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The 1,000-Year Flood: Did Global Warming Worsen Colorado’s Unprecedented Rainfall?

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The skies have finally cleared over Colorado after more than a week of rain that led to what experts are calling a “1,000-year flood.” At least 21 inches of rain fell on parts of Boulder in the last week, nearly double the area’s average annual rainfall. At least eight people have died in the flooding. More than 1,600 homes were destroyed in the region and another 20,000 damaged, along with dozens of bridges, roads and major sections of highway. Many residents found themselves stranded by the high water. The overall flood zone encompassed 17 Colorado counties in an area nearly the size of Delaware. After a week of devastating floods, Colorado residents now face the threat of contaminated waters. The northeastern part of the state is home to thousands of gas and oil wells that were inundated with rushing water. We’re joined by two guests: Jim Pullen, a reporter and producer with the Colorado public radio station KGNU, and Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The skies have finally cleared over Colorado after over a week of rain that led to what experts are calling a thousand-year flood. At least 21 inches of rain fell on parts of Boulder in the last week, nearly double the area’s average annual rainfall. At least six people have died in the flooding. More than 1,600 homes were destroyed in the region and another 20,000 damaged, along with dozens of bridges, roads and major sections of highway. Many residents found themselves stranded by the high water. The overall flood zone encompassed 17 Colorado counties in an area nearly the size of Delaware.

After a week of devastating floods, Colorado residents now face the threat of contaminated waters. The northeastern part of the state is home to thousands of gas and oil wells that were inundated with rushing water. The Denver Business Journal reported at least two storage tanks were found floating in floodwaters, and it says the industry has shut down more than a thousand oil and gas wells since the flooding began.

AMY GOODMAN: Colorado is also home to some of the world’s top climate researchers, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Earth System Research Laboratory, which were forced to close due to flooding.

We go now to Boulder, Colorado, where we’re joined by Jim Pullen, a reporter and producer with the community radio station KGNU-FM. He’s a geoscientist and physicist. And also with us here in New York, Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of, just published his new book this week, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

Jim, let’s start with you in Boulder. Can you lay out the extent of the devastation in Colorado?

JIM PULLEN: … flood of 1976 and—the Big Thompson flood of 1976, and also we’ve had very severe fires over the past several years. But the extent of this storm is unprecedented. And it wasn’t—couldn’t be planned for in Boulder and in adjacent areas. Now, I’ve lost you folks.

AMY GOODMAN: We can hear you fine, Jim. Talk about the response of the state right now in Colorado.

JIM PULLEN: Well, there’s been a large federal and state response here in Colorado. The FEMA is here, of course. Incident management teams are here—two incident management teams are here from the federal government. And Colorado, I think, is particularly well prepared to deal with emergencies. Here in Boulder County, we have a very effective intergovernmental organization that protects both the city and the county. And they’re well trained because of all of the fires, unfortunately, all of the fires that we’ve had. And so, there’s been, I would say, a very effective response, and certainly has saved life.

One of the most critical aspects of this entire ordeal has been the air support. Because of our isolated mountain towns and people who are living singly in the mountains in isolated houses, the air support was critical to get people out in a timely fashion. We had some 80 children who were rescued in a—who were participating in an outdoor camp. They were rescued by air. The entire town of Jamestown, about 175 folks and about as many animals, rescued by air. The town of Lyons completely evacuated, except for a few folks who voluntarily chose to stay. That was—they were rescued primarily by ground vehicles. So, the National Guard response here was critical.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jim Pullen, can you tell us whether Colorado is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events like the one we just witnessed?

JIM PULLEN: We’ve been having some extreme droughts for quite a few years now. And I think that still some parts of the state are in drought. And so, but—and we are accustomed to intense thunderstorms, of course, that might rain on a single valley, that might rain on a single mountain, and cause flash flooding that can be devastating and deadly. So, we have been experiencing some extreme weather.

AMY GOODMAN: And that issue of climate change, can you talk about, for example, also the pine beetle, how it’s devastated millions of acres, making them weaker? Then you have the forest fires, then, you know, less ability to maintain water in the soil with the trees not there, and then you have flooding like this that intensifies the devastation.

JIM PULLEN: I think of this is as sort of a perfect storm in the sense that our—the underlying ecosystem has been damaged by fires. Now, fires are localized compared to this storm. On the order of 20 or 30 or 40 square miles might be affected by a fire. This storm spread over hundreds of square miles. But locally, and in the watersheds where the terrain is steep, the ecosystem has been severely damaged. When you drive in the mountains of our state, there are vast patches of dead trees. There’s still—I mean, scientists still debate whether or not these dead trees might lead to more or fewer fires, but the common wisdom is that they would certainly lead to more fires because they’re dead trees. And so, I feel like those have played a part. Now this storm was so intense and so massive and persisted for so long that we would have still seen incredible destruction even without the—even without the fire damage, even without the pine beetle damage.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And when do you expect to learn, Jim Pullen, of the extent of the environmental contamination as a result of these floods?

JIM PULLEN: That, I think, is going to take some weeks, very unfortunately. There are two things going on—well, there are several things that are going on that are of incredible concern. Of course, in any flood event, there are going to be a lot of contaminants in the water. There are going to be dead animals. There are going to be—you know, there are oil stations—gasoline stations have been inundated. People’s homes have been inundated, and people keep a lot of chemicals in their homes that are under relatively low protection.

But we have some very serious issues here in the state of Colorado in addition to those kind of normal flooding issues. We have the Rocky Flats—we have the Rocky Flats Plant, or what was once upon a time the Rocky Flats Plant, where plutonium is underground, and has—and there has been extensive flooding in that area.

