Flood study to pinpoint areas most at risk

Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, left, greets Neal Vercler and other Americorps workers Friday, February 22, 2013 at Wolfe Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colo. Bennet visited the ranch burned in last summer's Waldo Canyon Wildfire to highlight the need for federal resources to support wildfire recovery efforts. The Americorps workers were working Friday to fell hazard trees on the property. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Early results of a study that will pinpoint areas most in jeopardy of flooding from the Waldo Canyon burn scar should come "within the next couple of weeks" and will help home and business owners prepare as the summer monsoon season draws near, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said Tuesday.

The flood study by the Matrix Design Group began in mid-April and is expected to be completed by July. Last month, Clark stressed that results from the Matrix assessment and another study that focused on dangerous slopes and streams within the Waldo Canyon burn scar are critical to obtaining about $7 million in Emergency Watershed Protection money to complete recovery and mitigation projects by a Dec. 7 deadline.

Clark is part of the Waldo Canyon Fire Regional Recovery Group, which met Tuesday. The group is a coalition of representatives who are involved in fire recovery efforts; it is led by the Colorado Springs and El Paso County offices of emergency management.

Though the Matrix study will continue for several more weeks, Clark did express concern that any results - even early ones - could lead to fear from those in flood plains and beyond.

After Tuesday's meeting of the fire recovery group, Clark said that a sense of urgency is a good thing, but she wants people to "not be scared, but be prepared."

The National Forest Service completed its Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply (WARSSS) and presented it to the public May 2. It determined the most problematic watersheds are located along U.S. 24 between Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls and along Douglas Creek above the Mountain Shadows subdivision in western Colorado Springs.

The WARSSS study only pinpointed areas upstream from populated areas so the Forest Service can begin mitigation projects work and lessen speed of flood waters and dangerous debris flow.

Major players in the Waldo Canyon fire recovery effort all focused much of their concern at Tuesday's monthly recovery group meeting on obtaining Emergency Watershed Protection program funds. The more than $7.2 million of federal money that comes through the National Resources Conservation Service has been delayed, but NRCS representatives at Tuesday's meeting and Jill Ozarski of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall's office reassured the recovery group that the money is on its way.

Ozarski said the funds must be approved by the White House, sent to the Colorado NRCS office and then distributed. She said it's simply a matter of completing the needed paperwork.

"We know that it's on its way," Ozarski said.

The inability to predict weather patterns and to predict burn scar rain runoff are major concerns for Waldo Canyon Recovery Group members.

"This is a process of Mother Nature doing what Mother Nature does," said Carol Ekarius of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

Ekarius, along with Tom Magnuson of the National Weather Service, stressed Tuesday that thunderstorms over the burn area can pop up almost any time in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. The ash-laden ground will not hold rainwater like it used to, they said, noting that nobody really knows how fast rainwaters will rush down the slopes and into Fountain Creek and other channels. In fact, nobody can totally predict where new channels and choke points in streams might materialize.

"There may be channels now where there weren't channels before," said one recovery group member who stressed that everyone near the burn area, whether in the flood plain or not, must be prepared.

In the meantime, road projects to mitigate flood damage are moving forward.

Dave Watt, a CDOT representative, said work will begin soon on four projects from Rainbow Falls in Manitou Springs west to Sand Gulch near Green Mountain Falls. Watt said CDOT has targeted May 28 as the day the work will begin to prevent flood damage along U.S. 24, including a spot just east of the falls where floodwaters last July began to undermine the highway.

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