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Colorado Floods Hit the Northern Front Range Area
Wildwater Racing Community

September 18, 2013

by Dennis Adams

(This story is not really mine to share. I can do so because I live in western Colorado, well away from the disaster areas, and because I am not tied down by the burdens faced by many in those areas. I am able to write what I have in large part because of friends that shared information by e-mail and on Facebook and from having Colorado-based news coverage of this story. Most Colorado racers are already on top of this story and many likely can add much to what I have written here.)

This piece is an attempt to get word out on the floods going on in the northern Colorado Front Range area, the home to a relatively sizeable community of wildwater racers. Since Thursday of last week (9/12) heavy rains coming up from Mexico have dumped up to twenty or more inches of rain on this part of the state. Much of the affected area is mountainous terrain, most very steep, 14,000 feet high where the peaks crest. Most significantly the mountain areas lie 4,000 to 8,000 feet above more populated areas that are from just ten to thirty miles to the east. Almost all of the water hitting the mountains funneled downhill through five or six steep drainage systems that each end up in narrow rocky canyons that open out onto the the western edge of the Great Plains. For much of the past few days this area's rivers, best characterized in Summer as trout streams, became raging class V & VI whitewater. Wherever the rapids interacted with roadways or bridges or buildings that got in the way the damage was dramatic. As a boater watching events unfold on-line it was hard to keep focused. The "holy cow, check out that hole (wave, pour over, wall slam etc.)" thoughts kept interfering with the sickening "oh no, this is really bad" reality checks that came as I processed that the river had taken out the road and that in part the holes and waves etc. were from huge chunks of concrete. I can only imagine what was going on with those who watched the drama firsthand -- those whose lives, homes, and communities were possibly in peril.

The more gently sloped, lower elevation areas had their own extremely heavy rains which was bad in itself. They were also inundated by the fast moving outflow of the rain that was raging down from the canyons that drained the mountains. Downtown Lyons became part of St Vrain Creek, now a few hundred yards wide and very scary looking in places from the downed trees, floating debris and sewage, and bridges that had water going over their tops and were about to be washed out. As the rivers spread out they slowed down some and began to deposit some of the mud and silt they had picked up while racing down the mountains. The muck filled basements, garages and the lower floors of some houses and caused the more widespread form of damage in the areas further downstream. The plains towns also had roads and bridges wash out which were serious. For a time the city of Longmont was cut off from the outside world. An on-line video that caught my attention was that of a fire truck driving through flooded streets of Longmont with waves breaking up above the windshield. We are not used to seeing things like this out here either first hand or on-line. What is amazing to me is that only a handful of fatalities have been reported. Many are listed as missing.

In the heart of the most affected flood areas is a triangle between the cities of Boulder and Longmont and the town of Lyons. These communities and the smaller, more rural, pockets of homes and farms between them are home to two of our region's club racing programs (the Alexander Dawson School Whitewater Team and Lyons Whitewater) and to a large number of independent racers including Wildwater Board member Jeremy Rogers and three members of this year's US Junior Wildwater Team. In the past 10 years this area has produced almost thirty members of our Junior Wildwater teams. Based upon the few reports (Facebook postings) that have come my way since Friday, my best understanding at this time is that all of our people are safe. A few were barely impacted, perhaps missing work or school and dealing with traffic rerouting. Some had their community cut off by the bridges and roads washing out and were forced to shelters and or to friends' homes. Most will face a community and region wide clean-up and rebuilding effort that will take months and more likely years to fully recover from. Several from the larger paddling community are involved with the volunteer search and rescue efforts going on in the more remote, less helicopter accessible areas. One longtime boating friend who raced decades ago in Ireland has been working 15 hours a day on a CDOT road crew removing trees and large rocks and cutting new passages on the mountain roads that are potentially passable to allow for emergency vehicle access. His crew will be doing this for many weeks at minimum before they can begin to address the great amount of damage that will need to be repaired or replaced.

In terms of white water racing, there will be many challenges to keeping this area's local activities going. Their local river ways are a sediment and debris filled mess and will not be usable for a long time. It is very unlikely that the whitewater park facilities at Lyons will be usable for a long time if they survived at all. The new reality is that safe boating corridors, whitewater play parks, and whitewater racing are on the back burner for now, of low priority compared to the far more serious problems.

As I opened with this story is not mine to tell. My hope is that when those living in these areas will be able to work through the worst of this disaster and that a better report will be forthcoming when things are more settled. In the meantime our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been seriously impacted by this disaster.