And we also have, you know, 20—we have tens of thousands of active oil and gas wells in the state, 20,000 alone in Weld County. And the industry—a lobbying group is reporting that 1,900 of those oil and gas wells have been shut down, and including—and the two largest suppliers, Noble Energy and Anadarko, are reporting about 5 to 10 percent of their wells have been shut down. And, for example, Noble Energy owns 7,600 wells in Weld County itself, which is right to the northeast of us.

So, there are a lot of contaminants potentially floating around. And in the case of Rocky Flats, I spoke with Kristen Iversen last night, and she said that it’s going to take weeks for those—for laboratory results of plutonium and other contaminants to become available to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the governor of Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper. When we were covering the Copenhagen U.N. climate change summit, he was one of the few governors who attended that summit in Copenhagen. He was there to participate in a discussion on the role of public transportation in reducing carbon emissions. That year he had won a 2009 Mayors’ Climate Protection Award for a large city. This is what he had to say about global warming.

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: I think what the real key is, we know that climate change is occurring, right? Everyone knows that. We know it’s dramatic. We know that mankind is the likely—the vast majority of it is a result of our actions. So, we need to address it and move quickly. I think when you start trying to break down which part of the climate disruption is the consequence of which pollution images or who’s responsible, that’s when we get into trouble. I would certainly dramatically agree that we need billions of dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: That was, well, now Governor Hickenlooper; at the time, he was the mayor of Denver. So, he is rare in continually bringing up the issue of climate change. But, Jim Pullen, if you can talk about how that relates to fracking and the issues that you’re raising right now?

JIM PULLEN: Well, you know, famously, the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, you know, engaged in sort of a stunt with the oil industry where he drank some fracking fluid and—you know, to sort of demonstrate that it’s safe. Many people feel that the governor has—is not acting in the best interests of the people of this state to protect their health and safety. The state itself—the state attorney general’s office has enjoined in lawsuits against the city of Longmont, our neighbor to the north, which has suffered tremendous devastation in this flood. He has enjoined in a lawsuit against the city of Longmont for their—for a voter-approved ban against oil and gas fracking in the city itself. And so, many people are very, very disappointed—very, very disappointed in the governor and his approach to the oil and gas industry.

AMY GOODMAN: But how has it played out now with these massive floods?

JIM PULLEN: Well, I was—you know, I was at a press conference with the governor. He came with our two state senators and three of our representatives just a couple of days ago. He flew into the municipal airport here. And he spoke about—he spoke about rebuilding Colorado better than ever. He spoke about Coloradans being strong. It was a sort of a political speech. He actually had been on a rescue mission that morning, and as they were flying to the airport, they saw people down below waving flags, and they stopped to rescue those folks. That’s just how—there were a lot of people stranded here.

So, he certainly—I think Colorado, in general, is drawing together. And I think that is certainly a strength of our state. We had people in Jamestown who were—who have lost their town, essentially, have completely lost it. I know there’s a tremendous concern on their part that they get their town back as soon as possible. And I believe and hope that Coloradans, including our politicians, are going to pull together to make that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, we wanted to bring Bill McKibben in on this subject of what’s happening in Colorado. Bill, you’re from Vermont. I know Vermont officials have gone to Colorado to consult with the state government, because you all in Vermont had the devastation of Hurricane Irene. Can you talk about these hurricanes and climate change?

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, what’s going on in Colorado is so ironic. Boulder, where Jim is talking to us from, is the headquarters of climate research really for the whole world, National Center for Atmospheric Research. A year ago, it was evacuated because of fast-moving forest fires in the middle of this intense drought. This year it’s evacuated because of the worst flooding.

And, I mean, you can’t believe how off the charts that rainfall is. We’re in mid-September. Boulder has already passed its all-time annual rainfall record, with, you know, months and months to go in the year. The volume of water is only possible because we’ve changed the atmosphere. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. There are these big tails of moisture coming up from the south in places where they’ve never been before. It’s eerie to watch.

And the recovery—you know, everybody’s got a shot of adrenaline for a few days while people are being rescued and things. If the Vermont example is any indication, then you have to dig in for long, hard work for years to come in order to get back just to where you were before. We just can’t keep doing this. We’ve actually got to get a handle on global warming before this gets any further out of hand.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, with all of the limitless coverage—as it should be—of what’s going on in Colorado, I have—I haven’t seen it all, so I can’t say there has not been a mention, but in all of the networks, I have not seen one mention of climate change.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, well, that’s, you know, because at the moment there’s this immediate, tense problem right in front of you, but the underlying one is the one that we tend to ignore. I don’t think we’re ignoring it completely anymore. We are on the mainstream media, but that just goes to show. What’s happening is the volume of these events has gotten so great that—I mean, think about what’s happening one mountain range further west. California is in the middle of its driest year ever, and we’ve just had the largest forest fire in the history of the Sierra, burning straight across the land where John Muir invented the modern environmental movement in the High Sierra. I mean, it’s just one irony piled on top of another.

And the polling data indicates that Americans are getting it, that two-thirds, three-quarters of Americans are now concerned about global warming. Their leaders aren’t concerned, because, well, to give Governor Hickenlooper’s example, they’re awfully deep in bed with the oil and gas industry. Now, all Coloradans, or many of them, are going to get to drink fracking fluids, too, you know? And it’s not quite as funny as when he was doing it as a stunt.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to this discussion. Jim, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jim Pullen, reporter at KGNU, which broadcasts on AM and FM, community radio in Boulder and greater Denver. Bill McKibben will stay with us as we talk to him about the latest climate change struggles around the Keystone XL and his new book that is out this week called Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. Stay with us.

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