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October 18, 2022

Climate Resilient Infrastructure in Colorado Takes Center Stage

After two catastrophic natural disasters in 2013 and 2015, the Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT) was faced with a significant challenge in protecting vital roadways through high alpine settings and ensuring the longevity of assets.

In a Fall Conference breakout session, internal and external project stakeholders shared their findings to climate resilient infrastructure adoptions in the Centennial State.  

Patricia Gary, a partner at the Boston, Mass., office of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith, moderated an interactive panel entitled, “Climate Change in Colorado: How Colorado and CDOT Are Leading the Nation with Approaches to Climate Resilient Infrastructure.”

Gary was joined by Heather Paddock, Region 4 director at Colorado DOT; Kelly Maiorana, environmental planning manager for Muller Engineering Company, Lakewood, Colo.; Nancy Rigassio, vice president and executive claims counsel at AXA XL; and Nicole Boothman-Shepard, vice president and senior director for resilience and recovery for AECOM, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The panel covered a history of challenges faced by the DOT and its private sector partners. Natural hazards are amplified by the state’s steep mountains and rivers adjacent to highways, in addition to wildfires, flooding, and other risks threatening vital highways and assets.

“Colorado DOT had an epic flood in 2013, as you know,” said Boothman-Shepard, during her portion of the panel discussing the impacts of a series of flooding events that occurred in the September of 2013. Local wildfires during 2012, including the High Park Fire that was west of the city of Fort Collins, and the Waldo Canyon Fire that was west of Colorado Springs, cleared out the landscape and the vegetation that would slow and absorb any excess runoff river water.

The floods were uncharacteristic of typical flashes in past years. Storms lasted for days leading to monsoonal flooding that destroyed roadways, including on the Ute Pass on U.S. Highway 24, between Colorado Springs and the mountain sleeper community of Woodland Park; while stretches of U.S. Highway 34, U.S. Highway 36, and Colorado Highway 14 were all destroyed due to the torrential downpour on the St. Vrain, Big Thompson mou, and Cache la Poudre rivers.

“There were other events, wildfires since that time, rock falls, and other hazards. But the 2013 flood…added up to $750 million in damage. It was a 200-by-50-mile impact area. We had 500 miles of state highway closed…and multiple watersheds were impacted,” Boothman-Shepard said. Flooding occurred in mountain communities, suburban developments, cities, and rural areas on the Eastern plains, near the agricultural hub of Greeley, Colo., along U.S. Highway 85.

Heather Paddock, representing the Colorado DOT, pointed to the policy adopted by state authorities to boost resilience among existing and future assets in the face of climate change and increasing environmental challenges.

“We don’t always do a good job of planning, and forecasting, and predicting,” Paddock, one of the point people for State of Colorado flood recovery efforts, said in her remarks. “Our standards actually really work, and a lot of the damaged areas” during the 2013 flood events “were areas that didn’t meet standards at the time that asset was built.” “As engineers, we need to think differently, right? The river is going to win, Mother Nature is typically going to win,” she said.

Using U.S. Highway 34 as an example in the panel, Paddock described how Colorado DOT needed to innovate designs spanning rivers that overflowed and essentially swallowed and destroyed the road structure.

Accounting for resiliency in structures and public assets, includes an inclusion of all risks through assessment and attempts at mitigation of possible. A senior insurance executive, Rigassio discussed that the financial and insurance protections can only do so much to ensure some form of disaster resiliency and recovery, including in the immediate local communities.

Using insurance company claims and expenditure related to wildfires as an example, Rigassio shared during her portion of the panel how costs also need to be involved in resiliency planning.

“Catastrophe modeling is a widely used strategy in property and casualty insurance industry to assess the probability of natural perils like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires,” Rigassio said. Climate change and the impact of human intervention in the immediate natural setting should be accounted for in catastrophe modeling, directly influencing insurance costs and overall coverage, he added.

Concluding the panel, Maiorana spoke to the integration of resiliency into the space of planning. She and her firm were involved in the rebuilding of U.S. Highway 34 after the flooding event.

“We took the opportunity on the U.S. Highway 34 cleanup, to really see the early look at risks,” she said. “Let’s not wait until there is a disaster, let’s see what we can do to get ahead of it.”


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October 18, 2022



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