From the Big Thompson Watershed Forum via the Estes Park Trail-Gazette:
The Big Thompson Watershed Forum (The Forum) will have its 14th Watershed Meeting, “FROM FLOOD TO FUTURE ~ RISING FROM MUD AND ASHES” on Thursday, September 24, 2015.
The Big Thompson River watershed, an area encompassing over 900 square miles, provides drinking water to numerous cities in northern Colorado including Berthoud, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Fort Morgan, Greeley, Loveland and Milliken. The Big Thompson River watershed is vital to more than 800,000 people, as it carries water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT) to be used for residential, commercial, agricultural, ranching, recreation, and wildlife habitat purposes.
We will welcome several great speakers and professionals with on-the-ground experience, research, and tales from the 2013 Big Thompson River flood. We will also be presenting the findings and results from our major water quality report and answering the question…. “is our water getting better or is it getting worse?” The assessment and presentation will discuss the findings from 15 years of data from the Forum’s most recent water quality analysis of the Big Thompson River and its major tributaries, and pre and post-flood water quality monitoring results.
Panels & Topics for 2015…
Your River & Who Runs It ~ Functionality & Monitoring in the C-BT System
Big Thompson Watershed Forum, Northern Water, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
The 2013 Flood ~ Impacts on Operations & Infrastructure
City of Loveland, Northern Water, Larimer County
From Flood to Future ~ Rising from Mud and Ashes
AloTerra Restoration, Big Thompson Conservation District, City of Loveland, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Colorado Water Conservation Board, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey
2015 State of the Watershed Water Quality Report
Big Thompson Watershed Forum, Hydros Consulting
The watershed meeting will be held at the Fireside Café, Group Publishing Building, Loveland, CO from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The cost is $50 per person and includes a continental breakfast, snacks, drinks, and Italian theme buffet lunch. Cash or check at the door please. Seating is limited. For additional details and to register, please contact Zack Shelley at 970-613-6163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
FromThe Denver Post via the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Joey Bunch/John Aguilar):
As Colorado hits the two-year mark since a historic deluge swelled rivers and creeks to overflowing, killing 10 and causing nearly $4 billion in damage across 24 counties, frustration is a theme for a surprisingly large group of folks still dealing with the storm’s aftermath. Hundreds of mobile home park residents in Evans, a city of 20,000 south of Greeley, are unable to return to communities that have been effectively scraped off the map.
The major access road into Glen Haven is still being put back together, causing repeated daily hour-long delays that result in unending headaches for locals and drive away tourist traffic headed to or from nearby Estes Park.
Only three of 17 homes in James town destroyed by a manic James Creek have been completely rebuilt, and a part of the population has relocated or hasn’t yet moved back to the tiny mountain town.
And then there are the dozens of Lyons residents, locked in a seemingly endless bureaucratic arm-wrestling match with town officials over attempts to get permits to rebuild their homes.
They confronted town leaders at a public meeting earlier this month demanding a more streamlined process for evaluating and approving their engineering and hydrology plans so they can move forward.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on this project, and we haven’t laid a shovel in the ground,” said Kitty Wang, who with her husband has lived in Lyons for 13 years and still awaits a floodplain development permit for a new house. “It’s a nightmare we keep trying to wake up from.”[…]
Molly Urbina, the state’s chief recovery officer, acknowledged that despite the billions spent to make repairs and provide compensation to victims of Colorado’s most costly natural disaster, problems remain.
The state, she said, has not forgotten about those still suffering.
“When we talk about disasters, we talk about a marathon, not a sprint,” Urbina said. “We continue to coordinate with local communities to assess and evaluate needs and priorities and to advocate for additional resources.”
Some of those resources have come from groups like Foothills United Way in Boulder County, which has raised $4.9 million in donations and spent about $363,000 for mental health services. The charity still sits on nearly $2 million to help cover the costs of at least 333 open cases in Colorado’s hardest-hit county…
Urbina said estimating costs for a disaster the size of the 2013 floods, which destroyed 1,852 homes and 203 businesses and created more than 18,000 evacuees over a five-day period starting Sept. 10, 2013, is a “complex, long-term process.”
“We understood that this would evolve as recovery priorities and projects became more clear,” she said.
The dynamic nature of the floods’ impact has played out in dramatic fashion since the one-year anniversary, with the cost of rebuilding in Colorado swelling by a third to nearly $4 billion.
