Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation
Flooding at St. Vrain River in Weld County, Colorado, on September 13 caused concerns about possible oil spill contamination.

Colorado Floods Changed Landscape, Wrought Environmental Damage

Carol Berry

As Colorado residents and businesses clean up from September’s devastating floods and continue to assess damage, one thing is already clear: The waters have left a lasting legacy on the environment.

“Changes to stream courses, erosion of stream banks, and loss of vegetation and soil in certain areas will leave the riparian landscapes significantly changed, though water has always shaped the land, either very slowly or—as in this case, very rapidly,” said Todd Hartman, spokesman for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources.

Tainted drinking water, homes damaged or destroyed, mold, and rutted or impassable roads are more immediate problems. So are spills in the oil fields in the northeastern part of the state, where the flooding took place. As the waters receded, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hastened to inspect hundreds of oil and gas wells and storage tanks that had been toppled.

“The primary pollutant of concern associated with oil and gas locations is crude oil, which is stored in tanks on site,” the commission said in a statement, noting that about 37,380 gallons have spilled in significant releases, while others have produced oil sheen on the water.

The commission responded to “public concerns about other chemicals, including those associated with hydraulic fracturing,” touching on the controversial fracking issue currently at the forefront in Colorado and elsewhere.

“Those chemicals are only on site once the well is in production,” the commission said of the various substances that are injected into shale in order to extract the oil from it. “The vast majority of wells impacted were in the producing stage.”

Although open water-holding pits connected with fracking are being checked, the commission added, fracking and flowback fluids “are held in storage tanks and then are either recycled or transported to a disposal well.”

Another concern that has a history of controversy centers on spills near waterways, in this case near the confluence of the St. Vrain and South Platte Rivers in Weld County, as well as possible impacts to Coal and Bear Creeks in Jefferson County.

“The flood obviously has [also] had significant short-term environmental impacts,” Hartman said. “A wide range of contaminants ranging from simple debris, to municipal sewage, to feedlot runoff, to oil have been carried off and dispersed in the floodwaters.”

But, he cautioned, “The volumes of water in this event were so significant that these unfortunate materials were significantly diluted by such heavy flows.”

Flood effects on water quality and groundwater were still under study, he said on September 28, and some significantly damaged areas were still difficult to reach.

American Indians living in the immediate area were among many residents contending with major damage. One is filmmaker Ava Hamilton, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, a whose home near Boulder is surrounded by fields that flooded. She is currently displaced in part because of concern over possible well contamination. 

“They are saying well water should be tested because some wells have bacteria—don’t know which—which we need to have done,” she said.

Roads to her house were initially impassable, and her driveway “looks like a gully because of the river that ran down it,” she said. “The field across the highway became a lake and crossed over to our side as a small, rapid river. It was scary.”

Now she’s coping with a scourge of mold, the result of flooding in part of her house. The stuff even covered her boots when she finally was able to check out conditions in her home, she said. Hamilton said she also has a “purple, blistery-looking thing” on her hand and was told it’s a fungus she got from touching the mold. She has had to treat it with a salve. The filmmaker is among hundreds of people on a Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) list for those who have been displaced into temporary housing.

Early flood repairs to roads, homes, oil tanks, wastewater plants, and businesses will have to be done quickly. Snow is already falling in the high country and could reach lower areas in a couple of weeks, adding to already difficult conditions for flood victims and those working in reconstruction.