Spring Flood Threat Keeps Towns on Alert

PhotobucketCertainly Rifle hasn’t seen the snow build up like Dillon or Durango, but it’s downstream in the Colorado River drainage area with snowpack depth ranging up to 150 percent of a 20-year average. With March typically the snowiest month of the year in the mountains, snow depths could increase even more. If temperatures rise quickly this spring, the Colorado River in Rifle, like many other major tributaries in western Colorado, could reach flood levels not seen since 1983. PhotobucketLike many places on the Western Slope, Rifle seemed to get snow every day from Christmas until Valentine’s Day. If one was standing in line at the Rifle Post Office or having coffee at the downtown Base Camp restaurant, there was one common topic of discussion: the snow.

Typically the high-country runoff peaks in early June, so it will be a few months before possible floods hit river lowland areas like Rifle. However, temperatures have warmed up quickly, and little creeks of snowmelt are galloping down in-town curbs and roadways. Rifle Creek, like other downvalley mountain streams, has turned a milky latte color from the runoff.

Concern for possible flooding problems has stirred the City of Rifle into action. Rifle’s city manager, John Hier, said city staff has already started on a plan.

“We’re making preparations for high water,” Hier said. “We’re taking steps to keep storm sewers clean, eliminating debris piles in Rifle Creek and draining wet areas.”

During the 1983 flood, Rifle’s main water intake on the Colorado River was in danger of being swept away. Hier said that problem is remedied for now, but the future could hold problems. “We’re fighting a proposed gravel pit near our intake because we fear there could be a compromise during a high-water year.”

With the numerous gravel pits dotting the banks of the Colorado River around Rifle, locals wonder if rising waters and strong currents could knock down some of the retaining barriers between the huge open pits and the river. Such a disaster could ultimately change the course of the river.

There have been other developments along the river during the past 20 years of mostly drought conditions. A popular fishing pond in Rifle was under water during the 1983 flood and reconnected to the Colorado River. The site is now an Interstate 70 rest stop and home to the Rifle Chamber of Commerce.

Oil rigs and business developments are also close to river banks but supposedly outside the 100-year flood plain.

Hier said that so far the worst expense has not been removing the snow but repairing the streets. “The snow and ice has deteriorated our roadway infrastructure; we have water right down into the baseline. The City of Rifle is facing expenses to fix our streets that were not anticipated,” he warned.

Silt, a town about seven miles upstream of Rifle, also nearly lost its main water intake during the 1983 flood. Quick action by locals and students and hundreds of sandbags saved the day.

“We are having internal discussions with staff about preparations,” Silt Town Administrator Betsy Suerth said. “We’re going to take a look at 25-, 50- and 100-year flood plains maps, and I’m checking the Snotel website everyday about runoff figures.”

Silt’s water and sewer plant is now in a different and safer location – yet still only about one foot above the 100-year flood plain on the Colorado River. “No doubt we’ll have to deal with more particulate in the water, and we will have to change our filters more often, but hopefully we won’t need sandbags,” Suerth said.

Silt and Rifle are in Garfield County, a county ranked fifth in the state for disaster preparedness. In fact the county disaster action plan was updated just last October.

“The towns are talking to the county and looking ahead to possible spring floods,” Suerth noted. “We will be ready.”

Fortunately for Rifle, Hier has had experience in dealing with massive floods. When he worked for the city of Abilene, Kan., in the early 1990s, its half-mile wide river grew to five miles across during a spring flood. “We traveled around in canoes – hopefully something we won’t have to experience here in Rifle this year,” Hier said.

Photos by Leslie Robinson. Top graph by the USDA.

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