Flooding anywhere can cause significant life loss and property damage, but geography often dictates the extent of the damage. The chief concerns in Colorado are flash flood events, partly driven by monsoons in the front mountain range out to the Eastern Plains, notes Chris Lochra.
He is the flood-warning engineer for Fort Collins, a city of more than 164,000 residents living in an area of more than 57 square miles. “Most of Colorado’s population is subject to humid air in July through September. A lot of water is dropped from quickly developing, fast-moving cells,” he says. “Our proximity to the mountains can lead to very rapid runoff.” The city’s flood warning system was established three years after a 1997 flood caused five deaths and millions of dollars of damage. Weather predictions and warnings to shelter in place via an emergency telephone system and social media arise from close communications with the National Weather Service’s Boulder office, augmented by ground observations from Fort Collins staff and locals, rapid radar sweeps, online meteorology products, and flood warning system alarm thresholds. The state’s climatologist offers long-term trends and forensic reflection. “The tightness of these storms, the small spatial areas they cover, and their intensities make them so damaging,” Lochra says. Another concern is that spring rains on top of snowmelt can cause a seasonal river rise. A volunteer ski patroller, Lochra notes that most avalanche deaths occur in Colorado because of changing weather conditions and snowpack instability.
The city encompasses a number of FEMA floodplains. Its flood mitigation efforts include purchasing and creating open space in more than two-thirds of its 100-year regulatory floodplain, training people in business and real estate to understand the floodplains, and mapping out areas on its website to enable property owners to know their risk threshold. These efforts have helped earn the city a Community Rating System Class 2; it is one of the nation’s top four programs. Among the city’s many innovative approaches are a pop-up flood wall in an alleyway to prevent water from entering a basement, alarms triggered by water, and sealing doors so water can’t enter buildings and elevator shafts. New development is accounting for proper elevation and flood protection.
What Led Him to This Line of Work
Growing up in North Carolina, Lochra would play in a creek in his yard, putting in pipes and controls. “I enjoyed backing water up and watching it flow,” he notes. He earned a master’s degree from New Mexico State University after studying geology, geography, geomorphology, GIS, environmental planning, and hydrology, and conducting watershed studies and planning. Lochra did environmental consulting, remediation engineering, and heavy industry and refinery work following graduation. “I have always been a bit of MacGyver-type person,” he notes. “I’m very good with equipment and instrumentation.” He found his fit when taking the Fort Collins position managing the flood warning system and its network of gauges.
What He Does Day to Day
Lochra maintains the flood warning system’s gauges, rain sensors, streamflow sensors, and weather stations. He also does data management, helping to establish thresholds and alarms and ensuring their dissemination to the city’s emergency response team. Lochra is the incident command for floods, training coworkers and other city personnel in flood response in conjunction with emergency managers. He tracks events moving through town, managing an action plan he’s stored in a database that he updates and publishes annually.
What He Likes Best About His Work
“We have a very smooth team that works very well together. It’s very satisfying to see the human element be able to operate as quickly as it does,” notes Lochra. He says emergency response is his favorite part of the job, such as when crews are dispatched to irrigation ditch flows threatening to spill in the face of a storm. Preparation turns decisions into easy calls and reaps benefits, he adds.
His Biggest Challenge
Fort Collins still has many properties subject to flash flooding. Awareness peaks after a severe weather event and wanes after a few years of non-severe weather. “It’s a constant battle to keep that awareness at the forefront,” says Lochra. “We’re trying to manage growth in a smarter way to make sure we have a very sustainable community.”