These are the facts accepted by all parties: Last summer and this summer, Green Mountain Falls has seen destructive floods following unusually heavy rains. The town was not affected by the Waldo Canyon Fire. The floods are not the result of runoff from a burn scar. And Woodland Park, located up the pass, has added major developments in recent years, including some alongside Fountain Creek.
Public officials interviewed for this story said they weren't ready to start playing the blame game. But some people in Green Mountain Falls, especially those who live or own businesses along the creek, are getting edgy. A few have seen bridges washed out multiple times. Mayor Lorrie Worthey says even her home, which is located on a hill, recently had a flooded mudroom.
"There is more water coming down from Woodland; Woodland has grown a lot," Worthey says carefully. "With that, we are going to get more water."
Bill Alspach, Woodland Park's public works director and city engineer, also is cautious when speaking of the Green Mountain Falls flooding. "Woodland Park has strived to be a good steward of the headwaters," he says.
Woodland Park development affects two watersheds, Fountain Creek and the South Platte. Since the 1990s, the Fountain Creek side has seen the building of Walmart and Safeway stores, each with sprawling parking lots. An apartment complex is also currently under construction.
Alspach says Green Mountain Falls shouldn't be affected by such development because Woodland Park has had strict stormwater development requirements since 1994. Driving behind the Walmart, he points out two large, grassy retention ponds that slowly release runoff during storms. He's checked those ponds during downpours, he says, and they've been doing their job.
The Safeway doesn't have such ponds, but Alspach says that's on purpose, because allowing the water to run off there was found to reduce peak flows in the creek. The apartment complex also has retention ponds, and sits next to a $2.1 million stormwater project that was recently completed by the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Water flows in an underground box culvert, and is slowed by barricades before it hits a large channel.
He also points out private and public retention ponds that dot the town, especially in newer developments.
Woodland Park just forked over $100,000 for stormwater repairs needed after a damaging July storm, and is still paying off bonds from major stream work in 1998 and 1999. Alspach says he's working his way west-to-east along Fountain Creek, doing upgrades. By the end of next year, he hopes to be close to finishing all the improvements in the city area, and to have a study in hand of what needs to be done on private and Teller County land that stretches between the eastern edge of the city and the Walmart.
All this work has been done, Alspach notes, with money from grants, Woodland Park's limited general fund budget, a special streets fund and stormwater fees. It's been done despite the fact that the town is too small to be bound by state permits for water quality.
"We have really endeavored to do the right thing for a long time," he says.
But if the problem isn't Woodland Park, then what is it?
There have been more downpours of late, and they've hit watersheds that feed Fountain Creek on its way to Green Mountain Falls. Woodland Park doesn't have any official rain gauges, but Alspach says he's checked his own gauge and those of other residents during major storms. He thinks both a storm in August 2013 and one this July dumped as much as five inches in a 24-hour period. That type of storm just hasn't been seen often in recent decades.
Carol Ekarius, the executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte and an expert on local flooding issues, says it appears the region is moving out of a longtime drought. "We had a lot of dry years, so people were not used to seeing this," she says. "Fountain Creek, if you look back historically, there was a lot of flooding."
And the water doesn't just come from Woodland Park; tributaries feed the creek before it hits Green Mountain Falls. A casual observer could see why that could be problematic: Fountain Creek only runs intermittently in Woodland Park, yet most of the stream bed there appears to be three times the size that it is in Green Mountain Falls. Some Green Mountain Falls homes and businesses are built close to the water. Ekarius notes that some homes are in a natural floodplain.
Stormwater structures just west of Green Mountain Falls might help, but the Independent couldn't reach Teller County officials to learn if any are planned on their land. El Paso County fire recovery manager R.C. Smith says only that something could be in the works should regional voters approve the creation of the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority in November.
Larry Small, executive director of Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District, says his group has surveyed the creek and plans to recommend improvements next summer. But even if they're made, the town might still lose some homes to the floodplain if heavy rains continue.
"These last two years," he says, "have just been horrendous on that watershed."