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Headwaters Summer 2014—Flooded and Coming Back Smarter

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The September 2013 flood disaster was financially the most devastating flood Colorado has faced this century. Read about what happened in 2013 and how it could have been worse. Learn about the rush of flood recovery efforts targeting short and long-term resiliency as well as the opportunity that a strong rebuild presents. Then, explore the question of living with risk and the risks we accept as a society. Full recovery from the September 2013 flood is still a long way off, but check out this issue for some lessons learned that apply statewide. Flip through or download the flood issue online.


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The Big One

September 2013's flood was the most recent, but don't expect it to be the last.

By Caitlin Coleman

For northern Colorado, September 2013 was hell. At the time, the National Weather Service called the flooding “biblical.” For those impacted, it might as well have been. Farmers watched herds of mice scurry across wet fields to reach higher ground and avoid inundation—the first plague. People, too, struggled to survive and protect family, animals and property. Those assisting with emergency response and rescue efforts lived on adrenaline, Snickers bars and without sleep for days. It felt like the rains would never stop. Ten lives were lost. Hell.

Although total economic losses and flood-related damages won’t be known with certainty for years, state officials are estimating the tally at around $3.4 billion. In the end, that number will include damage to agricultural land and production, tourism losses, as well as impacts to homes, businesses, roads and more.

Repairs and rebuilding continue, but less than a year out it’s too soon to say what Colorado will remember and learn from the event and what will become lore.

The storm began forming along Colorado’s Western Slope on September 7. The previous week was record-breakingly hot and dry, says Nolan Doesken, Colorado’s State Climatologist. Tropical moisture heading north from the Pacific coast of Mexico had swept across the desert Southwest, targeting western Colorado. Kevin Houck, chief of watershed and flood protection for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, recalls emailing Doesken after checking the precipitation forecast, hopeful for a few inches of rain—drought relief. At the time, Doesken told him not to get too excited, these storms rarely pan out.

By September 9, that moisture moved to the Front Range. As rain showers began to fall, another mass of soggy, humid air was sweeping up from the Texas Gulf coast pumping water in like a pipeline, says Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. The dew point was 67 degrees, and “everything was just right for this to turn into a bad day,” Chard recalls.

Read more: The Big One

Race to Recovery

Meeting Today's Needs With an Eye on Tomorrow

By Josh Zaffos

Hear more about the rebuilding and planning process in Boulder County by listening to CFWE and Colorado Community Radio's Connecting the Drops audio coverage.


North St. Vrain Creek flows placidly along Apple Valley Road on a blue-sky April day amid the commotion of large trucks and track hoes working to reshape its banks. Seven months earlier, in September 2013, driving rains flooded the creek to nearly 10 times its typical volume and caused it to rise more than 5 feet in barely 24 hours, chewing up sections of U.S. Highway 36, the adjacent roadway between Lyons and Estes Park. In Apple Valley, a small side canyon off the highway, the swollen river uprooted and inundated houses and buried cars as it carved a brand new channel.

The close proximity of houses and the highway to the river not only left them vulnerable to damages, but also compromised the natural function of the North St. Vrain’s floodplain. Although the consequences to homeowners’ properties—“They took a huge, huge hit,” says consultant Jeff Crane, working on behalf of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT)—are still visible in spring, an “unprecedented” recovery is in motion, Crane says. In the aftermath of the epic flood, the Colorado Department of Transportation, Central Federal Lands Highway Division of the Federal Highway Administration, and Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) are partnering to avoid similar outcomes in the future, tapping cooperation between highway engineers, river restoration scientists and local landowners.

Where Apple Valley Road connects with the highway, CDOT is blasting away bedrock and widening the highway shoulder—by as much as 60 feet in some places. In those stretches, crews are using cobble and rock to create stairstep vegetated benches between the river and the road to accommodate varying flow levels. They’re placing rocks and tree root wads along banks to build contours that enable the creek to meander and diffuse energy. These natural features, which utilize the blasted bedrock as well as dirt and logs uprooted during the flood, will stabilize the riverbanks and protect the road from the next major flood, while also creating habitat for fish and other aquatic species.

