This story is part of an ongoing series examining how Boulder County communities are preparing for the challenges of worsening climate change and increasing water demand. Read the first story about how reliant Boulder County and neighboring communities are on the Colorado River, and the second about Lafayette’s massive water rate increases.
Water rate hikes are coming to the City of Boulder. Without these increases, city staff say Boulder will fall further behind in needed infrastructure updates.
“We have components in the water system that are over 100 years old that are at the end of their useful life,” said City of Boulder Utilities Director Joe Taddeucci. “We’re behind, and we’re trying to catch up. If we don’t, we’re going to start experiencing failures that impact the community.”
An overall 8.4% increase has been proposed for 2024, with roughly 8% increases for the following two years.
This means Boulderites will be paying about 25% more for their water in 2026 than they are now. A memo from city staff to the Water Resources Advisory Board states, however, that the 2024 hike will only bump the average single-family home bill $10 a month.
The money will be used to upgrade both water and wastewater systems, and build new flood mitigation infrastructure to protect against the next catastrophic flood. The Betasso Water Treatment plant, built in 1964, needs upgrades. So does the Barker water system, including the 113-year-old Barker Dam that keeps Barker Reservoir — a water source for Boulder — from washing down Boulder Canyon. And the city’s wastewater system requires attention, especially with Boulder’s flood risk.
The 2013 floods overwhelmed the city’s wastewater collection system with rainwater, pressurizing the system and causing sewer backups into people’s homes. One of the projects on the near horizon would increase the capacity of that wastewater system so the sewer-backup problem doesn’t repeat itself.
“I will be really pleased when that project is completed,” Taddeucci said. “Our system will be in a lot better shape.”
Cities along the Front Range are facing water difficulties, from changing populations and climate change pressures to infrastructure reaching the end of its life. Younger cities that are more dependent on the shrinking Colorado River — like Erie and Superior — are hustling for water rights to quench the thirst of growing populations, and older cities, like Boulder, are facing aging infrastructure in need of replacement.
In neighboring Lafayette, for instance, the city just approved a 9% mid-year rate increase, with a foreshadowing of future hikes that will lead residents to pay upwards of 60% more for water in the next few years. These hikes are needed to both address the need for water storage in the construction of new reservoirs and purchase of new water rights.
Boulder isn’t a stranger to massive rate increases. In 2015, the wastewater utility increased rates 30% to deal with the effect of the 2013 flood. 2015 also saw a 75% increase by the stormwater utility to fund the Wonderland Creek Flood Mitigation Project, in addition to recovery from the 2013 flood.
The goal for Boulder moving forward, the city says, is to avoid such rate spikes by spacing out projects and providing slower rate increases that will fund future needs.
Why Boulder has fallen behind in managing flood risk
Taddeucci explained that when it comes to the “several billions of dollars worth of infrastructure” across the three water utilities — water, wastewater and stormwater – the city hasn’t been as proactive as it could have been.
A few factors account for this lag. One is, for a while, city staff and city councils did all they could to avoid rate increases given the burden they can put on residents.
“There’s a lot of pressure to keep rates reasonable and be mindful about bill impacts,” Taddeucci said. He added that during economic downturns cities are reluctant to raise utility rates, even when raises are necessary. Yet when the economy bounces back, rate increases are still frowned upon, so municipalities end up falling further behind on what’s needed to keep infrastructure up to date.
And because most of Boulder was built before modern floodplain regulations came into effect in the 1970s, it’s not only upgrades to existing infrastructure that are needed in the stormwater utility, but new infrastructure altogether — new infrastructure that isn’t optional.
Boulder has the highest risk of flooding of any municipality in Colorado, and it has fallen woefully behind in managing that risk.
To try to catch up, major flood mitigation projects are listed in city utility staff’s proposed budget for 2024 and beyond: $11 million between 2027 and 2028 for Gregory Canyon Creek; $8 million for Boulder Creek from 2028 to 2029; and $25 million for Upper Goose Creek in 2026 (a project Boulder Reporting Lab previously reported on).
