Channelization: The Dangers and Horrors

In 2013 Colorado suffered some of the most devastating flooding in recent memory. The financial damages coming in at an estimated $2 billion are astounding. But the damages don’t just stop at the financial level either. Lives and livelihoods were lost because of the extremely high waters that flooded communities like Estes Park, Colorado. Homes were destroyed all along the Front Range, with damages ranging from flooded basements in Aurora, a Southeastern suburb of Denver to total structural ruin of properties built along the Saint Vrain River, and Big Thompson River (affectionately known as the Big T) on the Northern Front Range.
 
Surprisingly, even with the large quantities of water that tore down the river bottoms of our wonderful state, the fisheries did not suffer as much as was initially expected. Sadly, guides and fishing stores did suffer as well as the sale of state fishing licenses during and immediately after the floods, although with time those numbers are slowly recovering. As an angler I am thanking God for seeing the positive changes that are slowly coming around after the floods, although I still feel for those who lost their homes or their lives during the floods.
 
But, the reason I am here today is that there have been rumblings throughout the flood impacted areas of Colorado by members of the state government and home owners on or near some of the rivers that overflowed their banks suggesting that they would like to see the rivers that caused the most damage to be channelized and straightened, in the misguided theory that these actions will reduce flood damage in the future. I am here to tell you, my readers and hopefully those of you who have the power to make decisions that affect our rivers and streams, that there is no reason why this should be done. I also want to make everyone aware of the fact that these methods have been attempted in the past and have caused more problems than they have solved. My hope is that by the end of this post you will also agree with me and stop this from happening to our beloved rivers and streams here in Colorado and around the country.
 
At the same time, I want to make it very clear that I respect each and every person who is reading this and don’t want anyone to think that I am only thinking about the piscatoral citizens of Colorado or any other state over the welfare of humans negatively affected by floodwaters. No person should have to lose their home or their personal wellbeing because of flooding but we need to learn from others mistakes and realize that man can not fix everything even when we think we can, especially when others have failed miserably at these same methods.
 
I recently received a number of documents that discuss the negative impacts on rivers and people caused by channelization and straightening of rivers and streams in the Northeast after Tropical Storm Irene struck in 2011. I am still in shock and awe over the numbers and am greatly impressed by what the authors have come up with as suggestions to help avoid the huge financial devastation caused by poor environmental decisions.
 
There was one paper in particular that I found extremely informative and one of the more interesting and easy to understand for the average person like myself. The white paper I am talking about is Grey vs Green: The Benefits of Natural Flood Control in a Changing Climate by Trygg Danforth. This paper was issued by Trout Unlimited (TU) and is available for your reading pleasure if you want to read the complete document on your own. The paper focuses on theNortheastern United States post Tropical Storm Irene, but it could have been written to cover the great State of Coloradoas well in our current situation.
 
As many of you are aware the world around us seems to get crazier and crazier every day, be it people who perform unspeakable acts against humanity, i.e. the Aurora Movie Theatre shootings, or natural disasters, i.e. “100-500 year floods” like the storms we experienced here in Colorado this fall. And unfortunately as time continues to move on the storms that we seem to get are increasing in intensity at an alarming rate in many ways due to the fact that humans are not treating Mother Nature with the respect that she deserves.
 
As the human population continues to grow and expand at an ever increasing speed the atmosphere suffers as we continue to add to the greenhouse gases that are being pumped into our atmosphere to provide electrical power and other services to our human population. Additionally, as the population grows we also lose floodplains and other watersheds. When we lose natural floodplains to build parking lots for retail giants like Wal-Mart in front of their stores we are losing valuable land that could control flooding and reduce the damage caused by impervious surfaces that only allow water to pool and ultimately increase in speed on a downslope.
 
A shocking statistic that I was unaware of until I started working on this post was the fact that a single acre of wetland, when completely saturated to a depth of one foot, holds 330,00 gallons of water which is enough to flood 13 homes to a shocking thigh-high depth in the average home. So you can only imagine how much water that a six-acre parking lot would displace and it is awe-inspiring when you do the math:
 
                        330,000 x 6 = 1,980,000 gallons of water!!!
 
If that number is not terrifying to you then you probably need to have you head checked. And that is just one aspect of what human growth has and will continue to do to our floodplains if we are not careful.
 
When it comes to the channelization of our rivers and streams with the idea that we are protecting property by following these draconian techniques we are doing far more damage than good. I mean looking at the calculation above and then looking at the fact that channelization separates the river or stream from its natural floodplains and thereby forces the water into a virtual pipeline we are only setting up the scenario for another even worse disaster. But sadly, those floodplains have little or no market value that is appreciated by those making decisions like channelization. We, as humans, must realize that there is an intrinsic value in these floodplains that may not have immediate financial value but will save us hundreds of millions if not billions in future damages.
 
As history moves forward at its regular pace, climate change will continue to occur at an ever increasing rate as well. With our polar icecaps melting due to climate changes we will more than likely see changes to the human way of life and also negative impacts on the natural ecosystems that surround us. With a blossoming human population comes the need for more urbanization, which leads to an increase in impervious surfaces and almost certain decrease in viable floodplains. When this happens we will see an increase in runoff and an amplification in water speed and quantity. In the last century, largely due to urbanization and climatic changes brought about by these factors, floods caused more loss of life and property damage than any other natural disaster in the United States.[i] According to the NOAA “Flood Loss Data” released in March of 2012 the average annual losses have increased exponentially from $3.35 billion in the 1940s, to $9.94 billion in the 2000’s. These amounts were adjusted to meet inflation as well.[ii]
 
At this time, I am going to let you, my faithful reader, mull over these facts while I continue to work on Part II of this article. I am still deeply shocked by everything I have read so far as I hope you are as well. Think on this for a little while and I hope to get your comments on what you have read so far.
 
I want to thank Trygg Danforth for writing this paper and bring these things to light. To him I am eternally grateful.
 
Below I have included a number of references and in Part II I will be including many more that Trygg has used as a number of additional resources I have found as well.
 
[1] Easterling, D.R., J.L. Evans, P.Ya.Groisman, T.R. Karl, K.E. Kunkel, and P. Ambenje. 2000. Observed variability and trends in extreme climate events: A brief review. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 81, 417-425.
[1] “Flood Los Data” NOAA.gov. NOAA’s National Weather Service. Web.
 
Til then my faithful reader may you continue to enjoy Tenkara and keep those lines tight.

Also, please visit http://www.tenkaragrasshopper.com/2013/11/channelization-dangers-and-horrors-that.html and leave any comments that you would like. All comments are greatly appreciated.



[i] Easterling, D.R., J.L. Evans, P.Ya.Groisman, T.R. Karl, K.E. Kunkel, and P. Ambenje. 2000. Observed variability and trends in extreme climate events: A brief review. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 81, 417-425.
[ii] “Flood Los Data” NOAA.gov. NOAA’s National Weather Service. Web.
 

 

Comments

 
said on Sunday, January 12th, 2014

It's all about geomorphology and stream restoration process's. Re connect the floodplains, maintain wetlands and do channel restoration following fluvial standards.

Rich

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