The $1 billion spike, Urbina said, reflects the fact that initial cost estimates done in the months following the flood were rough. In the past year, more detailed estimates of what it would cost to fully repair and restore roads and watersheds in the state were made.
Specifically, watershed recovery master plans performed over the last year revealed that the true cost of improving flood-impacted watersheds would amount to some $600 million.
Last February, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced $56.9 million will come from a federal program to help restore stream corridors and prevent future flooding.
The remainder of the increased cost estimate since last year — around $400 million — came about as the result of detailed design and engineering work, which more clearly outlined the cost of building roadways that can better withstand future flooding, Urbina said.
Work will begin soon to redesign U.S. 36 from Estes Park to Lyons at an estimated cost of $50 million.
Also, individuals and local governments have found damage they initially didn’t know about or thought private insurance would cover, according to the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office…
A new normal is also being pieced together in Evans, where the Eastwood Village and Bella Vista mobile home parks were turned from once-vibrant low-income neighborhoods to empty, weed-choked lots by the floods. It’s not certain what will happen to the two properties, though Bella Vista’s owner is working with the city to re-establish itself at the same spot on 37th Street.
Here’s a look at several survivors from Isa Jones and Pam Mellskog writing for the Longmont Times-Call via the Loveland Reporter-Herald.
Meanwhile the Big Dam repairs are nearly complete. Here’s a report from Saja Hindi writing for the Loveland Reporter-Herald. Here’s an excerpt:
Crews are putting the finishing touches on repairs to the Nelson Big Dam and expect to have them completed in the next few weeks.
The masonry arch dam, built in 1895, is located west of Loveland’s water treatment plant, and was significantly damaged in the September 2013 flood.
The dam diverts raw water to the city’s water treatment plant, provides drinking water for the Johnstown water treatment plant, and irrigates about 20,000 acres of farmland in Larimer and Weld counties.
The Consolidated Home Supply Ditch and Reservoir Co. owns the 60-foot-plus dam, which didn’t suffer major damages in the 1976 flood, but the 2013 waters left a lot of damage.
The dam is also identified as a Colorado Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, so crews had to make sure not to change the historic aspects of the dam substantially. That included using stones from the same quarry as the original stones.
Crews are working on Phase II of repairs now, according to Home Supply board member Gary Gerrard, which encompass the pointing or refacing of the dam (grouting stones on the face of the dam), a need caused by years of erosion. Once that’s completed, he said, crews will close the gate.
The dam was operational April 1, 2014, in time for the spring runoff, and repairs continued while it was in use, aside from taking a break in the winter months…
Some of the repairs after the flood damaged the dam, Gerrard said, included restoring the crest elevation, mitigating future flood effects by strengthening the dam with concrete abutments and installing a new spillway that configures water to go around instead of on top and updating to 21st century technology such as an automatic gate that fluctuates with river flow.
Because the flood damaged the dam’s main gate, the company was also able to replace other gates not damaged by the flood that were almost unusable and rusting because they were first put in 1915.
Funding for the repairs came from the city of Loveland, the Home Supply board, the Colorado Water Conservation board and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city committed to paying 50 percent of the costs not covered by federal and state grants. The conservation board committed to covering uncovered costs through long-term low-interest loans.
The total cost of repairs, Gerrard said, is about $3 million. Of that, $2.2 million is expected to be covered by federal aid.
Gerrard said the entities were able to keep costs low through “the methods of construction and the ability we had to be able to make decisions in the field, and the cooperation we had from all the entities to react to the things we found out in the field.”
Because officials could make decisions quickly, there weren’t a lot of construction holdups, he said.
“That’s the main thing to reach out for help. They (Larimer County Long Term Recovery Group) connect you with the people you need (Loveland Housing, in particular). We had volunteers from Lyons, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida,” said Aleta.
Today, the Hammond’s have a little less privacy. The flood took out about half the trees and bushes along this road. And what was a pasture with a barn now looks like an outcropping of rocks.
That creek that once rushed with danger is nearly dry, but the family’s gratitude is overflowing.
People lost their homes, a few lost their lives. So we were very, very fortunate,” said Aleta…
The state repositioned U.S. 36 and Little Thompson River to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.
