Until this year, the Williams Canyon watershed was known to spew out reddish water and a few smallish boulders during more spectacular rainstorms.
Exciting, but generally not particularly damaging. The floods were fodder for gabbing neighbors — just another quirk of living in Manitou Springs.
Of course, that's hardly the case anymore. Storms on July 1 and Aug. 9 sent water raging out of the canyon, destroying homes and vehicles, damaging businesses, and injuring residents who were happy to escape with their lives.
For many who live in the area, that's led to confusion and frustration. Confusion, because Williams Canyon itself looks more or less unscathed by the fire. Frustration, because it appears that little is being done to prevent the next Williams flood. In fact, famed hydrologist Dave Rosgen's massive report on mitigating flooding after the fire, the Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply (WARSSS), found that Williams would prove challenging to mitigate.
After reviewing the report in May, Carol Ekarius, executive director for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), which has directed and performed mitigation after the Waldo Canyon Fire, was blunt.
"We can't fix Williams," she told the Independent.
The problem is easier to understand once you go miles up Rampart Range Road. Currently blocked off to travelers, the road cuts into the heart of the burn, an area with which Rocky Mountain Field Institute Program Director Amber Shanklin is familiar. Knowledgeable about the effects of fire in Williams, and the efforts to repair the damage, Shanklin has agreed to be our tour guide.
"We do have to wear hard hats on the way," she tells the small group as we exit the vehicle. "It's a dangerous, dangerous area."
Like CUSP, Rocky Mountain Field Institute has been mitigating watersheds that burned on Forest Service lands during Waldo, including Williams.
But the area we hike into isn't the Williams Canyon that most people know from trips to Cave of the Winds. This is a mountainous area, once heavily forested, known as Upper Williams Canyon. Small, ephemeral streams here feed into larger ones as they roll toward the steep canyon to the north of Manitou Springs.
For technical reasons, this is the site of most mitigation in Williams. Middle Williams is inaccessible to vehicles and heavy equipment, and water often runs too fast for small, hand-built structures to do much good. By the time water reaches Lower Williams, it's a rage in a narrow chute. And while experts and engineers are studying the area to see if any controls can be installed, the sandstone walls may prove too weak to anchor a large structure. If the structure is possible, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark notes, it will be very expensive.
Thus, Upper Williams is the focus. Some of the work has been done with large machines that can dig basins, which capture sediment, slow water, and create flood plains. The Forest Service and CUSP have been plugging along diligently on such projects.
Near the old shooting range, for instance, large detention ponds built by CUSP lessened the impact of the Aug. 9 flood, filling up with sediment. More ponds are being built downstream.
Projects like that one are ideal for Williams, which sees a lot of water during a rainstorm. But there's another problem.
"There is a limited amount of area in Williams where we can get heavy equipment in," Ekarius told the Independent.
Such is the case with the gully Shanklin takes us to, which features steep hillsides and burned ponderosa stands. Our group has to watch our feet as we slide down the burned hillside. Workers have it worse. After parking their trucks on the road, they must make it down the same steep embankments carrying all their equipment.
Workers, by the way, already are hard at it by mid-morning. The air is full of the sound of chainsaws.
There are two main waterways in Upper Williams Canyon. Urgent work by hand-crews has targeted the one we descend into. RMFI has done the majority of mitigation in this area over the past three months, but CUSP workers have agreed to finish the project. Without heavy equipment, the process is grueling, yet precision is required (see "Five lessons from the field," p. 25).
"We're trying to do the high-priority work," Shanklin says.
Thankfully, the area has received a helping hand from nature. Due to an especially rainy summer, undergrowth here is far in excess of what was expected.
It's green. And that's good. Plants and trees are the best way to mitigate floods, Shanklin explains to us, because they deftly perform the three main tasks of flood control. First, they soak up water, leaving less of it to flow downstream. Second, they slow water, which increases the ability of the channel to hold the stream without overflowing. Third, they prevent soil and rocks from entering the stream and creating a more destructive force.