Yet the most pressing and most controversial project is the one being constructed on part of the CU South property. City staff are requesting $63 million for the project next year.
CU South flood mitigation: Bond splitting and priority challenges
In June and July, city staff presented their proposed budget to the Water Resources Advisory Board at a series of meetings. WRAB, which advises city staff and council on decisions related to Boulder’s utilities, gave their approval, with caveats.
At the June 26 meeting, Gordon McCurry, chair of the board, raised the idea of splitting up bonds for the South Boulder Creek mitigation project at CU South. Slated for construction on a stretch of land adjoining US 36, the flood mitigation project will cost the city $12 million to buy the land from CU and $51 million for construction.
McCurry suggested that since the city wouldn’t need all of the $63 million at once, why not spread the bonds out and provide some relief for ratepayers?
Taddeucci told Boulder Reporting Lab it would be “very unusual to split up the bond.”
“For major capital projects, it has been our practice and it’s industry practice, to have the money in hand when you put it out for bid with construction contractors,” he said in an interview. “You’ll get more responsive bids from prospective contractors if they know the project is for real and the entity putting out for bids has the required funds.”
At the July 17 WRAB meeting, board member Steve Maxwell also asked Taddeucci to respond to concerns that the city is “rushing things a little bit much here” in terms of the South Boulder mitigation project.
“We’ve been working on this for 25 years,” Taddeucci responded. “So I don’t feel like it’s rushed at all. It’s been 10 years since the 2013 flood, and this project has just experienced delay after delay.”
And it almost faced another. At the July meeting, McCurry said that while the board would recommend city council approve the 8% rate increases for both the water utility and the wastewater utility, WRAB had some stipulations before recommending the 10% stormwater utility increase.
McCurry, a professional hydrologist, offered to support the stormwater utility increase only if the city added Viele Channel maintenance to its priorities while working on the South Boulder Creek mitigation project. The tributary, WRAB members agreed, was a “significant contributor” to the 2013 floods.
As is the case with waterways in general, vegetation has been attracted to the water in Viele Channel, leading to considerable growth in the waterway. With water from the South Boulder Creek mitigation project directed into the channel, there’s concern that unless some of this vegetation is removed, the channel won’t have the capacity to deal with floodwaters from the proposed project.
McCurry also provided the stipulation that phase two of the South Boulder Creek mitigation project be moved up in priority. Where phase one deals with the contentious CU South property and a detention dam abutting US 36, phase two would deal with Viele Channel updates downstream of the property. At the July WRAB meeting, McCurry voiced concern about the city’s lack of urgency with phase two of the South Boulder Creek project. Phase one is first on the city’s priority list of the 36 projects it will be tackling in the next three decades, while phase two is number 23.
“So if that list of the 36 projects really comes to bear, chances are phase two won’t happen for a very, very long time,” McCurry said. “So the idea is, since it was a significant contributor to the 2013 flood, if we have another flood like that in the future, we could well see that the current phase one flood mitigation project does nothing to minimize flooding of that Viele Channel.”
McCurry went on to suggest that this could lead to a future where, even after $63 million is spent on the first phase of the project, a storm could still bring significant flooding to many east Boulder neighborhoods.
Taddeucci said the city could consider giving higher priority to phase two in its list of flood projects.
McCurry was an often-referenced source for the groups who tried to halt the annexation of the CU South property in last November’s election, as he disagreed with the city’s proposed flood mitigation plan — both for its 100-year mitigation design instead of a 500-year design, and for its lack of consideration of mitigation on Viele Channel.
The argument to mitigate flood risk on Viele Channel is not without merit. According to a City of Boulder report on the 2013 floods, South Boulder Creek and Viele Channel combined caused $40 million of damage, with $12 million of that coming from Viele Channel. Yet the City of Boulder is no longer prioritizing flood projects solely on possible financial impact. It changed its criteria so it now prioritizes people over property.
WRAB unanimously approved the proposed rate hikes once its caveats were put in writing.
Having received approval from WRAB, city staff will next make a stop at the Planning Board on Sept. 5, before seeking approval from city council later in September and October.