by the city at some of the big spring and summer festivals. Grab a turkey leg and funnel cake and learn how to protect your home and neighborhood!

El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said it's crucial neighborhoods in flood zones get serious about sandbagging.

'If people just line them up, they will wash away and actually contribute to the debris problem, ' Clark said. 'There is a right way and a wrong way to use sandbags. And 20 sandbags or a few dozen won't do any good. '

It reminds me of all the Firewise efforts coordinated by the city in recent years to get neighborhoods to thin urban forests, remove combustible scrub oak, shrubs and needles. The goal is to create a defensible space to allow firefighters to protect a home and prevent the spread of wildfire.

Firewise techniques work, Ekarius said. But those efforts were wasted on some streets during the Waldo Canyon fire because some didn't participate, allowing fire to penetrate and burn the homes of folks to who tried to mitigate the risk.

Ekarius said the same will occur if everyone at risk of flashflooding doesn't get with the sandbag program.

'If there are gaps in a sandbag wall, the water will go right around the sandbags, ' she said. 'And you have to be prepared to close your driveway, as well. '

If a continuous sandbag wall can't be built along Camp Creek, Ekarius said individual homeowners or groups can build walls around their properties, turning their homes into islands.

However, she cautioned against piling sandbags against a house or foundation.

'Water seeps through sandbags, ' she said. 'When they are against a foundation, they get wet and seep right through the foundation. You need a gap of at least a couple feet between the bags and your house to prevent seepage. '

The best solution is large-scale cooperation by neighbors.

'If groups of neighbors can work together, there's a better chance of protecting their property, ' Ekarius said. 'Working together is better than one person trying to protect it alone. '

Debbie Cisneros was surprised to hear what Ekarius was recommending. Debbie said she believes Pleasant Valley residents would gladly unite behind a coordinated sandbagging effort. And she wondered if the Pleasant Valley Neighborhood Association might organize the effort.

'We've always been a real tight-knit neighborhood, ' she said. 'I think people would want to come together for something like that. '

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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