When disaster strikes ... it’s usually far from the Grand Valley

The first thing we can do is put hurricanes from our minds. Save some cataclysmic event of the science fiction variety — meteorite strikes Earth, say, wiping out half the North American continent and making the Grand Valley a balmy coastline — they’re just not going to happen here.

Same goes for tidal waves.

Tornadoes we can get, but nothing like the mile-wide monsters that ravaged Missouri and the Southeast in April and May. And the ground here may occasionally tremble, but the heaving and pitching that ruins cities and devastates nuclear power plants is a tragedy of subduction zones far from here.

So, here’s to isolation in the middle of nowhere.

Of all the natural hazards that threaten cities, of all the natural disasters that can happen, the Grand Valley is, in comparison with other areas, as safe a haven as we could hope to find. A recent analysis of 379 U.S. metro areas by Sperling’s Best Places, a publisher of city rankings, looked at historic data of natural disasters, as well as scientific assessments of potential hazards. It listed Grand Junction as fifth among U.S. metro areas with the lowest risk for weather and natural disasters.

“I would classify it as a benevolent climate,” said Jim Pringle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

“The Grand Valley isn’t very seismically active,” said David Brown, Grand Junction office chief for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“From the perspective of the Grand Valley, you’re more likely to get in a car accident than to have a negative encounter with wildlife,” said Dean Riggs, assistant regional manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife northwest region.

Manageable occurrences

Onward and a theme emerges: We do have potential for problems here, but not nearly as bad as it could be. More than 10,000 people in Minot, N.D., fled their homes Thursday ahead of the critically high waters of the Souris River. Wildfires still raged over tens of thousands of acres in Arizona. Flooded homes succumbed to mold in Louisiana and Mississippi. People in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., still sifted through the rubble of their tornado-devastated communities. And in Japan and New Zealand, Chile, Haiti and China, the ruin of natural disasters still is a daily horror.

So, when recent high waters in the Colorado and Gunnison rivers flooded a basement in Palisade and a deck on C 1/4 Road, closed bike paths and boat ramps and prompted the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department to issue river-use restrictions, it was scary and worrisome and very inconvenient, but it was manageable. Especially in comparison to other areas of the country, and even other areas of this state, and what they experience.

In fact, the Grand Valley is in something of a bubble, generally spared the troubles of areas that surround it — the avalanches, blizzards and wildfires in the mountains, the tornadoes and earthquakes of the Front Range, the wildlife issues, the drought, the heat, the cold, the storms.

Which isn’t to say it’s trouble-free here. On Nov. 26–27, 1919, a storm paralyzed the Grand Valley with 22 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. At 7:49 a.m. on Jan. 30, 1975, a 3.7 magnitude earthquake shook Grand Junction and the surrounding area. On April 11, 2000, a tornado tore up a field southeast of Grand Junction Regional Airport, and on May 19, 2009, a tornado briefly touched down on Mount Garfield. This is an area that can get tornadoes, can get earthquakes, can get floods and bad storms.

“We can get some pretty strong winds, preceding cold fronts, outflow from thunderstorms” Pringle said. “We can get microbursts, and we’ve had certain thunderstorms that produced a lot of lightning.”

Also, he added, since 1994 the Grand Valley has had 15 documented flash floods, one of which, on Aug. 23, 2003, washed away 12 sheep and numerous bales of hay on O Road. After lightning strikes, Pringle said, flash floods are the Grand Valley’s most dangerous weather events. But as for floods of the sort that have consumed the Midwest this year, mighty rivers swelling miles beyond their banks, those are unlikely to happen here, Brown said.

The what-ifs?

The Grand Valley also is home to several known or suspected faults, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But the chance of a big earthquake here to rival what happened in Japan earlier this year is extremely slim, according to Colorado Geological Survey data. The most recent local earthquake was a 2.5 magnitude in 2009, said Lisa Wald, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden. It didn’t cause any damage.

At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish about living in the Grand Valley, the temptation is to go looking for trouble.

Well, how about wildlife problems?

Very little that can’t be avoided with common sense and a cool head, Riggs said. Deer dart in front of vehicles, bears occasionally wander down from the high country, bats can have rabies, prairie dogs can carry plague, mountain lions sometimes make appearances in the Redlands, “but those real negative encounters — attacks, if you will — one-on-one with wildlife are pretty rare,” he said. “We are way more at risk every morning we get in the car to go to work than we are that a mountain lion’s going to come around the corner when I’m sitting on my back porch and attack me.”

Well, what about drought?

“We do have a green desert, and that’s because irrigation water is available to us,” Brown said. “And we are a headwater state, so we get first crack at the water as it goes by. Specifically in the Grand Valley, we have irrigation systems, we have canals, so we generally have adequate water supplies. That doesn’t mean that sometime in the future there might not be a shortage.”

Well, what about pernicious insects?

“The impacts to human health from insects are fairly minor in the Grand Valley,” said Dan Bean, director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Palisade Insectary. “West Nile Virus is found in the Valley, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, and I know several people every year become seriously ill from it. But probably the worst problem when it comes to insects is people who are allergic to bees.”

Denied swarms of killer bees, the fishing line dips into “what if?”

What if we did get a big earthquake? What if Blue Castle Holdings is allowed to build a two-tower, 3,000-megawatt nuclear power plant in Green River, Utah, and what if the Green River that it potentially could use to cool its reactors dries up, and what if an earthquake happens and damages the facility? Well, then, the Grand Valley would be in big trouble because our winds often blow in from the west.

What if the same thing happened near a proposed uranium mill in Naturita? That would be bad, too.

But it’s an undefined line between emergency planning and borrowing trouble. Ultimately, the Grand Valley is safe. Sure, its altitude means increased ultraviolet radiation as compared to sea level, and a 2007 Environmental Protection Agency study found that its air contains as many toxins as Denver’s. The real dangers here, though, are the things we can impact but don’t want to: lifestyle and habits.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the leading causes of death in Mesa County are cancer and heart disease. The threats here are smoking and inactivity, not earthquakes and floods.

Let’s just be grateful, then, that we’re spared hurricanes.


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