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Flooding


I read a recent article in Roads and Bridges on the reconstruction of the roadways to Estes Park.  An excellent effort by state officials and private contractors to rebuild over 20 miles of roads that were wiped away in mid-September when unprecedented rainstorms cut Estes Park off from the front range.  I actually had reservations in Estes Park as part of a plan to go hiking at Lawn Lake, among others.  Lawn Lake was one the harder hit areas in the park.  Went to Leadville.  If you have never been, go.  The early money in Colorado came out of Leadville – silver was the money-maker.   I did a 12 mile hike thought the mining district as it snowed – note it is the 2 mile high City.  Great hike in the am – the photos were fantastic as well.  

But the point is that people expect government to solve problems like the roadways in Colorado.  They expect we will solve water, sewer and storm water problems.  We have done a great job of it because people take these services for granted.  What we don’t want is to have a catastrophic failure, natural or otherwise.. ..


Regardless of the causes, southeast Florida, with a population of 5.6 million (one-third of the State’s population), is among the most vulnerable areas in the world for climate change due its coastal proximity and low elevation (OECD, 2008; Murley et al. 2008), so assessing sea level rise (SLR) scenarios is needed to accurately project vulnerable infrastructure (Heimlich and Bloetscher, 2011). Sea level has been rising for over 100 years in Florida (Bloetscher, 2010, 2011; IPCC, 2007).  Various studies (Bindoff et al., 2007; Domingues et al., 2008; Edwards, 2007; Gregory, 2008; Vermeer and Rahmstorf, 2009; Jevrejeva, Moore and Grinsted, 2010; Heimlich, et al. 2009) indicate large uncertainty in projections of sea level rise by 2100. Gregory et al. (2012) note the last two decades, the global rate of SLR has been larger than the 20th-century time-mean, and Church et al. (2011) suggested further that the cause was increased rates of thermal expansion, glacier mass loss, and ice discharge from both ice-sheets. Gregory et al. (2012) suggested that there may also be increasing contributions to global SLR from the effects of groundwater depletion, reservoir impoundment and loss of storage capacity in surface waters due to siltation.

Why is this relevant?  The City of Fort Lauderdale reported last week that $1 billion will need to be spent to deal with the effect of sea level rise in Fort Lauderdale alone.  Fort Lauderdale is a coastal city with canals and ocean property, but it is not so different from much of Miami-Dade County, Hollywood, Hallandale Beach, Dania Beach and host of other coastal cities in southeast Florida.  Their costs may be a harbinger of costs to these other communities. Doing a “back of the napkin”  projection of Fort Lauderdale’s cost for 200,000 people to the additional million people in similar proximity to Fort Lauderdale means that $5 billion could easily be spent over the next 100 years for costal impoundments like flap gates, pumping stations, recharge wells, storm water preserves, exfiltration trenches and as discussed in this blog before, infiltration galleries. Keep in mind that would be the coastal number and we often ignore ancillary issues.  At the same time, an addition $5 to 10 billion may be needed for inland flooding problems due to the rise of groundwater as a result of SLR.

The question raised in conjunction with the announcement was “is it worth it?”  I suggest the answer is yes, and not just because local politicians may be willing to spend money to protect their constituents.  The reality is that $178 billion of the $750 billion economy of Florida, and a quarter of its population, is in the southeast. With nearly $4 trillion property values, raising a few billion for coastal improvements over 100 years is not an insurmountable task.  It is billions in local engineering and construction jobs, while only impacting taxpayers to the tune of less than 1/10 of a mill per year on property taxes. This is still not an insurmountable problem.

I think with good leadership, we can see our way.  However, that leadership will need to overcome a host of potential local community conflicts as some communities will “get more” than others, yet everyone benefits across the region.  New approaches to working together will need to be tried.  But the problem is not insurmountable, for now…


I went to Colorado in July, and it was bone dry like I noted in a prior blog.  The trend was expected to continue, but then something happened.  It rained.  A lot. It’s been raining for almost a month.  Last week it was wet out there, really wet, devastatingly wet on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park (Boulder, Estes Park, Longmont, Lyons). The rain has not really let up so mountain streams are over-running their banks, flooding streets, washing away bridges, damaging property and businesses.  Helicopter evaluation of the damage indicates that miles of roadways are badly damaged. Route 34/36, the primary eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park may have 17 miles (of 20) damage pavement and foundation needing immediate repair.  Estes Park is cut off from the world and there was mud in the streets.  Rocky Mountain National Park is closed to allow access from Grand Lake for emergency vehicles, residents and supplies.  And eastern emergency route from Nederland is also available.  Tourism has halted in the peak of Fall tourist season.

How fortunes have changed, and continue to change.  Three years ago it was the west side of Colorado with 300 inches of snow that flooded downstream communities.  Three months ago was drought. Are these changes part of a larger issue, or a continuation of the status quo?  Hard to know, but certainly both events were far above any prior events experienced in the area.  The local infrastructure was not constructed to meet these conditions, so either the climate is changing, our models are wrong, or both.  We see the same issue playing out regularly around the world when the 100 year or 500 year storm event occurs and wreaks havoc on a community which does not have infrastructure planned for events like this.

 Expect NE Colorado to be a federal disaster area.  Expect billions to be spent on reconstruction of roadways.   But the larger question is whether the new, replacement infrastructure will survive a similar, or larger climate event in the future.  Will our infrastructure planning be short sighted or will it be adjusted accordingly?  The potential for us to protect infrastructure, and property is completely related to our ability to adjust to infrastructure needs and to minimize exposure to weather events.  Keep in mind our economy and way of life is directly related to our infrastructure condition.  But people want to live near rivers and streams, but rarely consider the real risk and consequences. 

How do we address these risks?  FEMA evaluates the probability of flooding to set flood insurance, but FEMA does not prevent construction in flood zones.  Where construction can occur is a state or local issue.  Of course, few local entities want to limit development in any way, so we keep putting people at risk.  Local officials, like those in Florida, keep pushing FEMA officials to reduce flood risks, despite evidence of increasing rainfall intensity that would increase flooding.  Florida is not alone.  No doubt Colorado officials have the same views.  We need to impress upon local officials the risks and encourage them to reduce risks to citizens.  It’s our tax money and insurance premiums they are raising.  But they are rarely held accountable.  Nor are non-elected officials.  Somehow, this needs to change.  We need leaders to stand up and draw the  line in the sand.

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