Flooding could become real threat
By RUTH HEIDE
ALAMOSA — San Luis Valley officials are already bracing themselves for high water and potential flooding this year.
Alamosa County already has 9,500 sandbags Emergency Coordinator Pete Magee told San Luis Valley county officials during a SLV County Commissioners Association meeting on Monday. “You just can’t be prepared enough,” he said.
Magee said hopefully the area will not see flooding and the snow will melt off the mountains in a slow and orderly fashion, but he encouraged Valley officials to be prepared in case it does not. He said county commissioners would be the ones to declare an emergency if one arose. “We have all got to pay attention,” he said.
Jeff Babcock, homeland security officer, said the emergency preparedness center located in Alamosa County’s administrative building could be a crucial site in the event of Valley-wide flooding crises. “It is too late to wait for water coming over the banks to open up the center,” he said. He added the center could serve as a center for the whole Valley.
Alamosa City Manager Nathan Cherpeski in his weekly update stated that Alamosa has also already begun making plans for potential high water this spring. He said Police Chief John Jackson and Public Works Director/Assistant City Manager Don Koskelin were developing a preliminary plan that would be in place prior to the runoff. He added that the city had ordered additional sandbags.
Costilla County Commissioner Ed Vigil said Costilla County is the only county in the state that has adopted a hazard mitigation plan allowing the county to access Federal Emergency Management Agency monies immediately during a disaster.
“A lot of factors are going to come into play in the next 6-8 weeks in terms of whether we have significant problems,” Magee said. “I think personally there’s a lot of rural areas that will experience some problems.” He said he expected flooding problems with culverts, arroyos and drainages.
Steve Vandiver, retired water division engineer and current manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said he was equally concerned about potential flooding this year. He said Platoro, Terrace and Rio Grande Reservoirs are all half or more full already, and Platoro is the only reservoir in the basin that has any flood control authority. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can require water to be released from Platoro, Vandiver said. “Don’t go to sleep thinking OK the reservoirs will catch it all,” he said.
He added that the other area reservoirs do not have to take water for flood control but often do out of the goodness of their hearts.
Vandiver said although the irrigation ditches also help absorb the runoff, no one could force them to take water if they did not want it either. He said there might be not much demand for water in the ditches with the amount of snowmelt that will occur throughout the Valley.
He said virtually all of the SNOTEL readings are showing 140-150 percent of normal and some sites are showing 200 percent.
As of Monday the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) reported 167 percent of average snow water equivalent basin-wide for the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 175 percent of average for the Rio Chama River Basin and 164 percent of average for the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range basins. The snow water equivalent represents depth of water in the snowpack, if the snowpack were melted, expressed in inches, according to the NRCS.
Vandiver said there is a potential for the snowmelt to come off early. “Our runoff seems to be moving up in time more and more as time goes along,” he said.
Vandiver said if the area continues to get more snow, coupled with the above-average snowpack on the mountains, there is a real potential for flooding problems this year. “The emergency coordinator’s focus is certainly well founded,” he said.
“It is certainly not critical at this point but it could be,” he said.
Vandiver recalled the high water years of 1985-1987. “It was just by the skin of our teeth that we didn’t have something pretty catastrophic happen,” he said.
“We fought high water three years in a row,” he said. “We haven’t had anything like that since.”
He said since that time the levee through Alamosa has been reconstructed but has not yet been tested by high water. He said also since the 1980’s new bridges, culverts and structures have been built, “a lot of things that have not been tested for this kind of water. The potential for things to go wrong I think is great.”
He said places like the golf course in Alamosa will still have water on them in the event of high water because the water would go around the upper end of the levee.
Magee and Vandiver encouraged the county commissioners to plan ahead for the potential of flooding this year and to involve as many entities as possible. They stressed the importance of including road and bridge and law enforcement in planning efforts, for example.
Vandiver said the secondary bridge on the county line was lost two years in a row and disabled the third year in the mid 1980’s. He said the Valley could encounter serious problems when arterial roads are lost and equipment and populations are limited in their movement or isolated.
He said he was concerned about blockages such as trees creating dams in the river during high water periods.
Magee said he was particularly concerned about areas of the Valley becoming isolated during high water and people not being able to get in or out. “This is one of my big concerns along the Conejos River,” he said.