Colorado floods will leave long-lasting impacts


Massive flooding along Colorado’s Front Range last week is finally starting to abate. In most areas water levels are dropping (although they’re now rising in some downstream communities, threatening to create further chaos).

Assistant Editor Cally Carswell wrote on Monday about how geography and development made such a disaster inevitable. Five to 18 inches of rain pounded down across 17 counties in just a few days (average annual precipitation in the area is 12-18 inches). Many of the consequences are immediate and obvious – six people are confirmed dead, hundreds are stranded or missing, thousands have been displaced from their homes. At least 500 miles of road and 50 bridges have been destroyed; nearly 20,000 homes have been damaged or completely wrecked. Sewage treatment plants have overflowed, and many communities cannot use wells that supply municipal drinking water. Cleaning up and repairing all the damage will take years and could cost well over a billion dollars.

Less obvious are the long-term effects of such a major inundation of water.  For example, standing water could breed an early-fall crop of mosquitoes, in a region of the West that has already seen cases of sometimes-deadly West Nile virus (which is carried by the flying pests).

Flooding in Loveland, Colo. Courtesy Flickr user Ed Ogle.

Far more alarming, however, is the fact that the flooded region is a major oil and gas producing area. About 1,900 oil and gas wells are now shut off because of the flooding, says the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and 600 workers are out inspecting and fixing those wells. Pipelines are sagging and leaking; waste pits are overflowing. Activists are calling on the state's oil and gas industry to disclose what chemicals may be leaking from flooded well sites.

NBC News reports:

Among officials’ chief concerns is the possibility that harmful pollution has been unleashed into the floodwater, especially in the oil and gas drilling center of Weld County.

“Many contaminants, such as raw sewage, as well as potential releases of chemicals from homes, businesses and industry, may be contained in the floodwaters," Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

“…. Activists have uploaded photographs onto various websites of flooded oil and gas wells, chemical storage facilities and wastewater and chemical holding tanks,” the newspaper said.

Gary Wockner of the anti-fracking group Clean Water Action sums up the threat:

Fracking and operating oil and gas facilities in floodplains is extremely risky. Flood waters can topple facilities and spread oil, gas, and cancer-causing fracking chemicals across vast landscapes making contamination and clean-up efforts exponentially worse and more complicated.

The Environmental Protection Agency will have a role in that cleanup. The agency, writes a Region 8 staffer, "is beginning to assess water quality impacts from various sources, including oil and gas production. These efforts include investigating spill reports and collecting information on oil and hazardous material discharges. EPA is coordinating with FEMA, state and local agencies, and producers to identify damaged infrastructure and prioritize containment and cleanup activities. We are also working closely with partners to assess flood impacts and response needs associated with drinking water, wastewater, and hazardous waste."

The effects on wildlife, tourism and recreation will be far-reaching as well. Fishermen and rafters may find altered river channels and fish species may be redistributed, as flood waters temporarily linked creeks, ponds and rivers. Open space areas surrounding the city of Boulder, which saw some of the most severe flooding, are in rough shape, with trails blocked and washed out.

A washed-out road in Boulder County. Courtesy US Army.

Colorado relies on tourism for a large share of its economic activity, and officials worry that the flooding, especially on the heels of huge wildfires, will scare away out-of-staters. The Associated Press reports:

The flooding has struck at the very mountains that give the state its identity and attract millions of hikers, campers and skiers. Months and possibly years of painstaking, expensive repairs lie ahead, but Colorado officials must also deal with a second problem — the risk that catastrophic damage could keep tourists away, even from places that are unharmed.

Some tourism operators want to see a media campaign to counter the photos of raging rivers and towns ruined by muddy floodwaters.

And some of the flooding’s most painful effects are not water pollution or economic damage, but the toll such a disaster takes on mental health. From a recent Public Library of Science study:

Accounts of the psychosocial impacts of flood events suggest that they can have significant effects on people’s wellbeing, relationships and mental health. Flooding can pose substantial social and welfare problems that may continue over extended periods of time because of not only being flooded (the primary stressor), but also because of the secondary stressors (those stressors that are indirectly related to the initial extreme event, i.e., economic stress associated with re-building)…

Another study from England found long-term physical and mental problems in those displaced by floods:

… Of those affected by floods overall, 64% said that their health had been adversely affected, most commonly with stress, anxiety and depression, but also with a range of conditions, including dermatitis, worsening asthma, arthritis and chest infections… many are suffering depression, with hardship in temporary accommodation, negotiating with insurance companies and mortgage companies while their houses are rebuilt, loss of social contact and strain on personal relationships. However, even those returning to their homes can experience ongoing anxiety...

For a thoughtful personal take on the emotional toll of flooding, see this essay by award-winning writer (and occasional HCN contributor) Laura Pritchett.

Small businesses along the Front Range are likely to feel the pain as well, notes a story in the Denver Post.

Small businesses fighting to stay open during the financial challenges of the past few years aren't likely to have paid the additional insurance premiums that would help them recover from recent floods, insurance-industry experts say.

Add that to the mantra of drought heard in recent years, and it's even less likely a business owner would have paid the additional premiums for flood coverage.

… Even a well-insured business — one that even planned for loss of revenue because of a blizzard, for instance — is likely to be left to fend for itself after a flood. … The hard-line fact, said Jim Blair, CEO of Integrated Risk Management Solutions in Littleton, is that "80 percent of small businesses impacted by this type incident, no matter what, are not in business within a year."

A man in a canoe inspects flood damage at his Front Range home. Courtesy of Flickr user Lauryn McDowell.

Farmers are hurting too, says another Denver Post story (which also notes the silver lining to flooding – drought-hardened fields will soak up much-needed water, and nearly-empty reservoirs will refill).

The damage to Colorado's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry – the state's third-largest at $8.5 billion last year – is vast: Aerial footage shows broad swaths of inundated farmland. Rows of crops up and down the South Platte River were submerged, including corn, lettuce, onions and soybeans. … Damaged roads will also have a big effect for farmers and ranchers. With transportation routes impaired, it's going to take them longer to move their products, adding fuel and labor costs.

Although the Front Range floods are a horrendous disaster, and their impact will be felt for many years, let’s also take a minute to think about people suffering in floods elsewhere around the globe, many much larger than Colorado’s deluge. In Mexico, 57 have died in major flooding around Acapulco this week. In West Africa, floods have killed 84 people and displaced more than 40,000 this year, according to the U.N., which also reports that 25 recently died in Philippines flooding affecting nearly 3 million.

Meanwhile, here in Paonia, on the Western Slope of Colorado, afternoon thunderstorms are rumbling. It’s a sound I would have welcomed a few weeks ago. Now it just seems ominous.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

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