County: Rifle homes, road at risk from seeping ditch
Some residents of Rifle Village South have been dealing with so much flooding in recent weeks that the Garfield County commissioners have declared a local emergency.
“Thirty-four years of my life has changed in these past weeks, and it’s just heartbreaking,” Cheryl Minter told the commissioners Monday. “We can’t even get a loan to get a lawyer because our house isn’t worth a dime now.”
Minter’s property abuts a steep ridge south of Rifle, and halfway up that ridge is an abandoned ditch that neighbors say hasn’t been maintained properly. Now, it’s putting at least a dozen homes at risk of catastrophic damage.
Tim Kinion, whose house is just across the street from the worst of the flooding, first brought the issue to Commissioner Mike Samson in July, along with pictures of the Minter’s basement where water was seeping up from the ground, as well as flowing from the surface.
“We got a big problem over here. The county road is in jeopardy,” Kinion said. “And it already is, there’s so much water flowing over it, in it, and around it.”
At the meeting Monday, board Chairman John Martin stressed the gravity of the situation.
“(For) at least seven or eight weeks, this water has been running into their house. Two more weeks, or three more weeks, guess what, foundations are leaving us,” Martin said.
The water is also seeping under Remington Street, a county road and a school route.
“The road’s going to start sinking … potholes are going to happen, sinkholes,” Martin said.
Martin declared a local disaster July 26, and the commissioners held an emergency meeting July 29, and hired SGM Interests to conduct surveys.
The issue is connected to the Anderson Ditch, which SGM visited recently.
“We noticed excessive water popping out of the hillside into a ditch in various states of disrepair due to subsidence, mini-landslides, lack of maintenance,” David Kotz of SGM told the commissioners Monday.
The hillside is a steep grade, making it difficult for equipment to clear the blocked parts of the ditch. Meanwhile, the engineers saw evidence of recent slides, as well as fissures where water had been flowing underground.
The high runoff this year may be part of the cause of the excessive water. Mismanagement of the ditch could be another factor, engineers said.
When the current ditch owner abandoned some of the water rights in 2006, the court ordered him to re-contour that part of the slope to its original condition, Lee Leavenworth, a consultant and former attorney, told the commissioners.
The engineers doubt that reclamation work was completed.
The rest of the ditch has not been maintained properly, Leavenworth said.
“The problem in that section is, there’s vegetation in it, and the floes aren’t moving through the ditch. So you’re getting a buildup of water that’s causing additional seepage, and can cause ditch failure,” Leavenworth said.
But it’s not a simple matter of assigning blame to the owner, because the hillside slides above and below the ditch as well, he said. Plus, it’s difficult to legally determine, in a high-runoff year, what would have happened if the ditch had been maintained.
Regardless of who is responsible, the commissioners are still sorting out what to do, how to pay for it, and how to avoid future liability.
A short-term solution could be lining the base of the slope with sandbags, to divert the water into a pipe north to the Colorado River, instead of where it flows now, into Helmer Gulch to the east.
“It’s important that we’re doing this to protect the road there,” Samson said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Mr. Leavenworth’s role in consulting for the county.
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