UPDATED:Flood of `Biblical Proportions’ Leaves Behind Devastation, Pollution

from Wildlife Promise

Pilots with EcoFlight, an advocacy and education nonprofit, get a bird's-eye view of flooded oil and gas fields on Colorado's eastern plains. Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.

Pilots with EcoFlight, an advocacy and education nonprofit, get a bird’s-eye view of flooded oil and gas fields on Colorado’s eastern plains. Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.

There’s the devastation that we know has been unleashed by Colorado’s rains of  ”of biblical proportions”—eight people presumed dead; about 1,500 homes destroyed and more than 17,000 damaged; and numerous roads and bridges across a broad swath of northeastern Colorado washed out or damaged.

Then there’s the trouble we’re just starting to glimpse. The flood waters carried by swollen rivers and creeks along Colorado’s Front Range are rolling across the eastern plains. Right in the path is Weld County, site of  20,544 active oil and gas wells as of Sept. 5. The Denver Post and other media started reporting about oil and gas spills late Wednesday. Anadarko Petroleum notified state regulators that at least 5,250 gallons from two tank batteries had spilled into the South Platte River. The company is using booms to absorb the oil and says it is using a vacuum in the cleanup.

As of Friday, regulators had confirmed spills totaling about 22,000 gallons, including  13,500 gallons of condensate — an oil and water mixture — from tanks near the St. Vrain River.

The Denver Post reported that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, called five spills along the South Platte “notable.”

Floodwaters that tore through eastern Colorado communities damaged homes and public spaces. like this park in Boulder. Photo by Whitney Coombs/ NWF

Floodwaters that tore through eastern Colorado communities damaged homes and public spaces. like this park in Boulder. Photo by Whitney Coombs/ NWF

What’s in the water?

Industry representatives said earlier this week that nealy 1,900 wells in flooded areas had been shut down and that 600 employees were out inspecting and repairing equipment.  Left unexplained was how could anyone know whether any storage tanks and other equipment had been swept away? How many are damaged and leaking? What about waste pits and pipelines?

The immediate attention appropriately has been on rescuing people and minimizing the damage. But the early reports about problems in the state’s largest oil and gas field drive home the fact that Coloradans will be coping with the effects for a long time. And we likely won’t even know the full extent of the effects for a while.

Thousand-year flood

The deluge is being called a 1-in-1,000-years flood. The National Weather Service says all kinds of precipitation records were broken in Boulder, which receives an average of 1.7 inches of rain in September. As of Monday, Boulder’s rainfall totaled 17.17 inches for the month. The area got 9.08 inches in 24 hours, another new record.

Boulder Creek usually runs about 200 cubic feet per second this time of year. It was running about 5,500 cfs at the height of the flood last week. Photo by Kamla Sullivan/NWF

Boulder Creek usually runs about 200 cubic feet per second this time of year. It was running about 5,500 cfs at the height of the flood last week. Photo by Kamla Sullivan/NWF

Scientists are sorting through what role climate change played in the unprecedented downpour, which was so unlike the intense but usually quick thunderstorms common during  Colorado’s monsoon season. Whether these kinds of storms, like the drought-driven wildlfires in the West, are the new norm is unclear. NBC News Science quotes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as saying the storm resulted from “a fetch of  tropical moisture drawn north from Mexico by a weak, but large, upper-level low-pressure system that was blown up into the Rocky Mountains by a persistent southeasterly airflow.”

Warm air holds more moisture. The downpour that lasted days occurred in one of the area’s driest months. The Boulder-based National Center for Atmopsheric Research, where many climate scientists work, was closed by the flooding. It was closed last summer because of a nearby wildfire.

Work has started on cleaning up and rebuilding after the flood. It took heavy equipment to move sediment that piled up in north Boulder. Photo by Kamla Sullivan/NWF

Work has started on cleaning up and rebuilding after the flood. It took heavy equipment to move sediment that piled up in north Boulder. Photo by Kamla Sullivan/NWF

What is clear is that we have to realize things are changing. Critics of the oil and gas industry say there should be no drilling or fracking in floodplains. There certainly should be mandatory buffers between well sites and all waterways, a pledge made by Colorado regulators a few years ago that remains unfulfilled. We need to know what’s in fracking fluids so we know what might be swirling around in floodwaters. Oil and gas companies should also switch to closed-loop drilling systems in which open waste pits are replaced with above-ground closed storage tanks.

In Colorado and much of the Southwest, the word in weather is “extreme.” Last summer Colorado experienced record-breaking heat. This year, we’ve seen what would normally be a once-in-a-generation storm. Who knows what’s next?

This version updates the estimated volumes of spills from oil and gas well sites in Colorado’s flood zones.

Northeastern Colorado has swung from drought to a 1-in-1,000-year flood. People are wondering what's next. Photo by Kamla Sullivan/NWF

Northeastern Colorado has swung from drought to a 1-in-1,000-year flood. People are wondering what’s next. Photo by Kamla Sullivan/NWF

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