1984 downtown Steamboat flood serves as reminder of risk | SteamboatToday.com

1984 downtown Steamboat flood serves as reminder of risk

Rain compounded snowmelt on Butcherknife Creek

— On May 10, 1984, former Steamboat Springs residents Lenny and Gail Brooks and their young children felt secure that Butcherknife Creek had settled down where it flowed behind their home at 112 Hill St.

However, things changed suddenly at about 10 p.m. when a rain-soaked embankment slid into the creek and diverted the flow across the Brookses' backyard.

"I heard the water hit the center of the back of our house, and I rushed to the door to see at least two and a half feet of water rushing by," Brooks later told the Steamboat Pilot. "I told Gail to get the kids out."

Twenty-seven years have passed, and although Butcher­knife, Spring and Soda creeks have overflowed their banks since, Old Town Steamboat hasn't seen a flood quite like that of May 1984, when 447.5 inches of snow at the ski area, 70-degree temperatures and a warm rainfall conspired to cause an estimated $20,000 in property damage.

In 2011, the city of Steamboat Springs Public Works Department is taking steps to ward off a future Butcherknife Creek flood. Public Works engineer Ben Beall said the lengthy process of applying for a federal grant to improve the Butcherknife Creek floodplain is under way. The creek flows mostly across private property as it traverses the city on its way from Strawberry Park to the Yampa River. And later this spring, Public Works will send letters to property owners inviting them to a meeting and asking if they would allow a surveyor onto their land to shoot cross sections of the creek, Beall said.

The surveying work would be done at the expense of the city and the State Department of Emergency Management, Beall added, as they build the case for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It would cover the costs of improving drainage ditches and culverts where Butcherknife Creek intersects with city streets. Construction likely would not begin until 2013, Beall said.

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The prospects of spring flooding are real this year, as the snowpack — the amount of water contained in the snow — stands above 130 percent of average in the mountains surrounding the city, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver.

"For those river basins with their source in the northern mountains including the Colorado, Yampa, White and North Platte rivers, this year's April 1 snowpack is the highest since back in 1996 at 135 percent of average," NRCS Snow Survey supervisor Mike Gillespie wrote in an online report.

The snow on the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass was 101 inches deep Tuesday and contained 41.8 inches of water, 149 percent of the average of 28 inches of water, according to remote sensing devices maintained by the NRCS.

Still, Bob Struble, director of Routt County's Office of Emergency Management, said April 1 snowpack alone isn't a sure indicator of flood potential in May and June. The weather between now and mid-May, when runoff from the high country begins in earnest, will determine how it plays out.

"If we get a lot of cold rain, the snowmelt could come off really slowly," Struble said. "But if it gets hot and a (stream) drainage gets a strong thunderstorm, we could have a lot of problems."

The Brooks family escaped the 1984 flood after the family car started despite the water rising up to its fenders. And their lasting impression was of the neighbors who stood by their side and stacked the sandbags.

Prepare for Routt County spring floods

Bob Struble, director of the Routt County Office of Emergency Management, said property owners can take steps to guard against flooding early this spring by scanning drainage ditches and culverts to see whether they are blocked by brush and debris. Residents can call Steamboat Springs’ Public Works Department at 970-879-2060 or Routt County Road and Bridge at 970-879-0831 for help with badly clogged culverts.

Also, homeowners should make sure large propane tanks are secured to the ground.

Watch the newspaper later in spring for updates about where and when to obtain sandbags from the city. And look for the county’s 2011 High Water Preparedness Guide here.

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