by Sally Scott Moore
Well behind schedule, the long-awaited alpine snow melt has finally begun to rise in both Henson Creek and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River which bifurcate Lake City. In tandem with the threatening flood waters are rising public anticipation, anxiety, and planning strategies.
Fourth in a series of Tuesday night informational public meetings held at the historic Armory in downtown Lake City, the June 4 meeting convened to update Lake City on changing conditions. As the public has become more familiar with the preparatory early measures involved with the Code- Red registry and the various evacuation zones, more emphasis is being focused on the current conditions and new developments.
At Tuesday evening’s conference table this week
was a smaller than has been usual panel featuring Unified Coordination Group (UCG) team operation Section Chief Justin Whitesell; Lake City Town Manager Caroline Mitchell; County Administrator Jami Scroggins; and Hinsdale County Sheriff Justin Casey.
Whitesell described efforts this week up CR 20 along Henson Creek and noted that debris removal and clean up was in full swing with excavators and large equipment clearing the “reachable” avalanches of massive snow dams mixed with debris from Big Casino, Klondike, and Fanny Fern and others. While the Klondike work is mostly completed, Whitesell said work at the other slides is still underway but they are making good progress. In a brief slide show presentation, Whitesell outlined not only debris loads at various points along upper Henson Creek, but also detailed the progress made thus far on the deconstruction of the Hidden Treasure Dam. The feat is being attacked via a narrow yellow bridge spanning the top of the historic dam from which hangs a remote “jackhammer robot which allows the demolition to happen in manageable, small pieces” from the top down.
Whitesell noted there are some inaccessible areas full of debris and some of his slides showed where the melting run-off is still flowing freely beneath the thatched debris. However, he also showed some choke points of debris dams where water was beginning to pool and back up behind these areas.
According to Whitesell, the demolition team has already requested and received an additional 10-day extension on the deconstruction project and hope to have it remediated before the high water date expected by June 18.
Town Manager Caroline Mitchell succinctly reviewed the flood-fight recommendations made by both the Army Corps of Engineers last week, as well as Lake City engineers. “They were all astounded by what they saw and the significant challenges the debris made for the projected modeling they typically provide.” Based on the universal recommendations, Mitchell relayed that Lake City and Hinsdale County officials along with the UCG, had elected, in a meeting earlier on Tuesday, “to raise the existing berm four feet along Henson Creek from the pump house at First Street, to end at the confluence where Henson Creek meets the Lake Fork.”
Pointing out the markings on the map, she added, that it was advised that an additional large sandbag berm be installed starting in Memorial Park at the skateboard site, intersecting the baseball diamond and extending beyond Gunnison Avenue alongside the north side of the Jessee home adjacent to their Elkhorn Liquors establishment. Without giving specifics, Mitchell noted that these measures likely could unduly impact a total of nine structures including one business and six homes, putting them all at greater risk.
“This decision was not made lightly. However, this plan gives us the greatest opportunity to protect the community.”
The berm-raising project will commence immediately, Mitchell stating the goal is to be completed by June 11. The sites put at greater risk are eligible for 68 large sandbags purchased to give protection to their properties.
As Administrator Scroggins took the floor, she emphasized the smaller sandbags volunteers filled in past weeks were paid for with state funding and specifically earmarked for critical infrastructure sites
such as the courthouse, medical center and the like – located along Henson and most vulnerable to flooding. “Private property owners must take responsibility for protecting their own homes and businesses.”
A bright spot in the 45-minute meeting came when Scroggins reported the generosity of a businessman in Alamosa. “Hoyt Anderson of Rocky Mountain Soils, Inc. donated 800 prefilled sandbags.” She added, “And truck driver Tel Honeycutt volunteered his time and truck to haul the load to Lake City where Caroline Mitchell and Jamison Johnston received the shipment late Monday night.
Scroggins noted, “We hope to have an additional 3,000 sandbags filled this week and available for residents.” She warned, “It will not be enough.” Scroggins noted that residents who lived along Henson and the low-lying areas south of town, as identified on the Areas of Concern Map, could claim some of those sandbags at the Medical Center Monday at 9 a.m. to begin protecting their homes.
