Greeley and Evans: Didn’t Happen, But…

Unfortunately, I did not make it to Greeley or Evans today. I got stuck in traffic fairly early on, and was losing time on my last day in Colorado. I decided to head back to Longmont where I could do some work on the St. Vrain and rent gouging in Boulder (two other posts I’ve been working on while here, but require a bit more research).

After I got back to town, I realized in relatively short order that it was good that I had not gone out there: while Greeley, according to the local newspaper, seems to be getting back on its feet and some of the main roads are open, several county roads in the area remain closed, and much of 34 in the business loop is also inaccessible to the public. This meant I would not have been able to see some of the areas I was most interested in very easily (i.e., how the local business community is faring as well as how the farming and ranching communities are doing). So, after spending time finishing up research on two other posts I’ll be publishing when I return home, I thought I’d summarize some of what I learned in preparation for the tour of Greeley. Some of this will just be review for the Coloradans who have been visiting the blog the last few days (thank you, by the way — love having new readers!). But for those outside the area, it just might be brand new.

As Coloradans know, Greeley, which is the county seat of Weld County, and the area around it were very hard hit during the flood. Here’s a link to raw footage produced by ABC7 News of the floods in Weld County. The extent of the flooding is breathtaking. Trailer home communities were devastated, cattle were stranded, and fields were either drowned or silted away. Many county roads were damaged or washed out, not to mention the serious damage to the main transportation  arteries into Greeley.

Unlike the communities I visited yesterday, Weld County is in the Colorado Piedmont. When I first read about Greeley and saw the photos from Weld County, I was in Carbondale. I had the impression that Greeley was a small farming community — it was a very wrong impression. Greeley has over 92,000 people in it, and Weld County has farmers, ranchers, immigrant communities who work on the land and in the city, mineral extraction industries, and food processing businesses — as well as being home to the University of Northern Colorado. The severe flooding in the area means very large numbers of people are directly affected, and indirectly the various industry and business in the area will affect the entire state as well as parts of the country.

Located in the high plains of Colorado, Greeley, Evans and the other communities in the county are part of the Colorado Piedmont. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Colorado, Greeley is north of Denver. The map below should give you some idea of the difference in land formation between the Front Range communities and foothill communities where I was yesterday and the plains communities of the piedmont:


You can see on the map that most of Colorado’s population centers are in some part of the plains in the state. While the area is definitely lower than some of the high plains that sit to the north and east, the elevation of Greeley is over 4500 feet. As I already mentioned, the 2010 census showed a population of over 92,000, so we are not talking about a tiny town surrounded by farms. The census shows that the city is approximately 34% Latino and 55% white. The rest of the population is made up of a mix of other races. Greeley has also had a fascinating history if you’re interested in the western US. (There is a Greeley History Page here.)

The South Platte River runs along the southern boundary of Greeley and its neighbor Evans, while the Cache la Poudre River runs to the north. During the floods, I posted a link to photos taken by NASA. These were shots of the swollen South Platte River, and showed clearly that many roads were washed out, and a chunk of Greeley and Evans as well as the agricultural areas along the river were inundated. Indeed, those roads are not all open, though as I mentioned the main arteries have been cleared and are, at least along Highway 85, accessible. However, because of Greeley’s particular mix of dense population, agriculture and oil and gas industries, its recovery process is going to have some special challenges.

Flood recovery in agricultural communities is a particular interest of mine since I have gotten to know some of the folks who were impacted in agricultural and rural communities in Missouri and southern Illinois during the 2011 floods along the Mississippi. I think we often do not realize just how terrible an inch of silt can be for a farmer, let alone heavy silt or major soil erosion. Or how difficult it is to evacuate livestock and move heavy machinery on short notice. And imagine, what would happen if a flood hits just as the harvest has begun or in the middle of it? A year of work — not just in profits, but hard, hard work — gone in a few hours of intense flooding.

You may be thinking, “Well, they have crop insurance,” but that may not be true. Or it may be true, but crop insurance will not make up for the loss of a field to heavy silt. Depending upon where the farmer lives, flood insurance may not be a viable option financially. Much of what happens during evacuation and recovery, then, depends upon the business decisions made by the farmers and ranchers long before the flooding. Those decisions rest upon several factors, including the size of the farm or ranch, how much acreage is in crops and what kinds of crops, the livestock they produce and how much they have to move, the time of year of the flood, where the farmers are in the planting-growing-harvest cycle, where the livestock can graze, and so on and so forth.

