The recent evening rains have provided welcome relief from one of the driest seasons in recorded history, but Sunday night's downpour in the Paonia area produced some not-so-welcome flooding that closed the trail loop at Paonia River Park and the Apple Valley Park tennis courts.
It also serves as a reminder and a cautionary tale on the power of flash floods.
The downpour, which started at about 5:30 p.m., unofficially dropped between one half and three quarters of an inch of rain within about a half hour. At the time, the 9News interactive weather radar map indicated heavy rains in the area.
In minutes, rainwater carried debris off of Jumbo Mountain and into Minnesota Creek, which was already swollen from heavy rain falling east of town. Debris clogged the bridge at Pan American Avenue at Apple Valley Park, sending the creek over its banks and into the park, and forcing water over the bridge deck. A private gate adjacent to Apple Valley Subdivision was temporarily opened to allow cars to exit via a gravel road leading to Vista Drive.
"This isn't the first time," said former town trustee Amber Kleinman, whose property borders Minnesota Creek near Apple Valley Park. Kleinman recalled a similar situation in 2012 when a flash flood hit the town over the Cherry Days weekend.
Downstream, just above the confluence at North Fork of the Gunnison River at Paonia River Park, "Minnesota Creek over-topped its banks, flooding the United Gravel lot," according to Alex Johnson with the Western Slope Conservation Center. The water, in turn, "drained across Paonia River Park Trail. Much higher, and it could have taken out our concrete bridge at the park."
As of Tuesday, the trail loop was closed for repairs, but the park remains open on the south side of the bridge.
Reports of other areas of flash flooding were posted to social media. Lynn Wetherall reported flooding at her property on Grand Avenue due to a clogged head gate on a ditch. Desirae Davis Vasquez and George Lawhorn posted images on Facebook after they were trapped up Minnesota Creek Road due to flash floods washing out segments of the road. "It was washed out in several spots for a quarter mile," wrote Lawhorn. "I saw lots of rocks, tree branches and even a 500 gallon propane tank wash across the road."
After seeing the flooding at Apple Valley Park, Jill Knutson returned to her home on Vista Drive to find that debris was accumulating in the creek behind their house. "The force of the water blew me away," said Knutson.
A flash flood took out the bridge at Elderberry's, wrote owner Lisa Ganora on Facebook. The bridge hung up with other debris, causing water to back up. Fearing a possible catastrophe, Knutson called Delta County Dispatch.
Paonia resident Naropa Sabine was at his parents' house on Vista Drive when he heard "that sound... like a herd of elephants coming down the valley." He and his mom went to the creek, and within about a minute, water rose a couple of feet, he said. As he watched huge logs being pushed "by the nose of the flood," something caught his eye. "I looked up and saw what I literally thought was a manikin or a log," he said. It was a man, covered in mud, and trying to yell. Within seconds he was out of sight.
Without thinking, Sabine jumped on his bike and rode to a culvert about a block and a half away, grabbed some willow branches and waded into the water, hoping to catch the man if he floated by. After a couple of minutes he realized the man either had passed or was stopped up above.
At that point, said Sabine, he figured the man didn't make it. Emergency vehicles arrived and for about 10 minutes "everyone was searching frantically for him," said Sabine.
The man had managed to pull himself out and emerged from Sabine's mother's back yard. He was treated at the scene, according to the Delta County Sheriff's Office. The Paonia Police Department, Paonia Fire Department, and North Fork Ambulance all assisted with the search.
About as quickly as they rose, the flood waters subsided. Paonia Public Works crews were out late Sunday night and early Monday morning cleaning debris from Apple Valley Park and other locations.
Flooding forced closure of the Apple Valley tennis courts until proper clean-up can take place, according to the North Fork Pool, Parks & Recreation District. People are asked to stay off of the courts and not attempt to help with clean-up efforts in order to prevent damage to the playing surface.
(Ready.gov reminds citizens to familiarize themselves with flood risks in their area, monitor potential signs such as heavy rains, and have evacuation routes planned in advance. Just six inches of moving water is capable of knocking a person down, and a foot of moving water can sweep a vehicle away. People should stay off bridges over fast-moving water, move to higher ground, or floors if in-doors, and to remain until all danger has passed. )