Surely the region grasps stormwater message now

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It might be a good thing if I were as bad at forecasting disasters as at predicting election results. Only two of my six picks in this year’s City Council election races managed to get elected, but unfortunately I’m batting a thousand on Flood and Fire (no predictions yet regarding the other two horsemen, Famine and Pestilence).

A long feature published in the Business Journal on May 3 focused on flash floods, and upon Manitou Springs’ particular vulnerability to such events. Here’s an excerpt:

We have been utterly incapable of solving the problem, even as the consequences of our neglect multiply.

“The 1999 flood was later analyzed by the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). From the report: ‘Manitou Springs was flooded by nightfall on April 29 when flood waters came rushing out of Williams Canyon … officials closed Washington Avenue for fear that the road would begin sliding down the hillside which had been badly eroded by the rains. Several roads in the town were damaged or covered with debris after the floodwaters receded. … The four-day rain total for Manitou Springs was 12.16 inches. They are the four wettest days on record for April in the region.”

The 1999 episode sounds a lot like last Friday’s flash flood, doesn’t it? In terms of lives lost and property damaged, 2013’s was more severe, a fact that was loudly trumpeted by certain local media.

Yet a quick look at the NCAR analysis reveals a troubling dissimilarity.

Friday’s flood was triggered by rainfall totaling approximately 1.3 inches on the Waldo burn scar. The 1999 flood resulted from a four-day rain total of 12.16 inches, 10 times that which triggered the 2013 event.

In other words, we have yet to see the Big One. The Waldo burn scar will remain as impermeable as asphalt for as long as 10 years, heightening the possibility that a 20-, 50- or 100-year rain event could send a wall of water down Williams Creek, Fountain Creek or U.S. Highway 24, killing scores of people and destroying much of downtown Manitou Springs.

Also in our May story, we shared the 1999 work of UCCS geography professor Eve Gruntfest (who authored the Manitou Springs Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan nearly 30 years ago), who created a minute-by-minute simulation of a major flash flood. The result: 47 deaths, dozens missing and apocalyptic property losses.

Such losses, especially if they came at night with little warning and slow reactions, might even resemble the toll of the tragic Big Thompson flood of 1976, which killed 144 people and injured 150 downstream from Estes Park.

Think it can’t happen?

Guess again.

“There’s nothing magic about the geography of the Big Thompson Canyon that is different than the vulnerability of the Manitou Springs-Colorado Springs area,” Gruntfest said earlier this year. “We have just been lucky — but luck is not enough to count on for the long term.”

At his monthly news conference Tuesday, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach expressed regional solidarity with the city’s smaller neighbor.

“I spoke several times to (Manitou Springs) Mayor Marc Snyder,” said Bach. “I offered him every resource the city of Colorado Springs can muster. We want to be good neighbors.”

That’s a pledge that the city lived up to during the Black Forest fire and its aftermath and will certainly live up to as Manitou continues to clean up and rebuild.

Waldo, Black Forest, Manitou — what do these events have in common?

All may have been confined to relatively small geographic areas, but they’re regional problems that demand a regional solution. All are linked by the common denominator of stormwater.

The region’s governments need to stop foot-dragging, quarreling, arguing over funding mechanisms, debating the scope of the problem, or threatening to go it alone.

If stormwater drainage were World War II, we’d all be citizens of the Reich. We have been utterly incapable of solving the problem, even as the consequences of our neglect multiply.

This is our region’s biggest problem. We need to solve it right now by adopting a regional solution, as proposed by the regional stormwater task force.

This should be the first priority of our elected officials — not the projects that might be funded by the Regional Tourism Act, not marijuana, not the Morse recall, not even trying to squeeze a few extra bucks from the Feds to fix roads and bridges damaged by the two flash floods.

Flash floods killed two people in the past week. The monsoon season may at last be nearing its end. It’s time to forget political boundaries and act together for our mutual protection and benefit.

Otherwise, a hard rain may fall.

2 Responses to Surely the region grasps stormwater message now

  1. A lot of talented, competent and dedicated engineers from both city and county staff along with CSU have worked years on this critical safety need – do you have thoughts you would care to share? – we have a brief on-line survey at the link above.

    Your time and comments would be greatly appreciated.

    Rick Wehner
    August 20, 2013 at 9:53 am

  2. If the Talented engineers are thinking for the future they should investigate the use of a Concrete flood control dam in the Williams Canyon basin to collect the debris and rain water from the burn scar and slow the water into Manitou Springs. A flood control dam would cost a little more money upfront but it would save property, lives and money in the long term. Being proactive instead of reactive is the path to take.

    August 23, 2013 at 9:54 am