Agricultural communities are complex, and during a disaster of any sort those complexities can make knowing what to do under the pressure of a sudden evacuation all the more difficult for the farmers and ranchers during the event itself, as well as the various relief organizations helping them get on their feet during the recovery process (if they get any help — often they do not since they are “just farmers”). The loss of a field (depending upon the size of the field) or a grazing pasture can be very damaging for farmers and ranchers in the long-term. Damage assessments should, I believe, take long-term effects of loss of profits into consideration somehow, not merely assess the immediate damage, particularly for family farmers and family ranchers.

I would think that these complexities are aggravated because Greeley is no small town and has its own damage to deal with. It’s large and is densely populated. The agricultural communities and the city have a relationship to one another that means if one is hurt, the other will also hurt. If both are hurt, the damage and pain is exponentially increased. This is why the fact that county roads continue to be closed or difficult to access is not good for the city, just as having the main business loop in the city inaccessible (for the most part) is not good for the agricultural community.

Moreover, there are multiple industries in the area. Some have to do with food and food processing, but there are other industries as well. Back on September 19th, the Greeley Tribune reported on 12 spills from oil and gas facilities in Weld County which had dumped oil into the floodwaters. While most of those spills were not large, two of them dumped over 19,000 gallons of oil into the water. While gas and oil spills are not rare during an extraordinary flooding event, they do add to the contamination that always comes with flood waters (think contaminants like mold, or other chemicals that enter the water through saturated building materials, etc.). US News also reported the story on their website, and included some disturbing photos of oil in the flood water. The Denver Post, similarly, reported the story, identifying some of the spills as having occurred south of Milliken. They, too, provided disturbing imagery of both washed out roads and oil filled floodwater.

More oil spilled in the weeks following those reports, and on October 2nd CBS Denver reported that the total number of spills was up to 15, and that together they had released 43,000 gallons of oil. Because roads were damaged and areas were still flooded, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission officials told CBS Denver that the assessment of the damage could take up to 90 days.

One of the questions I wanted to explore (and will continue to look into when I go home) concerns these spills: given how swollen the South Platte was and how far the water moved, where did that oil go? Is it settling into farmland? grazing land? Will it move into the water table (and, along with that, how deep is the water table in the area)? How is an oil spill made up of crude oil (as some of this was) different from a spill of refined oil? If it is taking longer to clean it up because roads are closed or washed out, how will that affect the land where the oil is sitting? And the waterways? And the groundwater?

I’m a political scientist, not a scientist, but my interest in environmental policy and property law is piqued here. What redress will landowners (of all kinds) and other property owners (of all kinds) have if they are affected in some way by the oil spills? What about non-property owning residents?

And, by the way… While chemical and oil spills are not unheard of during a flood, they do not happen every time a flood occurs. What exactly happened in this case?

Taken altogether, I am sorry I was not able to visit the area, and will be watching, listening and researching what is happening from afar. I hope to come back and spend some time there (more than a day, since there’s more than a day’s work to do) understanding the intricate problems residents are facing. Weld County’s recovery challenges are great, and do not involve simple clean up of debris and rebuilding. Transportation routes must be cleared and rebuilt as soon as possible to make other work possible. Residents and businesses will need help with soil remediation (to what extent we do not know yet) as well as making certain contaminants are removed from the water (if they make their way there) so that Weld Countians have a healthy and safe environment to live in. Farmers and ranchers will need help replacing their buildings as well as machinery, let alone livestock, seed, and depending upon where they were in the planting-growing-harvest cycle, financial resources to tie them over until a new crop and more money can be brought in. And, in addition to all that (as if it weren’t enough), making certain oil and gas producers are using best practices in securing their storage facilities — and perhaps helping them think through how to do it better — seems in order.

PS: And yes, I know I haven’t talked about the fracking issues, but I promise I’ll get there!)

Colorado: Roadtrip to Estes and Lyons

All through the area we saw work crews clearing debris. This one was parked in Lyons.

During our road trip to Estes and Lyons, we saw work crews clearing debris. This one was parked in Lyons.

I headed up to Estes and Lyons today with Celeste (who did all the driving so that I could take pictures because she’s a great and wonderful friend). Our goal was simple: take a look at the damage now that the road is open, and see how far along the rebuilding, clearing and cleaning has come in the weeks since the flood. When I first arrived in Colorado, I did not think I would be able to visit Lyons. The road closures posted on various state and local government websites suggested that what access existed would be limited to residents. However, yesterday I noticed this was no longer the case and so Celeste and I planned this somewhat impromptu road trip. We saw a lot of construction crews, and could not spend long in any one spot, but we were able to gain a sense of how challenging the work has been. And we both admired greatly the work that’s already been done. Along the way, we stopped where we could so that I could take pictures, or took them from the car window (so, excuse the blurriness in some of them — my camera is good, but this was sometimes pretty tricky!).

