CoWARN Amidst Chaos: Responding to the Front Range Floods

CoWARN is Colorado’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network. It is open to any public or private water or wastewater provider within the state and its mission is to promote utilities helping utilities during times of crisis. Membership is free, and participation does not obligate members to offer or accept aid. Response in any emergency is voluntary.

Contributed by Catherine Lundy Hayes and Karen Shanley

CoWARN was established in 2008 as part of a nationwide effort by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop WARN’s in all 50 states. They have been successful— currently 49 states have established WARN programs.

The logic behind WARN is simple: another water or wastewater utility is more likely than any other agency to have trained personnel or specialized equipment to assist in a water or wastewater emergency.

Water and wastewater utilities provide essential services vital to maintaining public health, sanitation, and safety. When these basic services are interrupted for extended periods of time, a community’s wellbeing quickly deteriorates. This was made abundantly clear during Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, such as Colorado’s catastrophic flooding in September 2013.

The Front Range flooding killed at least eight people, destroyed nearly 2,000 homes, and damaged thousands more. All in all, about 2,000 square miles were affected by the flooding. This destruction was clearly visible in the news reports and photos of the disaster.

What wasn’t as visible was the devastation to the infrastructure of the affected areas – water and wastewater systems were also destroyed in the flooding. Clean water and the ability to flush a toilet are often taken for granted – at least until these services aren’t readily available. Thanks to the participation of many water and wastewater providers in CoWARN, these organizations knew who to ask for assistance. The result: an outpouring of support within the water industry from other CoWARN members.

This assistance is governed by a standardized Mutual Aid Agreement, which outlines how CoWARN provides assistance to its members during emergencies. Per the Mutual Aid Agreement, the requesting and responding parties both function under the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which is consistent with other statewide mutual aid programs. This ensures effective and integrated preparedness, planning, and response.

Loss of water and wastewater services severely impairs the ability of residents to reoccupy homes and businesses due to public health and safety laws. Restoration of water and wastewater service is also essential for fire suppression and medical support services. CoWARN provides a tool for impacted utilities to access and share specialized resources, which helps communities stabilize more quickly. There was a very robust CoWARN response to the September 2013 flooding and the support provided within the water/wastewater community was overwhelming and heartwarming.

Simply put, restoration of water services restores hope in the most desperate of times. For more information about CoWARN visit their website,

Catherine ‘Cat’ Lundy Hayes is the Communications Specialist for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. She has degrees in Biology and Journalism and when she’s not being fascinated by the water and sanitation business, likes to spend time with her family doing anything outdoors.

Karen Shanley is the Safety Coordinator for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Additionally, she has worked with the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association and served as the chair of the CoWARN Statewide Steering Committee until last year.

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