Where’s the Flood?

In the early spring of 1935, the great Dust Bowl, during months of wind storms, had left drifts of sandy soil on the streets of downtown Colorado Springs. On May 3, the region received its first snow in 18 years in which 12 inches of snow fell over a couple of days, turning those reportedly two-feet-tall drifts of sand into piles of mud. Most roads became impassable. On Memorial Day, a flood swelled Monument and Fountain Creeks to torrential levels; it was the largest flood the  Pikes Peak region had ever experienced. As described by the Colorado Springs Free Press: “It is said waves ten feet high were not uncommon and some eyewitnesses estimated that the crests at times reached the height of fifteen feet. Many houses along Monument Creek were severely damaged and a number were entirely washed away. Beautiful Monument Valley Park, the pride of Colorado Springs, was buried under hundreds of thousands of tons of gravel and debris. The lakes and ponds were basins of mud.”

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The former Parks Superintendent’s house, near Monument Creek during the flood of 1935. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

It caused six deaths and $1,769,000 in damage (almost $28.6 million by today’s standards). All the city’s bridges except one were washed away. The electric plant stood in water 12 feet deep. Stuart Dodge, a teenager at the time, recalled seeing an entire house carried along Monument Creek and smashed to pieces against the Bijou Street Bridge. Over 93,000 acre-feet of water “went on down into Kansas, which really didn’t want a flood either,” stated Eleanor Fry, a Gazette Telegraph writer who reflected on the flood in a May 26, 1974 article. Food had to be airlifted to stranded people in southeastern Colorado because creeks and rivers that had been virtually dry for over a decade suddenly overflowed their banks.

The Bijou Street Bridge during the 1935 flood. For size comparison note the two men standing near the bridge on the left. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

The Bijou Street Bridge during the 1935 flood. For size comparison note the two men standing near the bridge on the left. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

Fast-forward to June 1965, when Colorado Springs was flooded again. At the time, my family was living in Stratmoor Hills near the north entrance to Fort Carson. My dad was a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, and his crew was sent to a nearby trailer park in the valley to rescue some of the residents there, who were stuck in 10-12 inches of standing water. “We had one fatality that we know of. The dam at [what is now known as] Quail Lake failed, dumping the contents of the lake along with tons and tons of mud down the creek all at once. There was a young guy driving around down there who was buried by the onslaught. The kid’s dad hired a bucket loader to dig him out. They found his truck, but they never found him,” my dad said.

The Headline of the Gazette Telegraph after the 1965 flood. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

The Headline of the Gazette Telegraph after the 1965 flood. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

“Also, the tunnel pass under the interstate [where Mesa Ridge is now] was under eight feet of water. A woman had driven into the tunnel, and we had to rescue her,” he adds.  My mom reports six or more inches of standing water in our basement, and they had to move the TV upstairs. I remember seeing our piano’s warped legs, and now I know how they got that way.

A storm on August 10, 1988 dumped 3.25 inches of rain along with golf-ball-sized hail in less than two hours, sweeping away cars and stranding motorists.

An August 10, 1988 newspaper article. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

An August 10, 1988 newspaper article. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

I remember that flood, because I was one of those motorists. I was driving south down Circle Drive toward Airport Road when I made a typical mistake: I went through a particularly deep puddle and splashed water over my hood, which drowned my engine and stalled my car. I decided to wade through the pounding rain and four-inch-deep water to the gas station on the corner. I didn’t realize that the street sloped sharply on the other side, and when I took the last step toward the curb, I was swept down onto one knee into at least three feet of freezing water which dunked me up to my neck. I stood up and sloshed my way into the station where I called my brother to come help me with the car. The guy behind the counter felt so badly for me that he gave me his jacket and a hot cup of coffee while I stood there shaking like a nervous poodle until help arrived. I still hate wearing wet clothes.

We’ve had more rain so far this year than in recent years, so much that Mayor Bach requested federal aid and declared us a disaster area. City council approved $1 million in emergency funds to the Trails and Open Space Coalition to fix damaged areas in parks. Closures to the trails include: Red Rock Canyon Open Space, including the Section 16 Trailhead, Pikes Peak Greenway south of Nevada to El Pomar, the Midland Trail near 25th Street, the Foothills Trail near Glen Eyrie, Fountain Creek Regional Trail (three closures), a portion of Ute Pass Regional Trail, and Rainbow Falls.

All this rain comes after about a decade of what some would call a drought. The average yearly rainfall in Colorado Springs is 16.5 inches, and technically, with this average, we are not in a drought at all, nor have we been, even though for the last several years the city has been on various levels of water restriction.

A chart showing annual precipitation in the area since 1872. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

A chart showing annual precipitation in the area since 1872. (Credit: Penrose Library Special Collections)

The chart above shows no typical pattern of rise and fall, nor is there any predictability to the weather, which gives rise to the old local adage, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait 15 minutes.” We are set to exceed our yearly average this year; we’ve earned half of it in the month of May alone. Meteorologists say that this month so far we have received over eight inches of rain, and at 8.13 inches we have broken all previous historical records.

Not only the wettest May on record, but the wettest month. (Credit: KKTV Weather Facebook Page)

Not only the wettest May on record, but the wettest month. (Credit: KKTV Weather Facebook Page)

But where’s the flood? Most of the reason we haven’t seen a flood like those shown in these pictures is mitigation. Since the Waldo Fire in 2012 and the Black Forest Fire in 2013, flood mitigation efforts by the Bureau of Land Management, the Trails and Open Space Coalition, the City of Colorado Springs and El Paso County along with scores of volunteers over the last two years have paid off, so flood-prone areas won’t see bad flooding like they did after the fires a few years ago.

So the next time you complain about having to drive around yet another gargantuan pothole, just remember that it could be a lot worse—at least your house isn’t floating down Monument Creek.