The Hammonds say they still have work to do on their property, like foundation work, and cleaning off grit inside tools and motorcycles.
From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Jessica Benes):
Where the Little Thompson River used to be 70 feet wide in places, it was blasted to 300 yards, according to Gordon Gilstrap of the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition.
The September 2013 flood devastated areas along Front Range rivers and streams, and while not nearly as many houses were lost on the Little Thompson River, landowners still are recovering from the deluge that destroyed vegetation, wildlife habitat and landscapes.
Some landowners along the Little Thompson call it “the forgotten river.”
“It’s been an interesting journey,” said Gilstrap, who helped set up the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition after the flood. “The Little Thompson has been an unknown river because no county or state roads run along it for any distance. It is all privately owned.”
Deirdre Daly, president of the coalition, said that because the river isn’t in a town or county that is leading the charge for river repair, the restoration has been almost entirely driven by the people who live on it…
The Little Thompson headwaters come in from several areas but are mostly above Big Elk Meadows below Estes Park, separate from the Big Thompson.
“It was a small working river,” Gilstrap said. “It provides drinking water to Big Elk Meadows and Pinewood Springs, irrigation to a lot of farmland. It has always been a small, quiet little river.”
The water pushed woody debris down the river, knocking out everything for hundreds of feet on both sides of the river.
Gilstrap said the land along the river was heavily wooded, with a lot of wildlife habitat, especially in the Big Elk Meadows, Pinewood Springs and Blue Mountain areas. Much of that habitat area was lost.
The number of homes lost in the flood was small — two to four — but there was a lot of other damage such as water in basements, homes partially damaged and agricultural fields that were made useless with sediment and garbage debris accumulation.
“A lot of agricultural equipment was lost, and the irrigation ditches took a real hit,” Gilstrap said. “An interesting fact most people don’t know is the Little Thompson was the river that shut down every county bridge between Big Elk Meadows and Milliken — seven public bridges and many other private bridges — so it cut off Northern Colorado from southern Colorado.”[…]
Gilstrap helped found the Little Thompson coalition in December 2013, starting with nothing. The group had no money and no knowledge of how to run a coalition.
“Thanks to an amazing group of volunteers that stepped forward to be a part of it, we established the Little Thompson coalition as one of the most effective coalitions in Colorado,” Gilstrap said.
With grant funding, the coalition oversaw the successful completion of a master plan for the watershed, started having meetings, published an active website and Facebook page and coordinated volunteer projects.
“We secured over $1.2 million in government and private-sector grants with a potential of $3 plus million to come,” he said.
The coalition also was able to hire a full-time watershed coordinator, Keith Stagg, and assistant coordinator. Erin Cooper, this summer to oversee grant raising and volunteers, which meant the hard workers such as Gilstrap who had volunteered so much of their time were able to step back.
“We all learned together (at the beginning),” Gilstrap said. “We even learned to say ‘fluvial geomorphic transition’ and other big words like that.”
He said there were two reasons for their success: the volunteers who stepped forward to be on committees while also working day jobs, and support from the state and counties involved.
“Everyone worked together, and that spirit is ongoing more than ever. The volunteers came in from everywhere and did the dirtiest, grungiest work imaginable and were happy as can be if you gave them water and cookies,” he said.
Work still to be done
One of the big problems the river still faces is sediment.
Gilstrap said the Big Thompson River has a rock base, while the Little Thompson has more of a soil base.
When the flood swept down the river from just below Estes Park, sediment traveled down, blocking irrigation canals and changing the bed of the river.
One of the private bridges in Berthoud — called the Green Monster bridge by locals — used to have a space large enough to walk under, and now a person can barely crawled under because of all the new sediment. Julie Moon used to walk her horse beneath the bridge.
“That all plugs up irrigation ditches, rechannels the river,” Gilstrap said. “It’s a long-term fight to understand what will happen with the sediment, how to fight it, how to do restoration so we don’t aggravate the problem.”
He said there is still a lot of farmland with sediment covering valuable cropland.
Natural Resources Conservation Service representatives walked the river and filled out disaster survey reports to define the work to be done. The restoration work will carry on for the next five or more years, he said. The river is also being analyzed for flood and fire resiliency, to be more resilient the next time a flood passes through.
“We’re trying to think during restoration how we can bounce back from them more quickly and not put people in as much peril,” Gilstrap said.
