County prepares for floods | VailDaily.com

County prepares for floods

VAIL – Here’s the silver lining to all the dark clouds that have covered the valley lately: All that snow on the mountains is taking its time turning into water. But that could change with one sunny week.

With last year’s flooding in mind, about 70 people gathered in Vail’s Donovan Pavilion Thursday to plan for what might happen if the weather gets suddenly sunny. The people in the room represented local police and fire departments, as well as town public works departments and administrators.

If the water rises quickly, all those people will be put to work trying to contain flood damage.

Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger led the exercise, called “The Big Drip IV,” to help all those different people understand what their jobs might be when the waters rise. Those people also need to understand what’s changed from last year to this year.

Among the bigger changes is several thousand dollars worth of new equipment at the Vail Fire Department. The department’s inventory now includes stationary lights, so people don’t have to fill sandbags by the light of truck headlights, and a brace of “personal flotation devices,” all of which are equipped with strobe lights, so rescuers won’t have to play a high-stakes version of Marco Polo if someone slips into a fast-moving stream after dark.

While putting emergency crews into floatation vests is a fairly new idea, it’s caught on quickly. Vail firefighter Jim Hervert said last year Henninger was so concerned about crews working near, or in, rushing water that he provided his own vest for others to use.

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Now, “We get nervous when people get close to the water without (personal flotation devices),” Vail firefighter Kraige Kinney said.

The vests aren’t cheap. But they’re coming, and will be an important tool from now on.

While flood-fighting techniques are evolving, so are local streams.

After last year’s flooding, River Restoration, a Glenwood Springs-based company, was hired to study Vail’s streams and other areas.

Jason Carey of River Restoration explained some of those findings. Perhaps the most significant is that the riverbed is rising in parts of Gore Creek, which puts normal stream levels near historic flood stages.

Carey said that if the Gore Creek Valley hadn’t been developed, the creek’s existing channels would eventually fill up and the stream would find a new way to the Eagle River. But with all the building in Vail, Gore Creek has to mostly stay where it is.

“Over the long term, we need to come to grips with the basin losing capacity,” Carey said.

Also evolving is how to inform people about flooding and possible evacuations. Local governments have the ability to call residents through the 911 system, but when the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District needed to call customers a couple of years ago, the system was overwhelmed in moments.

Combine that with the fact fewer people have land-line telephones, and it becomes harder to reach people. But Vail information officer Suzanne Silverthorn said there’s a relatively easy answer: People need to sign up for the Eagle County alert system, which puts out e-mails and text messages to users during emergencies.

“That’s really the top of the hierarchy of information,” she said.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.