Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In July 2016, a lightning strike ignited a fire that would burn over 16,000 acres of forest above the community of Coaldale in western Fremont County. Homes, businesses, critical transportation infrastructure, habitats to threatened species, and recreational areas were all located in and around the burned areas. Following the fire, monsoon rains arrived in early August, bringing the first of many flash floods and debris flows. The extreme weather events and flash floods continued in 2017 and 2018, with the worst damage to date occurring on July 24, 2018. That day due to the intensity of the rainfall, the Big Cottonwood Creek experienced an estimated flow rate of approximately 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) which caused the loss of homes, outbuildings, vehicles, and bridges, and required a helicopter rescue. Flooding continued throughout the summer and early fall as well.

The Hayden fire and floods that follow have caused severe damage in the Hayden Pass area. (photo by Kate Spinelli Photography).

Since that time, the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District has responded and began assisting with flood recovery efforts. Our focus has been to secure critical funding to complement the work of Fremont County and the Emergency Watershed Protection grant they have received from the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) which is earmarked at protecting private property along the Big Cottonwood. Working in partnership with the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative (ARWC), we received a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board that will fund a fire recovery coordinator, hydrologist, and engineer whose primary function is to coordinate fire and flood recovery efforts in the area. This team will work with stakeholders, landowners, and various residents to develop a comprehensive and inclusive drainage recovery plan along the Big Cottonwood for the long-term sustainability and safety of the area.

We have recently applied for a second grant for the Hayden Pass fire and flood recovery efforts to develop a Watershed Recovery Coalition that will include not only the Big Cottonwood drainage, but will expand to include all areas affected by the Hayden Pass fire. The work will expand the engineering analysis and risk assessment of all of the drainages affected by the fire and will ultimately result in the development of a master drainage recovery plan. We are hopeful that the grant will be awarded and we can continue supporting the Coaldale community.

Being proactive with the health of our local forests is essential. Not only does it protect people, wildlife, the surrounding communities and infrastructure, but it also protects important water resources. The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is also working on other initiatives, including the Monarch Pass Forest and Watershed Health project, helping to bring the necessary funding to this important project. To learn more about the UAWCD and our other forest and watershed health projects, please visit our new website at: or contact Projects Manager Chelsey Nutter.

About Water Talks: Water Talks is a monthly column published in area newspapers by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.