ALAMOSA — Rains washed ash and debris as high as three feet in places across the Sand Dunes’ Medano Pass Primitive Road, resulting in the temporary closure of the road this summer — three years after the Medano Fire.
This is the kind of fire aftermath the western part of the San Luis Valley is facing on an even larger scale. Started in the same manner (lightning) almost three years to the day after the 2010 Medano Fire that burned about 6,200 acres, the West Fork Complex Fire has burned more than 109,000 acres since it began June 5. The fire was listed at 66 percent contained on Tuesday. (See related story.)
Great Sand Dunes Geologist Andrew Valdez told attendees at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) meeting on Tuesday the Park Service undertook a similar effort on a smaller scale after the Medano Fire that local and federal agencies are now undergoing to prepare for the potential aftermath of the West Fork Complex Fire. He said Bob Kirkham was hired after the Medano Fire to map areas most prone to debris flow. Kirkham’s projections were pretty accurate, and Valdez suggested he might be a good person to be involved in the West Fork Complex Fire aftermath.
Valdez added that the Medano road might be reopened by the end of this week. It has been closed since June 29 due to rains washing large amounts of sediment into creek crossings causing hazardous driving conditions.
“Wet ash/debris flow over 3 feet (1m) tall has covered roads in places, making it unsafe and impassable,” the Park Service stated in a press release about the closure. “Most of this debris and ash flow is a result from the Medano Fire that burned in 2010.”
The West Fork Complex Fire has the potential to create such debris flow as well as flash floods from denuded hillsides. Teams from the National Forest Service and local agencies are already working on improved methods to determine when such flooding might occur and how to alert residents to the danger.
Water Educator Judy Lopez told the RGWCD board during its Tuesday quarterly meeting that the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT) of which she is a member would probably hold a town meeting next Tuesday or Wednesday. RWEACT has already developed a guide to flash flood preparation with the primary message to those in potential flooding areas to “move up — not out,” in other words not to outrun the flood but to get to higher ground immediately. Residents in the potential flash flood area downriver from the West Fork Complex Fire can also sign up for alerts at www.slve911.org
Heather Dutton, another member of RWEACT, added that modern technology from texting to Facebook will be utilized to help get the word out in times of potential flooding. The team has only been meeting a short time but is on a fast track for identifying problem areas and setting up warning systems. Dutton serves on the natural resources team that is identifying priorities for restoration and inventorying resources.
She envisioned the RWEACT efforts continuing long term.
Lopez said the biggest priority of the team at this point is public safety.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Division Engineer Craig Cotten told the RGWCD board on Tuesday his office has four gauging stations ready to go right now. The equipment is in the Division 3 office ready to be placed at locations the hydrology portion of the RWEACT recommends. They could be installed by next week, he said.
RGWCD board discussion returned to the fire aftermath throughout the July 16 meeting, and the board members expressed willingness to help financially if necessary.
Also on Tuesday afternoon the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) unanimously approved $2.5 million for post wildfire support in the Rio Grande Basin and authorized a request for an emergency appearance before the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday to end the first day of the two-day board meeting at Adams State University.
RWEACT will use the funds to mitigate flash floods and debris flow associated with severely burned forests.
On Monday, Governor John Hickenlooper’s office said there was support to make such funds available.
The CWCB will consider using $175,000 from the severance tax operational fund to get the funding ball rolling, with additional dollars potentially coming through an executive order or legislation in 2014.
“We are committed to doing what we can as quickly as possible,” said CWCB member and Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike King. “We need to make this available.”
Should the post-wildfire support efforts not require such a sum, the remainder will be rolled over and allocated for wildfire efforts across the state.
The RGWCD board did not have a specific funding request before it on Tuesday but indicated it would be ready to assist financially when called upon, even if it required a special meeting.
Another issue with potential flooding resulting from the fire aftermath is the practical matter of how such large amounts of water — carrying sediment — will be handled.
RGWCD Attorney David Robbins said even if there were no flooding, there would be a significant amount of sediment moving at various rates through the Valley’s water system. RGWCD General Manager Steve Vandiver, who is also the retired division engineer for Division 3, said if there was a big enough head of water it could just be allowed to go all the way through the Valley and on to downstream states.
RGWCD Board Member Cory Off said that might be a good thing for the river. He also suggested diverting surges of water into existing recharge pits.
Vandiver said there might not be enough capacity to hold large surges in that manner. He said even a minor rainfall could result in 5,000-6,000 acre feet of water at Del Norte because in a situation like this virtually every drop is coming through.
RGWCD Board President George Whitten said, “We know that’s going to happen, 2-3 inches of rain up there.”
Cotten said some canals and ditches might be willing to take excess water and some might not. Vandiver added there would be a great deal of debris moving with that water, and the headgates on ditches could get plugged up quickly.
“The debris will go where the water is flowing,” Whitten agreed.
Vandiver said, “We need to be thoughtful how we deal with that, not just open the headgates.”
Lauren Krizansky wrote the portion of this article regarding the CWCB funding decision on Tuesday.