Amid Applause, Briefing, Audience Hears Major Strides in Flood Mitigation Work

by Sally Scott Moore
News that a new $1,333,000 USDA grant via the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded to fund and accelerate mitigation of the massive amounts of downed trees along the Alpine Loop was the headline from the latest public update at the Armory on Tuesday evening, June 11.
Applause frequently erupted from the packed audience as appreciation was expressed to an impressive slate of federal, state, regional and local professions who are assisting in the ongoing flood mitigation work.
As local temperatures inevitably increase, all eyes are eagerly focused on the rising water of Henson Creek and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The announcement of the grant funding was welcomed in light of rising spring runoff levels, as well as by an audience which has been repeatedly forewarned that logs and debris could be a recurring issue for several years to come.
While concerns were still noted regarding the amount of runoff and road conditions, news that a project management firm from Denver has been hired to get the debris removed from the roads was well received. The USDA grant comes with no matching funds required from tax-strapped Hinsdale County. The grant was proffered because Hinsdale County is surrounded by 96 percent public lands; and the funds, designated to expedite the mitigation of debris, are being offered with 75 percent from the federal government and 25 percent funding from the state.
According to the new United Coordination Group (UCG) lead, Cory Stark, who is an Emergency Management official with Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DSHEM), the multi-governmental planning and preparations for the flood fight here in Lake City are nearing completion, as the estimated June 11-18 dates for high runoff water levels approach.
Addressing the fully attended Lake City audience, Stark gave a brief overview of the conditions in Hinsdale County which led to the imminent concerns of high water flooding, with the added complication that tons of avalanche debris may make conditions very unpredictable. Acknowledging the passion, trust and nervousness of the citizenry, he reviewed the mitigation actions and multilayered government approach taken thus far to prepare the community. “The current plans we have made here will carry over for the future,” Stark assured.
Arriving nearly six weeks into the disaster planning for Hinsdale County, Stark noted, “There are monumental debris loads, greater than anything we will see in our history or lifetimes. It is mindboggling.” He noted the UCG goal was to create clear, effective communications to protect lives, property preservation, and infrastructure stabilization.
During the slide show, Stark offered a fresh statistic citing a staggering estimate of 20 avalanches on County Road 20 and another 20 plus on CR 30. “They were powerful and took unbelievable amounts of debris into the river and county roads.
The UCG leader noted the intergovernmental efforts between forestry and local, state and federal governments have engineered and designed the plan to best deal with the debris.
As part of the grant funding, they have also hired a large team of “forestry and fire guys” to come in with chain saws and make a way for the big machinery. The group is camping in the soccer field across from the Medical Center. “They arrived on Saturday and went to work on Sunday.” Stark reported that the hard-working and experienced team had already worked their way three quarters of the way up CR 20 and now have moved on to CR 30 to “clear a path for mitigation and safety along that road, too.”
As he showed slides of the debris loads being hauled by machinery involved in the mitigation, it punctuated the enormity of the problem. This new stream of funding, he noted, has freed the local public works employees and Hinsdale County Road & Bridge to delegate their heavy equipment and time to the sandbagging efforts and building up the berm by four feet along Henson Creek at the most likely flooding spots.
Stark emphasized that the preparation, planning and implementation phase was drawing to a close and that the community could expect to see a drop in the number of crews, equipment and coordination team members during this transition. “We never just all leave. We work the process to leave a community comfortable and happy.” He re-introduced Drew Petersen as the State Emergency Manager regularly responsible for Hinsdale County’s “emergency issues.”
Injecting a humorous note to an otherwise serious evening, Sheriff Justin Casey remarked, “It has fallen to me to give you the dam update; tell you about all the dam work, and the dam progress from the dam engineers.” When the laughter subsided, he showed slides of the work to remove the Hidden Treasure Dam from Henson Creek. Good news, he stated, was once the work had commenced and the top part of the dam — which was the most structurally compromised — had been removed, the engineers decided they could enlarge the opening at the bottom with a series of small explosive charges and achieve optimum results without removing the entirety of the historic Hidden Treasure Dam. “Crucial to the work was a series of small charges blown simultaneously. This pulverized the concrete and created minimal environmental impact with no large chunks falling into Henson Creek.” The demolition took the opening at water level from a 3 X 20 foot opening to a 14 X 28 foot opening, which everyone consulted felt would be more than adequate to prevent log and debris jams from occurring. “All work at the dam has stopped,” said Casey who declared saving the bulk of the historic structure while preserving safety of the community is ”a win for us!”
Hinsdale County Administrator Jami Scroggins acknowledged the stress and exhaustion of the prolonged process on everyone, yet noted, “In hard times we need to work harder to see the good.” She thanked road and bridge for their non-stop work building the berms, as well as the volunteers who had helped in the sandbagging efforts. Also acknowledged were those who dropped off snacks, cards and drawings to the Emergency Operations Center at the Medical Center. With a wave toward Sheriff Casey’s daughter Kristy, Scroggins proudly praised “one 16-year-old who lost everything in an avalanche this spring and worked non-stop as a volunteer team leader to make sure others had sandbags.” Miss Casey received a rousing round of applause.
The prioritization process of infrastructure decisions was explained by Scroggins, as were placement of gauges and cameras to monitor the river levels. She referred to the site,, where one can see the changing conditions in real time.
Also commenting on the sandbag protection of town and county infrastructure was Lake City Town Manager Caroline Mitchell. She noted the historic nature of many of the buildings, for example the county court house, and added, “The various taxing districts such as the medical center and fire district are important infrastructure sites as are places that are lifelines such as the bank and the Century Link Building on Gunnison Avenue.” She added, “The new berm ties into the well-house which is sandbagged to help preserve clean drinking water.”
Sheriff Casey, in closing, noted that gate closures were still in place for both CR 20 and 30 while the work was ongoing. “We are closely monitoring the waterflows, and we don’t want debris coming down and blocking the road.” He again highlighted the importance of signing up for the Code Red Alerts at Visit county offices or Public Health for assistance. Also integral to the overall early warning system redundancy are the reverse 911 system and the newly installed public siren system.
Casey encouraged an attitude of thankfulness for the community towards those who have dedicated months to help “hardening of the town against the flood.” He added, “Continue to see how we can serve and look out for our neighbors and friends. Help us and help each other.”
The meeting concluded with an opportunity for public questions. Cory Stark fielded most of the queries, noting that the date for high water runoff was still predicted to peak on June 18 adding, “But there is a lot of snow this year.”
Following this extended event it was noted that the county planned to repurpose the fill used for the sandbags this winter on the roads.
Citing the flash flooding in parts of Lake City on July 11, 2013, local theater owner Phil Virden asked what effect potentially heavy monsoonal rains in July and August might have on our situation and if that had been a point of planning with the UCG. Sheriff Casey responded, “Yes, mudslides and the potential for more debris washing down is a concern…and we will continue to watch and monitor that.”