High water hits home in Grand County
June 3, 2011
GRAND COUNTY – As water levels in the Upper Colorado and its tributaries rise to historic levels, ranches, businesses and residents along those waterways are scrambling to protect their property and safety.
Jerry Helmicki at the Bar Lazy J said they’ve been watching the water steadily rise closer and closer to their 11 guest cabins along the Colorado River. So far, they’ve placed 750 sandbags along the river bank. The water is already rising up behind the sandbags.
The ranch, which is 99 years old this year, has thus far survived every flood to come down the Upper Colorado.
“But I’ve been told that this might be a 500-year flood,” Helmicki said. “Even in ’84 the water didn’t get into the cabins.”
“I’m really worried right now, especially as the temperature gets warmer,” he said. “Our margin of safety is about gone. A couple more inches, and we will have to evacuate.”
The septic systems will flood before the cabins, which will force the ranch to move its guests, Helmicki said.
The dude ranch has 25 guests this week, 35 guests next week and 45 guests every week after that.
“We’re taking it a day at a time,” said Helmicki, who bought the ranch in 1995. “We haven’t been in this situation before. … It’s a seasonal business. I’ve got to do what I do. If we lose two to three weeks, we don’t have the rest of the year to make it up. And being in a flood zone, we don’t have insurance to cover the damage.”
Along Willow Creek, which is running at an all-time high, residents are preparing for the possibility of the bridge that crosses U.S. Highway 125 flooding or washing out, which would cut them off from Granby.
Sonya Pellini, who has lived above Willow Creek for 14 years, said she bought a few weeks worth of food for the family and supplies for the animals, “Just in case.”
“In 14 years, I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” she said.
The water is already only a foot under the bridge (normally somebody could walk under the bridge and not hit their head), she said. And, the snow on Willow Creek Pass has hardly begun to melt. Of the 29 inches of water estimated to be in the snowpack prior to the start of runoff, about 23 inches of water remains.
“What everyone is so worried about at this point is debris,” Pellini said. While the bridge is strong, residents along Willow Creek Drainage have been watching trees fall down in the creek as the banks calve.
“Everything is washing into the river. That’s the concern. That’s what could take the bridge out,” she said.
Farther down the drainage, C Lazy U Ranch Foreman Bruce Jensen is dealing with massive flooding in his hay fields and rising groundwater. Willow Creek has completely jumped is banks and has flooded a half-mile wide hay field. The flows maxed-out the gauge at 1,200 cfs days ago and the water keeps rising.
Ranch hands have filled more than 1,000 sand bags and have built a 50-foot rock dam for fear that the pond will blow out.
Jensen is also keeping an eye on the bridge that leads to the hay fields. If it washes out, horses could be trapped without care or provisions.
In 23 years, he said he’s never seen anything like this. While the guest cabins are all safe from flooding, the ranch has a number of maintenance buildings that are only a few feet above the creek at this point.
On the Willow Creek drainage, Jensen said, 1500 cfs is considered a 500-year flood event. Jensen estimates that 2,000 cfs is flowing past the ranch now, and it could get to 2,800 cfs.
“At that point, we just stand back and watch. There’s not a whole lot you can do,” he said.
– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610