Stagg said the silver lining of the flood is that people are aware of the need for resiliency.
“Everyone wants to see the system put together,” he said.
Gilstrap said wildlife is coming back, and the coalition is looking at revegetation options to establish more wildlife habitat. They plan to use willow cuttings and other “ecotypical” seeds from Daly’s property and neighbors’ to vegetate other areas along the river with native plants.
Major sources of grants for restoration work has come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program through USDA.
Gilstrap said a new round of grant funding from several sources will deliver possibly $47 million across Colorado, and he believes the Little Thompson might see $2 million to $3 million of that. Stagg and Cooper were hired through funding jointly from the state Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“We’re one of (several) watersheds that received funding for professional staff,” Stagg said.
Each year, the coalition will receive grants and work on different pieces of the restoration project for many years to come.
“We will get a couple projects done in each round. Each year we will go find another source of money, and do a little bit of project as the years go on,” Daly said.
The Little Thompson even has a “Little Thompson Watershed” sign posted near the headwaters.
“We’ve never had that before,” Daly said. “Before, the river was there and hidden by trees and no one knew what river it was.”
It has been two years since the catastrophic Colorado floods of 2013. The outstanding visitation and tax revenue numbers from this summer suggest that most guests could not guess that the recovery is ongoing.
We’ve come a long way in those two years, but much work remains…
The impact in places like downtown Estes Park and Lyons will be substantial, as flood insurance premiums could skyrocket for some businesses.
In addition, Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly announced to Glen Haven residents that $2 million in federal money is being allocated for restoration of bridges and roads in Larimer County.
Under existing federal regulations, money could not be allocated to privately owned roads or bridges that exist in much of rural Larimer County. The presence of second homes in many of these areas was also a barrier to obtaining any federal assistance. Cooperation among our Congressional delegation and Larimer County officials was necessary to obtain an exception to federal rules, which were not designed with our region in mind.
Cooperation has been another key to getting us back on track. No one person or organization can take all the credit. For example, the Fish Creek Road restoration requires cooperation among the town, county, Upper Thompson Sanitation District and Estes Valley Recreation and Park District. The United Way created a unique fund that delivered over $1 million in grants to local businesses for flood recovery. Mountain Strong for Nonprofits evolved from community members who banded together to help their neighbors. Crossroads Ministries received and distributed substantial assistance.
The Community Foundation of Northern Colorado provided grant monies to a host of local recovery efforts, including a grant to Estes Park EDC and the Town of Estes Park for a flood recovery coordinator. Through that program, Estes Park EDC assisted over 50 businesses in successfully obtaining $1.9 million in Recover Colorado business grants.
Our dedicated staffing and partnership with Larimer SBDC greatly benefited local businesses. As of this summer, over 60 percent of the statewide Recover Colorado grants had come to Estes Park, Glen Haven, Drake and southwest Larimer County.
For Estes Park EDC, assisting local businesses is always a top priority, but this was just the first step. The recent completion of the NEO Fiber Consulting plan for competitive broadband is a major step toward addressing both the cost and speed of local Internet services. Assuming the plan goes forward, it will greatly benefit both our residents and guests, our existing businesses and businesses to come.
Finding long-term resources for resiliency is another key. Two weeks ago, we received good news. After receiving an application from Larimer County, the Colorado Economic Development Commission accepted Southwest Larimer County as an Enterprise Zone. Thus provides local businesses with the opportunity to obtain a number of different tax credits designed to expand and support your business. We are an Enterprise Zone because census data revealed that Estes Park is lagging the state in population growth.
In 2013, we spoke about the 28 percent decline in 35 to 44 year old residents that occurred between the 2000 and 2010 Decennial Censuses. The 2012 Census data estimated that we have lost 46 percent of our 35 to 44 year olds since 2010. The loss of working age families can be attributed to less workforce housing availability and fewer year-round job opportunities compared to Front Range communities.
The flood has exacerbated such concerns, as demonstrated by the large number of job ads that continued to appear in July and August. The size of this population decline threatens funding for our schools, due to long-term declines in enrollment.
Later this fall, Avalanche Consulting will meet with the Town Board to present a regional economic development strategy for the Estes Park region. There will also be public meetings to discuss the plan and its implementation. The plan combines the results of extensive community meetings and outreach earlier this year with the experience of a national consulting firm.
