Monday, August 19, 2019

Lake City braces for hazardous flooding risk

“It’s an interesting situation.”

By Alissa Johnson

Lake City has been making headlines across the state as it braces for the potential of hazardous flooding this spring. Local, regional, county and state officials—including the governor’s office—are working fast and furiously to get ahead of the situation, while also heading off another “clear and present danger,”the loss of income due to decreased tourism.

The situation has come about as the result of a trifecta of conditions: An above-average snow pack, avalanche debris and cold weather that has delayed spring runoff. According to Michael Davis, public information officer with the Hinsdale Unified Coordination Group, the degree of snowpack alone would be cause for concern.

“Our current snowpack is between 160 and 200 percent above average. As I understand it, this is a historical amount of snow. The last time it was close to this figure was 1984,” Davis said.

Added to that, however, is the debris left over from an unprecedented level of avalanche activity. Davis said a debris flow above Henson Creek, for example, is half a mile wide, is 200 to 300 feet deep and contains mature trees, boulders, ice and snow. Once the weather warms, that compressed mass of debris could become a debris flow.

“It is a totally different animal if we’re talking about a debris field of logs and trees as opposed to clear water,” Davis said.

Officials are concerned that the debris could cause a dam along the creek that would in turn cause water to back up and create pressure. If the pressure becomes great enough, it could cause the blockage to burst and create a debris flow into Lake City.

“We’ve got a ton of people working very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Davis continued. “Everybody from the feds, the state and the county and local levels are looking at the situation and making plans.”

Contractors with heavy equipment are clearing avalanche debris, volunteers have filled 15,000 sand bags and the Army Corp of Engineers is surveying the community in order to make a plan and advise on the placement of those sand bags. According to the Hinsdale County website, “The Hinsdale County Board of Commissioners ratified a local disaster declaration, and Colorado Governor Polis has authorized an executive order for a state of emergency in Hinsdale County.”

Every option is on the table, Davis said, to mitigate the hazard and preparations are being made in case of the worst-case scenario. Collections at the Lake City Museum are being packed up and moved for safe-keeping, as are documents in the county office. And an evacuation plan has been put into place, though no evacuations have been required.

Gunnison County has also been assisting with preparations and mitigation. According to county manager Matthew Birnie, emergency management staff has been helping out as needed, including notifications, compiling a list of resources, and coordinating briefings with first responders in Gunnison County. The Gunnison County GIS [Geographical Information Servicers] manager also spent a day in Lake City helping map potential threats.

“If there is flooding, they will also move their Emergency Operations Center to our facility in the Public Safety Center,” he said.

Whether flooding occurs and when will be influenced by mitigation efforts as well as the weather.

“Historically, high runoff has been between June 1 and June 10, but we’re having an exceptionally cold season, pushing that date back. The National Weather Service has predicted that high runoff could be approximately June 18,” Davis said.

In the meantime, in addition to focusing on mitigation, Davis and other officials are trying to spread the word that Lake City is not currently flooding and is still safe to visit. As Davis pointed out, Lake City relies heavily on tourism and a significant decline in visitors has the potential to do even more damage.

“We’ve got the debris up in the mountains and the high snow pack and this sort of thing, and if everything lines up, that could harm the community—could,” Davis said. “On the other hand, if we’ve got all this scary media attention and people deciding not to come to Lake City—that are afraid to come here—that will hurt the community.”

The main message? Lake City is open for business. Restaurants, lodging and recreational services are all open, and the professionals analyzing and mitigating the potential floods are all staying there.

“If the professionals, who know more about the hazards the town faces than anyone else are comfortable staying in Lake City, visitors should know they have nothing to fear,” Davis said.

For information on road closures, current alerts and the evacuation plan go to www.colorado.gov/hinsdalecounty.

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