Author: Luke Swan
Post Date: 10/2/2018
Contributed by Luke Swan, Inter-Fluve
“DOES ANYONE KNOW A GEOMORPHOLOGIST!?” a Jamestown resident asked with some urgency…
Many of you have likely heard this story before – I only have a handful of stories and tend to repeat the same ones over and over again. The short version is that we were up in Jamestown soon after the flood figuring out how to help, and when approached by a resident who asked that most unexpected question, I froze up. In many ways, that anecdote (minus the freezing up part) would become a recurring theme in my professional life in the five years following the flood. It is also largely responsible for the tone of the Left Hand Creek Watershed Master Plan.
Caption: Luke and his colleagues surveying the damage in Jamestown.
Pre-Master Plan Phase of Flood Recovery
In the months following the flood, Jamestown was all-consuming for me. We were working on their Master Plan (separate from the coordinated efforts led by the State), which consisted of many late nights preparing and delivering information to residents at public meetings. The speed at which results were needed was startling and unheard of in recent Colorado memory. All of us working on the project (and colleagues working elsewhere on the Front Range) were more than willing to step up to the challenge. River work was hard to come by in Colorado before the flood and we were all hungry. Mix in the emergency nature of everything, and it was game on!
As scientists and professionals, we were ready for the technical work. However, we found ourselves spending the vast majority of our time at public meetings and talking with stakeholders—tasks for which I had very little training. Honing the ability to communicate the complexities of river science to a general audience was about to become one of the steepest learning curves tackled for me.
Evidence of my lack of layman’s discussion skills came in many forms, but generally played out in the following manner. We would spend a lot of time analyzing and preparing technical content. We would deliver a well-rehearsed talk, nailing all the technical details, only to have the first question be something about flood insurance (I know next to nothing about flood insurance). Digging in a bit deeper, while flood insurance was critical, many folks actually did want to understand why they got whacked when they were on the “safe” side of the line in the floodplain maps. Aha! A question I could answer, bring me my soapbox…
I would then launch into how, in dynamic locations, the floodplain maps are vastly limited for delineating flood hazards because they are based on clear water models with a fixed boundary. I might have even gone so far as to call the flood maps garbage in these locations. (My internal voice would then wonder if: (a) anyone in the room was following my discussion, and (b) I had perhaps gone too far with my wording?) The looks of horror on the faces of nearby engineers and floodplain administrators listening in to my explanation appeared to suggest that I might have. And just when I thought my dream of helping our Colorado rivers was about to end, the lightbulb would turn on. You see, many folks were able to watch the flood over 4-5 days and saw firsthand how the channel (not the water flowing in it, but the channel itself) would rise, fall, and move laterally. Their observations matched my technical explanations and the connections presumably addressed some of the fear and uncertainty that was carrying the day. However, it wouldn’t take long for the distrust to build again.
A response that commonly followed was along the lines of “since you were so wrong last time, why should we trust you this time?” A very valid point, to which my only counter was, well, there are other tools that help to give us a more complete picture of flood hazard and risk. There’s this thing called a channel migration zone and, if you know a geomorphologist, *cough*, we can figure this out.
While the above skips many steps, it paints the big picture rather well. However, it does lack a bit of context. I had been spending nearly all of my time in those first months after the flood focused completely on Jamestown, and didn’t realize that a similar message was being delivered simultaneously by other scientists to a myriad of other residents of flood-affected areas across the Front Range.
The Stream Corridor Master Plans
(Author’s Note: If you want the real story of how the master plans came to be, you’re going to have to ask others. This is just my take. Looking back on that time, it must have been a bold choice to, amidst all the post-flood chaos, decide to embark on a bunch of planning projects. My take is that you can close the books on the evaluation of that decision. The flood recovery effort could not have achieved the results it has, if not for those master plans.)
In many ways, the Left Hand Creek Watershed Master Plan was a complete change of pace from the Jamestown emergency response experience. Yes, it was still an incredibly large scope for the amount of time in which we had to complete them, but fundamentally, they were planning projects. While many aspects of the master planning process (and particularly, the community engagement piece) were quite challenging, I met a few individuals upon which I would lean heavily throughout the planning process and the rest of flood recovery’s phases, one of whom lived in the Streamcrest neighborhood and would later be elected as the community’s spokesperson.
(Another Author’s Note: I’ve chosen to leave all names out of this post. If you were part of the process in Left Hand, then you know exactly who I’m talking about.)
Master plans specifically sought a determination of geomorphic risk, in addition to flood risk and ecologic risk. At the time, I interpreted this to mean I had free license to emphasize the geomorphology component of the master plan. I mean, hey, this was a geomorphology problem and it really wasn’t even appropriate to be thinking about flood risk… but, that’s a topic for another blog post. Back to the story. The Left Hand Steering Committee had other ideas. They wanted a prioritized list of projects. Yes, they wanted to know about flood, geomorphic, and ecologic risk, but mostly to the extent that those assessments informed the development of projects. In hindsight, I agree that was the right call.
