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Worry about flash floods continues years after 'wall of water' crushed western El Paso County

April 12, 2016 Updated: April 12, 2016 at 9:40 pm
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Woodland Park city engineer Bill Alspach examines soil in an undercut bank along Fountain Creek in Woodland Park Thursday, April 7, 2016. The city will soon begin work on this portion of the creek to help mitigate possible floods downstream. Workers will grade the bank and place boulders along it to curb the erosion. This area is less than a mile from the headwater of Fountain Creek. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The threat of flash floods continues to linger in the minds of western El Paso County residents.

That worry loomed large for a group that met last week in Green Mountain Falls. The members were focused on what might happen if torrential rains pound the Waldo Canyon burn scar and strike areas farther upstream this summer.

Their concern has precedent. Thunderstorms on the barren, burned-out slopes northeast of U.S. 24 and in Woodland Park have filled Fountain Creek to its edges the past few years, leaving residents of Cascade, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls spending each spring stacking sandbags and cleaning up after a series of floods.

Residents of those towns find themselves repeatedly asking the same question:

"What are they doing upstream?"

Several people at the meeting posed that question to a panel of El Paso County, Colorado Department of Transportation and National Weather Service officials.

The question pointed the focus toward Teller County, a source of fast-flowing water. Those downstream remember a brief but powerful storm that hit Woodland Park in August 2013 and sent "a wall of water" pouring down Fountain Creek.

In an interview with The Gazette, Bill Alspach outlined years of planning and channel reconstruction that he said the Teller County city at the headwaters of Fountain Creek has been doing.

"We understand the creek," Alspach said. "We've committed ourselves to being good stewards of the headwaters and good stewards to our neighbors. We're doing this because it's the right thing to do."

Mayor-elect Jane Newberry said there is a "general feeling" in Green Mountain Falls that growth in Woodland Park has led to more storm runoff and a greater threat that Fountain Creek could pour over its banks and threaten bridges, homes and businesses in the communities below.

During the Aug. 22, 2013, storm, two bridges were damaged in Green Mountain Falls and several homes flooded in Green Mountain Falls and Cascade.

Newberry said she has "seen the city leaders in Woodland Park" focus on updating their development requirements to include a priority on drainage mitigation.

Alspach echoed that, saying that Woodland Park began its foundation of "stormwater stewardship" when the City Council passed a resolution in 1994 requiring strict criteria for runoff retention.

In 2011, Alspach updated city code to require developers to include designs that slow runoff and reduce effects on Fountain Creek. He said that entails using landscaping, ponds and other features to force water into the ground before it flows toward the channel.

Alspach said businesses with large impervious parking lots and homeowners need to be aware of runoff on their property.

"Everybody contributes to impervious areas," he said.

In 2014, Woodland Park partnered with Colorado Springs and El Paso County officials to have consistency within the watershed, Alspach said. Woodland Park has since rebuilt the west and east forks of Fountain Creek through town with help from CDOT and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Alspach said the water now flows through culverts that include several features to help slow the flow.

Now, the city is focused on the next phase, which runs from the convergence of those forks to Aspen Garden Way just east of the Safeway store. Alspach said the city will begin taking bids from contractors Wednesday to rebuild that portion of the creek. The work will include clearing the channel of debris and installing cutoff walls, boulders and other elements to control flow speeds.

The creek farther east is beyond Woodland Park city limits, and the responsibility falls to Teller County and private landowners.

Bryan Kincaid, who manages floodplain concerns for Teller County, said consultants who have worked with Woodland Park are in the midst of a stream bed stability assessment from the edge of Woodland Park to the El Paso County line.

"Everybody knows about the feud that has started between everybody downstream and Woodland Park," Kincaid said. "We're stuck right in the middle."

Roads for private landowners along Crystola Road and near Crystola Canyon Road have been closed during heavy rains that send water churning down the usually dry creek bed.

Kincaid said Teller County maintains creek crossings at County Road 21, Creekside Drive and Crystola Canyon Road. The rest of the creek is on private land, he said.

Alspach added that while Woodland Park and Teller County seek federal and state aid to help pay for channel maintenance, it's a challenge for private residents to find money to maintain the creek on their property.

"They own the creek," Alspach said, noting that landowners can partner with volunteer agencies like the Coalition for the Upper South Platte and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute to help keep the channel safe.

CUSP and RMFI have worked with residents all along Fountain Creek and other drainages plagued by flash flooding since the June 2012 Waldo Canyon fire. The more than 18,000-acre blaze left mountain slopes west of Colorado Springs without vegetation needed to help slow runoff flows during heavy rains. Continued concerns four years later prompted the Green Mountain Falls preparedness meeting.

The worry is that one powerful thunderstorm in the wrong place will force residents to once again leap into emergency mode.

"We're all at nature's mercy," Newberry said. "A cloud burst can happen no matter what."

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