The Northern Colorado Front Range is experiencing an unprecedented flood that has stranded and displaced thousands of residents and shut down well over a dozen towns. Every river and stream in an 80 mile swath from west of Denver to Ft Collins has overflowed its banks, taking out major highways to towns in the mountains, and flooding entire communities downstream. While flooding has been a concern for years and flood controls have been built up, the sheer scale and volume of the rains have ground much of Colorado to a halt while altering the landscape to an unrecognizable state and prompting a federal state of emergency throughout the region. From my vantage on a mountain 10 miles west of Fort Collins, the sound of water cascading through the vast valley has replaced the days of rain, and all roads further west are closed.
The true scope of the damage will not be known for some time but 5 people are reported dead and many more still missing. The record-breaking forest fires in Larimer County and Colorado Springs last year have hampered the ability of the landscape to absorb the water, which has only aggravated the damage. The large rain totals (which have been gauged up to 13 inches in Boulder and 15 inches higher up, more than double the previous record) are a result of monsoonal moisture traveling north from the Gulf of Mexico. That moisture combined with a low pressure system to the west has created an upslope weather phenomena in which the Rocky Mountains literally squeeze the rain out of the clouds.
While the rains are finally subsiding, the volume of water in the mountains streams is actually picking up, closing virtually every bridge in Larimer and Boulder counties. Many roads near valley streams are destroyed along with homes and businesses. Some towns are completely isolated, including Lyons, and Estes Park (at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park) is only accessible by Trail Ridge Road – the highest paved road in the US. Many homes through the mountains are also cut off due to the roads being made impassable, if not outright destroyed. The valley I live in is now buzzing with helicopters as that is the only way to get to many of the neighborhoods further into the mountains.
In the larger cities at the base of the Front Range, most major bridges have closed, including the main freeway I25, and neighborhoods scattered from Fort Collins to Denver have been evacuated as the waters find their way down from the mountains. Some of the flooding concerns come from failed dams like the one at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which prompted thousands of homes to be evacuated in Commerce City, just north of Denver. Many low-laying areas near rivers all along the Front Range have also been evacuated with flood waters heading east. Others residents have been asked to shelter in place as traveling may be more dangerous. More rain forecasted for this weekend will keep the state on high alert as federal assistance comes pouring into the region.
Lead photo of Coal Creek Canyon via CDOT