By Rachel Friend and Mark Wallach
In September of 2021, Boulder entered into an Annexation Agreement with the University of Colorado to incorporate approximately 308 acres of land known as CU South into Boulder. This action was the critical step in a process that will, among many other benefits, permit the construction of a flood mitigation dam to protect several thousand Boulder residents in Frasier Meadows and surrounding neighborhoods, enable the development of 1,100 housing units for students, faculty and staff on a portion of the property, and result in the City acquiring more than 100 acres of dedicated Open Space.
However, there are those who believe that the actions taken by the council to achieve these results should all be overturned. A referendum for just that purpose will be on the ballot this November. As we believe that the CU South project is critical to Boulder’s future, we urge voters to vote against this referendum and permit this project to move forward.
Our reasons are simple. There is a desperate need to provide flood protection for those residents most seriously impacted when flood waters spill over from the CU South property, top U.S. 36, and cascade down into Frasier Meadows. This project will either prevent or delay that occurrence, preserving an evacuation route from Boulder, and potentially saving lives. Go back and look at the footage of the flood; it is simply not possible to do so and fail to recognize the crisis that must be addressed.
This fall you will hear several arguments as to why this project should not proceed. Some stem from a desire to keep the 308 acres of the CU South property as undeveloped open space. But please remember that this property is owned by the university, and nothing requires them to maintain it as an open space or even open to the public. In contrast, the Annexation Agreement permanently transfers 119 acres to Boulder for use as Open Space, 36 acres for construction of the flood mitigation dam, 5 acres for Boulder’s affordable housing program and 2 acres for a public safety facility, such as a firehouse. In contrast, CU will be able to build housing and educational facilities on 122 acres, and to build recreation fields on 24 acres. In total, CU will be able to utilize less than half of the total acreage for its purposes. The rest will be owned by Boulder.
You will also hear arguments that we are designing a flood mitigation project to protect against a 100-year flood when we should have used a 500-year standard. There were various technical reasons why the 500-year dam was simply not possible, but let’s focus on a simpler consideration: money. A 500-year dam was analyzed and estimated to cost more than $30 million dollars more than a 100-year dam. Just a few years ago the cost of the 500-year dam was estimated to be $96 million dollars. With inflation that number is now certainly over — and significantly over — $100 million dollars. We are not the federal government; we do not print money. The additional cost of the 500-year project would be paid for by painful utility bill increases that would affect every homeowner, renter and business in Boulder.
Additionally, there are adverse environmental impacts from a larger dam. A bigger dam will result in more significant impacts on endangered species located on the property and require more environmental remediation at greater expense. Our environmental values argue strongly against a larger, 500-year dam.
Actually, the argument about 100 vs. 500-year flood mitigation is a bit of a straw man. When someone advances that argument, please ask the following question: If there were no technical or environmental roadblocks to building to a 500-year standard (and there certainly are), and if we could do so without incurring substantial additional expense (and we certainly cannot), would you then be in favor of the development of CU South? The silence is likely to be deafening.
Finally, some argue that this project will divert us from flood mitigation efforts in other parts of Boulder that were badly affected by the 2013 flood. This is not true. In the current capital improvements plan of our Utilities Department are multi-million-dollar improvements to be made to the Goose Creek and Gregory Creek drainages to improve their resilience to future flood events. Work on other drainages has already commenced. And it is entirely unrealistic to suggest that we should spend an extra $30-40 million dollars (and perhaps far more) for a 500-year flood mitigation project, and in the next breath suggest that we should also spend substantially more to protect other parts of Boulder from future floods. Unfortunately, Boulder does not operate on free money; even we have our financial limits.
The negotiations to produce the Annexation Agreement were quite difficult; in the end, the parties produced a document that met most of the needs of both the city and the university. That is how negotiations work: no one gets everything, and they are judged by whether each party got enough. In this case, the City of Boulder got more than enough. The Annexation Agreement produces very significant benefits for our city and will protect thousands of our fellow residents from a devastating future flood. And that is why we urge the community to vote “No” on the referendum to overturn this project. We remember the catastrophe of 2013; we cannot permit it to happen again.
Rachel Friend and Mark Wallach are members of the Boulder City Council; they are writing in their individual capacities. Friend has worked on the No Means No More Delay campaign.