By Beth Dodd:
The skies have been kinder to Manitou Springs residents this past week since flash flooding hit the town hard on Friday, August 9th. In the worst flooding to date post-Waldo Canyon Fire, Manitou Springs saw six homes destroyed, eleven homes seriously damaged, twenty-three other buildings damaged, forty cars disabled in town and on the highway, and damaged gas, sewer, and water lines, all resulting in several injuries and one death.
Now questions are being raised about what has been done so far and what will be done in the future to prevent a repeat of this destructive event. The Manitou Springs area is already flood-prone due to its location in a narrow canon surrounded by mountains at the junction of several creeks. The town also experienced significant flooding back in 1999, 1965, and earlier. Now with the close proximity of the Waldo Canyon burn scar, the pre-existing flood risk has been greatly increased. However, a total of $35 million dollars has been pledged by local, state, and federal officials to repair the damage and reduce future flood danger.
To combat the flood risks on our local roads, Colorado’s transportation commission has approved money for the construction of a concrete culvert in the “Narrows” area where Williams Canyon enters Manitou Springs. The existing concrete ditch is about four feet wide and quickly became clogged with debris from the burn scar during the flash flooding. This left the flood nowhere to go but into the street and homes along nearby Canon Ave as it moved downstream to Fountain Creek in downtown Manitou Springs.
The new culvert is intended to reduce possible future flash flooding in Manitou Springs. CDOT engineer Doug Lollar said that the commissioners approved money on Friday to build a concrete culvert with 10 times the capacity of the existing structure. The department will solicit bids for the work soon, but an estimate of the project’s cost isn’t available yet. However, another source claims that CDOT is planning to contribute $5.5 million for road repairs and prevention work in the Manitou area.
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said, “It’s hard to explain to folks downhill. How could you let this happen? It happened because the natural drainage of this canyon.” Clark is working to secure funds to help mitigate the water and debris coming down the hill, but said that stopping everything in a flood is difficult. Clark also wants the county to try to buy some of the homes in the flood path, but she said funding will be an issue.
Governor Hickenlooper visited Manitou on Thursday, August 15 to view the damage. He has pledged $400,000.00 in state disaster response money to help with recovery efforts. He said that the limited availability of funds will require a partnership of local, state, and federal resources to support recovery and prevention. A comprehensive effort involving agencies at multiple levels of government is already beginning.
What does all this money look like once it hits the ground? Flood control work can be seen along U.S. Highway 24 in Cascade, where rock walls and rock lined ditches are being constructed. The U.S. Forest Service, El Paso County and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) are all working together on mitigation projects within the burn scar. Twenty-eight mitigation projects have so far been completed. Another 13 are in various stages from engineering design to final construction. Most of these projects are in remote, difficult to access areas of the Fountain Creek watershed on Forest Service lands and private property. Some of the areas that are priority include Wellington Gulch above Cascade, Williams Canyon above Manitou, and Queen’s Canyon above Colorado Springs.
Hay is being laid down on mountain sides to protect exposed soil and protect new seeds. Fire encrusted soils are being broken apart with rakes. Trees are being cut down and laid across slopes to slow the destructive force of moving water. Water retention basins are being built to catch and hold debris that has started to move downhill. A typical basin may be eight feet deep and one hundred feet long and can stop 1,000 truck loads of gunk from reaching U.S. Hwy 24.
Even so, a basin may fill after one or two heavy rains. It is estimated that almost 14,000 tons of debris were captured in ditches and basins in the last storm. Those are now full and new ones need to be built. When considering the massive area of fire exposed soils within the 1,500 acre Fountain Creek Watershed, the undertaking becomes huge. It is expected to take up to ten years before significant change is seen within the burn area, and 100 years for the forest to fully recover.
In the short run, while recovery efforts progress, highway officials have been closing U.S. Hwy 24 every time there is a flash flood watch over the burn scar, causing economic mayhem as far away as Park County. The road was closed three times last week, backing up traffic and raising the tempers of mountain commuters. The monsoon season can last into September, meaning several more weeks of possible flood threats and stop and go traffic in Ute Pass.
In the meanwhile, Manitou Springs is returning to business as usual as quickly as possible. About 800 runners kicked up their heels in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Pikes Peak Marathon over the weekend. Touru Miyahara of Japan took first place in the men’s marathon, just seconds ahead of local hero Alex Nichols of Colorado Springs, while Stevie Kremer of Crested Butte was the first woman to cross the marathon finish line, setting two course records in the process. Kremer beat Salynda Fleury of Conifer who took second for the women.