Local officials start preparing for possible flooding emergencies

Forecast looking good to avoid disaster…but…

By Mark Reaman

The deep snowpack throughout the county and entire Gunnison Basin has regional safety personnel talking and coordinating in case that snow suddenly turns to water that could result in damaging and unsafe flooding. Representatives from various emergency agencies met Monday afternoon in Gunnison and received the good news from weather forecasters that the short, medium and long-range outlook for the valley is calling for cool, consistent weather that should result in a reasonable runoff season. Of course, they made it clear that anything can happen and in similar snowpack years, there were high water issues that needed to be addressed.

“One of the keys is looking for below-freezing overnight temperatures. We see rapid snowmelt when we don’t get freezes overnight,” meteorologist Erin Walter of the National Weather Service out of Grand Junction told the assembled safety representatives. “The next seven days should stay below freezing overnight in Gunnison and the valley. That’s good.”

Walter said the medium range forecast indicates below normal temperatures for the area. 

“We are looking to avoid high pressure and we don’t see it now through the end of April,” she said. “It could change but we see no high overnight temperatures for a few weeks. The seasonal outlook for April, May and June is expected to be normal. We are very happy with the temperature forecast. We have to see how it evolves but it appears La Niña is now over and there is a good chance we will have an El Niño year next winter.”

El Niño is normally considered to bring more moisture than La Niña, but Walter said that was not always the case every time. She added that the typical summer monsoons might be delayed given how the long-range pressure systems are being forecast. Overall, she indicated there was a good chance for a gradual snow melt season with the melt out concluding in most areas in early to mid-June.

Senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center Ashley Nielson said that based on the modelling done since January, all elevations in the basin are showing above normal snowpack. She said that in March snow accumulated in the basin which is rarely the case. She indicated the county should expect high water flows in the area rivers.

Most of the agency representatives said staffing was an issue for the immediate future between open positions, vacations and training taking place outside the valley. But all said they are familiar with areas that have presented problems in the past and so extra eyes would be on the potential problem areas like the bridge by Garlic Mike’s.

“A lot of this will be visual monitoring,” said Gunnison County emergency manager Scott Morrill. “Law enforcement is good at keeping an eye on the rivers and normal problem areas.”

Crested Butte Public Works director Shea Earley said the town has sandbags along with heavy machinery ready to deal with potential heavy runoff. He relayed that between some snow having been dumped in Coal Creek over the winter and ice jams, the creek rose rapidly last week coming within a foot of going over the bank at points. He said it subsided and has run much lower since. “We know Coal Creek has potential for flooding in a year like this,” he said. “But it all depends on how it comes.”

Morrill said he has been encouraging the public with property in a flood zone to purchase sandbags at local outlets like Ace or the Tractor Supply store and be ready in case of a rising river. “If we have leftovers we can offer them to the public, but we are strongly encouraging private citizens to get their own sandbags,” he said. “Protecting private property is on the property owner. People need to protect their own property. Our resources will be focused first on protecting public infrastructure.”

Gunnison police chief Keith Robinson made clear that “protecting infrastructure is secondary to life-safety situations. We will go to private property in case of life-safety situations.”

Sparky Casebolt of the Gunnison County Public Works department said he could foresee problem areas in the county near Marble and on Kebler near Somerset.

Captain James Saunders of the Colorado State Patrol said Delta and Montrose are already experiencing minor flooding issues and he expected those issues to continue.

Morrill said if the high water situation turns into a crisis situation that could include evacuations, a call center would be established to keep people informed and take the burden off emergency dispatch services. He encouraged agency personnel to document any situations dealing with high water so that they could perhaps be reimbursed if an official emergency is declared. 

Bobbi Lucero of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said that while everything “looks good for Gunnison County based on projections, that could change.” 

Gunnison County sheriff Adam Murdie asked if there could be a point when the rivers were so dangerous some sections had to be shut down for safety reasons. Morrill said that has happened in the past and he would investigate how that process took place.

Morrill said given the short-term and medium-term weather forecast, the next meeting of the emergency personnel should take place in a couple of weeks. The next gathering is slated for Monday, May 1…unless those overnight temperatures spike.

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