Waldo Canyon burn scar poses flooding threat along U.S. 24

April 5, 2015 Updated: April 5, 2015 at 11:01 pm
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photo - Fern Gulch, shown Friday, March 27, 2015, is still a trouble area after the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. A major mudside covered Highway 24 July 19, 2014, and is the first of CDOT's projects to revisted this summer. Debris is piled high in the gulch and CDOT may have to build a larger basin and a debris-catching net.    (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Fern Gulch, shown Friday, March 27, 2015, is still a trouble area after the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. A major mudside covered Highway 24 July 19, 2014, and is the first of CDOT's projects to revisted this summer. Debris is piled high in the gulch and CDOT may have to build a larger basin and a debris-catching net. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Life along Ute Pass has settled into a new normal nearly three years after the Waldo Canyon fire, but part of that normal is a waiting game.

Since the Colorado Department of Transportation has bolstered the major flood points along U.S. 24, the test now is to see how those culverts, basins and nets withstand the storms that hit the Waldo Canyon burn scar in the coming months.

"All of our eyes will just be on those to see if the projects they have done are working," said Lorrie Worthey, the mayor of Green Mountain Falls, a hamlet that faces the burn scar and its worst flooding zones. "It's so unpredictable."

The eyes of CDOT's engineers will be trained on one spot in particular this summer - Fern Gulch, a drainage that dumps onto the highway right in front of the Eagle's Nest Wellness Center. As with the other problem drainages along the highway, CDOT has built a catchment basin in the gulch and fortified it with boulders. But Fern Gulch has been filled with sediment and flood debris that could dump onto the highway.

Mudslides and flash floods have become commonplace along Ute Pass after the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, which burned more than 18,000 acres of the Pike National Forest. While 347 homes were lost in the Colorado Springs neighborhood of Mountain Shadows, Ute Pass residents face another legacy of the fire's destruction that could last for a decade - summer flash flooding. Summer rains have turned the burn scar into another disaster zone for western El Paso County residents who live at the foot of more than five drainages, all of which funnel water and debris onto their communities, homes and onto U.S. 24.

Fern Gulch, as recovery groups have dubbed it, poured a mudslide onto the highway July 19 and is the first of CDOT's projects that will be revisited this flood season, said Dave Watt, the resident engineer with CDOT.

While CDOT completed its last mitigation project in spring 2014 in Waldo Canyon, many of its projects have yet to stand the true test of a bad storm. The first round of mitigation projects is done, but CDOT will likely have to spend years cleaning the projects out and making sure they stand the test of time. It all depends on the storms the area gets. While the Waldo Canyon drainage didn't get much rain last year, Fern Gulch did, making it the first project to undergo the next major phase of CDOT's work along the highway.

Fern Gulch isn't the most obvious or well-known of the highway's trouble spots, though.

Some residents are familiar with Sand and Wellington gulches to the north, where CDOT has also done work; a dirt road and a 30-foot-wide box culvert at the foot of Waldo Canyon make it noticeable. For motorists zipping west on the highway, Fern Gulch and its debris piles are well above view. But a short drive up a steep dirt road that cuts north of the highway and runs along the gulch reveals that the area is filled with sediment and shattered, burned trees.

"Just by walking the corridor you can see that there is debris in Fern Gulch that can come down," Watt said.

CDOT has not determined exactly how much debris Fern Gulch holds, nor do engineers know what kind of rainstorm will force it onto the highway. But for engineers, gaining that understanding are main goals for this summer, Watt said. Fern Gulch could eventually be home to a debris-catching net and a larger basin, both of which have been installed in Waldo Canyon as part of a $4 million project. Engineers will also have to decide how and where to channel the debris flowing from the gulch, Watt said.

The Fern Gulch project will cost "a few million dollars" and could involve acquiring some of the private, nonresidential property around it and installing cameras in the area.

"It's a significant undertaking," Watt said. The project will not be finished before summer's end.

CDOT spent $12.5 million bolstering the weak points along U.S. 24 by building debris basins, culverts and repairing the denuded and flooded slopes of the Waldo Canyon burn scar. CDOT's work should make opening and closing U.S. 24 easier and perhaps reduce the number of times it will be shut down.

CDOT spent $1 million to install 10 flood gates to help shut down the highway between Manitou Springs and Cascade. Along with the gates will come a new highway closure policy that will lower the threshold CDOT uses for shutting down Ute Pass, Watt said.

Closure protocols have loosened from 24/7 patrols to shutdown's being triggered by flash flood warnings and quarter-inch of rainfall. CDOT has not announced the closure plan for 2015 but expects to do so in April, Watt said.

CDOT's work has not escaped the notice of residents who, like the department's engineers, are more secure with the knowledge that flooding along Ute Pass gets a little better every year, Worthey said.

Haley Moran has spent more than 20 years living along Ute Pass, and while she recognizes the wildfire and flood risks the community faces, she remains optimistic that the worst won't happen. Residents are well-informed of the dangers of living along the highway, Moran said. She has been told that Cascade was built at the bottom of an alluvial fan - a landscape built over time by debris flows and buildup.

"If the water hits this the right way, it could all wash away," Moran said in late March while she walked her three dogs along a heavily burned trail north of Cascade.

"We could all move down to Manitou, I think, pretty quickly," she joked.

Nonetheless, Moran remains confident that CDOT's work will help keep the worst from happening. But the projects don't eliminate the risks completely - one unusual storm could overwhelm them.

"The mitigation that has been built cannot mitigate against every storm," Watt cautioned.

Nonetheless, for Moran, Cascade will remain home even with the dangers that have now become a part of normal life.

"Folks that are staying here are committed to staying," she said. "We love it here. We're not going anywhere. Unless, I guess, if our house gets washed away."

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