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“Each year, the coalition will receive grants and work on different pieces of the restoration project for many years to come.

“We will get a couple projects done in each round. Each year we will go find another source of money, and do a little bit of project as the years go on,” Daly said.

Where the Little Thompson River used to be 70 feet wide in places, it was blasted to 300 yards, according to Gordon Gilstrap of the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition.

The September 2013 flood devastated areas along Front Range rivers and streams, and while not nearly as many houses were lost on the Little Thompson River, landowners still are recovering from the deluge that destroyed vegetation, wildlife habitat and landscapes.

Some landowners along the Little Thompson call it “the forgotten river.”

“It’s been an interesting journey,” said Gilstrap, who helped set up the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition after the flood. “The Little Thompson has been an unknown river because no county or state roads run along it for any distance. It is all privately owned.”

Deirdre Daly, president of the coalition, said that because the river isn’t in a town or county that is leading the charge for river repair, the restoration has been almost entirely driven by the people who live on it.

Landowners

Gary and Julie Moon lived in a camper on their land for four months after the flood. Julie Moon said she and her husband were not at home when the flood hit, although her husband did stop by to move their animals to higher ground.

Her sisters really saved her animals and belongings, she said.

Her sister, Cyndi Smith, drove by the house, saw that the river on the south side of County Road 4 was starting to come across the road, and convinced the Moons to move their animals to higher ground, and eventually also move their furniture and personal belongings to the second story of their home.

“We didn’t think anything was going to happen,” Moon said. “He (her husband) went back to work (after moving the horses).”

When they got home Thursday evening, they moved some of their belongings upstairs because the water was starting to rise. The surge of water came about 1 a.m. and filled their property and their home to the bottom of their windows.

It carried their cars away, took their horse trailers and their fence. Most of their animals, except for their chickens, were safe.

Standing on dirt and silt that once was green grass, Julie Moon reminisces last week about how the Little Thompson River across the street from her house

Standing on dirt and silt that once was green grass, Julie Moon reminisces last week about how the Little Thompson River across the street from her house west of Berthoud flooded her land and home in September 2013. Two years later, she and her husband are still recovering with the help of many people. (Jenny Sparks / Loveland Reporter-Herald)

“It ended up filling our property with sand, 3 to 4 feet of sand and debris,” Moon said. “It took four months to get back in our house. The hard part was that happening with winter coming on.”

In the two years since the disaster, their home has been repaired and the fence replaced. Moon and her husband had to cut down 11 dead trees, and they have more to go.

“The engineers came this week and said it was a two-year project to repair the (river) in front of the house,” Moon said.

She said the Little Thompson Watershed Restoration Coalition “has been wonderful.”

The Moons also had a strong supportive family and wonderful neighbors to support them.

“We can’t thank everyone enough,” she said.

The Damage

The Little Thompson headwaters come in from several areas but are mostly above Big Elk Meadows below Estes Park, separate from the Big Thompson.

“It was a small working river,” Gilstrap said. “It provides drinking water to Big Elk Meadows and Pinewood Springs, irrigation to a lot of farmland. It has always been a small, quiet little river.”

The water pushed woody debris down the river, knocking out everything for hundreds of feet on both sides of the river.

Gilstrap said the land along the river was heavily wooded, with a lot of wildlife habitat, especially in the Big Elk Meadows, Pinewood Springs and Blue Mountain areas. Much of that habitat area was lost.

The number of homes lost in the flood was small — two to four — but there was a lot of other damage such as water in basements, homes partially damaged and agricultural fields that were made useless with sediment and garbage debris accumulation.

“A lot of agricultural equipment was lost, and the irrigation ditches took a real hit,” Gilstrap said. “An interesting fact most people don’t know is the Little Thompson was the river that shut down every county bridge between Big Elk Meadows and Milliken — seven public bridges and many other private bridges — so it cut off Northern Colorado from southern Colorado.”

