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Climate resiliency: Restoring function and process following a river disaster

December 15, 2021

After a devasting flood, community engagement and ecosystem restoration brought back Colorado’s Big Thompson River

Climate change is impacting our communities in unexpected and startling ways. From coastal regions experiencing the disastrous impacts of rising sea levels and superstorms like Hurricane Ida to severe drought in the western US that brought on enormous wildfires, the effects of climate change are far reaching and only just beginning.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events across the world are causing rivers to flood, destroying homes, lives, and livelihoods. Huge storms and the floods that follow them disrupt the natural flow of rivers, alter vulnerable ecosystems and features, and cause billions of dollars in damage annually.

Rivers are key community assets, often providing a source of drinking water, a tourism destination, and opportunities for recreation, such as fishing and rafting. This is especially true in western states like Colorado, where I live. A recent study estimated $10.8 billion was spent on outdoor recreation within Colorado’s river basins by both residents and visitors.

An aerial view of the Big Thompson River shows a healthy, restored river.

When natural disasters strike rivers and other systems, I have seen communities changed forever.

That’s where my Environmental Services colleagues come in.

After floods, we have experts who investigate how to help repair ecosystems and provide stakeholders with knowledge that will help them recover from—or prepare for—future floods. We present technical information in accessible ways that aid conversations. Our goal is to help communities and stakeholders recover from climate-caused disasters and help instill resiliency back into natural systems.

Restoring the Big Thompson River

Consider our work on the Big Thompson River project in Larimer County, Colorado. After flooding in 2013, the watershed was in desperate need of repair and rehabilitation.

I’m often in awe of the tremendous power of nature to reshape rivers and mountain landscapes, and the Big Thompson flood was no exception. I knew there was a lot of work ahead of us and lots of strategies to implement.

The floods washed out highways and bridges, destroyed homes, took several lives, and severely altered miles of river corridor—both in the mountain canyons and on the plains. For 60 hours, the Big Thompson River exceeded the previous record flood stage. Just like the infamous Big Thompson flood of 1976, the 2013 flood saw the region desperately altered by water.

Bank stabilization was key to successfully restoring the Big Thompson River.

To help restore and rehabilitate the river, the Big Thompson Watershed Coalition brought on our ecosystem restoration team. Our goal was to design and implement projects capable of fostering resiliency and creating a trajectory for long-term recovery.

Tackling a post-flood situation requires a lot of engagement and visionary thinking, especially since the project area intersected more than 50 private properties. To succeed, we sought to establish relationships with people who were impacted by the flood. It was important to hear their stories. It was equally critical to get their support for the successful design and construction of the river restoration.

The restoration design of the Big Thompson River required thoughtful, natural looking, science-based designs. The project needed to protect life, property, and infrastructure; lessen flood risk; engage the local community; and enhance ecosystem structure and function.

To that end, we provided a multifaceted design package to rehabilitate the Big Thompson River, its floodplain, and its riparian corridor.

The result? Our designs maintained the river’s preflood location while greatly enhancing its physical and biological functions.

With a focus on resiliency, we provided:

  • Bank stabilization to maintain the river’s flow and minimize erosion
  • Floodplain reconnection to reduce the risk of future flooding events
  • In-stream and terrestrial habitats to increase biodiversity and wildlife
  • Reestablishing native vegetation to create stability, function, and beauty

The project not only reversed much of the damage to the river corridor, but it better prepared the Big Thompson River, residents, and the downstream communities for future flooding events.

A successful restoration project is born out of consistent, honest, collaborative communication with our clients and project stakeholders.

Collaboration is key

Disasters brought on by climate change require a team with technical skills and experience. We have great engineers, outstanding scientists, and a deep pool of knowledge and resources to draw from.

I know from the Big Thompson project and many others that a successful restoration project is born out of consistent, honest, collaborative communication with our clients and project stakeholders. So that’s what we set out to accomplish. We don’t just talk among our experts—we facilitate conversations with all those who provide long-term stewardship to the landscapes we restore. 

Rivers are significant assets to communities, especially for recreation like fly fishing.

This allows us to properly assess our projects. It also helps us to fully understand a wide range of perspectives and, ultimately, create and implement design solutions that are effective and long-lasting.

As an engineer, I understand the technical aspects of a project. But as an outdoor enthusiast, I also understand the passion that the Big Thompson River residents have for this resource and their passion for being good river stewards.

One of the most rewarding parts of working on the Big Thompson River was the friendships I made with those residents. I continue to visit with them regularly, and we still talk about what we can do for the river.

I know natural disasters caused by climate change can be fierce, so we’re encouraging communities at risk to proactively reach out for consultation. And, if you’ve been through a disaster and need assistance in recovering your local rivers and streams, our ecosystem restoration team is here to help.

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