This summer has been a record year for tax revenues. Despite our successes, the recovery is ongoing. Long-term resiliency against future events is an important goal. With leadership and collaboration, we ensure we remain a vibrant, multi-generational community in the decades to come.
The storm that upended the lives of thousands of Front Range residents almost two years ago was nearly unprecedented for the area, so much so that it largely confounded the best efforts of those charged with forecasting its scope and impact.
But the lessons learned from the 2013 event could go a long way toward ensuring that should a similar storm strike this area — and in a changing global climate, it could — the forecasting community would be better prepared for it.
Those are key findings from “The Great Colorado Flood of 2013,” a paper accepted for publication soon by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses to date on a memorable storm that may only have the September 1938 flood as close precedent in the past century for the Boulder area.
The 71-page paper features no fewer than 26 contributing authors, representing the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences…
Colorado behaving like the tropics
The record-breaking dimensions of the 2013 storm were born of a confluence of climatological factors, including a significant tropical influence flowing into a charged atmosphere flush with water vapor, over a landscape that was already well saturated.
Recapping the way the system had set up, the paper states: “The large-scale atmospheric pattern that supported persistent heavy rainfall in northern Colorado during 10-16 September 2013 consisted of a blocking ridge over the Canadian Rockies and a slow-moving, cutoff, upper-level cyclonic circulation to its south over the western U.S. The blocking anticyclone assisted in keeping the western-U.S. cutoff circulation in place for several days, and to the east and southeast of this circulation, moist air was transported northward and westward toward the Front Range in Colorado.”
That’s far different from the usual variety of flood-prone events for which most local forecasting models are geared — such as a slow-moving thunderstorm that might camp out over a localized river basin, like that which triggered the tragic Big Thompson flood of 1976.
And just as the tuning of a musical instrument can be adjusted for the music it is expected to play, the forecasting tools of the National Weather Service are calibrated for conditions they expect to see — not the outlier that invaded Colorado two years ago.
“Weather forecasting models are tuned to observe the weather in the entire United States year-round, and they are tuned to typical weather, not atypical weather,” Friedrich said.
“Then, because the models didn’t forecast the rain correctly, the radars didn’t measure the rain correctly, and that had trickle-down so the hydrological forecast was basically lagging, due to the incorrect input data. And the reason the radars did not observe it correctly was the nature of the storm. It was very tropical.”
Weather blogger Bob Henson stated in an email, “This paper reiterates how challenging it is to accurately predict and measure heavy rain and flooding. This was a Colorado storm that behaved like a tropical downpour, from the microphysics within the clouds to the phenomenal rainfall they produced.”
Meteorologist Matt Kelsch, a co-author on the report, said atmospheric models are always evolving, using past storms as guidance.
“When a storm occurs that is so far removed from the historic experience, our forecasts, both computer and human, struggle,” Kelsch said. “The modeled atmosphere leading up to the second week of September 2013 was strongly suggesting an unusually wet period — but not 12 to 20 inches.”
As bad as things were for the 24 Colorado counties socked by more than $2 billion in damage, Henson said it could have been worse.
“We are lucky to have far better modeling and observing technology at hand than we had in 1976, when the Big Thompson flood took almost everyone by surprise and killed more than 100 people,” he said. “Neither humans nor models fully anticipated the scope and power of the 2013 disaster, but we knew heavy rains could affect a wide area, and we had much better tools for responding quickly and saving lives when the threat materialized.”
The paper concludes by offering the hope that new research weather forecast models such as NOAA’s High Resolution Rapid Refresh model could improve precipitation forecasts, and that new generations of spatially continuous hydrological models could produce better information on timing and location of floods — presuming that more accurate rainfall estimates and forecasts are available to feed into those models.
The storm was such that it stretched historical superlatives in the moment, and some endure. Most notably, the paper supports the contention that in some pockets in a corridor stretching from Boulder northwesterly toward the St. Vrain, Little Thompson and southern half of the Big Thompson watersheds, rain fell during one 24-hour period at a clip qualifying as a 1,000-year-rain — meaning that in any given year there is a 1-in-1,000 chance of it occurring.
“We don’t have the data to say otherwise,” Gochis said. “It’s all a fit to what you have seen before. Otherwise, you’re just kind of extrapolating.”
