Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Steamboat Springs Police Chief Roger Jensen didn’t hesitate when he got the call from Routt County Undersheriff Ed Burch just before 10 p.m. on May 13, 1984.
Burch was relaying the news that employees of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad working on flooding issues in Oak Creek Canyon were fearful that a “30-foot wall of water” was about to be unleashed on downtown Steamboat Springs.
Jensen and Burch organized emergency responders to evacuate residents of Bucci Cabins, Fish Creek Mobile Home Park, Yampa Street and Dream Island. Steamboat Springs High School Principal Harlan Lear opened the gymnasium, and members of the Steamboat Springs City Council were there to help the evacuees get comfortable.
That night was almost exactly 27 years ago. Winter 1983-84 was the season of 40 consecutive days and nights of heavy snow, and the ski season ended with 447.5 inches of the white stuff. And like it has in spring 2011, the snow kept on coming into May.
All heck broke loose in the third week in May when the temperatures jumped into the 80s and a summer shower fell on top of the rotten snowpack. Butcherknife Creek flooded backyards in Old Town, and city officials were constantly checking the old Ninth Street footbridge over the Yampa River. On about May 24, the water was within inches of the old bridge, and the river peaked the next day at 5,670 cubic feet per second.
The railroad workers had been struggling with Oak Creek (the actual stream) where a mudslide had backed up the spring runoff and threatened railroad bridges. The workers’ fear was that when the spontaneous earthen dam collapsed, it would send a torrent of water rushing into the Yampa River.
Fortunately, the 30-foot wall of water never materialized, and residents soon returned to their homes.
I’m not predicting a 30-foot wall of water this runoff season, but it might be wise to take some precautions. Personally, I’m keeping my irrigation boots and my chest waders in the back of the vehicle for the rest of spring.
Jay Wetzler, owner and operator of the Steamboat Hotel on the city’s south side, bought flood insurance last month to protect his property from the possibility that either Walton Creek or the Yampa River might show up this month for a repeat performance.
“It was expensive, but we’ve seen so much development in the floodplain, there’s no way to tell what’s going to happen,” he said.
Wetzler wasn’t here in 1984, but he’s seen the photographs of a bearded man riding a Windsurfer in the flooded parking lot of his hotel, branded as a Super 8 at the time.
Citizens pull together
The town of Oak Creek had issues of its own in 1984. More than 150 volunteers turned out to help Police Chief Reggie Mayes and Public Works place 5,000 sandbags during the May 24 weekend. Still, the flooding near the headwaters of Oak Creek overwhelmed the town’s reservoir, and town folks had to get drinking water out of a tanker truck.
Then-Mayor Nancy Stahoviak praised the community’s spirit.
“We’ve had a tremendous volunteer effort in fighting this runoff,” she said. “Without it, I’m afraid almost all of Oak Creek would have been inundated.”
Even with the pressure off for the moment, Public Works foreman Chuck Wisecup noted that there was still a good deal of heavy snow between town and Sheriff’s Reservoir, and all of that moisture had yet to flow down the creek.
Many of us might have to rely on one another by the time spring runoff 2011 is over. Now is a good time to make some preparations. If you think your property might be in harm’s way this spring, make certain everyone in your household has packed an overnight bag in the unlikely case you need to evacuate.
Take time to visually inspect the drainage culverts in road ditches near your property. If they appear to be clogged, call the city offices at 970-879-2060, or if you live in rural Routt County, call Routt County Communications at 970-879-1090.
Finally, you might invest in a pair of irrigation boots.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com