Watershed Coalition

The Little Thompson River off Larimer County Road 4 west of Berthoud, seen Sept. 9, cut a path through the land and left behind debris when it flooded in September 2013. (Jenny Sparks / Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Gilstrap helped found the Little Thompson coalition in December 2013, starting with nothing. The group had no money and no knowledge of how to run a coalition.

The Little Thompson River off Larimer County Road 4 west of Berthoud, seen Sept. 9, cut a path through the land and left behind debris when it flooded in“Thanks to an amazing group of volunteers that stepped forward to be a part of it, we established the Little Thompson coalition as one of the most effective coalitions in Colorado,” Gilstrap said.

With grant funding, the coalition oversaw the successful completion of a master plan for the watershed, started having meetings, published an active website and Facebook page and coordinated volunteer projects.

“We secured over $1.2 million in government and private-sector grants with a potential of $3 plus million to come,” he said.

The coalition also was able to hire a full-time watershed coordinator, Keith Stagg, and assistant coordinator. Erin Cooper, this summer to oversee grant raising and volunteers, which meant the hard workers such as Gilstrap who had volunteered so much of their time were able to step back.

“We all learned together (at the beginning),” Gilstrap said. “We even learned to say ‘fluvial geomorphic transition’ and other big words like that.”

He said there were two reasons for their success: the volunteers who stepped forward to be on committees while also working day jobs, and support from the state and counties involved.

“Everyone worked together, and that spirit is ongoing more than ever. The volunteers came in from everywhere and did the dirtiest, grungiest work imaginable and were happy as can be if you gave them water and cookies,” he said.

Work Still to be Done

One of the big problems the river still faces is sediment.

Gilstrap said the Big Thompson River has a rock base, while the Little Thompson has more of a soil base.

When the flood swept down the river from just below Estes Park, sediment traveled down, blocking irrigation canals and changing the bed of the river.

One of the private bridges in Berthoud — called the Green Monster bridge by locals — used to have a space large enough to walk under, and now a person can barely crawled under because of all the new sediment. Julie Moon used to walk her horse beneath the bridge.

“That all plugs up irrigation ditches, rechannels the river,” Gilstrap said. “It’s a long-term fight to understand what will happen with the sediment, how to fight it, how to do restoration so we don’t aggravate the problem.”

He said there is still a lot of farmland with sediment covering valuable cropland.

Natural Resources Conservation Service representatives walked the river and filled out disaster survey reports to define the work to be done. The restoration work will carry on for the next five or more years, he said. The river is also being analyzed for flood and fire resiliency, to be more resilient the next time a flood passes through.

“We’re trying to think during restoration how we can bounce back from them more quickly and not put people in as much peril,” Gilstrap said.

Stagg said the silver lining of the flood is that people are aware of the need for resiliency.

“Everyone wants to see the system put together,” he said.

Gilstrap said wildlife is coming back, and the coalition is looking at revegetation options to establish more wildlife habitat. They plan to use willow cuttings and other “ecotypical” seeds from Daly’s property and neighbors’ to vegetate other areas along the river with native plants.

Finding Funding

Major sources of grants for restoration work has come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program through USDA.

Gilstrap said a new round of grant funding from several sources will deliver possibly $47 million across Colorado, and he believes the Little Thompson might see $2 million to $3 million of that. Stagg and Cooper were hired through funding jointly from the state Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We’re one of (several) watersheds that received funding for professional staff,” Stagg said.

Each year, the coalition will receive grants and work on different pieces of the restoration project for many years to come.

“We will get a couple projects done in each round. Each year we will go find another source of money, and do a little bit of project as the years go on,” Daly said.

The Little Thompson even has a “Little Thompson Watershed” sign posted near the headwaters.

“We’ve never had that before,” Daly said. “Before, the river was there and hidden by trees and no one knew what river it was.”

Jessica Benes: 970-669-5050 ext. 530, jbenes@reporter-herald.com, Twitter.com/jessicabenes.