Along Cedar Drive, on the slopes above downtown Basalt, sandbags line one side of the roadway, and each fold of the rumpled hillside shows traces of dried mud and other debris. They’re stark reminders of the flooding and mudslides that struck this area after a brief but intense storm dumped nearly two inches of rain on Aug. 4, closing roads and triggering warnings for residents to seek higher ground.
The storm, by all accounts, was a bit of an anomaly, unusually severe and localized mostly on the southeast flanks of Basalt Mountain, but when it hit slopes denuded by last summer’s Lake Christine Fire, the result was predictable. In fact, it was an outcome that local authorities had been preparing for since before the fire was even extinguished in the form of an EWP, or emergency watershed protection plan.
The EWP was the result of a collaborative effort between a number of agencies, including Eagle County, Pitkin County, the town of Basalt and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, with technical assistance from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Together, they implemented measures designed to minimize the impact of flooding and debris flows, and, for the most part, those measures proved effective.
“The things we’ve been working on prior to this event worked,” said Birch Barron, Eagle County emergency manager, “and we just need to learn from this event and identify where there are gaps so we can continue moving things forward.”
Among the most important mitigation efforts was creating a roughly four-acre catchment basin on a flat part of the hill above the neighborhood. The basin succeeded in collecting a lot of the debris running down the slopes, but it wasn’t able to stop all of it, and much of what wasn’t stopped by the basin flowed into a natural drainage and blocked a culvert – one that had been expanded as part of the EWS plan – at the intersection of Cedar Drive and Pinon Drive.
When that happened, the water and debris had nowhere else to go but onto Cedar Drive itself, which was not designed to handle that level of flooding. Dave Knittle, who lives on the uphill side of Cedar Drive, was fortunate to have his home unaffected by the mudslides, but he shot video of the event, and in it the road looks like a veritable river, covered with what he estimated to be six inches of water and strewn with small boulders.
“They (the collaborative behind the EWS) dug out the culvert and did some other stuff,” said Knittle, “but, apparently, a lot of the problem here was that what they did do last year just got overloaded. It might have gotten clogged or something like that, but as far as those sorts of efforts, they seemed to be on it.”
Across the street from Knittle, on the downhill side of Cedar Drive, Jan Carney’s house sits between two natural drainages, and her driveway even has a bridge across one of them. Due to the vagaries and angles of Cedar Drive, her home was also unaffected by the flooding (other than a leaky roof), and she thinks that the EWS plan was largely responsible.
“I feel like the town did a great job,” she said. “It wasn’t all that bad here. Maybe it just flowed right on by, it was going so fast.”
Just down the street from Carney, however, her neighbors were not so lucky. The debris flow ran off Cedar Drive at a bend in the road and slammed into the home of John and Bernie Whittier, who live next door to Carney, leaving about three feet of mud piled up against one wall of the house. Just below them, Geri Wright was lucky to escape mostly unscathed when a “river of mud” came coursing down the hill just behind her garage.
Fortunately, no one was hurt during the flooding, and the damage to property and structures was minimal, but the event definitely rattled some nerves. Wright went out the very next day and placed sandbags by the entrance to her driveway, and the Whittiers put a line of sandbags along the bend in Cedar Drive to augment the two Jersey barriers already there. Farther down the hill, on Sopris Drive, two properties were protected by sandbags, and more than a week later a property on Frying Pan Road was girded with a triple layer of sandbags.
The added protection may help to soothe worried residents about their own properties, but, unfortunately, the sandbags on Cedar Drive are mostly illegal and could actually exacerbate problems during the next storm.
“There’s a state law that prohibits diverting water off of its natural course,” said Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney, “and what happens with putting those there is that they are essentially preventing water from going onto their property, where it would naturally go, and they’re pushing it away perhaps onto another property owner.”
That’s not to say that sandbags don’t have their place, according to Mahoney and Barron; it’s just that their place shouldn’t be on a public road.
“I absolutely encourage homeowners to place sandbags on their property to protect structures,” said Barron, “but I also share the Town of Basalt’s concerns that sandbags that are placed along the road could potentially do more harm than good.”
For now, the town and Eagle County don’t plan to force any homeowners to remove the sandbags from Cedar Drive, but Mahoney did inform the Whittiers and Wright of their potential liability and the possibility of being sued in the event of another storm. It’s a chance they’re willing to take, but hopefully they won’t have to for very long.
Taking the lessons learned from the Aug. 4 flooding, the EWS collaborators are tweaking and continuing their mitigation work at the corner of Cedar and Pinon and in other locations around Basalt, such as Two Rivers Road and in the upper Cattle Creek area. With any luck, that work will be completed before the next storm occurs, and the flooding and debris flows will be contained in their natural drainages, away from any homes.
Additionally, as part of a plan to offset tree cutting in its proposed Pandora’s expansion on Aspen Mountain, Aspen Skiing Co. has offered to fund the planting of several hundred seedling trees per acre on roughly 200 acres of burned terrain within the national forest part of the Lake Christine Fire burn scar. If the U.S. Forest Service accepts the offer, the new trees, once established, should help to stabilize soils and decrease the severity of any future flood events. However, any replanting projects are unlikely to get started for another five to seven years, according to Doug Leyva, timber and fuels program manager for the White River National Forest.
In the meantime, though, Mahoney and Barron reminded those in affected areas to keep in mind that no amount of mitigation can prepare them for all eventualities, and they encouraged everyone to review their flood insurance and make sure to sign up for general Pitkin County alerts and specific flooding alerts by texting LCFLOOD to 888777. That’s the best way for residents to stay safe, they said, which, ultimately, is far more important than keeping mud away from one’s house with sandbags.