Mitigation versus Preservation

BOULDER –The soft drone of croaking frogs blankets the damp, green grasslands of the University of Colorado’s South Campus. A gentle breeze rolls across the 316-acre pasture at dusk, a pasture containing only two buildings, a few ponds, and a system of trails.

At the edge of the campus there is a fence and a sign that reads “Boundary, Open Space Property Behind This Sign.” Beyond this sign there is another damp, green pasture, which is punctuated by U.S. Highway 36 and South Boulder Creek.

The property line between the undeveloped CU South Campus and Boulder’s open space, Saturday, May 2, 2015. This land is at the center of debates over how it could be used for future flood mitigation.
(Charlie Howard)

These undeveloped pastures are at the center of a flood mitigation debate over whether it would be appropriate to develop parts of both Boulder open space, and CU’s South Campus into a flood detention plain.

The city along with the engineering firm CH2M Hill have proposed a flood mitigation plan that is intended to eliminate a 100-year flood risk affecting 700 structures and 1,200 homes in the flood plain of South Boulder Creek, down stream of this land, official documents say.

According to documents provided by CH2M Hill, the plan includes the installation of a large earthen berm that would run parallel to U.S. 36, on Boulder open space land, near South Boulder Creek, creating a flood plain on these pastures, to dissipate the amount of water that would flow down stream during severe flood periods.

Many of the structures that would be protected with this plan were affected during the flood of September 2013, according to documents provided by CH2M Hill.

Proponents of the proposed $46 million plan say that it is the most effective plan for achieving the goal of protecting 700 structures down stream from U.S. 36 while having a positive benefit to cost ratio. Opponents argue that the plan does too much damage to Boulder’s open space, which is home to a number of federally protected species and habitat.

On Sept. 10, 2014, the Open Space board of trustees issued a motion, which, “recommended investigating alternatives to the regional detention at U.S. 36 that may have lesser potential for environmental impacts,” according to official documents.

The open space board of trustees also issued a statement to Boulder City Council saying, “The board believes that constructing a regional detention facility at U.S. 36 would require a significant disposal of open space lands, which would be subject to all applicable open space charter provisions,” according to official documents.

This specific plot of open space is home to the federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and Ute ladies’- tresses orchid, according to official documents. It is also home to a tallgrass prairie ecosystem, which is one of the most endangered plant communities in the world, according to official documents.

Deserai Crow, associate director for the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a study that the city of Boulder received an estimated $50 million in damage to city infrastructure and property, mostly to open space, sewer and water, and roads during the flood in September of 2013.

Crow, who did extensive research on the 2013 flooding, also said in a study that many community’s parks and open space were the most heavily damaged during the 2013 flood.

Charles Howe, professor emeritus of economics and staff of Environment and Behavior Program at the University of Colorado said that there are strict regulations on changing the use of open space.

The Department of Open Space and Mountain Parks defines acceptable use as “Preservation of land for passive recreational use,” according to the department’s mission statement.

Howe, who has been working with the University to negotiate a deal with the city, said that the only way city council can change the use of the land is by the recommendation of the Open Space board of trustees.

“The open space board of trustees doesn’t want to see any change in use…once you take a step in that direction, it opens it up for someone to say ‘let me put a hot dog stand out there, or maybe some crop use’ and when you start down that road it might be hard to stop other types of development,” Howe said.

Spokesperson Phillip Yates for the Open Space Mountain Parks department said that the board of trustees are still evaluating the project and would like to see a plan that can address flood mitigation while reducing the amount of environmental impact on open space land.

According to official documents, the Water Resources Advisory Board have recommended looking for alternative plans for equivalent mitigation which utilize more of the University of Colorado’s South Campus and less open space land.

Steven Thweatt, vice chancellor for administration at the University of Colorado, said that he believes the flood mitigation is an important issue and believes the University should do all it can to keep people safe.

Thweatt, who is oversees facilities management for the University also said that the University is flexible about the use of CU South property.

When asked about the goals for the CU South Campus Thweatt said that there are no definitive plans for the property but in their framework plans they have already identified areas for potential flood mitigation. The goal he said was finding a balance between the desires of board of trustees without “unnecessarily” restricting CU’s potential for future development.

Boulder’s Department of Open Space and Mountain Parks board of trustees will be holding a meeting on May 13, 2015 at 6 p.m. to evaluate more options for this flood mitigation facility.

Written on May, 3 2015