Disaster declared, chief resigns

 


The town of Saratoga is under the imminent threat of flooding and significant river bank erosion,” mayor Ed Glode said at the May 17 Saratoga Town Council meeting. “Extensive damage could be caused to public and private property, (and) disruption of utility service and endangerment of the health and safety of the residents of the town of Saratoga (are possible),” Glode continued.

With the river rising rapidly and more snowmelt likely on the way, Glode made a formal declaration of emergency at the council meeting. According to John Zeiger, the Emergency Management Coordinator for Carbon County, this declaration will give Saratoga a head start in preparing for disaster. “(The declaration) opens up resources from the state – i.e. the National Guard and Homeland Security – for flood preparation,” Zeiger said. Two National Guard units totaling about 80 people were deployed to Saratoga over the weekend to place sandbags and plan for higher water. The Wyoming Department of Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers also sent delegations to help with mitigation efforts.


Zeiger said at the meeting that 4,400 sandbags were being shipped into Saratoga from Rawlins. He also said that a semi-trailer stocked with Hesco barriers was stationed at the highway department and would also help with flood preparation efforts.

Thus far, the declaration has only been made at the state and county level, but a federal declaration could leverage additional resources if they are needed down the road. If Saratoga does eventually request federal help it would be responsible for paying 25 percent of the costs accrued during assistance operations, Zeiger said.

Usually, water levels this high aren’t seen until the end of May or the beginning of June, Zeiger said, making for frayed nerves among flood management agencies. Unpredictable weather and more snowmelt to come means “There’s just a lot of wildcards in there,” Zeiger said.

Anxiety over the early rise of the Platte may have contributed to heightened passions during a vigorous and extended discussion of river management strategies later in the meeting.

In response to the surprise dissolution of his advisory “river committee” on May 9, the President of local Trout Unlimited Chapter Jim States delivered a prepared speech to the council. The speech began with States saying “This may be the last time I address you all on this subject.”

He described an uneven relationship between the town of Saratoga and the waterway it sits on. Saratoga, States said, is increasingly dependent on tourism dollars generated by the Platte, but it has not protected its investment by pursuing a long-term riparian maintenance strategy.

As the channel of the river has broadened and become clogged with sediment, States said, “Responses (from the town) have generally been slow in coming, limited to the short-term and directed mostly at protecting property on the (West bank).”

While States maintained that grant money was available for long-term river projects, he said that outside sources were unlikely to provide financial help for the dredging solutions States said the town had relied on in the past. He said that, in his view, a tightening regulatory environment would likewise make these interim remedies more difficult to carry out moving forward.

Waterfront property owner John Ellis said that while he preferred a longer-term plan, he was discouraged that Saratoga hadn’t managed to pursue even short-term solutions while the water was down. Resident Bob Thrasher also sounded frustrated with the lack of town action, telling the council “I’ve been hearing the same thing – ‘we’re going to do, we’re going to do, we’re going to do’ – what you need to decide is, if I have to do my own (bank stabilization) and pay for it, I need to know that!”

Ellis pointed out, “if the imposition is made that these land owners are responsible for the stabilization, you lose control over the river.” He said “You’re opening a Pandora’s box if you do that,” and that bank stabilization done by one person often times resulted in property loss or other negative consequences for downstream neighbors.

Glode said that concentrating on a large scale future project had been a distraction that prevented Saratoga from making more modest improvements to the Platte. “We keep moving to a long-term solution and now we’re in our fifth runoff since 2011 and we haven’t moved a rock yet,” he said.

Glode reiterated his plans to do significant dredging in September of this year, but could not say how costly that undertaking would be.

Councilman Will Faust and several area residents raised the possibility of installing signage to inform floaters of the hazards that could be encountered while navigating bridges spanning the Platte in town. Saratoga outfitter Mike “Hack” Peterson said the river will never be 100 percent safe, but that signs could help unknowing boaters be better prepared to encounter trouble spots. “Every single section of this river has things now that will eat you at certain water levels,” he said.

Also discussed at the council meeting was the installation of a new alarm system at the lagoons. Director of public works Jon Winter said the system will cost about $14,000, and could prevent the sorts of overflows that occurred at the lagoons earlier this year.

Glode suggested that the town pay for these equipment upgrades using a WYOSTAR investment funds account. Saratoga Carbon County Impact Joint Powers Board member Glee Johnson objected to this, saying that money from the town’s capital expenditures budget should pay for the upgrade. The council voted unanimously to make the improvements.

Other big news at the meeting included the resignation of Saratoga Police Chief Thomas Knickerbocker, effective May 29. In a letter to the town, Knickerbocker also said he would also be resigning from his position on the Saratoga Planning Commission, and would be pursuing a new career in the construction field. Knickerbocker thanked the council and town residents for his eight years of service.

The next regularly scheduled town council meeting will be held 6 p.m., June 7 at the Saratoga Town Hall.

 

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