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The decisions around how best to protect Boulderites from flood damage and risks are complex, given our location at the base of steep foothills. I was the lead council member in the late ‘80s for Boulder’s first efforts on flood protection and have followed the CU South process closely, so I’m familiar with the issues. And information circulating now is, to a large extent, misleading and biased.

Steve PomeranceFor the Camera
Steve PomeranceFor the Camera

First, the flood protection provided by the proposed “100-year” detention pond on South Boulder Creek is inadequate and incomplete. The fundamental problem is that, in a large storm like we had in 2013, water flows into SE Boulder (much of which is a floodplain) from multiple sources — South Boulder Creek (SBC) from Eldorado Canyon, Viele Channel from Viele Lake area near Shanahan Ridge, and multiple local drainages. And we can expect more “atmospheric rivers” as the climate warms. So, some flooding is inevitable.

The proposed flood detention “pond” only addresses one source — SBC. Flood maps show that, even if SBC is “detained,” plenty of water will come into SE Boulder. And, of course, if the flood is bigger or lasts longer than the limited “design flood” used to size the too-small detention pond, it will overflow and flood the area anyway.

Unfortunately, building the flood mitigation system as currently designed may lead many residents to assume that it will protect them, and so they may be totally surprised and unprepared when it overflows, and also when water floods their neighborhood from other sources.

Second, the argument that the CU South development will help our housing situation is, frankly, nonsense. The Annexation Agreement (AA) for CU South allows 750,000 square feet of non-residential development. The AA projects approximately 1,100 housing units in 1,500,000 square feet of residential development, a mandated 2:1 ratio that is completely inadequate. That amount of residential development would have been marginal even for the original 500,000 square feet of non-residential development that CU proposed. But at the last moment, CU upped the non-residential amount by 50% to 750,000 square feet, which the City meekly accepted. So, Boulder’s and the surrounding communities’ housing situations will suffer.

The argument about providing permanently affordable housing on-site is equally misleading. The AA only anticipates 100-110 affordable units out of 1,100 total, with no standards as to how affordable they will be. That’s only 9% to 10%, compared to Boulder’s normal requirement of 25% affordable units, and an actual need of over 50% to maintain our economic diversity. A terrible deal!

The latest nonsense I saw was that the AA provides “legal assurance” as to what CU can do on the land. Let’s be clear — the AA can be changed by CU and five council members agreeing. There is nothing in the AA that gives the citizens any say; to gain that would require yet another referendum. It would have been trivially easy to insert wording requiring a citizen vote for any increase in development, impacts, reduction in housing, etc. But that didn’t happen.

So, what’s a better alternative? The city never seriously analyzed anything except flood detention ponds, so we citizens are forced to sort out other options ourselves. I analyzed the cost to floodproof the 260 structures that, in theory though not in fact, would be protected by the proposed “100-year” pond. I used the city’s floodproofing numbers for basements, walls and doors, adjusted for inflation, and estimated the numbers of structures by type. I found that this would cost somewhere in the $40-50 million range. That’s way less than the cost of the current design, currently projected at $66 million, and which I fully expect to increase significantly when CDOT imposes conditions around the U.S. 36 bridge and how the dam hooks to its embankments.

This building-based floodproofing approach, as Frasier Meadows Manor has now implemented, would protect the buildings from flooding from all sources, not just South Boulder Creek. The city could combine it with lining sewer pipes to prevent backflows, helping property owners to install floor drain backup preventers, and creating a real emergency alert system. That combination would prevent most flood damage.

This approach would also allow us to completely avoid the downtown-sized CU South development. CU could then sell the land to the city as Open Space at a reasonable price, and the wetlands and habitat could be restored to close to pre-mining conditions, as in the original reclamation plan for the gravel pit before CU scuttled it. And it would be useful to capture flood waters. Yay!

Editor’s note: Steve Pomerance has worked on the campaign efforts to repeal the CU South annexation.

Steve Pomerance is a former Boulder city council member.