North Crestone Creek peaked at eight times the historic average!

by Sandia Belgrade & Akia Tanara

Nearly 50 years to the date of the “Flood of 1965” that overran the South Platte River, Crestone experienced a close call of its own. Residents received a Reverse 911 emergency message on June 6 informing them of the likelihood of flooding on North Crestone Creek. Town and County officials had been monitoring the situation for several days already. According to Akia Tanara, Town Administrator, it was an 11-day event with three significant peaks, and involved many participants. Tanara was maintaining a situational awareness through this whole time period of rapid snow melt and heavy rain.

June 2:  Tanara contacts Division of Water Resources to inquire about a 60 cfs (cubic feet per second) overnight spike in the creek and is advised that there is concern that the town will experience flooding in the next 24-48 hours. Water Commissioner Jim Swanson drives up to Crestone, and he and Akia create a plan for diverting “damaging water” at the spillway, while still allowing 200 cfs to travel downstream to satisfy water right holders. Local excavator Mark Potter and crew begin clearing accumulated sand on the north side of the bridge at the spillway and Elvie Samora and staff from Saguache County Road & Bridge begin clearing excess sand in the spillway for about 200’ south of the bridge. Potter acquires and carefully places very large boulders in the creek under the direction of Swanson. The peak flow that night is 169 cfs, more than 3 times the historical average.

June 3: David Osborn of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

(OEM) contacts Tanara, offering assistance and beginning what is to be a daily phone conference of emergency facilitators from the region. He is a “rock” according to Tanara. Osborn works for Governor Hickenlooper, who has a high sensitivity to flooding issues in the state. This outreach brings a significant influx of assistance, for now there are daily teleconferences including participants from Division of Water resources, National Weather Service, Saguache Public Health, County Commissioners, County OEM, Forest Service, Sheriff’s Office, Department of Local Affairs, Saguache County Land Use, Alamosa County, and more. Daily check-ins provide updates on flooding drainages throughout the county, ideas, suggestions and support for the Crestone concerns. Anyone who thinks Crestone is an isolated community in the middle of nowhere can look to the reality of the joint cooperation of so many agencies and people. The Town Board of Trustees, understanding that the high water will last for at least another week, adopts a resolution declaring an emergency, which will allow the Town to access their emergency (TABOR) funds of $11,941.00.

June 6: It’s the peak of the snow melt. Akia receives a call from Osborn at 1:30pm warning that a large storm cell is heading north of the creek and may drop a significant amount of rain. Culverts throughout town are at full capacity, with minor drainages overflowing. The high volume of water coming down the creek is compounded by all the debris in and near the creek, including fallen trees and branches from the heavy snowfall on Mother’s Day. Removing debris from culverts at the Alder Street Bridge becomes a priority as the volume of flow increases during the afternoon and evening; many community members, including volunteer emergency services personnel, assist in removing debris. Dan Wheeler, a volunteer from Search and Rescue serves as Incident Commander, and continues in this role until the high water event is concluded. The North Crestone Creek Campground is evacuated and closed about 9:30pm. Pictures on Facebook showed campsite #13 inundated. Phase II of the spillway diversion plan is implemented. Folks in low-lying areas are warned of a possible need for evacuation. At 9:45pm Crestone Creek peaked at 418 cfs—eight times the historic average!

June 8: With estimate costs for mitigation of high water issues expected to exceed emergency reserves, the Town Board adopts a resolution declaring a disaster and implements an emergency plan. The threshold for declaring a disaster in Saguache County is $21, 744, and there are many reports of flooding issues elsewhere in the county. If flooding damages in the state exceed $7,091,166, the Governor can request that the President declare a disaster in Colorado; the President would then request that FEMA release emergency funding to the affected counties.

June 10: Another day of high temperatures and heavy snow melt; added to this is the threat of flash flooding. Alamosa County delivers 1000 filled sandbags, a dump truck of sand for filling more sand bags, and an additional dump truck of sand with the attachment for filling sandbags is left in town. Phase III of spillway is implemented. The creek peaks at 404 cfs; however, as the majority of debris has already been cleared above the culverts on Alder Street, the culverts handle the flow easily, and flooding concerns lessen. The anticipated heavy rains do not come.

June 15: After monitoring reduced creek flows for several days, County Emergency Manager Jim Felmlee conferred with Wheeler and Tanara, and in the morning teleconference announced that the town was officially “standing down” from this event. Akia reports that working with this regional group of emergency managers was a real pleasure; everyone was focused on solving problems, and there was no posturing; “they were an awesome team to work with.”

The National Weather Service had issued a flood watch for all of the San Luis Valley and its surrounding mountains, and indeed Crestone was not alone. Conejos lost a bridge. Cemetery Road in Saguache was washed out. People along waterways, other creeks, and drainages faced rising water. Several homes outside of the town were threatened with imminent flooding. Ron Garcia, Refuge Manager of Baca National Wildlife Refuge emailed:  “We’ve been swimming!  Figuratively and literally.  We’ve gotten into our new office and immediately it was threatened by flood water when a tree lodged in the creek and sent the water out of its banks just upstream.  They had to scramble and put in an emergency berm to reroute the water.  It worked. Another disaster averted.”