Unease in wake of Basalt’s flash flood leads to dispute over sandbags
Several residents of the Hill District in Basalt feel like they are staring up the barrel of a water canon after a cloudburst Aug. 4 unleashed flash flooding from the Lake Christine Fire burn scar above them.
Some homeowners have placed sandbags at the edge of their property on Cedar Drive and other town streets to prevent getting swamped again by water and debris if Colorado’s typical monsoonal moisture re-emerges.
But the town government says placing sandbags on the street right-of-way threatens to make flooding worse for their downhill neighbors.
The town and residents are at an impasse. The town has ordered the homeowners to remove the sandbags. Residents are ignoring the command.
“I just flat-out told (Town Manager) Ryan (Mahoney) I’m not moving them,” said Geri Wright, a resident of Cedar Drive.
It’s a classic example of how the Lake Christine Fire from the summer of 2018 will affect the midvalley for years to come. Wright’s husband, Roger Brown, has been in their home for 33 years and never experienced flooding like Aug. 4. A shower stalled over the south side of Basalt Mountain and dumped 2 inches of rain in a relatively short time.
Brown said they have gotten that amount of rain in prior cloudbursts, but the result was different this time because the fire denuded so much of Basalt Mountain. The lack of vegetation and toasted soil didn’t absorb the water very well, so it cascaded down the steep slopes of Basalt Mountain toward the town’s Hill District.
A catch basin scraped out of a flat spot this summer on 4 acres above the Basberg Townhouses helped control the flow of water and debris in one primary drainage off the mountain into town.
However, there was no such opportunity to create a basin in another drainage that flows through the intersection of Pinon and Cedar drives. A culvert at that V-intersection was plugged by mud and debris, then overwhelmed with water that then cascaded down Cedar Drive. The water gouged a rut in the right shoulder while running downhill but in some places the road is slanted to the left, so the water ran through numerous yards and driveways on Cedar Drive.
Wright showed where water rushed into her yard, creating a rut and left behind a layer of mud. A neighbor’s quick action of placing sandbags along Cedar Drive prevented water from potentially swamping her house.
Next door, Rob Griem said the floodwater swamped his driveway and yard with mud. He had 20 tons of material removed and gravel hauled in. Numerous other residents of the Hill District ended up with tons of debris in their yards. Water got into three houses.
Basalt and other areas of the midvalley beneath the burn scar escaped problems this spring because the runoff was so gradual. It is well-established that burn scars are ripe for flash flooding — and that became evident Aug. 4.
“We had to have a flood disaster to open everybody’s eyes,” Griem said.
Sopris Avenue resident Keith McDougal said it’s been 13 months since the wildfire. He believes state, federal and local authorities could have gotten further along on steps to ease and prevent flooding.
“Some of my frustration is why don’t we have a flood mitigation plan?” McDougal said. “I think they’re hiding behind saying there is a lack of information.”
He said some of the problem should have been anticipated. For example, it was obvious that the small culvert at Pinon and Cedar couldn’t handle the volume of water coming from the burn scar, he said.
Wright said the important point for her is what steps the town will take now, with the help of state and federal resources.
“It needs to be redesigned,” she said of the culvert at the head of Cedar Drive. “The town has to do some type of diversion to take it off our properties.”
Until steps are taken to ease the flood threat, she and Griem feel they should be allowed to keep their sandbags in place — for peace of mind. When asked if it has been stressful to hear rain on occasion since Aug. 4, Wright replied, “Are you kidding me? I can’t sleep at night. You hear that pitter-pat of rain.”
McDougal is holding elected officials’ feet to the fire. He believes the state of Colorado should play a big role in mitigating the flood risk since the fire started at the shooting range in the Basalt State Wildlife Area. He’s written to Eagle County’s state senator and representative to request help.
He also wants Basalt to pursue interim steps while it works on a long-term mitigation plan.
Mahoney said he understands the concerns, but he noted that the town is acting on flood mitigation as quickly as it can with partners. The federal government awarded a grant of $1.23 million through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. Local in-kind matches by the state, Eagle County and Basalt have boosted the amount of the effort to $1.3 million. The funds weren’t available until this construction season. Projects to protect Basalt were the highest priority.
Eagle County created the catch basin on town-owned land above the Basbergs to satisfy its contribution. That project prevented water and debris from reaching numerous other homes.
“We have a lot of happy folks out there,” Mahoney said.
Every project that is implemented has to be approved by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. The agency’s liaison with the town visited Basalt on Aug. 5 to view the aftermath of the flooding, according to Mahoney. He hopes to meet with the liaison and the town’s consulting engineer, SGM, to talk about modifications in plans after experiencing the flood. Mahoney said he tried to convey that to distressed homeowners from the Hill District in a meeting Sunday.
“I told them now that we know this is a problem, we’re going to get on it,” he said.
However, it’s his understanding that the grant cannot be used for improvements in municipal infrastructure, such as enlarging the culvert and Cedar and Pinon. But he is hoping the engineers can find ways to ensure the water stays in the intended drainage paths.
Meanwhile, he is adamant that the sandbags placed by homeowners cannot remain.
“By putting them on the right-of-way, they are effectively displacing water,” he said. “There is a state law that says you can’t do that.”
In his view, preventing the water from running where it would go creates a bigger problem for a neighbor who doesn’t use sandbags or it creates a volume of water that overwhelms a downslope property that otherwise would be untouched.
Wright is frustrated because she said she is simply trying to protect her property from flooding that is an extraordinary circumstance. McDougal said he believes it is reasonable for his upslope neighbors to use sandbags to direct water to the next natural drainage.
Mahoney said it is his responsibility to look at the “macro-issue” and the effects on the town as a whole.
“It’s my job to keep the town out of liability,” he said.
Homeowners won’t be cited for a misdemeanor for creating the obstructions, as the law allows, he said. But they have been informed about the dangers of placing the sandbags.
“They’re taking on personal liability for that,” Mahoney said.
He is determined to work with the town’s partners on additional mitigation steps, but every burn scar requires custom projects.
“There isn’t a playbook,” Mahoney said.
For now, the flood risk is low. The current forecast calls for clear skies through Aug. 21. That buys time to settle the impasse over the sandbags. Mahoney said he hasn’t ruled out having the town remove them.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.