The Road to Flood Recovery

Hwy7 floods CDOT

State Highway 7 near Lyons, Colorado following Sept. 2013 flooding. (Image courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)

Floods devastated Colorado communities in September 2013, destroying homes and roads, burying water-works and irrigation equipment, and altering the courses of rivers and creeks.

My article, “Race to Recovery,” in Headwaters Magazine, Summer 2014, looks at the pace and scope of recovery after the floods, and how communities banded together to restore rivers and repair irrigation ditches to improve their form and function.

Along the course of reporting, I visited with restoration leaders, ditch company managers, and engineers involved in all stages of response and recovery, and got views of the damage and restoration happening across Colorado’s Front Range.

From the story:

 …in September 2013, driving rains flooded [North St. Vrain 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. …

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.