In the evening’s handouts, there were additional resources whereby one could procure sandbags or the makings to do it yourself. While priority would be given to the most vulnerable, Scroggins said Lake City DIRT had ordered a number of prefilled sandbags for $50 a pallet with a three-pallet limit.
Sheriff Casey said, “Everyone else here is involved in preparation, planning, and preparedness. My part is that of response. We haven’t needed that yet.” He assured the crowd that as the river levels begin to rise, the monitoring of the gauges remains steady, “And the eyes on checks of the water levels have been increasing with the frequency of the checks.”
The Sheriff hit the highlights of previous meetings encouraging all to register for the CodeRed messaging system alerts at https://public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/BF7ED953CC69 in order to receive timely messages to cell, home phone or email, should conditions worsen and evacuations be necessary.
Pointing to the Evacuation Maps lining the Armory wall, Casey reminded the audience that the zones were not sequential. As he has in previous meetings, Sheriff Casey reviewed the evacuation checkpoints of Sky Ranch if evacuation were called for to the north and Slumgullion overlook at mile marker 67 on Hwy 149 should conditions warrant evacuation to the south. Road closures along CR 20 and 30 were reviewed. CR 20 is closed now from the ATV loading zone at mile marker 1 while the Hidden Treasure Dam work is being completed. “Respect the gates,” Casey cautioned. Beyond the gates, all vehicle and foot traffic is prohibited due to road conditions and ongoing large equipment clearing debris.
“In the avalanche last spring, I lost my crystal ball and my weather remote control,” Casey joked, referencing the event which flattened his home and buried him and his two daughters. “What I did not lose was my resiliency…and the care I have for the community and my neighbors.” In closing, he reminded those assembled that no matter what, we must not forget “we are a resilient community who care about our neighbors.”
Audience members were able, once again, to posit questions to the panel. Marian Truett asked what was being done about the Dawn of Hope Bridge south of town, prior to Slumgullion Pass. Justin Whitesell noted that it had been assessed, and it was considered low risk because it did not have a center pillar.
Harvey DuChene asked what plans were being made on the alternative routes either way out of town should high water overwhelm or undercut bridges or the low spots south of town. Sheriff Casey responded, “We are evaluating those bridges with CDOT and the Army Corps of Engineers and making alternate plans. There are ways and back routes that sometimes cross private property or BLM lands that can take you well into Gunnison County.” He noted that the planning is underway, but noted no specifics.
Richard Dunham asked if explosives could be used on those avalanche slides that were currently inaccessible. Whitesell replied that experts were being consulted. “It’s a tool in our toolbox.”
Curious about the status of the Ute-Ulay Dam, Alan Moore inquired if the historic dam would suffer the same fate as the Hidden Treasure. Whitesell noted the engineers had thought it was not as great a concern with the hole in the bottom at water level. Last week, however, it was stated that the structure of the Ute was considered unstable enough that the engineers thought it “might crumble on its own if impacted by debris.”
Based on earlier discussion, Sharon Rodgers asked if the UCG were now more concerned about clear water flooding rather than the debris ridden waters which had dominated previous discussions.
“No,” responded Whitesell. “All our current modeling is based on clear water events. We have new modeling coming with new “debris modelling.” The chaos factor involved with rivers laden with shocking amounts of downed trees, boulders and mud was highlighted with news that a good-sized nest of debris had hit the Hwy 149, Henson Creek Bridge at around 3:30 Tuesday morning and wrapped itself around one of the pillars.
Nancy Chambers inquired if these new berms were intended to hold back the water or just to sieve the debris out. Again taking the lead, Whitesell responded, “No, it is not to keep the debris out.” He indicated the idea was to channel both debris and high water. Referencing their aim to “rip-wrap” the berm for better control. “This is not a stagnant berm. We may need to move or continually work at it to make repairs if it is impacted.”
Audience members were invited to bring more personal inquiries to the team members after the meeting. The Armory meeting was live-streamed and will also be posted on the Hinsdale County website: www.hinsdalecountycolorado.us