Manitou Springs: Hazard Planning Pays Off

The Wakeup Call

In the fall of 2013, an atmospheric river of precipitation stretched from the Gulf of California to Colorado, depositing tropic moisture in dramatic fashion. A year’s worth of rainfall fell within days in some areas. The flooding that ensued resulted in the loss of 10 lives, dramatic evacuation of 18,000, and over $3.9 billion in damages -- $2.1 of which was due to impaired or destroyed infrastructure. What became known as the 2013 Front Range Floods served as a wakeup call for many communities, underlying the importance of resiliency planning and helped focused federal, state and local resources around preparedness. In Manitou Springs, the burn scar from the year prior’s Waldo Canyon Fire compounded the impact of the weather system.

“The series of flooding events over the course of the summer of 2013 was a real impetus to look at hazard mitigation in a more organized fashion,” said Karen Berchtold, Manitou Springs’ Senior Planner for Long-range Planning and Sustainability. “Community leaders and DOLA (Department of Local Affairs) were talking about city comprehensive planning, how all of these issues are interrelated, and ways to make sure we don’t increase our hazard risk.”

Resilience Planning and Tools

From 2014 through 2017, those conversations led to the integration of a Hazard Mitigation Plan as a part of Manitou Springs’ Comprehensive Plan. This work includes a Flood Control Master Plan, a Community Wildfire Protection Plan which is still underway, and the development of educational materials on geological, fire and flood hazards. The process was about “putting together some of the big picture pieces of how to move forward with multi-hazard scenario planning,” said Berchtold.

To assist with the effort, Manitou took advantage of participating in the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program funded pilot with DOLA to “figure out how they could create a framework and develop tools for communities to address hazards on their own, rather than directly supporting impacted communities.” The program was led by a steering committee and was tested across several communities. The Planning for Hazards guide is now available online and has a host of land-use tools to identify various hazards.

Impacts from July’s Flood

On July 23rd of this year, Manitou Springs experienced a sudden, heavy rainstorm which turned roadways into rivers. The event resulted in $1.5 million in damages, but it could have been much worse. Thanks to the resiliency planning, Manitou had prioritized projects to address highly vulnerable infrastructure including redesigning a drainage gulch and replacing a well water line where some sections were still made of wooden pipe. Thus, the story didn’t become about a vital access road washing out nor the loss of drinking water.

Manitou Springs:

Manitou Springs:

The flood event also was a learning opportunity for the community. Berchtold explained, “the flooding put into focus the need to develop better tools to address drainage in the development process, but also the need to move forward with guidance for homeowners and property owners.” Much of the runoff came from private properties, so in addition to having guidance for wildfire mitigation, the city will be working on providing flooding guidance moving forward.

Advice for other Municipalities

When asked for her advice for other municipalities, Karen gave several insights:

  • On engagement: “It’s really important to frame the discussion in a way that’s relevant to people. Start with the basics which are integral to your community’s economic health.”

  • On keeping resiliency a priority: “Communities that have experienced a series of disaster events sort of go through cycles of real concern, dealing with the impact, dealing with the recovery, but they also can get a little weary of it and push it to the back burner. It’s important to keep the message alive, but in tangible ways that is helpful for people. For us, educational guidance and tools for property owners is a really good means of doing that.” Karen also mentioned creating opportunities of engagement can useful reminders, like volunteer events to assist homeowners in managing vegetation and chipper days for wildfire mitigation. “Keeping to basic tools is really important.”

  • On limited resources: “All these things will take a lot of staff resources, but they are really critical.” Manitou Springs has a very involved citizenry, utilizes private-public partnerships to try new ideas, and continually explore grants and opportunities that have multiple benefits.