At the time, I was diving into River Styles, a process-based river classification system. I italicize classification, because it is really a framework within which to organize geomorphic measurements and observations. It’s one tool, nothing more, nothing less, that helps to lead the user through a process that assesses river recovery potential and prioritizes management efforts. It seemed appropriate for the task at hand – use the classification system to prioritize areas and develop projects from there. I ended up having to strip much out of the application of River Styles to meet accelerated timelines and leave time for the other components of the planning process. Stakeholder engagement accounted for most of the remainder.
By and large, the Streamcrest residents were great to talk to and work with. I attribute this mostly to existing relationships between the Steering Committee members and the local residents. The Steering Committee was able to ease the tension and provide me with access to properties whose owners would rather have been left alone. They were able to quickly get me up to speed on pre-existing conditions, processes, and arrangements. For example, the Left Hand Water District explained the operation and status of diversions across the basin, and one long-term resident told me firsthand stories about the creek’s behavior over the decades. This type of information is critical when you’re trying to understand stream processes and anticipate what the stream is likely to do next – where it is most likely to continue to do substantial work. Another sidebar – resident stories are fascinating and, trust me, you want to hear about the bedrock waterslide buried by flood sediments and resurrected by the implementation project last year.
Through these and many other similar encounters, I came to understand that the watershed was full of people who had spent substantial time in their personal lives contributing to the greater good of their watershed. Folks from the upper watershed had been sampling water quality for decades. A gentleman from the plains area used his own heavy equipment, on his own dime, to help his neighbors access their homes after the flood. A woman from the Streamcrest neighborhood was working to limit the spread of invasive plants by organizing weeding parties. The list goes on. One of my mentors once said “our job isn’t to give you a Master Plan, it is to extract one from you.” The people of the Left Hand Creek watershed made this a relatively easy task.
One day, two residents of the Streamcrest neighborhood came to my office to discuss our Master Plan recommendations. If you don’t know much about that neighborhood, it sits on a dynamic landform called an alluvial fan. These features are found where steep, confined, mountain channels transition to lower gradient valley and plains channels. They are formed as the mountain channels drop their sediment loads and shift locations, creating a fan-like landform. If you’re wondering where these locations are along the Front Range, just look for towns – we tend to build right on top of the fans (e.g., Boulder, Lyons). At Streamcrest, the channel crosses underneath US36 and this culvert became blocked during the flood, triggering major deposition in the neighborhood. Below the crossing at US36, Left Hand Creek took three separate pathways across the plains before converging again, well downstream.
The gentlemen who had come to the office that day were a little concerned about the alignment of the channel and very concerned about the crossing that had plugged. Luckily for me, I had already talked with CDOT and they were underway with a plan to replace the crossing with a much larger structure that would hopefully perform much better in future floods. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that we could do about the alignment of the channel. (Interestingly, this issue would resurface months later when Boulder County got wind of a talk I gave at CASFM about channel migration zones.) Still, in spite of myriad constraints, there was a lot we could do for the neighborhood.
Shortly thereafter, Streamcrest elected a spokesperson, and he and I would talk frequently (mostly about fly fishing). He asked deep, challenging questions about rivers, solutions, the planning effort…everything. I could tell that he did a very good job relaying the answers to the community. The rest of the residents were always up to speed. Each one of them can tell you something about the geomorphology of alluvial fans. Again, the Streamcrest residents made my job easy.
Before each neighborhood meeting adjourned, the spokesperson for the community and I would discuss plans to go fishing, both knowing full well that Flood Recovery would never allow us to keep those plans. However, it was still fun to talk about something else.
What stood out the most about the Streamcrest residents is that despite some differences and the occasional argument, they stuck together and worked as a team. One of the most important and perhaps surprising lessons learned during flood recovery involves teamwork and overcoming differences between neighbors, and the Streamcrest story is a perfect example. All through the planning process, the community as a whole wanted a river, not a channel. They chose to live in that location because they valued the river and everything that comes with it. Fortunately for me, I was the first geomorphologist that they happened to talk with.
Looking back on it, that experience in Jamestown was probably a major influence over the approach used for the Left Hand Creek Watershed Master Plan. The plan was heavy on geomorphology and the path it took was shaped by the need for projects. An understanding of geomorphic risk (in any form) had been missing in our Front Range communities and the flood made everyone pay for that oversight. Thanks to the work of my colleagues, residents are now more aware of the fluvial hazards associated with our creeks and rivers. Colorado is currently developing its own guidelines for defining geomorphic hazards, and those guidelines will be critical tools if communities get serious about building resiliency in their rivers.
Circling back to the opening story…when we were asked if any of us knew a geomorphologist, I was at a loss for words. All I could think of is how an excavator and some haul trucks might seem more imperative to the residents of Jamestown at that moment in time.
I never got to speak with that gentleman again to ask where he was coming from with that question, in that exceptional circumstance. I can only assume that he was from the future and had seen geomorphologists all over the Front Range finally rejoice in the opportunity to serve their communities through the application of their training.
After the bulk of the flood recovery effort, I was finally able to find a day off to fish with my friend from Streamcrest. Shortly thereafter, my family and I made the tough decision to move back to the Pacific Northwest. I am humbled to have worked alongside all those involved in the flood recovery process and eternally grateful to the residents of the Left Hand Creek watershed.