La Plata County homeowners get glimpse of federal flood aid program

Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 10:45 PM
Property owners hit by flooding from the 416 Fire burn scar learned about a federal program that will pay 75 percent of the costs of mitigation projects on Thursday evening at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. About 150 people attended the meeting.

Homeowners whose property was damaged by floods coming from the burn scar of the 416 Fire got a tutorial Thursday evening about a federal program that could help with projects to protect their homes.

The Emergency Watershed Protection program offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service will pay 75 percent of the cost of certified engineered projects designed and approved through the agency.

However, once certified designs are complete and accurate cost figures are known, a homeowner would have to fund 25 percent of the cost of projects that protect his or her home.

About 150 residents attended a meeting hosted by La Plata County at the fairgrounds.

Residents who want to explore participation in the program were asked to return a Permission to Enter form by Sept. 14. The form would allow the county and its contractors, which likely will be certified engineers and surveyors, to enter their property to begin designing mitigation projects.

If homeowners do not return the Permission to Enter form by Sept. 14, La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers said it is unlikely they will be able to join the EWP program at a later date.

Homeowners also were asked to return to the county another permission form that allows the county to use drones over their property to provide a bird’s-eye view of the topography to help design the projects.

Homeowners would not be obligated to participate in the program or come up with the 25 percent match until later, after certified design bids for projects and accurate cost estimates for projects are determined.

At that time, another form, a Request for Assistance and Participation Agreement, would have to be signed by a homeowner, and at that time, the 25 percent match would have to be paid.

Some North Animas Valley residents have received Damage Survey Reports from the NRCS, and some reports might have preliminary cost estimates for mitigation work.

But La Plata County Assistant Manger Chuck Stevens said those cost estimates are only preliminary and are based on an early conceptual plan. In addition, the estimates are probably higher than the eventual projects will cost, he said.

Rogers said EWP mitigation projects would meet Clean Water Act standards and other legal requirements.

Brian Rittermann, who lives across from James Ranch, signs up for information about the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which would pay for 75 percent of the costs of flood-control projects to protect homes flooded near the 416 Fire burn scar.
Patrick Armijo/Durango Herald

Brian Rittermann, who lives across from James Ranch, said 27 dump-truck loads of debris were removed from his neighborhood, and he’s interested in exploring the EWP program.

“I’d like to know the bottom line before I commit,” he said.

Rittermann has received a Damage Survey Report, but he said it contained no cost estimate of work for a mitigation project that would benefit his property.

Any mitigation project – whether conducted through EWP or by individual landowners – must comply with an array of state and federal legal requirements.

In Colorado, any mitigation project must honor the historical flow of water, and mitigation projects cannot protect one property at the expense of neighbors or create greater downstream danger from runoff.

“In Colorado, you have to let Mother Nature do her thing,” Rogers said.

Legal problems can arise in mitigation projects. Rogers said replacing a 2-foot culvert with a 4-foot culvert would be illegal. Other work that could get you in legal hot water includes changing the volume of water flow and channeling the flow so that it increases the velocity of the flow, among other actions.

At the end of the meeting, homeowners broke into neighborhood groups based on drainages where their properties were located.

Rogers said neighbors would have to work together so mitigation projects work for all of them.

Mitigation projects typically will provide protection for multiple properties. The more extensive cooperation in neighborhoods in the various affected drainages, the better the projects will work.

In addition, broad cooperation will aid the county with drone overflights for topography analysis.

“If you don’t know your neighbor, you will,” Rogers told attendees. “If you’ve had friction with them in the past, this probably will provide an opportunity for that to get worse.”