Boulder could have flood mitigation options on CU South by year’s end

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Thursday, July 18, 2019 (Updated Oct. 13, 2019)

Boulder will consider land use changes and a smaller detention area for South Boulder Creek flood mitigation in a bid to bring the University of Colorado on board with the plan. Jeff Arthur, director of public works for utilities, said staff will have options to present to council for a decision by the end of the year.

CU has not been in agreement with the city’s plans since council selected the Variant 1, 500-year design option last August. The plan will inundate roughly 36 acres of land that the university hopes to develop with student housing, classrooms and athletic fields. CU has maintained that it needs 129 acres of buildable land, plus 30 for the fields.

Frances Draper, speaking for the university Tuesday night, still seemed miffed at that choice, but communicated CU’s willingness to compromise.

“As you know, Variant 1 was not our favorite choice,” Draper said, “but if that’s the aisle we’re going down. … This is doable. CU is still here. There’s a pony in here somewhere; let’s find her.”

Mayor Suzanne Jones repeated that Variant 2 is off the table. CDOT won’t allow a key component to be attached to U.S. 36. It would have to be built dozens of feet out from the highway, and a portion of the creekbed underneath would be have to be paved.

“You keep talking about Variant 1,” Jones said to Draper. “We don’t have a choice. CDOT pretty much nixed Variant 2.”

“We didn’t dive into the exact details of how to make it work,” councilman Aaron Brockett countered. “I’ve never seen staff analysis of what that would look like.”

Variant 2 “would solve a lot of problems,” Draper said.

“We’d have to pave South Boulder Creek under the bridge,” rejoined councilman Sam Weaver. “Does that sound…”

“It sounds pretty awful,” Brockett replied. “But my understanding was that decision came from a pretty short discussion.”

Jones said the option isn’t compatible with Boulder’s desire to disrupt natural areas as little as possible. The Variant 2 design would put permanent structures in the “most sensitive stretch” of land, Arthur concurred, including habitat for Ute ladies’ tresses, a globally vulnerable orchid species that thrive near the highway.

Instead, the city will tinker with Variant 1 by shrinking the size of the detention area to reduce inundation on CU’s buildable land. The university may also be allowed to build elsewhere on the site, in less critical natural areas. Developing an array of options will take five months or so.

“If we have the information sooner,” Arthur said, “we’ll come back sooner.”

Staff will also continue working with the Open Space Board of Trustees to determine what additional lands might be tapped for restoration to replace those being used for flood structures. Five acres will be temporarily and permanently impacted by the flood wall, its underground foundation, a groundwater conveyance system, a maintenance road, and construction and maintenance activity.

It will be hard to find comparable lands on the site, Open Space Director Dan Burke said. When the city vacated 1 acre in 2013 to accommodate the U.S. 36 bike path, staff hunted for a suitable replacement property. None could be found. Some Ute ladies’ tresses from the area were transplanted but later died.

“We do mitigation from impacts all the time,” said Don D’Amico, Open Space and Mountain Parks project coordinator. “This is the hardest we’ve ever worked” to find alternatives.

Mayor Jones asked OSMP staff if there was a “magic bullet” flood design that would satisfy open space folks and meet the city’s needs; maybe a variable from “further back in time,” councilwoman Cindy Carlisle suggested. Every option post-2015 will require structures in land Boulder hopes to preserve as open space, said John Potter, resource and stewardship division manager.

There were nine other options that were thrown out in favor of the one pursued by council at that time, Potter said. “They had virtually no impact on open space, but they were rejected for other reasons.”

If the city’s priority is to protect thousands of residents downstream rather than to get the best plan for open space, Potter said, the department will “certainly” work with utilities folks to find a way forward.

The acreage Boulder hopes to preserve is not open space yet. The city merely wants it to become open space, as part of the annexation agreement with CU which owns the land. The university needs the city to agree to annexation in order to access city water and sewer services. Boulder needs CU’s land to do flood mitigation.

It’s not entirely clear the city will play ball with CU’s request for 129 buildable acres, even if a workable solution is found. There has been pushback from council members to the idea of a fixed amount of acreage being necessary. That was evident Tuesday night as well in discussions over possible redrawing of the land use map created in 2016, in which 129 acres of land was zoned Public to accommodate development

“CU wants us to live with them” (the land use designations), Jones said, “but we created them in the first place. If there are really important lands, or some other key areas we just can’t afford to give up… that to me is an important variable that might trump 129 acres or whatever.”

The university’s dedication to further compromise is uncertain as well. Draper has openly said CU began the annexation process at Boulder’s behest and can therefore afford to wait for a more favorable council.

Both sides maintain their commitment to working together in good faith toward a solution, in order to protect thousands of downstream residents. An Aug. 13 joint study session with CU and council is tentatively planned to discuss the annexation process.

For a Twitter thread of the night’s discussion, click here

Author’s note: This article has been updated to correct the date it was published from May 18 to July 18.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle


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