By Daniel Thompson

Flood waters invade Kimball County


Daniel Thompson

Flood waters roll over County Road 47 in Kimball County the morning of Thursday, March 6, 2014.

Kimball County was filled with surging waters as a flood left many local residents unable to leave their homes on county roads this past week.

According to a U.S. Geological stream gauge on Lodgepole Creek at Bushnell, which feeds into the Oliver Reservoir, a peak flow volume of 960 cubit feet per second (cfs) was measured on the evening of Wednesday, March 5. Higher peak flows haven't been measured since 1981, when the peak reached about 9,390 cfs during a major flooding event that filled Oliver Lake.

While Lodgepole Creek reached peak water levels of approximately 5.5 feet Wednesday and peak flow, ranking as the 12th highest on record for the gauge at Bushnell, Kimball County was also hit with approximately 16 inches of rapidly melting snow that came down into the county from draws near Albin, washing out many county roads, according to Dave Hottell, Kimball County Highway Superintendent.

"We had a lot of roads washed out completely, but the bridges and most culverts held. It's probably going to be about year before we get everything fixed up to normal. They'll be passable but as far as being in good shape, we could haul for all summer long and probably not catch up on it. It wasn't just Lodgepole Creek. It was everything in the whole county. Every little draw had a river running down it," Hottell said.

Though Hottell had anticipated some roads being washed out due to the 16 inches of snowfall that had fallen in Kimball County throughout the past few weeks, he states that he hadn't anticipated the water that would surge into Kimball from Albin.

"We got 16 inches of snow and before that melted we got another three inches on it. So you know ahead of time that that water's not going to just sink in the ground. It's gotta go some place.I knew that the roads out in the country would be like that, but I didn't have any idea that there was near that much snow in Wyoming that was going to melt and come this way," Hottell said.

Initially, Hottell had estimated that the damage to the county roads would come at a cost of approximately $200,000. However, when the waters started to recede and the highway crew was able to assess the roads, Hottell states that the damage and potential cost to the county is believed to be far less than the previously estimated sum.

"We didn't have bridges wash up. That's where you really run into the money. I did make an estimate that half of our roads were washed out. That could probably be lowered to a third that were washed out, a quarter or a third, where they were completely impassable," Hottell said.

According to Hottell, once the water had receded to a point where they were able to get out and work on the roads, the highway crew focused primarily on helping to fix roads that lead to the homes of residents out in the county, who had been trapped in their homes due to the flood waters, passable while also focusing their energies on clearing the main roads.

"If you were trying to go some place, you might get on one road that was passable and then you'd get on one that was completely impassable. There were residents that were out in the county that couldn't get in and out or there was absolutely no way in and out for four or five days. I think we've gotten most of them to where they can get out. And they were patient about it," Hottell said.

For now, Hottell and his crew are still waiting for the waters to recede more out in the county in order to see which roads need the most work.

"The water's going down. It's just a matter of being able to get at them now and having the time and equipment to get at them," Hottell said. "Right now, we've got our work cut out for us."

Local residents such as Alice Evertson, who lives with her husband Don on County Road 47, first noticed the effects of the flood waters pouring rapidly through the county, cutting them off from a way into town Thursday morning.

"Don said [Thursday] morning, 'I wish I would have taken a pick up and put it down there last night. But it's been long enough that we just didn't think about that I guess," Evertson said.

According to Evertson, the water was moving with such force that it carried tree trunks and other debris across the road as it passed through filling the area with the sound of rushing water.

"It was pretty loud actually. Louder than you'd expect it to be when you get down there beside it," Evertson said.

Though the Evertsons used to be able to get out to the north in times of flood years ago, the culverts that had given them access had been washed out in a previous flood, leaving the couple stranded at their home.

"I said to Don we could walk to the highway to the west which is probably about close to two miles and hitch a ride that way. We used to be able to get out to the North, but they had some great, big huge culverts up there, and in about '89 we had a flood that washed those out so we can't get out to the north anymore," Evertson said.

However, the Evertsons were left to hope that the flood didn't last too long so that they didn't run out of food or supplies while waiting for the roads to be fixed.

"I just hope it doesn't last too long. Well, you know, you can do that for a few days but then it comes time you might need some groceries or something. However, I do think our road is going to be washed out. We went down and it looked like the road was about half washed out. We may have to have people come and get us on the other side if the road doesn't get fixed," Evertson said Thursday morning.

While the highway department tried to assess the situation and residents waited for the problems to subside, the Kimball County Sheriff's Office monitored the situation, warning residents to stay off the county roads, according to Kimball County Sheriff Harry Gillway.

