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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Unfinished drainage system to blame for flooding that stranded cars on I-70 in Denver

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Colorado Department of Transportation
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Floodwaters along a stretch of I-70 near York Street stranded cars and forced firefighters to rescue 11 people.

Heavy rain fell on the Front Range Sunday night, causing flash flooding in Denver, stranding some drivers in their cars. Areas in and around Denver recorded one to two inches of rain, with much of it falling in a brief window. Firefighters had to rescue 29 people from floodwaters throughout the night, according to Denver Fire.

Crews rescued 11 people from a stretch of highway that’s actively under construction at I-70 and York Street. The Colorado Department of Transportation said the drainage system in the area was not yet finished.

“The system should have been able to handle the storm like we had last night,” said Stacia Sellars, a spokesperson for CDOT. “But with active construction, you can see flooding at any time. This is not abnormal for construction projects.”

Video of the flooded area showed rescuers approaching cars mired in waist-deep water to extract those trapped inside.

Contractor Kiewit Meridiam Partners is conducting an investigation of what went wrong, but has released some early findings.

“An error in the drainage pump system appears to have prevented the pumps from turning on automatically,” said Matt Sanman, a spokesperson for Kiewit. “Once this was determined Kiewit turned the pumps on manually. After the pumps turned on, the area was drained in a short period of time indicating that the pumps, once manually started, were working as intended and the error was corrected.”

CDOT spokesperson Sellars is confident in drainage systems on its roads and highways. Completed drainage systems should be able to withstand 100-year storms and flooding similar to Monday night’s downpour.

Climate scientists say intense weather is becoming more common due to climate change, including flooding. Rain-related road closures have become common along certain stretches of I-70, especially near Glenwood Canyon, where rain can cause mudslides along the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.