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Lab sustains ‘millions’ in flooding damage

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LANL > Monitoring wells wiped out by floodwaters

By John Severance

Last week’s storms, especially the one on Friday the 13th, caused extensive damage to county property.
Initial estimates by the county were in excess of $5 million.

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Flooding also was rampant at Bandelier National Monument as the park was closed for a week so workers could clean up the debris in and around Frijoles Canyon and the visitor center.

Friday, lab officials discussed what kind of damage was done on Los Alamos National Laboratory property.

And the news was not good. And in fact, it was almost catastrophic.

“Last week, we experienced what my surface water people call an epic event,” said Dave McInroy, program director for LANL’s environmental Corrective Actions Program.

“We got over seven and one-half inches in a seven-day period and an inch and a half on Friday.”
McInroy said the rain on that Friday caused catastrophic damage to the lab’s well monitoring stations and access points and past environmental characterization efforts at the lab. McInroy estimated there were “millions” of dollars in damages.

The floodwaters:
• Damaged 75 percent of the lab’s canyon access roads
• Wiped out a number of the lab’s 200-plus automated storm water samplers – field crews are still totaling the numbers on foot or all-terrain vehicle because access roads are impassible, and
• Re-routed stream channels that eroded into infrastructure, including monitoring wells.

“This is something we have never experienced before at the lab,” McInroy said. “I talked to some of the scientists and they said it was a 1,000-year event. None of our models have documented something like this. Needless to say, we were not prepared for something like this.”

Two of the monitoring stations that were affected were located near the Y where N.M. 502 and N.M. 4 intersect.
A barrier that was constructed by the lab prevented what could have been a disaster.

“I don’t know what would have happened to the Y if this structure was not here,” McInroy said. “It would have washed away the road — similar to what happened in Colorado. We feel it was a success what we put in place.”

And the two monitoring stations that are used by the Buckman Water Diversion authorities in Santa Fe were back up and running a week later, McInroy said. A third one was damaged and has yet to be repaired.

The gauges connect wirelessly to the Buckman Water Diversion utility’s control room, allowing operators to stop diverting Rio Grande water if they choose. The gauges also take water samples at preset intervals during a flood.

“It’s truly amazing work that these stations are running again,” said Peter Maggiore, the environmental projects assistant manager for the NNSA Site Office. “If you could have seen what it was a week ago, it’s just amazing.”

McInroy, meanwhile, said the lab is still gathering information on the extent of damages. In fact, there are crews still investigating the different sites and they still have about 100 more to check out, McInroy said.

“All the canyon bottoms turned into rivers and we lost access to a lot of our monitoring stations,” McInroy said. The monitoring stations, a lot of them are in shambles as are gauge stations, flumes and even some of our groundwater monitoring wells.”

McInroy said it is likely crews will have to recalibrate the wells and pump whatever sediment washed into them.

“We have yet to determine the extent of that damage,” McInroy said.

And what about the cost?

McInroy was not sure where to start.

“The preliminary estimates are in the millions of dollars,” McInroy said. “We have not been able to access the sites so we don’t want to venture a guess. “We know we are in the millions. We know we have to make significant infrastructure repairs.”

Maggiore said he will be in touch with Department of Energy headquarters to address the problem.

“We have to look at the budget situation,” he said. “I am not optimistic but we are going to look into it.”

McInroy also wanted the public to know there is no threat to drinking water in the area.

Although the storm water moved a large amount of sediment down previously cleaned-up canyons, McInroy said risk to the environment or people is extremely low. He credited the lab’s four grade-control structures, built across canyon bottoms, with trapping sediment, maintaining stability in key portions of canyons and reducing the force of the water moving downstream.

For years, sampling has shown no health risks due to floods and associated sediment in the canyons.

Lab experts will be working in the coming weeks to collect samples of sediment deposits and further assess potential changes to the conditions prior to the floods. All sample results will be posted to the public Intellus New Mexico database.

At the monitoring stations near the Y, workers cleared about 6,000 cubic yards of sediment in the spring. The sediment was tested and the New Mexico Environment Department allowed the lab to redistribute the sediment elsewhere.

“All of our engineered sites performed well in the storm and they are still in place.”

Those sites include water diversion barriers and sealed wells in canyon bottoms.

McInroy is keeping an inventory of the damage at his office and he and his associates will soon prioritize the items.

But McInroy said Mother Nature also played some tricks.

“At one of our monitoring stations that held up just fine, the floodwaters changed the direction of the stream,” he said. “The monitoring station is fine but it has nothing to monitor and the water is going in a different direction.”

McInroy was told by LANL hydrologists that at the peak of the storm, water was flowing through each of the tributaries at 1,000 (cubic feet per second).

“They were flowing at 3,500 CFS into the Rio Grande, which flows at about 2,000 CFS,” McInroy said. “We saw a spike in the Rio after this event.”

McInroy said the lab has filed documents with the New Mexico Environment Department and the EPA notifying the agencies of an interruption in the lab’s required monitoring work. Assessments in the coming days and weeks will determine when that work can resume.