“The river affects the road, and the road affects the river,” says CDOT engineer Abra Geissler of her agency’s somewhat unusual interest in and support for river restoration. “Stream stabilization doesn’t just stop at the [highway] right-of-way, so we have involved landowners and taken a kind of holistic approach.”

With last fall’s floods, opportunity has followed tragedy. Recovery efforts have meant a chance to upgrade and restore both river systems and infrastructure, which haven’t always functioned in harmony. Initiatives to protect property and lives in the short term are feeding into long-term plans to reduce flood risks while also restoring the natural patterns and functions of rivers.

The vision is a herculean one, requiring the coordination and cooperation of scores of federal, state and local government agencies, businesses and conservation groups, and thousands of landowners—all with slightly different interests but a common goal of improving flood resiliency. The project unfolding along Highway 36 is a prominent, initial example of what that cooperation might look like and the results it could produce.

Read more: Race to Recovery

Coming Home

A Calculation of Risk, Reward and Restituation in Flood Zones

By Rachel Walker


For a radio documentary on the Lyons flood damage and Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's experiences and recovery, listen to CFWE and Colorado Community Radio's Connecting the Drops audio coverage.

The downtown Lyons bungalow that Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and her partner Chris Todd  purchased in 2011 was built 100 years ago. A modest home sited mere blocks from the picturesque south fork of St. Vrain Creek, its location provided everything that was important to the couple: walking access to downtown Lyons, proximity to the schools for Bonnie-Sue’s teenage daughter, and a diverse community of artists, professionals, laborers and immigrants. The nearby creek offered cool relief in the dog days of summer. The riparian vegetation was home to songbirds, small furry creatures, foxes and coyotes. Living close to the water  provided connection to the natural world, paramount to a family hailing from Alaska who feels more at home in the rugged wilderness than in suburbia.

Sure, they knew they were living in a floodplain. They’d researched and purchased flood insurance in order to qualify for a mortgage. But the fact that the home sat in the middle of a high-risk zone seemed to contradict the reality of their quotidian life. Theirs were sunny days, warm and arid.

We know what happened next. For five days in September 2013, historic flooding swept  through the Front Range. Some of the hardest-hit communities included Jamestown, Longmont, Glen Haven, Estes Park, Evans— and, of course, Lyons.

As the South St. Vrain Creek carved a path through the front of Hitchcock’s house, the North St. Vrain tore through the neighborhoods behind. The two branches united and, as Hitchcock says, “went ballistic.” The mud filled her home waist deep. Doors were torn from doorjambs. Trees the width of three grown men uprooted from the swollen earth.

When the floods subsided, Hitchcock and Todd—like hundreds in their situation—emptied their house of mud. But despite their best efforts, mold sprouted, the house remained uninhabitable, and six months later they were forced to tear down the remains and begin building anew. Days before the demolition, Bonnie-Sue gazed at her home’s gutted interior: The walls and floor stripped of drywall and floorboards, all that remained was the lumber  frame, exposed wires and a bedrock of deep, brown dirt. “I knew we were in a flood zone,” she says. “But I never thought it would flood like this. Of course it wouldn’t. We live in  Colorado.”

Read more: Coming Home

Water Law Resources

Guide to Colorado Water Law explores the basics of Colorado water law--learn how it has developed and how it is applied today. This, CFWE's most popular Citizen's Guide, was authored by Colorado Supreme Court Justice, and CFWE Board Vice President, Gregory Hobbs. Take a look or purchase a copy.


Law Supplement Headwaters magazine a special edition of Headwaters that provides an in-depth look at Colorado water law. Browse the magazine to supplement our Citizen's Guide and your knowledge. View it here

Administration Headwaters magazine read how enforcing the law in our water-scarce state can get tricky and meet the men and women who allocate Colorado's most precious resource. Browse the issue here.

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