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Flood disaster tourism

Started: 2013-12-30 21:59:49

Submitted: 2013-12-30 22:40:44

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator indulges in some flood tourism

As a result of Boulder's historic flooding this fall, all of the mountain roads were closed, as were most of the surrounding open space areas. The roads reopened, slowly, as they were rebuilt. Boulder Canyon opened first, in early October, early enough to give Willy a chance to drive an only-slightly-circuitous route up to Estes Park when he visited that month. US 36 reopened a month later, making it possible to make a round-trip tour of the flood-damaged roads. I undertook such an adventure the Sunday before Thanksgiving, while Kiesa and Calvin were visiting Kiesa's mother before the holiday. At that time Colorado 7 (up the South St. Vrain Canyon), US 34 (up the Big Thompson Canyon), and Lefthand Canyon Road were still closed.

I headed up Boulder Canyon to Nederland, where the major flood damage was limited to the first few kilometers of road, which had been partially washed away by the high waters. The damage quickly abated, though, and I was left with a scenic, if chilly, fall drive up the canyon. I turned north on Peak-to-Peak Highway, past Ward and Peaceful Valley, and stopped for a walk around Lily Lake on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. In Estes Park I turned onto US 36 for the return trip home. This road showed more obvious damage, especially a stretch just north of Pinewood Springs where the road follows the Little Thompson River where the river washed away the entire roadbed. As I descended into Lyons I saw houses that had been cut in half by the water and one place where the temporary road was rerouted around an especially sketchy section. Continuing through Lyons I saw more damage, which was jarring since I didn't expect to see such devastation in a place I visit regularly. Floods are supposed to happen in developing countries and in the midwest, not in Boulder County.

Boulder County Open Space closed all of its open space properties during the flood and reopened them once they could ensure that they were safe. Some properties remained closed, and they decided to stage tours to let the public into the closed properties to see the damage. I missed the first tour but signed up for one of the follow-up tours, on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of December. I showed up at the Boulder County Open Space offices on the western edge of Longmont to join the tour. (Aside from one of the rangers, I was by far the youngest person there.)

Our first stop on the tour van was Heil Valley Ranch, just up Lefthand Canyon, which was still closed to non-local traffic. The little creek up the canyon to the parking lot had devoured the road next to a hastily-assembled ATV track used by the people who lived up the road, including one of the park rangers. This was my first chance at seeing the damage up close, and it was impressive: the narrow creek bed had grown to undercut and remove the road, leaving eight-foot-high banks.

Flood tourists walk past damaged road at Heil Valley Ranch
Flood tourists walk past damaged road at Heil Valley Ranch

We parked and walked up the road, past trees that had survived the flood only to have the ground that supported them washed away, so they fell during the winter winds. We stopped where the road did, cut off when a gentle bend in the creek became a raging river, slicing the road in half.

Washed out road at Heil Valley Ranch
Washed out road at Heil Valley Ranch
Washed out road at Heil Valley Ranch
Washed out road at Heil Valley Ranch

Our second stop was an open space property between Lyons and Hygiene that was scheduled to open to the public next year, once suitable facilities could be constructed, but that plan is on hold now due to the flood. (One of the themes of the tour was that the open space department is still trying to figure out what they want to do with their land now that they've opened the easy-to-repair properties. They expect most places to reopen but there are some trails that probably don't make sense any more.) We saw where the St. Vrain River had cut a new path through abandoned gravel pits, slicing the dikes in half in a single, violent flow. The river had been routed back to its original banks -- Colorado's complicated water rights require the river to be exactly where it was when the rights were claimed or the varying levels of seniority don't work -- but the damage remains.

New channel carved by the St. Vrain River
New channel carved by the St. Vrain River

Our final stop was Pella Crossing, a cute open space property with trails looping around a series of abandoned gravel ponds immediately south of Hygiene (west of Longmont). Here the rerouted St. Vrain River ploughed its way straight through the parking lot, with a vault toilet that used to rest on solid ground now perched precariously on the bank of the new river channel.

Flood-damaged pit toilet at Pella Crossing
Flood-damaged pit toilet at Pella Crossing

I found it hard to tell what I was looking at: What used to be here, and why did it look the way it did now? I found the edge of the parking lot descending into the canyon carved by the water and the pieces started to fit together.

Flood-damaged parking lot at Pella Crossing
Flood-damaged parking lot at Pella Crossing
Flood-damaged parking lot at Pella Crossing
Flood-damaged parking lot at Pella Crossing

I was impressed by the full force of the flood waters, even relatively far out from the narrow mountain canyons.

Flood tourists survey Pella Crossing
Flood tourists survey Pella Crossing
Flood tourist photographs Pella Crossing
Flood tourist photographs Pella Crossing

Seeing the flood damage up close and personal reminded me how lucky we were: we moved on from the flood quickly, with only minor damage, but the flood's effects will still be obvious throughout the county for years to come.

I took a few more photos not shown above; you can see them all here: Photos on 2013-12-15.

nightly chats with bin laden would be better
- Scott Galvin, about Jaeger's nightly jobsearch talks with his parents,
14 October 2002