We started out from Longmont and drove to Estes, then went a little further to the entrance of Roosevelt National Park. The wind was picking up and there was an odd fog in the mountains that suggested snow, so we turned around for the return trip. You can see a map of the area here.

Before I write anything further, let me simply express my admiration for the enormous amount of work and effort that has occurred in a relatively short amount of time in the area. Roads that had been washed out are reopening or in the process of being repaired, and businesses are serving customers. We stopped at the very charming Barking Dog Cafe in Lyons for hot chocolate (I highly recommend it!), and bought some pastry from another local bakery. We were thrilled to see the energy and resilience of Lyons and Estes as well as all the communities in between. Signs welcoming residents back and thanking others for their support testified to their focus and resistance to the sand, gravel and water damage, not to mention a very strong commitment to seeing these communities put back in order:

This sign was outside the Chamber of Commerce. There was another that read, "Thank You Natl G" in the window.

This sign was outside the Chamber of Commerce. There was another that read, “Thank You Natl G” in the window.

Another sign along the street in Lyons.

Another sign along the street in Lyons.

In Estes, this sign seemed to embody the attitude of residents.

In Estes, this sign seemed to embody the attitude of residents.

The North St. Vrain Creek, which is a tributary to the St. Vrain Creek, (mentioned in other posts here and here, and locally referred to as the St. Vrain River), runs along the road as it travels down through the mountains to meet at a confluence with the Middle St. Vrain. Together, they form the St. Vrain. This river, along with the Left Hand Creek, flooded Longmont. The St. Vrain changed course during the floods, and in Longmont it moved away from the floodplains and into neighborhoods and golf courses that were supposed to be safe from flood waters. This story in the Times-Call contains a graphic that shows the change in the course. I’ll be writing another post about it later in the week. But the St. Vrain had already decided to leave its usual bed long before it reached Longmont, changing course already in Lyons (as covered by the Denver Post) which also posted a video that shows the swollen river inundated the town.

Even before the water got to Lyons it was cutting its way down the canyon and into the various small mountain communities along the way. And when I say “cutting”, I mean this as a description of what the water does to the land, buildings and anything in its way. It pushes, cuts or drowns. I was once told by a river engineer that when a river runs high, it acts like a jack hammer against anything in its way. Yet high water does not just cut away at the land and buildings it runs into — it carries with it debris. Building materials, sand and rock all move with the water, resting where they will. Take a look at the erosion in the photograph below, paying attention to the far bank. The damage to the house tells us something of the direction of the water, the debris and shape of the bank tell us something about what was carried in the water (hard silt and debris) as well as what high velocity inundations can do to land. We saw several homes damaged in similar ways, with the worse damage on the side of the house that took the brunt of the wall of water that built up as it headed down the mountains:

Damaged House

Here’s another house that was striking to us because, when we went up the canyon, we had not noticed the damage. Yet when we returned from Estes, we could see much more clearly that it had also been in the wall of water’s way:

There was also a good deal of debris in the area, including cement and building materials, the leftover parts of uprooted trees, sand, gravel and rock:


While we did see other damaged homes like the ones above and a good deal more debris, we also saw some homes that had been damaged much worse. Yet for most of the damaged homes and other buildings, repairs appear to be well underwear. Many homes appear habitable once again, and some clearly had never sustained this level of damage in the first place.

The road going to Estes are in good shape now, even where they had been badly damaged. However, many of the side roads are still closed. Indeed, one of the clearest examples of what the flood had done to some of the  roads in the mountains was just off 36, roughly half way between Estes and Lyons. Blocked off by warning signs and a gate, crews were working to repair it:

Washed Out Road

Some of the debris had been cleared, and sat off to the side, where we could also see erosion and silting damage:

Debris, erosion and silting from a washed out. road

Despite all the damage shown in these photos, the story here is truly one of resilience. We could see the communities coming back together and sense the community-mindedness of the residents. Small businesses along the route that serve visitors were, with some exceptions, open and very welcoming to customers and tourists. While it’s true that in one of the businesses where we stopped employees were still working on getting everything in ship-shape, they were serving food and happy to see customers. Various shops along the streets in both Estes and Lyons had reopened. Some of the inns and cabins that provide hospitality to tourists remain damaged and are still under repair, but others were clearly back in operation.

It was heartening and inspiring to see the mountain communities coming back after so much devastation, and doing so with a sense of community and a deep desire not only to rebuild, but as the signs say, rebuild stronger. Tomorrow I will try to see how the plains communities are doing. The challenge there, however, is that many of their roads are not yet open. With luck, though, perhaps I will be posting those pictures tomorrow evening — and if not, there’s plenty of other things to write about concerning the recovery process going on here!