Mar 07 2014

Trying to Keep Our Heads Above Water

For a little while during the past 6 months, it felt like all I saw in my dreams was flood damage. Bridge scour. Washed out roads and river banks. Culverts filled to the brim with rock and sediment. Streams doubling or tripling in width. Wood debris everywhere. Propane tanks in the middle of the channel. These were not nightmares, but simply the result of looking at flood damage day after day!

Sunset St bridge over St. Vrain in Longmont. South abutment flanked and roadway washed out.

You may have noticed that our last post was in early November and that we have had our longest absence since we started this blog. To say the least, our work as part of the flood response to the 2013 September Colorado Floods has overwhelmed us! We have had so much that we have wanted to write about but we just have not had the energy or the time.

The first thing I saw when walking into the ICC...

On October 9th, I started work as a support hydraulic engineer at the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Incident Command Center (ICC) that was set up as a central hub for all of their flood response and recovery work. I was one of just many consultants pulled into this work including roadway (majority), structural, and environmental engineers as well as surveyors and admin support folks. For a month I was a part of the Team B shift – working the Friday through Monday shift helping start to look at flood damage sites and possible solutions. By November though, an office colleague and I were pulled into teams tasked with the permanent assessments of every flood damage site of CDOT’s. My colleague, 20 years my senior and the man who taught me pretty much everything I know in regard to geomorphology, got to be a part of the primary team looking at the huge damage in the mountain corridors of the Big Thompson (U.S. 34) and the South Fork of the St. Vrain River (SH 7) as well as other various sites. My team was to focus on Coal Creek Canyon (SH 72), Boulder Canyon (SH 119) and then move east looking at damage at various sites on the South Platte River and elsewhere.

Scour hole on Lefthand Creek immediately downstream of U.S. 36

Between the week of October 7th when I started at the ICC and the week of January 15th when my time at the ICC ended, I spent less than a week at our office! Once the permanent assessment site visits began in November, it was early mornings and long days. Thankfully, I live only 15 minutes from the ICC. However, the rest of the folks on my multidiscipline team either commuted from Denver daily or stayed in hotels near the ICC.

Most everything my team visited early on had already been repaired as part of the emergency work. Our job was not only to assess the initial damage and look at solutions but evaluate the emergency repairs and note what still needed to be done. It was hard work and some very cold days but it was a huge privilege for me to be a part of the effort and to be involved in flood response work in our own backyard.

St Vrain just downstream of U.S. 36, the channel tripled in width.

The flood response still continues and, honestly, is only just beginning. Right now, local entities are under pressure to get a certain level of repairs completed prior to spring runoff. The base level on streams like the Big Thompson River and the South Platte River just has not dropped off very much this winter and the ground is still heavily saturated in these basins. On top of that, snowpack is now nearing 150% of average in the South Platte Basin. Does this mean we’ll see higher than average peak runoff flows? Nobody really knows. If we get a very warm spring here in Northern Colorado, it will be very interesting to see how these basins respond. But the the long term permanent repairs are only just starting and there is a lot of work to be done.

Our goal is to start writing about some of the things we’ve seen the past 6 months and get our regular posts going again but we are still very much in the middle of it all! The September 2013 Colorado Floods were a significant widespread event that will be affecting many of us here for quite a while.

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