"All the roads were saturated with a lot of moisture which made them virtually impassable. Thursday night when the National Weather Service reported that we should be prepared for flooding of county roads in the northwest portion of the county, our county road superintendent requested that we put an announcement out of all county roads to be closed due to the fact that they were impassable. So we put that out and a lot of people showed a lot of restraint," Gillway said.

According to Gillway, residents adhered to the warnings of the sheriff's office, leading to no one being reported injured throughout the time of the flooding.

"Fortunately, no one was reported stuck on any of the county roads. My concern when we close those and the reason we close them is at nighttime you cannot tell when it's an inch of water or a road where the road would normally only be a couple inches deep and all of a sudden you drive into a chasm not knowing the road is completely gone underneath the water," Gillway said.

Gillway also warned the Cheyenne County Sheriff's Office about the flooding that was heading east towards Potter, making sure that they were aware of the situation from the start.

"I wanted to make sure that they knew in advance. So that day they went out there right away and checked. What had happened was that it spread out over the field. The waters that came down just kind of spread out and they didn't have any big flow that went outside of what normal runoff would be. So they were fortunate. They didn't have nearly the problems that we had," Gillway said.

Gillway states that the situation throughout Kimball County could have been a lot worse had county officials not been as proactive in informing the public about the dangers of going on the roads.

"That's why as the Emergency Manager, I want to get that information out there to everybody as soon as possible to avoid traveling on these roads that are potentially dangerous. It's a lifesaving matter more than anything else. I don't want to see anyone get swept away. We want to get that information out there as quickly as possible and let people know to be safe," Gillway said.

Though county roads washed out and residents were seemingly trapped in their homes, the flood waters made one positive impact on Kimball County: they filled Oliver Lake.

According to Larry Stahla, Vice Chairman of the Oliver Reservoir Advisory Committee, the flood waters that flowed in from Lodgepole Creek have raised the water levels in the lake, alleviating many concerns of the advisory committee and South Platte Natural Resources District.

"We needed a flood to fill it. That was necessary, or we would have never filled it. Either with a massive rainfall or something like this. I've never seen something like this before. And I've talked to everybody who's as old as I am and older and nobody can remember seeing anything like this. It's a once in a lifetime thing, I think," Stahla said.

The recent flooding that has filled Oliver Lake almost perfectly mirrors the event that originally filled the lake in 1981 at the very beginning of the reservoir project.

"It was empty then. They had just completed the damn in March or April of '81, and then July 3 we had this significant rain of five to nine inches, I think they said, up the valley from Hillsdale, Wyoming down to Pine Bluffs. At 9 o'clock that night, the guy who was the Civil Defense Director Dan Jensen, he called me at 9 o'clock that night and he said, 'Can you come out to the lake?' And I said, 'Yeah, what for?' He said, 'We've got a massive head of water coming in here, and I don't know anything about the flood gates.' I said, 'Well there are no flood gates, but I certainly want to watch that,'" Stahla said.

Stahla states that for years he's believed that a flood would come to fill the lake again.

"I really believed in it. I continually told people, 'Don't worry about it. One of these days, we'll get that water incident up above there, and it's going to fill it up again. I always had confidence that we were going to get a big flood out west and fill the lake. But it had to be in the right place. We had a rain south of town last year that would have pretty much filled the lake if it would have been five miles this way. All it had to do was move down into the Lodgepole Valley," Stahla said.

According to Stahla, the lake was filled between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. that night. However, at that time, a lot of debris was carried into the lake while this time it appears that the lake is still clean. Stahla also hopes that the area continues to get precipitation throughout the year in order to counteract the estimated four or five feet that the lake loses every year to evaporation. However, he states that he and the committee are not too worried about it anymore.

"You lose four or five foot to evaporation. Winter time we get a halfway decent flow back in the creek up there, but it's barely able to replace that four or five feet. We were losing a bit every year. We were pretty concerned that maybe someday down the road it might go dry. Don't have to worry about that for a little while now," Stahla said.

Now that the water level issues that Oliver Lake faced have been alleviated, at least for a little while, the advisory committee plans to change their focus and work on the other areas of the reservoir for the time being.

"There's a lot of work to be done out there to make it like it needs to be. We've still got painting work and trees to cut down, trees to trim, grass to mow, and a multitude of things. The committee's going to be very active in keeping the place neat. It would have been nice if we could have gotten the swimming area cleaned up and a few things like that first, but that's okay. We'll take the water," Stahla said.

Image Courtesy of Harry Gillway

Members of the Kimball Fire Department rescue teenagers trapped on a county road west of Kimball.


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