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  Aviation supports damage assessment, line patrol after Colorado flooding

Story by Erika Walters; photos by Aaron Picker

 Floodwaters washed away a portion of Colorado Highway 61.
 Western pilots flew Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association employees around northern Colorado, Sept. 13, to assess damage to their distribution system. Floodwaters washed away a portion of Colorado Highway 61 just east of Kersey, Colo.

When the call came in from Western’s dispatch at 5:45 a.m. Sept. 13, Rocky Mountain Pilot Ken Host was ready for action. It had been raining for days, and the city of Fort Collins, Colo., had called for assistance because they needed aviation support to survey their flooded lands. Their call to Platte River Power Authority led them to Western.

Western has always partnered with local cities and offered its services free of charge during times of need. Aviation Manager Bruce Hunt explained, “Western donates flight time to other agencies as a community service to help them get started with their repairs. This was a really good opportunity to see what was going on.”

Flights reveal devastation

The first expedition on Western’s 617 DE Aircraft was to check out the damage caused by Poudre River flooding. Bridges and roads were closed, and city planners, engineers and law enforcement needed to determine the condition of the infrastructure affected by the flooding of the local rivers, streams and canals, including water treatment plants. Host and Hunt took a couple of flights with city planners and engineers to inspect the plants. Host then took another flight with members of the Fort Collins police department and fire department to determine which bridges could be opened. The devastation to these areas was unlike anything the Colorado plains had seen in decades.

Later in the day, Host took members of neighboring utilities in the helicopter to perform line patrol and damage assessment. It was necessary to survey Western’s and neighbor’s lines in eastern Colorado, specifically where multiple lines run both parallel and cross one another near Sterling and Julesburg. Rushing floodwaters had engulfed the area and had swept away a fallen structure on the Weld-to-Willoby 115-kilovolt line near Kersey. The double-circuit structure is jointly owned by Western and Xcel Energy. Power delivery on the line was maintained because it was rerouted to unaffected distribution lines.

The next day, the South Platte River flooded Western’s Sterling Substation, near Sterling, Colo., and it was imperative to investigate the damage. Host flew over the substation with Rocky Mountain Supervisory Power System Dispatcher Aaron Picker and Eastern Colorado Maintenance Office Field Maintenance Manager Larry Hill. The substation and surrounding area were completely submerged. Despite having several feet of water in the substation, the yard remained fully operational and never needed to be de-energized to protect the equipment.

Despite damage, system remained unaffected

 An aerial view shows a structure that failed during recent Colorado flooding.
 An aerial view shows a structure that failed during recent Colorado flooding near Kersey, Colo., Sept. 16. The tower held a double-circuit line jointly owned by Western and Xcel Energy.

Picker said, “From an Operations point of view, I think it’s incredible that the power system held together as well as it did, considering the large area affected by the floods. Though the station has continued to operate without problems, we have taken some precautions in case the water was to cause problems.” He continued, “Only one structure failed. A pole carrying a double circuit—one belonging to Xcel and the other to Western—fell down when the flood water washed the ground out from under it. Really, the system has held together remarkably well, not just for Western, but for companies across the entire area.”

The next flight was with Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association maintenance and engineering staff to survey their hardest-hit distribution systems along Colorado Highway 34 to Estes Park and Colorado Highway 36 out of Lyons. Many of those roads had been washed away, making line patrol by helicopter the only way to safely access these areas. “Western’s aviation support was integral to helping other utilities make their own damage assessment of the flooding,” said Hunt.

The overall flood zone encompassed 17 Colorado counties and 4,500 square miles of terrain. This was the heaviest downfall of rain to hit this region of Colorado in four decades. President Obama declared the state of Colorado a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in areas affected by severe storms, flooding, landslides and mudslides.

“By Saturday, the National Guard and commercial aviation assets became available and were supporting all surveys and rescue operations throughout northern Colorado,” Hunt explained. During the following week, Host continued aviation support missions for the flooding. He flew members of Loveland Water and Power to the Big Thompson area to check out their infrastructure and flew some of the members of the city of Estes Park to take a look at their lines toward Glen Haven. He made additional trips with Western employees to look at Western’s lines through Estes Park and monitor the flooding and damage at Sterling Substation.

Repairs necessary, families safe

 An aerial view of a substation reveals several feet of water flooding.
An aerial view of Rocky Mountain’s Sterling Substation, near Sterling, Colo., reveals several feet of water flooding the substation Sept. 16. Despite all the water, the yard remained fully operational, and no outages were reported.

Nearly two weeks after the water rushed through the Sterling Substation, the area was still a mess. Hill made another trek out to survey the damage and was amazed by the condition. Hill said, “There were huge deposits of sand, mud, silt and trash throughout the yard. The entire gravel surfacing of the station will have to be redone. The 125-volt [direct current] battery was submerged and was a total loss. There was a six-foot-deep lake where the fence was washed out, which will have to be filled before the fence can be replaced. To sum it up, it was a disaster.”

Overall, Western’s system persevered and maintained power throughout the flooding. The system was minimally affected, and Western worked with neighboring utilities to keep the lights on for their customers. RM Regional Manager Brad Warren said, “Western is very fortunate that no employees lost their homes and that everyone made it out safely. We are lucky we were not hit hard, and we are pleased that the system pulled through and there were no outages.”