At last week’s city council meeting, Boulderites who live along a stretch of a forthcoming flood mitigation project voiced their displeasure at not only the project itself, but the city’s communication around the project. According to the dozen or so who spoke at the meeting, if it weren’t for assertive neighbors posting flyers and calling for action, they still wouldn’t know about the undertaking that will bring heavy machinery to the creek behind their home.
“Most of us did not hear about this until March or April,” said one resident of Edgewood Drive.
Another resident said the community engagement efforts of the city “were perfunctory at best and negligent at worst.”
What city staff suggested at the meeting, however, and what some councilmembers outright said, was that even if community engagement had been better, the plan would likely still be moving forward as is. Because Boulder needs flood mitigation.
Still, what transpired at the meeting might be an indication of what’s to come, for this flood project is far from the last.
On May 18, Boulder City Council voted 8-1 in favor of moving forward with a proposed flood mitigation project to address the city’s insufficient flood infrastructure along Upper Goose Creek and Two Mile Creek. The project will include work from western Linden Avenue down to Edgewood Drive. The city reports that 759 structures lie in the 100-year flood zone for the two creeks. The proposed project would remove 527 of them from that high-risk flood designation.
The plan is part of a greater project to make Boulder more flood resilient. With 16 drainages coming into the city, it has the highest flood risk of any city in Colorado, a reality that became evident after the deadly 2013 floods. At the council meeting, city staff alluded to there being more than 30 such plans in the works totaling some $350 million. These projects will span the next three decades or so, and will no doubt require some level of sacrifice from many Boulder residents.
When a project is slated to bring bulldozers to your backyard, however, that’s a tough pill to swallow.
With Boulder’s current flood infrastructure, creeks and streams are not ready to convey high floodwaters, meaning any significant storm could turn streets into temporary rivers. This makes it impossible for people to escape if need be, or for emergency vehicles to get to people in need.
This problem arose of our own making, as Boulder was built over and around areas that are needed for flood infrastructure. At the May 18 council meeting, a slide in the mitigation plan presentation showed the massive growth of Boulder since 1938, with significant encroachment into floodplains. Homes in a project zone mean the city must now negotiate with homeowners, offering to pay them to disturb their land. Homeowners of Edgewood Drive who spoke at the meeting, however, were frustrated at the lack of detail provided on the city’s plan. But the city doesn’t yet have that detail. They were looking for approval on the overall idea of the project to move on to the detail phase.
“It feels to me we have a bit of a chicken or the egg situation,” said Councilmember Bob Yates to utility staff after the public comment portion of the city council meeting. “Because it feels like you’re coming to us and asking for the greenlight to move on to the design phase, and I hear frustration from the community that they don’t know what the design is.”
As the city moves into the design and detail phase of the project — which will determine the exact path of floodwaters and the width and depth of flood conveyance channels — negotiation for easements with homeowners will follow. Despite the clear displeasure voiced at Thursday’s meeting, Joe Taddeucci, director of utilities for the City of Boulder, said he is optimistic about such negotiations.
“To date, we’ve always been able to successfully negotiate with homeowners even in cases where, at this phase of the projects, there’s some community resistance,” Taddeucci said.
Yet these negotiations would likely be easier if homeowners felt properly prepared for them, and though Taddeucci said he thought city staff communicated sufficiently about the project, he did concede that Covid affected outreach and said the communications department is currently trying to hire someone who would focus exclusively on outreach for flood mitigation projects.
“I hope we learn some things from this [situation] that cause us to figure out better ways to engage with the community,” Yates said, while adding that either way the outcome likely would not have changed.
“My guess is from an engineering standpoint, your answer would be the same regardless of how much community engagement we had,” he said. “People might feel a little better about it, but we would probably be in the same place.”
Cost is another consideration, but an issue only brought up by Councilmember Mark Wallach, who was also the only councilmember to vote against the plan on the basis that not enough community engagement had been done. At about $40 million, city staff said, this project is more expensive than other areas of Boulder because of the density of homes contained within drainageways and a lack of land for water detention that can ease the burden of drainageways in flood events. The cost of doing nothing in these drainages, however, according to the city, is estimated at upwards of $200 million for a 100-year flood — a flood with a 1% chance of happening in any given year.
The plan approved last Thursday is one of the first presented to city council since the city moved away from prioritizing high property value areas to prioritizing those who have lesser ability to recover from disaster. Taddeucci said flood mitigation previously completed on Goose Creek, for instance — just downstream from the discussed project — took the Mapleton mobile home community “out of harm’s way.”
“It presented a different way of prioritizing flood projects,” Taddeucci said. “All projects moving forward will be looked at through that lens.”