"If we'd had a drought this year, yes, it would have been great for Manitou because they wouldn't have gotten hit so hard," Shanklin says. "But that could've meant very, very minimal regrowth this year. Which could mean very minimal regrowth next year."
Shanklin tells us that workers from various agencies have been trying to artificially encourage that growth. Grass seed has been used in some areas, especially where mitigation has stabilized the earth, or where the seeds can be tilled into the ground. Shanklin says dropping seed from helicopters, unfortunately, is usually ineffective. It washes into streams in the first storm.
On the bright side, she says, the Forest Service is growing ponderosas, seeded from nearby trees, to plant along these slopes. But it's a slow process.
"We've had some phone calls from places like Nebraska, where they say, 'We have 400 white pine trees that we would love to donate to the fire, to fire recovery,'" she says. "But obviously white pine is not native to here. And if we take that, and we put it out here, it could die, and it could be a total waste of time and money. Or it could go crazy and become an invasive species, which would also be no good."
RMFI has been trying to stop the spread of invasive species, many of which go wild after a fire wipes out other plants. One of those is yellow toadflax, a beautiful and delicate flower that resembles a snapdragon. Shanklin tells us she rips the plants out of the ground every chance she gets. But she knows not everyone agrees with her approach.
"It's one of the biggest arguments in fire restoration, frankly, is do we just throw anything out there to get ground cover and get some roots in the ground or do we specifically target native species?" Shanklin says. "And it used to be that we'd just throw out anything, and we're realizing that when we do that, the plant community completely changes for the next 30, 40, 50 years."
Aside from assisting the course of nature, the workers we meet in Upper Williams Canyon have been able to create structures that hold back sediment and slow down the flow of water.
Since the terrain in this area rules out the bigger ponds or dam-like structures that machines can build, RMFI has been building lots of little structures, which together can have a big impact.
After some trial and error, crews have figured out what's successful in Upper Williams, but each small structure requires a huge effort to build, and every major storm fills the small dams with sediment, reducing their usefulness.
In some ways, it seems like a Sisyphean task. But a stream that has seen work will always flow more gently than one that's left untouched, and that reduction in velocity makes a huge difference downstream, Shanklin tells us.
"We could work here 10 years," she says. "But I feel like we've stabilized the channel pretty completely."
Of course, more handwork remains to be done in other areas of Upper Williams — work that, with the help of new plants and trees, could greatly reduce the occurrence of more floods in Williams Canyon.
But, with a torrent of other priorities for workers to attend to, much of it will have to wait until next year.
Lessons from Hayman
In 2002, the Hayman Fire became the largest blaze in Colorado history, claiming more than 138,000 acres northwest of Colorado Springs.
Years after the flames were extinguished, experts still were trying to control floods that ravaged the charred landscape. Among them was the Coalition for the Upper South Platte's Carol Ekarius.
Ekarius has spoken often of that work, noting that after many tests and trials, flood mitigation paid off in the Hayman burn area. Less known is that the Hayman work proved invaluable after the Waldo Canyon Fire.
"We learned lessons in Hayman, and those lessons are being applied [to the Waldo burn]," Ekarius says. "Had we not had a Hayman before we had a Waldo, Waldo would have been an even more catastrophic event."
Ekarius says it took seven or eight years to understand everything that was happening hydrologically after the Hayman Fire. But by the time Waldo rolled around, the experts knew what to expect and how to respond.
It was because of Hayman that residents were warned about floods after Waldo. It was because of Hayman that experts understood how to slow water in this geographical area, allowing effective flood mitigation work to begin quickly in Waldo.
Rocky Mountain Field Institute Program Director Amber Shanklin wasn't around for the Hayman. But she confirms that the 2002 fire has had a huge influence on how her crews have cleaned up after Waldo.
"[We] just have a better understanding — because of what we learned in Hayman — of what needs to be done out here," she says. "You know, it's the same stakeholders who are at the table. ... We've gotten started quicker than Hayman did, and we kind of have this restoration plan to work from which has been really great."
— J. Adrian Stanley