A rainless lightning strike on July 8, 2016 ignited the Hayden Pass Fire in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness above Coaldale, Colorado. By the time the fire was contained, it had burned 16,700 acres of forest dominated by beetle-killed trees. In the months following the fire, monsoonal storms brought the first flash floods and debris flows to the burn scar area. Ash flushed into the Arkansas River from Hayden and Big Cottonwood Creek watersheds, and generated large debris dams in the rugged, steep upper reaches of those drainages located on USFS land. Storms continued this process on the burn in 2017 and 2018, with the most significant damage to date occurring on July 24, 2018. During a heavy storm burst over the top of the Big Cottonwood drainage, an estimated flow rate of ~4000 CFS generated flows that destroyed and damaged homes, outbuildings, vehicles, bridges, and prompted a helicopter rescue.
These late summer storms caused Big Cottonwood Creek to reclaim its floodplain, and some of the homes within it. High velocity, high volume post-fire flows incised the channel to depths of more than 8 feet in some places, created large debris dams of natural and human materials, scoured vegetation from the floodplain, and carried large amounts of rock, sediment and debris through the drainage into the Arkansas River. The rates and movement of these flows have been described by engineering and hydrologic studies from River Science and Lotic Hydrological, through a simultaneous facet of this recovery effort.
In the first two years following the fire, recovery resources were sparse. The number and scope of completed erosion control or flood mitigation projects completed was unclear. A central clearinghouse of this information and coordination between potential sources of funding was missing. With essentially no resource availability or recovery guidance available to the community up to the date of the July 2018 flood, the need for comprehensive planning to guide restoration efforts that protect life and safety, critical infrastructure while enhancing the ecological health and resilience of riparian corridors and their larger watersheds became clear and urgent.
When NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection funds became available in late summer 2018 through Fremont County for use in the flood-impacted Big Cottonwood/Little Cottonwood/Bitter Creeks watershed, three needs became clear. First, a local point of contact to help engage eligible landowners in the immediate EWP process was needed. Second, engagement with all impacted landowners to determine needs and appropriate projects not covered by EWP was necessary. Third, coordination between project partners, and existing and potential partners would be essential to ensure that all available resources are brought to the drainage and that each project functions supportively to other existing and proposed work.
Through a partnership between the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District and ARWC, with funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a small group of local professionals were able to meet these needs by completing landowner outreach, documenting and advocating for landowner needs, gathering potential partners from a wide variety of fields including agriculture, recreation, wildlife habitat, fisheries, natural resource management, water management and ecological restoration.
During the summer and fall of 2019, ARWC completed debris and hazard tree material removal in the Big Cottonwood drainage. We continue to communicate with area landowners, restoration experts and agencies to plan for additional work needed as erosion and runoff conditions change.
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