Guest Opinion: Spense Havlick: Flood protection without CU annexation

By DAILY CAMERA GUEST OPINION | openforum@dailycamera.com | Boulder Daily Camera

PUBLISHED: August 27, 2021 at 10:41 a.m. | UPDATED: August 27, 2021 at 10:49 a.m.

By Spense Havlick

There are many flood mitigation measures that can give residents in the South Boulder Creek flood plain effective protection without annexing over 300 acres of land for yet another University of Colorado Boulder campus.

In the spring of 2001 several recommendations were made at a City Council study session to safeguard citizens from flood damage in the SBC drainage area. These suggestions came from an Independent Review Panel of local flood plain experts of which the late CU Boulder physics professor emeritus Gilbert White was a member. Professor White was known as the leading world authority on reducing risk to life and property in flood plains.

Instead, City officials seized on the possibility of constructing flood engineering works on part of the CU site as part of a deal to allow a huge development on the site even though CU had no definite plans for the abandoned gravel pits along South Boulder Creek.

But what seems to have been forgotten are many steps that could have and should have been taken first to implement practical means of flood mitigation that could be done without promoting another CU campus.

In the absence of an annexation, here is a list of actions that should be considered:

  1. Installation of a flash flood warning system using stream gages in key nearby locations like the Viele Channel where rising floodwaters can be detected in advance of flooding.
  2. Devise and implement an early warning system where all residents (in homes, schools, businesses) in the SBC drainage downstream from Gross Reservoir would be notified if South Boulder Creek starts rising to flood levels. This could be set up like the Amber Alert notification.
  3. Create permanent signs for flood evacuation routes to help insure safe exit after flood warnings are sounded. This is already done on the U.S. West Coast with tsunami evacuation signage.
  4. Streets with low areas that are subject to flooding should have yardstick markers to show dangerous water depth to avoid cars becoming stranded. And equipment should be prepositioned in locations where bridge and roadway closure is required. This technique is in practice on Boulder’s multi-use bike paths where flooding is prevalent.
  5. Mortgage documents and rental leases should include language to inform future owners and renters about the degree of flood risk and what steps are available to increase safety and reduce loss. California requires this notification when properties are in proximity to earthquake fault zones.
  6. Volunteers should be recruited and trained to help evacuate frail seniors, daycare children, and individuals with disabilities.  Annual flood evacuation drills should be held for people in the 500-year flood hazard zones.
  7. Relocate car parking out of highest flood risk areas. Label car lots in the SBC flood plain to warn drivers of the danger of floating cars and other debris damming at bridges exacerbating flood damage. Example: the Open Space trailhead at the Bobolink Trail near Baseline Road.
  8. Informational signage along the banks of South Boulder Creek with photographs of the 2013 flood could graphically point out the danger.
  9. Flood proof the highest risk structures in the flood conveyance zone as was done at the Municipal Building and the Frasier retirement complex.
  10. No earth fill and no future residential or commercial construction for human occupancy should be permitted in the SBC flood plain.

It is unfortunate that the Boulder city staff and some Council members have been persuaded by CU administrators to exchange a more protective 500-year flood design for a design of lesser protection, now embedded in the annexation draft. CU would get water, sewer, fire and other city services in order to construct a large branch campus complex, but the residents of South Boulder get inadequate protection from the undersized holding pond, while most of the proven successful and cost-effective measures listed above are ignored.

Finally, this process has overlooked the citizens who live or frequent the other thirteen flood- prone tributaries and water ways in the city. Any one of the City Councils since 2013 could and should have started a comprehensive flood control plan for all the creeks in the city, including drainage plans and emergency measures that works and will respond to weather uncertainties that climate change will bring.

Spense Havlick is a former member of the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board , and a former member of the Boulder City Council.