Gochis added, “If we had 1,000 years of data, we could have a lot more confidence in saying that. …
“I don’t really like that (1,000-year) term. The flood was definitely unprecedented in its scale — not just in local amounts, but in its widespread extent.”
‘Do we know what actually fell?’
Many might be surprised to know that even now, two years later, it still isn’t known exactly how much rain came down.
“Do we know what actually fell? No, but we certainly have a very good estimate, much better than what we would have had even 15 years ago,” Kelsch said. “The struggle is in low-population mountainous areas. Low-population areas have fewer rain-gauge reports, and mountainous areas have less radar-based measurement of what is happening between the cloud and the ground. This was most apparent in parts of northwestern Boulder and western Larimer counties.”
Friedrich noted in an interview last week that a question that remains prominent in her mind is “whether this is an outlier event and whether these types of events might occur more often. Is this a response to climate change? Is this something we might experience in the near future?
While noting that there is not yet enough data to draw a solid conclusion, she referred to a paper published in June by NCAR distinguished senior scientist Kevin Trenberth. The Trenberth paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, didn’t assert that climate change caused the 2013 flood, but that it likely enhanced its severity.
The 2013 storm was extraordinary, Trenberth said, as demonstrated by the fact that records were “not just broken but smashed.”
“And yet we are seeing more and more of these sorts of things around the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “They are hard to connect because every one is different; the atmosphere has infinite variety, and the weather never repeats. But climate change is altering the odds.”
Currently, hurricanes in the east Pacific and a record-breaking El Niño boosting sea-surface temperatures over large areas are examples of the Earth’s natural variability which, coupled with climate change, “puts us outside the previous experience,” Trenberth said.
“There are many phenomena involved in all these different events, but the environment in which they occur has changed to make the extremes more extreme — the rainfalls heavier, and the droughts hotter and drier and with wildfire a consequence,” he said.
Whatever the future might hold, Gochis said the fact that “Boulder, itself, didn’t receive a lot of catastrophic damage” suggests much of its floodplain planning and flood strategizing has paid dividends — and should continue to, in the face of future events.
Gochis was less sanguine about other areas of concern, mentioning as an example the restoration of foothills roadways.
“Transportation corridors were put back where they were,” Gochis said. “I think we’re still vulnerable there. But to make them more flood resilient would take a lot of money.”
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
<blockquoteThe Northern Water Board of Directors set 2016 water assessments during an Aug. 6, 2015 public hearing. Assessments for open-rate irrigation contracts increased from $10.90 per acre-foot unit to $17.60, and assessments for open-rate municipal, industrial and multipurpose contracts increased from $30.50 per acre-foot unit to $35.90.
The Board followed its general rate-setting objectives, which are outlined in its 2014 forward guidance resolution. Among other objectives, the resolution proposed a 2-year step increase in assessments beginning in 2016, and moving irrigation assessments towards a cost-of-service based rate. Both of these objectives are represented in the 2016 assessments.
The Board will consider forward guidance that provides an estimated range for 2017 and 2018 water assessments at its Sept. 3 Planning and Action meeting.
For information on water assessments, please contact Sherri Rasmussen at 970-622-2217.
The annual remembrance service for victims of the 1976 Big Thompson Canyon Flood will be held at 7 p.m. Friday next to the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department station a mile east of Drake on U.S. Highway 34.
This year’s event will honor firefighters, law enforcement officers and other emergency services workers who responded to the disaster. The flash flood hit July 31, 1976, taking the lives of 144 people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
The program will include speakers, music and light refreshments. Participants are welcome to bring a chair and a snack to share.
I was backpacking in the Flat Tops Wilderness that week with Mrs. Gulch. Monsoon drizzle in between downpours pushed us to hole up in Steamboat Springs to get a room at a place with a hot tub.
I called my mother the night of July 31 to check in. She asked, “Johnny, are you anywhere near the Big Thompson? There’s been a terrible flood.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Tyler Johnson):
The Bureau of Reclamation has awarded a contract totaling nearly $1.5 million to Lillard and Clark Construction Company Inc., Denver, for repair to the Big Thompson Diversion Structure, an element of the Colorado-Big Thompson project that was damaged during the September 2013 flood, known as one of the worst natural disasters in Colorado history.
“Reclamation is addressing the infrastructure damage that occurred during the 2013 Colorado River flooding,” said Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López, while announcing today’s $1,457,570 contract award. “This work will ensure the project’s continued reliability.”
