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Spring Melt Could Be Devastating As Flooding Has Changed Landscape

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LOVELAND, Colo. (CBS4) – All the snow this winter is good news for Colorado’s water supply, but the spring melt could be devastating for some already flood-ravaged communities.

The historic fall flooding washed out the gauges that measure water levels and there’s now an effort to repair them.

As of Friday night, crews have replaced or repaired fewer than half of the gauges damaged by the September Flooding.

Engineers take the data they get from gauges and compare that with what they know about how a stream flows, where it’s deeper and shallower, wider and narrower. During the floods, rushing water changed all that, making it difficult to figure out what the data means, and which areas could flood next.

On the Big Thompson River west of Loveland, surrogate equipment reaches as far up the canyon as crews can get.

“This is programmed to tell us how many cubic feet per second of water is moving through,” said Dave Nettles, Division Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Nettles said he’s used to working with 23 gauges, but flooding ruined them.

“It will be a new world for all of us this spring, for all of us, because we never in most of our careers experienced anything like this,” Nettles said.

Last fall’s flooding changed the landscape. Crews continue to clear debris to keep it from forming new dams.

In Lyons, floods washed away boulders, leaving a clear, open channel.

“Because the stream is wider, some places it’s several hundred yards wide, it’s a lot shallower, the river is going to run a lot faster than it has before,” Lyons Fire Chief J.J. Hoffman said.

Moving forward means shifting strategy. In Larimer County, Emergency Management plans to rely heavily on sending people up into the canyon to look at conditions.

“Old fashioned, yes, and the reason it’s old fashioned is because it works,” Erik Nilsson with Larimer County Emergency Management said.

“Remote reporting that we have helps us a lot, but there’s also no substitute for a pair of human eyes and judgment,” Nettles said.

Runoff season typically does not start until May. That gives a window of time to try to repair more gauges, and to survey how rivers and streams changed and where new flood dangers lie.

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