Big Thompson Diversion Structure, located 8.5 miles west of Loveland, Colorado, in Larimer County, requires removal and restoration of flood-damaged concrete areas, installation of a precast concrete building, repair and replacement of electrical systems, gates, gear boxes, electric motors and other rehabilitation tasks. The work is expected to begin in April 2015.
The Colorado-Big Thompson project spans approximately 250 miles in Colorado. It stores, regulates and diverts water from the Colorado River on the western slope of the Continental Divide to the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, providing supplemental water to irrigate about 720,000 acres of land for municipal and industrial uses, hydroelectric power and water-oriented recreation opportunities. Major features of the project include dams, dikes, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, pipelines, tunnels, transmission lines, substations and other associated structures. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District apportions water used for irrigation to more than 120 ditches and 60 reservoirs. Eleven communities receive municipal and industrial water from the project. Electric power produced by six power plants is marketed by the Western Division of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program.
From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Kenneth Jessen):
In 1975, a Colorado dam inspector hiked the half-dozen miles to the Lawn Lake dam and reported that it was in need of a thorough inspection after the snow melted. Another inspector reported two years later that the dam was in fair condition and suggested that its owners make repairs.
On Aug. 8, 1978, a third inspector reaffirmed the marginal rating for the dam and recommended that it be observed when the reservoir was full.
The caulking between the outlet pipe and the release valve started to allow water to trickle along the outer surface of the pipe. Once a small channel had eaten into the earthen dam under pressure, it rapidly expanded.
On July 15, 1982, the Lawn Lake dam failed catastrophically. The release of water was heard by campers along the Roaring River. One man below the dam was swept to his death in the churning water.
The wall of water forced large boulders down 2,500 vertical feet to Horseshoe Park acting as battering rams. The forested banks of Roaring River where scoured away in a landslide of thousands of tons of material.
Much of the impact of the flood was absorbed by the broad expanse of Horseshoe Park. An alluvial fan quickly formed at the mouth of Roaring River. The debris was pushed across Horseshoe Park damming the Fall River and forming a shallow lake.
Fortunately, Steve Gillette was collecting trash at the Lawn Lake trailhead. It was 6:23 a.m. when he sighted the flood coming toward him and alerted park officials.
In an interview with the Loveland Reporter-Herald, he described the noise like that of a plane crashing. Gillette said that it looked like a mudslide of the type you see in the movies.
The vast volume of water poured into Fall River and picked up finely divided glacial silt in the process.
Below Horseshoe Park was the Cascade Dam. The force of the water first backed up behind the dam, and then suddenly toppled the 17-foot high structure at 7:42 a.m. This amplified the intensity of the flood and a wall of water raced through the Aspenglen Campground killing two people.
The mud and water coursed through motels and restaurants, then hit downtown Estes Park. The entire width of Elkhorn Avenue became a river of mud-filled water combined with a great deal of debris. It did an extraordinary amount of damage as entire inventories for the summer tourist season were washed away or ruined.
State inspectors were partially to blame along with the Park Service. Much of the responsibility, however, had to be borne by owners of the dam, the Farmers Irrigation Ditch & Reservoir Co. Its 16 stockholders became worried about legal action, but they were protected by their corporation.
National flood insurance covered only 20 property owners out of some 275 affected by the flood.
High-profile trial lawyer Gerry Spence was hired by Estes Park property owners to represent their interests. He quickly concluded that the entire assets of the ditch company consisted of little more than their $1.4 million insurance policy. This money was turned over to the court system to be disbursed.
Immunity against lawsuits was evoked by both the federal government and the state of Colorado. Damages topped $30 million, which ultimately had to be absorbed by businesses and individuals.
Low interest rate loans were made available. Other federal assistance included unemployment payments, temporary housing, up to $5,000 for out-of-pocket living expenses and food stamps. However, very little compensation was received by anyone financially injured by the Lawn Lake flood.
Less than 10 cents on the dollar was paid to flood victims, forcing the permanent closure of many businesses.
The Lawn Lake disaster became the perfect opportunity for the Park Service to dismantle selected dams.
Lost Lake dam was dismantled followed by the Pear, Sandbeach and Bluebird dams. Spared were Lily, Sprague, Snowbank and Copeland.